28 February 2006

Hermeneutics: it's not life or death... right?

by Dan Phillips

"Hermeneutics" (plural in form, but used with both singular and plural verbs) is the art and science of Biblical interpretation. It's the set of rules, held consciously or not, that govern the way you read the Bible. You have a hermeneutical construct, I have a hermeneutical construct. It may be pretty darned good, it may be smelly-awful wretched, but you and I have one.

How one arrives at his hermeneutical position may very well be a chicken/egg conundrum. Does [your-favorite-reprobate's-name-here] read his Bible the way he does because of his appalling lifestyle? Or does he have an appalling lifestyle because of the way he reads his Bible? Or is the relationship symbiotic, co-dependent?

In my case, doubtless there was symbiosis, but mostly it was the former. I was in a cult called Religious Science, or the Science of Mind. I won't honor it with a link. I was New Age before New Age was cool. Back then we called it "New Thought," though it was barely either. (If you've ever sung "Let There Be Peace On Earth," you've sung a song cherished by that cult.)

It was your standard panentheistic Christian heresy, very like Christian Science except we weren't so negative on seeing doctors. Fundamentally, Religious Science taught that God is in all things, and expresses Itself as and through all things. Therefore, we are all expressions of God, and all have within ourselves the Christ-consciousness. "Christ" is the principle of god-consciousness, the I AM, within everyone. Our goal in life was to harmonize our minds with God, and thus to manifest truth, love, joy, stuff.

Dizzy yet?

Now, like most American cults, Religious Science wants to get on the Jesus-bandwagon by mouthing great platitudes about Jesus, how He was a great prophet, a great teacher, a great mystic, the most perfect manifestation of God-consciousness to date. But Jesus was no different than we, and we can all live the same life.

Stay with me, I am going somewhere with this.

The Religious Scientist runs into the problem that Jesus did not say much that sounded like any of that.

And that's where hermeneutics comes in. See, the problem is that Christians have misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus all this time. They took His words too literally and shallowly, when really they had a deeper, spiritual meaning. When He said to pray, "Our Father," He was saying that all without distinction are God's children.

So what about Hell, sin, salvation? No problem; Hell is just the experience of being at seeming disharmony with the One Mind; sin are thoughts out of harmony with the One Mind; salvation is just reaffirming and manifesting your union with the Godhead. See?

Now, the tale of my conversion, and of why I am still a Christian, is a much longer yarn than I will untangle here, except to focus on one aspect: how the Holy Spirit used hermeneutics to convert and save me.

I learned to read the Bible the Religious Science way from my pre-teen years. I looked for (and found) the "deeper meaning" that those idiot Christians and Jesus-Freaks kept stubbornly missing. It was a mindset, on the level of the reflexive.

But I did keep running into things that He said that jarred even my firm grid. It created a slowly growing tension: on the one hand, we thought Jesus was the greatest Teacher and Prophet and Mystic who ever lived; on the other, He sure expressed Himself poorly sometimes! But never mind; we were always there to "help" Him.

The single greatest snag was John 14:6 -- "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

Sure sounds as if Jesus was saying what we Religious Scientists all denied: that no relationship with God is possible without a personal relationship with the person, the man, God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

But that isn't what we thought he meant. It couldn't be. It would destroy the whole foundation and superstructure. Here is how Ernest Holmes, founder of that cult, explains Jesus' words: "We cannot come unto the Father Which art in Heaven except through our own nature." So, what Jesus really meant was the precise opposite of what He seemed to be saying.

That worked fine for me, for awhile.

But over the period of many months, the Spirit of God did a work on me, convicting me of sin, exposing to me my actual distance from actual God, my God-un-likeness, the multilevel trainwreck that was me.

When I combined the realizations that I basically had found a religion that told me what I wanted to hear, and that I myself wasn't much better than a drooling idiot in the ways that mattered, it shook me to my foundations -- and I started looking at Jesus anew. And I prayed, that God would show me the way to Himself, even if it meant that I had to become a Jesus Freak. (That was the worst thing I could think of at the time.) What did I have to do?

And again loomed John 14:6, giving me Jesus' answer to my question.

This was the great Teacher, the great manifestation of God, Jesus, clearly laying out the only way I could come to God. But what did He mean? Did He mean that I was my own way to God (with Religious Science)? Or did He mean that I needed to believe in and know Him, Jesus, personally (with the Jesus Freaks)?

I had no idea, but at that point my very life was hinging on a hermeneutical question.

Here's the line of thinking that the Spirit of God used to deliver me from the deceptive maze of mystical subjectivism.

