I like to watch debates and talks between Christians and atheists, and Christians and other religions. Probably one that I have found to be interesting is what I believe is a weekly TV program called Ask Cliffe.
The program is hosted by pastor and apologist Cliffe Knechtle, who I find to be somewhere between William Lane Craig and Greg Koukl in his methodology, who goes to several major regional colleges to engage in presentations and defense of the faith. In the most recent episode (I’ll post the video at the end of this post) he encountered a young man who questioned something that I have found many atheists often ignore and in fact, I would argue, a lot of Christians recognize but cannot meaningfully articulate: the historical and cultural context and why it is important to recognize this.
I don’t think that I’ve ever written a post that directly addresses this issue. I mean, I’ve got my Answers in Exegesis series that I’ve had going since the earliest days of this blog, or in the various responses and series that I’ve done where I’ll mention something about the historical context in passing, but I don’t think that I’ve actually written about the importance and the necessity of it in accurately handling the Scriptures so that we can meaningfully draw truth from the text. It’s so important, that when Paul tells Timothy what Scripture is for, namely that,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV)
we have to be able to make sense of what is being taught, so that we can reprove, we can correct, and we can be trained in righteousness for every good work. The key text to look to, I believe, that demonstrates God’s intention is from Luke’s record of the Jerusalem council where the apostles are wrestling with the issue of Gentile believer and what should be required of them, the conclusion that is reached is minimalist, because the direction that they produce is direct and simple, because they instruct Gentiles to,
… that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. (Acts 15:29, ESV)
What most scholars note is that these prohibitions seem to be drawn from Leviticus 18, 19, and 20, but the prescriptions that accompany them are not offered up as binding. Leviticus is the book that establishes and directs Hebrew worship of Yahweh, and rather than telling the audience of the letter to read Leviticus, they generalize and draw out principles. Jesus does the exact same thing in the Sermon on the Mount, where he preaches on the commandments and contrasts the teaching that they had heard all their lives with the principles that lie behind the commandments, moving to and addressing the intentions of the heart over the actions.
Paul’s intention in his epistle to the Galatians, and the writer of Hebrews, is about addressing law and fulfillment in Christ in the face of legalism, as in Galatians, and in the face of persecution in Hebrews. The new kingdom of Christ, while it has laws and temporal judgment, is not a temporal power like the nation of Israel was, but what was their law becomes the ethical guidelines of the church, and what was to be preached as God’s judgment on human behavior, as to what is acceptable and what is not. That takes me back to the passage from 2 Timothy.
I’m sure that I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we are separated from the events of Scripture by thousands of years, at least two thousand. Our early-21st century, western (at least most of my readers) culture is completely different in both structure and philosophy from that of the biblical authors. There are cultural features that the writers either address, in order to correct, or just assumes without comment. Sometimes, such as the issue of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, certain things have us scratching our heads because we just don’t understand what Paul is talking about. We know it has something to do with decency and the nature of men and women, but it is just bizarre, and we wonder how it applies today (Michael Heiser has an interesting insight into it here).
What we, speaking to Christians here, have to do is avail ourselves of the wonderful amounts of social scholarship that has been produced, such as Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, with resources that discuss matters of transmission and translation like The King James Only Controversy, and texts that delve into what the writers of the Bible believed and how it influenced what they produced, like The Unseen Realm. We need resources like these because the Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us.
This tome, this volume, this anthology that we call the Bible was written to a specific people at a specific time. The Old Testament was written to the people of Israel. Paul’s letters were written to specific churches that had specific problems, questions, or needs. They were written to people who lived in specific circumstances, with a specific worldview, and they have been preserved for us, and we are woefully ignorant of those things, which means that we have a lot of work to do if we are going to understand the text, represent it accurately, and defend it effectively.
God has ordained the Scriptures as the means by which he intends to speak to his people. Let’s unstop our ears so that we can clearly hear what is being said, and live in light of it.
Here’s the episode,
School is starting this week, so my posts may become sporadic until Christmas break, but I plan to post at least a few a month, as well as finish my response to J.H. McKenna.
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