Problem Bible Texts (Part 3: What It Meant and What It Means)

p52reversoLet’s continue wrapping up this series on problem Bible texts. I apologize for the length of this post, but I didn’t see a good way to split it up into mini-posts. This is the hazard of writing about theology – it seems to lend itself to long discussions!

In my last post I introduced the theology of Krister Stendahl, commonly summed up by the slogan “what it meant and what it means”. What it meant is Stendahl’s way of referring to the meaning of a Bible text to its original author and in its original context. When it comes to translating the original meaning of a Bible text into contemporary words, this is (in Stendahl terminology) what it means.

But as I pointed out last time, what makes Stendahl’s theology truly interesting (and of course, controversial) is the strict separation Stendahl proposed between what it meant and what it means. For Stendahl, what it meant and what it means need to be “kept apart long enough for the descriptive task [what it meant] to be considered in its own right.” This separation is particularly important when we consider problem Bible texts. As Eric Seibert put it on Peter Enns’ blog site, “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.” But we’ll never appreciate the problem with problem Bible texts unless we consider what the texts meant in their own time and place, without first resorting to apologetics to make the text “relevant”, or “meaningful”, or “speak to us today”.

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Problem Bible Texts (Part 2: Krister Stendahl’s Theology)

Stendahl1980LARGEIt’s time to wrap up this series on Bible problem texts. I’ve conducted this series in dialog with Anthony Le Donne, and Anthony has posted his Final Thoughts on this question (and then added more thoughts). Up until now, I’ve danced around the question of how I read problem texts. It’s time to stop dancing.

It will take me more than one post to wrap up this series. In these final posts, I’ll try to explain the Biblical theology of a remarkable man name of Krister Stendahl, who among other things was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm (not at the same time). Stendahl was a leading voice in interfaith dialog – he was the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was an arch feminist and defender of the rights of religious minorities. Most important for us, Stendahl’s theology is a useful guide to problem Bible texts.

Stendahl taught that we must combine two approaches to understand Bible texts: we must analyze what a text meant, and then determine what it means.[1] Sounds simple, right? You’ll sometimes see these approaches described as Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology, but “what it meant” and “what it means” will do just fine for our discussion.

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