The Challenge of Hermeneutics

Recently, I was involved in a discussion particularly on how we are to apply the Bible’s teaching to our lives today. This is a part of what theologians identify as hermeneutics – how to interpret, understand and apply the Bible’s teachings.

The discussion was launched in the midst of a statement that went like this:

However, what I have been taught and have believed all of my life is that the Bible is God’s book for the Church of all generations. What He said back then in the NT is generally as applicable for us today as it was for the churches that were being addressed at that time.

I would say that this isn’t a bad general statement overall, but it is general (even with that word being used in the statement above), one that probably needs some qualifications or better explanations.

Knowing that we can be good with general blanket theological statements, which again can be helpful at times, it can make it difficult in addressing the in’s and out’s of how something practically works itself out in our life of faith and the theological beliefs we look to hold to as followers of Christ.

For each of us, I suppose if we prodded more, we would find that we ‘lay aside’ not just particular passages from the Old Testament as not needing to be obeyed today (for that is much easier), but we also do so with teachings in the New Testament. Yes, even in the New Testament!

I would propose that there are quite a few teachings within the New Testament framework that a positive case could be argued for the continuation of obedience to such teachings, even post-New Testament formation. But, still, many are convinced these commands and instructions no longer need to be obeyed today. Some examples would be:

  • Clothing statements for women
  • Not celebrating the Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown (for that is the Sabbath from a Jewish standpoint – somehow we have argued the Sabbath is Sunday)
  • Tithing
  • Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12 (if one is a cessationist)
  • Elders anointing the sick with oil
  • Laying on of hands for impartation
  • Foot-washing
  • Plucking out our eyes or cutting off our hands because of sin
  • Not believing that physical Israel is the Israel of God in the new covenant
  • Head coverings
  • Church leadership is mainly recognised as elders and deacons, with elders and overseers-bishops being the same function

Of course, some of these are much easier to solidify than others. For example, most people see Jesus’ statements about plucking out eyes or cutting off hands (Matt 5:29-30) as overstatement rather than a literal expectation, for one could still lust even without their eyes. But such is not as clear with, say, tithing or head coverings. Still, most Christians do not walk these teachings out in full detail, whether one or all of them.

Now, let me emphasise this point – Not obeying some of these teachings does not inherently have to do with liberal theology or not wanting to recognise the full Scripture as authoritative in the life of the body of Christ. We must take a deep breath, a step back and respond to such a reality with grace and wisdom. Reaction will lead us no where. Rather I believe there is another aspect that guides such discussions and theological reflection, possibly a term we’ve never considered.

The term I speak of is known as trajectory theology. This is basically a hermeneutical approach to understanding Scripture where we recognise that certain details, commands and teachings of Scripture were not to be binding on God’s people for all time’s sake. The Scripture (even including the New Testament) was written at a particular time, within a particular culture, to a particular group of people. Acknowledging such calls us to realise that it’s not as easy as saying – ‘The Bible says. I believe it. That settles it.

It’s really not that easy. It’s also not about complicating things, nor watering things down. But the aforementioned statement can actually become unhelpful when we considered some of the detailed teachings of Scripture, even within the New Testament.

Therefore, within our theological reflection of the Scripture’s teaching, the application of a specific passage today could traject off from what it meant for and what was expected from the original audience. This is why the grammatical-historical approach may not always be the final word on biblical hermeneutics. It is part of it, but not all of it.

Again, I am very aware that those who would try and mention such an approach to Scripture could easily be identified as liberal or not wanting to submit to the authority of God’s word in Scripture. But that isn’t necessarily the correct statement to make, at least as I understand my own walk and considering such a theological approach. Remember – We all do this! – some more times than others. But just because someone embraces trajectory theology, this doesn’t mean that the person is liberal and wanting to side-step obedience to God.

A good book that gives an introduction to some of these thoughts is Scot McKnight’s, The Blue Parakeet. I’m actually hoping to very soon list a handful of solid books I would recommend for understanding Scripture and hermeneutics.

Now, knowing this is a sensitive issue and knowing that we want to be faithful to God and the Scripture, this is where other more important things come in than our own personal study of the Scripture and theology. God has given us many guards against going off the rail, off the deep end. And we MUST take heed and embrace them, even over and above any trajectory theological perspective.

Of course, the first given is the Spirit’s life-giving revelation and illumination. Though we emphasise only the personal aspect of this so many times, and it is personal, it is also communal. So this is where staying connected to a solid, life-giving, body of believers that are longing to be faithful to God and the Scripture is important. Also, to have our lives submitted to solid leadership becomes important (and my guess is that only a small percentage truly understand the importance of this and the former one of true covenant commitment to a local body). And then we are called to dialogue both with solid theologians from 2000 years of church history as well as theologians in the present. All of this (and there are probably more) help us invest in coming to a robust, faithful theology that helps us be faithful to our God.

So, when we approach bigger theological questions – the role of women in church leadership, understanding the creation narrative in Genesis as well as engaging with modern day science, the new perspective on justification in Paul’s writings, practical questions on rethinking our approach to church as is prevalent in emerging church circles, etc – it’s not as easy as asking what black ink on white paper says in the Bible. In the end, one might still be convinced that women should not be in church leadership (what the Bible calls elders), that evolution is incompatible with the Christian faith as expressed in Scripture, that the more reformed view is the proper understanding of justification, and that we should remain in more traditional church settings, we must still be careful of labelling those on the ‘other side’ as our liberal enemies who do not want to submit to God via his word in Scripture. That is not a fair argument. It could be true, but such is not always true.

