You know, I really wish I could find a better word than “hermeneutics.” I mean, it just sounds so technical and foreign.
But the reality is that we all have a hermeneutic because we all interpret the Bible by some means or other. Most of us are unconscious of the process. We just read it, say something like, “Means what it says; says what it means,” figuring that the meaning is obvious — but rarely is it truly that simple.
For example, consider these verses —
(Rom 16:16a ESV) 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(1Co 16:20 ESV) 20 All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(2Co 13:12 ESV) 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(1Th 5:26 ESV) 26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
(1Pe 5:14 ESV) 14 Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.
Seems simple enough. Can we say: “Mean what it says and say what it means” as to these simple commands? Well, most of us would say “no.” We certainly don’t practice the holy kiss — despite the fact that God has plainly commanded it several times — more times than we’re commanded to take the Lord’s Supper.
We avoid having to kiss each other by reasoning that a kiss was a customary greeting in that part of the world, in that culture, but not in this part of the word, in this culture. Therefore, we reason, the real command is to greet one another warmly — as brothers and sisters in Christ — in whatever way is appropriate in our own time and place.
If we were to move to many southern European or Middle Eastern nations, we’d do exactly what the text says; but in the United States, we’ll shake hands, thank you very much.
Hence, our unspoken hermeneutic allows a command to be “culturally limited,” that is, we admit that many commands will be best obeyed differently in different cultures. The underlying command is the one that must obeyed wherever we might be. The application of that command may vary from culture to culture.
Moreover, a culturally limited command will not necessarily have language that limits itself to the culture. Paul or Peter might say “Greet one another with the Holy Kiss,” when they mean “Greet one another warmly, as brothers and sisters, in the manner appropriate to your time and place.”
How do we know? How do we tell the difference? Can we simply culturally limit any command that we wish to bury in the past? How is the decision made to do so?
Well, I’d like to propose a handful of helpful rules for answering just that question.
First, a command is only limited to the local culture if it’s somehow consistent with the local culture. Thus, a command to shake hands in a culture that only kisses would necessarily not be driven by local cultural concerns.
Notice that the rule doesn’t work the other way. A command not to murder in a culture that abhors murder is still an eternal command. The only thing we know for sure is that if the command is contrary to local culture, it’s not culturally limited.
And so, we’re a long way from knowing which commands are culturally limited at this point. It’s just whatever we feel must be true, nor is it what our denominational tradition teaches. Our conclusion on something this important must be built on something much deeper — and scriptural.
You see, we tend to bring our traditions, personal preferences, and church cultures to hermeneutics — unconsciously, of course. But serious Bible students try to escape these and build their hermeneutics on the Bible itself. After all, my hermeneutic is going to profoundly affect my theology, and so I’d better let myself be guided by God rather than my gut.
Second, the core principles of Christianity are stated as exactly such — and no command (or application of a command) can contradict a core principle.
(Mat 22:36-40 NET) 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
(Mat 7:12 NET) 12 “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.”
I see the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commands as two sides of the same coin. We’ll never be commanded to violate either of these, because these are fundamental. And they are fundamental both because Jesus says so and because they reflect the essential character of God, as revealed in Jesus.
The several examples of Jesus healing on the Sabbath demonstrate, among other things, that a command cannot be applied in a way that violates these core principles.
(Gal 5:6 NET) 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love.
Paul expands on Jesus only slightly — by adding faith to love. Indeed, the love that matters is a love that comes from faith in Jesus as Messiah. And this only makes sense because (as I’ll demonstrate in future posts) Christian ethics only apply to Christians. Our faith in Jesus imposes commitments on us that non-Christians don’t have to worry with. For example, only Christians have to be true to the indwelling Spirit.
(Gal 5:14 NET) 14 For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul explains that the love that comes from faith sums up the entire law. Thus, we expect to find no laws that contradict “love your neighbor.” Indeed, we expect God’s commands to derive either from “love God” or “love your neighbor” or the other core principles we’ll soon consider.
This isn’t the end of the discussion, but it’s the core of the discussion, and we can never let ourselves get far afield from the core of Christian teaching.
Thus, to return to our original example, “Greet one another with the holy kiss” is certainly consistent with “love your neighbor,” but it only truly fulfills that command in a culture where kissing is an accepted form of greeting. In cultures where kissing is an affront or invasion of personal space, it’s just not loving to greet with a kiss rather than a handshake.
Therefore, we can be confident that we aren’t required to kiss to please God — in the southern United States. The holy kiss is (1) consistent with the culture of Paul and Peter but (2) not a natural conclusion of “love your neighbor” except in certain cultures — and thus it’s limited to those very cultures.
Again — there are more principles to consider, but we have to start with faith and love.