I realize that some of you will wonder why I am approaching the subject of nudity in early Christianity by first presenting principles of how to determine what is consistent with Biblical truth and what isn’t. The reason is that some early Church Fathers disagreed as to whether Christian should partake in public bathing but all agreed to the necessity of being baptized in the nude. Why did they disagree? And how can we — in the 21st century — determine that which is Biblically consistent in our lives and that which is not?
In this first part, I will discuss three principles that need to be accounted for when you are doing any Bible study. In the next blog I will discuss the final two from the list below
Principle 1-There is a difference between exegesis and eisegesis.
Principle 2-There is a difference between biblical interpretation and biblical application.
Principle 3-Culture today is different from culture in biblical times.
Principle 4-Tradition or early writings give insight as to what Christians believed at the time when those traditions began or when the writings were produced. These writings or traditions may or may not be consistent with biblical truths.
Principle 5-Rules tell people how to respond to a particular situation. Principles tell people how to apply biblical truths to the situation so that they are consistent with other biblical truths.
When people study the Bible, they are looking for biblical truth. The process of finding that truth is known as "exegesis." Exegesis comes from a Greek word meaning, "to lead out of." So when you exegete a particular scriptural passage, you are taking the meaning out of that section of Scripture. Bible study should always start with exegesis of the Scripture passage to find out exactly what it means.
Eisegesis comes from the same Greek word except for the prefix eis-. The Greek prefix eis- means, "to go into." Therefore, eisegesis is an application to your own life and is personal rather than a principle. We can find a good illustration of the difference between the two words in John 21:15-17.
The context of this passage is post resurrection and prior to the ascension. Jesus is speaking to Peter and He asks him three times "do you love me?" Without going into a deep Bible study about the meanings of various words it is obvious that Peter is to protect and nurture the believers after Jesus ascends to heaven. That is the exegesis of the passage.
The eisegesis of the passage could be a number of things. We can say that Jesus was upset with Peter. Another view would be that Jesus had a flock of sheep and wanted Peter to take care of them. A third view might be that only people named Peter could minister in the way that Jesus wanted. You will notice that eisegesis can tend to come up with any number of different "truths" about a particular passage of Scripture. Never is eisegesis an acceptable way to pull biblical truth from the Scriptures, because it is, by definition, infusing external meaning into the Scriptures.
When someone attempts to force a particular subject into the interpretation of a Bible passage, he or she is practicing eisegesis instead of exegesis. For that reason, with the topic at hand, it would be wrong to try to justify nudity just because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12 that "all things are legal" to him. That passage is speaking about something very different.
There is a difference between what you do when you interpret Scripture versus when you apply Scripture to your life. Good application comes only after good interpretation.
Interpretation answers this question: "What did the author intend the original recipients of the book/letter/prophecy/Psalm to understand?" Good Biblical interpretation always relies on an "historical/grammatical" viewpoint of the passage (we'll address what that means in another blog post).
Application, on the other hand, relies on your subjective experience and the leading of the Holy Spirit in your day-to-day Christian walk. Application tends to begin with the words "I" or "we." In contrast, Interpretation should never begin with the word "I."
Examples of interpretation and application are found in 1 Corinthians 6:19. The context of the verse actually starts in chapter 5. Paul is discussing some of the things in which the Corinthian Christians are participating. Verse 19 begins a summary of those 2 chapters.
When I first accepted Christ I was taught the Bible said you should not smoke because 1 Corinthians 6:19 states that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, since smoking anything (this was the 60s and 70s after all) was damaging to my body, any such activity was not allowed, "according to the Bible." This is a perfect example of eisegesis. Since my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit then anything I did in the realm of smoking was "against the rules." While that might be a good application, it is not the correct interpretation of the verse. The interpretation of the verse is specifically focusing on a sexual sin issue in the Corinthian church.
When we begin to look at nudity in the Bible, we must stay in the historical and textual context of the Scripture. If we were going to exegete a particular passage we must remember to view it as those who were receiving it would have viewed it. While we certainly can make an application after exegeting the Scripture, we cannot say something like "the Bible teaches _____" without it specifically teaching that.
We live in a culture, which is a utterly different from any time in the Old or New Testament. Very few of us live in an agricultural environment. Very few of us are fishermen or tent makers. I could go on, but the point is that we do not live today as any other Christian has ever lived in history. Each generation is different. Certain things pass from one generation to another, but other things are lost forever because of a lack of functionality or need.
Functional things such as clothing, food, and shelter are predominantly determined by the environment around us. We are the first generation who are able to dramatically change that environment. Air-conditioning, central heat, and electricity have changed not only our habits, but also fundamentally changed our lives and how we view life in general.
I am a fan of the TV show Survivor. The contestants occasionally have to determine the winner by having a tie breaker. They will see who can build a fire the fastest using flint, steel, and straw. If we were back in the 1800’s no one would have held a contest like that. Most people would know how to accomplish the task of building a fire. For some reason in Survivor they don’t know how.
In the same way, we cannot force our current practices and perspectives into a centuries-dead culture. For example, the public bath so common in New Testament times has all but vanished from today's cultures. What the Church Fathers (pre-700 A.D.) said about the bath (some were for and some were against) is no longer directly relevant to our lives. Also, our athletes do not practice without any clothes as the early Greeks did, nor do women today walk around with one breast exposed.
Therefore, Biblical principles must rely on unchanging truth... not culture or public opinion. Naturism must be shown to be acceptable within carefully and correctly discerned Biblical truth... and not just because someone "feels closer to God" when they are naked.
In future blogs I will explore nudity as practiced in early Christianity and see if it is consistent with Biblical truth.