So, let us stay the path that God desires. We are not called to commit to evangelicalism or a particular perspective, per se. We are called to submit to God through Christ, the authority of His word in Scripture, and as we engage with that ancient yet timeless library of books in Scripture, we are to stay in deep connection to the church of 2000 years and of the present. We are still being reformed. It’s not an excuse for ever-changing theology. But it is to recognise that our theology will continue to change as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

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9 thoughts on “The Challenge of Hermeneutics

  1. When people argue that every command in the Bible is to be obeyed today, they elevate the written Word above the living Word, Christ and His Spirit within us. Not covering your head was a cultural disgrace in the time it was written, and therefore a bad witness (stumbling block) to unbelievers, but it had and still has no affect on our relationship with God. Tithing was a command given to stubborn people who would not be generous with their offerings without a set number given to them. We are to give out of the generosity of our hearts to God, not using a calculator. He loves a “cheerful giver” rather than an “obedient” giver. Other suggestions in the BIble (such as the ‘qualifications’ for deacon) have been made into commands that we use to “checklist” people into roles in the church. It was not meant to be so. We should let the Spirit be our guide in all things. Only when an idea interferes with or disagrees with what we know about the work or character of God in the Bible should we question it. Let all else be done in liberty, with discernment.

  2. Have you read NT Wright’s new book yet? I think his metaphor for biblical interpretation being like improvisation is very helpful. While a musician who is improvising plays something new and fresh, which is their own expression, they do not do so at random, but they carefully listen to what is going on around them, what happened before they started playing, and what will happen after their solo is ended. The goal is not to play out of tune, but to add your voice to complement and enhance and develop what’s already happening – which even though new, still respects the parameters already set. It’s actually way easier to improvise over a solid foundation than if everything underneath you is messy and unclear. I will stop labouring the point and leave you to draw your own parallels for hermeneutics!

  3. Scott,

    While I do agree that not every command is binding for Christians of all times, I would probably re-word it to say the application is not binding. One piece that I think is missing here is that there are timeless principles anchored in scripture. Otherwise, what good would the apostolic witness be if we just dismissed all cultural references as irrelevant to what God would communicate to the church. So while we look at commands, lets for how women dress, braided hair and adornment mean nothing in this culture. But the timeless principle enforced is modesty in dress, so that translates into a different application specific to the contemporary culture. But trajectory theology seems like it only takes the current culture into consideration the application of theology is also the intent of scriptural mandates. That’s where I think it can start taking a liberal trajectory.

  4. Lisa –

    Thanks for commenting.

    I do agree with the overall idea of principles anchored in Scripture, but the question still arises on how to discern the principle to be applied from particular passages, if that passage is to be obeyed exactly as it is found in Scripture. So, with the clothing example you suggested, such is relatively easy to come about. And with head coverings, we might argue the principle is that Christians be sensitive to aspects of their culture. But such is not always so clear with all teachings.

    If one believes the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12 have ceased in exhaustion of purpose because we now have a full canon of Scripture, what is the principle to be applied? Do we just take the teaching about how to use gifts in 1 Cor 14 and apply to all other gifts? Do we simply identify preaching as prophecy? Etc, etc.

    Of course, this is where something like theistic evolutionary creationists come with the idea that the purpose of Gen 1 and 2 is not to teach a literal, historical account of how it all happened, but that the bigger and more applicable teaching is the reality of Who is creator, the image of God in humanity, the goodness of creation, that sin has entered the world, etc. But to entertain such a notion is, by some, considered liberal and wrong hermeneutics. Should we rethink this?

    Even a liberal theologian who rejects the resurrection of Jesus would argue there is a principle with the account of the resurrection, one of new and liberating life in following Christ’s example (or however they might argue). So, it is not so easy to discern these principles. Well, it’s easy for me, but then others disagree with my take on things. 🙂

    What I ultimately wanted to point out is 1) what trajectory theology is, 2) we ALL participate in it, 3) it’s not as easy as saying we are to obey all of Scripture’s teachings to the T and 4) to embrace trajectory theology in certain points is not to embrace liberal theology and to fall down the slippery slope of seeing Scripture as having no authority in the life of the church.

  5. I remember our discussions about this several years ago. Two thoughts:

    1. As I read your blog, I kept thinking of how Jesus practiced this “trajectory” thinking with the Law when debating His contemporary theologians. This is somewhat comforting when encountering the modern-day Pharisee. Even when I say that, I do not mean “Pharisee” in the wholly negative sense, but in the sense of well-meaning folks who initially sought to please God with whole-hearted application of Scripture, but subtly neglected obedience to God. Which leads to my second thought.

    2. I think there is much to be gained by explicitly identifying the three processes involved in hermeneutics (inductively, they are observation, interpretation, and application). Those tending toward the literalist interpretation seem to forget that there is a process between observation and application–that what you see may not necessarily be what was commanded. Even though the command to pluck an eye was an overstatement, it was still much easier than the trajectory meaning of “stop lusting.”

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