Archive | Hermeneutics

Basic Hermeneutical Principles

It is both the privilege and responsibility of every Christian to interpret the Bible for himself/herself. This principle of private interpretation, based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, was articulated by Martin Luther in the 16th century. The response of the Roman Catholic Church was as follows:

“To check unbridled spirits it [the Council of Trent] decrees that no one, relying on his own judgment shall in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation has held or holds or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published.”

According to the RCC, it is neither the right nor the responsibility of any individual Christian to interpret the Bible and declare its meaning. That right ultimately rests with the teaching office (the Magisterium) of the RCC.

The above quotation, however, reflects several misconceptions concerning the Protestant principle of private interpretation:

  1. Private interpretation does not mean that we should rely solely on our own judgments, ignoring the insights and research of others;
  2. Private interpretation does not mean that we have the right to “distort” the Bible in accordance with our own conceptions;
  3. Private interpretation does not mean that we can ignore the history of interpretation in the church.

At the same time as we exercise our God-given responsibility to interpret the Scriptures, we must be aware of the element of subjectivity that influences all interpretation. Interpreting the Bible is not to be compared to a man looking into a fishbowl, but to a fish in his own fishbowl looking at another fish in his! Some of the factors that affect our objectivity in studying the Bible are:

a. personal prejudice

b. hidden agendas (personal and theological)

c. cultural conditioning

d. historical circumstances

e. socio-economic factors

f. unconscious expectations

g. educational background (the “wet cement” syndrome)

h. personality distinctives

i. occupational pressures

j. pride

k. interpersonal relational background

As we seek to interpret the Scriptures, we must also keep in mind the contributions of the past. Fee and Stuart remind us that,

“Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness, can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to ‘out clever’ the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task.”

Our approach to interpretation is called the Grammatical-Historical method. According to the G-H method, the student seeks to ascertain the meaning of a text by an analysis of the simple, direct, ordinary sense of grammatical constructions, with special attention paid to the facts of history, cultural milieu, and literary context.
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John Shelby Spong on the Gospel of John

John Shelby Spong’s newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, was released this week. For those unfamiliar with Spong, he is a retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and the author of a string of notorious books such as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1992), Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), A New Christianity for a New World (2002), and Jesus for the Non-Religious (2008). The recurring theme in these books, reflected in some of the titles, is that Christianity must stop being Christianity and become a mildly spiritual humanism. (Spong actually won the 1999 Humanist of the Year award.) Spong is a devotee of the liberal humanistic theology of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a German-American theologian who argued that God was not a personal Creator but the ground of being, or being itself. This is a philosophically sophisticated way of saying that God does not exist, of having one’s God and eating It too. Spong has also written several books attacking specific traditional Christian beliefs and values, such as Living in Sin? (1990, against traditional Christian sexual values), Born of a Woman (1994, no virgin birth), Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1995, no resurrection of Jesus), and Eternal Life: A New Vision (2010, no heaven or hell).

Spong claims, both in the book and in an article on Huffington Post promoting the book, that The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic is the result of an “intensive five-year-long study” of the Gospel of John and of Johannine scholarship. “I have now read almost every recognized major commentary on John’s gospel that is available in English from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries” (Fourth Gospel, 8). Unfortunately, it doesn’t show. Continue Reading →

Eight Ways to Go Wrong in Bible Study

1. Lucky lotto: (eyes closed) – “Umm . . . I will read this verse”

You may be tempted to simply ask God a question, open up the Bible, fix your eyes on the first verse you see, and think that verse provides God’s answer to your question. There is an old story about a depressed man who did this. He opened up his Bible to Matthew 27:5, “He went out and hanged himself.” A bit confused, the man did it again. This time his eyes fell on John 13:27, “What you do, do quickly.” Now, that was not lucky at all.

What you have to understand is that, while inspired, the Bible is not a magic book. God does not speak through it out of context. There is a message that needs to be understood, a context to every passage. Be careful not to practice “lucky lotto” Bible studies.

2. Brussels Sprouts: “Do I have to?”

Many people hate to study the Bible like they hate to eat their vegetables. You must find a way to cultivate a love for sitting at the feet of God through Bible study. I know just as well as anyone that Bible study can be long and laborious, especially when you are in certain books that don’t seem to produce much fruit from their labor. But always remember that you have the opportunity to hear from the God of all eternity. Bible study is a privilege. When it becomes a burden, think through your life and commitment to God. I know that it is usually a burden to me on days that I am not quite so sold out to him. But when my life is on track, Bible study is often the best part of my day.

