A while back I mused on how we communicate to our churches the developments happening in the world of theology, in my case New Testament studies.The issue came up again last night at our church Bible study when someone asked how they were supposed to keep up when the interpretations of the bible - we were looking at Romans 7-8 - keep changing. I've been troubled by this question most of the day.
Baptists have always believed that the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. It is a key plank in baptist hermeneutics. But when it happens it can be unsettling. Are interpretations changing - meaning we have to forget old readings - or is our understanding deepening and broadening - meaning that we are grasping more of God's big picture?
I hope that the latter is happening. In relation to Romans I'd like to think that we are moving from a reading - popular among evangelicals for a long time - that the letter is just about justification by faith. Even more bluntly, many Christians have read the letter as being all about them, how God loves me and sent Jesus to die for my sins so I could be saved and go to heaven when I die.Now, of course, Romans has always been about more than that - even Luther, who stressed justification by faith, saw that - but that has been the central reading of it since the birth of evangelicalism.
I'd like to think that as we deepen our appreciation of the context in which Romans was written, the language used, the themes developed in what is a highly complex and magnificently written letter, so our understanding of the themes of the letter deepen and broaden. It seems to me that at the very least Romans is about God and Israel, about how God acts in covenant faithfulness to his people and through them to the rest of the world. Within that, of course, is an explanation of how I can be part of all that.
The issue that arose last night is two fold. The first has to do with the scope of scripture and the second is about the tools we need to understand an ancient text. They are closely related.
One of the great strengths of evangelicalism is that it has sought to put the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians and encourage them to hear God speaking directly to them through it. It has always been a faith of the literate. This is a problem in contexts where rates of literacy are not high but that's an issue for a different post.
The trouble is that this has led to a focus in our reading of scripture that means we are always looking for what it is saying to me about me. We risk missing all the important things that scripture is telling us about God, the world around us and other people; worse, we see all those things only in relation in to me; I become the centre of attention. This is not helpful.
But this is allied to the second issue: namely, can anyone pick up an ancient text and expect to understand it without help? As we get further and further away from the work shops in Rome's back streets where this letter was first heard by a motley collection of craft workers and others, is it not the role of teachers in the church to help Christians understand the context in which this letter would have been heard and what the language would have meant to those first hearers?
Of course, to many this sounds elitist (maybe it is); worse, it sounds like an attempt to take the scriptures away from the ordinary believer and put them in the hands of an educated minority, indeed back into the hands of the 'priests' that the Reformation fought so hard to wrest them from all those years ago. The trouble is that this reading of the reformation misses the extent to which the movement across Europe in the sixteenth emptied the churches and appealed only to a literate minority of Christians, the very people who pored over books, discussed new ideas, listened to erudite sermons and asked searching questions of the preacher in a desire to greater understand the text under discussion (but that's a subject for a different post).
My fear is that the church like the rest of the culture has dumbed down somewhat, settled for a lowest common denominator equality that means anyone can read an ancient text and instruct others on its meaning. we only have to look at some churches to see where that leads us!