I took the premise that Jesus was the greatest Teacher, and assumed that a good teacher is a good communicator. He says what he means; his words convey his meaning. He speaks to be understood by his audience.

So then I simply posed this question question to myself: "If Jesus had meant to say that each of us is, within himself, his own way to God, could He have said it more clearly?" To put it differently, do these words best express that thought? The candid, inescapable answer was an immediate No. In fact, if that had been what Jesus had meant to say, He could hardly have phrased it more poorly... in which case He wasn't much of a teacher at all, let alone the greatest ever.

Then I asked myself this: "If Jesus had meant to say that He Himself personally is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can have a relationship with God apart from relating to Jesus Himself, could He have said that more clearly?" I was forced to admit that, in fact, that thought is exactly what these words most naturally express. (Later I was to learn that the Greek original underscores this very point all the more emphatically.)

That was a turning-point. I had to face the fact that Jesus did not believe what I believe. Jesus did not think God could be known as I thought He could be known.

And that, in turn, threw the question to the decisive fork in the road: who is more credible? Jesus, or me?

Had you said "Hermeneutics" to me at the time, I might have responded, "Herma-who?" Had you further said "Grammatico-historical exegesis," I couldn't even have managed that much. But that is precisely what was going on.

Now it's well over thirty years later, I've taken classes in Hermeneutics on the master's and doctoral level, read books and articles, written on the subject, fleshed out and used an array of principles of interpretation. But still that single method, that simple question (along with its implications), has resolved more knotty issues for me than any other. It's why I'm an inerrantist. It's why I'm a Calvinist. It is at the root of my core convictions. In fact, at bottom, in the hand of God it is why I am a Christian.

As I've fleshed it out, it is simply a formulation of Hebrews 1:1-2a. The Bible is God's unfolding Word, and it is God's Word to us. He speaks to be heard, and understood. Hence its meaning is not a matter for secret-club decoder-rings, arcane rituals, and secret councils composed of a different class. It is to be understood according to the normal canons of language.

Does that matter? It sure matters to me.

It's what the Lord used to save me.

Dan Phillips's signature


Neil said...

Thanks Pastor DAN, this is excellent.

C.Stephen said...

I second that - great post Dan. Posts like that make the group blog thing OK with me!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this testimony Dan. It really underscores the fact that God's words mean something, even if post-modernism tells us they don't.

Chris said...

Excellent post, Dan.

DJP said...

Thanks so much for the kind and encouraging words. Glory to God!

And we're four for four in getting my name right.

It's stacking up to be a good day!


Ian said...

Wow you had this pentecostal saying Amen to every paragraph. Good job

Momo said...

Hey Dan, I'm on the run and haven't finished reading it yet, but I have such a big mouth I can't help commenting on my way out.

I love the series on hermeneutics. I'd love to swap names of resources with you sometime. Obviously, you went to seminary. What hermeneutical resources have you found valuable to your understanding of the science and art of biblical interpretation?

Here's a list of a few I've read. Have you read them?

God-Centered Biblical Interpretation-Vern Poythress
Let the Reader Understand-McCartney and Clayton
Exegetical Fallacies-D.A.Carson
How to Read the Bible as Literature-Leonard Ryken

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Anything you can add?

Castusfumus said...

James, a must is Bernard Ramm http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801020832/qid=1141143347/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-7602547-0216167?s=books&v=glance&n=283155

Castusfumus said...

But wait... there is more Robert Thomas' Evangelical Hermenenutics

donsands said...

Thanks for helping me get a grip on hermeneutics. I need to understand this much better. Keep on my brother.
"He speaks to be heard, and understood."

Darel said...

"So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."

Steve Sensenig said...

This was really good, Dan. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

steve :)

donsands said...

My sister Judith is in to the New Age, Wicca syndrome. She lives in Arizona.
I wish she would bump into a few Christians like yourself. I do see the hope for her a bit better. I'll keep on praying. Thanks for sharing about your conversion. A great testimony to the praise of His grace and mercy.

FX Turk said...

Dan and James:

For the novice, I recommend

How to read the Bible for All its worth


How to read the Bible Book by Book

both by Fee and Stuart

Ekdj said...

WOW! What a great post, and great site! I'm linking to it for my blog readers! Thank you Dan for such a clear example of the Hermaneutical basis on which we ALL should understand the Word. I liked A. Berkeley Michelsen's Interpreting The Bible when taking a class on the subject @ Trinity SW. Praise God He's given us the ability to delve deeper in our knowledge/relationship with Him!

