Volume 5 - Issue 2
How do we interpret the Bible today?By I. Howard Marshall
I. Some definitions and principles
For the purposes of this paper the term ‘interpretation’ refers to the whole process of understanding a text and its significance. Sometimes the term ‘interpretation’ is applied only to understanding the significance of a text, to grasping its meaning for today, or to applying its message to our situation, and some different term is used to cover the task of finding out what the wording of the text means in its original context. We shall use the term to apply to the whole process.
Second, every text of whatever kind needs to be interpreted in order to be understood. My eyes can see before me at the moment a visual impression of what my brain recognises as a rectangular piece of white substance covered with small black marks arranged in regular lines. Were I to show it to a person who is illiterate, that is all that he would understand it to be; he might perhaps know that it was probably ‘writing’ of some kind, but it would convey nothing to him. I myself can understand the writing and read what it says because I have been trained to interpret the ‘code’ that is being employed. But there can be difficulties in the way of understanding. If the particular code being employed is, let us say, Arabic script, then I shall not understand it; at most I may recognise that it is Arabic, but I shall still not know what it says. Or it may be that the handwriting is so poor that I cannot actually make out at first sight the meaning of more than a few words, and it will take a lot of intelligent guess-work to discover what the other words are likely to be. Or again, some of the words may be unknown to me, and I shall need to find out their meanings. Or again, the sentences composed by the words may not convey an intelligible message to me, whether singly or in combination, and again I shall need to puzzle over their meaning. And when I have managed to find out what is being said, I shall still have to find out whether what is said is true or false (and in what sense), what its function is, and what I am supposed to do in the light of it. In practice we do most of these things fairly automatically, and it does not perhaps occur to us that we are actually interpreting all the time in the whole of our activity—not just in reading books, but in looking at pictures and signs, in listening to sounds and voices, and so on. We cannot avoid interpretation, and perhaps I should add that we cannot avoid misinterpretation. Hence our need is to find the right interpretation.
Third, we have already used the phrases ‘understanding the significance of a text’ and ‘finding out what the wording of the text means in its original context’. In various ways we can draw a distinction between what a text means and what it signifies, between what the text said and what it says, and correspondingly we can differentiate between the two activities of ‘exegesis’ and exposition. As I use these terms, ‘exegesis’ refers to finding out what a particular text meant in its own context, and ‘exposition’ to finding out what a particular text signifies for us in our context. For example, it is an interesting test to ask a young person today what the words ‘Lévi-Strauss’ convey to him. The ‘meaning’ will not be in too much doubt. It is a personal name, and probably French. But it will depend on your companion’s way of life whether it signifies to him a manufacturer of a certain type of denim clothing or a distinguished French anthropologist; there are, of course, students of anthropology who wear denim clothing and who will recognize the ambiguity.
The point is that the meaning of a text is constant and objective, whereas its significance may vary for different readers. The significance depends upon both the text and the readers, and is a function of their mutual interaction. Change the context, and you change the significance. But the meaning is constant, in the sense that by meaning we are referring to what the original author intended the text to say. In theory different interpreters should be able to agree on the meaning of a text; in practice they may not always do so because of Jack of the requisite knowledge or skill. It is of special importance to recognize that the significance flows out of the meaning. There can be no by-passing of exegesis on the way to exposition and application.
Fourth, a further factor that has kept cropping up in what I have said has been the idea of context. We have spoken of the original context of a text and the modern context or the reader’s context. The context of a text is the situation in which it was created and to which it speaks, and both meaning and significance are dependent upon context. A knowledge of the original context is essential in order to understand a text. A text, taken by itself, can be ambiguous or unintelligible. If I see the letters ‘can’ on their own and not within the context of a sentence, I may be reasonably sure that they represent either a noun, referring to a particular kind of container, or a verb expressing ability or capacity to do something, but that is as far as I am able to go; the expression is meaningless unless it forms part of a larger whole. Similarly, the meaning of a text depends on what the words and phrases composing it will mean to the readers. In the same way the original significance will be related to the context of the readers and the present significance will also be dependent on the context of the new set of readers. One is tempted to say that the whole problem of interpretation is the problem of context.
