the WORD as a light for “the word”

Interpreting Scripture can be a joyous experience, but also one that can bring with it much impassioned and naive debate. This was illustrated by a friend of mine recently who shared an experience he had while teaching a college subject. The subject of discussion was interpretation of  the Bible, and one of his students said something along the lines of;

“I feel like the Bible is pretty clear to me; when I read it I just understand it.”

No doubt postmodern commentators would absolutely tear such a comment to shreds – and rightly so. While such a comment may indeed reveal a deep faith and trust in the Scriptures and the God who inspired them, it is also severely naive.

It can be a frustrating experience for a Bible teacher to meet someone who insists no background knowledge of the biblical text is needed to understand it because God wrote it so therefore he must have made it speak to all generations equally. While the Bible does indeed speak to all generations, we should not confuse this as being synonymous with the Bible being equally understandable to all generations. The Bible is, of course, an ancient text, and so we must understand that the cultural and linguistic differences between us and its authors are significant. Thus, to really understand what was written requires some insight into the world in which the Bible was authored.

No doubt some people will refute this perspective by saying something like “God is bigger than history, so he can author a book that just makes sense to all humans at any time in any place.”

What I am about to say in response may be uncomfortable for some, but here it goes; Writing a text that is equally understandable for all humans at all times in history in any place is impossible – even for God…

It might be that you now think I’m a heretical nominee-for-a-stake-burning; after all, the Bible itself says “what is impossible for men is possible with God.” I urge you to read on and at least see my point and then judge me. I am offering the starting place for a possible model of interpreting the Bible, and that model is what I will call an Incarnational model. The central concept of this model is Jesus himself.

Reconstruction of a first century male Jewish head. Jesus likely would have looked something like this.

Jesus was born around 4BCE in Palestine. He was a Galilean Jew, from a poor peasant family living in a rural agrarian society.

He was male.

He was, by all estimates, a carpenter for some of his life. He then began his ministry at around the age of thirty as a single man who would never marry and who would remain poor. He never travelled more than a few days walk from his place of birth.

Jesus was eventually killed by crucifixion as a political enemy of the Roman state. This was at least partly because of his protest against the Jewish religious/political system which exploited the poor and oppressed.

Now, let me just make a few more points about Jesus before I move on.

Jesus was not born in 3000BCE. Or 500CE. Or 1517CE. Or 2009CE.

He was not an Ephesian, or a Western European, or an African, or an American. He certainly wasn’t a Gentile.

Jesus wasn’t rich and didn’t live in an urban middle-class society.

Jesus wasn’t female.

He wasn’t a blacksmith, or a doctor, or a school teacher, or an electrician.

Jesus wasn’t married, and he never went to the UK on a work Visa.

Jesus didn’t die from a heart attack, or cancer, or old age. He certainly didn’t align himself with injustice and exploitation.

See, it’s one thing to say Jesus’ incarnation meant he became human and that he represented all humanity. It is another thing to say he became every type of human – this second statement would be incorrect. By being born just prior to the first century CE, Jesus necessarily wasn’t born in some other time period. By being born Jewish, Jesus wasn’t born Gentile etc. etc. etc. The point is that though Jesus is God, even God himself when incarnated could not possibly become every kind and type of human there is in the world – it would be impossible even for him. The Incarnation necessarily implies the narrowing down of God into a society, culture, time, place, race, gender, family, job, social status, personality type, hair colour, eye colour, accent, means of death etc. When God became human it meant that he took on the limits of humanity, even the limits of identity.

If we look at the Bible in light of Jesus, then, perhaps we start to see some truths emerge. If Jesus was both God and man, and the Bible is meant to be authored the same way, are we able to see the analogies that arise?

Jesus lived in a certain time > the Bible was written in a certain time frame
Jesus lived in a certain place > the Bible was written in a certain set of places
Jesus lived in a certain culture > the Bible was written in a certain culture(s)

The Scriptures, being written by humans inspired by God, necessarily implies all the temporal, material and spacial limitations of this world, just as Jesus did when he became human. Such a way of looking at Scripture could have consequences for two opposing ways of interpretation that have gone before.

