The Symphony of Scripture – Mark Strom

11 04 2008

This post is a continuation from my last post – There are a number of issues discussed in my post “Somethings wrong with this picture” and I’m tackling a few of them one by one.

I think I would be fair in saying that I am concerned with the levels of biblical illiteracy amongst Christians these days. Unfortunately this has left lots of people vulnerable to all manner of false teachings. Let me tell you where i’ve come from this matter. For so long i’ve seen scripture as isolated statements or ideas on how to live. Thats the way its been portrayed to me in the past. I was told to read a passage of scripture and have a good think about it, see how I could apply it to my life and then pray about it. Some of you might recognise this as the SOAP method of studying scripture. If we read this way we miss the Glory and Majesty of the Bible as one big story, and instead see it as a manual or handbook for life. (Believe it or not I’ve heard the bible described this way!).

But lately, with the help of some books and lectures I have attended, I’ve come to see scripture in a new light. Sometimes we hold the view that the bible dropped from heaven in this leather bound book form in King James English with all of Jesus’ words in Red text. Its a nice thought but completely insane. Its a book that is made up of lots of different books. Each of these books was written by real people. People who had agendas, and biases. Dont get me wrong, I believe scripture is divinely inspired, but I also believe that these biases and agendas are unavoidable.
Luke wanted to give an orderly account of all that had happened, John wanted people to believe in Jesus. Even the Old Ttestament covenants were patterned after political treaties of the day. The writers simply changed the names and places and inserted their own. (See Rob Bell – Velvet Elvis)
I’ve tried to hold off applying scripture to my life willy nilly and see it in its historical context first thus allowing scripture to speak for itself.  Especially with the Letters of Paul. These letters were written to specific groups of people to address specific problems that were going on at the time. We cant just apply something to our lives without understanding their historical and social context.

A great example is the books of 1 & 2 Corinthians. We need to understand the greater social structures and events of the time to make sense of what Paul wrote.

Corinth was a wealthy city, but the Romans destroyed it. The wealthy patrons fled the city and returned later when the city was being rebuilt by the Romans. The city was also being populated with freed men who had previously been slaves. So as you can imagine social hierarchies were starting to form quickly. These hierachies were based on rank and status. Rank meant the level of social standing you were born into. This could only be changed by legal decree or marriage.  Status was what you traded in to try and improve your rank. The philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Seneca were very influential on everyday life. Socrates said God may be able to forgive sins but he could not see how. Plato took his ideas on life further saying that all matter was inherently evil and that only spirit was good. In short, the idea of dualism was born. A split between what mattered and what didnt. The result was that people started to see the world around them as a corrupt copy of the perfect that actually didnt matter. If people wanted to understand the Divine they were told not to look at the world around them because at best it was 7 out of 10 copy of the perfect. Instead the world of ideas was where you could find perfection. Thats lead to the idea of “Food for the body and the body for food”. But even this school of thought when two ways. The Epicureans argued that if all matter is evil the body is to be shunned and disciplined. Others argued that if nothing you do on earth actually matters then do as you please. This applied to every facet of life, such as eating, sexuality, wealth, knowledge, marriage, business, and every other daily activity.
Some argued If matter is bad then those who work with it must be of the lowest social standing. So people who worked with their hands were shunned.

Everything in Corinthian culture was about improving your own social standing and never letting your guard down because someone else would try and use you to improve themselves.
The courts were not like our courts today. People used them to shame people in order to improve their social standing. The richest man usually bought his way out of law suits. People would use the courts to align themselves and gain support from others. E.g. By shaming someone who is the enemy of your desired business partner you may gain your prospective partners financial support. People often took on their partrons gods and practices in order to align themselves with them.

Marriage was a means of raising ones rank. Not always for love. They were like business transactions, Men were also allowed to have as many extra marital affairs as they wanted as this was expected as part of their rank. Women were not equal to men and were not allowed to travel anywhere on their own, and especially not evernight. There was also this idea of people who watched others in order to dob them in for something they did that went against the culture. This was why men did not allow their women to do anything shameful to the culture as this could be used against them in the courts.

Now couple these ideas with the establishment of the Federal Imperial Cult in Corinth, which is the worship of Caeser as a god. People would commonly say “Caeser is Lord”. People claimed Caeser was the saviour of the world, the one who brought peace to the empire. But they all knew that it was always peace at the end of the sword.

Now this is a small portion of the social picture of Corinth at the time Paul wrote to them. Go back and read 1 Corinthians. Does it start to make more sense now?
Divisions in the Church caused by people aligning themselves with certain people in order to improve their rank and status. Paul had to tell people that shaming their brothers in the courts was no longer acceptable, but they should work their differences out between themselves. Marriage was now two people becoming one, and not a means to raise ones rank. Can see how saying Jesus is Lord would be counter cultural, and could result in your death.

I can go on and on, but i think its probably worth getting Mark Strom’s book Symphony of Scripture and Reframing Paul. He explains things better than I can.

Ultimately my point is this:

We need to understand the historical & social context of scripture before we interpret. Most times the context will allow the scripture to speak for itself. We need an integrated approach to examining the bible that takes into account over arching meta-Narrative of scripture, that accounts for the historical and social perspective, and centres everything around the person of Jesus.

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