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?

Frank Beckwith has made the observation that when people cannot refute your argument, they often trump it with spirituality. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. You state your reasons for believing P rather than Q, and your Christian brother responds by saying, “I know that’s not true because God told me Q is true.”  Or your Christian sister responds, “You only believe that because you are carnal.” Don’t fall for this cheap tactic.

You could respond by saying to your brother, “Actually, God told me P is true, so I know you didn’t hear from God.” And to your sister you can respond, “Ok, I’m carnal. So can you tell this carnal brother of yours why my argument is wrong, and why I should believe your position/interpretation?”

Mt 6:5-6  “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (NET)

Jesus’ words here have been interpreted by many to mean vocalized prayers in public settings should be avoided.  The only acceptable form of prayer in a public setting is silent prayer.  Is this what Jesus meant?  No, as Biblical examples of prayer make clear.

The first thing to observe is that Jesus went on to instruct the disciples how they should pray.  He told them they should say, “Our Father, who is in heaven…” (6:9)  Jesus’ use of the plural possessive implies that this prayer would be prayed aloud in a community setting.  There would be no need for a single person praying alone, or a single person praying silently in a group to use “our.”  In both cases “my Father” would be more appropriate.

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Christians are often accused of being judgmental by non-Christians—and sometimes, even by fellow-Christians.  Indeed, it’s not uncommon to even hear non-Christians quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 against Christians: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” (even if they’ve never read a page from the Bible in their life!)  I am persuaded that both the church and the culture at large have failed to understand the Biblical teaching on judgmentalism.  Before I explain, let’s look at a few more Biblical passages often cited in support of non-judgmentalism:

1 Cor 4:3-5 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (ESV)

1 Cor 5:12-13 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (ESV) [talking about executing punishment]

James 4:11-12 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (ESV)

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translationA couple of months ago we had a guest preacher at our church.  He was a seasoned preacher, and overall, his message was edifying.  There was one point he made, however, that had me shaking my head.  He quoted John 14:2 where Jesus says “in my house are many mansions,” and then went on to explain that in the Greek this literally means “spiritual bodies.”

When we got home my wife asked me what I thought of the message.  I told her I liked it, except for his absurd interpretation of John 14:2.  She asked if I had looked up the Greek to know that this was the case.  I told her no.  She asked how I knew it was absurd, then.  Here is what I said, and what I want to share with you: If someone says the correct translation of a certain word is radically different than the translation appearing in mainstream translations, then you can bet your bottom dollar the person is mistaken. Think about it, what are the chances that hundreds of individuals who dedicated their entire lives to understanding the Biblical languages are going to miss the boat by a mile, but an individual who has no specialized training in Biblical languages is going to get it right simply by looking up a few words in Strong’s Concordance?

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The Bible begins with one of the most famous proclamations of all time: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Theologians have historically understood “in the beginning” to refer to the very beginning of time itself.  It was the boundary between timeless eternity and temporality. 

Fast forward to the first century A.D.  John opens his gospel about Jesus Christ with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”  The resemblance to Genesis is unmistakable.  Both Moses and John begin their work with “in the beginning,” and both speak of the creative word of God. 

The question arises as to whether John is using “in the beginning” in the same way as Moses.  For Moses it referred to the beginning of time and creation, but that’s how John is using it, then to say the Word was “in the beginning” seems to imply that the Word was not eternal, but a created entity who began to exist concomitantly with the created realm.  Clearly this cannot be the correct interpretation because John 1:1 identifies the Word as being God (whom we know is eternal, and thus existed “prior to” the universe), and John 1:3 identifies the Word as the uncreated creator.  Why, then, would John say the Word was “in the beginning?”  Why not say Jesus was “before the beginning” or “before the ages?”  What is your take on the matter?

In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read the word of YHWH: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In my experience, this Scripture is usually quoted in two contexts: (1) when we are ignorant of some knowledge; (2) when our position is being decimated by our opponent’s evidence, and we lack a sufficient response.  Neither use is legitimate because both are taking the passage out of its context.  

Verse 7 reads, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  The Lord’s way/thoughts are contrasted to the ways/thoughts of the wicked, not the righteous.  The Lord’s point is that His ways/thoughts are superior to the ways/thought of the wicked, not that His ways/thoughts are incomprehensible to mankind in general.  That’s not to say we can fully understand God and His ways, but it is to say that this passage is not teaching divine incomprehensibility, but rather divine superiority.

There is a doctrine that has circulated within my fellowship for many years called the Shekel and a Half doctrine.  Those espousing to this doctrine claim that in addition to paying tithes on ones income (10%), believers need to pay an additional 5%.  It is often said that the additional 5% is for the upkeep of the church, or to fund a church building program.  Exodus 30:11-16 is appealed to for Biblical support:

The Lord spoke to Moses: 12 “When you take a census of the Israelites according to their number, then each man is to pay a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them. 13 Everyone who crosses over to those who are numbered is to pay this: a half shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel weighs twenty gerahs). The half shekel is to be an offering to the Lord. 14 Everyone who crosses over to those numbered, from twenty years old and up, is to pay an offering to the Lord. 15 The rich are not to increase it, and the poor are not to pay less than the half shekel when giving the offering of the Lord, to make atonement for your lives. 16 You are to receive the atonement money from the Israelites and give it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, to make atonement for your lives.”

