Study 15: Hermeneutical Detox

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Ezra 7:10

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

I’ve decided to start us off with what we could call “hermeneutical detox” to purge ourselves from unhealthy, confusing and downright toxic habits of Bible interpretation and get back to a “normal and natural” reading of the text. 

Remember that as Jesus confronted Pharisees, Sadducees (Matt 22) and even his own disciples (Luke 24), He held them accountable to what the Scriptures taught. He assumed that the text was clear and comprehensible, and they should have all come to the same conclusion. That means Scripture must be objective, and it must have a singular meaning, defensible from the text itself.

This is why our motto must be: what was the divine meaning intended by the original author writing to his original audience in their original context? It should never be “what does this text mean to you” but rather “what did this text mean to the author who wrote it”?

Sadly, we fall into many habits of reading the text in bizarre and unnatural ways. We should be doing exegesis (reading meaning out of the text) and never eisegesis (reading meaning into the text). When doing eisegesis, meaning is determined by the contemporary reader; in exegesis the meaning is determined by the original author and discovered by the contemporary reader.

Avoiding Pitfalls of Bible Interpretation

Three broad categories:

  1. Mis-interpretation: ascribing the wrong meaning to a passage (meaning is A, interpretation is B)
  2. Sub-interpretation: failing to ascertain the full meaning of the passage (meaning is A, B, C, but interpretation is A)
  3. Super-interpretation: attributing more to a passage than was intended (meaning is A, but interpretation is A, B, C)

We have all, no doubt, been guilty of all three to some degree or other. And in some way, we are all somewhere in 2, which is the least of the errors, yet calls us to improve and grow in our understanding and study of Scripture.

If we are to submit to Scripture, it must hold its objective and clear authority over us – and for that, we need to get out of the way!

Seven Pitfalls

1) Proof-texting

This is “using a text to prove a point“. While this may be neutral, it can easily lead to problems, especially when you’ve got a point to prove or a theology to defend, and you start searching through Scripture looking for ammunition. You’re not trying to understand the original author in the context of that verse, but it becomes a bit like the pastor who says “I’ve got a zinger of a sermon, I just need a verse to go with it.” 
When using a verse to make a point, be certain you understand the context and meaning of what the author was communicating in that passage, and make sure you’re not twisting a verse to make a point you need it to make.

2) Allegorizing

Allegorizing is “to search for the hidden or secret meaning underlying the passage – and those hidden meanings are unrelated to the obvious meaning of the passage.” This method of interpretation was popularized (and canonized until the Reformation) by Origen, who developed it initially to explain away what he found strange, uncomfortable or ‘immoral’ in Scripture. He was one of the first to explain away the literal interpretation of Genesis saying “no sensible man would believe Genesis to be literal, it surely was intended to be allegorical” and he spent considerable ink saying the creation account was not to tell us how God created the world, but why (sneaky, sneaky).
Origen went on to create an entire system called the ‘fourfold method’ all about getting past the shallow ‘literal’ interpretation and find the allegorical meaning.
By the time you get to the Reformation, libraries of fanciful interpretations abounded. For example, Gregory the Great said that in the book of Job, the 3 friends represent heretics, Job’s 7 sons are the 12 Apostles (?), the 7000 sheep are innocent thoughts, the 3000 camels are vain notions, etc. etc.
Many of the Reformers explicitly condemned allegorizing and called for a return to a literal reading of the text. After all, allegorizing is arbitrary. It has no objectivity or controls except your imagination. It obscures the meaning of Scripture and strips it of any authority or certainty. 

3) Christologizing

This is a subset of allegorizing – particularly finding “hidden forms of Jesus and His work on the cross in the Old Testament“. Or better said, eiseJesus (reading Jesus into the text). I’m sure you’ve heard someone say the story of David and Goliath represents Jesus taking down the giant of sin and death. 
Justin Martyr said that Genesis 29 taught that Leah represented the Jews, Rachel the church, and Jacob represented Jesus who serves both the Jews and the church.
While this may sound spiritual and ‘Christ exalting’, it is simply subjecting the Scriptures to our imagination, and will yield a Jesus made in our own image.

