Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Hermeneutics Matter - Part 3

Good day all!

This is part three in a mini-series I'm doing on what I regard to be a matter for the soul of the Christian Church. If you missed the previous posts, click here for part one, and here for part two. 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.

Why Should You Care About Hermeneutics?

--The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) begins with the question "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." The second question tells us how to do this by asking "What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?" The foundation of that question is, of course, that God HAS directed us on how to glorify and enjoy Him. The answer to this question is very telling: "The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him."

So, is the WSC correct? More importantly, do you agree?

I'll begin by stating a presupposition: Christians all agree on the answer to the first question. We agree that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that if you don't agree with that then you are probably not a Christian.

The second question, however, is where the problem lies, and what the thrust of this mini-series is emphasizing. A lot can be said of the question...
-HAS God given us direction in how to glorify and enjoy Him?
-Are we able to ascertain this direction?
-Is this direction understandable?

To me, the answer is obvious. If God wants us to glorify Him, and we are unable to do this on our own (Eph 2:4-5), that He would have to tell us how we may glorify Him. Otherwise, the task would not only be impossible, but utterly hopeless as well! So, God MUST have told us how to do this.

It follows then that we can understand what He has told us. If God be perfect, and He is, then He must also be perfect in communication. Being perfect in communication, are the problems we have in understanding His communication His fault, or ours?

However, if the problem in our 21st century church were merely that God is not being understood, then I would be writing a very different mini-series. I would instead be writing helpful hints and linking great articles from good men about how to understand God's word. Nonetheless, as I said last time, that isn't the problem. The problem is that most people are content with not understanding, and almost all of these people even prefer not to understand.

Now, I ask you. . . does this glorify God? Does it bring honor to God to take the means, the "rule" as WSC calls it, and to choose not to understand it? Of course not. Hermeneutics is that method by which we understand the Scriptures. A bad hermeneutic and we don't understand them at all, and thus, we don't understand how to glorify God. A good one, and God imparts on us the information He has always desired to tell us.

Why foolishly cling to that which does not glorify God?

--Psalm 119:160 says "The entirety of Your word [is] truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments [endures] forever."

Jesus echos this sentiment when He said: "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth." - Jhn 17:17 NKJV

The truth is an important thing. God, in His infinite wisdom, warns us in Mark 7:7 that teaching the commandments of men is a vain exercise. Paul solidifies this point in 1CR 3:19. Jesus then in Mark 7:8 establishes that the pharisees of His day were exalting their own traditions above the Word of God. Note that they had invented their own traditions and in Mark 7:9 Jesus tells us that they even rejected God's commands to keep their traditions. After giving an example, Jesus sums up the state of such men in a scathing judgement:

"...making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do." - Mark 7:13 NKJV (See Mark 7:11-12 for context)
Jews in Jesus day and prior regarded the Word of God to be sacred. In their worship, they would kiss their Synagogue's copy of the Torah before reading it. Men and Women alike would stand quietly as it was read. Sure, sometimes they were just going through the motions (as the Pharisees were), but the tradition had it's germination in a deep respect for God's word.

In Nehemiah chapter 8, we find a people who had been chastened by the exile of the Jews to Babylon and Persia. Here we have a tiny percentage of Judah returning to the promised land and trying to rebuild their society. They had learned their lesson and now hungered for God. Ezra opens the Word of God and the people stood (Neh 8:5). In Nehemiah chapter 9 it tells us that they would stand for 6 hours out of their day hearing from God's word. It was that important.

The question becomes obvious; how important is it to us? We don't stand when we hear God's word, and many are uninterested in UNDERSTANDING it too. Shouldn't the very words of God mean more to us? Isn't it worth our respect to take the time to properly interpret and apply it to our daily lives?

I say that it is.

-- No human being with an amount of honesty will dispute that we make many mistakes. Why then do we believe that we can do just fine on our own without taking the time to understand properly what God's word says? If we are mistake prone, aren't we mistake prone in our own ideas too? Proverbs has much to say on this:

Proverbs 1:7 tells us that "fools despise wisdom and instruction". Proverbs 3:5 tells us to "lean not on our own understanding."

Good Hermeneutics, by its design, is a VERY careful process. It has many steps, many checks and balances. Yes, we can make an error even following a good system to the letter, but we are much less prone to do so. It also becomes far less likely that we will make the kind of error that comes from hubris, instead we are more likely to merely make simple mistakes rooted in knowledge or judgement. We can't know everything and no system of hermeneutics can overcome that. However a good system can push a believer in the direction of making the errors smaller, more easily manageable. More importantly, it pushes the believer away from making errors that are cataclysmic to their faith.

Why? Because the believer is not despising instruction and is not leaning on his own understanding.

Sure, it is possible to lean then on the mistaken understanding of someone else. However, good hermeneutics will reject human intervention and allow the Word of God to speak for itself. Thus, the believer is leaning on God's wisdom through His word and not on man-made wisdom.

This is worth pursuing.

-- The writer of Hebrews tells us that the God's word is "sharper than any two edged sword" (Heb 4:12). In other words, it is a formidable weapon in the war we fight on this earth and in this life. Why then do many Christians decide not to use it?

My 10 year old likes to tell me about many of his guns. He owns an AK-47, a sub machine gun, a laser gun, a couple of P-90's, and something he calls a rocket booster (don't ask, I have no idea). My son has even shot me many times with his guns. Yet here I sit able to type this blog post to you. You would think that a man who has been shot by a "rocket booster" would need immediate medical attention. However, I assure you that I'm just fine.

You see my son's guns are toys. Replicas of the real thing. Some of them look very real. Some of them even shoot little plastic or rubber bullets. These toys give him hours and hours of fun pretending to save the world from invading aliens or hordes of soldiers looking to harm his dog or I. However, if a thief broke into my home tonight, I would not reach for one of my son's toys. It is limited and serves one purpose: to amuse my son. It has no real world value and in the end brings no useful or lasting purpose.

Many people spend much of their time crafting fun toys with Scripture that, like my son's guns, look much like the real thing, but pale in comparison. In the end, these exercises in man made theology create a lot of entertainment and make for interesting conversation, but have no redeeming value in the real world, and no useful or lasting purpose.

The Master's Seminary Professor Robert Thomas critiqued preterist writer Kenneth Gentry by using a similar analogy. Thomas said that he took his sons to Disney world and described a ride where they were in front of a 3D screen and sitting in a car like device that would shake, roll, and move in congress with the images on the screen. The ride, Thomas tells us, made his son quite ill and afraid. However Thomas tells us that he was not affected by the ride because he was felt safe in the knowledge that this was just a ride. The illusion was ruined for him. Thomas goes on to critique Gentry's sloppy hermeneutics claiming Gentry created an illusion to base his preterist claims upon.

Putting aside Thomas' opinion of Gentry, the basis for his critique is valid. If we are to create an illusion of a firm foundation, is that foundation really firm? Of course not. This is obvious, but what is not so obvious is the heightened sense of danger associated with illusions. When one has no illusions, one is not fooled, and even if one has no idea what reality may be, at least one does not need to be first shaken from a mistaken belief in order to embrace reality when it is found.

Just as it would be a disaster to believe my son's toys, however realistic they may appear, could protect my home, so we must see that a theology built to look like God's word, but absent of any basis in God's Word, would have equally disastrous effects on our faith.

--There is no wisdom in men (1 Cor 2:5). We are sinful wretched creatures (Eccl 7:20). Our hearts are dark and wicked (Jer 17:9). We don't, in and of ourselves, do anything good (Psm 53:3).

We ought, then, to reject the wisdom of men and embrace the wisdom of God. God desires for us to have a right relationship with Him. He will not do this with respect to our conditions or through our means. We must abandon these things. We must embrace Him. This begins and ends with embracing God's word and really believing Sola Scriptura.

Christians, throw down the idols you have made with God's word! Abandon those things that you've embraced instead of His word! Allow the richness of His wisdom to speak to you uninhibited and unaltered. God has given you His word for this exact purpose. It is up to you to listen.

We'll wrap up this mini-series tomorrow with some closing thoughts.

(see part four here)

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