Friday, April 13, 2012
God Means What He Says And Says What He Means
In recent correspondence with a guy called Steve Ramsdale I became aware that he has somehow deluded himself into thinking that the Bible has nothing critical to say about homosexuality. Steve seems to think that what an author intends and the words that he uses are completely irrelevant. Steve's problem is that he has ordained himself as sovereign over the Bible that he reads in order to accommodate sin. The tragedy of this is that it has become his damning alternative to repentance.
Imagine finding the writings of a Civil War veteran who chronicled his first hand eyewitness accounts of the war he fought in. Would it be reasonable to re-interpret these writings based on the idea that the reader has a better understanding of the Civil War and can do a better job explaining it? Such an “innovation” would be treated with contempt by the general public. It would be met with scorn from the veteran’s community. And words fail me to comprehend the outrage of the original author were he alive to defend his work. How about if you were to attend a Bible study and hear the “modern evangelical mantra” of “what does this verse mean to you?”
Most of us are aware that this question has reached plague proportions in Bible studies all over the western world. This is astonishing when we consider that many of those Bible studies are extensions of local churches that have confessions that affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of the Bible. Why is this dis-connect sliding under the radar of so many laymen, preachers, and interpreters? While there are no simple answers to this problem there is a simple solution.
If we believe that the Bible was written by human authors under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then it should naturally follow that these words have meaning and that God does not have a problem explaining Himself. The Grammatical-Historical method of biblical interpretation has been the prevailing hermeneutical method of studying and teaching Scripture since the Reformation. While the name might be daunting and sound sophisticated, this approach is beautiful in its logic and simplicity.
If God has delivered His Word to humanity then it would seem obvious that He would do so in a way that can be readily understood by His audience. Hermeneutics is the principles that guide the reader to an accurate interpretation of Scripture. The Grammatical-Historical approach to hermeneutics involves reading the words of the text and understanding them as they are plainly read. If Jesus says that “No one comes to the father except through me”, He is saying what He means and meaning what He says. He is the only way to the Father!
A Scriptural example of this is found in Nehemiah:
The Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading… to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:7b-8,12b)
Of course, there is more to Grammatical-Historical interpretation than this simple point. But having experienced a lot of “creative accounting” when it comes to biblical interpretation, I have continually found that most modern day hermeneutical problems, emanating from pulpits, can be readily solved by a plain reading of the text and its surrounding verses. When the “prosperity preacher” tells his audience that “eye of the needle” which the camel is supposed to go through is really the gate to a city, he is easily proven wrong by reading the next two verses which clearly show that Jesus is referring to something humanly impossible; “with man it is impossible”. It is reassuring for the average layman that a plain reading of the text and its surrounding verses normally clears up most modern interpretive errors. It is also important to remember that since God’s Word is inerrant in it’s entirety, no interpretation should contradict what Scripture plainly teaches in other passages.
What about texts that are more difficult to understand? This is where the Grammatical-Historical approach excels. In order to gain a precise understanding of the text we are reading it makes sense to explore several basic issues:
1. Who wrote it? We want to know who the author was.
2. Who was it written to? We want to know who the recipients were.
3. Why was it written? We want to know the reason for the text being written.
4. When was it written? We want to know the point of history in which the text was written.
5. What was the historical context? We want to know the historical setting and issues particular to that setting.
6. What is the genre we are reading? We should read narrative as narrative and poetry as poetry.
7. What is the original language that the text was written in? We need to have the text accurately translated into our “mother tongue”.
We may not consciously think about it, but these are the issues we think through whenever we read a book, a letter, or even a sign. Why not follow these principles when trying to understand the revelation God has given to us?
The Grammatical-Historical approach to biblical interpretation also serves as a great mechanism in preventing interpretive errors among the more orthodox of preachers. It may sound good to find a profound allegorical symbolic meaning in the text, but the question must be asked as to whether that is what the text is actually saying. Novel pieces of historical information may serve to help a preacher make his point, but checking for historical accuracy will better help the preacher avoid making the wrong point.
It is also worth mentioning the danger of an over-realized Christology when interpreting a biblical text. There is no disputing that Jesus Christ is the transcendent story of both Testaments. But that does not mean that we should find Him under every rock in every verse. While Jesus Himself informed the men on the road to Emmaus that the entire Old Testament was about Himself, He did not say that He appeared in every episode. The Grammatical-Historical approach prevents the reader from finding Jesus where He is not, and assists the reader in stepping back from the individual trees of every passage to see the forest where Christ’s scarlet thread of redemption runs through its entirety.