Hooked On . . .Hermeneutics? Reading the Bible On Its Own Terms

How is the bible supposed to be read?

How many people have even thought about this question?  

It may seem like a simple question at first.  Not so fast.

This questions comes up most clearly in discussions involving science and the bible?  Where are the dinosaurs? We ask.  How does the flood fit in?  The six days?  Neanderthals?  Fossils?  The big bang?  We scour the biblical text looking for any reference to these things to peg what we know of the world through science into our biblical revelation.  Then, with each new scientific finding or insight, the entire process must start again.

But what’s wrong with this?  Why shouldn’t we attempt to attempt compatibility between the bible and all of life?

Nothing in and of itself.  But I think what we have is a confusion of categories.  Both scientists and bible readers (not that they are mutually exclusive) need to make sure we keep our categories straight.

What do I mean by this?

Science is one category.  Science is by definition the study of nature through observable, repeatable experimentation.  Something is proved scientifically when it is repeated.

History is a second category.  History is the study of past events.  Events that cannot be repeated.  Nothing in history can be proved strictly speaking.  Certainly, there is a preponderance of evidence making many events highly likely.  But still, nothing in history can be scientifically proven.  Furthermore, concerning those events which are highly likely, there are always multiple perspectives and biases concerning their significance, effects, and motives.

But the bible is not exactly either of these things.  It is not designed to be.  It’s all 100% true.  But it’s not science in that it’s events are not repeatable.  And it’s not exactly history either as we define history today.  It is God’s revelation to his people.  It is a selective retelling of events by inspired authors with the explicit agenda of leading readers to repentance and faith.

Failing to read the bible in this light is failing to read it period.  In other words, opening the bible for any other purpose other than to understand God’s character and your position in relation to him is missing the point.

Both the bible’s supporters and deriders would do well to remember these distinctions.  

For example, naturalistic evolution may be a valid theory of life’s origins, but it is neither repeatable nor observable.  Science can see and discuss the physical mechanisms of the world and of the past, but to posit how and why these mechanisms came to be is beyond its reach.  Therefore, those who proclaim naturalistic evolution alone as the sole progenitor of life on earth are preachers of faith categorically no different than the guy on the soapbox by the street corner.

Likewise, events in the bible are not scientifically provable either because they are not repeatable.

Therefore Christians need to be wary of specious evidence which can easily by overturned, countered, or made irrelevant by other discoveries.  Saying we can prove biblical events without a shadow of doubt often undermines our legitimacy.  We need to rely on faith.

But so do the atheists.

The problem is we understand both scripture and the physical world dimly.   

As for science, it is always evolving.  Its premises and working models always shifting focus and direction.  And that’s ok.  Science is a tool to understand the physical world.  It is neither equipped nor capable of understanding the untestable, unobservable past.  Let’s enjoy it for what it is.  Let’s marvel at the complex choreography of God’s intimate designs in nature as we observe them.  Science is not an enemy but an ally for Christians as long as it is kept in its proper place.  To keep it there, we need to remind scientists of their biases, agendas in presenting new findings, and

limitations.

Where the bible is concerned, it was written by over 40 authors, over 1500 years, in many different cultures, to many different local situations, all of which are long gone and little understood.  Paul himself says as much in 1 Corinthians 13:12.   Therefore, we need to very careful in imposing our modern frameworks into biblical terminology.  Don’t misunderstand me.  We can understand the bible’s message just fine.  It is plain as day.  Reading through the bible, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by its redemptive vision for humanity and sacrificial life-giving, and ongoing ministry of Christ.  These things are clear to us because they come up over and over again in every book and in every situation.  The bible tells us all we need to know.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us all we want to know.  And that’s where we get in trouble.  That’s where we use random verses out of context because they fit some theory or agenda.  This is completely unacceptable and people who do so must be held to account by the church.  Unfortunately many who do this tell our itching ears what they want to hear so we let them get away with it.

The best safeguard against such fallacious, invasive readings is to define words and concepts in the bible using other parts of the bible itself, not our own understanding, 21st paradigms,  or even what we think we know of ancient culture.  We have to allow the bible to speak on its own terms.  If you have a question about the meaning of a biblical word, see where that word is used elsewhere in that book especially but also throughout the bible.  Later bible writers knew what earlier ones had said and often took up the older concepts and interpreted them again.  Thus what we see in scripture are rich layers of meaning for those willing to dig for it.

