Monday, August 25, 2008

Hermeneutics 101, Part 2

It was last December that I started a discussion of Biblical Hermeneutics. It was written to meet a perceived need in view of the popularism of "the dialectic method". And you can read that first post here. In that post, I began to list the general principles of hermeneutics.

Two months after that, I posted part one of this series on Biblical Hermeneutics. In it I discussed the first of the four basic principles, which discusses the need to take the Bible literally. And I mentioned that while we are literalists, that doesn't make us "wooden literalists". People use figures of speech in every day life. We all do, such as when we talk of the "sunrise". We know it's the earth revolving but we have used a figure of speech. When we say "the four corners of the Earth", we don't mean the earth is a flat square, we mean the compete Earth. My understanding of this expression is that it really refers to the four basic directions of the compass. And that would seem to be very likely.

But those who want to discount the authority of the Scriptures will pick verses such as these and say "See? If you take the Bible literally, you must believe in a flat Earth!". This is just a willful denial of what we know to be true; that we all use figures of speech. They did then, just as we do now. Years ago I would be in debate with them. I have since learned to use my time on more productive things.

So we take the Scriptures literally but we also allow for figures of speech, just as we do in our everyday conversations with others.

The next principle is the Historical principle. The historical principle means as we approach the text, we study to gain an understanding of what was going on when the text was written. This requires some effort but is no real burden. There are good tools out there for this purpose. It is just a matter of learning plain old history!

For example, you can't really understand why John wrote as he did in 1 John unless you understand that the believers he was writing to were infiltrated by a group known as the Gnostics. The gnostics believed a number of heretical things, such as the flesh was inherently evil and the spirit was good. Hence they denied that Christ was God in human flesh because that would mean that He would be corrupted.

Another example has to do with Jesus saying "I am the Light of the World". He said that while He was in the Court of the Women. There were candles there, which represented the presence of God. So, when Jesus stood there in plain view of those candles and said "I am the light of the world", people clearly understood His claim.

One final example may be in Romans 7 where Paul says "Who will free me from this body of death?". Paul was from Tarsus. And they had a unique way of dealing with murderers. What they would do is place the corpse face to face with the murderer and bind them together. As the corpse would rot, it would eat into the body of the murderer. It was slow death by contact with the rotting, stinking corpse. Now, Paul may not have had that in mind when he wrote what he did but it is a distinct possibility.

There are a number of tools, both from the secular world as well as the extra Biblical writings of Christianity. Some of the ones I have used include Tertullian, Josephus and Alfred Edersheim among others. The comments on Jesus' statement above is from Edersheim's work "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" and I recommend it to you although you'll have to do lots of reading to glean what's there. It's not light reading. Another book that I have used is "Daily Life in Ancient Rome" by Jerome Carcopino.

Of course it also helps to read about geography and archaeology. It clarifies and confirms.

I get so tired of hearing pastors who speak on a passage and make a point only to say "now, this is only my opinion and maybe you think differently and that's ok". While I understand that not everything can be tied down tightly, when this kind of statement becomes the norm, something is wrong. In light of the tools God has given us, it is a claim that either God has mumbled or has not equipped His people to understand the most important Book ever written; the Scriptures.

More later, hopefully not in another 6 months.

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