Hermeneutics and Blue Parakeets: Reading With Tradition

bible.jpgMcKnight continues explaining the right way to read the scriptures.

The way of returning to retrieve it all is not the biblical way. The biblical way is the ongoing adoption of the past and adaptation to new conditions and to do this in a way that is consistent with and faithful to the Bible. 

(Page 29; italics in original). Of course, this begs the question: who decides which Biblical teachings are to be adopted and which are to be adapted?

McKnight suggests that we first must learn to read the Bible “with tradition.” We don’t read the Bible bound by tradition, but neither do we ignore tradition.

Think of it this way. Even the smartest person ever born doesn’t have all the experience and all the education of the entire church — that is, the entire church living and dead. As wonderful as it is to live in an age when anyone can read dozens of translations on the internet and millions of opinions on what each verse means, no one is the final expert on interpreting the Bible.

[The Orthodox have this wonderful way of speaking of the “church” as including not only the living but also those who’ve gone on ahead of us. They have not really died so they are still part of the church. One area in which it is particularly helpful to think this way is when we speak of reading scripture in “community.” This means not only with those still alive but in conversation with the church in heaven through their writings.]

Therefore, any serious student of the Bible should read in light of what others have concluded about the scriptures. We need to be in dialogue, not only with our friends and fellow congregation members, but also with the great scholars of the ages. I may choose to disagree with Martin Luther or John Calvin on grace, but shouldn’t I at least understand their views before disagreeing with them? Or am I so smart that I can learn nothing from either?

Therefore, the wise student takes the trouble to read what others have said and are saying. If you try to interpret Romans unaware of the work of the greatest scholars of the last 2,000 years, you are failing to use all the resources God has given you. 

Once you know what the greatest minds in the history of Christianity have concluded, you are free to disagree. But if you do so, do so in conversation with others. Indeed, one of the great benefits of internet forums and blogs is their interactivity. Readers can easily add their thoughts to the discussion, enriching and correcting the teaching.

McKnight makes a critical point. The New Testament writers studied and taught with tradition, even though they disagreed with much of the tradition. They studied the scriptures they had — the Old Testament — as well as uninspired writings of the Jews. In fact, as most Christians have never read 3 Esdras or Sirach, for example, we don’t notice the many New Testament allusions to these and similar uninspired works. The New Testament was written in conversation with other streams of First Century Jewish thought, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.

The point is that, even with the benefit of inspiration, the writers paid attention to traditional interpretation. They built on what had already been built, correcting as necessary.

McKnight concludes,

Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return [retrieval] problem, and we need to move forward without fozzilizing our ideas (traditionalism).

In the Churches of Christ, the applications are particularly profound. If we take McKnight’s advice, we’ll study Restoration Movement history and the teachings of our predecessors. We may not agree with all that Stone or Campbell wrote, but we should at least pay them the respect of hearing what they have to say.

Just so, we should listen to our 20th Century forebears, H. Leo Boles, Rubel Shelly, etc. Again, while I may disagree with some that they say, I should be respectful enough to listen before I do. Who knows, we may just learn something we never would have thought of on our own if we read David Lipscomb’s Civil Government or Harding’s writings on prayer.

I attended David Lipscomb College from 1972-75. I lived in Sewell Hall. My future wife lived in Fanning Hall. Despite taking daily Bible courses and attending daily chapels for all those years, I graduated not having a clue as to who Lipscomb, Sewell, or Fanning were or why someone might want to name a building after them. You see, in those days we pretended that we learned nothing from our tradition and so we had no need to study it. We were wrong.

Of course, we should also be reading the works of current evangelical scholars as well as the writings of our Reformation predecessors. And the Patristics. And so many more.

It’s a conceit of the Restoration Movement that anyone can pick up the Bible and, untrained, read it perfectly. Indeed, we claim the truth of all our teachings is plain and obvious — so plain and obvious that those who disagree with us disagree with the very words of God himself!

But it’s not true. If you want to understand Romans or Matthew or Genesis, check out a few commentaries that interact with the scholarship of the ages and learn what the great scholars had to say on the subject. Take the time to find out what’s being said by the great scholars of today. And then, if you want to disagree, by all means do so. Just don’t disagree out of ignorance.

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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6 Responses to Hermeneutics and Blue Parakeets: Reading With Tradition

  1. Matthew says:


    In your opinion, what does the average member of a congregation who wants to move beyond the individual, "common sense" hermeneutic in which they have grown up, need to do to embrace the 'tradition' available in biblical scholarship. In other words, while I whole heartedly agree with McKnight's view, at the ground level, what does it look like to turn the sheep, with a lack of theological education, free into the intellectual marketplace of the world, to be swayed this way and that? What do 'first steps' look like for the timid?

    Yours, Matt

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Oh, wow, that's a hard question. Let me speak in terms of my own experience.

    I didn't start with hermeneutics and then discern sound doctrine. Rather, quite unintentionally, I proceeded by successive approximation. In other words, I first learned some grace. Knowing some grace improved by hermeneutics. Which helped me learn some more grace. Which improved my hermeneutic. Etc.

