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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

Many Christians today question the faith of others who do not interpret literally every text that we interpret literally; yet all of us refuse to take some texts literally—or at least we refuse to apply some texts directly to ourselves without taking into account that our situation is different. Paul tells Timothy to avoid water and take some wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Tim 5:23). Paul is certainly not telling Timothy to get drunk; in Paul’s day, most wine was watered down two parts water to every part wine, and wine was not distilled, so the alcohol content was not high. At the same time, before refrigeration and hermetic sealing, any grape juice that had been kept for some months after the last grape vintage included some alcohol content. Would we tell every Christian today with a stomach ache to avoid water and go have a watered-down beer? Or was that simply the best remedy available in Paul’s day, in contrast to our own?

In fact, all Scripture is universally applicable (2 Tim 3:16). This does not mean, however, that it is not articulated in culture-specific and language-specific ways. Rather, it means that we have to take the situation into account when we interpret Scripture, reading it like case studies applying to specific situations to find its principles which we can then apply in other situations. Otherwise one would end up like some western missionaries who mixed up their own culture with the biblical message and then told African Christians they had to keep both the Bible and western culture to be good Christians (which resembles what Paul’s opponents did in Galatia—Gal 2:3-5; 6:12-13).

Inspiration does not change a writing’s genre, or type of literature. Psalms are still psalms, narrative is still narrative, and epistles are still epistles. (We will deal with genre in a subsequent chapter.) Pastoral letters, like sermons addressed to local congregations, can contain universal and culture-specific exhortations side-by-side; this is true in inspired, biblical letters just as it is true in other letters.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

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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