1) For the view that we can just read the Bible as is because God wrote it. It is unrealistic to think that God could somehow make any human language speak the same way to humans at all times in all places (by the way, keep in mind that the Bible translation you use is not the original text – it has been translated for you from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek. Can you read those languages? If not, are you really reading “what God wrote” per se?). I won’t say more because I feel like I have gone on about my point already in regards to this view.

2) For extreme postmodern views. Now don’t get me wrong, I think postmodernism (when looked at honestly) has much to say to us, particularly in its critique of the Enlightenment (and its dehumanising myths) and its attack on absolute objectivity (an impossibility). However extreme postmodern views, whereby texts simply mean whatever meaning I perceive them to have, are melted away by God’s presence in history. Jesus was actually a Jew, and he was actually killed on a cross, and was actually resurrected. If the Scriptures are at all analogous to this as I have suggested (maybe I’m wrong), then we must say there are actual cultural, temporal and spacial characteristics of the biblical text and that these cannot be simply swept away by perspectivism.

Ultimately all I’m saying is that I think there is an analogy between the divinity-in-humanity of Jesus and that of the Scriptures. I think that this should be taken into account when forming a hermeneutic. My thoughts here make certain assumptions, yes, though they also force us to think seriously about what it meant for Jesus to be both God and man, and how the Bible is, in its own way, similar to this. If understanding Jesus means understanding his historical incarnation as a limited human, doesn’t the same apply to Scripture?

Like I said these are just some thoughts thrown together into a suggestion for further thought. I hope they inspire you to go beyond what I have said, and to correct where I have said things that are not quite right.


Posted on December 27, 2009, in Hermeneutics, New Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I remember when I first became a Christian and I bought the Jesus movie. I was dissapointed because Jesus wasn’t this ethereal being that floated into every scene, unblinking and mystical, saying all the right things at the right time like some sort of mind reading transdimensional being that was soooo different than us – because that was the view I had formed from literature I had been reading as I started my journey. I had taken a very modern view of Jesus (I guess almost cut and pasting the ressurected Christ of end times literature into the story) and tried to impose it on a first century setting.

    10 years later, the gritty reality of a first century context makes it so much more real for me in terms of God coming to us in a certain time, place and culture. Rather than heretical, I think its just ‘the facts’ and the reality of how and when God chose to reveal Christ – and rather than push it away like I did ten years ago, I need to embrace it, investigate it through the eyes and ears of that time, and be grateful for the theologians, archeologists, translators and historians who make the story so much more awesome than it ever could be through my own perspective.

  2. Nice work Ans.

    An incarnational model of interpreting scripture has to come to grips with the original cultural idioms and interests and context, before we can make the Bible work that way for us, in our time.

    Good call.

  3. I find it quite difficult to convince people of this same thing. Your argument is intriguing and, I believe, right. But how convincing is it to the average believer? How would you simplify and sum this up in a sentence or two? Or is there are a ‘hit the nail on the head’ counter question that could be asked of the person who thinks this way? To throw a spanner in the works and get them thinking?

  4. Ben,

    Good to see you here again!

    Yeah that’s a great point, and at this point I am not sure. Like I attempted to say throughout, at this point it’s just an idea I had (and I suppose blogs are the place to publish cognitive vomit).

    I have never read anyone who argued anything similar (are you aware of anyone?), so there is probably a good chance I’m wrong. But I hope not… if I’m right there would still be a long way to go in articulating this truth before it made it to a popular level.

    As for a counter question… One that I have used before is to point out that though the person concerned assumes they can simply read Scripture plainly, so do other people/groups who come to very different conclusions, whether they be Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Conservative, Liberal, Jehovah’s Witness, Christadelphian, Atheist, KKK, Nazi etc. etc. etc. So whose “plain” reading is correct?

    Have you had any successes trying to communicate such a thing? My guess is that it would need to happen at a one-on-one or small group level, and not a large group setting.


  5. Please send this to all people who read Genesis 1-11 with their scientific agenda.

    Great work Matt.

