New Testament Commands Universal or Specific to the Original Audience

A third problem concerns the intended audience of a biblical passage. Earlier, we saw that for its first two centuries Protestantism tended to interpret the "Great Commission" as a mandate delivered to the apostles, not their successors (Matthew 28:17-20). As a result, Protestants saw little reason to pursue missionary work—until the end of the eighteenth century, when the passage in question was "read" in a different way. The passage clearly demanded that the gospel be proclaimed; its interpretation was not in dispute. The debate concerned who was being commanded to proclaim it—the apostles at a specific period in history or all Christians throughout history?41

The same issue occurs repeatedly throughout the Bible. One issue that has caused some division within Protestantism is the ministry of women. In 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul states that women should be silent in church: if they have theological questions, they should ask their husbands when they get home. Is this meant to be a universal principle, binding on all Christians at all times, or a specific instruction to the Corinthian church at that specific moment in its history, given the particular difficulties it was known to be experiencing?

The text can be interpreted in very different ways. Some might argue that it demonstrates that women cannot exercise any ministry, and therefore they interpret it as a universal ruling. Others see it as illustrating the problems at that specific juncture in the church's history on account of the newfound freedom that women then enjoyed through the rise of Christianity. On this reading, married women were disrupting the service by asking questions of their husbands, so they were instructed to wait and ask their questions at home. Which is right? Both sides of this debate are well represented within Protestantism's ample girth.

Perhaps the most significant case of such a question concerns the question of spiritual gifts, a cause of much comment in Paul's letters, especially the Corinthian correspondence. Paul affirms the importance of such gifts, while at the same time urging restraint and caution in exercising them—an attitude neatly summed up as "Cool it, don't kill it."

But were those gifts given for all time, or were they specific to the apostolic era and so have now died out? Was the pattern of spiritual gifts that was shown, for example, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) specific to the needs and opportunities of the first years of the church—or was it valid for all time? The New Testament offers no unequivocal answer, although its interpreters have been known to suggest otherwise.

The belief that such gifts had died out (known as "cessationism") was widespread within mainline Protestantism from the sixteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. There was no reason to think otherwise, in the absence of any significant evidence of such spiritual gifts being experienced within the church. The outbreak of charismatic phenomena—such as speaking in tongues—on the first day of the twentieth century in the United States, followed by sustained global growth in such phenomena, raised questions about cessationism and convinced many that such spiritual gifts remained at the disposal of the church. Here, the decisive factor in changing the corporate mind of Protestantism over the best part of a century was not a new way of interpreting the Bible but renewed experience of something that had been believed to be extinct. Experience forced revision of existing ways of reading and interpreting the Bible.

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