Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Necessity of a Consistent Hermeneutic

I am so far from being a Biblical scholar its silly, but I thank God that He has shown me early on in my Christian walk how essential it is to have a proper and systematic way to approach and interpret Scripture -even if after all is said and done I still don't know what the particular passage means. This is what we mean by a "hermeneutic". In general, I believe the proper manner in which Scripture should be interpreted goes something like this:

Let the meaning of the passage, and the individual words in the passage, be defined by their immediate context.

This is a hard one to stick to, especially when we are faced with a doctrine we are not comfortable with. I see and read this a lot when people are faced with passages such as John 6:44-45. It seems offensive to think that the only reason anybody comes to Christ is because God draws them, and as a result they actually do come! No, the tendency is to jump to another verse somewhere else to explain this "difficult passage" away. But this is just a shallow escape route. Some may wish to be "appealing to the broader context of Scripture" when faced with a difficult passage. This is fine provided the "broader context" is defined Biblically, as well. And how do we arrive at this "broader context", by the way? We arrive at it by looking at passages in their *immediate context* to determine their meaning. Again, back to the original hermeneutic. Often times when one makes the plea of the "broader context" excuse, it means something more like, "lets look at verses that seem to support my tradition because I've always been told that they do without ever exegeting them in their own context first." It means they do not want to be bound, for whatever reason, to the clear teaching of the text so a frantic escape to somewhere else seems like a good idea.

Sticking to a consistent hermeneutic like the one stated above avoids many problems. Just to name a few:

a. it avoids the problem of looking up a phrase in the New Testament, for example, and assuming that the phrase must have the same meaning, by default, in every other usage. It is common to do this. Just grab strongs concordance or something and blammo -read the definition in wherever you see the word used. But this is foolish to do. No, the immediate context must influence and determine the meaning of the word as it is used in the passage in question. Example: the word "world" is so often assumed to mean "every single person who ever lived and who will ever live" that its not even funny, but an honest cursory look at the New Testament, even in the writings of John alone, will show a variety of meaning. Is the world that Jesus *does not pray for* in John 17 the same thing as the world in John 3:16? Follow the logical conclusions from assuming that to be the case.

b. it avoids the problem of assuming meanings of words or phrases based upon our preconceived ideas, whether we realize them or not. A classic example, similar to the previous problem, is the phrase "all" or "all men". Without even looking at the context or the logical implications of what our supposed meaning would lead to, it is often assumed that "all" and "all men" mean the quantitative entirety of humanity to the level of each individual human, personally. Of course, this is silly when we read such passages as Acts 22:15 -

"You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. "

Was Paul being sent to be God's witness to every single person who ever lived, including Adam, Abraham, Cain, Nebuchadnezzar, Pharoah, and the multitudes of people never even heard of in Scripture? Of course not. He is speaking of all kinds of men -not just the rich, not just the Jewish, not just poor, either. All men.

c. it avoids misapplying pronouns. When we see pronouns such as "us" or "we" or "them", do we track back the line of thought in the immediate context to see whom the writer is speaking of, or do we assume that "us" means all people, including unbelievers, for example? Again, sticking to a consistent hermeneutic such as stated above makes this error less sustainable.

d. it avoids Scripture bouncing. This is what I wrote about in the beginning of this post. If we don't like where the teaching is leading, many of us like to bounce to some other "safe" Scripture verses to counteract the teaching in a particular verse we may have trouble with. Of course, the "safe" verse probably has never been held to this systematic approach to interpretation either, never been exegeted in its context, so its really just a blanket of deception to protect our blessed belief-system.

Of course, this does not make us perfect Bible-interpreters. As long as sin lives in us we will resist and obscure the teachings of Scripture in some way. The Spirit of God alone is our Teacher, but we are responsible to study the Word and divide it rightly, so let us use a little common sense and develop a system of study which lets the Bible speak for itself. What I have briefly outlined above is extremely basic and certainly nothing new, but it is a place to start for sure.

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