by Craig Branch – (The Introduction to the Areopagus Journal Vol. 6 No. 1, January-February 2006)
Several years ago, I tuned in to the O’Reilly Factor because I heard Bill O’Reilly was going to interview Dr. Paige Patterson, then the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, about the SBC initiative to pray for and evangelize Jews. This caused quite a stir in the liberal media and among many Jewish leaders, especially the Anti-Defamation League. In that five-minute interview, O’Reilly hit Dr. Patterson with at least ten apologetics oriented challenges. A central issue in all of his challenges had to do with the theme of this issue of Areopagus Journal – hermeneutics.1
O’Reilly began by asking whether or not the Southern Baptists were saying that “if the Jews don’t convert they are going to hell.” After Patterson replied, “Yes,” O’Reilly came back with, “That doesn’t sound tolerant to me.” When pressed further, Dr. Patterson pointed O’Reilly (and the millions watching) to Jesus’ words in the Bible, not his own. Patterson said that it was the Jewish Jesus who said that “He is the way, the truth, and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father except through me” [Christ] (John 14:6).
O’Reilly responded, “You can interpret that in many different ways. I just don’t believe He would say [mean] that.” O’Reilly continued, “When I read the Bible I see that if you are a good person, if you follow your conscience and are good, you will realize heaven.” Patterson attempted to draw him back to the real issue by saying, “Truth doesn’t change – if Jesus said that people out side of Christ are lost, in the first century, then Jesus hasn’t changed His mind today.”
Still commenting on John 14:6, O’Reilly countered, “You can be in Christ in many different forms. If you’re a Buddhist or a good person in another religion, you are not going to be damned. That’s a very limited view.” Patterson responded to this by again pointing him to Scripture, ‘Jesus said that the way is narrow that leads to eternal life and few go that way” (Matthew 7:14). Then O’Reilly complained that it wouldn’t be fair (especially for those who have never heard). Patterson responded that the issue of what is fair does not begin and end with man. He said, “If God has revealed Himself in the Bible and if what He says is true, then it doesn’t matter whether you like it or I like it.” O’Reilly, as usual on his program, had the last word (for now) by saying, “But it is also in the eye of the people reading the truth as to how to interpret it.”
O’Reilly was not only basing his position on his independent fallen perspective, he also claimed to have read the Bible and arrived at a different interpretation. The assumption is that no one can make any dogmatic statement about the Bible or anything else (except for that particular dogmatic statement) because the Bibles meaning is based on ones own arbitrary interpretation. O’Reilly’s perspective is representative of the growing and dominant view in Western culture: postmodern relativism. The Barna research group found that 64% of Americans believe that truth is relative to a persons own view or situation. Only 22% believe in absolute truth.2 This perspective permeates every aspect of our culture, including views on biblical interpretation. But, is the meaning of the Bible simply a matter of personal preference? Not if truth is absolute (and it is), and not if God has something definite to say in the pages of Scripture (he does). Throughout the ages, Christians have believed that the Bible was meant to be understood. And it can be understood by following the principles and guidelines of hermeneutics.
WHAT IS HERMENEUTICS?
The term “hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word meaning “to interpret.” Traditionally, it is defined as the science and art of biblical interpretation. It is referred to as a science because it involves the laws, or principles and methods, for interpreting and understanding the correct meaning of Scripture. This involves understanding God’s and the biblical author s meaning in it’s historical context, as well as how God would have us apply that meaning to our situation today (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21).
The second definitional aspect of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, involves the acquired skill of experiential understanding and discernment through the transformative power of the Spirit-filled, living Word of God.3 As the writer of Hebrews states,
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you still have need for someone to teach you the elementary principles of God’s word, and you still need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the Word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Heb. 5:12-14).
THE PERSONAL VALUE OF HERMENEUTICS
What value does it hold for Christians to invest their valuable time to become accomplished biblical interpreters? First, God instructs each Christian to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman, who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, emphasis mine). That’s hermeneutics. Just as everyone is a theologian, so too is everyone a Bible interpreter. The issue is whether you are a good one or a bad one. True sanctification is a transformation based upon the renewal of the mind by Spirit and truth (Eph. 4:17-24). Jesus said, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
But too many Christians find excuses to neglect serious study pf the Bible. Remember the term is Bible study. Barna’s research on this topic has led him to conclude that the extent of biblical illiteracy among American Christians is of “crisis proportions.” While 33% of Americans are classified as “born-again” Christians (not just nominal “Christians”), only 20% of them utilize a biblical worldview as the basis for moral choices. Evangelical Christians (much more committed) number only 7% of the population, yet only 60% of them base their decisions on the Bible. In the overall adult population, only 5% have a biblical worldview (8% Protest ants and one half of one percent of Catholics). Another Barna study concluded, “The spiritual dimensions in which people were least likely to rank themselves above average were sharing their faith and knowing the content of the Bible. . . . The most keenly felt spiritual needs were to increase their commitment to the Christian faith and to increase their biblical knowledge.”4
Some pass off their negligence by saying it is too difficult or takes too much time to study. No, it’s not too difficult, and yes, it does take time. But what do you spend your time doing? What does Christ mean when he says that we are “to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33-34)? What does it mean to present all of ourselves to God, which is true worship, and in so doing, to be about the transformation of our minds, rather than succumbing to the placebo of our fallen cultural’s indoctrination (Rom. 12:1-2)? The problem is not a lack of intelligence or time. It is a lack of passion for true knowledge, growth and discernment. With the help of good study tools, anyone can engage in fruitful Bible study (see recommended reading list elsewhere in this journal).
True sanctification is based upon sound doctrine. The inerrancy of the Bible is inseparable from good hermeneutics, which is inseparable from sound biblical and systematic theology. For example, as J.I. Packer notes,
Under what conditions can the Bible, viewed as inspired and infallible divine instruction, actually exert authority over us? My answer: Scripture can rule us only so far as it is properly interpreted. A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of Gods way rather than in it. Interpretation must be right if biblical authority is to be real in our lives and
As the Bible forthrightly states, “All Scripture is inspired by God [God breathed] and profit able for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate [complete in their destined purpose], equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). But, the Bible can be profitable in these ways only insofar as we study it and correctly interpret it. Because the issues of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, biblical canonicity (the establishment of a correct authoritative collection of inspired books), and hermeneutics are inseparably connected, we have devoted three of our journals to covering those subjects.6
The Great Commandment includes loving God with all of our mind, as well as our heart, soul and strength. Like the Psalmist, our prayer must be, Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart (Ps. 119:34). God so moved in the life and heart of the Psalmist to instruct and inspire us and heresies of the pseudo-Christian as well. Throughout Psalm 119 he petitions that he will not misconceive or misapply God’s teaching, and his passion is to truly comprehend God’s full range of truth as it bears on his thoughts, purposes, relationships, possessions, and all of creation. This is to be our prayer as well.
But our true sanctification and service is not just the academic pursuit of knowledge. Scripture is the “living word of God” (Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23) because it is the Spirit who gives life, both in causing us to be born again and in guiding us to understand the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2). So, as we come to Scripture we must come trusting (faith) in His presence and power to help us both understand and obey, as it is written,
[T]hat according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19).
HERMENEUTICS AND APOLOGETICS
Within the domain of hermeneutics, there are two major subfields or components. They are exegesis and historical criticism. Exegesis is the careful, detailed analysis of the language of the biblical text (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic) in its immediate context and in relation to the whole Bible. The historical critic examines the understanding in the culture in which the text was inscribed. The overall purpose of hermeneutics is then to answer the question, “What does the text actually say?” and “What does it mean?” From there, the next step is to understand what the Bible as a whole says and means on that text s topic. The results of this latter study become doctrine or Biblical Theology. The additional step is to understand how this relates to and integrates with other biblical doctrines. This involves the discipline known as Systematic Theology.
This brings us to the third purpose of this journal – the apologetic value that hermeneutics holds. There is much. First there is the issue of being able to effectively respond to the Scripture-twisting and heresies of the pseudo-Christian cults as well as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam. Scripture repeatedly warns us to beware of the fat al interpretations of false teachers who will mislead many (2 Peter 3:16; 1 teachers who will mislead many (2 Peter 3:16; 1 9, 13-15). To be able to recognize error protects us and our neighbor from spiritual harm.
We are also called to gently but clearly point out the errors and teach the truth to those deceived by the false teaching of cults and false religions (2 Tim. 2:24-26). This would also apply to false teachers within the Church who may be accurate on the essential doctrines, but teach other errors that negatively effect Christian growth and living (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
Could you be misled? Can you recognize harmful misinterpretations of the Bible and sufficiently respond to them? There is a connection between a lack of skill in hermeneutics and ineffectiveness in our evangelistic encounters with those deceived by cults and other heresies.7
ADJUDICATING DOCTRINAL DIFFERENCES
A second reason for this journal is to promote better understanding of why so many different Christian denominations and independent Christian churches exist. They all claim that the Bible support s their distinctive doctrines. In the body of Christ, we have Reformed theology, Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensationalism, Covenant theology, Charismatic-Pentecostalism, and combinations of them, just to list the most popular. And even within particular theological schools we have debates on issues like gender and equality, church government structure, end-time prophesy, warfare, spiritual warfare, tithing, etc. How do Christians know how important these differences are and which church adheres to the most sound (and therefore healthy) doctrine?
