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How to read the Word: Evangelical Hermeneutics (or how to read & interpret the Bible)

A few years ago a person on Set on Edge‘s – my old band – mailing list emailed me a rather angry message. This individual was disappointed that we, as Christians, would listen to and support non-Christian artists, and quoted Scripture to support himself. It just so happens that the verses he had quoted, Ephesians 5:19-20, was one of my favorite passages, and at the time I was teaching on it in my Thursday night Bible study. How could we both so love and be so inspired by the same passage of Scripture, yet read and apply the passage so differently? Usually, when it comes down to this, the issue is hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a field of study that attempts to determine which methods or principles would be best used to interpret an individual Biblical author’s meaning, apply it devotionally, and then discern how it would best be applied to the world around us. At first some of us, possibly having close ties at one time or another with the Fundamentalist wing of Evangelicalism, as my fore-mentioned former fan, might hear alarms; “Aren’t the Scriptures simple? Isn’t the Bible, as the Word of God, written in such a way that the plain meaning of the text is available for all? Isn’t the Holy Spirit to be the interpreter, by way of illumination?” To some degree I’d answer ‘yes’ to every one of these questions – the message of the Gospel is available to the common man, and the Holy Spirit DOES lead some to recognize it without the help of study aids and historical contexts. However, oft-times, since we are dealing with a text that is not only written by God, but through human authors, utilizing their own personalities, thoughts and skills, some of the imagery is veiled behind 2000 years of cultural differences – words and their meaning change, explicit or implicit – but God does not change. Since, as Evangelical Christians, we believe we are dealing with God’s words, we are obligated and, in fact, should desire with all of our hearts, to take the greatest care to understand them truly and explain them clearly. Sometimes I find it absolutely shocking that individuals who claims to hold such a high view of God’s word handle them so sloppily.

When writing on a subcategory of Hermeneutic called Exegesis, basically the attempt to get at ..what the text meant.., D. A. Carson wrote the following, and I think he explains the importance of exegesis, and hermeneutics on the whole, very well; “A critical interpretation of Scripture is one that has adequate justification.. [It] provides sound reasons for the choices it makes and the position it adopts. Critical exegesis is opposed to merely personal opinions, appeals to blind authority, arbitrary interpretations, and speculative opinions. This is not to deny that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, or to argue that piety is irrelevant; it is to say rather that not even piety and the gift of the Holy Spirit guarantee infallible interpretations.”

Good exegesis, and hermeneutics as a whole, help us be changed by the work of God’s Spirit through the Scriptures, for it helps us take our own blinders off so we do not read our own errors and ideas into the text. Again, if you continually find yourself fully affirmed in all that you believe or do by the Scriptures, I’d be very wary that you may be doing this very thing. We all carry with us ideas – presuppositions, if you will – to what we read, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it fully shapes all that we read, it can have a profound effect on how we read Scripture. For example, a young man who had an abusive father might be tempted to bring his view of his earthly father to the text of the Scriptures, thus reading into God characteristics that would be very untrue of Him. However, if this same individual were willing to go the next step, it would force him to come to terms with God the Father as the Scriptures define him, thus critiquing his own view of fatherhood, and possibly changing his life. This shows the importance of good hermeneutics.

According to Grant Osborne, a professor at Trinity, and author of a book I advise for anyone wanting to go further with this study, The Hermeneutical Spiral, there are three primary levels to hermeneutics. The first level is exegetical in nature: we try to determine what the passage meant. What was the author trying to convey to his audience and how did his audience read it? The second level is devotional in nature: what does it mean for you, the reader? The third is sermonic, or rather, how do I properly share this meaning of the text with the rest of God’s people? For example, this takes place nearly anytime someone shares the Gospel; we read the Bible and discern from various passages that there is a common central theme – God’s historical saving work through the person of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection – once the pieces all come together for us, if we are not already, we would find ourselves faced with the challenge; will I follow Jesus? Then as a Christian, we would summarize and reword the story, so when talking to others they too may be faced with Christ, and be challenged to turn also to the Scriptures that they might become as you now are. Grant Osborne does well to explain the problems with leaving out any one of these steps; To ignore the first is to enter a subjective world without controls; To ignore the second is to remove the very basis of Scripture: an individual’s encounter with the divine, which demands a changed life. To ignore the third is to remove the biblical imperative that the divine revelation must be shared as the good news, not kept to oneself for personal gratification – the original meaning of Scripture provides the necessary foundation upon which we build the significance for ourselves then for those to whom we minister.

