What’s hermeneutics got to do with it?

The Bible: It’s God’s revelation to humankind and the believer’s touchstone for evaluating truth. But do we understand it?

By Bruxy Cavey
Hermeneutics

As history makes clear, the Bible—in human hands—is often anything but safe. Across the centuries, passages from Scripture have been used to justify an appalling array of evils—war, violence, racism, and even torture.

Today, the admonitions we hear to be “in the Word” daily should perhaps also come with warning labels: “Handle with care, misreading can be hazardous.” Every believer has the potential to misinterpret the Bible’s message, and for those of us living in the materialistic, self-indulgent society of North America, I sense that our tendency is to read the Bible as though it revolves around us. We open the Scriptures because we expect them to clarify everything for us—to provide wisdom for important life decisions, help with resisting temptation, or encouragement for obstacles we face. We haphazardly pick out passages and act as if they were written exclusively for us and, in so doing, we become blind to the truth of Christ that the Bible actually conveys¹. Without a healthy hermeneutic (or principle of interpretation) and certainly without Jesus at the center of it all, the Bible can be a dangerous thing. It is not enough for us to simply be committed to reading the Bible²; we also need to devote ourselves to reading with care.

Encountering the Word

It’s not surprising that misinterpretations of the Bible continue to plague us today. As 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, mystery inherently surrounds the Bible: On this side of eternity, we can only expect “to know in part and prophesy in part.” In addition to the inherent mystique of the Holy Text, the authors of the Bible lived in another culture and time, writing in languages and addressing audiences quite different from those of the 21st century. All these layers make the text more complex—and trickier to understand.

Bible scholars use the word exegesis—which comes from the Greek word for explanation—to describe the act of applying a solid hermeneutic in order to interpret a text correctly. To exegete a passage is to find its appropriate, intended meaning. In contrast, a faulty hermeneutic—one based upon our own assumptions, biases, and desires for what we want the text to say—results in eisegesis, or the misinterpretation of God’s word.

Jesus, through His life, modeled the ultimate example of flawless exegesis. John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (NRSV). The word “explained” in this passage is the Greek word for exegete. Jesus exegetes God—He shows us or interprets to us who God is. When we use the Scriptures as a medium to learn more about Christ, we also get a fuller glimpse of God.

Choosing your ‘Words’ carefully

At the time when the authors of the New Testament recorded their accounts, two forms of Greek existed: Attica Greek, which was the sophisticated language used by the elite and the philosophers who wanted to show their command of words, and Koinae Greek, the language that people used as they went about their day-to-day business. Interestingly, the New Testament writers chose the more accessible Koinae Greek.

Even more interesting is the fact that though the Gospels were written in Koinae Greek, Jesus wouldn’t have spoken Greek at all. He would have spoken Aramaic. So why did these New Testament authors write in Greek at the cost of recording the exact words of Jesus? The reason seems pragmatic: Greek was the most widely read language of their day. For the writers of the four biblical Gospels, it was more important to get the message out than to have the exact words of Jesus known by all. It was the message they wanted us to focus on, not the specific words.

These decisions by the New Testament writers reinforce a broader theme woven into the New Testament—that the faith offered by Christ is extended to everyone, regardless of education, social standing, or ethnicity. God wants us to be able to understand and connect with His words.

Drawing from this precedent, I suggest that we freely engage various Bible translations, exploring how each of them resonates within us. Living in North America, we have access to myriad versions, all with their own strengths, weaknesses, and nuances. Some versions (such as the New American Standard) provide strict, word-for-word translations, while others (like the New Living Translation) focus more on communicating the broader ideas or concepts of a passage. We shouldn’t be afraid to read passages in a few different Bibles, comparing them and observing how they impact us.

Different study Bibles also offer different annotations on sections of text. Some Bible notes emphasize the “there and then” by providing background information about the cultural context, the original word choices, or the translation process of a passage. Other study notes highlight the “here and now,” seeking to impart present-day, personal applications. Ideally, a combination of both is good. In my experience, one of the best ways to study the Word is to read a passage and then investigate a variety of notes in different versions of the Bible. These will provide well-rounded, thought-provoking perspectives on the text.

Developing a community hermeneutic

Today, most North Americans own at least one copy of the Bible, which gives us the incredible opportunity to read the Scriptures for ourselves. This doesn’t mean, however, that studying the Bible is a solitary activity. We simply can’t figure it all out on our own, nor are we supposed to. Instead, we need to interpret the Bible within the wisdom of the faith community.

Christ came at a time when community was the context for the text, when brothers and sisters gathered together in house churches to hear and discuss the Word together as it was read aloud to them. Similarly, we need to develop a community hermeneutic—a way to gather around the Scriptures to share our thoughts, learn from each other, and examine our interpretations within the wisdom of a larger group.

