26 May 2011

Hermeneutics: it's not life or death... right? (Classic re-post)

by Dan Phillips
This post from 2006, very slightly edited, seems particularly timely in the light of recent events, and in the light of stories like this and this. Could any Christian leader say "Oh well, stuff happens"?

"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 (we said) 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. (The fuller story is told starting here.)

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 firmly-set 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 a good long while.

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, "Herman-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.

UPDATE: this post dovetails to a degree.

Dan Phillips's signature


Pierre Saikaley said...

Oh, you're one of those "go-to-the Greek" guys?...j/k.

But, seriously. Satan started the first hermenuetical controversy all the way back in Genesis 3, and every incarnation of that strategy has been repeating his basic principle of "Did God really say?...".

As usual, excellent post-re-post.

Amanda said...

"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."

Thank you for this article. I am on my way out not from New Age (at least not from knowingly being New Age), but from false teaching and blurred lines made in the church because of pastors and leaders unwilling to teach the Scripture AS IT IS WRITTEN. Particularly on the doctrines of grace, but similarly to you I kept running into passages that didn't make sense to me. Like if Salvation is for ALL and man has the right to object or accept it, then why did Jesus keep referring to things like, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that "they may indeed see but not perceive,and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven." Mark 4:11-12. I mean, Why would Jesus who came to atone for ALL say something like that? I just couldn't get over it. And any number of other statements. I can't say I have nailed it entirely, but I am coming to see that it is the understanding of the plain language of the Bible that is delivering me from all the "qualified" statements made in the church to explain away the things that are "hard" to understand. I just cannot accept that we are to just SKIM OVER those things and ignore them.

Canyon Shearer said...

Thank for you this repost. It's been ministries like yours that have impressed on me that it is more important to teach students HOW to read the Bible, than biblical principles. Granted, I do teach a lot of biblical principles, but the overarching goal in my ministry has been to ensure that students can find those principles if I weren't there to teach them.

A quote I heard recently that impacted me went something like this: "The best teachers in history have realized that information is the least of things to be taught, but that a love of learning is the best goal."

As I've taught, my main catch phrase has become, "This is my favorite verse," and I say it at least twice a lesson. The students originally thought it was cheesy, but have been impressed that each verse is inspired by God. It also helps with verses like John 3:16 and Jeremiah 29:11 when I say, "This is my least favorite verse when quoted out of context."

What has gotten me into a great amount of trouble is that this methodology of teaching has produced a huge number of Calvinists, though I do my best not to mention that name.

Strong Tower said...

"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?"

Would he have needed to say anything at all? If all answers are within, then no answers without would do. They would infact contradict the premise. The clearest response to anyone asking a question would be something like, "Trust your feelings, Luke." Then again, who would trust Obi's word?

Welcome to Mirror Church Where You Is All.

DJP said...

Excellent point, ST. As I've also said to certain Charismatics, were that the idea, the Bible could be a very short book indeed and would fit nicely inside a fortune cookie.

Mike Riccardi said...

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.

You left one ooouuuutt...

::mischievous grin::

DJP said...

Grandpa: Yes you're very smart. Shut up. (Princess Bride)


The Squirrel said...

[The Squirrel chuckles, high-five's Mike Riccardi, and grins broadly]

Good one, Bro!


Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

Dan, it never gets old, you recounting the things God used in your conversion. I'm encouraged to be all the more devoted to teaching my family proper reading of God's Word.

Rachael Starke said...

Strong Tower is brilliant (I think I've seen that church sign several places around here in the Bay Area)

and Mike Riccardi is evil. :)

Rachael Starke said...

Oh, the post was great. I'm going to use the bolded questions whenever someone asks me what hermienootics is.

DJP said...

It's funny; another post touching on Camping, and the raters are on a different track than the commenters. I seriously am wondering whether we have some poor souls still under Camping's sway.

Bill Honsberger said...

Hmm - hermeneutics of Ernest Holmes suspicious sound like the hermeneutics of Brian Maclaren. How could that be?
I am perplexed.

Stefan said...

Excellent point: everyone has a hermeneutical grid when it comes to reading Scripture—believer and non-believer alike, and even if they've never even heard of the word.

And for me, too, coming to hermeneutical terms with Scripture has been of vital importance for the entire length of my so-far-still-short life as a Christian. It's why I, too, am an inerrantist and a Calvinist and increasingly a...ahem...well, someone who figures that a covenant is actually a legally binding contract between the parties it says it's between (which truth has sustained me through some very difficult periods recently).

Anyhow, it's because of writing like this that I began reading this blog in the first place, four years ago. So keep up the good work (or at least the good work of selecting and reposting (c: ).

donsands said...

"...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.." -Dan

Our Father was drawing you. Jesus was saying "Come unto Me." His sheep hear His voice, and all that the Father draws to the Good Shepherd will surely come.

Have terrific Memorial Day weekend. As we remember a tad bit about others who gave their lives, or who die. memorials are a good thing.

"..she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”-Jesus our Lord

patriciazell said...

What you call hermeneutics, I call context. A long time ago, I became aware of the importance of context in understanding the Bible. After spending some time talking to God about my context, I settled on the context of God's absolute love. I began to re-examine what I believed and to read the Bible through the eyes of His love.

To make a long story short, God manifested His love through Christ who defeated the power of the kingdom of evil. Because God's love never fails, every human being will find truth because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Every human being will go through the baptism of fire where God will get rid of every iota of the loss, death, and destruction that the kingdom of evil has brought against him/her. That fire is a consuming fire and will bring the pure gold of love, life, good, light, and truth to all of us (Isaiah 25:6-8)! God's absolute love will prevail!

One last thing--hell. On the basis of making a connection between Matthew 10:28-31, John 10:10, and Revelation 20:13-14, I'm thinking that hell is a "creation" of Satan as part of his plan to destroy God's creation. Think about those verses, especially Matthew 10:28-31--if God has numbered the hairs on our heads, why would He kill us and destroy us in hell? Is God a double-minded despot? (And don't say it's a mystery that we'll only understand when we get to heaven--Isaiah 1:18 specifically tells us that God wants to reason with us. He wants us to understand the why's.)

DJP said...

I think this is a classic example of glancing at the headline and then posting your unrelated thoughts. What you suggest is an old idea that has been often, thoroughly, and decisively refuted from the Bible -- applying the principles that the actual post is actually about. Instead of doing what the post brings from the Word, you had a construct you found congenial, imposed it on the Bible, and twisted it to fit.

God's love (Biblically defined and described) absolutely does win. Just remember: His first love is Himself. That is why He prepared Hell for the devil, His angels, and all who follow in rejection of His Word -- a Hell whose denizens experience its torments precisely as long as the elect experience the blessings of Heaven (Matthew 25:41-46).

As I'll be unavailable to moderate, comments closed at present.