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.

May 31, 2018

Humpty Dumpty and Biblical Interpretation

I have the privilege of teaching my favorite class, "Hermeneutics," twice a year (Spring and Summer School). Hermeneutics is, in a nutshell, "how one should handle the Bible." Quite often I feel that the question of "good" vs. "bad" hermeneutics is a matter of who is the master, the preacher or the inspired text (for Christians, the answer should be the latter!). To illustrate, I'd like to quote a famous section on lexical semantics (tongue-in-cheek!) from Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking Glass:
Humpty Dumpty:
"As I was saying, that seems to be done right--though I haven't time to look it over thoroughly just now--and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--"
"Certainly," said Alice.
"And only one day for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you."
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant, 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

The problem, of course, is that Humpty basically exalted himself above language, believing that he can "force" a meaning onto a word regardless of whether or not anybody else can or should recognize such a meaning.

The same problem occurs in preaching. Let me use Jesus' "Parable of the Good Samaritan" as an example (Luke 10:25-37).
Twice in my life I have heard bizarre takes on this parable, preached from a pulpit. The first case was the classic allegorical interpretation à la Augustine, where Jesus is the Good Samaritan, the victim is "everyman," the Levite is "organized religion," etc.

The second occurrence was more bizarre. The preacher said at the beginning, "Now I'm going to give you a new twist on this" (at which point I believe I literally put my head in my hands in despair), and then proceeded to give us an allegory on Christian sanctification where "Jerusalem" is the "spiritual Christian life," "Jericho" was "worldliness," or something along those lines (it got a bit blurry at that point; my memory is probably subconsciously suppressing the details).

Now, what's the problem with those two perspectives? The same problem as Humpty Dumpty had. Why? Because they were forcing their own meaning onto the text. They were declaring themselves the master, rather than the Spirit-inspired Word. This is clear when one considers that Jesus Himself has already given us the "point" and "application" of the parable (read Luke 10:36-37; dear reader, may we keep reading it until we get the point, then may we follow Jesus' command).

When preaching takes liberties with the text in such a manner, the result is an interpretation that comes not from the Word itself but from the preacher's rich and fertile imagination. Now, imagination is a good thing when it helps the preacher illustrate or contextualize the text, but not when it helps him come up with alternative meanings (I find it highly ironic that many very conservative preachers are basically post-modern in their approach to Scripture: "Here's what it means to me!")

One of the keys to proper hermeneutics, then, is something called "Reproducibility." I am drawing here from a fascinating blog post by Philip B. Stark on the Nature magazine website.
Stark states, "Science should be 'show me,' not 'trust me.'" I would say the same for hermeneutics. Every preacher should be able to demonstrate what a text means by methods that are, in theory, all available to his audience (even drawing on the original languages is, in theory, a reproducible piece of evidence; anybody can, with the right tools, check your claim that "this present tense verb implies this," or "this Greek word was used by the Greek OT to signify . . ." etc. ). In other words, a preacher should never have to say "trust me, this is what the text means, you're too unimaginative to check it out for yourself" (after all, remember what made the Berean Christians "more noble"? [Acts 17:11])

Consequently, if there's no way anybody in a preacher's audience could have possibly come up with that particular interpretation, despite having the same tools, then that preacher may in fact be preaching an invalid message, saying "thus saith the Lord, when the Lord hath not spoken" (Ezek 22:28). In other words, the fertile depths of one's own imagination is not where proper interpretation resides.

Let me demonstrate. Many interpreters have enjoyed reading Revelation 2-3 as representing different "eras" in church history, despite the fact that no evidence exists in the words of Rev 2-3 to indicate this (indeed, it's overly anglo-centric, as well; seeing Laodicea as the current era minimizes the suffering and poverty of genuine believers in China, India, etc.). Yet why stop there? How many potential interpretations can you, dear reader, force on those 7 churches (after all, you are the master of the text, are you not?) Here's a list to warm you up:
1. Seven types of church music (not original with me, sadly, though the next four are)
2. Seven types of Bible versions (your least favorite can be Laodicea! However, we are not starting a flame war about Bible translations on this blog)
3. Seven types of church youth group activities.
4. Seven types of Christian marriages (adds new meaning to "you have lost your first love . . .")
5. Seven types of Christian bloggers (feel free to link me to whichever "church" you feel appropriately describes this blog)

Where's the limit? Eventually, I hope, we would all get tired of this game and go back to the "radical" thought that each church was a literal church at the end of the 1st century, and that Jesus' message to each of them holds promises and warnings for all of us, no matter what era. Then we might begin to pay attention to what Jesus is actually saying (which would involve not ignoring verse 17 next time we preach on Laodicea).

This blog post has been something of an over-simplification, of course. It has not dealt with legitimate questions regarding the difference between "meaning" and "significance," the possibility of occasional "double-meaning" or "double-prophecy," proper contemporary application,  etc. But I trust I've made my point. If the meaning  somebody pulls out of the text could not have been arrived at by the audience (especially the original audience) through careful study, that meaning has more to do with one's imagination than with what the Holy Spirit intended.

For the interested reader, the (quite excellent) textbooks I use for my hermeneutics class are:
1. Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays,
2. Scripture Twisting by Sire

May 26, 2018

It's Out! My article in Evangelical Quarterly on 1 Peter and the hermeneutical value of social scientific criticism.

I am grateful that Evangelical Quarterly has just published an article of mine: Paul A. Himes, "First Peter's Identity Theology and the Community of Faith: A Test-Case in How Social-Scientific Criticism Can Assist with Theological Ethics Via Biblical Theology," Evangelical Quarterly vol. 89.2 (April 2018): 115-132.

I fully acknowledge that the title is not exactly the must conducive to generating interest!

However, what I'm trying to accomplish with this article is to show how the study of the social world of the audience of 1 Peter is actually relevant to Hermeneutics. My argument is that the author (Peter) responds to his audience's social world via biblical theology, and this can help us determine how to apply the biblical truths Peter develops in relation to our own world without misapplying and abusing Scripture.

Now, a word of encouragement for budding doctoral students wishing to publish. This article had a long, tortuous journey involving 2 complete rewrites, at least 2 significant revisions, and multiple rejections, before finally being accepted for publication by Evangelical Quarterly. The kernel for this article originally was planted in 2009 or 2010 as a submission to Word&World's student paper competition, where I focused on the Christian's relationship to the government; the paper did not win, but I did receive a free year's subscription to W&W for trying!

Then, fast-forward about 5-6 years. I totally rewrote the paper to focus more on "Identity Theology" in 1 Peter (material I had begun to explore in my dissertation), drawing on some new material recently published by Travis Williams on 1 Peter 2:13 that had changed the way I thought about that passage; I still kept the focus on "the Christian and government" and presented it at the "Bible Faculty Summit" in 2015 (rewrite #1). I then revised it and sent it in to "journal A", which rejected it so fast I figured my approach was completely wrong (for one thing, I believe I was focusing too much on attacking American exceptionalism).

I completely re-imagined and rewrote the paper once more (so: rewrite #2), this time relegating the topic of "the Christian and government" to the final section of the paper, envisioning it as the telos [goal] in a hermeneutical process that begins with "social scientific criticism," passes through "biblical theology," and then leads to ethics (and I found a great quote by Adolf Schlatter to start it off!) I then sent it to "journal B" at which point I made a tactical mistake, misunderstanding the nature of the journal (let's face it: I thought I knew what they meant by "theological interpretation of Scripture," but apparently I have no clue). I promptly sent it to "journal C," which also rejected it albeit more politely and with feedback for further revision.

So, then, with slightly more revision, I sent it in to Evangelical Quarterly, where it was tentatively recommended by the anonymous peer-reviewer, albeit not exactly with oodles of enthusiasm! Still, the article at least makes some kind of contribution to scholarship, so I'm grateful for EvQ and the opportunity to publish with them (this had been my first time sending a paper to EvQ). Normally my motto for submitting articles for publication is "3-strikes and I'm out" (i.e., if three journals reject it, the paper is probably not worth publishing). However, in this case, since the paper was a radically different paper than what "journal A" had rejected, I justified sending it to EvQ as my 3rd journal, and I'm glad I did! [For the record, EvQ gives pretty good feedback for revision, at least in my case]

Here's the point, for budding doctoral students and even those past doctoral studies that are working at getting published: keep working at it!  There is a point at which you should shelve a paper, but not until you receive a few unambiguous rejections (and even then, you may consider rewriting it and trying again elsewhere if you truly feel you have something worth publishing and have received positive feedback from objective academics).

Although my EvQ article is behind a paywall, if somebody wishes a copy they may e-mail me at phimes@gmail.com and I am allowed to provide them a pdf for personal/educational use. Here is the abstract [note the British spelling: "recognise" is not a typo]
"Evangelicals recognise that exegesis must ultimately lead towards ethics, or practical Christian living. Unfortunately, too often the roadmap for that process has been neglected, and the link between the two becomes disjointed. This article discusses SSC, biblical theology, and ethics in 1 Peter, but attempts to contribute to the discussion by showing how the three interrelate, in that the identity theology of 1 Peter represents a reaction to the social-religious circumstances of its audience. This reaction, in turn, naturally allows the author to transition into ethics for the Christian. By being aware of this interrelation (with biblical theology as the 'hinge’ between SSC and ethics), the modern Christian can properly apply 1 Peter’s theology to their own circumstances and avoid potential abuses."