On interpretation and reinterpretation of the Bible

Society changes, but the Bible doesn’t. So how can the Bible have anything relevant to say that can guide our lives in this 21st century, interconnected, post-modern world? And if we just reinterpret it to suit our changing social context, what is the point?

The emphasis in the Bible is not on rules as such, but on principles. The only “rules” that apply to Christian life are things like the prophet Micah’s instruction: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Or Jesus’ summation of the entire Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

But here’s the problem: these broad, overarching instructions cannot readily be transferred to the kind of laws with which we are familiar. What does it mean to love your neighbour in a practical, day-to-day level? How does that same principle apply to global politics, or employee relations, or road rage? We need more nuanced detail.

In the Bible, that nuanced detail comes in the form of narrative, in Jesus’ parables and life, in Paul and the other epistle writers’ instructions to the early church.

However, all of these “example” texts are framed in an Ancient Near East context, which makes it hard to apply directly. Hence the need for reinterpretation in other times.

(As a further difficulty, many of the narratives serve as counter-examples, illustrating the tragic results of not living well and loving God above all else. Familiarity with the whole of Scripture generally makes it obvious which texts are counter-examples, but isolated passages can be misleading out of context).

What we should do when we “reinterpret” a Biblical text is consider the historical background, consider the literary and cultural context, and try to understand the underlying principle that the text is teaching us. And then, we try to place that same underlying principle in the context of our 21st century lives.

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