BOOK REVIEWS, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES, & THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS
A short lesson in hermeneutics
Isn’t that a big fancy word?! Christian hermeneutics is: “study of the principles and methods of interpreting the text of the Bible.” Most are surprised or even feel threatened to find out that there are rules that govern how we are to interpret the Bible, and therefore there are limitations on how we apply the Bible to our lives. Let’s define a few more terms before we get started just so we understand one another.
Translation: To render a text or saying from a different language, into another language in a way that is faithful to the original text or saying. We see this in our English Bibles. Bibles such as the NASB, KJV, ESV, NIV, or the NLT are translations of the Original Languages of the Bible written in Hebrew and Greek. I only included this word in the blog because I have heard it confused with the next one quite often.
Interpretation: To determine the meaning of a text or saying. The goal in Biblical interpretation, as we shall discuss further, is to discover through critical examination of the text, the authors intent (what they meant) in writing the text.
Application: The way one appropriates the meaning of the text or saying in ones life. The application is always governed by our interpretation. Makes sense doesn't it? We have to know what a text means before we can apply it to our lives!
When people first start reading the Bible, they are often under the impression of “this is one book, written by God, for me” which, in one sense, is correct. We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the people of old to write down what He wanted them to write.
"And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:19-21)
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
However, we must keep in mind that the Bible is more deep, even than that simple statement that we believed as new Christians. The Bible is a book of 66 different pieces of literature, by 40 different authors, in 2 different languages (with an exception of a few verses of Aramaic) expanding over 1500 years, and written on 3 continents. There is no book like the Christian’s Bible. But with this amazing breadth of literature comes an equally amazing task.
Paul, in what people call his “Pastoral Epistles” commands Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) I have heard many Christians give a hearty “amen!” to this verse, but most “interpret” (remember the meaning of this word?) this verse simply “read your Bible—a lot.” But is that what Paul meant when he wrote this to Timothy? I want you to notice a word in this verse. The word “rightly” is very important, because if there is a right way to handle the Word, there must be at least one, or many, wrong ways to handle the Word. Do you think you could spot if someone was mishandling the Word?
Let’s look at an example. Suppose that we have a man named Rick. Rick is in his mid 20’s and is looking for God to provide him a wife. Rick works at a bank as a teller with a lady named Suzanne, whom is a practicing witch. He wonders if he should pursue a relationship with Suzanne, because she is really nice, gives him glances every once and awhile, and smells good. So Rick, being the man of God that he is, goes to his Bible to “hear from the Lord on the issue.” He takes his Bible and holds it straight up on the table and prays “Lord show me what to do in this situation from your Word!” and lets his Bible just flip open on the table at a random page. Rick begins to read the first paragraph on the left page, which just so happens to be in Genesis: "the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose." (Genesis 6:2) “See that!” thinks Rick, “Whomever they chose! And these are Sons of God! I’m also a Son of God! And I do find Suzanne attractive, very attractive indeed! This has to be ‘of the Lord!’” Rick goes on to pursue a relationship with the witch.
Now the question is “Did Rick do anything wrong here?” I mean, did he not show “great faith” in the Lord to speak to him through his word? Or is something messed up about the situation?
Let’s look at another. Suppose Bill is the Carolina Panthers #1 fan and he has VIP tickets that will allow him personal meeting time with all the players. But, there’s a problem, Bill has been stuck in traffic now for 5 hours. He can’t see the end in sight. Then, all of a sudden, the lanes open up and he’s back on the freeway. Bill knows that he is going to have to drive about 20 mph over the speed limit to get there on time for the special meetings. Bill wonders what he should do, and to calm his nerves he turns the radio to the Christian radio station. He gets to the station and its all static, except one verse of the Bible that gets read: "Again the watchman reported, "He reached them, but he is not coming back. And the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he drives furiously." (2 Kings 9:20) “I can reach them too!” Bill says to himself “sometimes the Law of God supersedes the law of mere men!” Bill then floors the pedal to the metal in his 85 Bronco and drives 95 mph down the highway, barely missing other cars as he whips through traffic.
What’s the problem with this situation? Is Bill misinterpreting the verse or misapplying this piece of Scripture to his life? Just because someone says they got a “message from the Lord” does that automatically rule out any need for critical Bible study?
Let’s try one last situation. Jessica’s son is struggling to survive, he has a deadly disease that is causing his heart to fail. Jessica goes to get a cup of coffee to keep her up through the night at his bedside, and on the way, she happens to notice the verse on her coffee mug: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13) “This is a message from God to me for my son!” Jessica reasons “I have to go tell him!” She excitedly fills her mug to the brim and walks quickly back to her sons room, barely able to keep the coffee in the cup. “honey, I have something to share with you from the Lord!” she exclaims “The Lord gave me this verse, and He wants you to know that you will beat this disease because Jesus is in you and you can do all things through Him!” Her son heartily accepts his mothers testimony, yet sadly, 3 months later Jessica’s son slips away. Jessica, then, hurt because she found God to be unfaithful, discounts God’s Word and decides she isn’t going to be a Christian anymore.
The same question arises. Did Jessica do something wrong here? Did she not claim a promise straight from the Bible? What would you say is the problem? Did God “fail to keep His promise” or is there something else wrong in this situation?
The issue at heart is that if we want to claim genuine promises that are meant for us we must do serious Bible study. God did not write a “promise book” for everyone in all situations. He wrote a book that contains historical narratives, prophecy, poetic literature, wisdom literature, biographical literature, epistles, apocalyptic literature, and all these have an overarching plan of God’a salvation and revelation of Himself to the world. Each of these different genres require a different method of interpretation and therefore have different rules regarding their application to our lives. It’s time to stop reading the Bible, and start studying the Bible. In America, with all our resources, there simply is no excuse at all for us to be Biblically illiterate, and sadly that is the state for most of the church in America today. We have top notch Bible translations and free downloadable programs loaded with good commentaries and maps.
There are 4 things (at least) that must be considered when approaching a text of Scripture for study:
Let’s revisit the examples I gave earlier and see if this will help us handle the situations that Rick, Bill, and Jessica found themselves in.
For Rick, zealous as he was to find a wife, decided to treat the Bible as a magic book and assumed “the spirit” would zap the Bible to the right page as he let it fall open. He then found himself in a historical narrative, because Genesis is an account of God’s creation work first, then the fall, and then men and women turn towards wickedness and God decides to judge the world with a flood. During this state of wickedness “Son’s of God” take daughters of men. So, when we look at the context, we see that these “Son’s of God” are actually evil beings, some even think fallen angels because of the same wording for demons and Satan in the Book of Job! So Rick found a verse of some fallen beings in a state of utter wickedness, whom God saw fit to judge, interpreted their actions as good because he thought “the spirit showed me this verse” and applied their actions to himself. Rough huh? Notice how just reading a few more verses around the chosen text could have offered some better understanding. "When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." (Genesis 6:1-5) There is a good rule to keep in mind when studying Scripture I learned from Greg Koukl: “Never read a Bible verse” This means that you should always read paragraphs, or sections, never single verses to find the meaning of a text. This is a good example of how genre and context helps us interpret a passage and protects us from misapplication.
In Bill’s situation, he was in a hurry to get to the game and heard a single verse about Jehu and applied it to his situation. When we read 2 Kings 9:1-29 we see the story of how Jehu became king of Israel and how he was banishing the wicked rulers. The verse in question was said by a watchman of Joram about Jehu’s driving. This again, is a historical narrative, and should never be applied to our lives because the principal is not endorsed by God. It isn’t about us and isn’t to us even though it was written down for us.
In Jessica’s situation, we come upon a very popular text. She saw it on her coffee mug and again, took it as a “message from God to give to her son,” but is that what the text means? Is that what Paul intended when he wrote that to the church in Phillipi? That is what the purpose of hermeneutics is when dealing with the epistles, or any letter for that matter, to discover the authors intent. Let’s look at the context around this verse. "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble." (Philippians 4:10-14) What we see here is that Paul is not talking about basketball, weightlifting, running track, football, race car driving, or even claiming victory over a disease. The context of this verse is Paul thinking of the different circumstances he has been placed in and is writing that in whatever situation, he is content because Jesus has strengthened him. He’s not talking of physical strength, but spiritual stamina.
I hope that you notice that no matter how passionate a person feels about a certain verse—if they have the interpretation wrong—they are no longer claiming God’s Word for their life. This is why critical Bible study is so important. I’m not saying you have to have a degree from a seminary to get to the truths revealed in Scripture, but there is a sense in which every Christian must move from the basics to the advanced: "About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:11-14)
The church has brought in something from the world that has made it sick. The church has began to treat the Bible more like a Magic Eight Ball rather than Inspired Scripture. Postmodern “bible study” has entered the church, where anything goes as long as its “spirit led” which usually amounts to nothing more than feelings. Believers, desperate for “blessings,” snatch anything that looks like a good promise and apply it to themselves. Take, for instance a very famous verse that can be found on coffee mugs and T-shirts across the world: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11) Surely you have seen this verse, or heard it quoted in church or at a graduation ceremony. Maybe you have even seen it as a tattoo on someones arm. I have heard people call it their “life verse”. What if, however, you and I were siblings, and our father wrote in a letter to you “Dear (insert your name here) whenever I die, I want you to have the farm.” Later on, whenever father got sick and passed away, I had a copy of the letter and said “oh my, how much of a blessing this is—Father wanted me to have the farm! I’m claiming your promise now, Father! I love you!” What would you think? Would you think I was misinterpreting our fathers words, and therefore misapplying them to my own life. Was I taking a promise out of context that wasn’t meant for me? My question to you then is how is this different from Christians today taking Israel’s promise for themselves? Have you ever read the verses around the passage above? "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile." (Jeremiah 29:10-14) You don't hear many people claim the promise of captivity, do you? This promise and prophecy has already been fulfilled: "Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.'" (2 Chronicles 36:22-23)
Some may retort “well then I guess you would say the entire Old Testament is useless then don’t you?” On the contrary, but even if I were to say such a thing, it wouldn't mean that we could simply go back to using terrible studying techniques! I believe the Old Testament is of paramount importance. Take for instance the same verse (Jeremiah 29:11), we learn that God does not abandon His people, and also that He keeps His promises! This should encourage the believers in Christ today, because we have better promises: "But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." (Hebrews 8:6) We can know, based on past events, that God will always keep His promises!
Don’t you want to know that you understand a verse the way God intended the verse to be understood? It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that God’s Word to us may be hard to understand sometimes and therefore, may take some hard work! "Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen." (2 Peter 3:14-18) We must study the Scriptures in order to interpret them rightly. When we do this, we can rest assured that we have “heard from the Spirit” even if we don't feel a thing. But the truth is, when we do, there is a comfort and assurance that we have been faithful to God in His revealed word to us.