Searching for God-given Meaning in Scripture

Searching for God-given Meaning in Scripture

Spectrum Banner Image: Click for COVID-19 coverage
 

 

Written by: 
Published:
May 13, 2020

One man’s meat is another man’s poison

Our God is amazing! We are told that He breathed out all Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). He must have breathed out the canonization and translation into so many languages, as well. He did it in such a way that that the Bible provides an inexhaustible well of knowledge, instruction, and power. When we are exposed to God’s words, they penetrate into the greatest depths of our inner person, discerning “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Every language has words with different meanings, and many words have more than one meaning. Thus, there are different ways in which sentences can be translated. Various translations allow us look at the text from different angles and discover new, fresh insights about God, His character, and His will. Even different translations in the same language allow the reader to discover different meanings of the text. Some texts are more difficult to understand than others. Although the sacred text does not change, the meaning of the text may vary in different contexts. Because of this, it is by no surprise there are different interpretations.

In the nineteenth century, there were those who believed that slavery was an order recognized and approved by God. These people interpreted and applied some passages of Scripture quite differently than those who believed down in their heart that slavery was sinful. The same is true of those who interpret Scripture to say that women are mere property of men; those who believe this interpret the Bible (specifically stories related to women) quite differently than those who believe that God created men and women as equals. Those who are convinced that Jesus is a created being will interpret Scripture with a different emphasis and flavor than those who wholeheartedly believe Jesus is God. Those who believe that the book of Daniel was written after the exile in Babylon will interpret the content of that book differently than those who do not.

If you interpret the creation story as an expression of God’s love, you will come to a different interpretation about the Sabbath day than if you look at the texts through the prism/perspective of Pharisees and scribes. For these leaders, the Sabbath was primarily about keeping the law, which was an unpardonable prerequisite for salvation (without any grace). We could go on and on to demonstrate how different, conflicting, and even contradictory interpretations are a result of different assumptions or beliefs about God and the world around us.

Ellen G. White reminded her contemporaries that “since it was the Spirit of God that inspired the Bible, it is impossible that the teaching of the Spirit should ever be contrary to that of the word.”[1] However, in her inspired statement, she did not address the situation of two groups being “led by the Spirit” to contradicting views. How do we reconcile when different groups find support for their views in the words of the Bible? What is the God-given meaning of the text in such cases? How do we “distinguish between what Scripture says and what we think it says (or worse, what we want to make it say)?”[2] Does God provide different meaning based on different contexts? If He does, how do we find out?

Missiological Perspective

It has been well documented that human perceptions are deeply imbedded. For that reason, it might be wise to look more carefully at the lens through which we see the world, as this lens shapes how we interpret Scripture. One’s personality, society, culture, and worldview “act as lenses through which the Bible is viewed.”[3] Better understanding of these lenses through which people view and interpret the Bible may help to better discern the God-given meanings of Scripture.[4] Our worldview (of which we are partly unaware) shapes our perception. Our interpretation is affected by our contemporary social context, which is not only complex, but also constantly evolving.

While our perception of meaning, values, truth, and/or reality have not fallen from the sky, nor are they external entities,[5] the divine revelation itself was brought to us through culturally conditioned human vessels. It was communicated to diverse cultures, thus coming to us with the undeniable stamp of those cultures. Our interpretation, therefore, is challenged to examine both the cultural context from which the biblical passage was written, as well as the cultural context from which the interpreter comes.[6]

The Text in Jesus’s Context

Looking back to the time of Jesus, one can hardly fathom how those who were so committed to the obedience to God’s word, who searched Scripture because they thought, through them, they receive eternal life (John 5:39), who knew messianic prophecies back and forth (Matt. 2:2–6), could reject God’s Son with such determination and zeal, to the point of plotting His crucifixion.

It does not take rocket science to realize that their problem was in their perception, in their lenses. The focus of Pharisees was on keeping the law. They believed God gave the law to be perfectly obeyed, which was the only means of salvation. Although they knew the messianic prophecies by heart, they dreamed of a messiah who would come in glory to reward them for their obedience of the law. For them, keeping the law was all that mattered, to the point that they were constantly inventing new laws in order to not transgress the Law. Although they were obsessed by the law, it did not bother them; they were actually proud of it. Their obsession blinded them; they lost the God-given meaning of the law.

