History, Relevance, the Bible, and Reader’s Narcissism

Having read much from N. T. Wright, the NIV Application Commentary set, and many other interesting resources in recent years, I’ve frequently been struck by the wide gap between what Biblical scholars present as the meaning of most texts, and what I’ve heard or been taught in sermons, Sunday school, and Bible studies. Sometimes it is merely a matter of a basic point being made in a certain context, and then a quick and easy leap of application is necessary to translate to the meaning I’ve learned. Other times, there seems to be a world of a difference between the two.

Most of the time, I am more or less convinced by the Biblical scholars (though not always!). I am inclined, for example, to take many of Jesus’ warnings of destruction and hellfire primarily as a prophetic announcement of judgment on Jerusalem, instead of individual postmortem torment, and to read most of His parables as stories about Israel. Yet much of this would be, if not anathema, at least suspect within evangelical churches. If you propose taking almost any Biblical text in a way which locates the primary meaning in a context or narrative which does not automatically include us, the modern readers, you are generally to be ignored and possibly rebuked (unless, of course, head coverings or Torah is involved). Why is this?

I propose the primary problem is the reader’s narcissism inherent in the popular slogan relevance. We generally want the Bible read in a way that directly addresses our wants, concerns, needs, and questions. This is especially the case within evangelicalism where we try so hard to help people live out their faith, and to attract the world to our message. However good such intentions may be, building relevance into the end-all be-all of Biblical interpretation and forcing the text to fulfill that goal does massive violence to Scripture as it has been given to us. It ultimately reflects an attitude in the reader of, “If it’s not about me, I don’t want to hear it.” So real scholarship, especially with a strong historical and contextual focus, is discouraged. This is, I submit, simply wrong, and should be repented of if we want to honor God’s word as He has provided it.

This even applies to the more high-minded theological readers who may think themselves immune to this tendency. Yet they can fall just as easily into the trap of desperately seeking theological relevance, expecting to find certain sets of questions and answers about theological concerns which they have but which the original authors and audiences may not have shared. This is no more or less legitimate than the fixation on practical relevance as the true hermenuetic.

Of course, the impulse for relevance is not altogether misguided. For “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If indeed this is the case, we should be able to find meaning for us in every text in Scripture. All Scripture is truly for us, but we can’t pretend that it is in the same way all to us. What we need is a robust way of letting Scripture be what it originally is while still appropriating the major messages for modern use. How should we do this?

Personally, I think a good solution would be a three stage process of reading Biblical texts. First, we examine the original context and meaning without any reservations, or any attempt to pre-shape it towards our relevance, without asking any questions of practice or theology which are not clearly included or implied in text or its surroundings. Second, we step back and consider the larger theological questions, address any concerns in relation to other Scripture, and in particular trace all themes to their center in Jesus Christ Himself, for He said, “these very Scriptures speak about me!” (John 5:39). Finally, with the original context and the theo/Christological weight in mind, we can make the final step into applying these themes for our life, worship, and service today. Usually, in my experience, once the hard work has been done on the first two steps, the third part arises easily and naturally.

This solution itself is not enough, though. While I think this method is good, to actually reform evangelicalism in this issue we have actually get this approach across to the average churchgoer. The vital next step would be training Christians and congregations precisely not to expect to find a Scripture’s original meaning and relevance as the same thing. Instead, it needs to be emphasized that Scripture is robustly historical, being God’s word first to the original audience, and only through the work of the Spirit in the present becomes for us as well. There is an actual gap between original meaning and relevance which must be filled with solid theology and a vision of Jesus Christ as the telos of all the Bible. This is what evangelicalism needs to learn as a whole, not just in the academic world, who mostly understands this (ish), but also in the pews.

Finally, at the heart level we must fight pride and self-centeredness. We cannot let relevance and our wish to “get something” out of the Bible interfere with addressing what God has actually spoken. In humility, we have to all remember that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is larger than us, and altogether not obligated to address every generation and people equally. This is proved by His coming in the flesh, which happened not in every generation among every people, but instead was restricted by grace to the nation of Israel 2000 years ago. If we can cope with God’s greatest self-revelation, His own Son, being historically separated from us, then surely we can understand that the witnessing texts of Scripture can likewise be so without robbing us.

So what do you think?