Hermeneutics is the task of determining what the Scriptures mean for us today (in the old days, we called it ‘application’). Its counterpart in Bible reading is ‘exegesis’, which involves working out what the Scriptures originally meant. Exegesis seeks to make clear what the author was trying to communicate to his readers. Hermeneutics takes that message and works out its relevance to 20th-century man.
Most people see exegesis as an objective study, at least in theory. Presumably the author had something in mind when he put pen to paper (or quill to papyrus), and it should be possible for us to determine what he was trying to communicate to his readers. We may disagree about it, but there is an objective solution to the problem.
Hermeneutics, however, has an aura of subjectivity about it. Different scholars will come to wildly differing views on how a particular passage applies to today’s world. It all depends on your ‘hermeneutical methods’.
Sensible Bible reading
Recently, a number of evangelical scholars have sought to lay down some sound principles for hermeneutics. Concerned at the way the Bible is used (or rather abused) by some ‘Christian’ groups, they have searched for some guidelines within which God’s word can be truly and properly applied to our lives.
How to Read the Bible for all its worth by GD Fee and D Stuart is one of the most popular and reputable books of this type. In their chapter on ‘Hermeneutics in the Epistles’, Drs Fee and Stuart attempt to bring some rationality to the debate by providing two basic rules.
Rule 1: a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author and readers.
First and foremost, they argue, hermeneutics must be based on exegesis. What the text originally meant must be the basis for what it means today. The Bible is not a book of magic words that can mean anything that happens to strike us at the time.
Rule 2: whenever we share comparable particulars (that is, similar, specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s word to us is the same as his word to them.
This second rule argues that the similarity between the original situation and our situation should determine our hermeneutics. God’s word then is God’s word now, provided the situations are sufficiently similar.
In applying these two rules, the authors stress the impropriety of extending the application of Scripture beyond comparable situations. To make the Bible say something it doesn’t intend is not to hear God’s word. They admit the possibility of applying principles to situations that are not directly comparable, but warn of the dangers of doing this too freely.
They also discuss the problem of cultural relativity. Some aspects of the Bible’s teaching relate only to the culture of its own day and are not normative, therefore, for the Christian life. In fact, our society is so different from first-century Palestine that there are some areas in which we no longer have any comparable particulars at all. A series of guidelines is offered to bridge this cultural gap.
Finally, they raise the problem of ‘task theology’. We must be wary, they say, of building a theological system from literature that was never written as a systematic theology. The Bible might sometimes not answer our questions at all.
This analysis of the hermeneutical issues of today is careful and well-reasoned. It encourages us to have a consistent, well-worked out principle for sensible Bible reading and application.
Unfortunately, this sensible Bible reading is unbiblical.
Biblical Bible reading
The modem debate on hermeneutics is marked by a failure to come to terms with the Bible’s attitude on the whole question. The Bible claims, for example, that its writers didn’t always know what they were talking about. In 1 Peter 1:10-12, we discover that the prophets were speaking about things they didn’t understand. Christ had to open the minds of his disciples before they could understand what the Scriptures said about the sufferings of the Messiah and his mighty resurrection (see Luke 24:44ff). Rule 1 is broken within the Bible.
So is Rule 2. The Old Testament law is applied in the New Testament on the grounds that it was not written for the original hearers but for us upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11; Rom 4:23, 15:4). The focal point is not the Old Testament, but the New Testament. The cultural situation of these two ages was radically different, but this doesn’t seem to bother the New Testament writers. They see an applicability—a direct relevance—that does not follow the sensible lines of Drs Fee and Stuart.
We need to search the Scriptures to find what sort of ‘hermeneutic’ it employs. What is the Bible’s method of application? There are four important themes which need to be outlined.
1. The Bible’s view of the Bible
The Scripture consistently regards itself as the living and active word of God, not as a history-bound document of antiquity. God’s word is not imprisoned in an ancient scroll; it is active, creative, destructive, life-changing. There is never any need to ‘make the Bible relevant’; it is always relevant, by definition. We may need to grow in our understanding to comprehend its relevance at different points, but we can’t make it relevant.
This principle is vital in our whole approach to reading and applying the Bible. God’s word does not stand outside our lives, isolated in a vacuum of history. We do not approach it with detached objectivity. God’s word is at work in believers, powerfully revealing his righteousness. The only way we can read it rightly is in obedience.
2. The key to interpretation
Furthermore, the Bible establishes its own framework for interpretation and hermeneutics: the cross of Jesus. This is the key which unlocks the word of God to us, for Jesus is God’s word. ‘Jesus’, ‘the word of the cross’, ‘the gospel’, ‘the Scriptures’—these are not four different words of God; they all speak of the same reality. That glorious reality is God’s word to mankind—that Jesus, the Messiah, is, through his death and resurrection, the Lord of heaven and earth and the author of our salvation.
