Posted in bible, hermeneutic, life verse, what this verse means to me

Rejecting "Life verses" and "What this verse means to me" because interpreting the Bible is not a Rorschach test

Hermeneutics. It’s not a word you hear often inside of churches. In our watered down state, preachers and pastors rarely use the “big words” any more. If they do, they’re abashed and even apologize for saying theological words like ‘justification’ or ‘inerrancy.’ However hermeneutics is a battleground in our continued spiritual warfare against the schemes of the devil. You have to know what it is.

From the Compact Dictionary Doctrinal Words by Terry L. Mithe, hermeneutics is

From the Greek hermeneutikos, “interpretation.” Hermeneutics is the science of the study and interpretation of Scripture, the branch of theology that prescribes rules by which the Bible should be interpreted. Biblical hermeneutics strives to formulate guidelines for studying scripture that help recover the meaning a biblical text had for its original hearers.

There are three essays and a quote regarding hermeneutics I came across yesterday which illuminate the practice of hermeneutics and also illustrates the problems today with casual interpretation and practices infiltrating the Christian life, such as “life verses” and “what this verse means to me”.

1. Erin Benziger at Do Not Be Surprised and her personal experience of being taught a verse that had a particular meaning to the teacher and the teacher only
2. John MacArthur explaining the fallacy of teaching ‘What does this verse mean “to me?”‘
3. Craig A. Parton comparing the similarity of the principles behind legal interpretations and biblical hermeneutics

The first is from Friday’s This N That posting by Erin Benziger at Do Not Be Surprised. She wrote,

I recently attended a simulcast event for a popular women’s ‘Bible teacher.’ Not long after I settled into my seat, a woman from the host church stood up to welcome us and to share with us her ‘life verse.’ The divine irony of this was that the most recent episode of Equipping Eve, in which I discussed the life verse craze, was airing that very same day. I couldn’t help but smile, but my amusement was short-lived as I heard this woman say, “Now, what this verse means to me is…”

I listened to this most recent episode of Equipping Eve regarding live verses (and labyrinths) and it’s a good episode.

Biblical interpretation is not a Rorschach test “What do you see in the inkblot?”

Benziger then went on to post-

So, what does John MacArthur say about the ‘what does this verse mean to you’ method of interpreting Scripture?

I read MacArthur’s essay, it’s good. I highly recommend it. Here is an excerpt:

What Does This Verse Mean “to Me”?
Titus 1:9, Romans 12:1-2 June 16, 2009

That’s a fashionable concern, judging from the trends in devotional booklets, home Bible study discussions, Sunday-school literature, and most popular preaching. The question of what Scripture means has taken a back seat to the issue of what it means “to me.” The difference may seem insignificant at first. Nevertheless, our obsession with the Scripture’s applicability reflects a fundamental weakness. We have adopted practicality as the ultimate judge of the worth of God’s Word.

In just one sentence, MacArthur punctures the practice. We cannot adopt a scripture because it has personal applicability to us and dispense with other verses because they don’t. MacArthur continues,

No believer can apply truth he doesn’t know. Those who don’t understand what the Bible really says about marriage, divorce, family, child-rearing, discipline, money, debt, work, service to Christ, eternal rewards, helping the poor, caring for widows, respecting government, and other teachings won’t be able to apply it. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about salvation cannot be saved. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about holiness are incapable of dealing with sin. Thus they are unable to live fully to their own blessedness and God’s glory. True doctrine transforms behavior as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. But it must be understood if it is to have its impact. The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately. Practical application comes easily by comparison.

Solid biblical hermeneutics searches for truth under the premise of “What did God intend for me to know about Himself in this passage?” versus today’s practice of me-centered interpretations asking “What does this verse mean to me?” The latter leads to a false kind of open-mindedness regarding interpretation. In theology at some point you need firmness, it’s imperative to obtain a settled authoritative stance on at least the fundamentals of the faith.

Dogmatic theology gets its name from the Greek and Latin word dogma which, when referring to theology, simply means “a doctrine or body of doctrines formally and authoritatively affirmed.”

