Reading the Bible “In Context”: Thoughts from Dr. John Hilber’s Sabbatical at the Creation Project

By Andrew Kischner on May 8, 2017

Editor's Note: Dr. John Hilber, professor of Old Testament at GRTS, recently shared with us his experience as a researcher for the Creation Project at the Carl F. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. Dr. Hilber has devoted his Sabbatical to the Creation Project; he shared about his role and area of research in a previous interview. In this second interview, we've asked Dr. Hilber to share some conclusions and implications for Christian life and practice.

AK: What conclusions are you coming to over the last 9 months of research?

JH: The communication model that I have been working with, called "Relevance Theory," emphasizes the way in which spoken or written words interact with the assumptions shared between speaker and audience, often called the "cognitive environment." That's a technical phrase to describe all the ideas available to the minds of individuals that they might draw upon in communication. It is "context" in the broadest sense.

Listeners naturally process meaning according to the "best fit" between the words they hear and links to this context. They make connections in a way that maximizes the benefit for their thinking. If you think of context as a "radar screen," we interpret another's words according to the ideas that are "in view"—what's on our minds or what's on the "radar screen," so to speak. The responsibility of the speaker is to be sure that the words he or she uses properly orient the audience to the correct context, or set of assumptions, from which to infer meaning.

There are three applications to biblical interpretation.

First, communication does not default to "literal meaning." We process all interpretive possibilities (literal or figurative) simultaneously, and we intuitively choose whichever offers "best fit" to our contextual assumptions.

Second, the best interpretation attends to what was "on the radar screen" of Israelites living in an ancient Near Eastern context. Their natural, interpretive reflexes are very different from ours. In my opinion, their interpretation of Genesis 1, for example, would not result in a literal, 6-day creation. This conclusion has much to do with Genesis' interaction with the other creation ideas floating around in the culture. There are specific words that the Genesis text uses from these broader creation ideas that "hook" in the mind of an ancient Israelite. The basic theological message of a transcendent Creator fashioning a good earth for his human representatives to govern comes through clearly regardless of one's grasp of the ancient context. But reading Genesis 1 apart from understanding the ancient religious context can lead to asking questions that were not on the "radar screen" of the original author and audience.

Third, "relevance theory" makes good sense of the 2000 year-old Christian reading tradition that drew on the idea of "divine accommodation" to curb our expectations about what God is communicating in the text of Scripture. The divine author used language that could be meaningfully shared with the original audience given their contextual assumptions, not ours.

AK: Do you foresee your original methodology being useful to other areas of biblical interpretation?

JH: There is a long-debated notion of "sensus plenior" ("fuller meaning") in the text of the Old Testament; that is, meaning that would have escaped the original audience but in the light of Jesus' ministry takes on expanded meaning. Relevance theory accounts for this nicely.

As the people of God experience more broadly the history of salvation, these new experiences expand their contextual assumptions. This operates similarly to what modern viewers of kid's cartoons experience. Children and parents alike laugh at the cartoon, but what the adults laugh at derives from a deeper level of meaning in the script, a level that is discerned only in the light of their more mature experience with life. There is no indication of "sensus plenior" with regard to creation texts, but the Bible does encourage God's people to see expanded meaning in matters of salvation history and the promise of Messiah.

AK: Have there been any unintended discoveries throughout this process?

JH: I spent nearly three months of my time studying how church scholars throughout 2000 years of history have used the idea of accommodation to interpret creation texts. It is often said that there was an "untroubled consensus" on a 6-day literal creation until the scientific age, but what has surprised me is that every interpretation of Genesis 1 advocated by evangelicals today has a precursor in the pre-modern period. This includes many important people besides Origen and Augustine, who are the two usually named.

AK: What implications does your research have for discipleship in the 21st century?

JH: During this sabbatical, I heard top scientists lament that it is easier for them to share the gospel with their unbelieving science colleagues than to share what they are discovering in their science with fellow Christians at church! More tragic is the fact that many of our young people avoid studying science because they find it irreconcilable with their faith, or worse, reject their faith for this reason. Many Christians are just completely unaware of the variety of options for interpreting Genesis that are consistent with orthodox truth and offer a faithful reading of the text.

Categories: Interviews, Theology