A Few Notes on Hermeneutics

file1461253407549Before I start my series on some of the complex grey areas I have been mulling over such as patriotism, pacifism, vegetarianism, and body image, I thought I better give a little precursor on how to I interpret the Bible. Perhaps it is just procrastination due to nervousness about starting what I assume is going to be somewhat controversial series (most people, myself included, prefer things to be clearly in black and white and hate shades of gray unless it is in the title of a book), but also it is to outline the truth that we all interpret Scripture through our own lenses and none of these lenses are 100% accurate all the time because Scripture is complex, sometimes confusing, written in languages we don’t speak, in a culture we don’t live in, and in an era at least 2000 and up to 4000 years ago.

When people discuss theological differences online, two of the statements most likely to make me yell at them through the computer screen are “It is biblical!” and “the Bible clearly state…” The first statement simply means that it is in the Bible. Talking asses are biblical. I phones are not. Offering your virgin daughter to a crowd to be raped is biblical. Airplanes are not. There are a lot of things in the Bible that are not moral. No one is suggesting that they are because people use interpretation to decide what the stories are teaching, not that every individual character in stories are a moral guide. The second statement should be prefaced with “in my interpretation, the Bible says this because this reason and that reason” if people are discussing the idea, there is a 99% chance that it’s not as clear as you interpret it to be and stating that it is clear is just insulting.

The first way I try to view scripture is through the lens of Jesus, first as the culmination of the story of the Old Testament and secondly, in interpreting tricky doctrinal statements New Testament writers make (especially Paul). For example, in the first instance, the continual sacrifices of the Old Testament point to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament. The second way is viewing seemingly contradictory doctrinal statements through Jesus’ example. For instance, Paul tells women not to speak in church in one place, but in another, gives specific instructions on how women should speak in another, and applauds female apostles and teachers. How should we interpret what looks like a contradiction? First, I would argue that we should look through the lens of Jesus’ instructions and interactions with women. On several occasions, most notably at his resurrection, Jesus commanded a woman to preach and he always treated women with respect and often as students or disciples, discussing theology (woman at the well) and teaching them (Mary sitting at his feet as a student would) and never prohibited them from teaching or preaching.

This brings me to the second way to interpret scripture and that is through the culture that the specific scripture was written in and to the people to which it was addressed. When Paul tells women at Ephesus to be quiet and not lord it over men, he was speaking to women in a culture with a female dominated religion. Perhaps today Paul would instruct men not to lord it over women in some churches that have prevented women from participating in leadership. Also, the culture can shed light on some particularly tricky bits of Old Testament scripture. For example, I often thought that the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as somewhat cruel on God’s part. What loving God would put a parent in that much anguish just to paint a prophetic picture of what is to come? However, Richard Beck reminds us in his post On Religious Commitment and Violence: A Reading of the Akedah that in Abraham’s culture, parents routinely sacrificed their children as a sign of their commitment to their gods. What God may have been showing was that Abraham was just as committed to his God as his neighbors were to theirs, however his God is more merciful than theirs, not requiring the scarifies that theirs did. When looking at the story this way, it becomes a picture of God’s mercy and love to Abraham and he becomes a witness of a better way to his neighbors.

The third way to engage with scripture is by recognizing what genre of writing falls into. The Bible is written in poetry, history, letters, laws, and prophecy. What type of writing one is reading should inform how one interprets it. For example, the last half of Proverb’s 31 has been used as an instruction manual by some people on how women should act. However, it is written as Hebrew alphabetic acrostic poem, and is sometimes used in Judaism to for a husband to praise his wife on the Sabbath, not as an instruction manual or a check list.

The fourth thing to keep in mind when interpreting scripture is importance. There are some very broad themes in Scripture that are repeated over and over and therefore considered important. For example justice, love, hope, peace, charity and the prohibition against idolatry are over arching themes. Most biblical scholars agree that it is dangerous to take one verse and build a theology on it, especially if the theme only appears once and is very vague. Examples of this are I Timothy 2:15 where Paul states a woman should be saved through childbearing and Genesis 6:2 where it states the sons of God mated with the daughters of men. While it is fun to speculate on the meanings of these verses, it is probably best not to either claim certain knowledge or build a core theology around it.

The Bible is complex, ancient, and wonderful. I believe it is all “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” II Timothy 3:16, and engagement with it should be careful, thoughtful, and informed as possible.

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