A critical method of interpreting scripture is extremely valuable in determine the true context of the doctrine, idea, or moral-of-the-story being revealed. As the brilliant meta-physician John Immel reminds us, asking three simple questions prior to any study of scripture, even if it be merely a cursory reading of a verse or passage, is a great way to illuminate the author’s particular historical context; and this is a great start to rightly dividing the truth of biblical revelation. The truth, of course, being the absolute premise of God, which must, in order to be TRUTH, transcend cultures and contexts. But the vehicle of the TRUTH is man, and man, being limited, must live within the confines of a physical, historical bordered existence, and thus the TRUTH will always be found beneath the existential realities of the time; and these must be divided so that the truth can be revealed clear, unfettered, and useful.
The three questions John recommends we ask ourselves…or rather, ask of scripture, are:
Who is speaking?
Who is the audience?
What is the context?
I know of no better nor simpler way to start a reading of the bible. Ignoring, of course, the presumptive neo-Calvinist answers to these questions,which I will summarize as follows:
God is speaking (because “inspiration” in neo-reformed land = verbatim dictation, circumventing the culture, context, perspective and even physical and cognitive SELF of the author so that there is absolutely no metaphysical distinction between the writer of the text and God Himself; and therefore, there can be no metaphysical distinction between God and the Bible…welcome to the fourth person of the “Trinity”. Hello idolatry).
The audience is whomever, anywhere, at any time, in any culture, context, or society. Or, the audience is no one at all. For the bible, being as perfect as God—which means BEING God—needs no audience for its truths to be revealed as perfect and perfectly efficacious, whether there is anyone to actually apply them or not. Hmm…this is a rational, spiritual, and philosophical contradiction in terms. But, that is of course the foundation of all reformed “logic”. Nothing makes sense, because if it did, then regular people could grasp it. And God is not really going to reveal good and pure truth to those who are totally depraved…what a redundancy. The totally depraved cannot grasp good and pure truth at all. That is the whole damned Calvinist point, is it not? So, the point is that the audience is irrelevant. The bible isn’t for you; it is only applicable to you because your pastor-in-the-stead tells you how. Because he has been divinely chosen to lord over you…somehow, mysteriously, escaping the logical effects of human total depravity. “Total” being a theoretical absolute and thus no man can escape its boundaries, because it has none…so truly the fact that your neo-Cal pastor can apprehend the bible is a miracle of God. Shudder and bow before him, you foolish, wicked barbarians.
The bible is infallible, therefore there is no context. Since the words are God’s words verbatim (that’s why the church always capitalizes the W in “God’s Word”…there is NO difference between the Word of God and God, is the point…sneaky, yes…and blasphemous) there can be no earthly context to them. Again, “infallible” is a theoretical absolute. It is infinite. It has no boundaries. If we attempt to declare there is any context with respect to the historicity of the life of the author we deny that it is absolutely infallible. The bible can have no context. That way, when you decide you do not agree with your Calvinist pastor’s interpretation of a certain passage of scripture, you can rest assure that you are forever and safely wrong. Wholly. Categorically. Totally depraved WRONG. YOUR opinion….YOUR ideas…YOUR interpretation…YOUR brain, your conscience, your body, your life, your family, your perspective, your struggles, your genetic or childhood-born proclivities are ALL contexts which can never confine scripture. Whether it is true in tandem with you or in spite of you, it is true nonetheless. It is always true, regardless of anything in this world or any consequences simply because it IS. And the only fitting context for an absolute theoretical construct like “infallibility” is a likewise absolute theoretical construct like “the local church”; or the “local body of believers”; which really means the “collective.”
Which really means rank Marxist ideology. Communism with a capital C. Or…three Cs, like, say, CCCP.
So, John’s questions are a great way to discern between that which is likely a function of historical context, and what is the generation-transcendent point of the thing.
But that is merely part of the equation, for as far as I can tell, wholly efficacious application of philosophical “truth” (which is what Christianity is…a philosophical perspective) is going to be, for the most part, subjective regardless of how accurately we assess historical bias in the bible. The fact is that man is so contextually different from others even within the exact same time and place and culture and society that it is almost, I think, impossible to objectively quantify how a biblical truth will “look”…or, rather, what tangible effects can really be observed from a third-party perspective. For life, for consciousness IS relative, really. I’m not speaking of “moral relativity”; what I mean is that because individual consciousnesses are in fact, just that– individual–how a application of truth is always going to be only RELATIVELY true, never directly true, because direct truth is a function of a single entity or object…truth that is NOT integrated perfectly, part of the exact same physical thing, can never be anything but relatively true. For example, how an overworked suburban IBM pack-mule working from home applies the command “love your neighbor” may be different than an overworked rural Vietnamese rain-forest tribal leader and silkworm harvester applies “love your neighbor”. LOVE, while an absolute truth can certainly be observed differently in different cultural contexts, for example. And it almost always will.
Incidentally, I believe this is why we are commanded to not judge. For we can only judge from a relative standpoint. Since we cannot BE the other person, we must be extremely careful before we condemn another, or accuse them of sin merely because their application of a biblical truth LOOKS different than yours.
And with that said, as far as I can tell, the Holy Spirit Himself is the ONLY One who can qualify as the consistent arbiter between the application of truth in human contexts; be it the historical contexts of bible authors of two thousand years ago and the modern context of those of us in Obama’s America, or be it the separate life contexts of two individuals existing as contemporaries in the same society. And this means that religion is first and foremost individual, NOT collective. Our relationship with our God is first and foremost personal; between individual YOU and God. Relationships outside of that are purely relative. The only real connection is between you alone and your God alone. His truth will be revealed perfectly for YOU; and as such it cannot–if we concede that people are separate and different and exist apart from one another–…yes it cannot ever be revealed perfect for someone else in the exact same way. For this is the root, core, and only rational metaphysic available. If you concede that your consciousness is your own, you must concede that your relationship with God is personal. It cannot be collective, and it cannot be like anyone else’s. It is your job to commune with your God in a way that is most suitable for you; your comfort and your happiness, because only through your comfort and your happiness; your peace and your abundant life can the TRUTH of God be properly revealed. If TRUTH runs contrary to YOU; if it is measured by your pain, sacrifice, torment and destruction, it is not true at all. The purpose of your life is to LIVE, and only YOU can live it. You cannot live it by denying YOU. (Those verses of “deny yourself” do not mean DESTROY yourself. They mean: reject what you have previously accepted in favor of being “free indeed”. Do not let the Calvinist despots twist scripture so that it becomes the stocks to you; they love to do that.)
Obviously, this leaves a lot of room for “license”. A word that reformed tyrants and overlords despise. Remember, if you are actually allowed to be YOU, and to follow YOUR ideas and joys and life, then they lose power. And power is the only rationally arguable purpose for doing what they do. They may have other reasons, but none of them make any logical sense. Any other reason is either explicitly or implicitly denied by their doctrine.
The point of no longer being bound to a “law” by which you are set apart as “good” and the true freedom of Christ which declares that you are now morally perfect–because your perfection is a function of your root physical being as a creature of God–is that you are free to pursue and do whatever you want in this life without fear of condemnation or punishment, restraint or harsh rebuke. (Now, when I say “whatever you want”, this is not license for psychopathy; obviously you may not harm your neighbor, either his mind, property or physical person…for if you concede that YOU are morally perfect in Christ and thus privileged with the gift of a life to own, then you must concede that life is the property and perfection of everyone else; a violation of which is a rejection of God, Himself…so, be careful not to “hear what I’m not saying”. ) For no one can objectively judge you, again, because the truth of Christ is relative to YOU, and you are the sum of your own truth. No one else gets to define how and where and when the Spirit’s counsel moves you or how it is revealed in your life; and no one—and I mean NO ONE—gets to deny that YOU are YOU. Not even God does that. God treads lightly with His children. They are free to be THEM, and that is precisely why the message of Christ is such a joy (or should be). You now can live and enjoy living without fear of losing that life which God gave you to be used just for that purpose: pleasure, love, joy, peace, in a covenant of protection and love from yourMaker. Without fear; without torment. Without punishment. Without some mystic throwback to pagan gnostic shamanism demanding you forfeit your soul to his “stead”, obligate your time and property to his business (the local church) and become the collective as William Turner’s father became the Flying Dutchman (“part of the crew, part of the ship”) in Pirates of the Caribbean.
For in Christ, all things about you are GOOD. And despite what the neo-Calvinist despots think or preach or believe, and no matter how many catechisms they write or edicts they proclaim or popes they elect, this means that you are free to be you. And NO ONE has any rational argument whatsoever for condemning you.
This is good news. THE good news.