Handle with care: Misreading can be hazardous

As we plumb the Bible’s depths, here are some interpretive tendencies to avoid:

Over-moralizing, or turning a story from the Bible into a personal moral lesson, without regard to context

EXAMPLE: Israelite law demanded an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” principle of punishment for personal offenses (Exodus 21:23–25). An over-moralized interpretation of these verses might fail to take into account that this instruction is from the Old Testament, which is surpassed by the revelation of the New Testament in which Christ commanded His disciples to love their enemies.

Over-symbolizing, or turning a historical account into a personal allegory, without considering how it reveals God’s character

EXAMPLE: Considering the story of Gideon’s triumph over the Midianites in Judges 6–7, an overly symbolic reading might cite this as proof that God always brings success to His followers. But it might disregard what the event reveals about God’s nature, such as His patience (which he showed toward Gideon in his initial unbelief) and His merciful faithfulness (which was displayed in his willingness to deliver the Israelites, even though they had been disloyal).

Over-personalizing, or turning the main focus of the Bible onto oneself, without reflecting on how it enlightens us to Christ

EXAMPLE: Genesis 37–50 tells the story of Joseph, Israel’s favored son, who was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. Later on, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt, which enabled him to save his brothers when a famine struck the land. An individual employing an overly personalized interpretation might read this—looking for a life lesson—and conclude that this story discourages parental favoritism. This may be a valid message, but it misses the narrative’s real core. The story of Joseph serves as a grander picture of the redemption of sin and the coming Christ, who, like Joseph, endured suffering to accomplish God’s greater good (Genesis 50:20).

Connecting with other members of the family of Christ occurs when we meet to worship or participate in a small group. But it also happens when we delve into books, commentaries, videos, or art that was created by brothers and sisters of the Kingdom who have come before us. As we examine their reflections on the Bible, we enter into the text with them, exchanging thoughts across time.

Getting the (big) picture

It’s easy to get bogged down while reading the Bible, whether by the seemingly trivial details that some books record or by our own preoccupation with discovering how each passage relates to us. This makes understanding the meta-narrative, or the grand picture, of what Scripture teaches vital. The crux of the entire Bible rests upon God’s radical love for a broken and unworthy people. In sending His son, Christ, He revealed to all creation, all humanity, and all the spiritual order that He isn’t concerned about power, prestige, or perfection, but rather with love, compassion, grace, and humility. Each verse of His word should be read within this revelation.

Considering context

Rarely can we properly exegete even a single verse without taking into account its broader context. Context encompasses many facets, including history, culture, and literature. Some questions to keep in mind while reading include: How does this passage fit into the meta-narrative? What is happening in the verses surrounding it? In what literary genre is this verse written? (History, biography, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, epistles, and apocalyptic literature are all genres found in the Bible, and each requires its own interpretative approach.) What message was the author trying to convey, and how would the original audience have interpreted it? How does this passage point to or enlighten our understanding of Jesus?

Only after we consider these issues should we reflect on the transferable principles for today’s context.

Living in the Bible

The Bible comes alive when we live in it and it lives in us. This means that we must actively engage the text, which might require some creativity on our part. Exercises like reading out loud, writing notes in the margins, journaling, praying conversationally through a passage, meditating, and committing verses to memory are all tools we can use to pursue the text. This will make the Bible a place for us to “do life.”

Living out the Bible

The most important step of any Bible study occurs when we close it. The way we live reveals whether we have engaged in an academic exercise or a self-interested search for personal encouragement, or whether we’ve actually sought out lasting life change. Ultimately, life change is the most lasting way for us to remember anything. While we may consciously forget the data, our lives serve as a record for ourselves and for others of our strivings to live like Christ.

As history can attest, understanding the Bible is no easy task. Even when we put solid hermeneutical principles into practice, we are not guaranteed to “know in full.” But as we work out our partial understanding of Scripture here on earth, we can remain encouraged by God’s promise that His Spirit dwells within us and that one day we will “know fully, even as we are fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Adapted from “Truth or Consequences,” a sermon delivered by Bruxy Cavey at The Meeting House (Oakville, ON) on January 27, 2008.

1. See Luke 24:27
2. See John 5:38-40

This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of In Part magazine.
Bruxy Cavey

Bruxy Cavey is the teaching pastor at The Meeting House, a family of churches in the greater Toronto and Ottawa areas that share the same teaching. He is also the author of The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (NavPress, 2007). He lives in Hamilton, ON, with his wife, Nina, and three daughters—Chelsea, Chanelle, and Maya—as well as their dog, Toby.

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