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In chapter 11 of Pagan Christianity, the authors address our methods of reading and interpreting scripture and the New Testament in particular. Viola begins by pointing out the non chronological arrangement of the various writings of the New Testament.
The gospels come first, which isn’t the order in which they were penned, though this does seem appropriate to me, as their events came first. Various writers have tackled the task of setting them into a unified and chronological account–a task more difficult than one might think, as they are not even necessarily arrainged chronologically within themselves. This type of arrangement was not as typical of the first century as it is of our time.
After the gospels comes the book of Acts, which also works for me, as it is a kind of synopsis of the events we see later addressed in the epistles, or letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, and possibly others. Following Acts, though, things become rather untidy. Well, untidy in a rather tidy way. The longest letters come first, followed in order of length by the rest. If you read carefully and cross check with the book of Acts, you can figure out where most of them fit in, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they come to you in the order in which they were written.
Viola’s second beef is the chapter and verse divisions. I happen to think these come in pretty handy. Otherwise, how would we ever find anything twice? However, he does have a point that these artificial segments tend to make us forget that we’re reading a whole letter or story, not a collection of wise sayings, each of which is true and complete in its own right. Lifting a sentence or two from one of the epistles and trying to prove something is like someone doing the same to one of your e-mails or blog posts. It might work, and it might accurately represent your point, but it very well might not work or represent your views. It’s taken out of context. Chapter and verse delineations make this separation an easy and a natural process which we frequently don’t even notice we’re doing.
I would add that we think we’re taking a verse in context if we simply read it along with a few verses previous to it and following it, but this isn’t often the case either. In my study of 1 Corinthians (posted here, throughout my blog’s history) I’ve learned that, in order to get the whole significance of a given snippet, you often have to have read the whole letter from the start, had at least a rudimentary understanding of the culture it was written to, and checked back with Acts to see what was going on in the church at the time it was written. Keeping things in context is not as easy as I was taught. And I should also add that even this doesn’t prevent your getting a mistaken understanding, particularly if you’re taking scripture in the context of your own life, preconceptions and experiences. It takes effort to read what is written, exactly what is written, no more or less than what is written, and remember what was written before what you’re reading now, and weave these threads together into an accurate picture of what’s just been said.
And on top of that, you still can’t do it if you don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside. To the unsaved, scripture is a secret code that looks like it’s saying something, but you can’t really tell just what.
The whole chapter is very much worth a read. You’ll discover, as I did, why some of those iron-clad “proofs” you might have been given didn’t work out in life. God isn’t our invention or our chore boy. He’s God, and He’ll do what He will, no matter which scriptural “proof” you try to wave in His face. Lucky for us, what He wills is to love and redeem us. He just might not always do it the way you think the bible says. If you learn to read what’s actually being said, though, you might find that God is always faithful.
Grace and Peace,