“A Letter to the Contemporary Church” and Chapter 1


Reconciling Paul: A Contemporary Study of 2 Corinthians

What has been your experience in the reading and study of Scripture? Is your primary interaction with Scripture listening to a sermon or lecture? Have you been in a long-term Bible study in which you explored word meanings and the historical context of Bible passages? Were you taught that there was only one way to interpret Scripture?

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty invites us in the opening pages of our study of 2 Corinthians to think about the lens through which we examine Scripture, particularly the letters of Paul.

Many people seek guidance in Scripture on how Jesus would have us live and understandably would prefer if the texts were easily understood. I hear this particularly from parents who understandably want their children to have Christian values. Some biblical texts are helpful and straightforward in this regard. Romans 12:14-17 states, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” The difficulty with the text is not understanding its meaning, but in carrying out Jesus’ teachings as recapped by Paul.

When we are unfamiliar with a portion of Scripture, we first tend to look for its “simple” or “plain” meaning; that is, what is clear and obvious. In my teaching experience, many people are more fact-based, particularly if their educational backgrounds are in accounting, engineering, math, science, transportation or business. Measurable facts and accuracy are important in those fields. I had an engineer in a class on the Gospel of John exclaim, “Why can’t Jesus just say what he means?” In John’s Gospel, there is a lot of metaphor and repetition, so I could understand the frustration.

Seeking the plain or simple meaning of a text can be a good place to begin Bible study, but it has serious limitations. What do we do if different passages of Scripture contradict each other? What happens if we take all Scripture literally?

One approach to biblical interpretation is to take Scripture, especially Paul’s writings, and to apply the “moral advice and teachings directly to the circumstance of our contemporary lives.” This form of biblical interpretation is grounded in the belief that the Bible is God’s word for all time without regard to changes in culture and information. This form of interpretation is identified as “literal” interpretation, although precise definitions of this word vary. An example of literalism is the belief that God ordained that women are always to be subordinate to men. A literal reading of Scripture has been and can be used to hurt or subjugate people to a less-than-human status. It has been used to justify terrible abuse of women, children, slaves, those of different sexual orientation and those without power.

During the Protestant Reformation, there arose a desire to study Scripture free from the interpretations of the past. With the discovery of ancient texts and the study of ancient cultures in archaeology, more complex forms of biblical interpretation gradually arose. “Historical criticism” (historical study) has been a movement to understand the world behind the Scripture text and is grounded in the concept that the original writers of the Bible wrote out of a particular time and culture. In historical criticism, there is the conviction that God’s word is better understood if we can determine the original context and meaning of the biblical writers.

So what difference does historical criticism make? In 1 Corinthians, Paul admonishes woman to have their hair covered when they pray or prophesy (preach). Loose, flowing, uncovered hair on women was associated with being promiscuous or with pagan priestesses. (“HarperCollins Study Bible,” page 1946). The town of Corinth was “sin city,” with widespread sexual immorality. Paul urges both women and men to live in a way that is worthy of Christ and distinctive from pagan culture. Therefore, if we understand the original context, we see that the issue is more than hairstyle. It is Christian lifestyle. When we understand Paul’s words in context, we can then think about how the Scripture passage applies to us today.

In our Reformed tradition, we invite the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Scripture to us, to be in conversation with the community of faith, the biblical text and our own lives. We seek meaning that is relevant to our lives in light of what Jesus taught and the “rule of love”— to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.