3. Channel Changer: “Let’s read something else”

It is easy to jump from place to place every time you study your Bible. But try to be disciplined to stick to one book at a time. Think about it in relation to the movies. We don’t watch little bits and pieces of dozens of different movies. We start a movie at the beginning and we don’t stop until it is over. This is the way I want you to approach the Bible. Work your way through entire books, becoming completely immersed in what they have to teach, then move on to the next. It is okay to be reading many books at a time, but make sure that you are not always jumping all around, never getting the whole story. Continue Reading →

The Mistake of Leviticus

My daily Bible reading plan recently took me to the front door of Leviticus. Oh the venerable wasteland of Leviticus and its neighboring partner in crime Numbers. The battleground where so many great Bible reading intentions met their end. If someone is able to survive Leviticus the chronology of Numbers will surely put them out of their misery.

Now we would never say this out loud (we are all too churchy for that), but the Book of Leviticus seems to be a mistake. The Israelites, they needed Leviticus to help them get everything up-and-running after the Exodus from Egypt, but do we in the 21st century really need this book? Has it been a waste of time, energy, ink and perfectly good sheep skin to preserve this book for over 3,000 years? Is Leviticus a mistake?

As I stood staring once again at the front door of Leviticus I considered three options. Option #1: Skip it. Keep my momentum going and move on over to Deuteronomy. Option #2: Open the door and read it with my nose plugged. I know it’s going to taste bad, I’ve been here before, but I’m going to take it anyway. Option #3: Read it again and hopefully not hate it.

In the last year I’ve taught many times about the Bible. I frequently mention 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Whenever I teach through these two verses I always emphasize a few key points. First, I always lay heavy into the word “All.” I usually say something like, “All does not mean just the New Testament; All does not mean everything except the Minor Prophets; All means All. All, every bit, of Scripture is intentionally breathed out by God.” I then eventually spend time hovering around the words “competent” and “equipped.” I have some faithful jokes I usually insert at this time giving the idea that no person grows up hoping to become incompetent and ill-equipped. We all want to be competent people. In order to all be competent we need all of the Bible.

Which of the three options did I take with Leviticus? Taking a deep I need to practice what I preach sigh I chose Option #3: Read it again and hopefully not hate it.

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Does Scripture Interpret Scripture?: A Case for Reading the Bible as Divine Revelation

(Lisa Robinson)

Perhaps you have heard of this method of interpretation, that scripture interprets scripture. Basically, it says that if we want to know what a verse or passage means, that we have to look elsewhere where the same word or concept is used to understand what it means. However, I am increasingly coming to the conviction that this is not a reliable method of interpretation.

As I have written about previously in a number of posts, we cannot read the Bible in a fragmented manner. We have to examine the theme and genre of each book and consider how that book correlates to the overall meta-narrative of scripture. In other words, who is the author and what is he addressing according to God’s story that is playing out from Genesis to Revelation. We must consider what is going on in terms of divine revelation.  Scripture interpreting scripture can fall short of this.

What do I mean by divine revelation?…

Many times, the word revelation is used in conjunction with illumination that we receive. It is common for someone to say they have received a revelation about God because of something new they have come to learn about him. However this dismisses revelation in terms of something God does.  Revelation is disclosure. So revelation is contingent upon the one revealing to disclose what he is doing. Continue Reading →

The Role of an Exegete

The following except is taken from Interpreting the New Testament Text (Darrel Bock and Buist Fanning eds. (Crossway, 2006), p. 156). David Lowery, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes about the importance of validating our studies. I don’t think I have ever read a finer exhortation concerning the integrity we must possess when pursuing truth. While this is written specifically to exegetes (those who interpret Scripture), it applies to those who seek truth in any area of study. Please read it carefully.

“This process may be better understood by clarifying what it is not. It is not a matter of coming to a conclusion about the interpretation in question at the beginning of the process and arguing the case for that point of view by citing the data that seems supportive of it. In other words, an exegete is not an advocate, like a lawyer representing a client. A good lawyer will try to put his client and his case in the best possible light. He knows what conclusion he wants to reach before the trial begins and will seek to discount (or exclude) the relevance of any data that may prove problematic for winning agreement on the point of view he is putting forward.

Most of us would welcome a lawyer like this arguing our case in a trial. However, many biblical interpreters are confused about their proper role, and function for all practical purposes like lawyers arguing a point of view. They decide at the beginning of the process what view they regard as most compatible with their theological or ecclesiastical or personal conviction and then work to demonstrate the reasonableness of this interpretation against all competing interpretations. If certain data are problematic for their interpretation, they are ignored or discounted. It is a regrettable fact that many sincere (though misguided) people carry out research and writing as theological lawyers rather than biblical interpreters. Please do not be one of them

I hesitate to belabor this point but want to say as clearly as possible that manipulating the data of the text to support a particular point of view is not authentic exegesis or interpretation, and it is not validation that has any integrity of method associated with it. When you as a researcher detect this bogus approach to exegesis in the writing you are reading (or the lecture you are hearing), regard it as the wishful thinking of its author that it is. If you own writing of this sort, the only reason to read it is as an example of what not to do (libraries, by virtue of their role, routinely find shelf space for work of this sort and must be excused). Let no one say of you that you made up your mind about your conclusion before you started the process of validation. Instead, aim to follow the data to the most probable conclusion. Practice integrity of method. Your conclusion may be unsettling to you and may create more than a little personal tension (a circumstance that may never be resolved for some issues: welcome to life in an imperfect world). But you (and those you minister to) will be better for it if you treat the data with integrity (and you will not be a phony exegete).”