Christ knew the law in His heart. In fact, He came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). Jesus was the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), and did not come to cancel or cause the law to pass away (Matt. 5:18). Yet Pharisees and scribes found Jesus’s interpretation of the law different, irritating, perhaps even blasphemous. Jesus taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you. . .” (Matt. 5:38 –39). In the time and culture of Moses, this practice was allowed by God—even endorsed. With the words “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus upgraded this rule significantly. As a matter of fact, Jesus offered the opposite meaning of Moses’s rule to His audience. Jesus offered His listeners a God-given meaning.

Not long after their delivery from Egyptian slavery, the Jews enslaved Gentiles. God sanctioned this (Lev. 25:39–46), as it was custom in those days. God also accepted other customs such as polygamy (2 Sam. 12:7–8), levirate marriage (Deut. 25:56), etc. According to Jesus in Mark 10:5, God did so because of the “hardness of their hearts” (NIV) or “because their minds were closed” (NEB). Both the Pharisees and Jesus were working with the same text, and yet, their interpretation was so different because they saw it from a different context.

Change of Lenses

I experienced a significant paradigm shift in my understanding of Scripture through my study of missiology. Perhaps it was not so dramatic as when Saul was traveling to Damascus to kill Christians, but it was dramatic enough to make me stay in the church in which I had grown up.

When I came to understand that the deepest source of mission is God Himself and His love, that mission originated in the heart of God and God is a missionary God (Missio Dei),[7] I began to read the Bible in a different way. My theological thinking changed when I realized that all true theology is, by definition, missionary theology because it has, as its object of study, the ways of God who is by nature missionary. Additionally, the text of Scripture was written by and formed by missionaries.[8] This assumption has had a profound impact on my understanding and interpretation of Scripture. It has provided a different context for the text, and yes, it offered a different meaning at times.

My understanding of church has changed after realization that the church was sent by God and her primary purpose has always been missionary.[9] The church was created by God, through Christ, to bring others to God’s community of love. Even today, the church exists for others; it “exists by mission as a fire does by burning. Mission is not merely the application of theology taught in a classroom. Mission lies at the core of theology, and within the very character and action of God himself.”[10]

The existence of the church is justified by its holistic mission to lost people.[11] The church lives through God’s dealing with the world. This new understanding of God and the church has kept me excited for the last twenty-five years. Missiology taught me that ignoring the world means to betray the Word. Theology taught me that ignoring the Word is to have nothing to say to the world.[12]

All Things to All Men

If you believe in the principle of approaching each situation in terms of its own special, cultural circumstances, you will communicate the Gospel in a different way. You will interpret Scripture with a different flavor than if you do not.

Jesus dealt with Nicodemus in terms of his own Pharisaic understanding (John 3). He related to the Samaritan woman in terms of her background (John 4). He used a customized approach to Zacchaeus (Luke 19). He taught His disciples using methods to which they could relate (Luke 24:44–49). He told the rich young ruler to follow Him (Mark 10:12), but forbade the demoniac to do the same (Luke 8:38–39). Jesus worked with each person in terms of his/her reference.[13]

Paul followed the example of Jesus using the same principle:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some (1 Cor. 9:19–22, ESV).

Paul’s speech to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:22–23) demonstrates how serious he was about this principle. Paul was so committed to the “be-all-things-to-all-men-to-save-at-least-some” principle that he rebuked Peter for compromising the Gospel commission in a Gentile context under pressure from the Christians holding to Jewish traditions (Gal. 2:11–14). However, when working amidst a Jewish context at a later date, he did not hesitate to go through Jewish purification rites to exemplify that he had not abandoned Judaism (Acts 21:20–26).

Paul circumcised Timothy, who had a Greek father but a Jewish mother, to improve his relations with the Jews (Acts 16:3). However, Paul did not bother to circumcise Titus, whose mother and father were Greek, as he knew it would not help to build Titus’s credibility with the Jews (Gal. 2:3). Both Jesus and Paul worked differently in various contexts to deliver God-given meaning of the Gospel in order to “share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23), “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

Practical Implications

As discussed previously, varied contexts bring forth different understandings of Scripture. This implication brings challenges. The following example shows the possible danger of neglecting the missiological perspective. While you may not agree with me, I believe the typical Adventist format of evangelism, for the most part, tends to ignore the methods employed by both Jesus and Paul.

The possible implications have recently been documented through the findings of the Global Church Member Survey. One in three (33%) Seventh-day Adventists believes that the soul is a separate spiritual part of a person and lives on after death.[14] Yet a majority (87%) of the same Adventists holding this belief also believe in the Adventist interpretation of the state of dead and resurrection. They strongly agree/agree with the following belief statement: “When people die, their bodily remains decay and they have no consciousness or activity until they are resurrected.” Interestingly, half of them (50%) claim that their pastor preaches very frequently/frequently about the state of dead, i.e., they regularly hear a biblical explanation about what happens with the soul after person dies. If this is true, why, then, do they hold a view on death that contradicts Scripture?

