(Scroll down to leave a comment on how the maddening global spread of Christianity has affected you.)
A back-stage tour
At the beginning of this year, dear reader, I would like to invite you to come backstage with me and take a tour of the ideas that sit behind the “There and Back Again” columns.
As you may have guessed, my administrative work at Trinity International University – Florida grows out of a concern for the well-being of the church. I firmly believe in Christian higher education, as you can read in the September 2021 edition of Good News. My commitment to the family of God begins in the classroom where I have been teaching New Testament, biblical interpretation (aka “hermeneutics”) and studies in the Greco-Roman world since the early 80s. The question that haunts me is how the gospel of Christ moved out from the confines in Galilee to the wider world and was communicated faithfully in non-Jewish environments. I count the apostles Peter and Paul as my heroes and models as they brought the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection throughout the Roman Empire and contextualized its saving message for Greeks, Latins, Macedonians and those so-called “barbarians.”
Another field of interest is the meteoric rise of Christian reflection emerging from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceana and Indigenous Communities. Most of the church lives outside the North Atlantic region and our brothers and sisters in the Majority World are members of churches that are, in the words of the Cuban American theologian Justo González, “self-theologizing.” They read Scripture from within their respective contexts and offer us fresh visions of the gospel of Christ. González and others call this a “macroreformation” or “New Reformation.”
Characteristic to this global movement is a commitment to be faithful to the message of the gospel but also to contextualize its message within their own varied contexts. They start with questions generated from within their cultures and enter a dialog with Scripture, listening for what God says to their social world and lives.
Our sisters and brothers in the Majority World are on the same journey as the apostles Peter and Paul. And we are on the road with them, seeking to “faithfully interpret and relevantly apply Scripture,” as the late Dr. John Stott often said.
The horizon of the biblical authors and first readers
Biblical interpretation entails listening carefully to the biblical authors within their own contexts, something called exegesis. It ain’t easy! Exegesis is a cross cultural journey since we are reading conversations that were going on thousands of years ago, in other places, within very different cultural matrices than our own, and in other languages. It is not simply a matter of mastering biblical languages; the process entails understanding the history and social structures of the peoples to whom the biblical authors wrote.
Good contemporary commentaries serve as guides for this journey as they grapple with the way the biblical authors engaged their cultures with the gospels (have a look at the bibliographies on the Old Testament and New Testament published yearly by Denver Seminary). You have to read Plutarch along with Paul, Musonius Rufus along with Peter. The apostles constantly engaged the issues of their day. Have a close look at the way Paul took down the Stoics and the Epicureans in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). It’s lucha libre right there in the agora and before the Areopagus! Watch for my ringside commentary on this fight in a future column.
The horizon of contemporary readers
But the other side of the interpretive (hermeneutical!) coin is contextualization. How do we do as they did? How do we go there and now come back again? In my work with Majority World biblical interpreters and theologians, I have heard over and again their deep appreciation for the interpretive heritage they received from Western Christianity. But they also realize that they have a different set of questions and perspectives that drive them to read Scripture in fresh and exciting ways, culturally relevant ways. How does the gospel speak into situations of grinding poverty juxtaposed with extravagant wealth? What’s God’s message to peoples living in a society committed to polytheism? How does Jesus connect with the scheduled caste, the Dalit, in India? They begin with the pressing questions of their day, their society, and find that the gospel is truly Good News for them. It’s about contextualization all the way down.
In these columns I have sought to follow the lead of the apostles and our brothers and sisters in the global South and East. They all read their contexts well as they enter into dialog with Scripture; we need to do the same. You might want to read these columns from the bottom up. The pressing questions of the day, our day, are there in the last paragraphs.
The “hermeneutical circle”
The “hermeneutical circle,” as it is called, takes us on a fascinating and essential journey as we read Scripture through the lens of the first readers and hearers of these texts and as we read together with the church through history, around the globe and from within our contexts. What about the pandemic, politics, family structures, economics, racial issues, healthcare – how do we faithfully contextualize the gospel in our day? It’s a journey that starts right here, in our community, on our streets, as we travel “There and Back Again.”
Dr. Gene L. Green is the Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida
Read last month’s article by Dr. Gene L. Green at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/phoebe-and-the-sisters/