It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand. —Mark Twain
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/mark_twain_153875
Though Mark Twain’s pithy adage “will preach,” for proponents of Perspicuity, his statement fails to account for one simple fact… that even the seemingly plainest statement of the Bible was brought about in a specific and ancient, original setting and for a specific, ancient, original audience. Because of this fact, one cannot presume the “plain reading” of the text will immediately lend toward one’s understanding the originally-intended meaning, much less how the original audience would have understood it.
For example, how is one to interpret the Lord Jesus’ statement, “If your right eye/right hand offends you, pluck it out/cut it off”? Even if one comes to the correct conclusion that Jesus was employing the classical (Greco-Roman) rhetorical devices known as hyperbole and symbolism (as in RIGHT eye / RIGHT hand symbolizing “good” eye [NLT] / power, authority or strength), the reader still may miss the overarching context of the Sermon on the Mount, let alone perhaps assume the address was originally given to the Church.
[In the passage mentioned, Jesus makes a comparison. Whereas old teachings led the Hebrew national law to prohibit “violent” actions, Jesus teaches for awareness that even a desire to feed the love (eros) of good beauty (and even the desire for keeping power and authority) can lead to sin. If one foresees within one’s self that a desire will lead to offense, then one should preempt said “desires” and dispatch said “power/authority.” Jesus is teaching that honesty of the heart is the beginning of righteous living.]
Illumination is Not a Replacement for Responsible Research
Furthermore, one cannot rely on the Holy Spirit to supernaturally supply the historical information necessary to ascertaining what a human author meant and what the audience understood by what one now reads from the Bible. More simply put, God will not zap our brains with factual information needed for proper, responsible interpretation, especially when we insistently tempt Him by ignoring the tools His Providence has afforded us. We—the modern reader—must do diligent and exhausting research; but it is, after all, the Information Age!
Fundies’ Gold Tablets
So much of the Fundamentalist/Conservative Evangelical movement’s “authority” or grounds for existence comes from turning the Bible into the “inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God.” [For LH’s complete statement on inspiration, see HERE]
To give the Bible absolute supremacy is idolatry. Absolute supremacy belongs to Christ alone. Ironically, the Bible itself says this repeatedly. Col 1, Heb 1, Jesus himself in John 5:39-40, among many others. —Adam Hunter, https://twitter.com/adamhunteratc/status/1016425238752612354?s=21
Jesus is the only Word of God. The documents of the New Testament give witness to Him. Certainly, the Bible is THE Divine Book to humanity, but it is also a very human book, gotten by a tangle of human means that were obviously superintended (moved along) by God.
That being said, the New Testament (like the Old) has loads of minor errors and mistakes and even lesser theological contradictions (in minor themes, not major tenets of Christianity and not in historicity). So, I see the books of the Bible for what they are… a collection of documents compiled over 3,500 years from various curated & edited pieces of literature, including several genres (especially eye witnesses’ oral testimonies). There rightly will be, and are, errors and discrepancies & limitations of scope and intent, as well as evidence of a progress of revelation.
Recovering The 1st Century Mind
Every 1st C, non-biblical document indicates earliest Christians understood their faith as a boundless community: a family, with no human hierarchy, just an organism with One Head —Jesus Christ… and nothing like the institutional, professional ministry we see today, most certainly not state churches.
We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus. —Bruxy Cavey
After their rise in the 1940s, the fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals preached a “go to heaven” gospel… and “escape hell fire,” which they gain from a 14th C. European tradition of Dante’s Inferno & a flat reading of the New Testament, instead of interpreting by context of a 1st C Jewish and/or Greco-Roman mind. A proper interpretation would see that a 1st C person understood eternal, conscious physical torment in “Hell” to be a misunderstanding of what Jesus and the Apostles taught.
Furthermore, original Christianity was never about “going to Heaven instead of Hell.” 1st C believers understood their beliefs to be:
A. YHWH is the Hebrew God.
B. The ancient pagan gods were (rebellious) angels that had been abusing the power that YHWH had given them, when YHWH divided the nations (Deut. 32), because humanity had wanted it so.
C. Jesus is YHWH in flesh, who came to make it possible for humans not to be subservient to the pagan gods (fallen angels) any longer.
D. Jesus also was incarnated and died and arose, in order to reconcile mankind to God, because mankind had obviously followed the influence of these rebellious angels [a.k.a. Sin (big S)], which is evident by sins (little s). We humans were designated for the same eternal destiny as they, until Jesus arrived, as promised.
E. With that Godward reconciliation through Jesus comes spiritual regeneration (new ability to become a partaker of the Divine nature, via the indwelling Holy Spirit)… and thus a new class of humanity, without regard to ethnicity, status, gender, etc. The “in Christ” identity surpassed all other former and lesser identities.
F. And Jesus will return to exact judgement on all evil before making all things new (including a Resurrection to Life for believers and a Resurrection to Judgment for those who reject God, i.e. Jesus).
