Christians take the Bible seriously, which since it is their Holy Book is a good thing. Just how seriously is reflected in the Statements of Faith which various Denominations, Colleges, Organizations, and Churches have written. This excerpt from Houghton College’s Doctrinal Statement is a good example, “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are fully inspired of God and inerrant in the original writings, and that they are of supreme and final authority for faith and practice.” (1)
Notice that it says that the Bible is our “supreme and final authority for faith and practice.” This brings up a big question too many people never ask. Since Christians disagree on so many things, what or where is that authority? My answer is that the authority is in the text as originally written. That means the authority lies in the text as communicated to its original audience. To find that authority we have to get into the mindset of the human author and recipient. Only after we complete that difficult task can we tackle the task of interpreting and applying it to our times today. If we impose our concerns, questions, culture, views and even beliefs on the text we are not doing that and drift away from the authoritative text.
This is actually a common occurrence because it is a natural way that people think. One example of this kind of thinking is called Ethnocentrism. Southern Nazarene University describes it this way, “Ethnocentrism leads us to make false assumptions about cultural differences. We are ethnocentric when we use our cultural norms to make generalizations about other peoples' cultures and customs. Such generalizations -- often made without a conscious awareness that we've used our culture as a universal yardstick -- can be way off base and cause us to misjudge other peoples. Ethnocentrism can lead to cultural misinterpretation and it often distorts communication between human beings.” (2) Whenever we study the Bible we are going into another culture - whether it is ancient Israelite, first century Roman, or any culture in between. Therefore, if we are to find the authoritative text, ethnocentrism is a danger we need to be on guard against as we go into the original text’s culture.
A second aspect of this is a similar tendency people have when looking at another time. This is called “Presentism.” Dr. Carol L. Meyers describes it as “the phenomenon in which perspectives and ideas that we take for granted in today’s world affect how we understand the past. We tend to read the present into the past anachronistically, which can lead to misunderstanding the past.” (3) Even professional archaeologists experience this as Mike Parker Pearson PhD. admitted. Describing the life during the Bronze and Iron age on Barra, Outer Hebrides he said, “When I first came here my idea of what the Hebrides was going to be like in prehistory was a few people clinging to a rock trying not to be swept into the sea. And over the years I think, just my whole perception has changed when I realized that they led a very comfortable life, that they were doing nicely thank you.” (4) Dr. John Walton discusses this in connection with Genesis 1 in the lecture linked below. Like ethnocentrism this can take conscious effort both to overcome and then to get to what is really going on in the text.
There is a third factor to keep in mind as we seek the authoritative text. That is the fact that the Bible spans different eras and cultures. Each of which influence the physical aspects of the people’s lives and their mindsets, and those impact what was recorded in the text. Two examples are the “Ancient” and “Classical” eras. Genesis is a good example of the Ancient era. The Classical era started in the inter-testamental period with the impact of Hellenistic thought / culture and in the time of the New Testament was further influenced by Imperial Rome. To us today they all seem ancient and we could be tempted to lump them all together which would be a big mistake. Carol L. Meyers PhD makes this point referring to her work on Eve and women in ancient Israel, “Looking at these and other studies, it became clear to me that the negative images of Eve that persist until today can be traced to ancient sources beginning in the Greco-Roman world. Those images were influenced by ideas about women that were current in the Greco-Roman times but not in Iron Age Israel.” (5)
All of this involves hard work, an open mind, and critical thinking. Those aspects of the task might explain why so many do not follow through on it. However, the shortcuts - while easier and often reassuring to our preconceived notions - all too often lead to real trouble and potentially spiritual danger. The pursuit of the authoritative text is worth all the time, effort, and pain we put into it.
In referring to Genesis 1 and 2, Dr. John Walton had this answer to a question about his lecture.
It is certainly possible that God can have meanings beyond what he said to the Israelites. But, my question is,“I want the authoritative text of Scripture.” I don’t want just things that might happen to be true about how we think about science, and the Bible, and the world today. If God had meaning that he did not give to those authors, where do we get it? You might say, “Well we can deduce and perceive truth” – that is not authoritative text. I want to know what the authoritative claims of Scripture are. Now those authoritative claims are what drive our understanding of this conversation between science and Scripture. There are plenty of compatible truths and God may well have had us in mind and anticipated that we would see connections. Connections is not authority, and I think we have to make sure that we see that distinction. (6)
To seek out this authoritative text takes work. A great deal of that work is learning about and understanding the culture, mindset, and situation of both the author and recipients. That includes discerning what questions they would bring to the text and issue at hand. Notice, I said their questions, mindset, culture, and situation, not ours! As difficult as acquiring that knowledge is, perhaps a far more difficult task is putting aside our questions and preconceived notions. Those often reside below the conscious level and are very deeply rooted.
Dr. Walton does a great job of demonstrating this process in his lecture on Genesis 1 titled Origins Today: Genesis through Ancient Eyes with John Walton (7) This lecture is an hour and a half long and is well worth the time you will invest in listening to it. No matter whether you agree with his conclusions or not, pay close attention to the process. This process is one I was introduced to in college, shown again in grad school, and used ever since. While it is sometimes unsettling it has always been very profitable.
Notes: 1 - http://www.houghton.edu/spiritual-life/doctrinal-statement/
2 - http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/ethno.htm Southern Nazarene University
3 - Carol L. Meyers PhD, Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2014, “Eves” of Everyday Ancient Israel, p.66
4 - Mike Parker Pearson PhD, Time Team S15-E05 – Bodies in the Dunes, Outer Hebrides, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkf0iAwByjA at the 47:22 mark, this is my transcript of his comment
5 - Carol L. Meyers PhD, Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2014, “Eves” of Everyday Ancient Israel, p. 54
6 - Understanding Genesis 1-3 - John Walton and Joe Fleener - Questions and Responses. Held at Laidlaw's Auckland campus on 17 July 2013, starting at about the 0:47 mark,http://youtu.be/_gbWyNyxLuE this is my transcript of his comment.
7 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR82a-iueWw&index=3&list=PLBaF_mDFFJuFfdNROE-w2-e5VEfE9VZOJ