Hermen Eutics – some bloke from Munich?
No, hermeneutics – the technical word for interpreting the bible.
Christians – people who follow Jesus, right? Yes, of course. The next questions are: who is Jesus, and what does following him mean? How do we get the answer to these questions? How do we know if the answers we have are the correct one?
How we answer these questions will determine what it means to be a Christian. It will determine how we see the God that we claim to know and follow.
Can we answer these questions on our own? Can we work them out philosophically Can we discover them from exploring the world around us? Can we discern them by spiritual means?
I would suggest that, at least in part, we can find our way towards the answers through all these means. However, the only person who can definitively answer these questions is God himself. And therefore, the answer to them is found in discovering how God has revealed himself.
As always, the supreme answer to how God has spoken is ‘Jesus’. As the book of Hebrews in the bible puts it:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” Hebrews 1:1-2
So, if Jesus (and by extension his disciples) is the one providing the definitive answer to these questions – then how do we discover Jesus? At the heart of this lies the scriptures – the bible – the Old & New Testament. This is the primary place where Jesus is described to us, and in which what he said can speak to us.
The Baptist churches in the UK have a ‘declaration of principle‘ made up of three simple statements. The first says:
“That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.”
This is it – Jesus is our authority – but how we understand him is revealed in the bible. Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) are often described as ‘people of the the book’. Whilst I accept the description – it is more appropriate to say that Christians are the people of the Son of God, who is revealed in a book. We are not bible worshippers, but Jesus worshippers.
The question that then comes is “How do we interpret the book?” And this is where Herman comes in. How we approach interpreting the book will greatly influence how we follow Jesus.
Should we interpret it like:
- An Instruction Manual – where every detail must be followed to the letter – or something isn’t going to work
- A Legal Contract – where breaking one part of it means the whole thing is violated
- A Historical Document – where I find some truth, but I need to critically look for bias, mistakes and misunderstandings
- A Legend – where I find inspiration, excitement – but not history
- A Letter with Advice from My Grandfather – full of wisdom, but also some hearsay, prejudice and errors
- A Beautiful Work of Fiction – that may speak to my soul, make me cry – but is still a fiction
How we view the scriptures is crucial for us to know the answer to the question “Who is God, and how do I know and follow him?”. Approaching the bible as if is each of the above documents would provide us with different answers to this question.
Since Jesus, Christians have wrestled with this. How do we interpret this book (more accurately – these books)? The answers to the big questions that we wrestle with – who is God, how do I follow him, what happens if I don’t follow him, how should I live, is my lifestyle OK to God etc. etc. – these will come from how we interpret the bible.
Often debates that have gone on, and go on now, in churches over particular issues – are actually debates over how to interpret the bible. The debates among Christians in the 18th and 19th century over slavery were often shaped by interpretation of the bible. The same was true of apartheid in South Africa. The question here was about how the Old Testament was viewed – where there were slaves, and the Jews were called to live separately – and whether the New Testament (where there is neither slave or free, Jew or Gentile) has priority over the Old (I think it does).
Today is no different. Churches debate issues about our relationship to government; how we handle money; sexual ethics; the ethics of violence. Our approach to interpreting the bible will give us a variety of answers.
So, is there a right way to interpret the bible? Well, let me humbly share with you what I believe.
If the answer to every question is ‘Jesus’ – then let us look at how he related to the scriptures. When Jesus walked the earth, he only knew the Old Testament. But how did he relate to it. Here are a number of ways:
- He quoted it very extensively
- He alluded to it very extensively
- He quoted it to support the things he was teaching
- He referred to its writers as prophets
- He never questioned the truth of it – he took it as given that it was true and inspired by God
- He explained bits of it – giving new light on old passages
- He challenged people for not having followed what was in it
I would suggest that an honest reading of Jesus teaching would show that he was fully convinced of the inspiration of the OT and its truth. similarly, because of things that Jesus says to his disciples – I believe that he saw both his own teaching, and that which the disciples passed on as just as inspired. (For a more detailed look at this, read my earlier blog post called “9 Reasons to Believe the Bible is Inspired
So, the line from the book of Timothy in the New Testament can be applied to all of the bible:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16)
What does this mean for us? It doesn’t mean that the task of interpreting the bible is easy – we need all the help we can get from each other and from God – this task will never end as we dig deeper into it.
However – it does mean that we have to take all of the bible. We cannot leave bits out.
If we struggle with it, disagree with it, don’t understand it – then we need to go deeper into it with God’s help. But we cannot say “That shouldn’t be in there”; “That was for then, but it doesn’t have any relevance now” or simply “I don’t like this passage – so I will ignore it”. This dishonours God and will lead us astray. Every time that the church has done this in history – it has eventually shrivelled.
Jesus challenged some Saduccees, because they had ‘cherry picked’ the bible and left out the obvious story of resurrection.
“Jesus replied, ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)
Let us wrestle with the bible, read the bible, try to understand the bible, discuss the bible, pray over the bible, tell the story of the bible – but let us now be those who pick & choose and leave bits out. This was not the way of Jesus.