Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An Approach to Scritpure

Finding the once-and-for-all, undisputed, incontrovertible meaning for the bible is, in most cases, a fool's errand. And trying to do so requires logical leaps that I'm not comfortable making.

So as we move closer toward looking at the texts in the bible that address homosexuality, we first need to look at how we'll approach scripture as we do so. What you'll see below is just one approach to scripture. It's the one that'll be used going forward in this discussion, but it's far from being the only approach.

Catch up on the last post here.

Coming Clean

I believe the bible is both an historical and a supernaturally inspired document that has been collected over millennia, canonized, translated, and interpreted to give us the document that most of us read (or don't). 


Yup. I really think that God inspired scripture. I don't know exactly how or why, but I do think that within the bible we have the attempt of the creator of the universe to communicate with human beings for the purpose of bringing human beings into a better relationship with that creator.

I don't think that every word of the bible was dictated from on high. I don't think that the bibles we have today are without human interference. And I don't think that the inspiration removes the need for us to work hard to understand the historical context of the original documents.


The bible wasn't written in one sitting, but over the course of hundreds or thousands of years (depending on how you date things). It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It was written as poetry, history, law, music, oracle, letter, biography, parable, wisdom, and a special genre known as apocalyptic. Many of the books of the bible combine several genres, in fact.

Each of the books was written to a specific group of people in a specific historical context. And it is impossible to disambiguate that context from the meaning of the text. As Osburn wrote (Women in the Church, pg. 104):

The "meaning" of a text is the meaning intended by the author within a particular literary and historical setting.

Collected and Canonized

The 66 books of the bible that we have today (or more for the Catholics) weren't handed down from Mount Sinai etched in stone (and bound with leather). Instead the individual books all circulated for some time before they were collected together and then those collections circulated for more time before church leaders voted to canonize (i.e. make official) the books that were in and out of the bible.

I have a high degree of faith in the collection and canonization process because it happened over such a long period of time, with so many disparate belief systems, and the people involved had so much agreement throughout the process. There's far more study that you could do on this topic, but one example is that the entire New Testament was duplicated in quotes in the writings of the early church fathers (important figures in the church in the centuries prior to the canonization of scripture).

The Approach

So now that you know how I view scripture, I'll tell you a few things about what that means in regards to approaching it.

First, I'm not going to try to convince you to see the bible the same way that I do. I'm assuming these things to be the starting point from which we'll reason our way forward. If you think the bible is full of fairy tales that don't matter, then nothing after this will even attempt to convince you otherwise. If you think that the bible was literally dictated to the writers and has remained unchanged since that moment, then nothing after this will even attempt to convince you otherwise.


That there are controversial texts in the bible is without question. In our approach to those controversies, we will do our best to employ an historical-critical reading of the text. 

Professor Willard Swartley (Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation) suggests that the chances of finding the meaning of a controversial text can increase when:
1.  The historical and cultural contexts of specific texts are considered seriously.
2.  Diversity within Scripture is acknowledged, thus leading to a recognition that intra-canonical dialogue must be heard and assessed.
3.  The basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture are given priority over statements which stand in tension with these principles or with other specific texts on the subject.
Swartley also offers some tips on missing the meaning of controversial texts.
1.  Numerous texts, occurring from here and there, are strung together with disregard for their cultural and historical particularity.
2.  The interpreter assumes a "flat view" of biblical authority in which all texts, regardless of their original context, must be harmonized into one, rational, propositional truth.
3.  Specific texts are used legalistically.  
I hope I don't need to say that we're going to aim for the former instead of the latter. 


It's not just the controversial texts that need careful handling, but the culturally specific ones. The commands of Paul for men and women to have appropriate head-coverings and hair-length (1 Corinthians 11) aren't terribly controversial (unless you're trying to explain them to a teenager), but they are highly culturally specific. 

The following guidelines come from David Scholer's article in Evangelical Quarterly (1988) entitled "Issues in Biblical Interpretation." The basic idea is to look at the commands and examples in the bible and to see how likely they are to be either universal or culturally specific. 

1. The further one moves from the central message of the Bible, the greater the possibility of cultural relativity.
2. Assess the relative amount of emphasis given to a topic. The possibility of cultural relativity increases as the amount of treatment decreases.
3. One should distinguish normative teachings from descriptive narratives that must always be assessed in terms of normative teaching.
4. Note when a teaching on a particular point has a uniform and consistent witness and when there are differences. Different terminology, emphases, or structure increase the likelihood of cultural relativity.
5. Distinguish between principles and applications. A culturally-relative application may be supported by an absolute principle, yet the application may not be absolute.
6. Within the canon, reversal may indicate cultural and/or historical relativity.
7. The degree to which a writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of cultural relativity.
8. Compare the biblical setting with our own cultural setting. Significant differences may uncover culturally-limited applications of biblical texts.

 Now What?

How do you think people from a different culture might misunderstand what you've said? 

How would you apply the above principles knowing what you know now? 

Do you disagree with these ideas? If so, why? 

Read the next post here


  1. My father planted this same approach to the Bible in me from an early age. This way of dealing with the Bible's controversies kept me in the church long after I was compelled towards a different way of life. It's now the only way I can make peace with that world and the one I currently live in. I'm coming back to this system of belief now because I want to ultimately find a way to instill my children with a similar value system. So yes, even being from a different "culture" I support this approach. To me, it's applying a logical and (dare I say,) scientific approach to extracting eternal principles from the Bible. Principles that were true then, true today, and stand the best chance of being true for our future.

    Thank you for taking the time to [re]create this foundation. I see it being very for the bridge of understanding that comes next.

  2. I believe that we can hold both logic and mystery together. I don't understand God or why he loves me (it's a mystery), but I can use the gifts he's given me to better understand the world and the context of scripture.

  3. Excellent post.The only thing I would like to add is that when one talks about things that are "culturally specific," one needs to recognize that texts are not nullified because they were written to another culture, rather the meanings behind them are still valid and should remain constitutive of the church.Case in point: one might find the requirement for head coverings, if one does the historical work and reads Juvinal, was an issue of public propriety in the biblical context, the churches met in houses, so, evidently, women were treating it as a private space. The problem came when visitors, who saw the church meeting as a public space, went away never to return when they saw offensive behavior. The text is not inapplicable just because it does not apply directly, rather it teaches that we need to watch the public image our actions create and that we need to carefully guard our public image so that we do not turn away those who might become sisters and brothers except for our offensive behavior.