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A Biblical Biblical Hermeneutic

November 26, 2012

Essential to reading the Bible is one’s Biblical hermeneutic – the way one reads the text. David and I have just been discussing a hermeneutical issue: the issue of whether the Bible is fully expressive of God’s truth or if it is accommodated to our limits. Obviously, I feel that saying that the Bible is fully expressive of God’s truth limits God to being the sort of being that can be fully expressed to humans. Saying that the Bible is God speaking to us the way a parent speaks to a young child is much safer. However, there is inevitably pushback against this. The pushback seems to always come from people who read the Bible “plain”. Unfortunately, this Biblical hermeneutic is not Biblical – while it focuses on the Bible, and often claims great authority for the Bible, it does not come from the Bible.

Let me expand upon this. The basic logic of a “plain” reading works like this:

A) We know the forms of writing that can convey truth.
B) The Bible is true.

Therefore: We know the forms of writing that the Bible can be.
This certainly solves a number of hermeneutical issues by greatly reducing the number of options. It also raises a number of difficulties. People reading this way frequently come across passages where it appears that this method of reading makes claims that are not true. In response the proponents of this method make another simple case: human Fallenness prevents us from understanding the truth properly. The Bible is right and we are wrong. Frequently, the responses I hear back about things like divine accommodation cite this idea. They accuse those who would break with plain reading of attempting to get out of the hard work of belief. (e.g., a commentator on David’s blog accused both David and myself of using the idea of divine accommodation as a way to promote evolution and gain the acclaim of our unnamed colleagues.) The Bible must be trusted more than human doctrines, these people say, and on that point I happen to agree with them.

Unfortunately, this argument sows the seeds of its own destruction. Specifically, the logic of plain reading starts by asserting that we know the truth – or at least we know the truth well enough that we know its proper forms. When this raises issues advocates of plain reading change their minds. We don’t know the truth, they say, and so we must trust the Bible.

Really, this is a claim that we mostly know the truth. We might not be sure about, say, ancient Near Eastern history (and yes, we do have significant gaps in our knowledge) but we can be sure that we understand the correct framework of God’s truth. Our details may be off but our methods and frameworks are correct. It’s a bit like claiming that one knows algebra but admitting to occasional addition errors – something that is perfectly plausible but which asserts that you really do know the material.

I would like to take the claim of our lack of knowledge much further. We do not know the correct forms of truth. We are so far divorced from direct knowledge of the truth in its fullness that we cannot assume that we have the proper framework or methods. We do not know algebra and our addition is as good as it is only because it is so easy for us to check. We are now left with:

A) We do not know how truth is best presented to us.
B) The Bible is true.

Therefore, we should read the Bible to learn about the correct forms for presenting truth and then read the Bible using those forms to learn the truth. This is a Biblical Biblical hermeneutic – using the actual form of the Bible to inform us about the correct nature of forms for the truth of the Bible.

The difficulty with this is that it’s a bit like solving an algebra problem with two variables. Solving something like 2x + 4 = 10 is easy. Solving 2x + y = 10 is impossible without another equation using the same x and y. There are a number of pairs of x’s and y’s that make the equation work. Similarly, if one is changing one’s method of reading as one reads there are a much larger number of possible readings. We are no longer left with a simple fact. Instead, we must decide which set of results and readings is best.

Honestly, this difficulty is, in my opinion, the main reason people dislike things like divine accommodation. The Bible is simple if you don’t have to think about reading it – not thinking always is simple. Making a lot of extra work just makes you unpopular. But what I want to emphasize is that we are discussing moving from a view in which humans have a very good grasp on everything but the details to one in which the Bible is allowed to correct the very way we think. This is clearly a more Bible-centered approach.

As counter-intuitive as it is reading the Bible “plain” is actually a form of disrespect to the Bible. It ignores what the Bible has to say about how it should be read. Instead, it imposes on the Bible our current (and therefore changing) notions of what an authoritative text looks like. I’ve recently been doing research that requires me to read some very old articles in scientific journals. Even in that form of writing, a form that didn’t exist until the scientific method took form and which is proscribed by a number of practical constraints, articles from a century ago are written in a very different manner than that of modern ones. To grab any current snapshot in time and say that our current forms of expression are the real ones that get at eternal truths is hubris. The Bible should be allowed to speak for itself, not just about the world but to speak for itself about itself.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2012 8:08 pm

    I don’t get why so many Christians are steadfstly blind to cultural, linguistic, and time-period influences on how we read and understand Scripture. In their collective minds, it’s their way or no way. Any suggestions to the contrary bring cries of blasphemy. It’s sad, really.

    • Eric permalink
      November 27, 2012 11:00 pm

      I really think that it just comes down to the fact that being aware of these influences is significantly more difficult than ignoring them.

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