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I was having a conversation with some coworkers some time ago in regards to same-sex marriage.  They brought up the relationship of homosexuality to the Christian religion, at which point I affirmed that the Bible—and hence Christianity—is opposed to homosexuality.  Immediately I received the “Well, that’s just your interpretation” response.  My response to this charge was to explain the process of exegesis, which took several minutes of my time and got us off the real issue at hand.  In retrospect I thought of a more efficient and tactful response I would like to share with you.

The next time you are discussing some aspect of Biblical teaching with someone, and they give you the “Well, that’s just your interpretation” response, respond by saying something off-the-wall like, “So you are saying I don’t like pickles?!”  A blank and confused stare is sure to follow proceeded by the expected question: “What?!?!”  Explain to them that you have just demonstrated the fundamental principle of interpretation.  Valid interpretation only comes about when the receiver accurately understands the intent of the sender/author.  This is accomplished by correctly employing the use of grammatical and semantic rules, and considering the cultural/historical perspective of the sender.  If the sender’s intent is not properly understood, communication has not occurred and the result is misinterpretation.  If interpretation is rooted in authorial intent only one interpretation can be valid.  As long as the interpreter employs the proper tools they can walk away with the correct interpretation.

The Bible is no different.  There is a correct way and an incorrect way to interpret the Bible.  The same tools and rules we use to correctly interpret our modern conversations and writings apply equally to the Bible.  When those tools and rules are used properly the interpretation we walk away with is sound.  No, it’s not just our interpretation.  It is the meaning inherent within the text itself, discovered (not invented) by the interpreter using the universal rules and tools of language.

The NT authors often quote an OT passage, and say it was fulfilled in Christ.  Many Christians use these fulfillments as evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith.  For example, I’ve heard it claimed that the probability of just one man fulfilling 48 different prophecies is something like 1:10157.  It is reasoned that no man could match those odds unless the Biblical prophecies were divine in origin, and thus Jesus must be who He claimed to be.  The problem with this apologetic is that the vast majority of these “messianic prophecies” are neither prophetic, nor messianic in their original context.

Consider, for example, Hosea 11:1 – “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”  Matthew quotes this passage in reference to Jesus’ return to Nazareth, saying, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)  When one examines the original context of Hosea 11:1, however, they will quickly recognize that this passage is neither prophetic nor messianic.  It is a mere historical recounting of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.

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Elaine Pagels—famous for her promotion of Gnostic Christianity—was interviewed by David Ian Miller for the April 2, 2007 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Pagels was discussing the Gospel of Judas. Miller asked her if this gospel would change the way people observe Easter. Pagels answered in the affirmative. She wrongly asserted that Luke and John give different portrayals of Jesus’ resurrection body (one spiritual, one physical), and then went on to say the following:

 

And what was important to the authors of Luke and John was not to decide between those stories—the important thing is that we know in some sense that he is alive. That the resurrection happened. And that is affirmed. But one thing we can see in these other texts [such as the Gospel of Judas] is that you don’t have to take the resurrection literally to take it seriously. One can speak about Jesus alive after his death with conviction without necessarily meaning that his physical body got out of the grave.

 

Yes, we could speak of Jesus being alive after His death without meaning His body got out of the grave, but we could not call it a resurrection. Resurrection, like apple, refers to something specific. It does not refer to any sort of life after death, but in the words of N.T. Wright, life after life after death. In the ancient world the word was always bound up with the return to a bodily existence after a disembodied existence following death. We are not free to redefine words to our own fancy, no matter how much Pagels might wish to do so. If Pagels wants to believe in a spiritual ascension she is free to do so, but she is not free to call it a resurrection, nor is she free to say that those who believe such a thing have satisfied the Biblical requirement to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. You can’t evacuate a term of its meaning, and then assert that any content one might choose in its place satisfies the meaning of the word.

 

If resurrection can mean whatever one wants it to mean, then why is it important that we affirm it? And what are we even affirming? How about I postulate that Jesus’ resurrection means He survived death only in the memory of His followers? Is that an affirmation of His resurrection? Hardly. “Resurrection” means something.

 

A spiritual resurrection of Jesus makes no sense. It could not explain the rise of Christianity. If Jesus’ spirit merely survived death, there would be nothing extraordinary about Him. Other people experience the same. What made Jesus extraordinary was that His physical body came back to life, and was subsequently glorified. That is what the early church preached, and that is why Christianity was so scandalous. No pagan would have had a problem with a disembodied spirit ascending to heaven, but they had a big problem with a man returning from the dead, never to taste of death again.

 

But that’s all icing on the cake. My real focus is on her statement that we can take the Biblical texts seriously without taking them literally. While this is a nice sounding catchphrase that is popular in liberal Christianity, what exactly does this mean, and how does it play itself out in the real world? If the context makes it clear that a text is figurative in nature, then we are taking the text seriously when we understand it in a figurative sense. But when the context gives us every reason to believe the author is presenting something as historical fact, we are not taking the text seriously if we assign it a figurative meaning. When it comes to the gospels, we have every reason to believe that the events recorded are intended as genuine historical events. As such, it is impossible to take them seriously all the while denying their historicity.

 

Is Pagels prepared to treat other purported historical accounts in this fashion? Can she deny the historicity of slave trade in the early Americas while taking the texts that tell us about this horrendous practice seriously? Of course not! So why treat the Bible any differently? She is free to argue that while the gospels present themselves as genuine history, they are not historical events, but she is not free to deny their historicity all the while claiming to take the texts seriously. It is highly disingenuous.

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