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Entries in Hermeneutics (6)


Biblical ethics demands good hermeneutics

On Saturday, I had a day long class in Moral Theolgy. One of the things we discussed was the use of biblical imperatives in making ethical decisions. Our prof read a variety of biblical imperative and asked us to, without giving it a lot of thought, raise our hands if we felt the bibilical imperative was one to be maintained universally. Here are some on that list:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut. 6:5).

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses (I Tim. 5:23)

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet (John 13:14).

Women should remain silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34).

Some of them were very straightford, such as the first one. Others, like the verse in I Corthinthians require a little more context. As we discussed this matter further, many of the lessons I learned in hermeneutics last year came back to me. I was thankful that I'd already taken hermeneutics. I think anyone attending a seminary class ought to begin with hermeneutics. If the basis for our ethics and our doctrine is the Word of God, that we understand hermeneutical principles is crucial.

Hermeneutics is not the same as Bible study. Certainly, attending a Bible study is a good thing. Buying a Bible study book is a good thing. But sitting down and learning principles of interpretation is something else. If I'm going to buy someone's Bible study book, I want the writer to have at least pondered those issues at length. No, not everyone can go to seminary (which is why I would love to see churches offering hermeneutics classes for its congregants) but books are easily accesesible and are not expensive. 

I've already written about my favourite Bible study resources. I will say again here that my favourite introductory book is Journey into God's Word. Yes, it is written by a man, but I do not believe women must learn from women. If they can, that is great. However, I've yet to find a book written by a woman that provides what Journey into God's Word does. This notion that I can only buy books written by women because only women can "understand" my particular needs is, in my opinon, misguided, and possibly self-indulgent. I know a lot of women want to read books by women whom they think they could be friends with in real life. They want some kind of personal connection. I just want the knowledge the author can impart, whether she is a woman or not. 

Every day, we make ethical decisions. As Christians, we want to appeal to biblical imperatives. If we don't know how to interpret those imperatives, we will have bad moral theology. It really does come back to the Bible. If this is our standard, we ought to know it, and know it well. And we are not in a position where that is a difficult thing.


When you have to show your cards

I'm in the midst of writing a paper, due on Friday. It's a review of the book Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. As an aside, let me just say that the books in the "Counterpoints" series, from which this book comes, are excellent. I have read a few, and they are really well done.

My responsibility in this assignment is to summarize each of the three views, by Walter Kaiser, Darrell Bock, and Peter Enns. After summarizing those views, I have to state my own views, with attention to these issues:

  1. The use of Sensus Plenior as an appropriate way of explaining the NT use of the OT

  2. The best way to understand typology

  3. Whether NT writers take account of the context of OT passages

  4. Whether NT authorsuse of contemporaneous Jewish exegetical methods explains the NT use of the OT

  5. Whether 21st century Christians can replicate the hermeneutical and exegetical methods used by the NT authors. 

Considering that each author has expressed his views clearly, given good Scriptural examples, and been rebutted by the other authors, a reader should have an idea where she will land on the matter. I know where my views are, but coming out with a position with the appropriate amount of Scriptural support and careful thought it always a bit daunting. I have done my reading, including some extra research, and I have come to some conclusions, but it's always hard to articulate things well.

In class, there was a moment when our prof asked us, "Do you think we should use the same interpretive methods as the NT authors?" There was silence. No one wanted to brave an opinion right away. Of course, the two gents who tended to dominate the discussion eventually spoke up. I, however, did not, but when asked, I said, "Do we have to use their methods?" i.e., is it necessary in order to gain meaning. My prof said it was a good point.

It's always a scary process to lay out what we think. When reading the book, I was able to agree on various points from all three authors (yes, despite the controversy surrounding Enns, I did agree with him on some points). It is so easy to just agree with what sounds best without a thorough examination of things. This is about more than endorsing one view; it's about coming to my own conclusions, and most of the time, I feel woefully inept at such things. 

Today is a holiday here in Canada, and soon, we're off to enjoy some family time. Starting tomorrow, though, it's time to get busy. I want to do well, and on my last assignment, the prof noted that he wanted to hear more of my own views, so it's time to stop being timid. He's not there to evaluate me as a colleague; I'm his student, and if I am not as smart as Kaiser, Bock, and Enns, he'll understand.


A voice of reason

When I first became a Christian, and started perusing the television in search of Christian content (yes, I was that girl, and when my mother caught me watching Jimmy Swaggart, she told me to shut of the television), I heard my share of end times dialogue. I found the whole thing confusing and frightening, and didn't pay much attention to that stuff until much later, when I studied it in a group bible study. I was still confused and uncertain at the end, and I really balked at some of the application leaps that were made in the discussion time. I wish I'd had this at the time to help me. It's from Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard:

Interpreting Revelation in light of the events of its day should caution over zealous interpreters against looking for detailed correspondence between the events predicted and contemporary news items in the twenty-first (or any other) century. Many items familiar to first-century audiences contribute to the overall imagery without necessarily corresponding to any specific "endtimes" referent. Christian scholars generally agree that the writers of the popular endtimes paperbacks in the local Christian bookstore have missed the message! A perennially best-selling work of nonfiction, Christian or otherwise, in the United States has been Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, yet over and over again he violates fundamental hermeneutical principles. He assersts that in Rev. 9:7-11 John was describing armed helicopters and their tailgunners! Now to be sure, Lindsey draws some striking parallels between John's locusts and modern-day flying machines, but in doing so he ignores the meaning that would have occurred to John's original readers in favor of one that could never have been imagined until a few decades ago. This violates the most basic principle of hermeneutics: seek the meaning of the text . . . Lindsey and many others would avoid such errors by observing a basic rule of hermeneutics that interpreters are prone to abandon when studying Revelation: the text cannot mean something that would have been incomprehensible to its original audience.

