I remember reading in the papers several decades ago an objection to some suggestion on hermeneutics, “But if we adopt that as our hermeneutic we will not be able to support….” and a particular doctrine prevalent in the Church of Christ was named.
Exactly. We have a long history of testing our hermeneutics by whether a given hermeneutic produces a desired result. If the hermeneutic requires a changed conclusion, it’s rejected — and that is exactly wrong. After all, we don’t really know what the Bible says unless we have a proper hermeneutic!
These leaves us with something of a riddle — how do we develop a sound hermeneutic without knowing what the Bible says until we have a proper hermeneutic? Well, because the real process is more complicated than 1, 2, 3. But it’s not that hard; it’s just very different from how we have customarily thought.
Some therefore bring to the text a hermeneutic foreign to the Scriptures. As we’ve seen recently, some even found their interpretive principles in Blackstone’s Commentaries — a textbook of law. Well, obviously, someone was assuming that the Scriptures should be interpreted just like an act of Congress. It’s a false assumption, but one that has prevailed in the Churches of Christ for a very long time.
How do we escape bringing foreign methods and assumptions to the Scriptures if we can’t interpret the Scriptures aright without a proper hermeneutic?
We proceed by what a mathematician would call “successive approximation.” That means you do a little theology, learn some hermeneutics from the theology, use those new hermeneutics to build a broader, deeper theology, and then use that better theology to build even better hermeneutics. And you keep on doing that until you die, meet Jesus, and he answers all your questions.
Good theology produces good hermeneutics. And good hermeneutics produce good theology. It’s a self-reinforcing process. And I’m 57 and still learning every day. So I figure God will keep teaching me until I have I have a resurrected body from the Spirit and can learn better and faster, without this corrupted flesh and brain getting in the way.
You first inquire of the text, not regarding what to wear to church, but what are the biggest, most important, overriding principles found there. We start big. The big rocks go in first!
Several years ago, our then minister, Buddy Jones, preached a powerful sermon. He begin with a large, clear glass. Maybe it was a brandy snifter.
He began by talking about how busy we all are. He placed some large smooth rocks in the glass, saying these represent our faith and family. And then some smaller rocks representing our jobs and such. He then added some smaller rocks that represented lesser priorities, all the while discussing how we try to squeeze so much into a little space. He then added some sand, and finally some water–up to the very brim.
We were surprised at how much he was able to fit in there. He asked the audience, so what’s the lesson?
Well, we were stunned, because preachers just don’t ask questions, you know! But a few courageous souls tried, most saying something like how hard it is to squeeze everything is.
Buddy said, no, the lesson is—THE BIG ROCKS GO IN FIRST!
The solution is to look at the size of the rocks. Make the small rocks squeeze in amongst the big rocks, not the other way around. Find the great, overriding principles of the Bible, and never, ever vary from them.
The great, overriding principles are those that the Bible shows to be the great, overriding principles — which will not necessarily be the principles that your brothers are fighting over, that the publishers are using to sell books, or that define your denomination as distinct from others.
Now, I’ll admit that this principle is subject to abuse, as you and I may well disagree over which principles are the “big rocks,” but at least our theories can be tested by scripture. Show me the verses making your rule big, and I’ll show you mine, and we can talk through our disagreements. There’s a test that can be applied and thought about.
We take the biggest principles and turn them into hermeneutics. Thus, for example, understanding the grand narrative of scripture — Creation, Fall, Covenant, Israel, Exile, Messiah, Kingdom, Eschaton — and the threads that run through the narrative — produces narrative hermeneutics.
And you don’t understand the narrative as it applies to the church unless you understand Romans 4 and Galatians 2 — salvation by faith as fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham — among many other great themes — the indwelling, the gospel, the Kingdom, the Messiah, the image of God. The reason Paul spend two entire chapters on the subject God’s covenant with Abraham, referring all the way back to Genesis, is to tie up a thread that runs throughout the Law and the Prophets — and yet rarely do we preach on these passages, and when we cover them in Sunday school, we normally miss how these chapters tie the entirety of God’s narrative together.
Notice how little of this theology is found in traditional Church of Christ teaching. We don’t preach Abraham. We don’t preach the Exodus. We don’t even preach Jesus as Messiah. We teach Jesus as Son of God — a divine being who is part of the Trinity — but not as the King of Israel, sent by God to found the Kingdom. We don’t really build our theology on the Kingdom — even though that’s what the prophets and Jesus focus on.
No, we focus on ecclesiology — the rules for how to worship and organize a church — and soteriology — the rules for how to become saved. And these aren’t trivial matters at all, but they aren’t the biggest rocks.
Does that mean we ignore the assembly or baptism? No, not at all. But baptism is only in the New Testament — and not anticipated in Abraham, Moses, or the Prophets. It’s not an over-arching theme.
There are lessons regarding worship that participate in God’s over-arching narrative, but we almost always overlook them, because we don’t look at anything but the New Testament to understand worship or the assembly — and thereby miss most of the story altogether. (See the “Real Worship” series. Just search on “real worship” and it’ll pop right up.)
After all, if we are to gather to worship God, we really need to first know what God did and does that merits worship. The narrative comes before our response to the narrative. Just so, if we want to preach baptism, well, baptism into whom? Into what? To be what? To flee what? Baptism is not the beginning of the study.
Now, just as is true of the snifter, it’s more important that the biggest rocks go in first than that we sort through which rocks go in third or fourth. The biggest mistake, the one hardest to fix, is filling the glass with sand and pebbles before we get the big rocks in there — even if they’re great sand and pebbles. Do that and the big rocks may not fit at all. In fact, you’ll probably have to start all over.