There are two recent books written by leaders in the Pentecostal-Charismatic churches who call attention to the need to answer such questions. In Full-Gospel, A Scriptural Fractured Minds?, Rick Nanez writes,
One of the most prominent voices within our movement who has articulated concerns over the mind’s involvement in the hermeneutical process is Gordon Fee. Fee, a New Testament scholar, contends that we demonstrate a lack of consistency and excellence when we interpret Scripture and that we are apt to ignore or even scorn our historical roots. . . .Pentecostals are not well known for good exegesis, hermeneutics, and theology. That is just a fact. . . .God is raising up those within our ranks who dare to speak to our suspicion of education, marked anti-intellectual bias, shameful hostility to history and languages in the courtyards of American Culture.8
The second book, Truth Aflame, is written by Oral Roberts University Professor of theology and missions, Larry Hart. The book cover states, “As the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement continues to grow, so does the need for solid theological resources for its members.”9
Another hermeneutical issue is the adoption of theological liberalism or neoorthodoxy by many in mainstream denominations. Neoorthodoxy generally holds that God revealed Himself in mighty act s, not superintending the recording of those acts. The biblical records are a human understanding of the significance of Gods actions. The Bible only becomes the word of God when individuals read it and the words acquire some personal, existential meaning for them. Unfortunately, this is purely subjective and relativistic. Another issue related to this relativistic neo-orthodox school is a new and growing movement that is just coming on the radar screen of the Church. This movement is called the Emerging Church Movement, and one of it’s significant components is the belief that theological and ecclesiastical traditions are based on modernistic human rationalism, which is lifeless and needs to give way to an experiential, incarnational form of theology where Scripture is interpreted in light of today’s cultural forms and ones personal experience.10
Good hermeneutics can help the Christian wade through these issues and discover God s truth.
IN THIS ISSUE
This issue of Areopagus Journal brings you three practical articles on the principles of hermeneutics. The first article, “Good Word of God,” is by Steve Lemke, Provost and Professor of Philosophy & Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He describes a broad spectrum of standard hermeneutical principles and discusses the various biblical genres (types of literature).
This is followed by “Getting the Whole Story: The Importance of Context in Biblical Interpretation” by Jason Snyder, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Southeastern Bible College. Rather than cutting and pasting passages to make the Bible look like it says what you want it to say, the true meaning of a Scriptural passage must be accessed according to its various contexts – cultural, historical, and literary. For example, what if someone a thousand years from now found a document that said, “Cowboy football is on the air.” How would they understand that? Attention to context would be vital – as it is with Scripture.
The final thematic article, “Scripture Interprets Scripture: The Role of Theology in Biblical Interpretation” is written by Dr. Steve Cowan. He explains the very important hermeneutical principle that Scripture is its own interpreter. He explains how we must allow other biblical passages to help us clarify the meaning of any given text. This goes beyond simple exegesis and into the discipline of systematic theology.
Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama. (At the time of journal publication)
1 See The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News Network, November, 1999).
2 These statistics can be found at Barna’s website: www.barna.org.
3 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 5.
4 “New Survey Shows Areas of Spiritual Life People Feel Most Confident About—and Those They Want Help With the Most,” Barna Report (Sept. 27, 2005) found at www.barna.org.
5 J.I. Packer, Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 104.
6 See Areopagus Journal 2:1 (January 2002) and Areopagus Journal 5:6 (November-December 2005).
7 For more help understanding the issue of cults, false religions, and particularly how they twist Scripture, order our Areopagus Journal 2:3 (July 2002) which contains Thomas Howe’s article “The Cults Misuse of Scripture.”
8 For more help understanding the issue of cults, false religions, and particularly how they twist Scripture, order our Areopagus Journal 2:3 (July 2002) which contains Thomas Howe’s article “The Cults Misuse of Scripture.”
9 Larry Hart, Truth Aflame, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
10 For a good understanding of the issues raised by the Emerging Church Movement, pro and con, see D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).