Monday, 21 April 2014

Things you shouldn't say to me.

I am quite happy to discuss pretty much every topic under the sun with you.

If you believe that homosexuality is wrong, I will discuss and debate with you. I think you are mistaken, but I will happily engage in the debate with you.

If you believe that because I no longer attend church, I am therefore no longer a Christian, I will engage in a discussion with you on this matter.

If you believe that because I am a member of the Green Party, I have therefore sold out to New Age ideologies and principles, and so sacrificed any claims to be Christian, I will argue with you.

To be honest, if you believe that we are ruled by lizards in human form, I will discuss and debate this matter with you, although I might have to have a few drinks first.

However, the moment you come up with one phrase, I will disengage. That phrase is "The Bible clearly says", or something similar.

What I say, when I am using biblical teaching to support a discussion is "my understanding of the biblical teaching is that ..." Well, I don't always, because I too am lazy, but this is what I mean.

The problem is that people who argue "The Bible clearly says" is that they usually have no idea what they are saying. Most of the time, they mean that there is a passage in their English translation that supports their idea, whether in context or not. In many cases, they are using an English translation from the 1600s, relying on the available resources of the time.

If you want to know what a particular biblical passage means "clearly" and "definitively" then this is no way to go about it. To understand a passage, you need to read all sorts of translations, work on understanding why different translators have used different words or phrases, what has driven their choice. It might be that new texts and document have come to light that throw new insight into the translation.

And, of course, we have to understand that this is a translation. If we want to know and understand what a passage means, we need to look at it in the original language - generally Greek or Hebrew. If you want to understand the meaning of a passage, you need to return to the small number of original language texts, and work with them, understand the words and phrases used in the original. There are two main Greek texts, that occasionally differ, but these are themselves not definitive. In truth, for the New Testament writings, we need to look around other contemporary texts too, and see if we can get a proper understanding of what the original phrase might have meant to those who originally heard it.

Of course, if you are looking at the Old Testament Hebrew, the problems are multiplied.

So once you have understood the original language text in terms of the appropriate and proper English words, are we done? Not at all. The thing is, no passage sits alone - you need to take the context, you need to understand what the flow of the discussion is. We need, in fact, to go through the same process for the rest of the section of writing. We need to understand the subject that the writer was discussing at the time, the context of the particular passage. We all know, when reading anything - a story, a biography, a scientific paper - that just taking a single phrase out of context does not represent the authors intent. We need, at the least, to read the rest of the section to understand the phrase or passage we have focused on.

Context also means looking at the start and end of the document - where we normally get some larger context. If, for example, we are looking at one of Paul's epistles, we need to look at who he was writing to, how he introduces himself. We also need to look wider at these documents, because many of the New Testament writings are occasional documents - not meaning that they are sometimes not documents, but that there was some occasion that prompted them being written. To understand the writing, we need to appreciate the occasion - the questions that someone was asking Paul, the things he had already said, whether he had visited them, and so might be responding to comments made in person.

So then we are done? Well we might be. Of course, in all of this, the sources we will consult, the decisions that we make about which authorities to prefer, will all reflect our own prejudices and views to an extent. We will tend to read into passages out own interpretations, so we need to reassess what we have done and what the alternatives might also lead us to. We need to acknowledge the other interpretations, and what they might mean, how they might affect our understanding. So we can only really present a "most likely interpretation", with other possibilities.

Then we have come to a consideration of what the passage we started with means.

Of course, this is only part of the story. We cannot understand and interpret one passage and declare that it represents the entire biblical view. No, we need to read far more, work on all sorts of other passages - understand what other biblical writers had to say on the same subject. For the Pauline writings, we need to understand that Paul was steeped in the Old Testament, so we need to read and understand that too. We cannot take individual passages, because they were never written as separate passages. If we want to know what "The Bible" says on something, we need to understand all of it, not just a part.

What we will almost certainly find is that there are apparently contradictory passages or expressions. What this means is that the teaching of the Bible is far more complex than it might appear - different answers apply in different situations, different contexts. We need to understand the big wide context of the Biblical writing to appreciate that simple, straightforward proof-text answers are rarely the full story. It is always rather more fuzzy than that - there are other ideas, other (bigger) topics that can bear some weight too. Whatever your topic of discussion.

So next time you want to argue that "The Bible Clearly Says...." please bear in mind that it doesn't. This is not to dismiss the authority of the Bible. Quite the contrary. That is why I say that "In my opinion, the general tenor of the biblical writing is..." because I might be wrong. The Bible might have more to say to me yet, and other people might see other things in it, other emphases.

The Bible - my holy book - has to be far bigger than me.

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