Here is a simple example:

Genesis 1:2 states, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  What does this mean?  What is God doing here?  Based only on Gen. 1:2 we have no idea.  Is this a good thing, bad thing?  Are the waters nefarious and menacing?  Is the Spirit keeping chaos at bay?  Or IS the Spirit simply cruising around, checking out the waters and getting ready to create some stuff?  The Hebrew word for “hovering” gives us a clue however.  It Is used only one other time.  Deuteronomy 32:11.  Here it describes an eagle protecting its young and nurturing them among the chaos of the desert as a metaphor for God and his people.  Does that shed some light on our Gen. 1:2 hovering?  I think so.  Was the author aware of the unique word usage?  You bet.  That’s what I mean by defining words biblically.  Use the imagery, the connotation, and the limits the bible uses.

It also doesn’t ensure an accurate interpretation.  Many things we may just not ever know for sure.  And our personal experiences and biases are difficult to recognize much less overcome.

But still.

Letting scripture interpret scripture will get you much closer than anything we can come up with on our own, and in the process you will fall in love with the depth and richness of God’s word.

Using this method is hard work.  But anything worthwhile is.

Peace,

Ben

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13 thoughts on “Hooked On . . .Hermeneutics? Reading the Bible On Its Own Terms

  1. I really enjoyed the explanations offered in your post regarding the Bible….What in your opinion is the easiest or least complicated way of addressing those that say the Bible is just written by men and who is to say it is to be believed at all as ‘inspired by God’? I would be interested in your opinion…Diane

    1. Thanks for your comment. No doubt the bible is complicated. For me I hang on to a couple of things which give me confidence in its truthfulness. 1) There is a very compelling case for the historical reliability of the bible and especially the NT. Historians are pretty certain Paul wrote his first books in the 50’s CE only 20 years or so after Jesus. At this point there was already oral tradition circulating around Jerusalem regarding Jesus and the resurrection to which Paul refers. In other words, there were a lot of eye witnesses to Jesus still alive who could have easily rebuked Paul’s claims. 2) The truthfulness of the bible in regards to our human position. Basically, there is no other book that nails our condition of sin and need for grace like the bible. That is powerful testimony to its inspiration in my opinion.

      1. Thanks…I have a grandson who is questioning the existence of God and I’m hoping that the Holy Spirit and my experience and ‘knowledge’ of my faith will be able to help him to question himself of the ‘why’ of believing…Diane

  2. Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine how hard that must be to go through. I will be in prayer for you and your grandson. Make sure and let him know his questions are not liabilities, but that God will honor his search for truth. What exactly is he questioning if you don’t mind me asking?

  3. Christians continually look to find ways of justifying the bible and I cannot but help to wonder why?
    We are talking about an omnipotent being, deity, Creator of all things….God.

    The ridiculous implausibility that such a being would reveal Himself or His word to an itinerant and largely illiterate people in some obscure, mostly polytheistic and pagan backwater in the middle of nowhere goes against the grain of every feasible standard of common sense.
    Furthermore, that this being would have any problems conveying, inspiring or (in the case of the Commandments) directly dictating His will, fly’s in the face of what normal people would consider to be the virtues or attributes of such an Omnipotent Being.

    Also, that there are so many versions and so many variant readings, including those that feature explanatory footnotes, merely illustrates how ridiculous the notion that this book is the product of a supernatural being.

    If we are dealing with God, then why not merely implant the required knowledge into mankind’s subconscious?
    Free will remains, and every other piece of required knowledge is there, placed in a manner to ensure human’s safety and salvation.

    That this was not done demonstrates how feeble is the argument for a Omnipotent Inspired book/s and glaringly illustrates why Christians cannot agree, as even at the beginning there was much disagreement and many splinter groups, including Gnosticism and Arianism.

    To consider the bible in any form as an inspired word of a supernatural deity smacks of a theological agenda and is an insult to such a being.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I don’t disagree there are difficulties with the bible. But what else should we expect? Yahweh communicated with people where they were and continually pushed and guided them to prepare them for Christ. He does the same today through the church. The bible is not a divine dictation dropped from heaven. It is a book written by and for people in a particular context and describes how Yahweh worked in those contexts.