Rick Potter said...

Phil commented here a while back about the value of blogging. It scared me because I wondered if he was considering stopping. This post is an exact representation (among many) of the worth of "Pyromaniacs". So, if you guys - Phil, Dan, James, Frank - ever wonder about the value of what you're doing, please let me tell you how invaluable your guidance and instruction and edification has been to me personally.


IB Dubbya said...

Right on, Right on, right on!

And right on!

...And oviously Pecadillo is workin' hard at the Academy and perhaps for that reason has been unable to post to date, but we thank him too, for bein' on "The Roll."


Gordon said...

Good post, Dan! I love the question, "Who is more credible, Jesus? Or me?"

It is always good to be encouraged toward discipline in interpreting the Bible.

Chuck said...

This was good, Dave (err...I mean Dan)!James Centuri0n's books are good. Also, try "The Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics" by Walter Kaiser and Moises Silva. Kaiser's pretty good, but I like most anything Moises Silva has to say.

Kim said...

This was a great post, Dan! Excellent.

4given said...

Excellent post... much appreciated!

Ex Animo,

pilgrim said...

Good stuff.

But I thought Herman Eutics was a German theologian.

DJP said...

Let me say again to y'all, your kind comments mean more to me than you can know.

For book recommendations, it may take a post or two. Fee and Stuart have been recommended, and I know that many find that book profitable. I don't think much of it, probably largely because I don't think much of Fee. I find that he has an axe or seventeen to grind, and it seems to me that he's always out to show the reader how badly he (the reader) handles the Bible, because he's not as smart as Fee. The arrogant tone of much of this book and his commentary on 1 Corinthians has kept me from profiting too much from either -- though that's not to say that either is without worth.

I got a lot more out of Henry Virkler's book Hermeneutics (Baker: 1981). It's very readable, and very thoughtful, thorough, even-handed. (That's not to say that I always agree with him!)

Virkler does a good job of going over the major Biblical genre's, and in the process gives some really well-chosen and well-handled "lab-projects." For instance, he puts up Proverbs 22:28 ("Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set"), and does a really great and instructive job dealing with the interpretive process (p. 77f.) What is that proverb about? Is it about holding to traditions, is it about theft? He similarly discusses Hebrews 4:12, and others.

Good read!


Anonymous said...

More books! Argh!
I'm going to need more shelves.
My head is going to explode!
- kaboom -
Actually, mine would probably sound more like a -pop-
(akin to a small rice krispies snap, crackle...)
Seriously, thanks for the reading recommendations. Especially, Frank, for the novice. How did you know I was reading this blog?

DJP said...

One other book that I recently discovered, though it isn't at all new, is Leland Ryken's How to Read the Bible as Literature (Zondervan: 1984).

In particular, Ryken has a challenging treatment at length of narrative. I confess I've not often preached from the narrative portions, though they comprise a good hefty portion of the Bible. I've accepted the maxim that narrative is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

While there's certainly truth in that, the fact is that many prescriptive portions are based on descriptive portions (i.e. Romans 5). Ryken gives some good tools and "angles" for seeing God's purpose in the writer's structuring of Biblical narratives.

Bob Hayton said...

This is a little late, but let me add my recommendation. A good book for both beginners and Bible students is A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules by Dr. Robert H. Stein. His book compares to How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart. However, I have found his approach to be more easily comprehendible and beneficial. He includes a section dealing with each type of literature in Scripture (proverbs, parables, narrative, etc.). If you are interested, you can listen to his whole course on Hermeneutics for free at BiblicalTraining.Org. His course (which was taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is available here.

I would also like to point out a common ommission in works on hermeneutics. Most fail to mention the Christ-o-centricity of Scripture (big word for Centrality of Christ
:->). Jesus taught us that all the OT Scriptures "bear witness" of Him--Jn 5:39. Christ is clearly the focus of the Old and New Testaments. So when we look to the OT narratives and the laws given in the Pentateuch, etc., we should see Christ. This approach to the OT is verified by looking at the NT authors use of the OT. Over and over again they see Christ in places where grammatico-historical hermeneutics might not! The Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon all approached the OT this way, with great spiritual profit. Unfortunately modern hermeneutics, in systematizing rules for each genre, often overlooks and downplays such approaches as too allegorical. In doing so it deprives the church of many blessings given to it in the OT.

For a good resource on Christ-centered hermeneutics, see a series of lectures by Nathan Pitchford (they have been submitted to P&R publishing for publication as a book), which is currently available as a series of blog posts ("The Living Word" lessons 1-15) listed here.