Tag Archives: hermeneutics


Context matters.

It really matters.

And when interpreting the Bible, it matters even more.

Why? Because the Bible matters… and getting our interpretation correct matters for those of us for whom the Bible is both formative and authoritative.

An example:

Many years ago, when I was a Young Life area director working with leaders at the local university, we had a great faith community together. We enjoyed vibrant worship, discipleship, ministry and mission together. But the group of leaders was young and needed some strong direction in certain areas. I created a rule for our leaders (and staff) about drinking.  No drinking in public in the same town you did ministry in.  There were lots of reasons for that rule. But to be clear, I am not a Christian who believes that drinking is wrong — but as a leader in that context I sensed that it was important to lay out that ground rule.  

Now if someone else happened to read the memo I wrote to our leaders (outside of the discussion we also had), they might have concluded that I was opposed to all drinking or that the application of what I was teaching/saying is that we should never drink in the town we live in or minister in.  Out of context, they would probably misunderstand and over-apply the principle.  You see, in context and given the specific people and community involved — and a specific context of ministry — this rule made sense. But it was only a statement about that particular context and time.  In fact, several years later, I lifted that rule because context had changed.  It was no longer needed or necessary.

I have just started to study again Paul’s Letters to the Corinthian church.  And I am reminded that understanding context is critical to exegesis.  Paul lays out many rules, wisdoms and strong suggestions.  But these are all contextual.  They are based on Paul’s understanding of the community, his relationship with them, the particular issues and players involved, cultural assumptions and biases, etc etc etc.  The technical idea here in hermeneutics (that is, the art of interpreting a text) is to determine whether a particular text is general/universal — that is, true and applicable in all times and all places irregardless of context — or specific — that is true and applicable within a specific context, perhaps with broader implications by principle, but not necessary “binding” or true in all times and places.

For example, when Paul writes “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) or that it is better to stay single (1 Cor 7:8) … or that women should be silent in church (1 Cor 14:34)… or we should drink some wine with our water (1 Tim 5:23) … before we assume that these are universally applicable, we need to look at the context.  And when you begin to understand what was going on in the Corinthian church (or with Timothy’s stomach) it becomes clear what Paul is saying and why.  And there are applications and implications for us today — we should never ignore these texts.  But to interpret these texts as being universal — for all times and all places — is not just silly, but unfaithful to the text.  

And this is why context matters… whenever we read, interpret and apply scripture, we must always consider the context of both the author and audience in our exegesis. We do this not to dismiss or ignore passages, but to faithfully understand and learn from them.  The right and proper reading of the scriptures is critical to the vibrant Christian life. When we ignore context, the text becomes irrelevant to us because we are reading it wrong.  When we take the time to seek out and understand context, the text becomes alive, vibrant and effective — life a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:!2) and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Tim 3:16)


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Posted by on October 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Hermeneutical Essentials

[Part 9 in our series on Hermeneutics]

In this last post on the hermeneutical process, I want to step outside of the textual/interpretive issues and look at a broader question: what is an essential doctrine (that all orthodox Christians must agree upon) and what is a non-essential (where faithful Christians can disagree and arrive at different faithful answers)?

Some issues/theological positions have been considered “essentials” to believe to be part of historical orthodox Christianity. Examples of “essential doctrines” include the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. Generally these are the issues you find addressed in the historical creeds. Examples of “non-essential” items are things like end-time theology, whether creation is a literal 7 days or not, different theologies of worship or sacraments, etc. While people may be passionate about these issues, it not essential that all Christians agree. There can be multiple faithful readings and faithful answers. Our approach to theology should be in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas which translates as “In Essentialsunity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity (love).” (This phrase is often wrongly attributed to Augustine but comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius.)

So the big question becomes how do you determine what is an essential and what is a non-essential? This is not always as easy a question as it may sound. The best writing I have seen recently on this issue comes from theologian C. Michael Patton.  He proposes a four-pronged test to see if an issue is an essential or non-essential.  He argues (and I agree) that to be considered an essential, the issue in question must meet all four tests — if it only meets 3 of 4, for example, it is a non-essential.

Here are the four tests/questions that Patton sets out (you can read his whole argument over on his blog… here I am quoting directly):

1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?

This first criteria is one of historical agreement. This is a form of “consensual faith” (consensus fidelium). This criteria of universal consensus follows the canon of Saint Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, “that which was believed everywhere, always, by everyone.” In other words, an essential cannot be something new like the doctrine of the Rapture. Neither can it be something that has lacked historic unity by Christians across time like the perpetual virginity of Mary. As well, it cannot have limited geographic representation, like certain Eastern liturgy. The question here is, Have all Christians of all time everywhere believed it?