4) Personalizing

This is “skipping over the author’s intended meaning and looking for some connection to our personal circumstances“. This is not about applying the Word to your life, but skipping over the true meaning of the text and grabbing something that ‘sounds’ like it’s speaking to a circumstance in your life.
This usually happens when people read the Scriptures ‘devotionally’, praying for God to “give them a verse”; not studying but just reading until some phrase or word just connects to something in their life. 
For example, a youth pastor explained that he was just thinking and praying about the issue of dating when he opened his Bible, and his eyes settled on 1 Tim 5:22 “…do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and share in the sins of others…” and he totally ignored the context of appointing elders in a local assembly, and just applied it to his personal situation on dating. 

5) Decontextualizing

This is to “consider something in isolation from its context“. Taking something out of context. 
You could call this ‘fortune-cookie hermeneutics’. You get this verse that is independent, free-floating and unattached to any context. When verses are isolated from their context, becoming a ‘pearl of wisdom’ (or in modern vernacular, a meme) it is no longer grounded in a real person writing to real people in a real context.
Do not attach God’s name to some sentiment you’re experiencing as you read words stripped from their context. For example, many missionary pamphlets quote Psalm 2:8 “Ask of Me and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance and the very ends of the earth as your possession” and claim this is a promise of conversions! Who is being promised the nations in this passage? Messiah, not missionaries.
While Scripture was written for us, it was not initially written to us. For us to understand the divinely intended meaning for our benefit, we must do the work of understanding the original author, the original audience, and the original context.

6) Reading through a lens of:

  • Human Reason
    • During the enlightenment, reason was elevated to the highest place of authority. There are those who read Scripture through a lens of their own reason – if something doesn’t sound ‘reasonable’ to them (morally or scientifically, for example), they simply reject it out of hand, or find ways of explaining it away.
    • Some cannot reconcile the doctrine of election and that we are responsible for our choices and actions, so they either reject the doctrine or redefine it to make it more ‘reasonable’. 
    • The Scripture is not illogical; logic and reason were created by God – but this is the infinite God who created the universe with a word. Our reason (limited and fallen) should not be the authority over Scripture, instead Scripture should correct and shape our reason. When reason fails to reconcile it all – once we have pressed in and deeply studied and considered – let us be humble enough to say, “God is God and I am not; let Him be true and ever man proved a liar (or a fool).”
  • A Theological System
    • When we have a systematic theology (an important and helpful exercise), we may be tempted to interpret a passage through that system. For example, those zealous ‘cage-stage’ Calvinists seem to find the 5 points of Calvinism in every verse. 
    • This often results in ‘right doctrine, wrong verse’. 
    • The problem is that we will not have our theological system challenged, refined or corrected by that passage, instead our theological system governs the interpretation rather than the Scripture correcting the system.
    • Walt Kaiser says “to impose a theological grid onto a text must be condemned as the mark of a foolish and lazy exegete”. 
    • We must have an ‘exegetical theology’ which arises from a deep study of the Scriptures, constantly being refined and even corrected. Follow the text where it leads, and don’t be afraid of where it goes. God’s Word is true and consistent.
  • Continuity and Discontinuity
    • There are certain theological systems that emphasize continuity between Israel and the Church, and others emphasizing discontinuity (for example, covenant and dispensational theology). 
    • Robert Booth, in defending infant baptism, says “our interpretive starting point determines how we understand Scripture… we must strive for interpretational consistency. The Covenantal principle of interpretation holds that we must assume continuity in God’s revelation.”
    • Others go to the radical opposite, assuming discontinuity (for example, Andy Stanley’s campaign to ‘unhitch the church from the Old Testament’).
    • If you put on a lens of continuity, you will miss legitimate points of discontinuity. And likewise, a lens of discontinuity will make you miss points of legitimate continuity. Covenant or Dispensational theology is not a hermeneutic – it may be a post-exegetical conclusion you arrive at, but never start with.
    • Ask, ‘do my lenses prevent me from seeing what the text actually says’?
  • Other Passages of Scripture
    • When cross-referencing, you may be tempted to transfer meaning from one text into another. For example, if you read Mark 8 and the command “take up your cross” and you go over to Romans 6, speaking of the cross of Jesus, you may be tempted to take meaning from one and place it over the other – while they are both mentioning the cross, they are addressing two entirely different issues.
    • Compare Romans 4:1-5 and James 2:14-16, is Paul using the word “justified” the same way James does? Getting this wrong may lead to a false view of salvation!
  • Culture
    • We live in a very different culture to the biblical authors – separated by geography, ethnicity and time. The temptation may be to read my own culture into Scripture.
    • For example, when you encounter the term ‘slave’ in the Bible, you may transfer a cultural understanding of slavery into that term which is entirely different to what you may think. Indentured servanthood in the Old Testament is utterly different to the chattel slavery of the 18th century.
    • Perhaps you read Genesis through the lens of a cultural view of origins, ie. evolution. That will destroy your understanding of the text.
  • Your own intuition
    • If you read the Bible just following your gut, those impressions you get while reading, your ‘moral intuition’ and what ‘feels right’, you are interpreting by your own intuition.
    • Clark Pinnock wrote “I reject the traditional view of hell in part out of a sense of moral and theological revulsion to it – and this is probably the reason people question the traditional view in the first place. They are not impressed by its lack of Scriptural basis, instead they are appalled by its moral implications.” If your (fallen) moral intuition is your interpretive lens, you will create your own personal theology.
  • Personal Experience
    • Perhaps you’re facing a critical decision in your life, you may be tempted to open your Bible with one overriding goal: give me guidance!! You may be bringing a question on your mind to a passage that the author was not addressing.
    • Some interpret the Scripture through charismatic experiences. For example, they do not interpret 1 Corinthians 12-14 (where Paul addresses the charismatic gifts, especially tongues) with the Biblical Acts 2 definition (tongues are understandable human languages miraculously spoken by a person who had not learned them). Instead, they simply assume the experience of ecstatic speech they experienced in church last week is what Paul is talking about.
    • A Charismatic University has a statement “a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with a biblical argument”. And they intend that as a good thing!
    • We don’t deny experiences, or read our experiences into Scripture – instead, we are to interpret that experience by what Scripture says. What is objective? The Word. So let’s look at what the Scripture teaches about tongues, and from that understanding see what this experience actually was.

