Section I.2 – Christian Hermeneutic
In the realm of Christian hermeneutic, we find enough information for an entire volume unto itself. I don’t want to probe the depths of hermeneutics. That is for a different book. However, I want to pick and choose a few of the principles that are most crucial and briefly explain them.
Perhaps the first principle for myself is that I read Scripture as a whole. This seems rather obvious, but I’m always baffled by some people’s opinions. Indeed there is a real sense in which we can look at a book of the Bible and understand the context of what the author is speaking by knowing the author and looking elsewhere in their writings for patterns or explanations. However, the Bible is written as a whole. The whole of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament together, give one complete testimony. I like to use the analogy of B.C. and A.D. Just as B.C. means before Christ, and what is now labeled as C.E. (the common era) is after Christ’s birth, the Old Testament is before the advent of Messiah, and the New Testament is from His life and onward. These are not two separate entities, nor are the Old Testament obsolete for today, but both weave together the same story and heart.
Now, something that might not be so quickly identified here is that the Bible might be one story, but the story progresses. For we who know the New Testament Scriptures, it is quite easy to place a certain bias into the text of Genesis. We see statements like Genesis 3:15, and quickly assume that this is Christ Jesus. It very well might be, and often times we do rightly apply prophetic texts to Christ. My fear is that too often we neglect the progressive sweep of Scripture to see the beauty in God’s unfolding story in order to obtain some sort of knowledge of what fits where. It is ironic to write about systematic theology while warning against the systematizing of Scripture.
There is a proper way to do systematic theology and an improper. Many times our gravest mistake is to think that we’ve come to a place where we know the end of the story. Because we ‘know’ the end of the story, we then consider that we have ability to section away various aspects of Scripture into boxes. What is proper is to keep the flow of Scripture, that the revelation progresses, and to teach in this fashion. It is much better to start in Genesis where very little is revealed, and then to progress forward from there. As the understanding of these various topics are revealed through the Bible, the student then begins to see depth that would have previously been avoided.
- Austin Sparks notes that many times God puts His ends in His beginnings. This is true, and so we can learn much from the beginning of the Scripture. Just because we can understand much from the beginning and the end of the Bible, however, gives us absolutely no reason to neglect the entirety of the Bible. Much of the Old Testament is simply used for flannel graph t-shirts and children’s stories. Yet, there are concepts and deep understanding of God’s relationship to humanity found in the Old Testament Scripture that the New Testament authors assume that we already know. Therefore, beginning with the New Testament revelation of any subject in theology actually hinders the student from learning instead of equipping them.
This actually falls into one of the principles of hermeneutics. History and culture tell us something. We can learn a lot about the Scriptures by simply understanding the cultural context of the story. This is twofold, though often we only think of the second meaning. The first is what I’ve already mentioned: there is a context and history of God with mankind that leads up to this particular place in Scripture. Second, by understanding some of the ancient world that the particular era of Scripture is being written in might also give us some clues to understanding Scripture. This is where both Scripture and history meet. Yet, often times we also seem to fall into the trap to think that we need to understand the culture and historical context. Much of what is already in the text gives us enough illumination for understanding. There are only a few exceptions that I can think of that truly give us a proper understanding of context.
An example of where cultural and historical context helps is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told His disciples that He fulfills the Law and the prophets. In His day, to fulfill the Torah was to correctly interpret the Torah. To abolish the Torah was to misinterpret it, and thus nullify its teachings. Christ is making the point that what He has to say is going back to the original context and heart of the message and teaching the fuller expression of what Moses and the prophets were saying. Of course, when Christ says “the Law and the prophets,” He is not simply saying only those two sections of Scripture. It is much like our modern phrase, “from Genesis through Revelation.” It means the whole of the Scriptures. This doesn’t make void the interpretation of Christ ‘fulfilling’ the Law and thus freeing us from it, because we find that kind of doctrine presented in Romans 6-7. We are indeed governed by a higher Law – the Law of Christ. All this to say, don’t think that the historic and cultural context will destroy any doctrines. If it does, then the doctrine was not true to begin with.
Another principle of hermeneutic is called the “Chriso-Centric Principle.” This is exactly what it sounds like. It places emphasis upon Christ, saying that all Scripture points to Jesus. While we’re all taught this in Sunday School, it is not necessarily true. The point can be made that all Scripture points to God, but to neglect the other two aspects of the trinity creates a false teaching. In this regard, I think that our Christology has actually done damage. Much of what is taught is from a wrong basis, simply because we are told to ask the question, “How does this teach me about Jesus?” A more proper question might be, “What is God trying to reveal in this passage?”
While God is the forefront of all Scripture, there are many doctrines that we have that can be written about with very little mention of God. This ought not to be so. God is indeed at the center of all Scripture and doctrine, but the way in which He is at the center needs to be discussed and analyzed. Certain topics in the end times, doctrine of sin, or the doctrine of man might seem to be absent of consideration of God, but the truth is that God is never absent. I have been accused multiple times of neglecting the centrality of Christ because I spend so much effort on the study of eschatology. For me, it was when I saw how all of the doctrines of the faith come together in the end times that truly revealed fullness. That is not to say that the other doctrines lacked bringing revelation, but that when I put the final piece of the puzzle into place I saw the whole picture. Until that moment, my sight was slightly skewed. I was one who thought I understood, but I didn’t truly understand. For me, eschatology is not an intellectual idol; it was the very nub in which I see God, as He is, more clearly.