Fifth, we must ask what is the unit of meaning. I have spoken of studying a text without specifying what length a text is. Much exegesis concentrates on the meaning of the single word or the sentence, although we recognize that a unit like a parable must be treated as a whole. But I would emphasize that when we read ordinary books and literature we look for the meaning of the work as a whole, and that we ought to do the same with the books of the Bible or with their larger subdivisions. It is a fault of some evangelical commentaries that, while they explain the difficulties in individual verses, they do not try to tell us what the verses put together in larger units mean, or what a whole chapter or a whole book means. We need to pay more attention to the structure of narrative or argument in any given book.
II. The meaning of the text
Let us now try to see how these points relate to the understanding of the Bible. First of all, we have the basic task of getting at the original meaning of the text. Here we have a set of inter-connected processes which it is difficult to set out in a logical order, since the results of any one of them may affect the workings of any other.
Text and Translation
In the case of the Bible we have two special problems which do not arise with the average modern text. One is the establishment of the original text on the basis of the many later manuscripts with their frequent copyists’ errors. The second is that of translation. A translation is the result of exegesis, since the aim of the translation is to express in another language the meaning of what the author said in his own language. Anybody who has attempted to do any translation will quickly realize the truth of this, and will find that a provisional translation, on the basis of which he may do some exegesis, will be altered in the light of fuller exegesis. But the situation is an odd one. If we all spoke New Testament Greek like natives, translation would not be necessary, and we might ask ourselves what is the purpose of exegesis. Presumably it offers a commentary on the text which would explain it for readers who were not able to understand it; one can imagine that people in Corinth might well have asked the messenger who brought Paul’s letters to them, ‘What does Paul mean by this statement?’ What we would then get would be in effect a paraphrase of the text which would remove the obscurity. Indeed a commentary might be said to be a very expanded paraphrase of the text with an explanation of how the paraphrase is arrived at.
Text and context
For brevity’s sake let us assume that we have a reliable text and access to a good translation or the original text. Two basic principles arise in ascertaining its meaning. The first is that all exegesis consists in seeing the text in the light of its context, whatever that context may be, and a major part of the problem may be to decide what that context is. For example, we have already seen that a word can be understood only in the context of the phrase or sentence in which it occurs; ‘can’ only becomes meaningful in the sort of context provided by ‘I can play the piano’ or ‘I poured water into the can’. A broader context is provided by linguistic usage. In Luke 6:35 Jesus tells his disciples to make loans, ‘apelpizontes nothing’. The word apelpizō is a puzzle in the sentence. We look elsewhere to see what it means in other contexts and find that elsewhere in the Greek Bible it means to despair. But ‘despairing of nothing’ doesn’t give a very good sense and can hardly be the meaning here; this can be seen in the fact that some scribes rewrote the text to give ‘despairing of nobody’, which isn’t much better. So we look more widely, and discover that from the late fourth century onwards the word is found with the meaning ‘to hope for some return’. This gives the required sense, ‘without expecting any return’, especially because the parallel thought in the preceding verse supports this view. Here is a case where the immediate context of Greek usage shows that this is possible. The interest in this case is that there happens to be no use of the word with this sense recorded for the next 300 years or so, but it is quite possible that this silence is purely fortuitous. Here, then, we see the need to determine the relevant context and to examine it.
The second principle is that the relation between text and context is a dialectical one. There is a circular relationship between them, in that the context itself needs to be understood, and part of its context may be the text which interests us. Thus Luke 6:34 is part of the context for Luke 6:35, but Luke 6:34 is a text which itself needs to be understood and which contains its own difficulties, and part of the context for solving those difficulties is Luke 6:35. Hence we have to find meanings for the two verses which will fit harmoniously together, and we have to proceed step-by-step, moving backwards and forwards between the two verses. We have what is sometimes called a hermeneutical circle. Verses are understood in the light of the paragraphs in which they stand, and paragraphs in the light of the verses which compose them.
Types of context
We must now list the types of context which need to be examined in exegesis. First, there is the lexical context, of which I have already given an example. We need to know about the world of language to which our text belongs, so that we may know what individual words can mean, and how words can be connected together syntactically. Here the lexicon and the grammar are our tools, books which sum up what we know of the relevant areas. The language of the New Testament needs to be compared with various possible areas which include the common Greek of the time, of which we possess much evidence in the papyrus documents discovered in Egypt from the end of last century, and also in the Greek translation of the OT known as the LXX which was in effect the ‘Bible’ of the early church and shaped its vocabulary and diction.
