WHERE IS THEOLOGICAL CONTINUITY FOUND: TEXT OR CONTEXT?–Part 2

Can one conclude with Charles Kraft that the Bible is a holy case-book? To Kraft, the Bible is the record of God’s relationship with different people at different times.[1] Others see the text as a record of God’s revelation, not revelation itself.  John Sailhamer identifies such attempts at salvation-history to be looking at the event behind the text rather than the text itself.[2] Charles Van Engen takes a similar approach to Kraft. Van Engen points to the “re-presentation” of the previous revelation by each successive level of revelation.[3] As such, the locus of meaning is in historical reconstructions, whether reconstructing the ancient event, such as “what happened at Mt. Sinai,” or constructing new events, such as liberating the oppressed as Moses liberated Israel. Such salvation-history, event-oriented approaches to inspiration and revelation posit a large amount of discontinuity in the Bible and allow a great amount of discontinuity between contextualized theology and the Bible. Though this discontinuity takes a very high view of culture, it compromises Christianity. Event-oriented approaches are open to multiple perspectives, not only the author’s, which creates this discontinuity.[4] The goal of Christian communication is to create continuity through contextualization. Will this continuity be found in the text, or in the event (past, present or future) where God reveals Himself or in an aspect of His relationship to mankind? How much contextualization is true to Christianity?

Paul Hiebert delineates three types of contextualization: denial of contextualization, uncritical contextualization, and critical contextualization.[5] Kraft’s view borders on uncritical contextualization—unbridled acceptance of the receptor culture. Without a high commitment to the text over the event, one leans heavily towards uncritical contextualization and, given enough time, one will end up with syncretism. Denial of contextualization is the same error,[6] but it rather overvalues the transmitting culture. Critical contextualization avoids the two errors by being founded upon the premises that (1) the Bible is both a divine and human work that is God-breathed and (2) is thus the standard of faith and obedience for all Christians of all contexts (2 Tim 3:16-17). This is verbal, plenary inspiration. The result is a contextualization that is “the translation of the unchanging content of the Gospel of the Kingdom into verbal form meaningful to the peoples in their separate cultures and within their particular existential situation [sic].”[7] In other words, culture is sifted through the unchanging Truth of scripture, rather than scripture being sifted through cultural truths.[8]

Verbal, plenary inspiration leads to the interpretation of the grammar and syntax of the original languages into the receptor language that focuses on the author-intended meaning of the text. The author-intended meaning is found in the verbal meaning of the text.[9] The author-intended meaning is found by reading and rereading the text.[10] This means that the words and grammar of the text itself reveals the divine author’s intended meaning. It is one and the same with the human author’s intended meaning. God is the lord and creator of human language;[11] therefore, God can “communicate perfectly without having to affirm any false ideas that may have been held by the people during the time of the writing of Scripture.”[12] Ultimately, God’s communication, through the written Scripture, is the final authority for believers of all time and all contexts. The cultural context of the text is of little value to its interpretation, except on a translation level in relationship to text linguistics.[13] In this case, a text must follow the rules of the language in which it was written.[14] Consequently, the words of the text have a meaning assigned to them arbitrarily by the culture using them.[15] By arbitrary, this does not mean that a word’s meaning changes freely with every use. Words are limited by the few meanings they derive from their cultural use.[16] Nonetheless, whether taken literally or figuratively, words in a text, given a specific grammatical structure, and in the context of several connected texts have a meaning established by their literary influences. In other words, the text defines the meaning of a given word by the way it relates the syntax and grammar to the word. Thus, though the culture may define the range of meaning of a word, the text identifies the exact meaning of a word through its use in literary context. Therefore, the meanings of these words, strung together in a text, portray a narrative world that is an interpretation of the real world. This is an interpretation of the world as a particular cultural context sees it. But in the case of the Bible, one has the divine interpretation of the real world.[17] Thus, cultures, through the words of Scripture, are informed of God’s perspective. Cultures must conform to the meaning of the text, not the cultural forms behind the events, nor the cultural forms of the language itself.[18] The reading community should not transform the text,[19] nor should the text be sifted through that community’s context, in order to maintain the inspired revelation of God’s perspective. In addition, reader-sensitive interpretations prevent meaningful discussion between differing communities, by positing discontinuity between text and meaning.[20] Contrarily, focusing on the author-intended meaning supplies a common frame of reference for cross-cultural Christian dialogue and theologizing.


[1]Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 194ff.

[2]John H. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 36-85.

[3]Charles Van Engen, “The New Covenant: Knowing God in Context,” in The Word Among Us, ed. Dean S. Gilliland, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1989), 83.

[4]Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1992), 22.

 

[5]Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985),  184-192.

[6]Cf. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.

[7]Bruce J. Nicholls, “Theological Education and Evangelization,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. J. D. Douglass (Minneapolis: World Wide, 1975), 647, in David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2000), 149.

[8]The author recognizes that different cultural forms are included in scripture, the most obvious being the form of language. However, there is an author intended meaning that transcends these forms. Also, the author recognizes that there are forms and symbols that might not translate one to one in every culture, but rather than changing the meaning, truth is better served through education that dynamic equivalence.

[9]Sailhamer, “Old Testament Theology” Class Notes, SEBTS, Wake Forest, NC, Spring 2003, 22-33.

[10]Ibid., 35-40.

 

[11] Even though, in Genesis 2, Adam was given the responsibility of naming the animals, even naming his wife, it was God, in chapter 1, who named creation, also naming Adam. God also confused the languages in Genesis 11. Thus, human language derives its existence from God. In that sense, though appearing completely arbitrary and even being affected by man’s sinfulness, foundational aspects of language are directed by God’s hand. Note: this does not negate the fact that some aspects of individual languages are arbitrary and culturally dependent.

[12]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 97.

[13]Ibid., 85.

[14]Sailhamer, Pentateuch, 9.

[15]David Alan Black, “The Study of New Testament Greek in the Light of Ancient and Modern Linguistics,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, ed. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 248.

[16] For instance, in English, “can” may be a verb referring to ability, or a noun referring to a round metal container, but it cannot mean its opposite without adding “not” and it cannot mean a square rubber container, no matter the trickery of the writer, speaker or audience.

[17]Cf. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 17-50.

[18]This is not to ignore the difficult decisions that must be made in translating from one language to another.

 

[19]Cf. Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizon’s in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 471-549. This work analyzes contemporary approaches to linguistics and hermeneutics for the university and the church.

[20]Peter H. Davids, “Authority, Hermeneutics, and Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament, 7.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Wes,

    I refuse to read this because you may think that I stole some ideas from you. 😉

    I will grab from your bibliography though for my seminar this semester. And, I’ve already received approval for my topic. 🙂

  2. I’m not concerned about stealing of ideas. Its not like you can’t come to similar conclusions from the same data. Does that mean one stole from another? No, it just means that we had similar sources. That is why Leibniz and Newton could invent calculus independent of each other. Did one copy the other? Not likely.

    So, why not interact?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: