Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation – part four

We’ve looked briefly at the hermeneutic used by the Apostles. We’ve also looked at the hermeneutic that was promoted by the founders of the Restoration Movement – from which you likely find your heritage of faith and has continued to be used today with little exception. So the question for me is . . . which should I use? Well, I don’t feel comfortable using the same method as the Apostles. It seems clear that they cherry-picked scriptures that would help make their point. To be fair, it may have been that they were just falling in line with the standard method of interpretation for the Old Testament. Either way, I couldn’t use the allegorical method today – at least as a normal or regular method.

What about the Command, Example, Necessary Inference? I have grown up with this method of interpretation. In fact, I didn’t know there was any other way. So when I encountered people who thought differently than I did, I couldn’t understand why. Everything seemed so simple to me. How could you not understand what I understand? It was because they were looking at the Scriptures through different glasses. I was using the glasses that had been made and passed on by the Campbell’s and modified by those following after the influence of Foy E. Wallace. They were using something entirely different. Just as a reminder, these men were just men. A profound comment, to be sure. But it seems like that is forgotten in the commotion. I just don’t know how someone can take the input of just a few guys who were just like you and I, sinful and completely reliant upon the grace of God, when it comes to something as serious as how we interpret the Bible. And not only limit their resources to a few men, but insist that everyone else do the same. I’m not sure if that’s more arrogant or foolish? Maybe both.

So the question remains, what other methods of interpretation are there?

I really appreciate the thoughts shared by F. Legard Smith in “The Cultural Church.” In it he states that:

it (an alternative to the C.E.N.I.) should also be the goal of any hermeneutic to be flexible enough to ‘cover all the bases’ — that is, to help us interpret and apply, not only Acts and the Epistles, but also the Gospels (and indeed the Old Testament as well). It should help us focus on both the core message of redemption and sanctification in Christ, and the practical work and worship of the Church.

Asking almost the impossible, it should accommodate narrative and proposition, prose and poetry, history and prophecy, parable and law – each of which, being a unique form of communication, deserves its own unique hermeneutic. What we are looking for is an umbrella hermeneutic under which each ‘special hermeneutic’ can comfortably fit.

In striking a balance between reason and revelation, a worthy hermeneutic should call us to seek objective, “God-breathed” Truth (understandable to all who will apply themselves to the discipline of prayerful study) without minimizing the sublime mystery of the gospel. And it must be neither culture-bound nor culture-driven. A tall order indeed! (p.150)

By accepting Smith’s criteria we would almost certainly have to reject the C.E.N.I. method – at least to use it as our primary tool for interpretation. It provides the most value when seeking a “conservative” answer or understanding to doctrinal issues. I wouldn’t want to use it to try and interpret Daniel, Revelation or Isaiah. It just wouldn’t work. Now, I’m not saying that Smith is correct. In fact, I wonder if such a hermeneutic exist that would adequately meet his criteria. If there is, it would have to take a broad-sweeping approach. But Smith has made a great effort at supplying us with one: “Purpose, Principle and Precedent.”

The first part of this method is the Purpose of the scripture. With the Inductive Method (or C.E.N.I) we are more likely to look at a verse, take it at face value and then go and try to apply it. While that sounds good, there are problems when we don’t consider the overall purpose of the passage. As Smith shares, in order to accomplish this, you have to do some exegetical work. In other words, you have to answer the Who, What, When, Where and Why. Once these questions are asked, studied and answered, we are able to discover the purpose of the passage. There are many scriptures that would be interpreted incorrectly if done so literally. When Paul said in 1 Cor. 1:17, that Christ did not send him to baptize, did he really mean that literally? In fact, Jesus gave the direction that certainly applies to everyone that we are all to baptize (Matt 28:19). But if we look for the purpose of the scripture, we see that Paul’s point was that there shouldn’t be any divisions in Church. Which in this instance were happening based on who you’re spiritual mentor was. So for the sake of brevity and clarity, we could say that the Purpose defines the ‘Why’ of the scripture.

The next part of this method is to consider the Principle of the text – or the ‘What’ of the text. Smith contends that the Principle takes the place of Command in (CENI). Why replace the Command portion? Simple, because sometimes what looks like a command isn’t really a command for us. For example, the command might only fit in the original culture and context. Take for example the “command” to “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss.” Is this a command for us? No, because that’s not how we greet one another in our culture. So instead of seeking out a command (which we haven’t been following anyways) we would look for the principle. Paul isn’t trying to give direction on a doctrine or practice. Paul was simply ending his letter with a greeting. We might say it like, “give the family there  a hug for me and tell them all that I love and miss them.” There’s a big difference that Principle helps to define.

The final part of Smith’s interpretive method is Precedent. This is quite similar to the Example in (CENI). But Smith contends that searching for Examples to apply leaves questions as to whether it is applicable today. In that sense, we don’t need to follow every example of the Apostles. Some don’t matter or aren’t practical. Instead, there is the question of Precedent. Did the Apostles do something that is worthy in Purpose and Principle to be emulated today? I don’t personally see how this is less ambiguous than Example. But that is just an opinion.

Choosing to follow this “new” hermeneutic would force you to re-examine the beliefs that you have held for a long time. That is fine with me. I want my beliefs to be able to stand up when I have to take them before God. So if they won’t stand up to my scrutiny now, then I must honestly examine whether or not they are beliefs worth having. I believe what is even scarier to some is that if they use a different method of interpretation, their conclusions might change. What if I applied this new method of Purpose-Principle-Precedent to the issue of musical instruments, and my study of the relevant passages forced me to concluded that those relevant passages aren’t actually binding to that argument? What would I do then? I would be in crises mode and forced to actually rely on God’s Grace instead of my confidence in my understanding of the Bible. Are you ready for that?

Check back tomorrow, we’ll look at one more method of interpretation.


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