Is there anything for us in someone else’s mail?

Andrew Perriman addresses this issue of audience relevance on his blog today. The post is a response to a passage from a book whose author cautions against the impression Christians have when studying historical criticism that “the ancient text does not address them, but only addresses the ancient community.” Says Billings,

On this issue, Christian interpreters need to be clear that we read as part of the one people of God; we are not reading “other people’s mail. When Christians analyze the text, its history, and background, we should not assume that the historical gap between our contemporary horizon and the ancient one is a great canyon to be bridged by clever analogies or parallels. In a very real sense, this gap is bridged by the Spirit—the same Spirit who unites together God’s people culture and time. The books of the Bible are not just “addressed to” ancient Israel or the early church. Through Scripture, the Spirit addresses all of God’s people, not just the original hearers.

Perriman acknowledges the potential for a feeling of disconnect between the original audience and modern readers when we insist on recovering historical context and authorial intent. I have certainly felt this myself at times and have also on these grounds experienced some pushback from other people for my contextual re-centering of various passages. But Perriman rightfully rejects that the misgivings Billings mentions are worth sacrificing historical contextualization for, particularly if this is done by way of relying on “the Spirit” as a “reliable hermeneutical principle”:

What checks, if any, do we have on interpretations inspired or guided by the Spirit? We might refer to interpretive tradition, and I suspect that Billings has this confidence in the power of the Spirit to speak directly to the church through the scripture because he trusts the Reformed-evangelical tradition of which he is part. But then ‘Spirit’ has just become another word for ‘interpretive tradition’. Otherwise, we are likely to resort to something like historical-criticism to check the subjective readings generated by the Spirit, in which case we are back at square one.

He also identifies what is tragically sacrificed when minimizing historical context in favor of personal application and diagnoses the source of this unfortunate desire:

This sort of reaction creates an unnecessary and unhealthy fear of historical distance – and indeed of history. We have a deep cultural need for contemporaneity and immediacy, and I suspect that this is reflected in our insistence on a contemporary and immediate and personally relevant text. I would suggest that in order to recover scripture as a resource for the future of the people of God, we need to gain a new respect for its historicality.

These concerns are at the heart of my rejection of that particular type of Christocentric reading which I have detailed on this blog. For more, read his whole post, “How does God speak to us through an ancient text?

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