Herman who? Someone every Christian needs to know
by Steve Douglas
July 15th, 2008 | 25 Comments
I come from a Christian tradition that downplays or contradicts basic principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) on a regular basis. The starting assumption is that the Bible is God’s Word written; this effectively entails the idea that the Bible is about as divine as He is: inerrant because He is, authoritative because He is, perfect because He is, etc. The fact that evangelicals have taken to referring to the canon by one of Jesus’ own titles is an indication that they view it as a proxy for Him on the earth; Karl Barth rightly noted that, on the whole, Protestants have installed a paper pope in lieu of a living one. For these, reading the Bible is as close as most of us will get to gazing into God’s eyes. Surely this takes it too far. What if the Bible is not the ipsissima verba (“very words”) of God? Its profitability for the Christian life is not a result of near-divinity but of our wise God’s decision on how to create it, namely its humanity. The divine is the Bible’s subject, not its nature or essence.
The Bible should not be thought of as an exhaustive instruction book for humanity written by God as much as a journal written by mankind recording its encounters with God. It’s a play-by-play recounting of salvation history as guided by God. We learn by the revelation they received from God and their experiences, but we shouldn’t expect every statement and every thought to contain “a word for us” directly from God’s lips. C. S. Lewis put it this way:
The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
As someone else put it (more succinctly than Lewis), “The Bible is made up of 66 books, not 31,000 fortune cookies.” That large figure, of course, is an estimate of the number of verses in the Bible, but even subdividing by chapters instead, although producing a much lower number, is almost as dangerous. Too many evangelicals are wont to expect the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the Scriptures to function independently of the context and often in apparent contempt of it. The idea is that because the Bible is a mystical, magical book (which is how many understand the adjective “inspired”), each passage or verse can mean whatever God wants it to, and we should look forward to those instances in which He extracts nuggets of personally relevant data in blatant violation of the context in which He inspired it. But if the Bible can mean anything, it means nothing. Context is either an essential factor for determining meaning or it is essentially trivial, wholly subject to being thrown out as soon as someone decides that the passage means something more suitable to him/her in their situation. Original, contextual meaning gathers dust beneath the shadow cast by the Holy Spirit’s illumination. There is no middle ground because the more “spiritual” reading is always able to tilt the table in its direction.
The same is not true of those of us who value the original context. We do not put the “spiritual” and the “natural” readings on opposite sides of the table to begin with; the natural reading is the Holy Spirit’s reading, and the original intentions for the text are God’s ultimate intentions for the text, or else He wouldn’t have chosen a culturally and temporally situated text in the first place. Why we should believe God made His Scriptures open to any number of esoteric meanings just because He theoretically could is beyond me, but it’s never questioned by scads of the more devout Christian evangelicals of today. Any patterns of meaning, most of which have never been recognized until our pastors discover them, that can be overlaid upon and link together a sufficient number of passages are thought to be evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity. The problem is that the sort of evidence that arises from such novel rubrics is utterly impossible to refute: if the Holy Spirit could have meant it and it’s something we like and has at least one other supporting verse (probably wrenched out of its own context), it’s a slam dunk that it was the Holy Spirit who is responsible for it. Most dangerously, the Holy Spirit’s presumed authorship of these never-before-seen, esoteric meanings naturally constitutes the most spiritual (i.e. most important) meaning hidden inside the events described in the inspired texts, especially when it comes to the Old Testament.
Now, I allow that God could have made Scripture mean anything He wanted it to, so let no one accuse me of limiting His power. I am merely recognizing the boundaries He set on our interpretation by choosing as a medium, not a crystal ball, but literature that has been subjected to the sullying influences of time, translation, and bad interpretation. He is sovereign enough to deliver His message in the circumstances of history and culture in which He originally situated it, and we have every reason to expect Him to do so; He never required an incorruptible, ageless, magical window into the deep mysteries of the spiritual world to accomplish His purpose. Recovering and honoring the original meaning is thus the only sure way we have of eliminating the purely subjective layers of meaning we may want to superimpose upon the text.
The principle that each Scripture has one meaning does not preclude the possibility of multiple applications for Scripture, if by “application” you mean the sort of thing we are able to glean from any event we read of in the history books. For instance, the nonsense of the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” is apparent when you ask instead, “What does Lincoln’s assassination mean to me?” Well, it means there were extremists in the world then, and likely there are now; that not even a President of the United States is safe from them; that actors tend to nurse radical political tendencies…lots of things. But these meanings are only valid when viewed from within their historical Sitz im Leben (setting in life), in full view of the humans who participated in the events, and never apart from an awareness of the individuals who passed the information along (e.g. any biases or limitations on their knowledge). Why should we then presume that God quietly and unaccountably wiped away any such need for contextualization or other basic tools of interpretation? David killing the lion attacking his sheep doesn’t “mean” anything to us in an esoteric sense; it does give us an impression of his bravery and devotion to his duty, and thereby inspires us to be like him; it doesn’t “mean” that we should bravely face and defeat our enemies in life. That seems to be a valid lesson (“application”) of the story, but let no one think for a second that that’s what the passage “means to me”; the same lesson could be gleaned from reading The Jungle Book.
When we read Scripture and see something we “never saw before”, we must check the urge to immediately get excited and thank God for the special revelation we think we have received until we look a little further and make sure that the novelty of our reading is based in either the recovery of new contextual information or a faithful, modest application of an original theme of the text to our current situation, and is not the result of reading brand new meanings into Scripture (eisegesis) that occur when we are too self-absorbed to set aside our personal ideals and expectations of what we want to get from the text.
Every Christian should be aware of the principles of interpretation that focus and limit how we read Scripture. Perhaps later I will single out a few of the most essential yet somehow most neglected hermeneutical principles.
July 15th, 2008