Interpreting the Bible: Introduction/Common Mistakes

bible.jpgIt’s time to talk a little hermeneutics. “Hermeneutics” is the study of how we interpret writings, especially the Bible. And, of late, it’s become quite the controversial subject in the Churches of Christ.

Obviously enough, to properly understand the scriptures, we have to come to them with a sound approach to interpretation. If we start with a false hermeneutic, we’ll certainly reach false conclusions. This makes hermeneutics a particularly important study–and yet one that is generally ignored at the Sunday school level.

The result of ignoring the topic is to leave our interpretational biases hidden and uninspected. And, quite naturally, we therefore often find ourselves disagreeing with one another and unable to work through our disputes to an agreement. Rather, we tend to talk past each other. I cite my verses to you. You cite your verses to me. And we both leave unconvinced, wondering why the other can’t see what’s so obviously true! We split and divide completely befuddled at the other’s unreasonable conclusions–unaware that we disagree about scripture because we bring radically different assumptions to the discussion.

Before we get much farther, we need to dismiss four very false approaches to hermeneutics.

* First, there’s the new hermeneutic.” This is a technical term among theologians for a school of thought beginning with the existentialism of Bultmann and Heidigger. Bultmann begins by demythologizing the Bible, deleting all miraculous events–even the resurrection! We need not dwell on this for long. The new hermeneutic is simply not Christian. It’s humanism spoken in Christian words.

Now, I bring this up because some in the Churches of Christ are engaging in a very un-Christian slander, calling efforts to rethink our hermeneutics the “new hermeneutic,” which is a lie. Some who participate in the lie are innocent victims, repeating what they’ve been told by people they unwisely trust. Just because someone has a new idea about hermeneutics doesn’t mean they are teaching the “new hermeneutic.” I’m quite confident that not a single preacher or theologian in the Churches of Christ teaches the new hermeneutic. Those who say otherwise are sadly deceived.

* Another false approach is to deny that we use a hermeneutic at all. “Says what it means and means what it says” was a common refrain in my home church growing up. But, of course, it does–but why do you and I disagree as to what it means?

We often see this approach in proof-text argumentation. I throw my verses at you. You throw yours at me. We never take the time or trouble to wonder why you have verses and I have verses and yet we both believe that the Bible never contradicts itself! How, then, can two very different viewpoints have their own verses?

Obviously enough, both sides are bringing different presuppositions to the discussion, and neither is sufficiently aware of this to get down to a truly fruitful discussion: which presuppositions are right?

* Another false approach is starting with our conclusions–known as circular reasoning or begging the question. If, for example, I start with the assumption that the sinfulness of instrumental music in worship is so well established that no true hermeneutic may challenge this belief, then I’ve begged the question. After all, how could I know instrumental music is wrong other than from the Bible? And how could I reach that conclusion without interpreting the Bible? And surely that means I started with an unstated hermeneutic before I even began!

* And the final mistake is bringing our hermeneutic in from a source other than the Bible. Many principles of interpretation we read in books on how to study the Bible come from the principles lawyers use to interpret statutes and contracts. This is a serious mistake. I’m a lawyer. I know!

While the Law of Moses is indeed a body of statutory law (a treaty, actually), most of the Bible is written in other forms–biography, history, personal letters, poetry, etc. Try to read the Psalms as though they were statutes and you find a bunch of laws! It’s not a surprise that your assumption dictates your conclusion–but it’s plainly a false assumption and the resulting conclusions are equally wrong.

One final note: Much the material in the next few posts is also in Do We Teach Another Gospel? However, I’ve always meant to expand on that material, particularly regarding some issues that are very relevant to current Church of Christ controversies.

We’ve tended to focus on the doctrines of how to worship, making the question of what is a binding example particularly important to us. The recent decision of the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Ft. Worth to add a third service on Saturday night that includes instrumental music in particular has brought these issues to the forefront. Rather than just lobbing “proof passages” back and forth among the factions within the Churches, I thought we might profit by taking the time to look at first principles–how do we decide these things?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Introduction/Common Mistakes

  1. jimjonesdrinkscoffee says:

    good observations. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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