Second, there is the ideological context. If we move beyond words to the concepts which they express, we shall expect that these concepts will be used by an author in ways that his readers will understand and appreciate. For instance, the term ‘light’ is used both in a literal sense and also in a metaphorical or symbolical sense in the Bible. What ideas would be evoked by its use as a symbol? Does it refer, for example, to guidance in dark and difficult situations, or does it refer to the searching beam which exposes hidden faults and judges us? Is it friendly or threatening? Concepts may have had different meanings and different force in the ancient world from what they have now. The term ‘sacrifice’ for example, could produce different echoes in the mind of an ancient person from what it would in our minds. Hence understanding of a text requires a knowledge of the thought world of the writer and readers.
A third area of context is the historical situation in which the text was framed. If we want to understand 1 Corinthians, we need to realize that Paul wrote it with two purposes in mind. One was to deal with certain faults in the church of which he had received information. The other was to answer certain specific questions about which the Corinthians had sent a letter to him. If we want to understand the letter we must understand the situation which Paul was addressing. At the same time it is helpful to know as much as we can about Paul’s own situation and the way in which his mind worked, so that we can see what led him to express himself in the way he did. Reading a New Testament letter has often been likened to listening in to one end of a telephone conversation, and realizing that in order to understand what we can hear we also need to know what is being said at the other end of the line. In some cases we have other information available to help us to reconstruct it out of Paul’s own answers, the very answers that we are trying to understand. Here we have yet another example of a hermeneutical circle. So, then, an important part of context lies in the study of what we call Biblical Introduction.
A fourth type of context is forme au genre. Most things that we write are written in a definite form that is part of our social and educational background. If I were to write an account of what I did on Christmas Day, the style in which I would do so would vary depending on whether I was writing a letter to my aunt, or producing a report for a newspaper, or writing a Christmas story for children based on my experiences, or composing a poem about it, or even writing a song about it. There are different styles for these several occasions. So too in the Bible we can recognize different types of composition both on the scale of whole writings and on the scale of brief units within them. It makes a difference to our understanding of a book to know whether it is history or fiction, a letter or an apocalypse; and similarly it makes a difference whether a particular passage is prose or poetry, straight teaching or parable, a command or an example of a type of behaviour. The study of this kind of thing is what we call form criticism, and there is no need to be frightened of the term. It is important to know what kind of material we are reading, since this can greatly affect our understanding of it. At this point we should include attempts to determine the structure of a text, since this may help us to understand the meaning of the whole and the constituent parts.
A fifth type of context is the historical process of composition of the text. Many texts go through various stages in composition. Sometimes there may be two or three preliminary drafts before the writer produces something which he thinks is reasonably satisfactory. A person reading the final version, however, may find it illuminating to look at the earlier stages in order to see how the writer got there and so to understand better what he is saying. In the case of the books of the Bible there was often a series of stages in composition. Stories about Jesus were remembered and handed down for some years before they were committed to writing. The words of a prophet were first uttered orally, and put into writing only at a later stage. The letters of Paul probably incorporated the kind of things that he said in his preaching. The history of composition may be important in understanding the final form of a text. It may also be extremely important in cases where a text conveys a historical report, or some historical incident lies at the root of it. In such cases we want to know whether the report is an accurate one, and a study of tradition-history is essential for this purpose.
The Bible as its own context
The principle of seeing a text in its context would apply to the study of any text, especially an ancient text. When Benjamin Jowett said ‘Interpret the Scripture like any other book’, his words aroused a storm of controversy. But is it not the case that the methods of study which we have outlined are those that would be applied to ‘any other book’? So we must now go on to ask whether anything special happens when we study the Bible.
Perhaps the best known rule for biblical interpretation is Interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture. This principle means that the context for understanding a part of Scripture is provided by Scripture as a whole. If I find a difficult verse somewhere, it will be elucidated by looking elsewhere in Scripture. In general this is a safe guide. The lexical field for understanding NT Greek is largely provided by the LXX because the LXX was the Bible of the early church. At the same time, the Old Testament forms the ideological background for the New Testament. The reason is that there was a continuity between the two Testaments in that the early church used and studied the OT and consciously made it the basis of its thinking. In the same way, it is safe to say that the various books of the NT form the context for understanding individual texts, since we are dealing with a community of belief and practice which had an essential unity; we can thus legitimately understand the parts in the light of the whole.
