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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: The Reader’s “Social Location,” by Craig S. Keener

Meanwhile, the slaves engaged in some Bible interpretation of their own. The slave preachers often allowed them to hear only a small selection of biblical texts, but they could not avoid texts which talked about all humanity being descended from Adam or about all people having equal access to God’s grace through faith in Christ. Slaves would sing songs about God delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, and the slaveholders, who were too morally depraved to understand the connection, did not realize that the slaves were praying for their own deliverance. One slave who had learned how to read later reported that he used to read the Bible while he was a slave and he found in it confirmation of what most slaves already believed—that God opposed slavery. He found there the principle that God made all humanity from one person, and that they therefore were of equal worth in God’s sight.

We should not read into the Bible something that is not there. But because the slaves heard the Bible at their point of need, they were able to hear themes that were already there which the slaveholders did not expect. Our attachment to our traditions can keep us from hearing anything new. Not everything new is right; but not all of it is wrong, either. To apply the Bible most fully, we must be ready to ask fresh questions, as long as we search the Bible on its own terms (in context and original background) to supply the answers.

Other Issues in Application

The ideal in applying any biblical text is to find analogies in our setting as close as possible to the original setting. The closer the analogy, the more likely our claim to be explaining how the biblical writers would preach to our situations today. We must be careful to get the correct analogy; for example, we should read Jesus’ criticisms against the Pharisees as criticisms of religious people in error, not as against modern Jews (Jesus was also Jewish). We should read the plagues of the exodus as directed against an idolatrous empire enslaving God’s people, not against modern Egyptians (God actually wanted the Egyptians to know about him—Ex 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22; 9:29; 14:4, 18; and God has a good purpose for Egypt–Is 19:24-25). In other words, we should hear Scripture humbly, rather than using it as an excuse to condemn other groups to which we do not belong. We should be read to apply its teachings to ourselves first, when applicable (Jms 3:1; Ezra 7:10). Of course, not all Scripture is applicable individually; prophecies of judgments against nations are corporate judgments, not judgments on every individual who happens to read them.

We need to know Scripture well enough to know which texts are applicable to which problems. In the long run, this is best served by knowing the Bible thoroughly, not simply by using a concordance. If someone wants to explain why premarital sex is wrong, they can find plenty of condemnations of “fornication” (in some older translations) or sexual “immorality” in the Bible (besides lists, cf. e.g., Deut 22:13-22; Prov 7; 1 Cor 6:12-20; 1 Thess 4:1-8). But other passages like Matthew 1:25 (in which Joseph and Mary practice sexual restraint, even though married, till Jesus’ birth), provide us lessons that also challenge sexual temptations. The contrast between Joseph’s sexual purity and Judah’s sin in Genesis 38-39 (treated earlier) likewise provides some lessons more graphic than a mere recital of references from a concordance would. A concordance is helpful for locating a word; your own personal study will help you learn and remember where to find a concept.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2006

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.

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