Another thought in the realm of hermeneutic is that it takes willingness to bring illumination. Somehow, if we are willing to hear God, then He will speak to us. But, if we are closed to only this or that bias, we won’t be willing for a revelation that might show our theory wrong. I think that Paul calls this in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 “the love of the truth”. It is our love of truth that saves us from deception. Yet, when we love deception, even theological deception, we will be given over to our blindness. While I agree that it does indeed take willingness to be brought into more correct understanding, I think that what is being neglected here is that God hides Himself from the proud. Hand-in-hand with willingness is humility. This is not necessarily something that is fought against, but instead is just something that seems to not be taught. The assumption is that people know what we’re saying, and thus we never truly define our terms.
Another principle, which I rather enjoy, is the principle of first mention. This is another one that is exactly as it sounds. Find the first place that something is mentioned, and within that first mentioning of the subject, God reveals the fullness of that subject. Now, this is not contrary to my point in progressive revelation. For example, we find in the first mention of Adam in the Garden of Eden all of the doctrine of man. What God has created humanity to be, His intention from the beginning, is fully revealed in Genesis 1-2. Many start their theology of humanity with Genesis 3, the fall of humanity. Yet, our identity as human beings is not found in depravity and sin nature; it is found in God creating us from the dust and breathing the breath of life into our nostrils.
That full revelation is indeed found in Genesis 1-2, but we might not distinguish it as such until we find the same revelation elaborated upon later in Scripture. There are such compact statements made in the first mention that no one will truly pick up on it until it is revealed later. But that is not how it was at the beginning. Adam named all the animals, and there is more in a name than a title. A name in Hebrew is the core character of who you are. For Adam to name the animals must mean that he had understanding of what that animal is at its core. Simply seeing the animal, Adam could discern its essence. I think it will be this way in eternity. We will know who we are, and others will know us, simply because we will be what we are. The radiance that we exhibit and the form that we take up will describe perfectly who we are at the foundation of our being. With that kind of perfect sight, we would be able to see the first mention of these subjects and discern precisely what it is that God is saying about them.
There is also a principle called “the full principle”, also known as “the complete principle.” This basically suggests that God makes known the full revelation of a subject if it is necessary to our spiritual walk. Honestly, I think this is laziness. God gives full revelation of all subjects to anyone who is willing to discern it. Because we are interwoven into the fabric of the creation, and our lives affect everything around us, God does not limit His revelation in any particular subject. It might be true to say that the subjects we’re more prone to searching for understanding in consist of what the author of Hebrews calls milk, but that in no manner means that there is not clear revelation of the deeper spiritual things. The reason that many of the subjects in theology are hidden to us is because the more foundational truths are not yet deeply understood. The more deeply we understand the foundational truths, the further out our branches stretch.
There comes a time when repentance, judgment, walking in the Spirit, and other basic teachings are no longer what we focus upon. Instead, we continue to deepen our understanding of these topics by also studying more thoroughly the subjects related to them, but slightly deeper than them. The example in Hebrews is given. Though they understood their salvation, and I’m sure that many of them could teach messages of repentance, they did not understand the deeper issues of covenant, sacrifice, abomination, and other Levitical and Deuteronomic subjects. There then can also come a time when we branch out past ecclesiology and our study to understand the Church to come to a place where we are able to better understand Israel and the Church. From there, we find ourselves also diving in to better understand the nations, Israel, and the Church. How do these things come together? How do these things relate to one another? What are God’s purposes for these three things? With each branch outward, our understanding of the foundational subject of the Church deepens. It is not a negation of one subject to pursue another, but rather a fuller understanding of both.
There is the agreement principle in Hermeneutics that says we should not find any contradictions in Scripture. If we think something is contradictory, it is because we have not yet studied it deeply enough to resolve the contradiction. The direct statement principle declares, “God says what he means, and means what he says.” While this is a cliché, there is some validity to it. I would advise, however, that you think more deeply upon it. This kind of statement needs to go from being cliché to being profound. For example, it isn’t just what God says, but what He does not say. Why is it that when Noah gets drunk, there is never a reference to suggest that he sinned? Other passages talk about the sin of drunkenness. Maybe the answer lies in that before the flood, fermentation didn’t happen. Therefore, Noah wouldn’t have known that he could get drunk. I like the thought that God is direct in His speech. He doesn’t babble, and therefore we need to profoundly examine His words and why He uses these, but doesn’t say those.
Another of my favorite principles is that God sets up patterns. This is known as the repetition principle. This is similar to the progressive revelation of Scripture. However, what makes this distinct from that is the word “pattern”. God reveals progressively His purposes and plans of redemption. One of the ways that He reveals these purposes and plans would be to set up patterns. For example, Moses led Israel out of Egypt. He is a type of Christ. Joshua led Israel to conquer the land of Canaan. He is a type of Christ. David united the twelve tribes of Israel under one king. He is a type of Christ. Over and over again, we see this foreshadowing of what Christ is to perform. The messianic prophecies seem to have application to different characters at different times in Israel’s history, but there is one Man in whom all these prophecies spearhead together into one vertex.
The Eastern Orthodox believers suppose that understanding comes with obedience. I think this has a ring of truth to it. It says in John 7:17 that whoever does the will of God will know whether Christ’s words are His own. It seems like Jesus would be implying that obedience brings forth understanding. I’m not entirely sure how true this is, because it does begin to break down at some point. However, the initial statement itself of obedience bearing forth understanding does seem to have some validity. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox teach that it is only within the context of community that the Bible can be understood. Once again, there seems to be some validity to this, however it breaks down. It leaves too many unanswered questions. But there is truth in the statement that I only see through a glass darkly and need others to help me understand.