2. Explicitly Historical: Does the history of the church confess their centrality?

This is like the first but differs in an important way. Here we are saying that if the history of the church has not confessed this as a central issue, then it is not. For example, the history of the church may confess that the Christian worldview includes a firm confession of a belief in the historicity of the Flood narrative, but it has never been a part of the central teachings to the degree that a denial of such is a damnable offense. When combined with the first criteria, the exception cannot define the rule. The point here is that we take seriously God’s work in the history of the Church through the Holy Spirit. If the church has universally believed that a certain doctrine is both true and central to the Christian faith, that doctrine deserves serious consideration as being among the essentials.

3. Biblical Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture?

One of the principles that the Reformers sought to communicate is that of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. The Reformers did not believe that all of the Scripture was clear (a misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity), but that all that is essential for salvation is clear. In short, if something in Scripture is obscure, then it is not essential. Augustine even held to such a principle stating that one must not build doctrines on obscure passages (On Christian Doctrine). For example, one should not build essential doctrine on what the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:19) are or what it means to be “baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29). Unfortunately, both the Catholics and the Mormons have done just that. If a passage is obscure, no essential doctrine can be derived from it.

4. Explicitly Biblical: Does any passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential?

The Scriptures speak about a great many things, but they are often explicit regarding that which is of essential importance. For example, Paul says to the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; emphasis mine). The “of first importance” tells us that Christ’s death and resurrection “for our sins,” from Paul’s perspective, are essential components of Christianity. Without such, according to Paul, there is no Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff). As well, the Gospel of John speaks about the importance of faith. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

In addition to what I quote above, Patton has another post here that looks at how this plays out with specific issues, with specific denominations, etc. You can read that post here.  He also has posted a helpful “test” here for you to look at and determine which issues are essentials and which are non-essentials (he actually presents the essential/non-essential as a continuum with more nuance, but that is more than we need to go into here).

So as a good transition into our discussion of what the bible says and does not say about homosexuality (which I will start next week), let’s first apply Patton’s 4-pronged test and see
if this is an essential issue (that all Christians must agree upon and is a salvation issue) or if it is a non-essential (that Christians are free to disagree on and there may be multiple faithful answers.

1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?

I think on the issue of homosexuality, you would have to say generally YES this question. The consistent teaching of the church universal prior to the 20th century has been against homosexuality. In the 20th century forward, with the advent of modern psychology and a more complex understanding of human sexuality, sexual orientation and the difference between orientation and behavior, many churches and denominations (and Christians) (mostly in Western Christianity) have taken a different view on this issue — but that has been (and, still is) a minority opinion. So overall, I will assess this as a YES on the topic of homosexuality.

2. Explicitly Historical: Does the history of the church confess their centrality?

On this issue I am going to say YES & NO — kind of half and half.  On the one hand, I know of no orthodox church that confesses homosexuality as a central issue. On the other hand, many churches do confess the nature of marriage and human sexuality as central issues in the Christian life.  So I will give this a HALF POINT for YES.

3. Biblical Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture?

Obviously this is the debate at hand in many denominational circles these days. And this is the very issue we will be taking up shortly as we look at all the relevant passages on the topic. So I am going to withhold judgement on this issue at this point. 

4. Explicitly Biblical: Does any passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential?

On this question, I think you have to say NO. Even the most traditionalist view does not claim that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is an essential issue for Christians or the church. 

So based on Patton’s test and my assessment, homosexuality scores somewhere between a 1.5 and 2.5 on the YES SCALE (depending on how we land on Question #3) — and since an ESSENTIAL issue needs to score a 4, either way homosexuality is a NON-ESSENTIAL issue.

So what does this practically mean? Simply that there is going to be disagreement on this issue (and often, passionate disagreement) but that we affirm that different faithful Christians can and will come to different faithful answers on this issue. And that we can agree to disagree without resorting to name calling, questioning people’s salvation or love for Jesus, etc.

Interestingly, because most of the ESSENTIAL theological issues have really been worked out by the historical church, most of our contemporary disagreements and fights within the church are over NON-ESSENTIAL issues that people feel passionately about.  Other examples — in addition to the homosexuality issue — include things like divorce, birth control, war/pacifism, death penalty, environmental issues, ordination of women, nature and role of sacraments, church governance issues and models, etc.  So to say that issues are NON-ESSENTIAL is not to say they are small, unimportant or that we shouldn’t care. Only that we can allow diversity of opinion and that faithful Christians will fall on a CONTINUUM of thought on these issues.