The exegetical level of the hermeneutical process involves four primary controls. First, we should take care to discover a text’s genre. The Bible is can primarily be broken down into 7 main genres; narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, parables, and epistles. The approach one would take finding application or doctrine in the seemingly encoded concepts in a parable would be very different than the way one would approach a possibly straightforward doctrinal statement in one of Paul’s epistles. Next, we must also remember the logical context of a passage of Scripture .. all of us are tempted to do it; pull a single phrase out of the Bible and use it to proof-text something we believe. Though, as long as the verse is properly understood this is fine, it often happens that people misuse texts drastically by forgetting their original contexts. Imagine, for instance, what sort of things someone could proof-text if they were to separate the idea of “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” from the Gospel’s context of Jesus’ teaching at the last supper, and ultimately the larger context of the Scripture, incorporating Paul’s teachings on the practice of communion? In fact, some Romans actually believed that the early Christians were cannibals likely because of the spreading of Jesus teachings such as this outside their original contexts! The logical context of a passage is of the utmost importance. Next, one much deal with the various language issues surrounding a text: grammar, semantics, and syntax. There are many passages that read clumsily in the Scriptures, and are thus easy to mishandle. Also, different authors sometimes use the same words differently – in fact, on occasion it is indeed possible that in a different context the SAME author might use the same word differently. And lastly, we must also take into account any background information we can find, setting the passage’s historical and cultural setting. Having been originally written by and to people living in a culture that existed around 2000 to 3000 years ago, sometimes their ideas or concepts don’t make sense to us. The fact that we have likely never tended sheep might make some of Jesus’ illustrations really lose their flare to us. Oft-times we find that as we understand the culture in which the Bible was written, the text becomes more alive, and the application of passage that at first seemed obscure become suddenly clear and relevant to us.

When doing biblical exegesis, there are several pitfalls we must be careful to avoid. D. A. Carson calls these ‘exegetical fallacies’, and they are so prevalent that from what I gather from other’s that are more well read on Carson’s work than myself, he himself falls into some of them in spite of his having written an entire book on the subject! Rather than look at every single one of these pitfall, I’d just like to make you all aware of four. First, is what Carson calls the ‘root fallacy’ – often times we’ll hear someone refer to the root of a Greek word to make some profound theological statement. In English we know this just isn’t true, however: the root of a word may or may not have any real logical connection to it’s meaning. For example, the root word for ‘nice’ is the Latin word meaning ‘ignorant’. Or what it, years from now someone applied the ‘root-word’ theory of linguistics to the word ‘butterfly’? A butterfly is neither a fly, nor buttery – the same is true in interpreting Greek. Although sometimes the root of a word does help us get a better idea of what it might mean, that is not necessarily always true. Another common fallacy is what Carson calls the ‘semantic anachronism’, which we are almost all guilty of at one time or another – reading the late use of a word back into earlier writings. The best example of this is one that I have actually HEARD USED before myself. The word dynamite is derived from the Greek work ‘dynamis’, which means power or miracle. I have heard ministers read Romans 1:16 as follows; “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.” Following the statement they pause, and look around the room, just hoping for a reaction. This is the root fallacy at it’s worst, coupled with the semantic anachronism. Do you think Paul had DYNAMITE in mind when he penned that line? Not whatsoever. Quoting Carson; “Dynamite blows things up, tears things down, rips out rock, gouges holes, destroys things. The power of God concerning which Paul speaks he often identifies as the power that rose Jesus from the dead; and it operates in us, its goal is salvation, aiming for the wholeness and perfection implicit in the consummation of our salvation. Quite apart from the semantic anachronism, therefore, dynamite appears inadequate as a means of raising Jesus from the dead or as a means of conforming us to the likeness of Chris.”

There are many more angles to this, but the most important is this: let us carefully handle God’s Word.

Blessings!

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Filed under: Bible, Books, D.A. Carson, Doctrine, Evangelical, Hermeneutics

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