(The following comprises Part Twelve of the Saturday series on Secondary Illuminations of Scripture.)
I believe that only when our handling of the Living Word grants it both the space to breathe and an environment in which it can retain its shape, will our stewardship be healthy and maximize its power to multiply in sustenance. So I have grown unashamed in my support for secondary illuminations even as I try to learn more about how to be responsible with their hermeneutics.
As I hope I’ve made clear by now, when I indulge in secondary illuminations, I am trying to keep a good handle on the historical and geographical facts and to honor those literal and metaphorical interpretations and spiritual applications which are already broadly recognized for the passages I reference. I would hope that when I present a teaching, those who are leery of my hermeneutical approach would find ample reason to believe that I fully respect the Word and its orthodox intents even if they feel I err on some points in my extrapolations.
Although I’ve already gradually covered some of the guardrails that are necessary with secondary illuminations, I wanted to throw in one more.
One danger to look out for is that of giving too much weight to matters that reflect ancient Near East custom or law rather than a fuller revelation of God’s Kingdom ethics or to details which are, as in Jesus’ parables, thrown in for local color. To take one obvious example, the Father is compared to a selfish judge in one New Testament parable, but naturally we cannot use the judge’s nature to determine the Father’s character (Luke 18:1-8). That is not the comparison that is being made; rather, it is an argument from minor to major (as in, if even he will attend to the widow then surely the great and loving Father will). The unjust nature of the judge is a detail thrown in for local color.
Other obvious examples include how we should not take on the selfish attitude of the bridesmaids who had saved oil but then refused to share it (Matt 25:1-13) or the deceiving nature of the servant who is commended for thieving in Luke 16:1-8. These are not examples to emulate even if Jesus did use their characters to portray the wisdom of preparing in advance and thinking things through (p. 56, Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings). If we start finding hidden directives for the church in details that are not intended to be signposts of His ways, we will stray from the message.
Most evangelical scholars recognize that Israel’s laws were directed at their ancient Near East setting, moving them toward God’s ethics without always revealing God’s highest ideals. Laws regarding slaves and wives are great examples of this. They generally offer more humane and more self-actualizing possibilities for slaves and wives without bringing the entire Near East way of life into question. If we start finding hidden directives for the church in details that reflect concessions more than the fullness of His ways, we will again stray from the message.
Another ready example in the Old Testament could be when we find ideals or doctrines regarding marriages and the seeking of marriage in the story of Ruth. It’s a rich story with contemporary applications, and its Messianic connection redoubles its import (Matthew 1:5, 16). It is also clear that God honors Ruth and Boaz for their decisions. However, occasionally people make whole complicated doctrines out of details never explicitly sanctioned as “the way,” much less a full explanation of the way, by God. For instance, those of us who are single may be chastised for lacking God’s mindset if we are not apt to consider men who are radically older than we—despite the fact that there are not just selfish reasons but also practical, relational, and wise reasons why this is often not the best idea for most Western couples today. Since the well-being of young women and widows is generally not so gravely dependent on male relatives as it was when Ruth made her bold and sacrificial move, this may further limit its applicability.
Another common misapplication from Ruth is where Boaz’s spreading his blanket over Ruth in a Near East custom becomes the key text for a doctrine wherein women today need to be “covered” by their husbands and do not hold spiritual authority to pray for their household without his unique covering. This causes, for instance, women whose husbands are deployed in war to feel unduly afraid, as they’ve been taught not to fully trust their own authority in Christ. I’ve also known women whose husbands are stateside to cower until their husband comes home for the evening so that he can pray a prayer regarding something evil that she thinks has come against the house against which she doesn’t have quite enough power as the woman to pray. The reason given is that his blanket is the covering both for her and for the house so that he needs to handle the big things. Well, what about the covering that comes from God? For that matter, Proverbs 12:4 indicates that a good wife is a crown on her husband, another image of covering and blessing. As beautiful as the blanket imagery is and as phenomenally powerful as a united stand between husband and wife (or any gathering of individuals) is and as true as it is that we “cover” one another in a variety of relational commitments and sometimes need to draw on those coverings for united prayer, I’ve seen this particular one-way notion of “covering” wreak some havoc.
It’s rather amusing that we sometimes make much of the supposed ongoing commands and truths in details of this treasured narrative while completely ignoring that part of the story wherein the woman proposes to the man—something most Christians would frown upon if done today. We need to be careful not to let our own context pick and choose what details to enshrine as immovable, or we’ll do violence to the message. In sum, we want to hold our creative musings on cultural details with a loose hand and a critical eye, always asking if the details reflect God’s full and timeless ideal or something else.
I hope this discussion of secondary illuminations of Scripture encourages you to be all the more careful in developing primary historical-grammatical interpretations. And I hope it frees you to use that solid foundation to explore the text more. Perhaps God will sometimes impress the import of proper names or flesh out metaphors that may not be inherent to the interpretation of the genre in which they appear but which ring true to God’s message. Maybe you’ll notice inspired patterns and connections between stories and symbols even when they do not sit right next to each other in the text. Or you’ll discover more glorious hints of the story of redemption in Old Testament passages that may not yield these on first glance. Many Christians already allow the Spirit to apply Scripture prophetically to their circumstances whether or not they’ve named it as such and whether or not they generally favor “secondary illuminations.” When you recognize the need to check these prophetic applications against the context (to make sure the context is not in opposition) and against the rest of Scripture and when you are submitting these prophetic applications to other believers for confirmation, your safety net is up so that this listening relationship with the Spirit can grow in freedom.
I will spend the next four—and final—weeks looking at two passages of Scripture in which I hope to provide positive examples of secondary illuminations.