Recently I finished up a class in NT Cities. It certainly wasn’t the most provocative class I’ve ever taken – not too much controversial stuff to get worked up about. Yet, one of the issues we discussed on the first day of class back in March has kept coming back to me.
As evangelicals, most of us are sold on the Grammatical-Historical method of interpreting the Bible. What do the words mean and specifically what did they mean to their original author and audience. So, for example, when we study the book of Revelation, we ask questions like “who would first century Christians thought of when they read John’s comments about Babylon? Would the apocalyptic genre have changed how they approached such images?” From those questions, and more like them, we distill principles that can then be applied to us and our context.
But, interpreting your Bibles in this way requires us to know something of first century culture, sometime quite a lot about first century culture. And that is where the rub with our theology comes in. Most evangelicals would strongly affirm the clarity and perpescuity of Scripture – “the message of the Scriptures can be understood by the great masses of people who wish to understand it. God’s Word has been revealed in such a way that everyone, who is willing, can understand it.” Westminster states the doctrine a little more carefully, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: (2 Pet. 3:16) yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Ps. 119:105,130)” (Westminster 1.7).
Do you see the rub? In our hermeneutic we say you need to know about 1st century culture, which includes Greek, Roman, Jewish and sometimes Asian cultures. But in our theology we state that anyone, including those who don’t know anything about these cultures can read and understand their Bibles.
What is the solution? In my humble opinion, the solution is found in not pressing either too far – not pushing our hermeneutical principles too far and not pushing the doctrine of the perpescuity of Scripture too far either.
I’ve seen examples of the Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic taken to far. Take the short letter to Laodicea found in the book of Revelation for example. Many commentaries interpret Jesus’ harsh words to the city, words about being ‘lukewarm’ and ‘poor, blind, and naked’, in light of the characteristics of that ancient city in Asia Minor. The city was a rich city, so rich it recovered from a major earthquake on its own without the help of Rome. The city, quite possible, hosted a medical school and produced and eye salve. Also, the city was famous for its soft black wool. Finally, the city’s water was supplied from an aqueduct system that brought it in from the springs six miles to the south.
All of this has lead commentaries to interpret Jesus’ words in Revelation 3 as words specifically spoken into the Laodicean context. Problem? I think so. Several. First, the city wasn’t that unique. It was wealthy, but other cities surpassed it in wealth. It had a medical school, so did other cities, even some with ophthalmology schools. It was famous for its raven black wool and was offered white garments instead; however, other churches in other cities were also offered white garments. Laodicea wasn’t so unique. Secondly, and more importantly, if Jesus’ words were so tied to the local context, how would a reader from Thessalonica or Rome be able to understand the message even if they lived in the same time period? Moreover, how would someone separated by centuries and thousands of miles be able to fully understand Jesus’ condemning words? In my opinion, this is an example of taking the quest for context too far.
But, on the other hand, we can also overemphasize the clarity/perpescuity of Scripture. For example, think about the Last Supper as recorded in the Gospels, or Paul’s commentary on the meal in 1 Corinthians 11. In both one would have to have some understanding of what bread and wine are. But I’ve heard stories from missionaries in Indonesia who have tried to teach this passage to people who have never seen or tasted bread or wine. This passage would obviously not be very clear to them. These examples could be repeated a thousand times over. One more – all of us, to comprehend the message of Scripture need to know what crucifixion means. It’s not a practice common today, not one any of has ever seen. It’s a practice specific to the time, but we need to understand it if the message of the New Testament is to be understood clearly.
How do we hold these things, the perpescuity of Scripture and the Grammatical Historical hermeneutic, in proper balance. First, I’m weary of overly specific appeals to local contexts. I believe we should be looking for connections with first century contexts not in local cities, but in the larger Greco-Roman world. If New Testament writers were appealing to and writing to the larger context, there message would be more readily understood, and beneficial, to the wider Christian community. Second, the doctrine of the perpescuity of Scripture is more true the closer our context is to the context of author/first reader.
Does this matter? What does it mean for how I interpret the Bible? I’ll come back to that tomorrow and share what I learned from my study of Laodicea.