But something more than this must be said to qualify and sharpen the principle. First, Scripture is not the only context for understanding individual texts. The biblical writers lived in a world which inevitably influenced both them and their readers, and it cannot be ignored. Even when the NT writers read the OT they read it, as it were, through Jewish spectacles, and therefore it is essential for us to find out how the Jews read and understood the OT so that we may appreciate how their understanding influenced the early church both positively and negatively. The NT scholar needs to read the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Jewish documents of the time.
Second, if the NT is to be understood in the light of the OT, is the OT also to be understood in the light of the NT? There is an important sense in which the OT must be understood on its own, since its original writers and readers were not aware of what the NT writers would say, and since the original writers wrote for their own time. This means that we should begin by asking what the OT authors were saying to the people of their own time, and that we should be careful not to come to hasty conclusions based on quotations and interpretations of the OT in the NT. Thus when Matthew regards Ps. 78:2 as a prophecy of Jesus’ teaching in parables, we should not let this close our minds to the question, what did Ps. 78:2 mean for its original readers centuries before Jesus? But there is also a broader question. It has sometimes been observed how the OT leads up to both the Christian religion and also to the Jewish religion; both Christians and Jews would claim that they are holding fast to the essential message of the OT, and it is at this point that one may see two different total interpretations of the OT are possible; how do we decide which is the correct one, and what effect does adoption of it have on our detailed understanding of the OT?
A third point arises. The principle I have been discussing is sometimes put in the form that if we find a difficult text in the Bible, the key to understanding it will be found in other texts whose meaning is clearer to grasp. It is not quite as simple as that. This approach runs the risk of domesticating the difficult verses and making them harmonize all too easily with the familiar ones. In a detective story all the facts except one may seem to be most easily explained in terms of the theory that X is the murderer, and it is then easy to ignore that one obstinate fact or give it a forced interpretation in line with the other facts. But it could also be the case that this one obstinate fact holds the key to the situation; it leads the detective to see that all the other facts are capable of a different interpretation and that the evidence taken as a whole shows that Y was the guilty party. We must be sure that we do justice to the significance that ‘difficult’ texts may have for the interpretation of those whose meaning seems to be simple and easy.
The unity and truth of the Bible
The principle that Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture is based on an important assumption, or set of assumptions, and it is here that our Christian belief becomes significant. The assumption is that the Scriptures form a unity and that their contents are trustworthy. That is to say, we assume that the Scripture as a whole is a proper context for understanding its various parts. But is this the case?
There is certainly a historical case that the writings of the NT were written within a fixed period of time (somewhere between AD 30 and 100) and that therefore they have the unity which belongs to a group of writings representing the outlook of one particular group of people. It is justifiable to consider them as a corpus separate from Jewish writings during the same period or from second-century Christian writings. The unity of the OT is more complex, since its writings span a much longer period; here we have the only surviving Jewish writings from the period in question, and to that extent they form a historical unity. Later writers regarded these writings as forming a closed ‘canon’ or collection of authoritative books, not simply because of this historical fact about their composition but also because they were regarded as uniquely inspired.
Recently a book was written on Unity and Diversity in the New Testament in which J. D. G. Dunn argued that while the different NT writings manifest a unity of thought in the central truths which they express, at the same time they show an astonishing diversity among themselves. Most scholars would recognize that fact. One has only to compare the theological vocabularies of Jesus and Paul, for example, to see that they speak with very different accents. There can be a wide variety in the style of presentation of the same message by different writers. But Dunn’s book has proved controversial because it claims that the diversity is a good deal wider than many of us would suppose, and correspondingly the area of unity is somewhat smaller. This raises an issue of great importance. Are the biblical writers in fundamental harmony with one another, or are there irreconcilable differences between them? The believer in the inspiration of the Scriptures will want to argue for the harmony of the Scriptures, and this may well affect the way in which he does his exegesis. In the same way, the believer in inspiration will want to affirm the truth of what the Scriptures say, and clearly there is a big question-mark against the truth of scriptural utterances if there is an irreconcilable diversity among them.