The idea of the continuum, I think, is a helpful one in understanding these issues.  For example, when it comes to WAR, there is a continuum of Christian thought that runs from Pure Governmental Pacifism, Personal Pacifism, Just Peace Theory, Just War Theory, etc etc.  Is there one right answer? Maybe — but we will never know it this side of heaven. Is this issue important?  Absolutely — literally millions of lives (and deaths) hang in the balance of how this issue is resolved.  But it is not black-and-white, faithful Christians disagree on this issue, and because we understand it as a non-essential, we can agree to disagree.

And the same can be said of all the other issues we mentioned: ordination of women, sacraments, church governance, end-time theories, birth control… etc etc… and homosexuality.

All of that said, one of the things I hoping as we explore the relevant texts about homosexuality over the coming weeks is that each of us would come to a better understanding of WHERE WE ARE ON THE CONTINUUM OF BELIEF ABOUT THIS ISSUE and as importantly WHY ARE WE THERE ON THE CONTINUUM — and then remember always in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

In the meantime, two areas of discussion we can have here are:

1. Do you agree or disagree with Patton’s 4-pronged test? Why?

2. Do you agree or disagree with my application of Patton’s test to the issue of homosexuality? Why?

Looking forward to your thoughts…



Hermeneutical Questions & Principles

[Part 8 in our series on Hermeneutics]

In this series we started by looking at some micro-hermeneutical issues (what I call mechanical hermeneutics) and then moved on to macro-hermeneutics (big ideas, story, etc). Now, we are returning to mechanical issues.

In interpreting and applying a passage from the Bible, there are some key questions to ask yourself. Here are a few of the more important ones (not a complete list):

1. What genre is the text in question?

This is a pretty simple but important question. Is the text poetry, letter, history, law, prophecy, parable, apocalyptic? These are just some of the genres found in the Bible and each needs to be interpreted differently.

2. If it is a letter/epistle, is it “occasional”, “general”, “pastoral”, etc

Much of the New Testament is made up of letters (or epistles) from one individual to either another individual (such as 1 & 2 Timothy, Philemon), a particular community (such as 1 & 2 Corinthians) or to a more generalized community and meant to be circulated (such as Romans).  1st & 2nd Corinthians, for example, is what is called an “occasional letter”.  This means it was written to a specific group of people to address very specific issues. It is also part of a correspondence to which we only have Paul’s side (kind of like listening to one side of a telephone conversation). This raises some definite interpretive challenges.

3. Is a command given “specific” or “universal”?

There are lots of commands and imperatives in the Bible — both Old Testament and New Testament. The key question to know whether the commands and imperatives are specific (and time-bound) or universal (and still apply). Sometimes it is easy to figure out, other times not so much.

For example, which do you think these are?

“Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Tim 5:23)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also shouldwash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak…” (1 Corinthians 14:34)

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)

“Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…” (1 Corinthians 11:14) 

I could list dozens of examples, but you get the idea. Again, sometimes it is easy to discern and other times less so. But either way, it an important question to answer when interpreting a passage.

4. Is a theological issue considered “essential” or “non-essential”?

Some issues/theological positions have been considered “essentials” to believe to be part of historical orthodox Christianity. Examples of “essential doctrines” include the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. Generally these are the issues you find addressed in the historical creeds. Examples of “non-essential” items are things like end-time theology, whether creation is a literal 7 days or not, different theologies of worship or sacraments, etc. While people may be passionate about these issues, it not essential that all Christians agree. There can be multiple faithful readings and faithful answers. Our approach to theology should be “In Essentialsunity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” (This phrase is often wrongly attributed to Augustine but comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius.) This is such an important issue, I am going to do a whole post on it before I end this series on hermeneutics.

And here are some general principles to remember:

1. The principle of authorial integrity.

We should presume that authors don’t contradict themselves — that there integrity in their writings from book to book. We also need to respect the idea that thought and theology develops. So when reading Paul, it is helpful to know which letter was written when. His later writings probably carry more weight than his early writings when it comes to developing theological convictions.

