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!

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