The evangelical Christian thus comes to the Bible with a belief in its harmony and accuracy, and this will affect his exegesis of its meaning. It is here that evangelical exegesis differs from the approaches of other scholars. And yet it must be noted that this approach does not solve all our problems. The evangelical must still ask what kind of unity he is to expect in the Scriptures, and what kind of accuracy he hopes to find in them. There are statements and commands in the OT which require to be modified in the light of NT teaching; there is a historical development in the apprehension of revelation of which we must take account. There are passages in the Bible, such as the accounts of creation and the last days, which were probably never intended to be taken literally as conveying scientific and historical fact, and belief in biblical inspiration does not solve the problem of how to deal with such passages.
III. The significance of the text
We must now move on to the second aspect of our task, which is that of determining the significance of the text. The basic principle is that the significance of the text is derived from its original meaning; the meaning determines the significance.
Three false approaches. There are various types of error that arise at this point. The first is the view that once we have determined the meaning, our task is finished: the meaning gives us the original significance, and the original significance is the current significance. In an exaggerated form, the error is that of the person seeking a blessed thought from Scripture who looked in the Scripture at random, and found the text ‘Judas went and hanged himself’, and then found himself confronted with ‘Go and do thou likewise’. There are several errors here, but the basic one is failure to ask whether particular scriptural principles are universal. Much of the criticism of evangelicalism arises from the suspicion that we do not take such differences of context into account.
The second type of error is again one that ignores the original meaning of the text, perhaps because taken literally it appears to be unacceptable, and finds a new meaning by allegorization. If a text is deliberately constructed as an allegory, like Pilgrim’s Progress or Gulliver’s Travels or the parable of the sower, the correct way to understand it is as an allegory; we are simply looking for the originally intended meaning. But the allegorization of Scripture that captivated the church in the middle ages fell into two errors. One was that it allegorized passages which were not meant as allegories by their original authors, I suppose that the justification was that the Holy Spirit intended these passages to be understood as allegories for later readers, but no convincing scriptural proof was ever produced for this theory. The other error was that there were no clear principles enunciated by which the interpreter could know what were the divinely intended allegorical correspondences. The sheer variety of allegorical interpretations proved this up to the hilt. It is no wonder that the Reformers in general condemned allegory and argued for a literal understanding of the text.
The third type of error is one that over-emphasizes the difference between the contexts of the original authors and their audiences, on the one hand, and the context of the modern reader, on the other hand. It is argued that our situation is so different from that of the biblical world that we cannot do a straight re-interpretation of the meaning of the biblical text in order to gain teaching for ourselves. To treat the Bible as evangelicals do, namely as a source of Christian teaching, is an erroneous procedure. Those who adopt this kind of outlook have then to find other, quite different ways of using the Bible. This is the kind of approach taken by D. E. Nineham in The Use and Abuse of the Bible or by M. D. Hooker in a recent lecture on ‘The Bible and the Believer’ (Epworth Review 6:1, Jan 1979, 77–89). Nineham’s book contains a great many points but the essential one seems to be that the biblical writers not only lived in a different world from us but also thought in such a different way from us that we cannot use the Bible as a source of teaching from which to read off the answers to our questions by way of suitable translational procedures; along with this point he makes the further one that the sheer variety of biblical thinking makes it impossible for us to use the Bible as a teaching source. Hooker’s article takes the same general approach and makes the point that the centre of Christianity is Christ, not the Bible, and that we are in danger of stressing the written word more than the living presence of the Spirit. The Bible is like a series of signposts set up to destinations to which we may not be going, but by seeing how it functions in this way, we may be able to gain guidance and help on our journey. Both authors affirm the importance of exegesis and understanding the text, but they are disputing that the meaning intended by the original authors can be the basis for theological statements for today. Neither is denying that the Bible is a source of Christian insight, and hence of great value; their quarrel is with any attempt to regard it as a textbook of theological statements, or, even worse, as a code of rules for Christian living. For them the Bible is not a source of authoritative truth; Hooker sums up by saying ‘The method of Bible Study which assumes that we should first ask “What did it mean for them then?” and then “What does it mean for us now?” may be far too simple. It is often very difficult to discover what it meant for them then; and we cannot assume that a particular way of understanding the truth will necessarily mean anything for us today’ (op. cit., 86f).
