Western 21st century Assumptions upon a 1st century Text: Individualism.

The New Testament came through first-century writers who held to particular assumptions and a particular worldview. As twenty first-century Christians seek to discern what those writings are saying to them, they carry different assumptions and a different worldview. This discrepancy often causes contemporary Christians to interpret the Bible in a way that the authors never intended. For those Christians who hold to a high view of scripture, the author’s intended meaning is inspired by God and the guide and authority for faith and practice today. It is crucial, therefore, to be aware of our assumptions and the subtle ways they steer our understanding of the text.

Today’s blog addresses individualism. Western 21st century culture sees everything through the lens of individualism. Merriam-Webster defines individualism as “the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group.” Western Christians unconsciously adopt this individualistic worldview because it surrounds us every day and in every interaction. In contrast, the biblical writers and their audiences were surrounded by assumptions that emphasized the community. While the biblical texts also addressed individuals, they did so through the communities these individuals belonged to. Contemporary Christians tend to read the Bible in the opposite direction–as if the Bible is addressed primarily to individuals and secondarily to the communities these individuals belong to.

The disconnect between 21st century versus 1st century assumptions manifests itself both in theology and practice. From my experience as a pastor, the affect on practice is more pervasive because assumptions guide every person whether they think about them or not. Churches are filled with people who interpret the Bible, their lives, their relationship to God, and their relationship to others through the lens of individualism. In the Western context this individualism goes hand in hand with the assumptions of consumerism and humanism–but those assumptions will be addressed in another post.

Why is this approach problematic? The individualistic reading of the text places meanings upon the text that the writer never intended (and therefore the Spirit didn’t inspire). In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways, we are modifying scripture to match our ideas and lives instead of modifying our ideas and lives to match scripture. Because assumptions are unconsciously absorbed, this manipulation of the text is usually unintentional. Nevertheless, our individualism influences our thinking so that we automatically assume the needs and desires of the individual believer are paramount in establishing which parts of scripture we emphasize, how we assess truth, how we determine what is “good,” and how we try to live out our faith.

A couple examples can illustrate the influence that individualistic assumptions have on our interpretation of scripture. If you are a Western Christian (and most Christians today are not from the western nations), how have you heard the following passages taught or interpreted?

Philippians 1:6:  And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Full disclosure: I have written this scripture quote on graduation cards. Like many other Christians who read this verse, we immediately interpret it to mean: “God began his work in me when I believed in Christ, and he will see me through to the end!” The Christian pictures holding hands with Jesus as they walk through the different scenes of life, from graduation, to a new career, to marriage, to children, to battling illness, and to death. While these thoughts and pictures may reflect biblical truths, they are not what this 1st century text intended to convey.

One barrier to understanding is that in English “you” is the second person singular OR second person plural pronoun (we usually assume the singular is intended–more evidence of our individualism). In Greek, the second person singular and the second person plural have different forms and Philippians 1:6 uses you plural (all y’all). Additionally, the context of this verse expresses the Apostle Paul’s thankfulness to the whole Philippian church for their continued faithfulness to Paul and the gospel. The first thing that most likely came into the mind of a 1st century reader was: “God established a new Christian community in the city of Philippi, and he will continue to work through that church to transform the city until Christ comes back for his people!”

In our minds, we extract the individual from the community, as if God would use some context other than the community to bring his work to completion. We think, “See, I don’t need anyone but God, and he will bring me to where I need to be.” But the apostle Paul did not intend to express confidence that God would bring any individual Philippian to completion apart from the community. A cursory reading of Philippians 2:1-12 would dispel that notion.

Let’s look at one more well-known passage as an example:

1 John 4:4: Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

The artist Blanca has a song out right now called “Greater is He,” based on this verse. I’m sure Blanca is more concerned with writing an inspiring song than doing a thorough exegesis, but a more 1st century interpretation would yield a chorus that reads: “And greater is He, living in us (instead of me) than he who is in the world.” Yea, that wouldn’t rhyme, but it would reflect the context and assumption of the original author. The author did not intend this verse to be some sort of “God and me against the world” battle cry. The context of the verse speaks about the false prophets who have infiltrated the  community and how the Spirit in the community helps discern who is of the truth and who is of the world. In other words, if you have gone out from the community (1 John 2:19) you are more likely to be someone “in the world” than someone who is indwelt by the Spirit of God. Here is the context of the verse:

1 John 4:1-6  Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.  4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Instead of “God and me against the world,” the context of this verse suggests that apart from community, one cannot experience the great presence and power of God that overcomes the world.

Reading the above texts in an individual light is not totally illegitimate; after all, every community is made of individuals who must respond to the message personally. The problem is that our Western assumptions cause us to read these texts as if they are primarily addressed to individuals and only secondarily addressed to their communities. The assumptions of the biblical writers worked in the other direction. The writers primarily wrote for/to the faith community and assumed their instructions would be applied in that community context.

We can learn a couple things from the above discussion. First, individualism and our other assumptions affect how we approach the biblical text. Western Christians are often blind to the crucial need to be and grow in the community of faith. The biblical writers assumed that every Christian would be a part of a church and that this relationship would be the avenue by which the individual lived out a vibrant faith. Our individualistic assumptions cause us to misread the Bible and mis-live the faith.

The second thing we learn is that “context is king” and the easiest way to check our assumptions is by studying the context of the verse. The context suggests the assumptions of the author and challenges the assumptions we may be reading into the text.

There are many other Western 21st century assumptions that we read into the Bible, and perhaps I will examine some in future posts. For today, let us realize our individualistic assumptions and how they can hinder our understanding of the inspired text.

(Other examples of verses that are often read in an individualistic light, but originally are set in a community context: Jeremiah 29:11; Galatians 5:6-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:24; 1 Peter 5:6ff.)

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