7) Interpreting the OT with the NT

This is quite controversial in theological circles. For example, in McCartney and Clayton’s handbook on hermeneutics, they write “to understand the Old Testament properly, it must be read through the lens of the New Testament.” Roy Zuck, on the other hand, says “Recognizing the progress of revelation, the interpreter must be careful not to read back into the Old Testament from the New.”
Zuck is right. We cannot take NT truth and read it into the OT text to change the meaning originally intended by the author to his original audience.
If we affirm that the whole Scripture is ultimately authored by God, and it is all one consistent and coherent truth – nothing will contradict. However, if meaning changes over time, Scripture is no longer consistent. Worse, if you need the NT to properly understand the OT, what about those poor people who originally got the OT text? They could not understand what was given to them until they had the key hundreds, or even thousands of years later!
When Jesus said “have you not read”, He assumed the text was clear to them!
Think of the progress of revelation – for example, the prophecies of Messiah – as a line of prophets. As we move from that initial promise in Genesis 3 (the seed of the woman shall crush the head of the serpent), we learn more and more about the promised Messiah… he’ll be from the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem, in the line of David, and He will suffer and be killed before rising to his glorious throne.
It is as if each prophet came and supplemented a painting with more and more detail and color until the full revelation of Messiah would be seen. They never erased or changed what came before. They didn’t flip over the canvas and say, “see, you thought it was a mountain, but it’s actually a face!” 
Unless we understand the text in its original context and time, it is easy to read into it things never intended by the author, resulting in mis-interpretation or super-interpretation.

That leaves us bereft of the divinely intended meaning of the original author writing to his original audience in their original context. 

Let us never assume that God is a poor communicator. He gave us the Scriptures by His divine design and we must embrace it (its context, its progress of revelation, its cultural and historical background) for what it is: the very Word of God!

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