The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Feb 19, 2015

Hermeneutics: The Two Great Dangers, The Law of Hermeneutical Authority, and Resources for the Student and Teacher

Of all the classes I've had the privilege of teaching, I am by far the most passionate about Hermeneutics (which, I'm happy to report, is required for all college students here at BCM, both guys and gals, as is Greek). I strongly hold to the presupposition that we can understand God's Word as it was meant to be understood, but that on the other hand it will usually take some work. Thus a little child can understand John 3:16 in any modern translation and trust Christ, while a myriad of scholars will write a cornucopia of academic articles on what in the world "Saved Through Childbearing" means (1 Tim 2:15; and even the Apostle Peter admitted that the Apostle Paul could be difficult to understand--2 Peter 3:16).

The ultimate goal of Hermeneutics is to understand the Word of God. Yet in the process, two great dangers (even sins, if we're not careful) loom in front of us. On the one hand, we must avoid at all costs the devil's trap of asking "Has God really said  . .?" if, indeed, God has clearly spoken (Genesis 3:1). Yet the other side of the coin is that we must absolutely avoid saying "Thus saith the Lord" if God has not spoken! In other words, the danger of Ezekiel 22:28 is just as serious as Genesis 3:1. To claim to speak God's Word on a topic while distorting the actual meaning can be just as serious as outright ignoring what God has said.

If God's Word truly is sacred yet occasionally difficult, we can expect various levels of disagreements on the adiaphora, the non-essentials. Nevertheless, no excuse exists for misinterpreting God's Word through lack of study or exalting one's own opinions over the plain sense of Scripture. The ultimate example of hermeneutical incompetence, and one that I show to my students, is the popular YouTube clip arguing from the alleged Aramaic behind Luke 10:18 that President Obama is the Antichrist (no, I am not making that up).

Bad hermeneutics, though, can have more serious consequences than just another round of "let's name the Antichrist or date the rapture." Second Timothy 2:15-18 seems to imply that a failure to "rightly divide" God's Word leads to the errors of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who began to teach seriously wrong theology. Consequently, I am stressing to my students something I call the "Law of Hermeneutical Authority"—namely "The authority of your claim that 'Thus says the Lord' is diminished in direct proportion to your mishandling of the meaning or application of a passage of Scripture." In other words, dear students of Scripture (and I speak to myself here as well), you cannot make dogmatic claims on meaning or application if you are manhandling the Word of God to suit your needs or opinions. God's Word is authoritative when it is properly understood. Quoting Scripture is cheap; anybody can do that (as does the devil himself, as well as his human minions). The question is: are we understanding this particular passage in Scripture as it was meant to be understood? If not, there goes any claim to authority on that passage. (At this point I will briefly stress the difference between "meaning" and "significance"--the former will always stay the same, while the latter may change to a certain degree from person to person, and sometimes as the Spirit leads, but it will always be grounded on the former).

This does not mean that anybody is perfect! All of us, at some (or many) points in our lives, will definitely mess up in our interpretation. Jesus Christ remains the only infallible interpreter of the Word (after all, he is the Word). Nevertheless, we must cultivate an attitude of respect towards the Bible, coupled with a determination to study matters out.

With that in mind, I'd like to share with my readers some of the resources that have been a great help to me in teaching this class.

First of all, our main textbook is Grasping God's Word, by Duvall and Hays (3rd ed.; Zondervan, 2012). This book is easily-readable, meant for college students--not technical, yet solid and very practical. Unlike the majority of textbooks out there, it actually has an entire chapter on the Holy Spirit! (Definitely a point in its favor). Furthermore, this book truly resonated with a lot of what I personally wanted to stress in class. I do disagree with much of chapter 1 (being a Byzantine-text guy, among other things), but this could not even come close to deterring me from requiring this excellent book for my students.

I am also requiring my students to read all of the fantastic Scripture Twisting by James Sire. This book does a very competent job of exposing the hermeneutical fallacies of cults and extreme fringe groups; the discussion on "Worldview Confusion" is especially helpful.

