Hermeneutics 101

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It's all a matter of interpretation, dear Watson, said Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective. Our Biblical Interpretation class looked at 20 statements that are part of popular discourse, and were asked to detect if anything was wrong with them.

Is there anything wrong with these statements? If so, what is wrong. If not, why not?

  1. "We disagree that the 'heart of the gospel is the call to repentance and faith' (p. 147) but rather that love and grace are centered as the heart of the gospel."
  2. “Everybody is in Christ.”
  3. “All truth is God’s truth.”
  4. “I feel like the Bible is telling me that _________.”
  5. "The report is lacking in the grace and inclusivity of a creator God from whom we have never been separated." 
  6. “I am glad that you hold your opinion about what the Bible says on that subject. Since everyone has their own opinion about how the Bible is interpreted, then I think what I believe about ____________ is fine.”
  7. The Jesus of the Bible is always accepting, always kind.
  8. The Holy Spirit told me that I should divorce my wife and marry a more anointed woman.
  9. I am just being Biblical. Don’t judge what I am saying. The Bible says do not judge.
  10. Why can’t you just obey what the pastor is saying about giving him 25% of your income. Doesn’t the Bible tell you to respect your leaders?
  11. Siabusi had a prophetic word at church that _____________. Since it is a prophetic word and we can’t quench the Spirit it must be true.
  12. You better hurry up and get on the mission field because Matthew 24 says that Jesus can’t come back until all the world is reached.
  13. If you are sincere, then Jesus will accept you at the final Judgement.
  14. Only our church knows how to really read the Bible.  Those _____________at the _________church down the road have got it all wrong.
  15. I heard a talk on You Tube on how to interpret end-time prophesies. The pastor said that the Temple is going to be rebuilt. Isn’t that great?
  16. I have a Bible translation that says that Jesus is not the Son of God, but only the representative of God.
  17. The Bible says that __________________________. How can you be sure?
  18. The Greek says that the Apostle Paul only had a problem with________________in his day and age. So there. There is no problem today.
  19. Not only that, historians have shown that he had a wrong angle on _________________________________. They must be right.
  20. Scientists have shown that evolution must be true. That means that we have to read Genesis 1 and 2 like a fairy-tale.
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Participant

I'm curious as to what the point of this article is. There are a lot of statements here that are problematic, but so what? What is the authour trying to say, beyond quizzing readers on how good they are at identifying logical errors (out of context too, unfortunately). Truth be told, the article doesn't even seem to be about "hermeneutics" at all--rather it seems to be about "spotting the logical errors"--which is not the same thing. 

Thank you for engaging, Daniel.

     These statements and more have been told directly to me, or have come up in class discussions. What we did in the class was break into small groups and look at the following:

a. What is the presupposition behind what is being asserted?

   Take the statement, "The Jesus of the Bible is always accepting, always kind." The person making such a statement has, in effect, created a designer, Jesus. This designer Jesus will indulge whatever this person wants. The presupposition is that it is fine to create a designer Jesus in one's own image. This is an erroneous presupposition, as it fails to reckon with multiple passages that present Jesus as the Judge of humanity and who will call into account the thoughts and deeds of humans. Little wonder that people in the book of Revelation would rather be buried alive than meet the wrath of the Lamb. 

 

b. What partial truth is being presented?

     Take, the statement, "....inclusivity of a creator God from whom we have never been separated."  Behind this statement is the idea that humans have never been separated from God. This is a partial truth, as all humans are the recipients of daily divine revelation..." the heavens are declaring the glory of God." In this sense, they are not blocked from receiving this revelation. Yet Romans 1 is very clear that humans "in the sphere of unrighteousness" are both truth holders and truth twisters. The partial truth here is that all humans have a connection---what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis---with God. The blatant lie, of the above statement, is that the Christian God by definition is both Creator and Redeemer and Judge, and every human knows that there is something wrong with our relationship to this Sovereign.

c. How are two or more ideas being conflated illegitimately?e

    For example, on one level, we can all say that we are "in Christ" as he holds the universe together by the word of his power. For that matter, in this sense, we can say that even my sheep-dog is in Christ. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul uses the phrase "in Christ" in a very technical sense to differentiate those who are savingly in union with Him due to faith in Him, and those who are not. Yet, I had a person come up to me assert, in a universalistic sense, that "all people are in Christ" and by implication, already saved. My response was, "so why do we have a Savior?"

d. How are two or more ideas pitted against each other illegitimately?

