My letter to a Christian Nation 5: Hermeneutics and heretics

Dear Christian Nation,

One of the problems that we have, and why some atheists and other forms of non-believers find Christianity nuts, is that so many of us read the Bible in ways that allow us to make it say whatever we want. Thus, we have those committed to a life of poverty, and also those committed to material wealth; we have legalists and antinomians, liberal pacifists and fundamentalist war-mongers, and the list goes on. Many non-Christians don’t understand that when Pat Robertson proclaims a natural disaster as punishment from God, or when Oral Roberts sees a 900 foot Jesus, they aren’t speaking for the rest of us. This individualized, subjective (and dare I say postmodern?) reading of the Bible is, at the very least, setting a bad example for non-Christians who are trying to make sense out of what we believe (or are supposed to believe).

This is not to say that even with good hermeneutics (the art of interpreting ancient texts such as the Bible) we won’t have disagreements; however, I’m certain that we’d have significantly less disagreement over many important passages, with just a little dedication to truth. After all, aren’t we supposed to be dedicated to truth?

Ben Witherington has posted a brilliant piece called Hermeneutics– A Guide for Perplexed Bible Readers, that should be of interest to Christians and may also be of interest to non-Christians. It may also upset a number of Christians who insist on creating their own private reality.

Witherington first makes a good case (please pay attention to this) for why Christians should work a bit harder to try to understand the Bible correctly. The problem, however, is that many of us simply don’t want to hear this; actually treating truth as something worth working on interferes with our “making it up as we go” brand of reality. In other words, hermeneutics interferes with their heresy.

Witherington says:

But why would we need a guide to the perplexed in regard to the interpreting of the Bible? After all, don’t Christians have brains and the Holy Spirit to guide them? Well yes, but all modern brains are affected in the way they think by the modern cultural milieu in which they are immersed. They are affected as well by their whole educational progress (or regress) through school as well.

And frankly, ancient Biblical cultures, languages, and modes of conveying meaning are often so different from what modern ‘common sense’ may deduce that we do need some guidelines to help us interpret the Biblical texts which came out of very different cultures and circumstances from our own, ESPECIALLY if we are only trying to interpret the Bible on the basis of one or more English translations, none of which are perfect representations of the original language texts.

Witherington also gives three rudimentary rules of interpretation, with a brief explanation of each rule:

  1. What it meant is what it means
  2. Context is king
  3. Genre matters

Some may feel that these rules are meant to explain away some things, or to discredit some “pet” interpretations; however, these are simply rules for actually understanding what the Word of God actually means. Doesn’t this seem important? However, as sad as it is, there will be many who simply reject this approach as being “liberal,” or based on reason rather than “spirit.” These people will go on with their own version of reality based on subjective, individualized, out-of-context readings of the Bible, in effect taking the position that their own understanding is more authoritative than the Bible itself.

Sounds terribly postmodern, doesn’t it? Again, I’m not against different opinions on what a text means, and certainly not when it comes down to the application of a text’s meaning. However, if you’re going to simply pull meaning out of the air, why use the Bible at all?

There will be verse-mining and rumors of proof-texting. It’s unfortunate and apparently inevitable, especially when Christians reject “the good sense that God gave you.”

3 thoughts on “My letter to a Christian Nation 5: Hermeneutics and heretics”

  1. “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman deals in effect with this topic along with a few others. This book as well would “rock the worlds” of some seemingly stable “Christian Bible Thumpers”. And he pulls no punches in saying that if that is the result, he’s totally okay with it. I loved the book. It, as you point out, will make the believer dig deeper into the Word, which, if I’m not mistaken is His plan anyway. Great stuff. Still looking for ya’ over at AC 180, stop by.

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