Here’s part two on hermeneutics and biblical interpretation.
So you might be thinking, “why another article on biblical interpretation?” Good question. If you’re interested just go to Amazon and you can find a lot of really good books on the topic. But here’s a couple of reasons. First, it’s an academic interest for me. It’s something I’ve gotten interested in during grad school and is really practical (which you can’t say for all academic work). Second, and really more importantly, I’m not writing in order to do much teaching on the subject. There’s much better resources than me. I’m writing for the Church (specifically those in my fellowship – Church of Christ). That’s really why I do all my writing.
The Church has gotten so turn around and upside down on things. Big picture . . . in too many instances we’ve made doctrine more important than people. And that’s absolutely contrary to everything that Jesus stood for. During this process, which really began in the late 1800s and instigated the split from the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, we have slowly squeezed the vice grips on doctrine to become more and more narrow. And too many of us have made “being conservative” the standard. That’s not the standard. A much better standard is “Be holy, because I am holy,” (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16). The problem with the conservative standard is simple, and fairly obvious in my opinion. You can always be more conservative. So that’s what we’ve done. In order to be approved, or probably more accurately not be rebuked and disfellowshipped, we tighten the vice just a little bit more. But where does it stop? When are you conservative enough? The answer seems to be . . . when you have the approval of the loudest voice or vocal majority – not the Word of God.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road, we have to find scriptures to justify tightening the grip. Well, that’s fairly easy to do when you can pick and choose and then adjust the method by which you interpret the scriptures – which circles back to justifying what you need to believe in order to be “more conservative.” So now we find ourselves pulling scriptures out of context and manipulating our method of interpretation in order to make arguments about points that were never issues in the first century and were never decisively or definitively spoken of. As a result we argue about translations and clapping hands and raising hands and . . . you get the idea.
Well, that’s a long digression into why the article on hermeneutics. It’s important to know so that you can know why you believe what you believe. With a strong hermeneutic you’ll base your understanding of the text on a solid foundation. So back to the question: do you know what method of interpretation you use when you study the Bible or develop a conclusion on an issue?
There have been several different methods used by Christians throughout the years. The first was allegorical. This method has its’ roots in ancient Greek texts where the Greeks treated the classical myths as allegorical representations of abstract cosmological, philosophical, or moral truths. The Jewish philosopher Philo (a contemporary of Jesus) used it to interpret the Old Testament. Once Christianity was launched it was used by the Apostles. Its use really grew during the early 3rd century when it was popularized by Origen.
This method applied multiple meanings to a text. For example, there would be the obvious, literal meaning and an underlying symbolic meaning. Sometimes there would be three or four layers of meaning. The symbolic meaning sought to “spiritualize” everything and place meaning into statements where meaning wasn’t necessarily intended. Here’s an example: “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother” (Galatians 4:21- 26).
When the original OT text was written, did the writer mean for the text to be used by Paul to make a point about the two covenants? No way! That wouldn’t make any sense. But Paul used the text allegorically in order to make his point. In other words, he took it out of context to make his point. Was that wrong? No, I don’t think so. Here’s why. I believe that it was the Holy Spirit guiding Paul just the same as he guided the author of the original text. Is it wrong for you or I to take a text out of its original context in order to bolster a point we’re arguing for? Well, that’s a little different. We’re not being used to by the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s will.
Typology was another popular method of interpretation used by the biblical writers. It is actually subset or branch off of the allegorical method. The biblical writers referred to Old Testament events or statements as “types” pre-figuring an aspect of Christ and his revelation, who is the “antitype” to each type. The early Christians, in considering the Old Testament, needed to decide what its role and purpose for them was, given that Christian revelation and the New Covenant might be considered to have replaced it, and many specific Biblical rules and requirements in books like Leviticus were no longer being followed.
The Apostles and Jesus used texts from the Old Testament (usually the Septuagint) to provide authority for a point they were trying to make. Often the text was taken out of the original context in order to do this. Here’s an example: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23). This verse quotes Isaiah 7:14, which has often been said to be a prophecy about Jesus. Matthew actually took the verse out of context, because it really sounds like it could be about Jesus – but it’s not. Go back and read the verse within context. Notice that there’s about to be a war and Isaiah said that God would send a sign. The sign was a “virgin” would be called a name that means “God is with us.” He goes on and says that he would eat curds and honey and everything would be over by the time he could tell right from wrong.
Here’s the context of the scripture. With a war back then the first step was often to surround the city or area that you were going to attack and quarantine them, blocking off their supplies – nothing in or out. This is why Isaiah said that the boy would eat curds and honey. That’s all that would be left to eat. About the ‘virgin’: that’s not the best translation of that word. The actual Hebrew word referred a young, unmarried woman who would likely be a virgin. The translation of ‘virgin’ came about in the LXX, which the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Coincidentally, this was the Bible that Jesus and the Apostles used. So Matthew quoted what he knew. That’s what the verse was really talking about. But that’s not how Matthew used it. He took a quote and used the Typological method of interpretation in order to get out of it what would help him make his point. Was he wrong? No, I don’t think so, because just like Paul, he was being led by the Holy Spirit.
These are just a couple of examples of how the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament. Next we’ll look at how we usually interpret the Bible.