2. The principle of canonical consistency.

I come to the task of hermeneutics with a posture of faith, so I assume that there is consistency in the meta-narrative of the full canon of scripture. My assumption is consistency and therefore try to interpret with this in mind. Some people assume inconsistency and contradictions; that is not my approach. There must be string evidence to support an inconsistent interpretation.

3. The principle of temporal context.

We need to assume that the text had a particular meaning to a particular person or group of persons at a particular moment in time. Our first interpretive task is to try and understand what that message was, why that message was given, and how it was to be applied. We can only then begin to ask what it means for us today. 

4. The principle of textual syntax.

Grammar, language, etc, all matter. We need to take syntax into consideration when interpreting.

5. The principle of discourse analysis.

This is particularly helpful with epistles or sermons embedded in the text. We need to look at what the whole argument being made is, why it is being made, and then why it is being made in the manner it is. Who is the intended audience? What is the issue at stake? Why is the argument being made the way it is to this particular audience? These are all important — and at times complex — questions.

6. The principle of consistent interpretation.

We need to have consistency in how we interpret. This is true within a passage (or even a verse) and within the whole canon. Where we do not have consistency, we must have a good reason to do so. This is particularly important in figuring out what parts of the Old Testament law still apply today — but this issue comes up all the time and needs to be taken seriously.

And one final pair of questions, based on all our other analysis:

Given what we have discovered through the hermeneutical process (spiral, circle, story, hinges, center, etc) (a) WHAT DOES THE TEXT SAY, and (b) WHAT DOES THE TEXT NOT SAY?

This last step is pretty critical because of what Deuteronomy warns us about God’s Word:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands
of the LORD your God that I give you. (Deut 4:2)

In other words, we neither want to take away from God’s Word (and so we must ask, “what does it say?”) nor do we want to add to God’s Word (and so we must ask, “what does it not say?”) To require something of people that the Bible does not is to add to God’s Word — and as bad as taking away from God’s word.

So there are some questions and principles we need to remember as we dive in to interpret a specific text.




The Hermeneutical Center

[Part 7 in our series on Hermeneutics]

This past Monday in this series we talked about hinges and how Jesus is the central “hinge” of history and therefore interpretation of scripture. As a Christian, coming in with a posture of faith, committed to the whole story, Jesus is the center of our interpretive method. This means that Jesus is the rule by which we interpret all things. The question WWJD (“what would Jesus do?”) is actually a pretty solid hermeneutic.

Jesus is the Word of God. Listen to the Gospel of John:

 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.

 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… 14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

What do we learn here? Jesus is the Living Word. The written word is a reflection and revelation of the Living Word. The author is the interpreter of His written word. We understand the written word through the Living Word — not the other way around.

Jesus talks about himself in relation to the written word often throughout the Gospels. One of the primary tensions in the Gospels is between Jesus and the Pharisees. A central component of this conflict is between literal reading and interpretation of the scriptures (Pharisees) and interpreting the scriptures through the heart of the Father and the over-arching story (Jesus).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this:

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

There are a number of implications of this teaching. First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. Second, Jesus is not a new law-giver (as some contemporary Christians seem to think). Third, the standard Jesus sets for meeting the merits of the law is perfection in following the law. Fourth, to fulfill the law is to “satisfy” the requirements of the law. To satisfy the requirements of the law requires either perfect adherence to the law or alternatively “paying the fine” for law violation. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice fulfills the law (that is, satisfies the requirements of the law); in the New Testament, Jesus satisfies the law — once and for all — with his death and resurrection.  This is what Paul teaches in Romans when he talks about Jesus being the “second Adam”. It is worth reading all of Romans 5 to get a sense of Paul’s argument. Here is one part of it:

6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:6-8, 18-19)

Paul makes the same argument in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 —

21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

All of this points to the idea that Jesus not only created the law but also fulfills it for us. This is what justification is all about.

Given all of this, it is fair to ask, “well then, what are we supposed to do practically?” — or in other words, “which is the greatest commandment?” This is the question that a Pharisee asks Jesus —

 34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

 36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

A couple of noteworthy things about Jesus’ answer… 

First, he answers by quoting the sh’ma — the most foundational prayer in Jewish life, found in Deuteronomy 6. Theologian Scot McKnight has called this the Jesus Creed.  

Second, Jesus is asked to “what is the one thing” and he answers with “here are two”. Did he misunderstand the question? I don’t think so. The sh’ma is the obvious answer.  Love God with everything you’ve got. But how? I think the second statement is not a second command, but an explanation and application of the Greatest Commandment. In other words, simply put, the whole of the law is summarized as LOVE GOD, LOVE OTHERS. Everything else is commentary.

