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The Bible is not a love letter to the individual


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#1 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 05:30 AM

The NT documents were originally aimed at a community, rather than individuals. Failing to recognise this just may cloud our reading of the NT. Tim Gombis notes:

The documents of the NT, with a few exceptions, are addressed to communities and not to individuals. Many of us know this and it may not be too shocking, but the significances of this reality must continue to transform how we envision Christian identity.

Nobody in the first century had a Bible. Most people in the first few Christian generations were illiterate and couldn’t have read their Bibles even if they had them. When Scripture was read, it was read to communities who listened to it. When NT letters were circulated and read, they were read aloud by individuals to communities.

Consider just one significant aspect of this. When communities heard, “Jesus said, ‘I say this to you…’,” groups of Jesus-followers gathered together looked around at each other and thought, “he’s saying that to us. We need to…” After hearing the Scriptures, they would begin to ask each other, “how are we going to follow these words of Jesus? What do you think we ought to do in light of what Jesus said?”

They did not conceive of being Christian as something that they did on their own when they left the church gathering. They did not consider their Christian discipleship as something separable from the community.

This makes sense when you think about it - we're a community of believers who are commanded to love one another, bear each others burdens and encourage each other towards the Kingdom. We're reminded of this each time we remember Christ at the memorial meeting and partake of the bread - we're one body of believers, not a group of individuals.

Grant Osborne rightly points out that:

...the final goal of hermeneutics is not systematic theology but the sermon. The actual purpose of Scripture is not explanation but exposition, not description but proclamation. God’s Word speaks to every generation, and the relationship between meaning and significance summarizes the hermeneutical task. It is not enough to recreate the original intended meaning of a passage. We must elucidate its significance for our day. Exposition means a Bible-based message, usually a series taking the congregation through a book like Isaiah or Romans. A topical message can be expository provided it asks, What does the Bible say about this issue? and then takes the congregation through what God’s Word says on that issue.

Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral : A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p 29

Gombis notes that modern evangelicalism appears to have missed the point that the NT was aimed at a community, not an individual, and attempts to frame the NT as an individual-centric text miss the original intent:

American evangelical Christian identity is completely shaped by individualism for a variety of really fascinating historical and cultural reasons. I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to pull people out of the mindset that considers the Bible as “God’s love letter to me.”

It will be left as an exercise to the reader to see how this spiritual narcissism has affected contemporary Christianity.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 Fortigurn

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 08:14 AM

This is an incredibly important point which I've only really come to appreciate in more depth over the last seven years.

#3 Richard

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 09:29 AM

I agree on the importance of understanding these things. The purpose of God begins with the principle of family which carries over into the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the congregation of Israel and finally the ecclesia. Individuals are focused on in Scripture but only because they represent the community. A spirit of our age is everyone wanting to do what is right in their own eyes and have their own individualistic religion, and organized religion is frowned upon.

#4 twoofseven

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 09:33 AM

Wow, this is really a great point, Ken. I have firsthand experience with this attitude, having grown up and been a part of the evangelical Christian church. It's all about "having a personal relationship with Jesus", and while the community aspect is there in a certain sense, it is outside of one's actual life as a Christian, which is "between you and God". This is clearly seen in the attitude toward the Memorial meeting, where taking the emblems is an intensly private time of personal communication with God and has nothing at all to do with the group being in unity, and of one mind.

#5 Fortigurn

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 12:11 PM

I agree on the importance of understanding these things. The purpose of God begins with the principle of family which carries over into the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the congregation of Israel and finally the ecclesia. Individuals are focused on in Scripture but only because they represent the community. A spirit of our age is everyone wanting to do what is right in their own eyes and have their own individualistic religion, and organized religion is frowned upon.


These are good points, but there are other important points to make as well. Too often our community's exposition of the New Testament does not take into account the fact that it was written to a community and distributed piecemeal.

#6 Richard

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 12:21 PM

Can you give examples?

#7 Mercia2

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 01:49 PM

The NT documents were originally aimed at a community, rather than individuals.


As a believer in God I see no reason why He would not take an intimate interest in His Word speaking to each and every believer through each and every generation. That is to say the NT in its existing form, by and large. When the Bible says Jesus comes to bring us into remembrance of His Word when we ask for the Holy Spirit etc. I do not excuse myself from reading this as a message to me by reasoning it was only (designed) to be said and read/acted upon by first century individuals.

If you believe in God, then there is no logical reason to deny the message attributed to Him could not and would not be preserved and (designed) to be personalised for each and every reader of each and every generation. If anyone can give me one logical reason why I should not believe that (as I have never heard one), than please inform me now....

.the final goal of hermeneutics is not systematic theology but the sermon. The actual purpose of Scripture is not explanation but exposition, not description but proclamation. God’s Word speaks to every generation, and the relationship between meaning and significance summarizes the hermeneutical task


I certainly agree with all that.

Edited by Mercia2, 13 June 2011 - 01:53 PM.

