Monday, November 9, 2009

What Does This Mean? vs What Does This Mean to ME?

There was a time when it seemed rude to tell people what a particular Biblical text meant -- as if it diminished their own perspective on things or perhaps someone might have discovered a hidden meaning heretofore unknown or because we were all tired of a lecture format and wanted something different. Whatever the reason, there was a time when it was popular to encourage people to say what the text meant to them. Perhaps you have been at a such Bible study where a verse was read and the discussion went around the room with each person saying "what this means to me is. . ."

This was especially popular in youth settings but I think this format made its rounds throughout the Church. Some so called Bible studies capitalized on this form (I think of Serendipity) and made a point of treat each text on the relationship level instead of on the historic or doctrinal level. Thankfully many of those are gone from the shelves and laying in the back of storage rooms throughout Christendom. But the idea of what does this mean to me has not disappeared -- simply changed forms. The goal was to get away from the Pastor droning on and to encourage discussion.

Now I am all for discussion but I am dead against the kind of Bible study where what this means to me is on the same level as what does this mean. As Lutherans, who claim the question "what does this mean" from the catechism, we should be on top of this. We more than others should know the difference between what it means to me and what it means, period. I think that is why the Pastor led Bible studies at our own congregation are so popular. People instinctively want to know what this means. Period. They do not want to know what it could mean, what it might mean, or what it means to others. They want to know what the Word is saying.

Now it is certainly true (catechism saying again) that not every text can be mined definitively. God's Word and His ways are above our own and there are texts whose meaning in less than absolutely clear to us, texts about which the great exegetes of the Church have disagreed. But they are not so many as some might presume and certainly not so many as the modern day liberal Bible scholars insist (who believe that we look at Scripture through a mirror dimly with little that is clear or reliable and much that is not authentic and murky).

What does this mean? Does God have an intended meaning to His Word or is the meaning of His Word up to us to define? In other words, can we read Scripture and expect to know what it says or when we read Scripture are we reading a work open to interpretation the same way someone might stare at a piece of modern art and interpret it?

Lutherans lay claim to being evangelical catholics -- that is, we insist that we are not innovators of the faith, we do not proclaim novel or quirky understandings of Scripture, and we do not have our own Lutheran version of Scripture. We lay claim to what is catholic -- what has always been believed everywhere. While isolated teachers may have run far afield, the Christian history is a solid and clear path of answering the question "what does this mean." Take a look at the Creeds for example. They insist that Scripture speaks with one voice when it comes to the God/man Jesus Christ and so they encapsulate in confession what Scripture says (not departing from it or adding to it or giving it a different slant but speaking forthrightly "Thus says the Lord").

When we come to God's Word, it is not the momentary meaning or the personal meaning that should be forefront on our minds and hearts but what the Word said, says, and will say -- "What does this mean?" Because of this we do not begin with a proposition and then seek Scripture passages to support it -- we begin with what Scripture says and pull together the passages that speak to this -- not as evidence but as a the different voices of Scripture speak the same truth, together though from different authors, different perspectives, and different times.

It seems to me that this is the greatest thing about Scripture (other than its efficacy) is that God gave to us no mechanical means of transmitting His truth but one with the richness of different authors whose own personality still shines through the timeless truth they have spoken. Again, not as what this means to me but as different voices who speak together to answer "what does this mean."

The move of many churches today is to see Scripture through the lens of a diversity not simply of authors or times or perspectives but different truths (in some cases co-existing with other truths, even contradicting, and in other cases evolving truths so that what everyone might agree it once meant now has changed to mean something different). This is a terrible turn of events for Christian truth. What does this mean is the question we need forefront when we read God's Word -- not what does this mean today that it did not mean yesterday or what does this mean to me that it does not mean to others?

Scripture is clear in speaking to us its abiding truth, the message of God's love promised and fulfilled in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, who entered creation as one of us in order to redeem us from sin, deliver us from death, and release us from the condemnation due us because of sin. It is the story of our rebellion and the loss to God of His foremost creature and of the path God wrote to restore what was lost to Him by becoming the Savior of His people and giving to them what had been lost to them - life with Him forevermore. If there is any lens that we wear when we read Scripture, Jesus Christ is that lens. He is the key who unlocks God's Word to us. He is the ultimate answer to every question, "what does this mean."

"What does this mean" is the Lutheran question (again, recall the catechism) and the answer to that question invites us to believe and trust "this is most certainly true." But this is not just a Lutheran thing -- this is the way the faithful have always addressed God's Word -- what does this mean. And the answer does not shift or change or adapt -- it speaks with many voices the one unchanging answer -- Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The saddest part about the whole "What this means to me" thing is that we have seemed to forgotten that we as pastors are to be training people to read the Scriptures -- from the example of our teaching, from our guidance in opening up the Scriptures, they are to learn to read the Scriptures as well.

Why do we assume that someone would simply be able to determine the depth of the Scriptures and make the connections they make in Christ until they have been trained?

Canadian said...

Great words. Words I have used myself. At the end of the day, who cares what it means to me. Arius and Nestorius promoted what "it meant to them" to the point of the ravaging of the truth about Christ himself. We should care about and acknowledge the feelings and opinions of folks, but the question should be more like: "What does what it means mean to and for me".

Anonymous said...

I spent many years in chruch and Bible Studies being trained to "look for" 'what does it mean to me'. O, sad to think about. For a couple of years now I devote my time in the scriptures looking for Christ and doctorine. I must add I am as happy as a 'pig in slop' using this mind set method as I read the treasurey of scripture. Praise our Lord and Savior for hearing my cries for 'something more'