It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
SaltRiver (February 5, 2009)
Chris Tiegreen is a devotional writer and editor for indeed magazine at Walk Thru the Bible in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also been a missionary, pastor, journalist, photographer, and university instructor. He has helped plant churches in Michigan and Idaho, has been a pastor in Florida, and enjoys doing mission work in Thailand. His first Tyndale publication, At His Feet was a Gold Medallion finalist in the devotional category. He and his wife, Hannah, live in the Atlanta area.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: SaltRiver (February 5, 2009)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Transcript of NT101 lecture/session 6, Dr. Ferris E. Didaski, professor
of biblical hermeneutics, Theologicus Institute of Religion, June 6
All right, folks, let’s get started. You’ll notice from your syllabus that we’ll be talking about foundational hermeneutic approaches the next couple of weeks, and the reason for this emphasis is the absolutely critical need
in our ministries, especially in our preaching, to get the right message from the biblical text. I won’t bore you today with endless examples of how the Bible has been misinterpreted and misapplied because you can come up with quite a few examples off the top of your head, I imagine.
You’ve probably heard Aunt Mabel’s philosophy on sparing the rod or Brother Jim’s earnest desire just to lift Jesus up in worship so all will be drawn to him as he ignores, of course, the plain interpretation that John spells out for us in that text. In one of your outside reading assignments, which we’ll probably discuss next time we meet, we find quite a few examples of this kind of misinterpretation, proving that spurious biblical hermeneutics have a long history of abuse and distortion. I want to open your eyes to this—to tear down what you think you know about how the Bible came to us and reconstruct for you a more realistic approach.
Remember rule number one. Don’t ever forget this, as long as you live—or at least as long as you preach or teach classes or write articles. Rule number one is “context.” The context is the key to understanding any passage. If you miss the original intent of the author in the context in which he wrote, you will find your doctrine corrupted with all sorts of misunderstandings. That is why this class will focus so intensely on the background of the biblical text. You may wish at times that you could just get to the meat of the passage itself, but you will find in the long run that understanding the context in which these sacred Scriptures were written will save you from error. We don’t want any false doctrine springing out of this group down the road, do we? So remember, context. Context, context, context.
Now in order to understand the context, you’ll need to have a firm grasp of the original language—that’s why most of you are muddling through Greek or Hebrew 101 this semester and hating it. Consider it an investment in your commitment to orthodoxy. You’ll also need a clear understanding of the history and the cultural and social dynamics of the time, and a very objective approach. These sacred writers did not write in a vacuum, as most people sitting in the pew might imagine. They had their own biases, their own perceptions and observations, and a wide range of influences bearing down on them and coloring the lenses through which they looked. They may have been quite subjective—in fact, they certainly were, without exception. But you are not afforded that privilege.
You must train yourself not to do as they did because they have the authority of apostleship and inspiration behind them and you do not. Adding your subjectivity to theirs will only take you further off course. You must become a Sherlock Holmes of sorts and investigate exactly what the author meant and how his readers understood it. That, my dear students, is how you may become a scholar and a sage instead of a seller of shallow sentiments. The church has too many of the latter. Now, where was I heading with that point . . . oh, yes. The reading. Interestingly, Matthew’s Gospel aptly illustrates the hermeneutics we are trying to avoid. But never forget: his writing of the Gospel was inspired. Your interpretation of it is not. Remember that, for as you read it, I want you to see how many misapplications of Scripture you can find. This document will quote extensively from the Hebrew Scriptures, but if you’re familiar with said Scriptures, you’ll hardly recognize them. I’ll give you a few examples to get you started. For instance, there’s a prophecy in the book of Isaiah in which God tells the prophet that he will preach to a people who will hear but not understand, and see but not perceive—a prediction that was rather unambiguously fulfilled during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Yet roughly seven centuries later the writer of this document quotes
this passage and says “now it is being fulfilled” in his own day. Or, for one a little more egregious, a Hosea passage clearly referring to Israel’s exodus from Egypt is applied to the Messiah figure5 as though the primary meaning of the prophecy had never even occurred to the writer.
