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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

We should look for the ‘core,’ or the transcultural principle in the text. This is important so we keep the emphasis on Christ’s gospel and do not become legalists on details like some of Jesus’ enemies were.

The two texts about silence probably do not address all kinds of silence, but deal with special kinds of situations. The only kind of speech specifically addressed in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is asking questions (14:35). It was common for people to interrupt teachers and lecturers with questions in Jewish and Greek cultures alike; but it was rude for unlearned people to do so, and they might have considered it especially rude for unlearned women. Keep in mind that women were usually much less educated than men; in Jewish culture, in fact, boys were taught to recite God’s law but girls almost never received this education. As to 1 Timothy 2:11-12, scholars still debate how Paul uses the Old Testament background (he applies Old Testament examples different ways in different passages, even the example of Eve: 2 Cor 11:3). But one point, at least, is interesting: Paul’s letters to Timothy in Ephesus are the only letters in the entire Bible where we know that false teachers were specifically targeting women with their false teachings (2 Tim 3:6). In fact, they may have targeted widows (1 Tim 5:9) who owned homes so they could use their houses for churches. One of the Greek terms in 1 Tim 5:13 nearly always meant spreading “nonsense” or false ideas. Those who knew less about the Bible were naturally most susceptible to false teachings; those who do not know the Bible should not be allowed to teach it. Whatever other conclusions one may draw from this, it seems unlikely that Paul would have refused to let women sing in church!

These writers applied eternal principles to concrete situations in their own day. To allow for an equivalent impact, we must reapply those principles to the concrete situations of our day, taking into account the differences in culture.

Yet Fee also cautions against extending the application too far beyond the point in the text. If the law is summed up in love (Rom 13:8-10), we apply the text rightly to love our neighbor as ourselves, a principle which has a potentially infinite number of applications. But some people have taught as if this principle empties all the moral content of the law, so that adultery or bank robbery are fine as long as one is motivated by love. That such an application twists the meaning of the text is obvious, but we practice other such distortions all the time. For instance, we sometimes quote 1 Corinthians 3:16, “you are a temple of God,” and use this against smoking, because smoking is bad for your body. The text in context, however, means that we as a church are God’s temple and dwelling-place (3:9-15), and anyone who defiles that temple by causing division incurs God’s judgment (3:17). This text applies even to nonsmoking Christians to the extent that we are unloving toward other Christians! A little better would be 1 Corinthians 6:19, “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” This verse refers to our individual body, which should be used for the Lord only (6:20). Paul’s own primary point, however, is that our bodies should not be joined to prostitutes (6:15-17). This is a text to be used against sexual immorality! If we try to apply the principle also to smoking, because that is not glorifying God with our bodies, then we should also apply it to gluttony, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and other problems damaging to our bodies. Our extension of Paul’s principle in this verse may be legitimate, but it is certainly secondary to Paul’s own focus, and Paul’s own focus should be primary to us: if we are joined to Christ, we must avoid sexual immorality.

We need to read letters carefully in sequence and the entire way through.

Different letters were written in different ways, but for the most part we need to read letters carefully in sequence and the entire way through. Romans develops an argument through the entire book (as noted above); 1 Corinthians takes on several related issues, but most of those issues take up many paragraphs through several chapters (1 Cor 1-4, the church divided especially over the most skilled speakers; 1 Cor 5-7, mainly sexual issues; 1 Cor 8-11, mainly food issues; 1 Cor 12-14, spiritual gifts). You might practice discerning that argument by thinking up titles for each paragraph and show how these paragraphs relate to one another, developing a continuous argument.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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