In fact, much of Jesus’ teachings are commentary on this teaching — the Good Samaritan (“who do I really have to love?”), the lost parables (“Am I loveable? Do I have to care about lost people?”), etc.

One of the most powerful teaching sections of the Gospels comes in the latter half of John’s Gospel — especially John 13-17.  This is Jesus’ last teaching the the disciples before his passion and death. In many respects, this represents the most important teaching of Jesus… that which he needed to tell them before he left.  Here is what he says:

34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34)

And then, by way of application and commentary:

15“If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

 22Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

 23Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

 25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

 28“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (John 14:15-31)

And the New Testament confirms this basic teaching. John writes in one of his epistles:

 16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

 21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:16-24)


– Jesus is The Word and is the center of all faith and life (and interpretation of the scriptures).

– Jesus is not a “new law giver” but the fulfiller of the law.

– Jesus summarizes all his teaching and commands in the Great Commandment: Love God, Love Others.

– Therefore, everything in the Bible must be interpreted through this lense: Loving God and Loving Others.

So in one sense, interpretation is not that difficult. Love is the central ethic of the Bible and Jesus commands us to love God and love others. So in every case we must interpret passages — and apply them — in light of that rule, that standard.

The challenge, though, is knowing what is the loving thing to do? 

The love of Jesus is always a Holy Love.  

Love without holiness is mere sentimentalism. Holiness without love is soul-killing legalism. Jesus models and calls us to holy love.

So this is the interpretive challenge: the achievement of holy love.




The Hermeneutical Hinge

[Part 6 in our series on Hermeneutics]

There is a basic rule of Biblical hermeneutics that is important to remember: whatever the text may or may not mean today, its primary meaning must be for the original recipients. I believe that scripture speaks to us today — and is authoritative; I affirm that “ll Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” But in interpretation, we need to remember that we start with trying to figure out what the text meant to the original author and audience and only then ask what it means to us 2,000 years later.

In some cases, how a text was understood and applied 2000 (or 5000) years ago is very different than today. The main reason for this is what I can “narrative hinges”.

Narrative hinges are game-changing moments that radically change the BIG STORY radically and irrevocably.  Hinges are key to hermeneutics. When reading texts written prior to a certain hinger, today — as faithful believers — we must read that text through the lense of the hinge. First we ask what it meant to the original audience, and then we read it through the lense of the hinge and apply it to us. 

Hinges are, as I said, game-changing and history-rocking moments and cataclysmic events.  Here is a summary of the key narrative hinges in the Bible — by no means comprehensive, but I think these are the big ones.

  • FALL
  • Noahic Covenant
  • Abrahamic Covenant
  • The Exodus from Egypt
  • Mosaic Covenant
  • Promised Land
  • The Era of Kings
  • Davidic Covenant
  • The First Temple
  • Diaspora
  • The Second Temple
  • INCARNATION (Christmas)
  • New Covenant

You can see that while all these narrative hinges are big, they are not all equal. I would argue that collectively the hinges of INCARNATION/CRUCIFIXION/RESURRECTION (in other words, the life and work of Jesus) is THE HINGE — not just of the Biblical narrative — but of ALL HISTORY.

If this is true then all interpretation of texts must be done through the lens of Jesus.

I will explore more about the implications of a “Jesus-centric hermeneutic” on Friday… today I am just laying out the foundation for why hinges — and specifically the life and work of Jesus — is so critical to good interpretation and application of scripture.





The Hermeneutical Story

[Part 5 in our series on Hermeneutics]

In our last post on hermeneutics we looked at the hermeneutical circle and the importance of interpreting the text within the overarching “big idea” of the biblical meta-narrative.  This is a deductive approach to interpreting the bible.

This approach is an important balance with the hermeneutical spiral — an inductive approach to the text. In other words, I think you need to work both inside out (inductive spiral) and outside in (deductive circle, big idea, narrative) at the same time.

By focusing on the big idea and the story, we are sure to protect against losing the important over-arching story and teaching of the Bible by getting stuck in the minutia; by honoring each text we respect the process and each specific passage/book/author.  We need both.

I am convinced that the Bible tells a single, cohesive story running from Genesis to Revelation.  N.T. Wright describes the narrative this way:

In the Christian canonical Bible there is a single over-arching narrative. It is a story which runs from creation to new creation. The great bulk of the story focuses quite narrowly on the fortunes of a single family in the Middle East. They are described as the people through whom the creator God will act to rescue the whole world. The choice of this particular family does not imply that the creator has lost interest in other human beings or the cosmos at large; on the contrary, it is because he wishes to address them with his active and rescuing purposes that he has chosen this one family in the first place.

