Hermeneutics


twinkling-of-eyeThose who espouse to a pretribulation view of the rapture typically hold that the rapture will be “secret,” in the sense that no unbeliever will witness the event because it happens so quickly.  The Scriptural justification for this view is said to be 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

If this passage teaches a secret rapture of the church, it would be unique among the raptures recorded in Scripture.  All other raptures were witnessed by those who remained on the Earth.  Enoch was raptured to heaven (Gen5:24). While we are not told of any particular person who witnessed the event, it must have been witnessed by someone, otherwise people could not have known that God took him.  Elijah’s rapture was witnessed by Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12).  Jesus’ rapture was witnessed by the apostles (Acts 1:9-11).  The rapture of the Two Witnesses will be witnessed by their enemies (Rev 11:3-12).  Why would all other raptures in the Bible be public, but the rapture of the church be secret?  If we could develop any Biblical precedent for the speed of the church’s rapture, it would appear that it will be slow enough for others to witness it.

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“For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”  I’ve heard this quoted many times to make the point that you are what you think.  Or shall I say misquoted?  That’s not what the text actually says, nor what it means.  Here’s the passage in context, in three different translations:

Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, or desire his delicacies; For as he thinks within himself, so he is.  He says to you, “Eat and drink!” But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, and waste your compliments. (Prov 23:6-8, NASB)

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost.  “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you. 8 You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments. (Prov 23:6-8, NIV)

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you. 8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words. (Prov 23:6-8, ESV

The first thing to notice in all three translations is that it doesn’t read “a man” as in any person (as one might infer from the KJV), but rather “he.”  It has a specific kind of person in mind.  What kind of person is that?  A stingy person.  Solomon is warning against duplicitous, selfish people who have their own interests in mind, but act as if they care about you.  They are not showing you their true hand.  Their heart doesn’t match their words.  Outwardly they pretend to be generous, but inwardly are stingy.

While one may be what they think (or conversely, think according to what they are), that’s not the point of Proverbs 23:7.

Keep it in context….

die-dailyA concept commonly advocated in conservative, holiness-minded churches is “dying to the flesh.”  And invariably, while preachers are advocating denying worldly lusts and choosing righteousness, they will appeal to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:31 that he “dies daily” (KJV).  I’ve heard this interpreted to mean we need to make a choice every day to submit our will to God’s or to deny worldly lusts.  Some even cite it in the context of prayer and fasting (i.e. those practices will cause you to die out to your flesh desires on a daily basis).  When Paul penned those words, was he talking about sacrificing our will to God?  Did he have prayer and fasting in mind?  Let’s look at those words in context: (more…)

jer-29-11How many items is this verse on at your local Bible bookstore?:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer 29:11)

This verse is often proclaimed to be a promise to Christians.  God has a wonderful plan for our future that involves lots of blessings.  Is this truly a promise to us that we won’t experience evil and our future will be peachy?

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letter-killsIn Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes:

“[God] has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This verse is commonly used to argue that “spiritual” things like prayer, fasting, and spiritual gifts are more important than reading the Bible.  I’ve often heard it quoted to me by people who are opposed to formal theological education.  After all, Paul said too much focus on the “letter” will kill you spiritually.  Is this right?

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thoughts-greaterThe prophet Isaiah records YHWH as saying:

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. (Is 55:8-9)

This verse is quoted to make a variety of points.  Some quote it to make the point that God is unknowable.  Others use it to argue that we can’t understand God’s will and way of thinking.  My favorite use of this verse, however, is in a debate when someone’s position is being challenged and they don’t know how to respond.  When all else fails, just claim that your point of view is too lofty to understand because it comes directly from God!

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lifted-upHow many times have you heard the worship leader say something like, “Jesus said ‘If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me,’ so let’s worship Jesus and allow him to draw us nearer”?  Sometimes it is implied that our worship of Jesus will even result in Jesus bringing sinners to salvation.

A simple reading of the context reveals that it is being both misquoted and taken out of context.  Jesus didn’t say “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me,” but rather “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to me.”  The addition of the bolded words alone make it clear that the worship leader’s interpretation is wrong.  The context makes it even more obvious: (more…)

straight-outta-contextEveryone wants to be understood properly – even God.  In communication, a proper understanding can only be achieved when a clear message is properly interpreted.  If the sender does not clearly convey his message, or if the receiver does not properly interpret the sender’s message, miscommunication and misunderstanding results.  This happens all the time with the Bible.  We often misunderstand it because we fail to interpret God’s words properly.

Interpreting the Bible is more difficult than interpreting a modern text or conversation because it reflects a different era, geography, language, worldview, culture, literary genres, and idioms.  Oddly enough, the vast majority of Christians are never trained in Biblical interpretation.  Given this circumstance, it’s no wonder the Bible is misinterpreted and misapplied so much.

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We rightfully bemoan the rise of the gay hermeneutic in which Christians are reinterpreting the Bible to allow for committed same-sex relationships, but has anyone ever stopped to think that what these liberals are doing to the homosex texts we “conservatives” have already done to the divorce and remarriage texts?  We have mangled Jesus and Paul’s teachings to allow for divorce for reasons other than sexual immorality, and to allow those who have divorced or have been divorced without grounds to remarry because we don’t think it is fair for people to be unhappy or alone.  We understand the strong desire to be in a loving, sexual relationship.  Our emotions become the motivating factor for reinterpreting (or ignoring) what would otherwise seem to be a pretty straightforward condemnations for most divorces and remarriages.

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jesus-is-truthPostmodern Christians who dismiss the veracity of propositional truth like to cite John 14:26 where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  “Jesus is the truth,” they say, “not doctrinal statements.  Jesus is the only truth that matters.”

This way of interpreting Jesus’ statement presumes that Jesus is saying He is identical to the truth, such that to speak of the truth is to speak of Jesus.  Linguists call this the “is of identity.”  An example of this use of “is” would be the statement, “Barack Obama is the president of the United States.”  There is an identity relationship between the man Barack Obama and the office of the president of the United States.  Clearly that’s not the kind of “is” Jesus is referring to.  When Jesus says he is the truth, he is not making an identity statement such that “Jesus = the truth,” otherwise, “to say that ‘2+2=4’ is true is to say that ‘2+2=4’ is Jesus. In other words, Jesus is claiming to be a mathematical statement.”[1]

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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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