What is wrong with this view? First, it adopts a view of Scripture contrary to that of evangelical Christianity, claiming that the variety in biblical teaching is of such a character that the different authors contradict one another. I have already indicated that I do not share this opinion, although I must stress that this view needs some detailed substantiation. Second, I question whether the biblical writers thought in as different a manner from us as Nineham alleges. My impression is that Nineham thoroughly over-emphasizes the differences between the ancient world and the modern world and under-stresses the elements of continuity between them. The particular points which cause him difficulty are the biblical writer’s lack of attention to secondary causes and their belief in supernatural phenomena, including particularly the activity of demonic forces. He makes effective use of the point that when somebody falls to the ground in a fit, we don’t summon an exorcist but rather a doctor, and we should not be too hasty in replying that of course we believe in the demonic and cite a few examples to prove it; the point is that in the majority of cases we still summon the doctor first and find that his kind of treatment is effective without recourse to the exorcist. It is important for us to tackle the problem of this kind of thinking, and to ask how far biblical thinking is controlled by it, and how our thinking may differ. Here I should comment that in the Bible the activity of the Holy Spirit is expressed in a way that is analogous to the way in which the activity of demonic spirits is conceived; if in practice we assign little place to the demonic, are we being inconsistent in retaining our belief in the parallel activity of the Spirit? It may well be that when the matter is put this way, our response should be to say that we must let our modern scientific thinking be corrected by the biblical way of thinking, just as we insist that the biblical understanding of miracles must prevail over any modern closed-universe type of outlook. Nevertheless, it is possible that we may feel that we need to express in different categories of thought what the Bible expresses in its own categories. Some kind of translation may be needed, but it is not the case that the biblical way of thinking is so different from ours that it cannot be translated at all.
At the same time, I should want to stress the close similarities between biblical thinking and our thinking, which are not, I think, wholly due to the fact that as Christians our thinking has been strongly moulded by the Bible. The point is that, like other literature from the past, the Bible presents a picture of man and the human situation which rings true in the modern world and offers a diagnosis of our maladies which is profoundly true and relevant. Its prescription for our maladies deserves equal respect.
These comments are inadequate, but show some of the problems raised by Nineham and others which we must not duck but which are in my view insufficient to make us reject our view of Scripture.
We come back, therefore, to the point that we have to discover the meaning of a scriptural text and then ask what its contemporary significance is.
Unintelligible teaching. First, in some cases we may find that the biblical teaching is not intelligible to modern people because the way in which it is expressed is unfamiliar to them. One can easily think of situations in which biblical concepts mean something different to modern people because of the associations they have acquired, for example, the case of the child with a brutal father for whom the idea of God as Father is disastrously misleading. In such cases translation of concepts is required.
Unacceptable teaching. Second, there may be cases where biblical teaching is unacceptable to modern people. Biblical teaching on creation or on the sinfulness of man may need to be defended against views based on scientific materialism and humanistic optimism, and these latter views may be strongly defended by appeals to appropriate evidence and reasoning. In such cases, the Christian must be sure that what he defends as biblical doctrine truly is biblical. He is not, for example, necessarily called on to defend creation in seven (or rather, six) literal days or to deny the evidence of geology. But he must be prepared to stand firm for biblical faith, however unpopular it may be, and however unconvincing it may appear to the dominant materialism of the age. The measure of biblical truth is not necessarily what modern, non-Christian man is able to believe.
The need for new models. Third, there may be cases where the biblical way of expressing doctrinal statements needs translation into other forms of statement. (This point is similar to my first one, which dealt with terms that are now misleading and inadequate.) All our knowledge of God is analogical in character, and hence biblical statements have the character of models of divine reality and action (just as scientific statements are often no more than models of physical realities). It may be that sometimes we can substitute other models for the biblical ones, always provided that when we do so, it will be possible to translate the new models back into the biblical form and get back to where we started from. (The test of an accurate translation is retranslation!) For example, there are a number of passages where Jesus Christ is said to intercede for us with the Father (Rom. 8:34; 1 Jn. 2:1). The biblical writers are using the model or analogy of intercession by a human advocate to indicate that Jesus pleads with the Father to forgive our sins. But this model would suggest that the Father needed to be persuaded by the Son to forgive us, whereas the same biblical writers know full well that it was the Father’s love for sinners which caused Him to send His Son into the world to be our Saviour. Hence the ‘model’ is revealed as being nothing more than a model which in a sense simplifies the actual position and does not do justice to every aspect of the reality. In such a case we may feel that other models could be substituted for the biblical one in order that the one-sided character of the biblical one, taken on its own apart from the balance provided by other biblical teaching, may not mislead the unwary.