For my own personal study, I made it a point to purchase both Cracking Old Testament Codes (eds. Sandy and Giese) and A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (eds. Ryken and Longman) since we will be covering a lot of material on genre in the class (as well as backgrounds, language, theology, etc.)

One book that has surprisingly challenged me in an "outside-of-the-box" kind of way is Peter J. Leithart's Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. If you, dear reader, feel that you have a basic grasp of hermeneutics, and you already own Grasping God's Word or something similar, then go ahead and buy Leithart's Deep Exegesis—it will make you think!

Some other useful sources: Grant Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral is considered a classic for seminary-level work.  For those of a more dispensational persuasion, Roy B. Zuck's Basic Bible Interpretation is very helpful (and was the textbook of choice with the previous teacher of BCM's hermeneutics class), while Graeme Goldsworthy's Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics is a bit more of a reformed persuasion, though both Zuck and Goldsworthy would be worthy additions to your library and have their own strengths. Also, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, is a useful book; for advanced studies, I must needs put a plug in for Invitation to Biblical Interpretation by Andreas J. K√∂stenberger and Richard D. Patterson.

Though most of the students will probably have taken Greek by the time they get to class (but very few will have had Hebrew, which I also teach at BCM), I will be showing them how to do very simple word studies via Strong's numbers (while stressing that meaning is derived from both context and semantic range, not either in isolation). For backgrounds, I am pointing them to the various excellent sources out there, including Second Temple literature and other primary sources (for secondary sources, I am especially fond of The New Testament in Antiquity by Cohick, Green, and Burge, and Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson).

Naturally, NT use of the OT, a sub-division of hermeneutics, has a whole host of books that you should be aware of; nevertheless, that is another post for another time.

Ideally, a knowledge of Hermeneutics should go hand-in-hand with competency in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Nonetheless, hermeneutics is the foundational class; it will not matter how well you know the original languages if you fail to treat Scripture and its original authors (both divine and human) with the respect and reverence they deserves. Hermeneutics does not give you all the answers, but it does teach you which questions to ask!

Feb 5, 2015

For those thinking they might be interested in a doctorate . . .

The internet abounds in advice for prospective doctoral students in Biblical studies, and some books are bouncing around out there as well (see, for example, the fine work by Nijay Gupta, Prepare, Succeed, Advance). Nevertheless, a couple of conversations I've had with students lately have convinced me to add my own two cents to the mix (keep in mind, dear reader, every experience is different, and my perspective is necessarily colored by my educational background!).

Background--I am very fortunate and blessed. I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and Theological German totally humbled me, but nevertheless I graduated with a Ph.D. in New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary under scholar David Alan Black, had my dissertation published by Wipf&Stock, and today am teaching some bright young kids [can I call them that? Sounds weird, I'm only 34] at a Bible college.

Before we get started, please understand that a Ph.D. (at least in the States) is, minimum, a 3-year degree, but more likely a 4-5 year degree. I took 5 years for mine: 2-3 for the classwork, over half a year for comps and prospectus, and roughly 2 and a half for actually researching and writing my dissertation--I was slowed down a bit by deciding to re-write my prospectus, but that actually worked out for the better.

First of all, pray and seek the Lord's will--I happen to hold to the audacious idea that the Lord actually cares what we do with our life, and that he will lead and direct us. At the very least, we should avoid boasting "Tomorrow I will go to such-and-such a school, write a killer dissertation that rocks the scholarly world, and gain many accolades!" Such an attitude is simply asking for trouble (James 4:13-17). For myself, I began seriously praying about the Lord's will in a teaching career somewhere around my junior year in college. From there on out, the Lord providentially directed me down the right path, for which I am grateful.

Secondly, give heed to your grades. For most of us, our grades probably get better as we go along (studying the subjects we wish to study!). It should go without saying, however, that if you are only getting consistent B's in an MA or M.Div., you need to seriously buckle down and work harder. A "B" is frowned on in doctoral studies (though not unforgivable). At Southeastern, a "C"would result in a meeting, and a second "C" resulted in an automatic dismissal, as I recall. So if you're struggling with getting top-notch grades in either college or grad school (especially the latter), I have just one question for you: "If the footman tire you, what of the horseman?"