This disconnect may also be true in other areas. One in five (20%) Seventh-day Adventists believe that people who have died believing in Christ are in heaven right now. More than one in seven (13.5%) members believe Christians may go to witchdoctors or spiritual healers for protection or healing. Around one in eight (12%) believe the dead have powers to communicate with and influence the living. Could it be that these members are locked into the assumptions of their local culture/religion? How can we, as a church, combat these beliefs and shine light on the glorious truths revealed in Scripture?

Is it possible that even Adventists are guilty of covering biblical truths in the guise of a Western mindset, leaving members to determine its meaning in their own given context? These members may not have had the opportunity to see/experience in their cultural matrix the God-given meaning of the biblical belief. They do not see enough plausible demonstrations of how the Gospel brings “power of God for salvation,” that is, how such a belief applies in practice.

Conclusion

There are many other examples in the Bible showing how different worldview assumptions lead to different conclusions. For example, the apostle Paul in Lystra (Acts 14:8–18) or on the island of Malta (Acts 28:1–6) to name a few. Some assumptions we hold to are helpful in embracing the Gospel, others are not. As the saying goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

This article has attempted to illustrate the importance of asking the Holy Spirit to lead us into the truth (John 16:13). It is the Holy Spirit that humbles our hearts to reconsider what we have always believed, and it is also the Holy Spirit who can bring conflicting positions into missiological unity. We cannot resolve them on our own, whether it is due to our cognitive locks or affective blocks.

Our situation is in no way different to that of the pioneers of our church. They prayed earnestly and studied Scripture to find God-given meanings for their time. We have to do the same. Our context has changed from the days of early pioneers, but the God-given meaning of the text has not changed. However, this God-given meaning may be buried beneath our own values and assumptions.

How can God challenge our cultural assumptions through His word if we keep denying we are affected by them? We claim we know the truth and yet, because of our blind spots, we may miss the Truth (John 14:6). We claim we have the message and still, what if our message has lost its message? The general vice president of the General Conference, Artur Stele, made this point when he said: “The world is dying of hunger, and we are sitting on bread, talking about who can distribute it.”[15]

It is the Spirit who sheds new light and allows us to discover God-given (re)new(ed) meaning in different generations, different cultural contexts, and in different life situations. God reveals Himself to us in the text of the Bible, translated from the original language, and expects us to translate the text into the context of the community we live in—through our lives!

 

Notes & References:

[1] Ellen G. White, Great Controversy (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 1990), 9.

[2] David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, Third Edition: An Introduction to Worldview Issues, Philosophical Foundations, and Models of Integration (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 111.

[3] Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 93.

[4] Johnson, Psychology of Biblical Interpretation, 88.

[5] William J. Larkin, Jr., Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 67.

[6] Edward Hindson, “The Sociology of Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation,” Theologia Evangelica 17, no. 2 (1984): 36, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=sor_fac_pubs.

[7] David J. Bosh, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 390–392.

[8] J. Andrews Kirk, The Mission of Theology and Theology as Mission (Valley Forge, PN: Trinity Press International, 1997), 50.

[9] Russell L. Staples, “Seventh-day Adventist Mission in the 80s” in Servants for Christ: The Adventist Church Facing the 80s, ed. by Robert Firth (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1980), 89.

[10] David G. Burnett, The Healing of the Nations: The Biblical Basis of the Mission of God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1996), 12.

[11] Russell Burrill, “Recovering an Adventist Approach to the Life and Mission of the Local Church” (DMin diss, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1997), 6.

[12] Peter Kuzmic, “Mission Renewal in East Europe,” (paper presented at OMCS Conference, New Haven, CN, 1997).

[13] Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 154.

[14] Petr Činčala, Worldview as a Life Software (LifeApp) (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2018). Taken from the Global Church Member Survey findings (65,000 surveys collected from all divisions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 2017–2018).

[15] “Our 10 Favorite Quotes from the 2015 GC Session,” Adventist Review, accessed May 10, 2020, http://www.adventistreview.org/1520-11.

 

Petr Činčala is director of the Institute of Church Ministry and director of the Doctor of Missiology Program at Andrews University.

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Magazine Donation Page: Help Support Independent Adventist Journalism