"If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” = "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" = "Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who maketh His angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire" Psalms (104:1) = "They saw what seemed to be flames of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them." Acts 2 - the secret is over, your ministering angel you need to be saved is the Holy Spirit.

Who Is the Holy Spirit?
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/20950-holy-spirit-mercia/

Mark Of The Beast - his Name is the charachter/image of the medievil popes (now modern man)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/4997-mark-of-the-beast/page__pid__439951__st__120#entry439951

Historicists - Dual Fulfillment (seven thunders = more literal warning)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/14248-historicists-revelation-has-a-dual-fulfillment/

#8 Richard

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 03:45 PM

The NT documents were originally aimed at a community, rather than individuals.


As a believer in God I see no reason why He would not take an intimate interest in His Word speaking to each and every believer through each and every generation.


So how does Acts 15, for instance, speak to you personally?

#9 Hudders

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 04:05 PM

I remember once I was reading a message board and a middle-aged lady made the statement that she didn't believe in the idea of 'going to church'. She said that the Bible spoke nothing of going to church and that spending time with fellow believers was not essential. 'Show me the verse that says this' she asked. I gave her the best answer I could, but I reckon my answer would be even more comprehensive with the help of the comments above. It really is a fundamental issue that is central to the entire teaching of the Bible. I especially like Richard's comment:

The purpose of God begins with the principle of family which carries over into the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the congregation of Israel and finally the ecclesia.


:good:

#10 Richard

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 04:14 PM

When you think about it just about every Bible story involves some sort of relationship conflict. I guess one could say "the answer is to avoid relationships" but I am not that's the message we're meant to get out of it!

#11 luke

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 04:16 PM

Thanks for this, Ken. I've been trying to read a bunch of things recently about the church because I think I can feel the negative influence of individualism in my own life.*

One of the books I read is called
Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion
(K. DeYoung & T Kluck. I thought it was good). I particularly mention that one because it gives a kind of balance to the next bit, which is from the same organised religion loving person (K. DeYoung. It's about a positive aspect of "individualism"):

It may have sounded prophetic at one point, but now it’s rather prosaic. Everyone knows (or is supposed to know) that individualism is bad. An emphasis on the individual—such a common theme in the West—has been blamed for a myriad of problems, everything from friendlessness to consumerism, from contemporary praise music to gated communities. And no doubt, individualism has its downside. For the church, it’s meant an aversion to authority, a reluctance to accept certain elements of covenant theology, and a community life that isn’t everything it could be. Problem duly noted.

But let us not forget that the reason for individualism in the West is, among other factors, because Christianity taught the West to prize the individual. After all, God did not start by making a community; he made a man, Adam. And he gave to that man dignity and worth as a creature made in the divine image. The individual matters because each individual matters to God.

There’s always a danger in the Christian life of dealing only with generalities. The temptation is to float in the fog of general truths and general promises instead of seeing with laser-sharpness the specificity of God’s truth and God’s promises. The truth is not just that all men are sinners; therefore we must be sinners too. The truth is I am a sinner and I sin, not general theoretical sins, but actual, condemnable, particular sins. Conversely, the promise of his love is more than a general blanketing of good will toward all people, like the t-shirt that says, “Jesus loves you. Then again, he loves everybody.” We need to know that God’s love does not rest upon us at the end of a syllogism. He loves us—loves me, loves you—specifically, particularly, uniquely, and individually.

Source.

Individualism is bad because it destroys or weakens the church; but it's also worth tempering a belief in the church with a health "individualism".



-------
* Any other recommendations? So far I've read:
- Jesus and His Church (N. Flew)
- Why we love the church (K. DeYoung & T. Kluck)
- Church: why bother? (P. Yancy)
- Going to Church: a user's guide (J. Pritchard)
- Stop dating the church (J. Harris)

Edited by luke, 13 June 2011 - 04:28 PM.


#12 Fortigurn

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 07:47 PM

Can you give examples?


Yes. When we interpret the New Testament we typically assume:

* All the ecclesias had all the books
* Everyone in the ecclesia was reading them

#13 Phil

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 08:33 PM

Hey Fort, that's not really an example, that's just repeating the problem ;)

I completely agree with you, and i know i've had the same reaction many times when hearing different talks. But right now i can't think of a particular moment when someone did it and it lead to a glaring error of exposition, and i'd love it if you could think of an example, if only to confirm my bias :P

#14 Fortigurn

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 08:41 PM

Hey Fort, that's not really an example, that's just repeating the problem ;)


It's an example of what I was talking about; unsound prior conclusions on which exposition is then based.

I completely agree with you, and i know i've had the same reaction many times when hearing different talks. But right now i can't think of a particular moment when someone did it and it lead to a glaring error of exposition, and i'd love it if you could think of an example, if only to confirm my bias :P


I'll see what I can do, but for a start any time we say 'Now we can only understand what Paul says here if we first go to three other passages in two other epistles', we're doing something wrong.

#15 Phil

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 09:37 PM

I'll see what I can do, but for a start any time we say 'Now we can only understand what Paul says here if we first go to three other passages in two other epistles', we're doing something wrong.

