audience, interpretation

I was reading an article in Churchman recently in which the author states that the Bible books of Genesis and Revelation are the cause of heated debates.[1]  A good debate may be a needed and very good thing.  However, the interpretation of these two books has caused a lot of stress and contention in the body of Christ.  Further, they have caused a great deal of tension (or “war”) between the secular and sacred world.

Today, we should ask if the stress and tension is needed.

The debate about Genesis falls squarely on the interpretation of the first set of chapters: literal 24 hour creation, theistic evolution, or something totally different (i.e. John Walton, Lost World of Genesis 1).  Depending on one’s interpretation of these texts and one’s view of modern cosmology there is a great chance for a heated debate to stir up.  Is macro-evolution contrary to scripture?  What does evolution suggest about human life, dignity, and spirituality?

The debate about Revelation hinges on the common interpretation that the book is a cryptic code about future events including the end of the world, the coming of Jesus, the fall of Satan, heaven and hell.  It seems that many in secular North America (and the church world) understand Revelation in a dispensational sort of way.  That is with a rapture, a tribulation, a millennium, and a releasing Satan from a sort of prison.   For more on this type of interpretation just tune in to any “end-times” Christian television show.

But the ugliness of these debates is unnecessary.  When we interpret scripture we must remember that the Bible (in its different parts) was not written to us.  It was written for us.[2]  This means that the Bible was originally written to a particular group of people in a particular time.  The more we can understand about those people and their time we can better understand what the different texts mean.  Then we can find the significance of this meaning for us today.

Genesis was written (very likely by Moses) to the ancient Israelites.  Was Moses’ intention to explain how the universe began?  Perhaps it was.  Regardless, we should be careful to interpret Genesis through the way the first readers understood Genesis.  The more we can understand those first readers and look for clues on how they interpreted Genesis the better we can find its meaning.  And the better we can find its meaning, the better we can apply its significance to us today.

Although Revelation is a prophetic and apocalyptic book of the Bible, it is still a letter (or epistle).  And because it is a letter it has an original audience.  Was the letter written by John to a first century church with hidden meanings that they never did figure out?  Perhaps it was.  Regardless, we should be sure that this is indeed how the early church understood (or misunderstood) the letter.  The better we can understand what it meant to the original audience the better we can interpret its significance for us today.

The point is that we must find the original meaning of these texts.  We should be careful to not read these texts from a modern point-of-view.  First, read the text like an ancient Israelite (Genesis) or a first century Christian (Revelation).  Doing this will help one find the meaning.  Second, find how that meaning is significant with our world today.

I suggest that if we practice this approach we will begin to snuff out the tiresome war between Creationism and Evolutionism.  We will also begin to understand Revelation in a more concrete way with significance not just in the future but also for the present.



[1] Melvin Tinker, “Clearing Away Conceptual Fog: Genesis, Creation and Evolution,” in Churchman, 2012 126/2: 103-114.

[2] Ibid.

toward better interpretation

by Mark Lafler time to read: 3 min
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