Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hermeneutics for Apologists, or How to avoid starting a Cult

Christians in general and apologists in particular must be careful to interpret the Scriptures properly. While I will not be teaching a hermeneutical series here, I will be covering some common mistakes in interpretation, how to remedy them, and their application to apologetics. One will find that some biblical “problems” become easier to solve once proper hermeneutics are employed.

In fact, this will help in dealing with cults or fringe groups of Christianity. Why is it that Harold Camping and his followers have so misunderstood the idea/event of the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ? Because he employed a faulty hermeneutic (namely, that one can adduce a numeric code arbitrarily assigned to an Old Testament event with an arbitrary date that predicts the exact date the Lord will return). We must avoid these mistakes.

1. Everything in the Bible is meant for me.

This mistake is most often made by atheists/skeptics, but it can be employed by Christians as well. After all, will Tychicus really “make known” to me “all things,” or anything for that matter (Eph. )? Probably not. In fact, we are not the direct original audience for any of the biblical writings. If we start to apply certain things in the Bible, they may at first appear quite harmless, but they may enable us to go down an incorrect path.

For instance, suppose someone is praying about whether or not to start a church. Suppose he further questions God, saying, “how can I lead?” He flips open the Bible to Exodus 3:14 and reads, “I AM hath sent me unto you.” And with that, he goes and starts a church. The problem? This passage has absolutely nothing to do with starting a church, nor is it an injunction meant for believers today (much less this one in the example in particular).

This situation can be applied apologetically by recognizing the original audience and what it meant to them. This is called the proper interpretation of a given passage. Sometimes, this passage is a command given and valid for all believers. This is the case when it is a matter of objective morality apprehended directly or when it is not the case that the command is culturally-rooted. Even in the case the particular command is localized, we nonetheless may glean principles from the text that must be applied to our lives (lack of this idea is exactly why the Old Testament—outside of the miracle stories—is frequently ignored: no one understands it!). This answers the smug skeptic who sarcastically wants to know why we shave, or wear mixed types of fabric, or eat shellfish, etc.

2. Interpret every genre the same way.

This is an all-too-common pitfall. Because the modern Western church is quite attuned the idea of the genre of the epistle (especially the Pauline epistles), these are quite often interpreted correctly (or at least generally). However, the modern interpreter will then transfer the principles he or she unconsciously uses from the epistle to each and every other genre. History, the Gospels, prophecy, the Law, Hebrew poetry, Wisdom. These genres cannot be interpreted the same way as the epistles.

Within the epistles, the easiest way to grasp the particular message is to narrow down the theme of the book, the thought structure or argument, the major and minor points, and finally the surrounding context.[1] To do this in the book of Proverbs, however, can lend itself to disaster. Consider Proverbs 17:21-22: “He that begetteth a fool doeth it to his sorrow: and the father of a fool hath no joy. A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Perhaps one would say that if one has a foolish child, he should simply find something to be happy about, and then all of his problems will go away. Or perhaps it is saying the only way to personal happiness is to have a good son. In any case, it misunderstands the point: the proverbs are individual sayings grouped together; sometimes to make a specific point, and sometimes not.

Another example is the genre of prophecy. One cannot simply choose a few verses to examine and derive principles from. Rather, one must understand the particular beginning and ending of “oracles,” or messages from the Lord. Once one identifies these, he can better interpret the Word of God.

How can this be applied apologetically? One may make sense of particular situations or methods of writing. When one realizes that the Gospels (being either ancient biography or Old Testament history) are not meant to be an impartial, chronological recording, one may dismiss the so-called “problem” of the Synoptics.

3. The point of the passage is irrelevant; so long as I can make something that fits with the passage I chose.

This is the biggest problem with biblical interpretation. I do not believe this error is done on purpose, but I would be so bold as to say it is the most common. John says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” So all we need to do is praise Jesus, and this will attract people to come to the Savior, right? Well, this may be right, but it is certainly not what Jesus was teaching in this passage. The point of the passage is what matters.

But what does it matter so long as we are correct in the principle, an objector may ask. It matters precisely because one has no guarantee of being correct while using a faulty hermeneutic. In fact, it can only be said to be correct in spite of the passage, not because of. Secondly, if God gave us the Bible he wanted us to get exactly what it contains! God’s Word must be given priority over what we think is true.

The Bible cannot be reduced to what we can create, make up, or what is in accord with our traditional beliefs or what sounds good. It must be interpreted in light of its argument or the point of the passage. For instance, it is important to note that not everything in the book of Isaiah is actually in the future. One must understand the social ills Isaiah preached against or the behavior of Israel being preached against by Isaiah and God himself. Otherwise, one will most assuredly get the interpretation wrong.

Too often I have seen fringe churches and even cult-like groups spring up over these very hermeneutic issues. Too many churches read verses like “come out from among them, and be ye separate,” and use it to justify the condemnation of women wearing pants, among other things. In apologetics, this just lends fuel to the fire of skeptics. Look at Harold Camping! It simply creates more work for the rest of us. Have any favorite fallacious interpretations or fallacious principles? Let’s hear ‘em!

                [1] This is not a complete discussion on how to interpret an epistle but simply the basics.

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  1. Another one of my favorites I forgot to mention was the hermeneutical fallacy of anachronism. This is especially prominent when interpreters encounter certain Greek words. The idea is reading back in certain modern-day ideas into ancient contexts.

    I haven't heard this as much lately, but my favorite used to be when preachers would explain δυνιμυς as being like "dynamite," despite the fact no one would have had any idea what dynamite was in the first century!

    Another one is in the realm of prophecy. It is the word φαρμακεια. It is claimed this is where we get our word for "pharmaceuticals," and thus the Bible is referring prophetically to drug use in the modern age. However, this word is used in the biblical record to announce witchcraft (that may or may not involve drugs). See Galatians 5:20 for its use there, which would be slightly out of place as drugs. While the word's usage could go either way in Revelation 9, it seems more likely to be a spiritual usage in Revelation 18.

  2. Great post. Jesus' calming of the storm is another one that is often misunderstood: "Jesus wants to calm the storms of your life." Really?

    Apologetics Guy

  3. Thanks Mikel! I need to visit your site this week. ;)


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