    That may not seem logical, but I think that's a pretty typical pattern. You see, if you're steeped in legalism, you are blind to much of what a good hermeneutic would teach you. In fact, an extreme legalist will test your hermeneutic against his legalism. If your hermeneutic doesn't reach the "right" conclusions, the hermeneutic is defective. It's backwards, but it's very typical.

    Therefore, you have to start with grace. Not the full load, but enough to make your students' heart grow a size or two (in my experience, we extend as much grace to others as we think God extends to us. Hence, those of us brought up in legalism tend to be very graceless in other things, too).

    In my church, it took years to get from a typical middle of the road church to who we are today, and we are pretty white collar, well-educated congregation. But we're also a big church with lots of new people transferring in as they move to town. Anyway, it's taken many classes many times for the older members to feel good about grace as we teach it.

    Now, the way to start teaching grace will vary with the students — their ages, open-mindedness, etc.

    But in a moderate or conservative congregation, I'd probably start with class like this one: http://oneinjesus.info/2007/02/10/an-idea-for-tea….

    You see, in my experience, most legalists think that everyone thinks just like them. When you use the survey described in the link to show how much disagreement there really is in the class, you open the discussion for how do we know which issues are salvation issues and which are not? Obviously, perfect agreement will be impossible — so we either damn all our fellow class members or admit that God grants some grace on doctrinal issues.

    And you go from there. My class notes on grace are filed under Amazing Grace: http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/a

    I wouldn't get into baptism for a while if I could help it, because it so identifies our sense of identity, making it very emotional. People have to grow into that one, I think. I did.

    Now, once I laid a basis foundation for grace, I'd work on the Regulative Principle (if the class is old enough to think in those terms. Younger classes typically find the whole argument absurd.) Those notes are at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/t….

    Once you know the Regulative Principle is wrong, you open the door for a sound hermeneutic. In addition to the Blue Parakeet notes, I'd cover some of the material at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/h… (Or some classes will see the point without the lessons. I've never had to spend much time on the material here.)

    Now, it would take a couple of years to cover all this material. And, yes, I've done here in Tuscaloosa, more than once. But with experience I've learned to customize the material to the class. Some classes need to hear it two or three times to grasp it — the news is too good to believe!

    Other classes find it so obvious that they think I'm wasting their time! (younger classes, as a rule).

    And I'd certainly mix into the classes the material on missional Christianity. You have to rather frequently draw practical conclusions — not just doctrinal conclusions. And the material on God's mission gets you there quickly. http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/m

    Grace makes better sense and become more important as we learn to think graciously about the world that surrounds us.

    It would take quite a while just to read the material at the links I've referenced. And I wouldn't teach all that material at once. But I would build much of into a curriculum over time — perhaps a few years, depending on the church.

    The best way to do that, I think, is explained at

    Three Ways to Organize an Adult Bible Department

    Preliminary Thoughts on a New Approach to Adult Education

    Again, this is too much stuff, but it can be pared down to the right size for a given church.

  3. Matthew says:

    A deep and thoughtful reply…thank you so much. You've given me a lot of practical things to think on and develop for my own congregation and I appreciate it.

  4. mark says:

    I would agree tradition gives us a good insight. But to it can cause some problems in light of previous traditions. These problems can exist for hundreds if not thousands of years. For instance was the woman at the well a good women or a bad woman? The Samaritan culture would say she was extremely good but Western culture would say she was very bad. What’s the problem? We assume Samaritan marriage is just like the Jews. But this is not correct. They had there own concepts that looked similar to how we marry today. Put that in the scripture and now we understand how that woman became the worship Christ was talking about the Spirit and the Truth. She became a instant evangelist! She did …because she was well known and loved by her community, one who was following the marriage traditions of the day. Perhaps we should blame the copyist for there missteps.

    But does it end there in the scripture, take for example our restoration did they accept broomstick marriage?

  5. Excellent thoughts Jay. One way of looking at reading Stone, Campbell, Harding, Luther, Ignatius is to conceive of a round table Bible study. Just as no one person sitting at the table is granted "inspired" status they are often filled with "insight" we would not have had without their help. Just as we interact with those we do the same with Campbell, Stone, Harding, etc and in the same way. They are not inspired and do not claim to be. But they just might have as much or more insight as I ever do or will. Look at such reading as a "conversation." There are profound insights to be gained.

    Thanks also for the link to my post on Harding's views on prayer. There are also far more "echoes" of the Apocryphal writings in the NT than the short list you linked. I wrote a series on my blog about those too. Here is a link to Apocryphal Myths that are pushed on the unsuspecting public: http://stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com/2008/

    Bobby Valentine
    Tucson, AZ

  6. Joe Bagget says:

    Truth seems to be shaped more by tradition and the way that things were always done than anything else. This true in secular settings as well. Why might you ask; because people prefer the emotional security of being right rather than an on going brutally honest UN biased examination of the facts.

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