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

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