Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hazards On The Hermeneutical Highway

There are three major categories of mishandling Scripture:

1. Mis-interpretation - ascribing the wrong meaning to a passage. This is the most disastrous because it involves getting the interpretation completely wrong.
2. Sub-interpretation - failing to ascertain the full meaning of a passage. Nothing erroneous is said in this scenario but it does involve erring on the side of too little information, especially if an important point is missed.
3. Super-interpretation - attributing more to a passage than actually exists. This is the most dangerous because it involves a mixture of correct interpretation with some fantasy elements. We need to be extra careful with this because people often have a tendency to lower their discernment radar if the interpreter starts out soundly before veering into heresy land.

The most common hermeneutical problems in modern day evangelical churches can be clearly seen via a simple perusal of the surrounding text. One classic example of this would be in Matthew 18:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)

“When two or three gather in God’s Name He is there among us. Whatever we bind and loose on earth shall be bound and loosed in heaven.” This was a very popular saying in the Pentecostal church that I attended for ten years. I would have heard this quoted hundreds of times and almost always at every prayer meeting. I don’t think it is entirely incorrect to believe that God is among us when we gather in His Name, but it is amazing that, considering the number of times this verse was quoted, I never heard it in its context. If we start just three verses earlier the context becomes very clear even to the lightweight theologian:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)

What is the context here? Church discipline! Church discipline is the true Christian’s friend and the false Christian’s reality check. It restores the fallen brother and removes the false convert. God, in His kindness, delays His wrath, giving lost sinners time to repent. In this time when God restrains His wrath (that will come one day) He has given the church the authority to deal with unrepentant sin in the congregation. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 5 that God deals with those in the world and the church deals with those inside church. And sometimes the church casts people out into the world to protect the believers and in the trust that God will now deal with them. And here God tells us that He is with church leaders when they practice church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.

The good news for the layman wrestling with alarm bells every time he hears his pastor preach in “mega-church suburbia” is that most hermeneutical errors fall into the same category as the example above. A plain reading of the surrounding text usually detects the common error of simply ignoring the context of an easily understandable passage.

But wait there’s more! There are other hazards that regularly appear on the narrow hermeneutical highway. The popular phrase “my life verse” is the description many people give to a Bible verse that they like and then personalize in application to themselves. And the Behemoth of modern day “life verses” would have to be Jeremiah 29:11.

This may be therapeutic to our self esteem but is it a reflection of biblical truth applied personally? Reading this verse in its context and wider context we learn that this is a part of a particular message, to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular situation. What was the situation of Jeremiah 29:11?

Israel had been taken by the Babylonians into captivity. The Temple in Jerusalem was in ruins and the king had had his eyes cut out. The glory of Israel as a nation was finished. But in the midst of this terrible situation – God speaks:

4 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. 15 "Because you have said, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,' 16 thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 17 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, (Jeremiah 29:4-18 emphasis mine)

It would be possible to spend several lessons on this passage alone but for the sake of brevity I will give just four points to consider:

1. Why do people think they can claim verse 11 as their own "life verse" but decide that verses 17 and 18 do not apply to them?
2. When God speaks in verse 11 remember that verse 4 shows us that He has His foot on their neck while He is saying it.
3. The people receiving the promise in verse 11 will not even live to see its fulfillment (it will take 70 years).
4. The reason Israel was in Babylonian slavery was because they had spent their time listening to prophets who told them things they liked to hear.

It is foolish to read Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal message from God to us as individuals. But there is something far greater that we learn from this story in its true context - that God does not abandon His people! We need to beware of this seductive trap in personalizing verses that do not necessarily apply to us.

Another hazard that is more difficult to detect is that of reading the meaning of one passage into another. This practice is rampant in the field of eschatology as different camps try to make the entire Canon fit within their apocalyptic parameters. While the practice of using explicit passages to help interpret unclear passages of Scripture can have validity, it must be done so only when there is a clearly defined connection between the two.

This leads into another more sophisticated hazard, that of reading one’s theological preferences into a passage of Scripture. Professor Matt Waymeyer (my Hermeneutics lecturer at The master's Seminary) readily identifies two ways of reading a theological system into a passage:

First, when an interpreter finds a discrepancy between his theological beliefs and a given passage of Scripture, he may be tempted to twist that passage to fit his theology rather than let his theology be corrected – or at least refined – by Scripture. Secondly, sometimes an interpreter will simply read more into a given passage than is actually there in the text itself. In this case, his theology may be true and biblical, but it is not taught in the passage under consideration. Both are examples of eisegesis.

When Waymeyer refers to “eisegesis”, he is talking about the precise opposite of exegesis. Exegesis is the extraction of meaning out of a text while eisegesis involves imposing one’s meaning onto the text. I think it is safe to say that the prosperity preacher who equates the donkey Jesus rode on with the contemporary equivalent of a Ferrari is not practicing exegesis!

Another ever-present danger on the hermeneutical highway is that of our own personal experiences. What we feel and sense does not necessarily define God’s reality and we need to be aware of that when reading a passage that we think can be defined in terms of what we have previously experienced. Just because I am physically healthy and materially wealthy does not mean that 3 John 2 is an all encompassing doctrinal statement on God’s will for the health and wealth of every Christian. Our experiences must be defined and understood through the lens of Scripture and not the other way around.

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