Thirdly, schools matter (but not as much as you might think): I went to a small independent Baptist college, then a very small (but accredited) independent Baptist seminary, and by the Lord's grace was able to study under some of the top New Testament scholars at one of the largest Protestant seminaries in America for a Ph.D. Now, I teach at a small independent Baptist Bible college that is not accredited; nevertheless, I work with some bright young souls who love Jesus and for whom a doctorate might open up special avenues of ministry. On the one hand, accreditation matters (I was asked point-blank about my school's accreditation when applying at Southeastern), yet nevertheless it is not the ultimate decision-maker. A good friend of mine is research assistant to a top NT scholar, yet only had TRACS accreditation [which is usually not too highly regarded], though he did have a Th.M. (which helped). One of my old profs did not have an accredited degree, but was accepted to Trinity's doctoral program on the second attempt after putting together a killer application which included, if I remember correctly, a state senator for a reference! (he defended successfully and has taught for 20+ years).

Having said that, to get into a top-tier school such as Duke or Princeton, you will need more than a degree from "Bubba Himes' Backyard Seminary and Garage Sale," no matter how good your referents! In some cases, you might have to be willing to take an extra MA from your target institution just to qualify. A lot of it will depend on denominational affiliation and contacts. Once again, if the Lord desires you to get a Ph.D., he will direct.

If you feel that your M.A. or M.Div. will not be adequate to get you into a good doctoral program (i.e., something other than "Bubba Himes' "Pay-me-by-credit-card-online-and-write-on-a-bunch-of-stuff then-print-out-your-degree" seminary), then consider pursuing a thesis-based Th.M. from a different school to increase the chances of being accepted. This will introduce you to higher-level research while significantly beefing up your application. A Th.M., from what I understand, will probably take 2 years though is doable in less (a year for classwork and a year for writing).

Fourthly, be well read. You should not be considering pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament if you don't know anything about the Verbal Aspect Theory debate. If the Gospels are your passion, make sure you know who B. H. Streeter and J. Griesbach are. Don't expect to study theology at the highest level if you've never cracked open Karl Barth. As a side-note, you should be pouring in a lot of energy into the original languages (at least for Biblical studies majors)--my entrance exam for Southeastern involved sight-translating a passage in Greek and parsing every verb, with no helps at all.

Fifthly, study the schools, and be familiar with the major movers and shakers within each school. Before stepping foot on Southeastern, I had read material by Black, Robinson, and Andreas Kostenberger (and after I got there I was influenced by the other scholars). Do not even think about applying to Duke unless you know who Richard Hayes is (and have read some of his material). If you wish to study New Testament or Greek at Dallas, be thoroughly familiar with the work of both Daniel Wallace and Darrell Bock (among others). Know the strengths of each school--for many, Westminster Theological Seminary is the school of choice for apologetics. Trinity and Wheaton are probably well-balanced in all areas. I felt Southeastern had fantastic opportunities in New Testament (Greek, Biblical Theology, and Textual Criticism), which is why I applied there. If you wish to study Dispensational Theology, then Dallas is probably your best choice. You should also be considering European schools and their strengths (though with a somewhat different model of study--others, including my Doktorvater--blog about this, and they know more than I do)

However, with that in mind, please know that it's the scholar, not the school. At the doctoral level, you must decide who you wish to study under and why! For me, my targets were always either Dr. David Alan Black or Dr. Maurice Robinson. I was privileged to work under both of them: I had Dr. Black as my Doktorvater, and I worked as grader and occasional substitute teacher for Dr. Robinson. Nevertheless, ultimately I was applying to study under a person, first and foremost (though the sad irony is that I never actually got to take a class under Dr. Black, other than official mentorship; nevertheless, what I got was better than a class).

One more small point--have a solid financial plan! I didn't, and it hurt me in the long run (though--news flash!--the Lord always provides and keeps me from starving!)

For those with more questions, feel free to e-mail me, and I'll try to assist from my limited perspective. Hopefully, in the future I'll post on actually surviving the doctoral program itself.