Christianity has been all over the news the past couple of days because of Harold Camping’s misguided Rapture prediction. While few people ascribe to Camping’s sort of biblical numerology, this episode got me thinking about the way many Christians read the Bible. I’ve long felt that, despite the prevalence of Bible translations and Bible-study aids, the Church is functionally biblically illiterate. We simply don’t know how to read the Bible well.
In their landmark book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart offer up a time-tested, God-honoring approach to Bible reading and study. While the book is full of helpful insights, there is one that stands out to me amidst the flurry of Rapture theology and end times predictions: The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. In other words, the meaning of Scripture does not change with shifting cultural pretensions. God does not change the meaning of his word for your sake.
The Bible was God’s word to someone else long before it was God’s word for you. The Bible was not written to you; it was written to an altogether different group of people who lived and loved and argued and fought and died long before you were ever born. This means that, in order to discover the meaning of Scripture, we must approach it with respect for the original audience. If we are to be faithful to Scripture, we have to learn to read it historically. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. You are not allowed to redefine God’s word based on the issues of your particular time and place.
This has a wide array of implications. Specifically, this means that Genesis 1 was not written to answer the challenge of Charles Darwin. This means that the book of Revelation was written with Rome in mind, not the United Nations. This means that no author of Scripture ever wrote a word about the Rapture, because the doctrine of the Rapture didn’t come about until the early 19th century. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. Only when we learn to read the Bible with the original audience can we begin to make any sense of the implications it has for us today.