Hermeneutics


In the Beginning We MisunderstoodMost books dealing with the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 attempt to do one of two things: show how Genesis 1 cannot be reconciled with modern science, or show how Genesis 1 can be reconciled with modern science.  Some try to show that Genesis presents us with a young universe, while others try to show that Genesis presents us with an old universe.  Either way, it is presumed that Genesis 1 intends to present us with a scientific description of how God created (order, duration, etc.). 

In their new book, In the Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, coauthors Johnny Miller and John Soden argue that this presumption is false, and concordism is a misguided hermeneutical approach to Genesis 1.  Discussions over the meaning of Genesis should not be driven by scientific questions, but by literary questions.  Our interpretation of Genesis should not be determined by our views about science, but by the text itself.  Why even think that God meant to provide a scientific description of creation?  The most important question to ask is what Moses meant when he wrote the creation account, how his readers would have understood it, and what practical impact it would have for them given their unique historical situation.  How did it prepare them for the theology and religious practices they were familiar with in Egypt, as well as those they would encounter in Canaan? 

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Glass SlipperIf we are honest with ourselves, all of us want the Bible to support our existing beliefs and practices.  We want it to support the teachings of the religious tradition we were raised in, or are currently part of.  We want it to affirm that which we think is morally right, and condemn that which we think is morally wrong.  There is always a danger, then, that we will engage in hermeneutical and logical gymnastics to ensure that we can walk away from the Bible without having to change our beliefs and practices.

I often ask myself, Would I interpret this passage in this way if I had been raised in a different tradition?  Would I think X is wrong or Y is right if I was Presbyterian rather than Pentecostal?  Are my reasons for interpreting the Bible as I do good enough to rationally compel others to adopt my position, or just good enough to for me to feel justified in my present beliefs?  Would I adopt my position if I were an outsider, listening to the same arguments?  If not, why not?

While I fully understand the desire to avoid change and theological conflict with one’s religious community, truth should always be our first priority.  If good hermeneutics and sound reason cause us to walk away from the Bible confirmed in our present beliefs, then great.  But if good hermeneutics and sound reason require us to change our beliefs and/or practices, then so be it.  Truth is more valuable than tradition.

Portions of 1 John 4:1-6 are often cited in discussions of spiritual warfare.  John’s admonition to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1) is cited as evidence that we need to exercise spiritual discernment to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, or even good and bad human spirits.  And then there is 1 John 4:4b: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”  This Scripture is typically quoted in the context of overcoming the Devil.  But are these passages being interpreted correctly?  Are they referring to spiritual warfare?  To find out, let’s look at the context:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. [2] By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, [3] and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. [4] Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. [5] They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. [6] We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 Jn 4:1-6, ESV)

A key word in this passage is “spirit.”  Many presume that when John talks about “test[ing] the spirits,” he is referring to angelic and demonic beings.  It’s clear, however, that John uses “spirit” in several ways in this passage.  And in verse one he uses “spirit” to refer to human teachers, not angels and demons.  This is evidenced by his juxtaposition of “spirits” with “false prophets” who “have gone out into the world.”

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One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too.  Even God himself is not above their judgment.  They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster!  They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc.  Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned.  You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!

Is what they say true?  Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil?  Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT.  Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.  

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Philippians 4:13 reads “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  This is taken by many to mean they can do anything they set their mind to through Christ’s strength. 

NT scholar Ben Witherington argues that this is a misreading of the text.  He notes that the Greek does not say “do.” The only verb in the Greek is “ischuo” which means “to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful.”  A literal rendering of the verse is “I am able all things in Him who empowers me.”  Read literally, it doesn’t make any sense.  Able to what?  The helping verb is missing, and can only be supplied by the surrounding context.  So what is the context of Paul’s statement? 

In verses 10-12 Paul wrote: “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. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] 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.” (ESV). 

Paul had learned to be content in any state he found himself in.  He learned to endure both the good and the bad through Christ’s empowerment.  A better translation of Phil 4:13 then would be, “I am able [to be content in] all things in Him who empowers me” or “I am able [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”  This verse affirms our ability to persevere through the good and the bad by trusting in Christ, not our ability to accomplish any feat we want.

If you are a Christian theologian or teacher, or just a serious student of Scripture, you will engage in word studies.  This can be a very fruitful enterprise in exegesis, and yet there are so many ways it can go badly.  In his book, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, Moises Silva addresses the subject of lexical semantics.  He discusses the proper study of words, and common fallacies to avoid.  This book is a must read for exegetes.  Here are just some of the gems I have gleaned from Silva:

  • Language and concepts are not necessarily correlated.  For example, just because Hebrew lacks a future tense does not mean Hebrew-speakers lack a concept of the future.  All talk of the “Hebrew mind” versus the “Greek mind,” based on linguistic differences, is simply fallacious.  Linguistics cannot tell us about  a person’s worldview and mental categories.
  • Etymological studies and cognate languages are of limited value to exegesis.  The history of a word’s meaning may be of interest if you are a historian, but it is of little value if you want to know what that word means in the Biblical text you are studying.  To determine the meaning of a word used in the Biblical text, we must determine what it meant in the author’s day (synchronic meaning), not its origin and evolution (diachronic meaning). (more…)

What do you think of the pericope of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16?  Do you think it is a parable or a historical event?  Why?

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