With this interpretative key, we can understand the law and the prophets, having the same perspective as the New Testament writers. For them, the Old Testament was ultimately about the suffering and glory of the Messiah. They were not preaching a new word from God, but the fulfillment of what the ‘old word’ had long looked forward to.
The Spirit of God enabled them to understand all this, and he does the same for us. Once the Spirit has empowered us to grasp the enormity of the word of the cross, we have the mind of Christ (see 1 Cor 1-2).
3. God’s plan for man
The ‘sensible hermeneutic’ has another failing: it does not take with sufficient seriousness the biblical perspective of God’s plan for mankind.
How does God view mankind? As he looks at us from beyond the reach of time, does he see us as first-century man and 20th-century man? The Bible makes it clear that God’s plans have little to do with what century we live in. The fundamental distinction is between those living outside of Christ and those inside. This is how he sees us; this is what his plans are about. They are about sin and salvation, Christ and holiness. There is very little in the Bible about cultural ‘activities’ (other than to point out their irrelevance to God’s plan).
The time schedule of the New Testament consists not of one century following another, but of one great era following another. We live in the great new era—the ‘last days’ in which Christ is gathering his people. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. The New Testament is written to us, not to someone else in some other time. We are in precisely the same situation as first-century man—lost in sin and under the wrath of God, until saved through the merciful faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We are first-century people, or, if you prefer, the New Testament is a 20th-century book.
We must beware making too much of the differences between then and now. The cultural pick-and-choose method of Bible reading is an open door to the hopeless relativism and subjectivity of modern liberalism. Ultimately, the Bible is removed from the hands of the common man and put into the hands of the high priests of anthropology and sociology. God is speaking to humanity, not to any distinctive culture. God, in fact, created the cultural context in which the Bible was written; we should assume that he knew what he was doing.
4. The New Testament’s view of itself
A further flaw in ‘sensible hermeneutics’ is the failure to understand how the New Testament writers saw their work. The authors of the epistles were not unaware of the: wider audience they were addressing. They expected that their words would have a general readership of some kind.
Paul, for example, encourages the Colossians to swap letters with the Laodiceans. He regards his letters as being helpful for more than one congregation. In a similar vein, the best manuscripts of Ephesians omit the words “who are at Ephesus” (in the opening greeting), suggesting that it was a circular letter to be read in different churches. Likewise, the letter to the church in Rome raises general theological truths that would have been applicable to any of the churches in which Paul ministered. And even in letters as specific and local as 1 Corinthians, he begins by greeting “the church of God in Corinth … together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Even in a letter dealing with complex, specific problems, Paul is aware of his wider audience—an audience that is marked only by being Christian.
Furthermore, throughout his letters, Paul sets himself up as a model of the Christian life. He encourages the churches under his care to emulate his pattern of life and ministry. Moreover, he exhorts his protégés Timothy and Titus not only to follow his example, but to live out the model in front of their own congregations. As he comes to the end of his life, Paul urges his young fellow workers to carry on his pattern of life and doctrine into the future, ensuring that it is passed on from generation to generation. While there are certainly aspects of Paul’s life that mark him out as an individual (his commission to the Gentiles, for example), Paul sees himself as a model for the future of Christianity. Here is a vital principle for our application of Scripture; the apostle himself has shown us how.
The new Testament helps us in another way in establishing methods of application. We are not only given commands and prescriptions for our lives, but also the rationale that lies behind them. The New Testament argues from principle to practice, and this makes it quite simple for us to work out what we should do. If we are told to do something on the basis that we have died and risen with Christ, then as Christians, we must take it with utmost seriousness. Or if a piece of teaching comes as a result of a “word from the Lord” or from his inspired apostle, then, again, we must accept their authority. If, however, the argument is pragmatic, such as bringing discredit on the word of God, we need to determine whether such behaviour would do the same today. The documents themselves, and faithful exegesis of them, give us clear direction as to how they should be applied today.
Of course, as well as commands and principles, the New Testament also contains narrative, description, personal communication, prayer and so on. The child of God will find great joy in looking for the full implications of his Father’s word, and in these different sections of Scripture, we will find example, illustration, precedent and encouragement for our lives. Certainly we must beware making narratives into commands, but we do not need hermeneutics to guard us from this error. To think that a narrative is commanding us is a failure to understand the author’s intention; it is a failure of exegesis.
Hermeneutics is an interesting field of modern debate, but it rests on an ungodly foundation. Starting from the viewpoint of history and historical documents, the modern skeptic seeks to untangle how an ancient set of disparate scrolls and parchments could have any relevance to sophisticated 20th-century man.
Those of us who believe that these documents are the very words of God, directed to our deepest needs and aspirations, need no new theories of Bible application. If the Bible is God’s word to mankind, our response is simple: to take him at his word.