This is clearly not proof of the Messiah, though the writer evidently thinks it is. And again, Micah’s assessment of the Israelites’ lamentable condition in his own day is used by Matthew to depict how the Messiah would pull families apart! Or, if you need more to go on, a passage in Jeremiah about the Babylonian captivity is applied to the children of Bethlehem centuries later. We even have one example where the scribe quotes a verse in Jeremiah about thirty pieces of silver, not noticing that this passage occurs nowhere in Jeremiah but in Zechariah instead. This list could go on and on, of course, but that’s for you to discover as you read.
I hate to cast aspersions on our most revered New Testament writer, but Paul appears guilty of careless interpretation at times as well. You may recall Romans 1:17, the verse that, in some degree, launched the
Reformation: “the righteous will live by faith” (niv). Now what does that mean, do you suppose? It could mean that those who are righteous will live in a faithful way; or that those who are righteous came to be so because of their faithful living; or that the just shall survive, i.e., not be condemned, because of their faith; or so on. And, in fact, when we turn to the original passage, Habakkuk 2:4, it seems more likely that the prophet intended to say that those who are righteous will live in a faithful manner. But Paul seems to apply the verse to matters of final
judgment or present justification; and Martin Luther certainly understood the verse this way, crediting it with opening his eyes to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The question I would pose to you, and which we will discuss on Thursday, is that as this truth is being bounced around like a beach ball, who blew it up to begin with? Obviously, Habakkuk did. So we should rightly defer to his intentions for the right interpretation. This will be our guiding principle in this course and, I hope, yours for the rest of your life.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the related matter of exegesis—drawing truth out of the original text—as opposed to the scandal of eisegesis—by which we mean reading our own interpretations into the text. . . .
+ + + +
I recently heard a well-known Bible teacher lecturing about hermeneutics—one’s method of interpreting the Bible—on the radio. He opened his talk with an illustration of a former student of his, a young woman who was in zealous pursuit of a husband. Not a particular husband, just a husband. As I recall the story, she had recently broken up with a man and was feeling rather despondent over her prospects. But one day she came to this professor with a bright smile on her face, declaring in all sincerity that she was soon going to meet her husband and get married. How did she know this? the professor asked. She had indulged in “lucky dipping” the night before, she explained. That was her term for the practice of opening up the Bible and reading the verse your finger lands on, hoping that it’s God’s word to you for the moment. She didn’t normally do this, she said, but she felt inspired to do so that evening, and the results were very encouraging. Whatever verse she landed on, it resonated with
her, telling her that her desire would be fulfilled shortly and that it would even happen within a couple of weeks. She was convinced the Spirit had told her that it was a promise from God.
For obvious reasons, the professor was amused at the attempt. That’s not a very scholarly approach to Scripture. So as he was finishing describing this negative example on the radio program, he introduced his topic for the day: keys to biblical interpretation. And he almost got fully into the “right” way to study Scripture without mentioning the end of the story, but he couldn’t resist. “Now as it turns out,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “she did happen to meet a man a couple of weeks later and they ended up getting married. I keep in touch with them to this day. But I tell her that God did that in spite of her faulty hermeneutic rather than because of it!” And he laughed.
No offense to this respected Bible scholar, but that’s the worst possible illustration he could have used to introduce his point. I have no idea whether that girl’s promise from God actually came from God, but I suspect that in her situation it did. Would I recommend “lucky dipping” as a regular practice? Obviously not. But neither would I say God never works that way. In this case, he apparently did; what she believed did happen, down to the specific detail. But because this preacher’s theology couldn’t bend to that possibility, he believed it happened “in spite of ” her superstitious approach to God’s Word.
