Re-thinking “biblical principle”

I teach a subject called Introduction to Biblical Interpretation this semester. Last week we had a fantastic class discussion. Our textbook proposes that we should derive a timeless principle from a biblical text; and it has to be a principle that is not culturally bound. Once we have identified a principle, we can apply it in our own context today.

I think that this way of studying the Scripture is useful. Indeed I like our textbook, and I believe that there are timeless truths in the Bible (e.g. “God is faithful”). But I question whether a timeless and non-culturally-bound “principle” can be derived from every passage in the Bible. Indeed, I think the word “principle” is often understood as some kind of “formula” in our culture today, and I am concerned when Christians think that the Scripture consists of set of simple formulas for living.

I suggest that we try to determine the principles and values in the text, and bear in mind that sometimes a particular passage may not have any satisfactory principle or value (because, for example, the selected passage is one of those that is heavily dependent on its wider context).

In our class discussion we discovered that the meaning of a biblical text is not, in most instances, independent of its literary and socio-historical contexts. Although we can derive some principles or values from a given text, we must bear in mind that they are ultimately connected to its original context to some degree. This is not to say that we should not try to find any biblical principles, but that we need to be careful when we do so.

I suggest that Bible interpretation is an organic and dynamic process. In this process we immerse ourselves in the biblical text, allow it to speak on its own terms within its original contexts and in our own contexts today. Throughout this process we adopt a posture of listening to God’s address, and invite the Holy Spirit to speak to us. We enter the text, and let it transform our lives through God’s life-giving Spirit.

Many of us have seen the movie Les Misérables (2012), and have been impressed by Anne Hathway’s performance. No doubt the suffering of Fontaine has moved many of us to tears. But note that few of us in Australia today have experienced the type of socioeconomic hardship that Fontaine endured, for her suffering had much to do with the poverty and social oppression that existed in France in the eighteenth century. Yet we are profoundly impacted by Fontaine’s plight. The reason is not only that Hathaway’s performance is superb, but also that we have entered into Fontaine’s life despite the social and historical gap between Fontaine and us.

I think reading the Scripture is something like that. If we enter into the biblical narratives and immerse ourselves in them, we can’t help but being profoundly impacted by the stories — ie. God’s stories — in the Scripture.

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2 thoughts on “Re-thinking “biblical principle”

  1. One thing that I really appreciated from class was the idea that when you keep reading God’s Word you will naturally engage with the historical and cultural context of the time. It means that whilst commentaries are helpful, I am encouraged to let scripture explain scripture as well.

    • Appreciate your comment, J. Ang. Indeed, in the process of reading and re-reading, we come to a better understanding of Scripture, and along the way we find ourselves allowing the Scripture to interpret itself.

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