How to Study the Bible in a Nutshell

The following is a practical guide to biblical interpretation following a three step process that I have used for years. The Bible is two-thousand years old and often seems very archaic. This makes it hard to know how it applies to us. It can be very frustrating as all Christians are encouraged to read their Bible daily but often are at a loss as to how to understand it and apply the message to their own lives. This process has served me well and I believe it is representative of the best way to interpret the ancient word of God and apply it to today. I hope that it will alleviate some of the “Bible interpretation anxiety” that is out there, allowing the Bible to become real and relevant to your life.

click on image to enlarge

Notice the three sections of the chart. There are three audiences that everyone needs to recognize in the process of interpreting the Bible. In the bottom left, you have the “ancient audience.” This represents the original audience and the original author. The top portion represents the “timeless audience” which transcends the time and the culture of the original situation. It is that which applies to all people of all places of all times, without regard to cultural and historical issues. Finally, we have the “contemporary audience” in the bottom right. This represents the audience of today. Here we will find application of the Bible with regard to our time, culture, and circumstances.

In Biblical interpretation, it is of extreme importance that one goes in the order of the chart. The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. So many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s word. Others start with step number two, attempting to force their own theology on the text. It is important that all steps are covered to ensure interpretive fidelity.

Step one: Exegetical Statement

What did it mean then?

The first step is the most important. Here the goal is to ascertain the original intent of the writing. It is very important that one enters into the world of the author and the audience. Sometimes this will be easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, requiring quite a bit of study.

Here are the different issues that you must consider:

Historical issues: There will be historical circumstances that will aid in your understanding of the text. Here, you will ask questions of “occasion.” Who is the original author? Who is the original audience? What purpose did the writing have? When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what was his occasion or purpose? Was it to give an exhaustive history of the world to everyone or to prepare the Israelite religious community to exist in a theocratic society under Yahweh? When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, what was his purpose? Knowing that in 2 Corinthians he was writing to defend his apostleship as other false apostles were opposing him is essential to understanding every verse. As well, what was Paul’s disposition toward the Galatians when he wrote to them? Was it to commend, condemn, or correct? The occasion will determine so much of our understanding. Continue Reading →

You Talking To Me?: Personalizing Biblical Narrative and Prophetic Discourse

(Lisa Robinson)

I have found one of the biggest differences between good Bible reading and Bible reading that is disjointed or otherwise skews what is being communicated, is how we understand the relationship between what is transpiring through the Bible’s narrative vs what we read as directed towards us.   It is understanding what is descriptive vs what is prescriptive.  In fact, I would include prophetic discourse in that as well.  Our understanding of how these two are related will depend, in large part on  instruction and training we receive with respect to how to understand each of the Bible’s 66 books.  This instruction would include understanding that each author is communicating to a particular audience, addressing particular situations or norms, what type of book it is (narrative, wisdom, letters), and how it correlates into God’s overarching narrative in salvation history.

Through my own personal experience and observation of many, there is an inverse relationship between the level of instruction and the tendency to personalize passages as being directed towards us.  What do I mean by that?  I have observed that without instruction, there is a tendency to read the Bible as if everything is being communicated directly to us.  I did just that for many years, especially related to the prophetic books and using that as an indicator of what God was communicating to me personally.  With a personalized focus, there will also the tendency to expect  what transpired through the pages of narrative to be replicated today, especially if it is believed as direct communication.

I believe it is of utmost importance for every Christian to understand how to read their bible, which starts from understanding what it is and how it was put together.  As long as we use language like “manual for living”, it will be nothing more than a self-help guide so that we can stay on track with our Christian life and abide by Christian living principles.  But I believe that is a misrepresentation of God’s self-revelation, which displayed throughout all 66 books.  And this must be considered according to the trajectory that is being laid out through the bible’s narrative.

Don’t get me wrong, there is instruction in there for us, particularly in the New Testament letters.  These were written to situations that were going on the Church, general exhortations to the Church and/or warnings and exhortations to individuals.  Even with the letters, they were addressing an historical and cultural reality that must be taken into consideration.  There are also general principles to glean from how God relates to his people.  The wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiates, Job)  provides timeless principles as well, although we must be aware of historic and cultural references. Continue Reading →