Even if we were to rearrange the Old Testament canon (adopting the normal Jewish order, for example, in which the Prophets precede the Writings, ending with 2 Chronicles instead of Malachi) we would still be reading a story in search of an ending, in which the people chosen to bring the creator’s healing to the world are themselves in need of rescue and restoration.

The New Testament declares with one voice that the over-arching story reached its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the early Christians believed to be the promised Messiah of Israel. The followers of Jesus saw themselves as royal heralds, claiming the whole world for its new king. Although it is rightly said that the first Christians saw themselves as living in the last days, it is even more important to stress that they were living in the first days of a new creation that dawned when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning. In other words, they saw themselves living within a story in which the decisive event had already occurred and now needed to be implemented. That is the implicit narrative which informs and undergirds all the epistles.

The four canonical gospels, in their very different ways, are only comprehensible if we understand them to be telling how the story of God and Israel reached its climax in Jesus. Even if we were to rearrange the New Testament canon, this implicit story-line would emerge at every point.

From this brief sketch it is possible to see how the Bible (Jewish or Christian) does not exist, and does not offer itself to us, as a detached set of writings or as a book-in-a-vacuum. It is our window on a reality which is decidedly extra-textual – a complex community stretching from Abraham to the early apostles. In particular, the Christian Bible is a window on a particular extra-textual reality, the human being Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers came to believe in an astonishingly short space of time that he was the living, human embodiment of the one true God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Wright goes on to describe how the Biblical narrative can be understood as a 5-act play:

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities.  Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.  The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.

This understanding of the Biblical narrative has profound implications for how we read, understand, apply and live out the scriptures as church… living in the fifth act.

While I find Wright’s outline and argument compelling, I don’t think you have to buy into his particular conception in order to get the full story and its importance in hermeneutics.  We must read every text as part of the grand story.  No text stands alone.


*     *     *     *     *


I have a few more hermeneutics posts planned, before we dive into specific texts.  Here is what is left for the hermeneutics discussion:

1. The Importance of Hinges

2. The Centrality of Jesus

3. Critical Interpretive Questions

4. One Last Question: Essential or Non-Essential

I would love to hear your continuing thoughts… or feel free to suggest any hermeneutical issues you think I should address before ending this series…



The Hermeneutical Circle

[Part 4 in our series on Hermeneutics]

Previously we talked about the hermeneutical spiral — an inductive process for examining a passage, going from text to context.  Today, I want to talk about the hemeneutical circle — a deductive approach that helps keep the spiral in check.

Here is how David Jasper describes the hermeneutical circle in his book A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics:

The Bible is the origin and primary source of Christian doctrine and the belief of the church. At the same time, this very belief, known as the apostolic tradition, is the ‘canon of truth,’ which regulates our proper reading of Scripture. In other words, Scripture provides the rule by which the interpretation of Scripture is tested… But which comes first — text or interpretation? The answer is neither and both. The German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleirmacher, often known as the father of modern hermeneutics… described this circularity of the hermeneutic process in this way:  In order to gain an overview of the text in its completeness, we must give proper attention to the details and particulars. But we cannot appreciate the significance of these details and particulars without a sense of the whole work. We begin with the big idea, read the text clearly and in detail in light of this, and then use the text to substantiate the original idea.

Interpretation, therefore, is not a process along a linear trajectory from ignorance to understanding via the medium of the text…

The reading process, in its varied forms, does not provide us with any final conclusion (except, perhaps, when we finally come to rest at the end of all things in God) but an endless stimulation to further inquiry and conversation. And as German philosopher Martin Heidegger once remarked, what is important is not how we get out of the hermeneutic circle (which arguably, is impossible anyway), but how we initially get in.  In other words, what idea do you start with…?

There are a couple of really big and important concepts packed in there. The biggest is that scripture is internally consistent and can be used to interpret itself.  The Bible is not merely 66 different books combined in a canonic library, but rather a cohesive story and narrative with a dominant big idea.  Understanding the “big idea” or narrative is critical to proper interpretation and application of scripture.  Without it, we are mere academics — or worse, Pharisees.

Friday I will begin to explore what the “big idea” of the narrative is and what difference it makes.  In the meantime, what are your thoughts about “the circle”? 



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