Scripture: Written for our Instruction Not just for our Information

In reading the Bible, it is important to have a frame of reference in which we place the text we are reading in order to understand the scripture.   Some argue that the plain reading of the text is always the literal reading of the text, but we need to keep in mind that biblical literalism is an interpretation of the scriptures.   However we decide to approach the scriptures – literally, critically, or spiritually – that is our method of interpretation and shapes what we see and how we read the text.  This is much in line with the old adage which says you have to believe in miracles in order to see a miracle – a miracle won’t bring you to belief, because if you don’t think miracles happen, even if one does you will interpret it in some other way .

The bible itself does not order us to read the text literally.  The literal reading of the text is a possible reading and sometimes the best reading of a text, but it is not the only possible way to read the text.  In contrast to a literal reading of the text, biblical scholars often rely on a historical-critical reading of the text, which is another interpretive method in which the reader attempts to discern what the original context of the scripture was and what the original author/editor of the text was thinking and trying to convey.  It actually is another form of literalism, but often comes to a very different conclusion about the text’s meaning than does pure literalism.

If we study the hermeneutic of the various New Testament writers in their use of and comments on the Old Testament (hermeneutic = the method of interpretation), we discover that the authors of the New Testament did not follow only a literal reading of the Old Testament, nor did they follow the norms of the historical-critical method in their use of or interpretation of the Old Testament.   Take for example St. Paul’s comments in Romans 15:3-4:

“For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

First St. Paul is making a moral exhortation to the Roman Christians about love – taking care of the other before yourself.  He then points to Jesus as the primary example of love, of one who did not please Himself, but did what was good for others first.  In this St. Paul is clearly contrasting love (which is always other oriented) and self love (which always places the “I” or “me” or “mine” before the other).  His commentary is moralism and he is trying to shape the attitude and behavior of his readers.

Second, St. Paul quotes from Psalm 69:9 as a scriptural reinforcement of the principle of love which he is promoting.  Paul takes a verse from Psalm 69 which in its own context has a particular reading and meaning and he uses the verse as if the words were said by Christ.  Psalm 69 is a lamentation of David as he speaks about his own life and situation and sorrows and problems.  One can read the Psalm literally and historical-critically and have them make perfect sense without reference to Christ.  However Psalm 69 is frequently quoted throughout the New Testament and is used as one of the prophetic psalms of the suffering servant of God.  It is used in the New Testament as a prophecy about and testimony to the Messiah.  The Psalm is interpreted as applying not to David but to the Lord’s Christ.  This is a Christological interpretation of the Psalm.  The verse is not being taken out of context, as many modern scholars might argue, for I think St. Paul uses the verse because he wants the reader to call to mind the entire Psalm.  He is not proof text, but rather using a verse to call to mind a large context.   By referring the verse to Christ, he is referring the entire Psalm to Christ – to interpret the Psalm and to reveal the Christ.

Third, St. Paul then describes his hermeneutic – his interpretive principle in vs. 4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”   St. Paul is saying that it is not the literal meaning of the text nor its historical-critical meaning which are most important.  The ancient texts “were written for our instruction” – not mostly to record a factual history, but to shape our understanding of the present – “that we might have hope.”   The ancient scriptures were written to encourage us through our present problems and situation.  Additionally the texts were written not merely to inform us, but more to form us: not mere information, but formation and even transformation.   This of course does not deny the literal or historical meaning of the text, but only and rather says that the text has a more important meaning for us than a mere literal reading of the text can give us.  And that meaning both reveals Christ to us and is revealed by Christ to us.  David in writing Psalm 69 does not tell us the text is really about the Messiah and not about himself.  But applying the text to Christ becomes the interpretive principle which guides St. Paul.

Once again it brings to mind Christ’s own words in John John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Reading the Bible, which is an essential part of being a Christian, of being a disciple of Christ, requires us to be able to read the scriptures, to see them with apostolic eyes, and to have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). 

See also my Reading the Old Testament to Reveal the Truth

The Change that can Change Politics as Usual

I don’t know if it has always been a theme in U.S. political campaigns, but over the last 30 years or so, “change” has been a major theme and promise in presidential campaigns.   This year both the Republican and Decomocratic presidential nominees are running on the theme of change

It is somewhat amazing that for all those who went into office promising change, how much things have remained the same.  Take for example a line from GOP Presidential Candidate John McCain’s acceptance speech:

“Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second crowd: Change is coming.”

I think his message is a welcomed one, but I would also point out that every election the candidates are always promising to bring change to Washington.  Some things never change.  Candidates promising change is one of them, and so is the fact that apparently Washington is pretty resistant to change.  Despite all of those senators, congressman and presidents elected on the promise of bringing change to Washington, the next election will simply bring out more candidate promising to change Washington. 

Maybe the reality of the swing voters, the independents and the undecideds is that they don’t switch back and forth between the Democratic and Republican candidates because they change their hearts to favor the Democratic or Republican ideologies,  perhaps they simply get tired of the “in power” party’s inability to solve American problems or to accomplish anything.  We move from one form of gridilock to the other.  What changes is which political party is in power and is able to blame the other party for the lack of solutions.   This never changes.

Party faithful think their party’s ideology can solve the nation’s problems and they are uncompromising in pushing their own agenda.  What this looks like is either the two parties pulling on an issue in opposite directions, or the two parties pushing against each other with equal force.  Neither scenario is likely to bring change.

The middle group of Americans – the undecideds, the independents, the swing voters – want change, solution, accomplishments and do not care much about which ideology can push its agenda through.   Generally this middle group doesn’t vote based on ideology but when the in power party doesn’t deliver on its promises to bring change and solutions to Washington, they simply look to the other party in the hope that they will be able to bring about the desired change.

Many voters in this middle group are skeptical if not out right cynical of the party rhetoric and promises, as they know the party’s really will say whatever they think will get their candidates elected.

You can watch a clip of Comedy Central’s Daily Show as a perfect example of why people become cynical of what politicians and campaigns say:

This clip is looking at a few Republican comments on the election, but it reveals the hypocrisy involved in campaigns.  Hypocrisy, being two faced, speaking with a forked tongue, are equally the practices of both major political parties.   And it is certainly why I recommend to people to turn their radios and TVs to a different station or completely off every time a political ad comes on.   These ads are all designed to manipulate and confuse you, not to inform you.  I still recommend that if you want to know something about the candidates check out the Saddleback Civil Forum of Rick Warren.  Or if you can’t live without your television, watch only the candidate’s speeches, but never the commentary on them.  Campaigns are run by people whose job it is not only to spin the news, but to make your heads spin too.  Too often they try to manipulate your fears. 

We know changing Washington is difficult, but maybe we can change the campaigns by not paying any attention to their advertisements and spin.  The campaigns spend tens of millions of dollars on media advertising because they know it works.  You however can see through their campaigns and manipulations if you want to keep your head on straight.  When I was a teen, I worked as a ground’s keeper.  One of the senior citizens who worked on a property next door to where I was employed, was a good Republican.  But during election campaigns, he always told me he put his TV on his front lawn because the ads were great for fertilizing the lawn.  The election cynic knows manure spreaders aren’t limited to farms – most Americans have them in their homes.

Despite my cynicism about campaigns, I strongly encourage people to vote and to be an informed voter.  Know what you believe and value for your country and yourself, and know what you hope and dream for the world.   And then with that clear vision, cut through the dense smoke and dark haze of the campaign battle, and go to the polls and vote.