Repent Toward God; Faith in Christ
So, when you read the command in the New Testament to repent toward God and have faith in Christ, it literally is a mandate for all humans from every pagan nation to:
1. Throw off allegiance to their ethnic/national gods, in order to return to YHWH as the original, Creative & Highest God, as revealed in character (deeds & words) by Jesus of Nazareth.
2. Therefore, proclaim Jesus is the risen (authoritative) Lord, because he raised from Sheol (hell, realm of the dead) & ascended far above every other earthly and spiritual authority. All who believe should live together in harmony by the new and living Way, in the Name of Jesus by the influence of the Holy Spirit, which is (in every case) Divine Love.
The Fundamental Irony
…. Anyway, that was a long explanation to say that the fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals created an easy-convert, behavior-obsessive, fear-based message from the tenets in Evangelicalism of the 1700s. Fundamentalists based their authority on the priesthood of each believer and a “high view” of the Bible and literal interpretation, which is all mixed to produce an elevated, idolization of the Bible as a mystical Source, magically imparting specific messages to those who but glance upon its (translated) pages.
[Aside: Priesthood of the believer is a proper teaching, but it does not preclude the need to do what is necessary for “rightly dividing the word of truth.”]
The Bible is a divine book, but it is also a VERY human book; fundies worship it as if every single letter awaits illumination (direct, individualist revelation; e.g. “God’s word to Me”), like some mystic’s mirror pool or looking orb. Instead of interpreting the New Testament as a set of 2000+ year old, causal (arising from practical need) documents with specific genres and ancient cultural contexts specific to the 1st C. Jewish & Greco-Roman mind, fundies look at it with their 20th and 21st Century skewed understanding and project onto the texts by saying, “Oh, this must mean….”
It is poetically ironic that the fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals often despise Catholic and Orthodox groups for tradition-holding and for emphasizing the mystical, yet fundies treat the Bible in the same manner, with their literal, flat readings, insistence on individualist illumination/personal revelatory application via their “high view” (which is rather much like Joseph Smith’s view of the golden tablets) …and they dare to accuse others of subjective interpretation. In reality, fundies—because of their mystical view of “infallible, inerrant inspiration,” which equivocates to direct dictation when they incessantly cite non-extant “original autographs”—interpret on “face value” or a “flat reading” that avoids thorough biblical theology and proper deference to all contexts (Bible backgrounds, customs, 1st C understanding as evidenced by non-Biblical 1st C documents, idioms, colloquialisms, literary device) and genres. The only thing fundies are left with is interpretational guessing—and perpetuating what others have guessed—as absolute, authoritative fact (a.k.a. Tradition).
The Crux of the Matter & its Solution
By these above tenets, fundies excuse themselves with terms like Perspicuity and simultaneously the “need” for “illumination” to understand hard passages that must be “spiritually discerned” (itself an example of lifted prooftext). Let me put it this way, there was nothing hard for the 1st C mind to understand about what was written by the Apostles in what we now call the New Testament documents, except for those things, which the Bible admits are hard, namely prophecy. Evidently, the point of prophecy being hard to understand is we Christians aren’t supposed to spend our time bickering over prophecy. Yes, Peter states that Paul writes things (eschatology) that are hard to be understood, but again, we see only a certain genre (i.e. Prophecy) is labeled “hard to understand”—as prophecy always has been difficult, apparently by design. All other genres are only clearly understood, after one has put in adequate study of all of the 1st Century contexts, such as Bible backgrounds as evidenced through archaeological discovery and other extant classical writings, but especially including how Jesus understood the Hebrew Tanakh and the world around Him (as witnessed in the Gospels).
How should one approach and treat the texts of the New Testament? Having left Fundamentalism in 2010, I am still honing this skill myself, but I have been greatly helped by focusing on context, especially genre, as the supreme parameter. For example, all of the letters of the New Testament are exactly that—letters. They had a specific audience and were very often specific answers/replies to specific needs/questions being asked. So, whenever an Apostle gives what is clearly a direct answer, that should not be taken as universally normative for the Church across all locations and times, but rather as example(s) of the principle to not let our Christianity offend the surrounding culture unnecessarily (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and other principles may be gathered. However, when an Apostle gives a maxim that is clearly universal (apart from or superior to the specific context in which He writes) then that is universal to the Church for all cultures and all times (Ex. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Each genre has its own unique demands by definition of its literary kind (ex. Gospel is primarily historical/biographical with specific scope but also contains other genre as subservient to the biographical).
A scholar, named Michael Heiser, is great on this subject matter — drmsh.com — simply because he has spent an academic lifetime studying the Ancient Near Eastern worldviews from source documents in their original languages. He taught in some fundamentalist Bible colleges after post grad school… until he literally said, “I must stop protecting people from their Bible.” He hates the misuse of ancient documents to build an agenda, whatever that may be.
It is the responsibility of every skilled and equipped teacher to equip and train others in interpretation, so that they may themselves multiply the resources and skills needed for properly interpreting the Bible.
Most Anabaptists combined a tremendous love for Scripture with a refusal to place it above or even alongside Christ as the Word of God.
~ Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition