Understanding authors

If I want to understand Mark Twain’s socio-political scruples as implied in The Prince and the Pauper, I probably won’t get much from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I’ve admired several of Frederick Buechner’s writings. If I want to dig into his life, I won’t get insight into the impact of his father’s suicide, which is detailed autobiographically in The Sacred Journey, by reading his fictional interpolation of Abraham and Isaac (Son of Laughter).

If I want to know who Horton is and why he hears a Who, I probably won’t find much help in the legend of the green eggs and ham. Sure, I get a little surface insight by reading another Geisel/Seuss work–something is clear about the author and his overall bent–but not much more than that.

Just wondering why we Christians are typically so careless with this type of thing. . . .

I mean, yeah, Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Timothy and was somehow divinely inspired to do so, but they’re different letters, written at different times, to different people, for different purposes.  Paul wrote them both, so, as with Seuss, we can get a general idea of his M.O. by reading two distinct letters, but one doesn’t help all that much to interpret the other.

This didn’t start out to be a plug, but I feel called to plug now. Two men whose spirits and intellects I respect greatly are working toward related Bible-reading goals. Gary Collier (http://www.CoffeeWithPaul.com and http://www.CoffeeWithPaul.com/aroma/index.html has embarked on a voyage of significant “instructive devotion” as he teaches how to read New Covenant scripture with careful attention to literary context (yes, with some Greek). Gary’s learning and gift with words, together with his insight into relationship, uniquely qualify him for this pastoral task.

Greg Fay is simultaneously writing a magnum companion-volume set on how to read the Bible. Yes, this type of thing has been done before, or so it would seem if you just look at the title. But I submit to you that if these books are published, the modern Christian world (and more) will have its best-ever methodologies for how to read scripture. I’ve been privileged to read the chapters as he writes them; I know both the wealth of content and the well-supported logic in the writing. Greg’s diagnosis is, essentially, that we read scripture verses sort of like “ink-blots,” isolating them from all context and imbuing them with meanings that sound good in Christianese but that are causing us to miss God’s original intent. The therapy for this malady is also prescribed by Dr. Greg.

If both Gary’s and Greg’s works are disseminated and utilized by as many people as they should touch, we could see a mass biblical intelligence boost that changes the face of Christendom. Wishful thinking, yes. But perhaps you would ask God to accomplish His purposes through these works, elevating the labors of these men’s minds and hands as they attempt to bolster God’s Kingdom?

To the sisters who sought recently to explain Romans 5 by appealing to 1 Corinthians 13 (or, further afield, to James or 2 Peter!): you are victims of a decades-old problem with the hermeneutical control tower that directs our scripture-reading flights. It’s not all your fault.

6 thoughts on “Understanding authors

  1. Evan 07/09/2009 / 10:12 am

    I would be very careful with the comparisons you are making here. You are comparing acts of fictional literature to a divinely inspired collection if divinely inspired writings. The entire point of reading the Bible in context is that you CAN link one letter/book to another and they hold each other up.

    Now I’m not sure about the specific discussion you’re referring to, but as far as one letter of Paul supporting another – that makes perfect sense to me. First, the time between them isn’t all that long. While they are written to different people, those letters were disseminated widely among the churches and Paul knew (and encouraged) that. As you read scripture you SHOULD be using it to understand…itself. If that makes sense. God allowed it all to be brought together for a reason, so I would say yes, when you read each letter is SHOULD help you interpret the others. Otherwise there’s no point to biblical context…

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  2. blcasey 07/10/2009 / 8:17 am

    I’m afraid you are subject to the sermonizing styles of preachers rather than to experience with sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics here, Evan. The relationship of, say, the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to Titus is a pittance compared to the internal witness of the language and context of one letter within itself. It’s not that they’re *un*related; it’s that there’s so much more to be gained from study within a single letter or book than from comparing isolated “inkblots” from one letter to those in another.

    The Bible should not be seen primarily as The Book; rather, it is a library. A God-ordained library, of course, but a collection of writings that are only loosely connected in terms of “telling the story” of God’s dealings with humankind. I think it’s more appropriate, therefore, to say that God’s writers were inspired than that the words themselves were inspired. The notion of “literal, verbal inspiration” gets pretty hairy.

    When one wants to understand Titus, she should read Titus, seek sources on Titus, look to information on where Titus was, what the situation was with Titus, and with Paul when and where he wrote Titus. Paul’s general use of Koine Greek might come next; therefore, a little connection to what Paul wrote to the Romans might be intriguing. Reference to James gets a little more tenuous, because it’s a different author with different style, purposes, audience, situation. Revelation? Mark? Almost nothing to do with Titus, except insofar as they all point to God and to the Christ. And just forget looking to Leviticus along with Romans 13 and 2 Tim. 2 and 1 Tim. 2, e.g., to elucidate the relationship of the Christian and civil government.

    What you say here seems to be a commonly held vantage point–of sincere, devoted disciples, that is. But more education is in order! And it’s precisely why I really hope lots of folks will end up reading Gary Collier’s and Greg Fay’s work on biblical interpretation. It’s not your fault, but you and thousands of others haven’t had opportunity to get into the best kind of biblical exegesis yet. I’ve only begun myself. But please reconsider your assertion about the “entire point of reading the Bible in context.” The context is not “the whole library.”

    Why not subscribe to CoffeeWithPaul.com? It’s free. It doesn’t get too biblically interpretive until the 9th or 10th installment, as I recall.

    Evan, we seem to disagree a good deal on some specifics. But please keep reading and responding. It helps me. And besides, we’re always brothers in belief in the divinity and grace of the Lord, in the primacy of His church, and in committed discipleship. The rest is just details.

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  3. Evan 07/10/2009 / 9:24 am

    “The rest if just details” – my friend, that is one of the reasons I love you so much. As long as we always remember that these minor details are never to divide us then I always love these discussions 🙂

    I’ll definitely look into CoffeeWithPaul, and I’m thrilled that Greg Fey is writing what sounds to be a very insightful book! Is this the same Greg Fey I knew many many years ago?

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  4. Evan 07/10/2009 / 9:47 am

    Hmmm…since I am unable to edit my previous comment to add this I guess I’ll just post another.

    Perhaps I misunderstood your original post. I completely agree that to best understand a particular letter you need to read the book…over and over and over. Then read about the history of the author, then the history of the person (or church) the letter was written to, then perhaps delve into the original language for word studies to better understand exactly what the author was trying to say (since we lose so VERY much in our English translations).

    That being said, I would also add that, while it would be foolish for me to say I have been untouched by sermons and study material, I would say that my opinion that the Bible supports itself and lends to internal linking comes more from my own study than anything else. I just finished teaching a 2 year “cover to cover” survey of the Bible with my college & career class, and I am constantly amazed at how everything links together. Want to see God’s redemptive plan for the ages? Check out the Feasts of the Lord in Leviticus 23 (this is an amazing study, by the way. 4 fulfilled, just 3 to go!). Want to see God’s love and jealousy for the Gentiles? Isaiah 56:6-7 and Matthew 21:13 line up perfectly. The connections are everywhere. But as I said, in re-reading your original post I’m beginning to think perhaps I misunderstood your original thoughts.

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    • blcasey 07/13/2009 / 8:47 am

      Evan, you’re a good brother. Having written my 7/10 reply a bit hastily, while on the road and preparing for an 8-hour drive, I worried all the way home that I’d been offensive. But I didn’t have your phone number with me. Anyway, thanks for taking it in the spirit intended.

      Greg Fay is indeed the same Greg you once knew. I’ve been in touch with him, and have asked him to write a reply at some point, between travels.

      I’m not really adequate to the task of going further on contextual reading of scripture. I’ll certainly grant you that in personal study, one sees the connections all through scripture. I didn’t mean to negate that. But I’m persuaded that most of Christendom needs to hone in more on specific context rather than drawing (sometimes faulty) conclusions based on shaky connections between indirectly connected passages from different biblical documents.

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  5. Greg Fay 07/16/2009 / 7:15 pm

    Hello, guys. Mind if I put in my two cents’ worth? And believe me, it’ll only be worth about two cents.

    I’ll start with a question: were writings/books of the Bible inspired when they were first written? Were they God-breathed and appropriate for communicating God’s messages to the original audiences for which they were written (without any of the other books of the Bible being around)? Of course, we would all say “Of course.” Doesn’t that say, then, that the meaning of the words and sentences were conditioned by the original historical and literary contexts to adequately supply God’s intended meanings? In other words, the original contexts and purposes controlled the meaning. When we read them and attempt to understand them today, doesn’t that mean that the original context (literary and historical) is the primary, if not the sole, molder-and-shaper of the meaning (in addition, of course, to the general meanings of words in the original culture and language)? Now, I certainly believe that one book of the Bible (and its verses) can shed light on the meaning of another book, from the standpoint that everything God says to us is true. Truth thus illuminates truth. On the other hand, how do we know how to use any particular portion of one book to “interpret” a particular portion of another? If we read and understand a whole book, then it may very well have insights that elucidate the character and messages of God from another place. I do not believe, however, that it’s safe to use any one particular verse or set of verses to interpret another without understanding them in the thought and purpose of their original book-level contexts. On what basis do you use one set of verses from one book to interpret a set of verses from another? The closer the books are in timeframe, issues, and authorship, the more likely they will shed light on each other. But, again, how do we know when to interpret what by what? Do we use a key word? What if it’s not the same word in Greek or Hebrew? And what if the culture and needs of the first audience are different? What if one author uses a word differently than another?

    I believe that God left intact and used the mental, emotional, and psychological uniqueness of each writer in the face of the challenges for which he inspired them. In fact, when you read the books in their original languages, the stylistic differences are immediately apparent. It’s relatively easy to read John in Greek; Paul is a little more tricky; Luke and Hebrews are quite difficult. Most of the Old Testament—as you know—is in Hebrew. How do we connect them? By what English translation?

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that I believe the original contexts of each book should always be the primary controlling influence over how we read any part of the Bible. Jumping around from text to text might land on some valid connections, but—on the other hand—it might take us far afield of the first writer’s intentions. I certainly believe in reading the whole Bible. But I believe in reading it book by book, and then comparing texts only after we’ve put-together the holistic picture and meaning of each book the best we can. I’m not trying to say that none of the verses from one book ever relate to verses from another. I’m just saying that we get things out of order when we don’t delve deeply into each book individually in an attempt to understand “God’s first conversations” with his people before we “interrupt” his thoughts with thoughts from elsewhere—each of which are divinely conditioned by their own circumstances .

    Well, I told you it wouldn’t be worth much. But that’s a thought or two I had in reaction to your conversation.

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