by C Michael PattonMay 17th, 2009 152 Comments
I was teaching the other day on hermeneutics (the science and art of biblical interpretation). More specifically, I was teaching on the importance of what is known as “authorial intent” or “historical grammatical” hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a fancy word that has to do with one’s method of interpreting the Bible. An “authorial intent” hermeneutic simply means that we must seek to understand what the text meant from the standpoint of the original author and audience before we can apply it to our lives. This involves an understanding of many things, including the argument of the writing, the situation of the audience, the rules that govern the particular genera (type of writing), the culture in which the book was written, issues of grammar and syntax, and personality and mood of the author (and how he was feeling at the time he wrote it). Sometimes this is self-evident, and sometimes it takes a lot of leg work. Sometimes you are sure, but sometimes there is some ambiguity that tempers your assurance.
While I was explaining this, many people were becoming very uncomfortable and squirming in their seat. One lady would have none of what I said, but continually pleaded that she does not need this. God simply speaks to her when she opens the Bible, bypassing all these difficulties and roadblocks that I was suggesting. She insinuated that if what I said were true that she would have to quit reading the Scriptures. Ouch! As an Evangelical Christian teacher, this is the last thing that I want someone to do.
Today’s reaction was not unique by any stretch. I have taught on this dozens of times and most people feel very uncomfortable with this presentation. I understand where they are coming from. Heck, I even find these propositions difficult to swallow sometimes. Why? Because the Bible is God’s word. Because we are taught that the Bible is “living and active.” Because we believe that the “Bible is God’s love letter to us.” This means that when we open it up, it becomes God’s message to us.
Most people normally don’t practice authorial intent hermeneutics when we read our Bible. We have a different hermeneutic altogether. It is a subjective, reader-response hermeneutic where the Bible speaks magically to us. In our mind (although we would never admit it as such), God bypasses the original intent of the author and opens our eyes to His teaching just for us. This is a “secret” hidden message that only Christians can find. One of my friends in seminary used to call this “lucky-lotto hermeneutics.” To play the ”lucky-lotto,” you simply pick up the Bible and the first thing you read will give you the answers to the questions you are after: God will speak directly to you.
I often tell people that if we were going to practice this type of hermeneutic, we might as well use Moby Dick. As a matter of fact, if this is our method, God can use any writing whether it be Harry Potter, the Dallas Morning News sports page, the Yellow Pages, the billboard as you are driving down the road, or the ticker at the bottom of the screen while watching FOX News (not MSNBC though ). All of these would carry the same validity as God’s message if we are going to use a subjective hermeneutic which disregards what the text meant in its original context. If God is going to bless us and give us a message in such a way, He is doing it graciously in spite of our methodology, not because of it.
Where does such a hermeneutic arise? Why do we feel as if we can violate the Scriptures in such a way? Where do we come up with this method of mining out God’s “secret” hidden message?
I believe that Gnosticism, at least in the West, is the biggest problem in conservative Christianity today. To make a very complex subject overly simple, Gnosticism is a ancient Greek philosophy that separates the world into two categories: good and evil. All that is evil is associated with the mundane existence of a material world. All that is good is that which transcends the material world, being spiritual in nature. Therefore, Gnostics believed that the body, being material, was inherently evil. They believed that the earth and creation were evil. They believed that our goal was to transcend this material existence in every discipline of life, thus escaping the mundane. The ultimate redemption would come at death when our spirits would finally be released from our body.
In the New Testament, we see the Apostle’s having to battle this type of philosophy time and time again. Paul was scoffed at as he preached the resurrection of the dead to the Athenians. “Why would some one want to resurrect their evil body?” was the argument of the philosophers on Mars Hill. “That is ridiculous. We just got rid of our body; why would we want it back?” John had to defend the fact that Christ actually took on real flesh, a true material existence. Those Gnostics who wanted to be faithful to their philosophy of dualism (good=spirit and evil=physical) yet accept Christianity produced a new Christ. To them, Christ only seemed to have a body, but He really didn’t because a good God could not take on a physical existence since physicality is inherently evil. Yet John proclaimed that they had “seen” Christ and that their “hands have handled him” (1 John 1:1-2).
Where am I going with this? Hang with me…
It is my contention that we are still struggling with the basic presuppositions of a Gnostic worldview in the church today. Right now, I am simply dealing with this with regards to our Bibliology and Hermeneutic, but we can find the influence of Gnosticism infecting our view of Christ, Humanity, Culture, and the end times. As I mention above, most Christians are reading the Bible with a subjective hermeneutic. They read the text as if there is some secret, hidden, underlying meaning in the text. This hidden meaning is the true “spiritual” meaning that transcends the ordinary, physical, evident, mundane reading. This hidden meaning can only be discovered by Christians. Why? Because Christians have the secret decoder ring. We have the Holy Spirit who meets us at the text and whispers in our ear what the meaning really is.
This hermeneutic started very early in Church history in Alexandria and was predominant until the Reformation. Many in church history laid it out logically in this way: Just as the body has three parts—body (physical), soul, and spirit, so the Scripture has three interpretations—literal (physical), moral, and spiritual. While the literal was not completely disregarded, it certainly took a back seat to the more important spiritual meaning. The problem quickly became evident as people would search for this deeper hidden meaning without any rules or reliable guidelines for finding such. The result was that everyone came to different conclusions about what it meant (sound familiar?). The Reformers led the Church back to authorial intent hermeneutics, claiming that it is the only way for us to understand what the Scriptures really mean.
Today, I believe that we (evangelicals included) are dangerously close to Gnosticism with regards to our Bible study. We have lost the spirit of Reformation hermeneutics, especially in the pews. We sit around in Bible study circles and ask “What does this passage mean to you?” We applaud as someone gives their answer and then move on to the next and ask the same question. “What does it mean to you Billy?… And what does it mean to you Sal?… What does it mean to you Kevin?” We affirm each person’s response even if it means something different to each person. Can the text have different meanings? Only if you are practicing a Gnostic hermeneutic where the Bible becomes a magic book with a secret spiritual meaning that transcends the literal.
While the Bible can have different and subjective applications, it cannot have different and subjective meanings. It means what it meant. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no person, group, denomination, tradition, or magisterial authority who has a magic decoder ring. There is no secret hidden meaning. The only meaning that we can discover is what the original author meant.
While this does produce fear of the Scriptures, I believe that this is a healthy fear. After all, the Bible is God’s word, isn’t it? We can’t take it lightly.
- The Exegetical Process: What Does it Mean to You?
- Eight Ways to Go Wrong in Bible Study
- Case Studies in Inerrancy: A New P&P Series
- Seven Common Fallacies of Biblical Interpretation
- Good Exegesis Does not Always Produce Good Theology