The authors raise good points.


Individualism and hermeneutics

Yesterday's hermeneutics lecture was really great. I am regularly copying down some of the interesting things my prof has to say. Last week, my favourite was when Dr. B. made a play on word with "hermeneutics." He said "Herman must be there. Make him your friend."

Yesterday, we got on the topic of how we interpret Scripture keeping in mind the community of the church. Not only do we give credence to interpreters of the past, but we don't isolate ourselves as we interpret, rather, we seek the interpretive voices of others. Dr. B. did not have much good to say about the approach that says that I just need to take myself and my Bible somewhere quiet and figure it out on my own. He believes this attitude arises from the individualistic bent of our society. He encouraged us not to make every application about us personally, but move beyond ourselves to look at what the implications are for the entire church. Yes, there is room for personal piety, but if we continually look to make everything a personal message for us, he belives we are missing out. He also is not entirely in favour of, as a preacher, making applications for others, but rather isolating principles and seeing what the implications are.

In light of the ensuing dicussion, which took us off on a few bunny trails, I think the other students were in agreement with him. Yesterday's comment of the day was: "Commentaries are your friend."

At one time, I viewed commentaries as a last resort. Somehow (probably from my own dimwittedness) I got the notion that there was some sort of failure involved if I had to consult a commentary, never mind more than one. I have since learned that while we definitely need to pursue a diligent study of the text, commentaries provide us with a way of watching someone else interpret the text.

Dr. B. suggested that disregarding what other scholars, past and present, have to say about a text is short-sighted. He pointed out that many of the scholars have spent years reading and studying the text, and we should not be unwillinging to consult their expertise. Studying the Scriptures in community is a valuable and necessary thing. We gather together on the Lord's Day to hear the word in a community. I think we sometimes get so focused on our individual life of faith, we neglect our part in the Body of Christ. Perhaps this individualism is where the "what does it mean to me" line of thinking originated.

I was really thankful for this perspective. It conformed some of my thoughts, and it is always good to know that we're on the right track.


The role of the Spirit in interpretation

I've been reading about the expectations of the interpreter in the process of Biblical interpretation. The truth is in the text, but the interpreter has to seek it.

There is the approach that the Spirit will tell us everything we need to know. Have you confronted that sentiment? I have. I have heard other Christians say that they don't need commentaries or a lot of study, because they are just going to let the text speak to them. That may sound like a rather noble idea, but it us misguided. The illumination from the Spirit works in conjunction with the work of the one doing the reading and interpreting. This comes from my textbook, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation:

Illumination means that a dynamic comprehension of the significance of the Scripture and its application to life belongs uniquely to those indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Though scholars posseses an arsenal of methods and techniques with which to decipher the meaning of the biblical texts, interpretation falls short of its true potential without the illumination of the Spirit. Neither methodology nor the Spirit operates in isolation from the other.

At the same time, there is work which needs to be done:

Being indwelt by the Spirit does not guarantee accurate interpretation. Though we have no desire to diminish the creative work of the Spirit, the Spirit does not work apart from hermeneutics and exegesis. Rather, he provides the sincere believer that indispensable comprehension of the text (that "Aha!") by working within and through methods and techniques.

Prayer is also essential for Bible interpretation, but again, one cannot simply pray for understanding of the Word without doing the work:

We do not substitute prayer for diligent exegetical work. We pray that we will do our work well, that we will be sensistive to the Spirit's direction, and that we will be obedient to the truth of what we discover.

I really appreciated this comment from my textbook:

. . . since the Bible comes to us as literature -- and in a variety of literary genres -- those who would understand its message must become competent readers of literature. We must apply methods that will unpack for us what each level of the text and each kind of genre requires for understanding -- whether historical narrative, epic, parable, prophetic denunciation, epistle, or apocalypse.

As a teacher, I can tell you that it's much easier to teach a class of students when each one has done work prior to the class. I happen to teach a class where there is a desire for no homework. Basically, I'm more of a lecturer. I do try to think of questions to direct them to a text, but teaching women who have already become very familiar with the text prior to the class makes things much easier. We all have to do the work. Yes, the teacher needs to do more, but the student, to get the most out of the class needs to do the work. The Spirit can't illumine what someone has not thought about. It's not as if merely touching the pages transmits the Holy Spirit into us. God chose to reveal Himself through words; words that would become a book. That means we need to read. The fact that we are reading a very old book means it will be work. And it's work that always gives back to us.