Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Hermeneutics Matter - Part 1

Good day all!!

This is part one in a mini-series I'm doing on what I regard to be a matter for the soul of the Christian Church. While I believe that God will preserve His Word, as He always has, I note with much trepidation that it is not beyond God to allow many generations to pass with no heart for Him or His word. I write this in hopes that those who read it will awaken to the lack of fidelity to the things we claim to hold near and dear.

Ok, I'm just going to come right out and say it. . .


. . . is terrible hermeneutics.

Now, before you start virtually stoning me let me say that I'm a single homeschooling father of a 10 year old boy. So, believe me, I understand just what an accomplishment it is for this young man to stand in front of his church, and indirectly, to stand in front of (to date) 800,000+ You Tube viewers, confidently and clearly reciting his lines. Not merely to trod through his part, but to do so PASSIONATELY and with conviction. Good for this kid, he clearly worked hard and deserves credit for a job well done. His parents should be proud of their little one. Most of all, in the end, it's certainly not this child's fault that the lines he's reciting reflect zero understanding of proper hermeneutics.

Three questions are probably on the average christian's mind right now:

  • What are you talking about?
  • Who cares?
  • Why should I care?

Let me attempt to answer them...

What am I talking about?

Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting and applying Scripture. As Christians we ought to believe a few things in regards to Scripture. Namely:

  1. God's Word is the Bible and the Bible is God's Word.
  2. God is a perfect communicator.
  3. The responsibility falls on the reader to interpret and apply the Word properly without altering the perfect communication from God.

Good hermeneutics assume the first two points and endeavors to take up the responsibility of the last point.

There are a lot of principles to Hermeneutics. Principles relating to the written word in general, principles relating to different types of written word (Psalms, prophesy, etc.), principles relating to consistency within the Bible, principles relating to application, principles for interpretation, and so on. One of the founding principles, and one so often violated, is the principle of single meaning. It is the principle that is being violated in the video above.

The principle of single meaning is simple; each individual Scripture can have only one single meaning. There are not multiple layers of meaning, there are not hidden meanings, there are not meanings for the time period it was written in and a different meaning today. There is just one meaning.

Another principle is that while meaning might be singular, the application is many. Now this is kind of nuanced, so I'll keep it simple.

Take Philippians 4:6-7:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. - Phl 4:6-7 NKJV
If we go through the hermeneutical process of looking at the original language, understanding the context of the verse, examining the culture and history of the author and recipient, remembering our interpretative principles, et. al., we come to a simple interpretation.

"Don't be anxious. Bring everything, including your needs, to God in prayer always remembering to give thanks. Let God know what you desire and need. In this process, God's peace (that simply can't be understood, rather it must be experienced) will overcome your anxiety."

Now, for you professionals out there, I'm certain that my 10 minutes studying that verse probably wasn't enough to do a good job. However, that is beside my point. The point is that we can't look at Phl 4:6-7 and come to the conclusion that it means the above AND something else.

However, could I apply this verse to a person who has a fear of failing a test AND to a person who is never comfortable that they have enough money? Yes, yes I could. Because where a Christian has anxiety, this verse applies no matter what that anxiety may be about.

So, one might respond to me that what the child is doing in the above video is simply making different applications of the concepts he's talking about. To which I respond a resounding no.

Take one of his statements:

"In Numbers he's a pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night."
We all remember that story in Numbers. God led the Israelites through the dessert through a very visible way.

And Moses said to the LORD: "Then the Egyptians will hear [it], for by Your might You brought these people up from among them, "and they will tell [it] to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, LORD, [are] among these people; that You, LORD, are seen face to face and Your cloud stands above them, and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. - Num 14:13-14 NKJV
Now, what part of that verse do you get the pre-incarnate Christ as being that Pillar of Cloud or of Fire? Yes, the pillars are definitely God's pillars, and they are indeed miraculous. Yet at the end of the day the meaning we conclude from that verse is that God put a visible pillar in night and day to lead Israel in an obvious way. It seems that God did this so that Egypt would see and tell the inhabitants of the land that they know for sure that God is with Israel.

That's it. That's what it means. Now, what application can we get out of it? Well, that depends on what needs to be said to whom you are speaking. Some possible examples would be that God is capable and willing to lead His people. We might also say that Israel had no excuse to deny God. We might talk about God's desire to be glorified or about His faithfulness to Israel. There is a LOT we can get out of the verse.

However just as we can't get out of the verse that God abandoned Israel, we also can't conclude that Jesus IS the pillar. He's not. The Pillar is cloud and fire. Not Jesus. It doesn't say that. Anywhere. To claim that it does say that is to inject YOUR OWN meaning into the text. Most of all, it shows a complete lack of hermeneutical fidelity to the text.

I remind you, this is just one statement in the video. It is replete with this kind of injected meanings.

I have only scratched the surface of this important text. Truthfully, I have only scratched the surface of hermeneutics itself. I recommend two books that can help you to dive in to the world of hermeneutics. Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Benard Ramm & Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New vs. The Old by Robert Thomas. (Also, if you google Robert Thomas+Masters Seminary Journal, you'll find some of the articles in his book. . . like this one.) Both are good beginners texts on the subject. Ramm reads like a beginners guide, and Thomas address many challenges to the field. These are the two books I read (one on my own, and the other in a Men's Bible study. . . Hi guys!). I am BY NO MEANS an expert, but my eyes are certainly open.

Now that you understand what Hermeneutics is (remember I'm only teaching ABOUT hermeneutics, not teaching hermeneutics itself.), you'll be well prepared for the next few days. Over the next few days I'll continue my quest to point out this glaring problem in the church today.

Stay tuned, and stay faithful!

(see part two here)

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