Thursday, February 19, 2009

Biblical Application in James - And In General

Scot McKnight writes regarding James 1:2-4 in Jesus Creed - A Brother's Wisdom 2
For some, when James says "whenever you face trials of many kinds," they think James is referring to most anything we can imagine or most anything we face. The next thing we are talking about losing jobs or broken relationships or flat tires. This view of James 1:2 is shaped more by what we can get out of the text than what James meant.

The first thing we are to do is read James to see what he might mean, and we can come up with a nice little list of his pressing concerns:

1. 1:2-4 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that try one's very faith and that lead to the virtue of perseverance.
2. 1:5-8 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that lead us to cry out to God for wisdom.
3. 1:9-11 suggests he's talking about stuff the poor are experiencing and it right here that we can explore all kinds of texts in James, including the judicially-sponsored exploitation of the poor (2:1-7) and the oppression of the poor by the rich (5:1-6).

It is wiser to let James give us concrete ideas before we impose our own concrete applications. James is more likely talking about the stress of the poor at the hands of oppressors than he is giving simple timeless wisdom about wearing a happy face.
This is good advice, not merely for reading James or interpreting this particular passage, but for biblical interpretation in general. I've written something similar in my discussion of the "salt and light" passage from the Sermon on the Mount. We have a tendency to make simple analogies to biblical metaphors, or springboard off of a single suggestive word or phrase, into any number of modern applications. It's a bad way of reading the Bible; it frequently misses the point of the original writer.

Hermeneutics 101: one must first discover what a passage meant, in its original context, before one can proceed on to what it means in our contemporary context.

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