A more important issue is that of ‘heaven’. The Bible conceives of this in spatial terms as ‘up there’, and the story of the ascension suggests that heaven is simply remote spatially from the world, far above us. But other biblical teaching speaks of the nearness and omnipresence of God as Spirit and the idea of a spatially remote heaven is not easy to square with modern cosmology. In this situation we may feel that, for example, the notion of heaven as being located in some kind of ‘fourth dimension’ ‘outside’ (note how difficult it is to get away from spatial terms!) our space-time co-ordinates is more helpful. If so, we shall have to say either that the story of the ascension is a mythical way of expressing the transference of Jesus from one dimension of existence to another (and thus that the ascension did not happen in the way recorded by Luke) or that the event was an acted parable which expressed this transfer in a way that the disciples (who knew nothing of other dimensions) could comprehend. I personally find this latter way of looking at the event helpful, and the whole concept of a spiritual dimension is extremely valuable in other areas also.
Underlying principles and fresh applications. From the problem of doctrinal statements I turn, fourth, to cases where the application of biblical commands and exhortations causes difficulties in the modern world. The difficulty is usually that a literal fulfilment of the command is inappropriate in our culture in the modern world as a means of expressing the principle that lies behind it. Not only so, but there are various contemporary situations for which there is no direct biblical guidance provided. In such cases we need to go behind the biblical commands and ask what underlying principle they express, and then we must re-express them in ways that are appropriate in our situation. One obvious example of a command that it is difficult to carry out literally in the modern western world is that of washing one another’s feet. Not only are there practical difficulties about this thanks to changes in ways of female dress but also the action no longer has the symbolical value which it had in the time of Jesus. It is therefore necessary to ask why Jesus gave the command, to recognize the injunction to love and humility which lies behind it, and then to find ways of showing these qualities in a modern context. Similarly, to take the hackneyed example, the wearing of a veil by women is not usual today, nor does it have the symbolical value which it had in ancient Corinth; it is, therefore, foolish to demand literal obedience to it today, and since the wearing of hats today does not have the symbolical value of the veil in the ancient world, even that slight touch of modernization does not meet the need. On the other side of the same question, the Bible does not give us direct information about how to behave as members of a trade union, since these were unknown in the ancient world, and practical guidance can be obtained only by extrapolation from biblical principles originally given in other contexts. To say this is not of course to deny that much biblical teaching can be directly applied to the modern situation without much or any change. The need for reapplication should not be exaggerated.
Making a fresh impact. There is a fifth type of problem that should be mentioned. There are numerous cases where the biblical teaching fails to make its intended impact upon us because of our over-familiarity with it, or because the emotional force of the words fails to reach us. Some of the imagery in the Song of Solomon is not at all appropriate for expressing endearment. No modern wife is going to be flattered by: ‘Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an arsenal, whereon hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors’ (Cant. 4:4). We have all heard the parables so often that the element of surprise which was one of Jesus’ most powerful weapons fails to make any impression upon us. We need, therefore, not only to translate the meaning of the text into terms understandable today, but also to find ways of getting across its literary effect. A direct accusation of David for murdering Uriah and taking his wife would have had little effect in convicting the king of the sinfulness of his deed and bringing him to repentance; the novel approach that Nathan took when he told his parable had the desired effect. We face the same problem as Nathan did in getting across the Christian message to people who may be over-familiar with it, or who think that they know it and have made up their minds against responding to it.
Here, then, are various ways in which we may need to deal with the problem of communicating the significance of the biblical message today. Our treatment has inevitably been sketchy, but perhaps it may at least serve as a stimulus to a more thorough investigation.
I. Howard Marshall
I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK