Monday, September 03, 2007

The plain meaning of scripture

We kicked off our series on Colossians yesterday and I think it went pretty well.

One of the things I was struck by was the number of positive comments I had from people of all ages - though mostly older - about the amount of background material I included with both sermons helping to earth Colossians in its first century context.

I didn't go overboard but I was keen to set the Imperial context in which Paul was writing and so I used some pictures of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias and reflected on the story it told about how Caesar created the known world through 'reconciling' peoples of different cultures into a single empire, making peace through conquest, providing security via the legions.

This I then compared and contrasted with Paul's portrait of the Lordship of Jesus in Colossians 1:15-20.

It raised a question for me about teaching any biblical text in our churches. We baptist evangelicals have tended to speak about the plain meaning of scripture and the fact that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand it. But I wonder whether that's true - especially when people who've been Christians for longer than I've been alive come to me at the end of a sermon and say that they now see why Paul wrote what he did.

And if it isn't true, how much background or context do people need to be able to see the plain meaning of the text (whatever that is)?

One of the points I was keen to press home yesterday was that Paul is challenging - albeit it in a sly way - the imperial ideology of his day, offering his first hearers (and us) an alternative story about how reconciliation happens and Lordship is exercised. But do you see that unless you know something of the imperial ideology of first century Rome? And if you don't, does it mean you don't understand the text, misunderstand the text or appropriate the text without unnecessary clutter? Does the text lead any less to salvation if it's read without reference to its cultural context?

I am fairly sure that the plain meaning of the text of the New Testament was obvious to its first hearers but is increasingly obscure to us. I want to know what this does to our theology of teaching and learning in our churches.

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