I’ve read, heard, and participated in numerous doctrinal discussions in which a phrase like “That’s not what that verse means!” or “That’s taken out of context” occurs. That’s because we have essentially one approach to biblical interpretation: that of the professor in the fictitious lecture transcript above.
We can always stop a heresy in its tracks by appealing to “original context” or the “original language,” as well as to our principles of logic. But in doing so, we’re basically undermining the many ways the writers of the New Testament employed Hebrew Scripture in their Gospels and letters. If we held people like Matthew to our hermeneutical standards, he would be laughed out of any respectable seminary today. Those verses pulled from the Old Testament would be “proven” to have little to do with the Messiah and therefore not applicable to Jesus through any reasonable method of interpretation. Yet Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write those things. His hermeneutic was apparently acceptable to God.
How can this be? Why would God authorize bypassing the plain meaning of a verse and using it in a secondary or even symbolic sense that had little to do with the original context? One answer lies in normal biblical interpretation at the time the New Testament was written. Rabbinic interpreters from ages past used four main interpretive methods for understanding Jewish Scriptures. The first was p’shat: the literal meaning of a text, the plain and simple objective facts. That was the primary hermeneutic then, and it’s still our default hermeneutic. It’s foundational for developing doctrine and should form the backbone of all other interpretations. But with the Jewish sages, unlike with us, it didn’t end there. The second means of interpretation was the remez: the deeper
meaning hinted at in the subtleties and nuances of the text. Third was the drash or midrash: the comparative, allegorical, metaphorical meaning drawn from the verse as it related to others using similar symbolism or
terminology or even word forms. And then there was the sod: the hidden meaning, the philosophical meanderings prompted by the text, the secret or mystical interpretation. It was very subjective and, though acceptable
during certain periods of Christian history, has remained very unwelcome
in Christian interpretation for the last few centuries.
I’ve heard seminary professors and well-known pastors issue strict warnings against looking for some passage’s “hidden meaning.” But New Testament writers and early Christians relied on sod sometimes. All four modes of interpretation came into play, and there was nothing contemptible about any of them. You wouldn’t build doctrine on the more mystical interpretations, obviously, but you wouldn’t ignore them either. They would supplement your faith and inform your more objective interpretations. All were fair game.
This puts us in a difficult spot. Today we have a hermeneutic that forbids the kind of hermeneutic used by the inspired writers of the Old and New Testament and even by Jesus himself. In other words, our limited mode of interpretation doesn’t match God’s broader intentions for his Word. To me, that sounds like a pretty indefensible position.
Our rigid interpretations have led to some pretty harsh criticisms of people who quote the Bible or explain how God spoke to them through his Word. If those people don’t quote the verse with the exact meaning and original context in mind, a chorus of accusations arises: that person must be “ignorant,” “unbiblical,” or even “heretical.”
No other symbolic or imaginative interpretation is allowed, no hints and subtleties, no intuitive impressions—
nothing but clear, objective fact. Some of the words I used in the previous sentence would be extremely alarming to many biblical scholars and Christian teachers and apologists, but that’s only because we forbid hermeneutical approaches that the Bible itself allows. That’s an odd position to be in, isn’t it? In our zeal to be biblical, we’ve become decidedly unbiblical.
Obviously, I have no reason to criticize Christian versions of p’shat and remez. I think the objective, contextual approach to Scripture is vital. This is where we get the plain meaning of God’s Word and discover the truth about God’s attributes and the plan of salvation and all sorts of doctrinal essentials.
But this kind of interpretation will never give specific guidance in specific situations not covered in Scripture. I was once profoundly encouraged and filled with faith when the words of a passage jumped out at me. It was a passage making a spiritual application from an agricultural principle, and when it mentioned “rain,” I knew what it meant symbolically for my situation, even though my situation didn’t really fit the original context. The Holy Spirit spoke at that moment—and on countless other occasions since—by taking a phrase or metaphor in Scripture out of its immediate context and applying it to my personal issues. This happens quite oft en in personal guidance, as well as in broader biblical interpretation when the Spirit unfolds layers of his truth.
