The Threat of Relevance

Came across these great insights from the late NT scholar Krister Stendahl.  They are too good not to pass along, and articulate exactly why I love to dig into the background and context of the text:

“Many of us read the Bible all on one level.  One reason for this may be that we are somewhat afraid that unless we do this, the word of God is not going to be relevant enough for us.  We do not have enough faith in the word of God really to allow it to speak for itself – so we hang on our own little relevancies, just as apples or other decorations are hung on a Christmas tree.

Actually, there is no greater threat to serious biblical studies than a forced demand for ‘relevance.’  We must have patience and faith enough to listen to and seek out the original’s meaning.  If this is not done, biblical study suffers and may, indeed, come up with false and faulty conclusions and interpretations.

This is a serious point for our topic (the Apostle Paul), because we have gone behind the hermeneutical to the exegetical level – behind today, behind Luther and Calvin, behind Augustine.  We have tried to see an original meaning – albeit an original meaning which proved by interpretation and reinterpretation to be significant at different points in history.  But when is it legitimate to read Paul’s words about justification or about, say, conscience in a truly Pauline mood, a mood which seeks to discover what was in the mind of the author rather than meanings for us today?  As an exegete, as a biblical scholar, I must be primarily concerned with the former question.

But as a theologian and pastor let me point out that we are not supposed continually to play “Bibleland” and dream ourselves back into a sort of Semitic mood.  That is not what God wants us to do.  But, we must first read the Bible to find original meanings and allow those meanings to correct our tendencies to read our own views into the original rather than letting the original stand and speak for itself.  Seek ye first the original meanings – and all these things shall be yours as well….

It is very important, for example, that when Paul speaks about the Jews, he really speaks about Jews, and not simply the fantasy Jews who stand as a symbol or as the prime example of a timeless legalism…

What has happened to Christianity is that instead of having free access to the original, we have lived in a sort of chain reaction – Augustine touching up Paul, and with Pelagius discussing and turning these things around, the medievalists pushing one way or another, and then further reactions, moving away from the original.  We must now take a fresh look at the original and try to make our own translation, learning from the older versions and from the Confessions, to be sure, but translating the text and not the translations.

The original is there, and I have tried to point to it.

The original is there, and to return to it is to be a true son or daughter of the Reformation.”

–From Krister Stendahl’s Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Fortress Press, 1977, Kindle Edition).

Great book, by the way, if you want some insight as to how we in the West often misunderstand Paul by reading him through the lens of the Reformation and a Lutheran/Calvinist introspection-obsessed perspective rather than through his first-century Jewish-Hellenistic context.

If you’re interested in these things – finding out more of what the Bible meant then so we can begin to grasp what it means now, and live in the TC area, feel free to join us Tuesday evenings for our Text-in-Depth gatherings.


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