Sunday, May 17, 2009

Culture, Context and Biblical Interpretation

RJS at Jesus Creed asked this question [The Bible and Knowledge 1 (RJS)]:
How much of our view of scripture - our interpretation of scripture - is determined by our cultural context - and how much of our view of scripture is inherent to the viability, the truth content, of the Christian faith?

This statement seems to me to inform the question:
The battle between traditional Christian faith
and rational enlightenment thinking was intense and gave rise to many of the conflicts we see and suffer from today.

I think what I've found most valuable about my own work and studies of Scripture, Pauline theology and James is that it's clear that the Church (and churches and denominations) have frequently missed something that seems central in both OT and NT. I think some theologians are moving in a direction that is more true to both Judeo-Christian tradition and the text. The New Perspective on Paul and Scot McKnight's blogs on James seem to me to help re-frame our understanding of the Christian journey as "doing as we become." I'd hope that new focus is true to Paul's mission to the Romans, as one having received "grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience that comes from faith."

Because the mission is clearly cross-cultural as stated by Jesus, Paul, Luke and Peter, e.g., it's also evident that theologically from God's view our cultural context is superceded by God's Word, but from humanity's standpoint our context (cultural, gendered, racial, economic, wounded, broken, etc.) cannot help but frame our interpretation - as clear in the different facets of Paul's epistles to different communities.

So, the point about modernism which has the battle between "traditional Christian faith and rational enlightenment thinking" seems to me to mark human pride - a premature pretense of understanding. There is no such rational, intellectual and bodily-detached abstraction in the Scriptural understanding of Christian faith. "Knowing" in Scripture does not precede "doing" but increases with the "doing" of the Word in our bodies. (IMHO, this is exemplified in our children saying "I know!" to our reminders to do the right things, and then not doing them! cf. Matt. 21:28-ff.) Further, the "doing" requires receiving God's love in Christ, the Spirit's empowering of us to be crucified with Christ first in all of our contexts (no slave or free, male or female, barbarian or Jew or Greek, etc.) in order to love the others whom God has placed in our lives. Only then does faith begin to be knowledgeable of God and to hear the Word. If we cannot die to ourselves, truly hear the neighbor next to us, we cannot hear Godself.

This isn't works-based obedience to the Law, but love-inspired obedience to God-in-Christ. We should welcome everyone who comes to us, whatever their culture and context, hearing them as bearers of God's image, yet discerning through love where their context and bodily deeds chain them still, and listening to them through love to hear where our own context and "doing" also chain us in "this body of death."

Thus, my answer to the question is that IF our context (cultural or otherwise) is interpreting Scripture, we're not dead enough yet! And Yes! cultural context will inevitably affect interpretation, which is absolutely, positively why we need the Body of Christ in all its members to hear the voice of God.

May we have eyes that see and ears that hear the One Lord and each other!

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