For example, depending on what you’re going through and how the Spirit has been working in your life, the statement that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, niv) can mean different things. To someone at a funeral, it speaks of promises of eternal glory. To someone making a decision about a career or a mate, the Spirit can use it for reassurance of God’s good plans for us in this age. To those going through a spiritual awakening, the Spirit may inspire a vision for going well beyond the “normal” or “status quo” Christianity that most people experience. And what did it mean in the original context? Well, that depends on which “original context” you’re talking about. Paul was referring
to God’s revelation of his deep, mysterious wisdom—the plan of the ages—through the nascent church. But Paul was actually quoting Isaiah, who had been inspired to write this statement about how God acts on behalf of those who wait for him.13 One inspired statement, multiple inspired interpretations and applications—some of them not even hinted at until hundreds of years later. That’s what it means to read the living Word.
This idea makes a lot of people nervous, and there’s certainly some basis for that. Scripture has been distorted and manipulated, used for evil purposes, or simply misunderstood by noninspired interpreters. Cults have sprung up from a few twistings of Scripture for selfish or ungodly purposes. But it grates against my understanding and experience of who God is to believe that people who are humbly seeking truth and asking the Holy Spirit to guide them while affirming a willingness to be corrected by other parts of Scripture will make such an error. It’s generally
pride or an underlying agenda, not a faulty hermeneutic, that leads people to false interpretations of the Word. In fact, I’d argue that humble interaction with the Spirit is much more likely to lead someone into truth than strictly logical study of Scripture would.
The most common biblical objection to approaching Scripture as the Living Word is 2 Peter 1:20: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” But no one in rabbinic circles of long ago or in the church today, as far as I know—there are always fringe exceptions—would say that this fourfold approach to interpretation falls in that category of self-interpretation. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired people to write the words of Scripture, he opens the reader’s ears to hear what he wants them to hear. He is intricately involved in the interpretation, just as he was in the inspiration. If we say one end of that process is reliable and the other isn’t, we have a pretty strange
doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The fact that the Bible is his own breath during any moment when it is being written
or read opens the door for hearing the Spirit in full and exciting ways.
I’m a huge proponent of intellectual understanding, but experiencing God is not simply a matter of knowing biblical truth. The Bible is much, much more than a sourcebook for divine principles. When read by someone in fellowship with the Spirit who authored it, it becomes a living, breathing companion that may surprise you at some point in the conversation. It’s interactive, inviting you to ask questions and hear answers not only about doctrine but about what, specifically, to do with your life the next couple of years or whom to associate with. And it’s the beginning g of the conversation, not the definition of it. Your interactions with the Spirit will go in directions that
never contradict the Word but oft en expand your understanding of it, even uncomfortably at times.
I have several friends, for example, who have wrestled with their experiences at worship services that seemed very disorderly, which, in their understanding, violated 1 Corinthians 14:33 and 40: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace. . . . Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (niv). This struggle is common to visitors at an Orthodox church, a charismatic church, and everything in between. Why? Because what’s orderly to one person isn’t necessarily orderly to another. Members of highly liturgical churches oft en find Baptist and Methodist services much too casual and disorganized, while Baptists and Methodists can make little sense of a Catholic service on the first few visits. Orthodox services have no concrete beginning or end, and a standing and pacing
congregation seems at times to be rather detached from the priestly duties being carried out. And charismatic worship services are seen by many as a free-for-all. Any of the above can be a violation of “fitting and orderly” by
someone’s standards because order is in the eye of the beholder.
