My postulate is simple and short.
“No one can simply open the Bible and start interpreting it accurately.” [Even the simplest of statements found in the Bible have several layers of context that nuance or limit them.]
Whether you agree with that statement or not, one thing is observable and self-evident in all faith groups that rightly emphasize equality or the Priesthood of the Believer. Commonly, everyone thinks he/she is an authority on interpreting the Bible, on what it “means to me,” because everyone has the Holy Spirit.
While it is true that all believers are priests unto God, made possible by Jesus; that fact only means each believer has direct access and representation to God (with only Christ as the Mediator). It does not mean the Holy Spirit will zap us with replete knowledge and understanding of the 2,000+ yrs. old contexts (the ancient languages and culture and genre and specific settings), in which the texts of Holy Scripture were written.
If we want to correctly interpret the Bible, we must put in serious and laborious and thorough study of each of these contexts—in order to approach the texts of the Bible with the worldview and mindset of a 1st Century Jew or Greco-Roman. Then and only then will we be able to interpret in such a way as to bring out of the ancient text what is universal and timeless as binding and relevant for us, the modern believer. Otherwise, we run the severe risk of misinterpreting the Bible… a prominent reason for heresy (division and denials of Jesus) throughout the ages past.
Let me make another clear and sadly controversial statement. WE NEED SCHOLARS. What I write above means scholarly research is absolutely necessary to correctly interpreting the Bible, and it is a profession worthy to be supported. We need archaeologists to discover artifacts that provide backgrounds (of both Jewish and non-Jewish texts and cultural phenomena) crucial to understanding the Bible. We need history and ancient manuscript scholars to discover and decipher 1st Century Christian and non-Christian texts, so that we may know how the original audience of Christians (those to whom the Apostles wrote directly) interpreted the Apostles’ writings. Unfortunately, many current-day Christians approach the Bible with little-to-no study of the contexts I mention. Instead, they arrogantly or ignorantly impose their 21st Century mind onto the text and call it Bible Study.
I’ll summarize by rephrasing, through illustration, what I have stated already. My Grandfather was an untrained mechanic. He was very good; he was born in the early 1920’s, so he saw cars develop over the years. He could fix almost anything, not by desire but because necessity drove him; and the technology was fairly straightforward, so that someone who concentrated enough and had enough time could disassemble, remedy and reassemble a flaw. But, there came a time when the technology surpassed my grandfather’s knowledge and self-training. Automobiles became extremely advanced, so that mechanics were no longer dealing with just nuts and bolts and clamps and pipes as gears and belts and gaskets and hoses. Over the years, automobiles became computer systems, wiring and power systems, … not to mention extremely tightly engineered spaces into which all of this was packed. Soon, my grandfather had to rely on a trained mechanic, and rightly so. He would do more damage than good. He just had to realize his limitations and trust someone, who had spent years studying and practicing as a mechanic… maybe even for only a specific make.
Christians who interpret the Bible without significant and substantial reference to scholarly works are analogous to those, who buy—not just an automobile—but a rocket ship, and attempt to fly it and make repairs to it with no training at all. It is not only ridiculous and ill-advised and a waste; it is also hazardous and dangerous to themselves and those around them.
I am NOT saying Christians cannot or should not study and interpret the Bible for themselves. What I AM saying is:
1 God does call some of his believers to become Bible Scholars, precisely because ours is a collection of ancient texts. We, who are 2000+ years removed from the original languages and settings and cultures of the biblical texts, do well to learn from the scholars who have devoted their lives to this absolutely necessary work.
2 If you are not willing to be trained yourself by scholars, then you must rely heavily on their work, if you wish to treat the Bible fairly and responsibly. Doing so does not make them better or higher than you. However, it means they serve the Body as they are called. Be thankful!
I highly recommend two scholars for regaining a 1st Century Christian understanding of the Old & New Testaments:
Dr. Michael Heiser: drmsh.com
Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary: http://www.seminary.edu/mant/
Is it necessary to understand the context of Christ’s commands in order to follow them?
I would say yes, because how does one defend himself against the IC and cults, when they say one must follow certain commands of Christ that are (in reality) either man-made or Old Covenant (theocratic)? A case in point would be the “tithe,” which nearly all ICs teach the Lord Jesus commands in Luke 11:42; but paying attention to the context frees one to understand the tithe as a purely Old Covenant, theocratic law, and that, Jesus was speaking to those under the Law at that time. New Covenant believers are to give 1, however, according to need of others and with and joy and grace.
As for your second concern, you write,
Are not all Christians scholars or are all Christians distinguished, proficient, or poor scholars? A quote to ponder comes from William Lane Craig who posits that, “It isn’t a question of whether you are a theologian or not, but whether you are a good theologian or a bad theologian.”
I see you quote a Scholar on his opinion, not the data of his research. Haha! Just ribbing you.
To be serious, all believers are not scholars; that much is clear. Some scholars and their followers call other scholars “bad.” Yet other scholars are hailed by their followers and academia as “great.” Now, ideally, scholars should not create divisions by the “I am of ____ “ carnality mentioned in 1 Cor. 3. And hopefully, a scholar’s earning the label “bad” is based on his (in)proficiency and (in)accuracy in discovering and relaying source materials in entirety (as much as is possible, not “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”). However, such carnality does happen, because “knowledge puffs up.” Even though this does happen, the phenomenon does not negate the need for scholarship in the areas I mention, because God can and does call individuals to be His scholars to serve the body. What is more, we are all called to test the spirits and we ought to “search the Scriptures to see if these things are so.”
To drill down a little more, there is a difference between scholars of theology (what IC Christian leaders have said about Christian beliefs before) and scholars of the fields I mention in my post. It is true that we all approach the Scriptures with our own societal, generational, ethnic and theological biases. I am saying we need to acknowledge those and set them aside (as much as possible) in order to research and study and recover the 1st Century Christian mindset, as far as is possible. In other words, we must rely primarily on Bible Backgrounds, 1st Century patristics and extrabiblical texts, and Biblical Theology to inform our interpretation, not the latest modes of theological trend or even nostalgic (or tribal) theology, for that matter.
It is rather silly to talk of interpreting the Bible according to a systematic theology, when that system is based on the limited resources available to reformers in the 1500s… or even after the beginning of the IC, which I show (from early church scholarship) as starting in the time of the immediate post-Apostolic era, as evidenced with the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch… and fully blossomed under Constantine.