    For example "Since it is a prophetic word and we can’t quench the Spirit it must be true." Here the need to discern the spirits is pitted against the injunction not to quench the Spirit. This is a clever way to disarm a person who may have serious questions with what is allegedly a prophetic word. If you think this is just theory, I closely examined a very faulty method of outreach to Muslims, which was supposedly "one of the greatest works of the Holy Spirit in this century." As I did so, I was warned that doing so would constitute quenching the Holy Spirit. 

     Daniel, what I tried to get across to the class is that "correctly handling the word of truth" is not unlike the work of the eye surgeon who removed my cataracts. It is serious business, and a cavalier attitude on the part of the eye surgeon could well lead to blindness on my part. How much more are we called to be skilled workmen knowing that how we handle this Word of God, has eternal consequences.

    "But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word." Isaiah 66:2

 

My question to you Daniel, is, what additions would you make to the list? I could use them in my next class.

John

Participant

Ok. Thanks for getting back to me, John. I would add this: "The majority of the Church (geographically and/or temporally) has always believed this to be the correct interpretation, therefore it is correct."

   Your additional item is a challenging statement. You might or might not be aware that I have lived and worked for almost half of my adult life in contexts other than North America. Doing so has taught me a few things, namely:

a. North American evangelicalism is certainly not the center of global Christianity. The fact of the matter, it is likely somewhere in Niger, Africa.

b. Having lived in Egypt for three years has given me more appreciation for Church History than I ever had before. What these churches believe has frequently come through the crucible of persecution. Additionally, churches from the global south are very much less prone to be carried downstream on the waves of the spirit of the age. It is a fool's errand not to respect the wisdom of our "older brother churches". Witness some what is going on in the Anglican Communion and the input from the global south.

c. The global and historical church has had a lot of time and experience to hammer out what it believes and why.

In the main, I think they have it mostly right, especially when one region challenges other regions. Are you aware that when I let a group of North American churches know that the church in Egypt had begun to pray and fast that they would not compromise in light of the US Senate decision to allow same-sex marriage, I was taken to task for delivering such news? Imagine the hubris of these North American churches who despised the genuine care of their --again---older brother. 

       As much as it seems like you are advocating for epistemic humility---please tell me if I am putting words in your mouth--there is a downside to that, namely that one can become agnostic of anything.

 

Participant

I hear you, and appreciate the importance and significance of not only your experience with the "older brother" churches. It is also dismaying to me that anyone would want to quash information about how brothers and sisters in Christ are praying for us--even if we might not agree with what they are praying for, we can certainly (I would hope) heartily agree with and appreciate their desire to pray for us, just as, I would hope, we would want to pray for them.

As to the points you list, I will try to respond to them point by point.

a. I am well aware of the reality that "North American Evangelicalism" (NAE) is not the centre of global Christianity. Personally, I think it was (and is, for some, I suppose) tremendous hubris for us to think that NAE was ever the global centre of Christianity. As far as I can tell, it never was. That being said, and though I respect very much our bothers and sisters past, present, future and globally, there is a very biblical sense of the relevance of contextualisation. Not that you don't know this, of course, but many things in the Bible (articulations of particular applications of general Biblical laws and principles) are not universally applicable in all of our current contexts. Where it may be right and good for people to wear hats in church in some places and times, in other places and times it is not good--not because there is something inherently wrong with wearing a hat, but because the practical application of the general principle differs in different contexts. And so, again, while appreciating and respecting our brothers and sisters throughout time and space, their understanding of our situation, though no doubt valuable and important, would be no more nor less applicable than ours of their contexts. 

Additionally, and sadly, the "centre" of Christianity, in my experience, has very little to do with the "rightness" of what is taught from that "center". I say this not particularly of Niger (or any other place), but in recognition of the reality that when the "centre of global Christianity was (arguably) in Europe during the later middle, renaissance, industrial and modern eras the church had the terrible shame of teaching that race-based slavery, colonialism, religious wars, conversion by force, state sponsored religion, and that the Earth was flat and that the sun, moon and stars revolved around it were all good and right and incontrivertable principles of the faith.

In conclusion, on part "a" then, part of me says--"Yes, it is very important to acknowledge and respect and listen to our brothers and sister throughout the world and throughout time." Another part of me says, "Well, who cares (honestly) what other people think, if it's wrong? There's an awful lot of evidence that suggests that the past is no guarantee of rightness in the future/present, and the majority is no guarantee either."

b. Certainly church history is incredibly important in informing our present (and our future). And there is no end of respect that must be given to those who have lived through persecution and/or who have been martyred for the cause of Christ. I would take issue with your statement that "churches from the global south are very much less prone to be carried downstream on the waves of the spirit of the age." The truth is that Satan love to "tailor make" our temptations to our contexts. Though the "spirit of the age" looks a certain way in North America, and though the global south may not be as tempted to fall to that particular form of the spirit of the age, they have their own "tailor made" spirit of the age and are, perhaps, more tempted to fall to that spirit than we are in our contexts. God does not exclude people based on geography (or anything else either--other than non-repentance), but neither does Satan. 

The evidence for this is everywhere in the global south. Witness the temptation to struggle with prosperity gospel, or the syncretism of Roman Catholicism with voodoo in some parts of the world, or the terrors of the Rwandan Genocide, largely perpetrated by "Christians". 

Understand that I say this not because North Americans are "better"--we're so very definitely not--but just to say that, while I agree very much that we need to listen in all humility to our brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout our past, we should not fool ourselves into thinking somehow that, because they are not tempted by the same things we are, they are therefore to be listened to more than our own discernment of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures and their application in our own contexts.

c. The global and historical church has indeed had a lot of time and experience to hammer out what it believes and why--I agree! We, in North America, are part of that history. I love to do some genealogical research as a hobby. I can trace back more than 400 years of "Reformed" people in my own family--and that's only as far back as I've been able to trace so far. And, while I agree that we (by the grace of God) throughout the world have gotten a lot of the really big stuff right (on paper at least), there are a huge number of areas where we have gotten it wrong too:

- Colonialism and the persecution and genocide of indigenous peoples.

- Conversion by the sword, through the crusades and beyond.

- Political corruption of the church (and church corruption of politics too).

- Hate for people based on their culture, religion, skin colour, gender, age, etc.

- Shunning of science.

- The arrogance of a "holier than thou" approach to the world

- The pretense of living in "Christendom" and the heresy of "Christian Nationalism"

- and on, and on, and on....

 

I am advocating for epistemic humility. I agree that, done poorly I suppose, it could lead to one becoming "agnostic of anything", however it does not necessarily lead to that, if one is careful. Additionally, a great deal of humility is, in my opinion, necessary to correcting the great deal of arrogance that the church has evidenced, globally, and in North America, over the past 1800 years or so.

This is why it is so important, in my opinion, for us to take Karl Barth's tack on dogmatics. To paraphrase: "Dogmatics is the church scientifically examining her talk (both in words and deeds) of God in light of the scripture." Notice that, though the global church and the history of the church should be implicitly an important part of that examination of our talk, it is, on purpose, I believe, relegated to the implicit. The explicit is Scripture--all else is subservient to that.

I noticed you've included a number of quotes in your list of statements that come from overtures which were submitted to Synod in 2021. Is there a reason why you've chosen not to share their sources?

Hello Benjamin:

     I am a CRC commissioned pastor who teaches at Mukhanyo Theological College in South Africa. The list of quotes, yes, does include 2 quotes from overtures. The quotes were to sharpen the theological acumen of the students, just as I could have used a quote from a billboard that I saw today, which said "Jesus Loves You---*no terms and conditions apply." We would apply the same questions---ie. presuppositions, partial truths, etc to that quote, as to the Synodical quotes. Since these were class discussion questions---and I should have been more explicit as to the exact nature of where the list was used---they were not footnoted as I would do in any of the articles that you can see that I write either here on the network, or an academia edu.

        Hope that helps. What is your theological take on the two overture quotes? Good, bad, or indifferent? Hope to hear from you.