In every one of these cases, however, those who have been immersed in the “culture” of the given church can easily see the parameters and predictability in their own worship services. In each flavor of Christian expression, there’s a sense of what’s appropriate and what isn’t, of the right and wrong times for whatever takes place, of doing things in their proper order. But a rigid definition of Paul’s instructions about “fitting and orderly”—a definition that a person most oft en equates with his or her own upbringing—might keep a person away from a fellowship the Holy Spirit is guiding him or her to become involved in. The Spirit is under no obligation to comply with our expectations.
Yet reading the Bible as a living, dynamic, organic voice makes people afraid. It just opens it up to all kinds of misinterpretation, some say—as though the purely objective, contextual hermeneutic has led everyone to the same conclusions. Regardless of the interpretive approach, the Spirit is a necessary companion. When he’s ignored, misinterpretation is likely. But when he’s involved, God speaks. Is that infallible? Nope. But neither is
anyone else’s hermeneutic. And I’d rather walk hand in hand with the Spirit through Scripture than trust my
objective reasoning alone.
I find it rather liberating to know that my interpretation of a passage of Scripture isn’t necessarily my interpretation—that the Holy Spirit is stirring up within me an understanding that he has long desired to impart to
me and anyone else who will listen to him carefully. Are there dangers in my belief that he speaks hidden meanings? Of course—there are dangers in any kind of interpretation of Scripture. But I know from the overt, literal meaning of Scripture what his character is like and how he works, so that’s a guardrail of sorts. He won’t violate that. So if I tell him that I’m trusting him to speak in a way I understand and to keep me from error,
I can be confident that he’ll do that. When I (or any other Christian) ask the Spirit to unfold his truth—and to guard my heart and mind from error—hints and parallels and images seem to come to mind much more often. These, in turn, can be sifted through and examined in the light of the rest of Scripture just as any sermon or book would be. But almost always, such interpretations deepen one’s understanding of the Bible and offer guidance in current circumstances. Why? Because just as the Spirit was in the hands of the writers who penned Scripture, he’s in the hearts of those reading it.
I have a recurring mental picture of evangelicalism’s doctrinal guardians criticizing someone—let’s say me,
for example, since that’s usually who’s in my picture—applying a verse in a way that’s unconventional and doesn’t
pay enough homage to the original context. Charges of “mysticism” and “distorting God’s Word” and “ignoring
the plain meaning of the text” are flying all over the place. Then I envision Matthew walking over to me and
saying, “Why are they so mad at us?” And I answer, “Me, because I heard God say something. You, because you misused the Bible when you wrote the Bible.” And then we get into a discussion of the irony of an “unbiblical”
hermeneutic becoming biblical by authenticating itself within the pages of Scripture.
I’m strongly convinced that there’s nothing in Matthew’s interpretation of Scripture that needs to be fixed. I love studying the original context and languages of the Bible, and I do it almost obsessively. But there are other ways—intuitive, philosophical, mystical, metaphorical, etc.—of hearing God’s voice in the Word. Really all it takes is to ask him and be open to how he leads and reveals himself and his Word. There are no special techniques, no formulas, no step-by-step instructions. Just ask. And expect. And if it’s still uncertain, ask him about your uncertainties.
The Holy Spirit was there at the inspiration of Scripture, he has preserved it over the centuries, he has opened countless minds and hearts to its truth, and he’s right there with you as you read it, discern it, and discover new aspects to it.
But opening ourselves up to more layers of meaning requires loosening our exclusive grip on the ones we already know. If we want to have more intimate fellowship with him, we’ll need to learn how to hear him unconventionally. Not unbiblically, mind you, but unexpectedly and unashamedly. And always true to who he is.
Forgotten lessons from Matthew:
+ The Bible is alive, constantly + moving and breathing into us—and the Spirit can speak through it however he chooses.
+ Today’s rigid hermeneutic is only part of true biblical interpretation. By itself, it’s insufficient for hearing and understanding God’s voice as a means of specific guidance in a personal conversation with him.
+ The Spirit was there when the Bible was inspired, and he’s there when we read it. It’s okay to trust him with the text.