WHERE IS THEOLOGICAL CONTINUITY FOUND: TEXT OR CONTEXT?–Part 1

I wrote the following as part on an independent study in 2003 in my Masters program. Hopefully, I will be able to research this more in the future.

            The Bible is by nature a multicultural work of divine and human creativity. Each book of the Bible was written, compiled or edited during different times by different authors/editors from different cultural backgrounds and situations. Some would argue that this drastically affects the meaning of the text so that one cannot understand it clearly without understanding the cultural situations behind the writing or behind the author. More radically, some hold that one cannot understand it fully because it is trapped by those same cultural situations and cannot be meaningfully extracted. Others argue that the reinterpretation of the text by each successive generation serves as a model for interpretation of the text for all contexts; the premise is that each generation changes the meaning to fit its own cultural context and needs. Still others find the meaning greatly transferable from one age to another but choose not to obey certain commands or truths revealed from the text because those propositions relate to different cultural context or time. Moreover, some find that to label anything from the text as out-of-date or inapplicable for the current context compromises its truthfulness and relevance as God’s Word. So one must ask—which view is correct; or, what role does culture play in Biblical interpretation? The answer that this paper will seek to establish is that the Bible, though being immersed in culture, is meta-cultural (i.e., its meaning transcends all human cultures); however, in order to translate and communicate the meaning of the text sensitivity to cultural forms is necessary. This endeavor is dependent on the theology of revelation and inspiration. The very nature of the text (and some would say Christianity) is at stake. Understanding the role of biblical theology, and, hence, the original languages, is instrumental for establishing this thesis. Flowing from biblical theology, the nature and importance of sound translation and interpretation forms the background for this paper’s argument.

According to Eugene Nida, translation is that which is “the closest natural equivalent, first in meaning and secondly in style.”[1] Charles Kraft, following J. B. Phillips, sees the translator to be one who “incarnates” the word in the language of the receptors so that it “(1) sound[s] natural to them, and (2) [has] an impact upon them as equivalent as possible to that experienced by the original readers of the original writings in the original languages.”[2] Charles Van Engen and Daniel Shaw define the object of translation as that which proclaims “God’s message to human beings in all contexts in ways that ensure they understand God’s intention.”[3] The common thread between these three definitions is the author’s original intent. In order to discern the author’s original intent, regardless of the methodology, one is not making one-to-one translations of isolated words, but words in context. Therefore, translation involves interpretation.

Not to be committing circular reasoning, though, interpretation involves author-intended meaning, which is discerned from the syntax and grammar of the original. Here is where the doctrine of inspiration and revelation is relevant. If the Bible is only a human book, by only a human author, then the effects of sin and the Fall cloud the meaning of the book. One can maintain that God superintends His meaning in spite of the humanness of the book, that is, against the human author’s intention, but this becomes an epistemological problem and seems highly unlikely since one would never know objectively when this super-intention occurred. One is left looking for mystical hidden meanings or allegorical interpretations that are left to the subjectivity of the interpreter (which itself violates Scripture [Peter 1:16-21])—a self-defeating argument. Furthermore, if the Bible is only a human book, then it only has as much authority as its reading community may give it. Ultimately, it is no more meaningful than a novel by Grisham, King or Crichton. If the Bible is only a divine book, the same epistemological problem exists (as it does for Muslims) since only those with special insight can know the meaning of the text (Gnosticism). Then one is left with an ontological problem: how does a perfect, holy God communicate to people in wicked, imperfect, and disparate cultural conditions? Another option is that the Bible is both human and divine; the author-intended meaning of the human author represents fully the divine author-intended meaning. As such, one is left with a good epistemology without violating metaphysics. Thus, if the author-intended meaning of the human author actually represents the divine author’s intentions, what does that say about the Bible?


[1]Eugene A. Nida, Message and Mission: The Communication of the Christian Faith, Revised Edition (Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library, 1990), 143.

[2]Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 263.

[3]Charles E. Van Engen and R. Daniel Shaw, Communicating God’s Word in a Complex World (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 5.

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3 Comments

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  1. Wes,

    Inspiration is the starting point of this whole discussion. I think you have nailed it right on the head.

    One thing I would add with this whole discussion though (and you may latter on in your paper) is that most people don’t undertand the historical context for every text they read—biblical and unbiblical. At some point someone has to use a text (bible dictionary, artifacts, bible history) to try and understand that culture. However, this uses another texts and places it over the inspired biblical text. Though they would never admit to doing this.

    So, my quip is…down the line someone always has to use a text. Me, I prefer the inspired one. 🙂

    Dougald

  2. That should read…
    However this use of other texts places those texts over the inspired biblical text.

  3. Dougald,

    Great quip…and no, I don’t think I made that point here, so great contribution.

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