      As for why did he not just implant knowledge into our heads and save us? He does not force anything upon us. He wants to woo us and wants us to love him. Forced love is no love at all.

      I would also challenge the notion that Christians cannot agree. Yes, there are splinter groups but the fact that the church has survived for so long is testimony to its truthfulness. And yes there are many denominations but we all agree on the essentials (the Trinity, the resurrection, stuff like that). The differences are largely on account of different political and social conflicts more than anything else. We are still imperfect people after all.

  4. “I don’t disagree there are difficulties with the bible. But what else should we expect? Yahweh communicated with people where they were and continually pushed and guided them to prepare them for Christ. He does the same today through the church. The bible is not a divine dictation dropped from heaven. It is a book written by and for people in a particular context and describes how Yahweh worked in those contexts.”

    What should you expect? A bit more than the dross called the ‘Bible” which is brutal, fallacious, immoral and historically inaccurate,

    If this is a description of how your god worked ‘in context’ then you god was not omnipotent as he could quite easily have ensured the , immorality and genocides did not happen – and lest you are wont to forget,- Yahweh commanded many/most of the atrocities
    There is no hint that Yahweh was pushing his people in preparation for the arrival of Christ, this of course is a Christian construct as well you are aware with not a shred of evidence to support it. Even the supposed prophecies from Isiah etc do not refer to any Messiah.

    “As for why did he not just implant knowledge into our heads and save us? He does not force anything upon us. He wants to woo us and wants us to love him. Forced love is no love at all.”
    ‘Forced love is not love’. EXCUSE ME!!! Maybe you should read your the first two commandments again, I presume they haven;t changed since I learned them at Sunday school, right?
    And what may I ask is the penalty for NOT adhering to this (non) Forced love by your god? Eternal damnation in the fires of hell, if memory serves.\However, in case the bible edition you have has a different interpretation mine is the King James Official version.

    “I would also challenge the notion that Christians cannot agree. Yes, there are splinter groups but the fact that the church has survived for so long is testimony to its truthfulness. And yes there are many denominations but we all agree on the essentials (the Trinity, the resurrection, stuff like that). The differences are largely on account of different political and social conflicts more than anything else. We are still imperfect people after all.”

    The fact that there are so many splinter groups among Christians…and lets remember there are other monotheist religions too, you lot do NOT have the monopoly on ‘god’, clearly demonstrates how ineffectual your god truly is. If he/she/it really cared then he would have ensured his message was made abundantly clear from the outset.
    Oh, and the Trinity was a Church construct – there is no mention of this in the Bible, not even an allusion, and was the prime reason the early church was forced to resort to persecution to rid the early Christendom of heresy.

    You write like an apologist, one who has been inculcated with his religion but unfortunately understands little history .
    It is a sham, but the best people to read and listen to are deconvertees, as they have trodden the same Evangelical path as yourself.
    I wish you well. May your journey to enlightenment eventually include the shrugging off of the shackles of lies and deceit that is religion. Open your eyes, then open them once more…
    Best of luck.

    The Ark

    1. I understand Yahweh ordered whole cities to be slaughtered. I too am uncomfortable with hell. I don’t know why those passages are in there. I wish they weren’t. I’ll reiterate again, just because I have chosen to be a Jesus follower does not mean I don’t have questions as well.

      I disagree completely that messianic prophecy is only a Christian construct. Many Jews today are waiting for the Messiah. Are they reading their bibles wrong as well? There are many more passages besides Isaiah which indicate God will one day intervene and ultimately rescue his people. Some are controversial and some are quite clear, but they are there.

      No, the commandments haven’t changed. I don’t really understand your point here. Those who followed Moses to Sinai were those who wanted to follow him. No one was forced to come. According to tradition only 1 out of 50 Israelites did so.

      You are right I should be more careful with my language. I understand there are many more religions. I do however believe God has made his message clear. There are churches in every part of the world and Christians are constantly seeking to reach new peoples. We care deeply for the world.