  6. “so do other people/groups who come to very different conclusions, whether they be Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Conservative, Liberal, Jehovah’s Witness, Christadelphian, Atheist, KKK, Nazi etc. etc. etc. So whose “plain” reading is correct?”

    Well of course, the Pentecostals have the Holy Spirit (exclusively of course) to tell them what it means.

    The Catholics have tradition, the Fathers, and the popes etc etc to make it clear for us.

    The JWs have their leaders writing their magazines as their divinely inspired guidance.

    Hardcore Calvinists have good old fashioned exegesis, it’s obvious when you really make any sort of unbiased effort right?

    Etc etc etc

    And of course, everyone else are just sinners with an agenda, deceived by Satan and/or taught by those that are the same. Right?

    My point is that those that say this usually have pretty good reasons as to why others don’t think the same as them when you look at the scripture ‘plainly’.

    I have found it very difficult to counter the ‘Bible as holy ouiji board’ mindset, especially in the pentecostal circles I call home.


  7. Hey Matt. Some great insights and thoughts. I would agree with you in the most part … definately the best way to get the most (and most accurate) from of Scripture is to look at it as you suggest.

    So it’s not that I disagree with you, but it does raise some questions:

    1/ Are we limiting God with our limited understanding of God by assuming (cause it is just an assumption) that God couldn’t?

    2/ Are we also implying that God cant speak directly to us through His word, without the depth of understanding you describe?

    3/ How does this relate to the persecuted or isolated Christian with no bible, or one page from the gospel of Luke etc?

    4/ Would you apply this to the whole of Scripture, or to specific Genres in Scripture. (some genres would need it more ??)

    5/ Isnt a lot (or certainly some) of what is written in the NT clear enough … are we just making it too complicated for the average person (like me) to comprehend, understand and follow?

    Just questions … not disagreements
    Bless ya mate .. Brett

  8. Hey Bretto, I’ll respond when I get back to Australia. Thanks for the comment. Until then anyone else is welcome to join the conversation.


  9. Brett,

    Finally have time to respond to your points. I hope my answers are generous… Here we go.

    1/ My answer would be that God limits himself. He has set up a universe with certain laws and rules, and when he enters that universe he generally plays by those rules. I think it is a cop out by some when they just claim “God can do anything” as a reason for not having to do the hard work – What does it mean for God to do *anything*? The humorous mathematical limit questions asked by school students illustrate this point brilliantly (e.g. Can God make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it? Well… simply put, either he can or he can’t). Moreover, do we limit God when we say he cannot be evil? Limitations do not equal a negative outcome. If God were to speak a language and culture that was universal it would cease to have any meaning because it would be simply not speak to any culture and time period meaningfully.

    2/ What is God’s Word? Is it the Bible? Because the Scriptures nowhere refer to itself as God’s Word. God speaking to us through the *Bible* and us getting the most out of the Bible are very different things. Most Christians I have met have certainly had God speak to them through the Scriptures, but they have no idea what the overall story of the faith is at all.

    3/ It relates to such Christians in the sense that while God may speak to them and use them in amazing ways, their level of understanding *is* certainly diminished. You said it yourself – what if they only have a page of Luke (for example); surely if this is true they are disadvantaged anyway, or else what should we conclude? That a page of Luke is the same as having the whole Scripture? A perfect illustration is the Chinese Church – though God is doing amazing things there, there is also a large amount of quasi-Christian cult activity going on owing (at least partly) to the lack of education on the Scriptures.

    4/ I would apply it to everything in Scripture. The question of genre is an interesting one, partly because most Christians make absolutely no attempt to recognise the genre they are reading when they study Scripture anyway… Interpretations of Genesis 1-11 are a perfect example – Many of the strange interpretations stem from a misunderstanding of genre and rhetoric, though people who hold such views claim that it is the “common sense” perspective. Common sense to whom? Common sense is certainly a myth.

    5/ Certainly some things in Scripture will make sense across cultures and generations. However, how do we know which parts are “clear” to our culture and which are not? Most Christians read the NT as a personal correspondence from God to them, but of course the vast, vast majority of it was written to communities. Already the “clarity” of the NT is muddled by contemporaries.

    Hope this helps, though these answers are far from comprehensive.


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