It's a good start. When i first started doing talks i had subconsciously inherited that kind of approach, that for a talk to be a good talk it had to weave an intricate tapestry of passages drawn from all over the shop. The reason i used that model was simple - i was just imitating the dominant technique i'd seen since day one.

The older i got the more i think i realised it was a fairly lazy approach, and probably misses a lot of the nuance. If a passage in Collosians is tricky, it might not necessarily help to go to Philippians, because that's not the letter that Paul wrote to the Colossians, which can and should be understood on it's own terms.

#16 Phil

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Posted 13 June 2011 - 09:53 PM

That's all a little bit off topic though. The article referenced at the start relates to one of many points which could be made about considering the nature of the literature, the author & the audience, the unmentioned context. Letters are by nature part of a conversation between parties which have a relationship which has to be defined in order to figure out what the letter is about, and the reasons why things are expressed the way that are. Every chat i have with my wife carries with it the baggage and context of a thousand past conversations, and the ways in which we use language are shaped by those experiences. And while epistles aren't exactly the same, i think the analogy probably goes some way to informing why some passages make so little sense without a whole bunch of effort.

By and large i think we're relatively good at that. Any study of an epistle will usually spend some time talking about "the background", which helps to establish a bunch of that context. And that's a pretty good nod to the genre. But then it's often quickly dispensed with, in favour of the assumption that every "you" means "us" or maybe "me", that every "us" means "us", and that every "I" also means "I", normally without stopping to think about whether or not that's reasonable...

I think it'd be healthier to maintain more distance from the text than that, and realise that applications to "we" and "i" can't be made automatically, but comes after we've figured out what Paul (or James or John or...) was saying, and why, to the Galatians (or Corinthians, Philippians, etc). Having established that, we can work out the general Christian principles and what it means for us.

#17 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 14 June 2011 - 03:19 AM

When you think about it just about every Bible story involves some sort of relationship conflict. I guess one could say "the answer is to avoid relationships" but I am not that's the message we're meant to get out of it!

Reading the NT epistles - particularly those that touch on relationship conflicts - while keeping in mind that members of the churches weren't reading their own individual copies but listening to them in a congregation puts an extra dimension to one's understanding of the message:

Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Php 4:1–4.

We may be separated by 2000 years and an honour-shame society that seems incomprehensible to us today, but I don't think one needs much imagination to imagine how Euodia and Syntyche felt during that public reading. Likewise, 1 Corinthians:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. 1 Co 1:10–17.

I'm not arguing that one achieved social cohesion via public shaming during the communal reading of the epistles, but it certainly is worth bearing in mind the impact hearing in public - as opposed to reading in private - the epistles of Paul had on the church. It also highlights the point I was making in my quotation from Grant Osborne's "Hermeneutical Spiral" - the ultimate point of Bible study is group exposition, be it Bible class or exhortation.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#18 Mercia2

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Posted 14 June 2011 - 04:06 PM

So how does Acts 15, for instance, speak to you personally?

Acts is the one book that doesn't.
"If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” = "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" = "Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who maketh His angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire" Psalms (104:1) = "They saw what seemed to be flames of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them." Acts 2 - the secret is over, your ministering angel you need to be saved is the Holy Spirit.

Who Is the Holy Spirit?
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/20950-holy-spirit-mercia/

Mark Of The Beast - his Name is the charachter/image of the medievil popes (now modern man)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/4997-mark-of-the-beast/page__pid__439951__st__120#entry439951

Historicists - Dual Fulfillment (seven thunders = more literal warning)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/14248-historicists-revelation-has-a-dual-fulfillment/

#19 Mercia2

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Posted 14 June 2011 - 04:12 PM

She said that the Bible spoke nothing of going to church and that spending time with fellow believers was not essential. 'Show me the verse that says this' she asked. I gave her the best answer I could, but I reckon my answer would be even more comprehensive with the help of the comments above.

That is the ideal and how it will be one day when all is perfect, which sadly is not today and in an organised form probably ever, short of a couple of centuries at most.
"If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” = "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" = "Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who maketh His angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire" Psalms (104:1) = "They saw what seemed to be flames of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them." Acts 2 - the secret is over, your ministering angel you need to be saved is the Holy Spirit.

Who Is the Holy Spirit?
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/20950-holy-spirit-mercia/

Mark Of The Beast - his Name is the charachter/image of the medievil popes (now modern man)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/4997-mark-of-the-beast/page__pid__439951__st__120#entry439951

Historicists - Dual Fulfillment (seven thunders = more literal warning)
http://www.btdf.org/forums/topic/14248-historicists-revelation-has-a-dual-fulfillment/

#20 daysha

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Posted 14 June 2011 - 11:27 PM

It seems to me then to be able to grow into the sort of character that God id looking for that we be in an ecclesia that promotes Godly things. If we find that we aren't in such an ecclesia, keep praying that God will provide. In the meantime, the person will likely just avoid contact with ecclesial events. It's tricky, but teaches patience.
Do all to the glory of God. Read His word prayerfully, think about it, meditate upon it and do.




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