      I agree the Trinity is a church construct to some degree. The church is charged with safekeeping and interpreting doctrine. I have no problem with that. However, you are wrong that there is not even an allusion of the Trinity in the bible. It is an accurate summary of numerous passages and teachings (John 1:1, 20:28; Acts 5: 3-4, 20:28; 2 Cor. 3: 17-18; Titus 2:13 just to name a few). Additionally, Pre- Christian Jewish texts show clearly a belief that God was a unity with diversity (albeit without much elaboration).

      I do not see myself as an apologist. I am only pointing out that things are not as conclusive and simple as you seem to want them to be. I have been quite clear that I still have difficulties and that we simply cannot understand many issues. I read a great deal of history and biblical studies from people of various backgrounds. In fact you discovered my blog because I commented on Nate’s post, no? Have I been inculcated? Perhaps. I don’t deny my upbringing colors my view of reality. Everyone’s does. However, I have done the best that I can to seek truth and follow where the evidence leads. In the end, Jesus is too compelling for me to turn away from.

      Peace to you as well.

      1. Spoken like a true believer.
        No Christian , or any other religious follower for that matter – ever de-converted on the say-so of a person like me, so the last thing I am going to do is call your bluff, as it were, and fight tooth and nail over each and every point raised in your reply.
        As an apologist you are groomed to tackle stuff like this, and in the end, it would be a futile exercise.
        Although id you wish to broaden your historical knowledge about the Jews, the Exodus etc look up archaeologists Prof. Ze’ev Herzog or Israel Finklestein

        There really is nothing really compelling about Jesus, other than what was accredited to him by gospel writers, a reasonable bunch of apologetic storytellers fulfilling an agenda. Nothing new about that. Nothing new at all.
        If/When you truly begin to ask questions in an open and honest fashion, completely unhindered by any form of biblical or theological allegiance then the words of the Bible will be seen for what they really are – a story, written by people.

        If/When that day comes I hope it doesn’t hurt too much to realize that you have been lied through the teeth to by ignorant (albeit, well-meaning, in the main) people.

        And don’t take my word for it. Go read any de-convertee’s blog about their story. They are almost all the same.
        Nate’s is one of the more tolerant and patient ex-Christians(atheist) and he has suffered considerably by what has done to him and his immediate family by the church and its followers.

      2. I appreciate everything you have to say here. I will continue to read many blogs and gladly accept any book recommendations. I am not afraid of the truth or evidence.

  5. Then if you are not afraid of the truth, why are you still a Christian?
    If you can openly state you have no problem with the bible, its lack of veracity inharmonious text, factual inaccuracies, laughable assertions, heinous acts of violence and yet say you are unafraid of the truth then you aren’t searching with an open mind or unemotional heart, I’m afraid.

    Whilst you still hold on to Christianity as if your life depended on it – which it does not of course, you really wont be going to hell -the dogma that accompanies it will be the monkey on your back.

    When you read the diatribe of William Lane Craig ,no matter how convincing and erudite the man is (And he IS, make no mistake) and then dismiss out of hand the eloquence and simplicity of Richard Dawkins you still have a ways to go.

    The question that has always baffled me about religious people is simply why?

    Answer that for me if you are willing.
    Write out the answer first, and then read it. If it doesn’t;t strike as the biggest load of manure then you still have plenty of unanswered personal questions, my friend.

    1. I never said I didn’t have problems with the bible. However, I am still a believer in the Christian god because it is from my perspective the most cogent explanation of reality. I am a believer because I want love, loyalty, beauty, and freedom of thought to mean something. I am a believer most of all because I need grace. You can disagree or think I am ignorant. That’s fine. But that’s why I believe.

      1. ‘Hey, you can believe what ever you like…no problem with me. And you can claim it as truth, too, for all I care.
        I do object when this view is proselytized to kids and when such delusions are lobbied to be taught as factual in schools, especially with the accompanying doctrine of hell.

        I dont think you are ignorant as much as uniformed and inculcated, and from the tone of your replies somewhat unwilling to face certain aspects of biblical texts that clash with the supposed Meek and MIld Jesus and the genocidal maniac Yahweh 0 especially as they are supposed to be one and the same substance.
        Turning to Christianity is usually because of personal issues/problems – booze, drugs, violence, sexual abuse etc
        Or at least this has my experience with all the Christians I have ever come across.

        Anyway, you are free to believe what ever you wish,as I mentioned.
        We are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.

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