Biblical hermeneutics appropriately conducted leads to an illumination of the scriptures which leads to a Spirit-settled understanding which leads to an authoritative witness with conviction. S. Lewis Johnson this in his sermon “Paul’s Right to Compensation.” In highlighting the importance of dogmatism he compared the ridiculousness of open-minded non-dogmatism in the secular world:

Now, I’ve been talking like I’m dogmatic, haven’t I? I’ve been trying to inject a little bit of the apostolic dogmatism in it. The world has little use for people without convictions when — for example, when your child becomes very, very sick and you want to call a doctor, you don’t call a doctor who is open-minded about personal disease, do you? Or we don’t send our children to school if we know the teachers are open-minded about the multiplication tables and things like that. We don’t do that. We want someone that we have confidence in…

The third piece I stumbled across was an excellent discussion of the science of the interpretation of Law, by Craig A. Parton from Patrick Henry College. It seems to have been written about ten years ago, on the heels of an important Supreme Court decision. It’s titled,

Remember, hermeneutics is the science of the study and interpretation of Scripture, the branch of theology that prescribes rules by which the Bible should be interpreted. There are prescribed rules for interpreting Law, as well. Why are we content with leaving the interpretation of medical issues and legal issues to the doctors and lawyers, intuitively understanding that their years of training and education allow them this right, yet when it comes to the Word of God, it’s a free-for-all? Mr Parton wrote in his introduction,

[T]he issue that defined the end of last century and defines our current day is one that few Christians could have ever seen coming. It was, simply, the question of hermeneutics or interpretation. As powerful efforts were made by historical, legal and literary apologists (e.g. the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, and Montgomery) to establish the facticity of Christian revelation and its utter and complete trustworthiness, the enemy was forced to shift the field of battle. Instead of launching frontal assaults on the sufficiency of the evidence for the case for Christianity (a difficult chore indeed in light of the evidence for the resurrection alone and its fundamental legal and evidential adequacy), the questions surrounding interpretation sought to make the inquiry futile–or worse, just another viewpoint in the marketplace of relativistic worldviews…

Scalia has taken an approach to the interpretation of the Constitution that is directly in line with the traditional “historical grammatical”school of creedal Christianity, a method engaged in by serious Biblical interpreters for centuries prior to the Age of the Enlightenment.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from how Justice Scalia has articulated his position and how it has stood up to the postmodernist arguments of the likes of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and Professor Lawrence Tribe of the Harvard Law School. Scalia’s approach is a powerful apologetical anecdote to postmodernism and its oft-used and abused mantra that “even if the New Testament text is reliable, ultimately it all comes down to a matter of interpretation and interpretation is a subjective undertaking.”

Not so, says Scalia. Not so, says the orthodox Christian interpreter.

OK, that was an interesting introduction, excerpted as it was. There is a science of interpretation that adheres to rules and has rigor, which is increasingly being set aside for open-minded views which only serve to confuse the Christian. In his article, Mr Parton outlined the legal approach with the Christian approach, quoting Justice Scalia in three main points,

1. The actual words control every interpretation of a text and no interpretation should suffer to contradict the natural and plain sense of the text.

In this case, I’ll offer you the example of a plain and simple verse that should be easily interpreted: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). Yet people dispute the interpretation of wages, redefine sin, and claim death is annihilation, not eternal conscious torment. They also redefine and dispute eternal (as in eternal punishment), wrath, and refute plain texts such as “women may not teach men in the church” and “homosexuality is sin”(no, it’s lack of hospitality is sin…”. Yet the plain meaning is clear. Next,

2. The meaning of a text should never be created from external sources (nor, we might add, from the pressure of current events or evolving public opinion) and then imposed on a text to render a meaning contrary to the clear language.
For Justice Scalia, when a text is clear on its face, that ends the matter. To then plumb the depths of secondary sources to impose a meaning contrary to the clear text would be to engage in pure divinization. Lord Bacon summed it up nicely: Non est interpretatio, sed divinatio, quae recedit a litera (“Interpretation that departs from the letter of the text is not interpretation but divination.”)

When we say “what this verse means to me,” particularly about a clear, plain textual meaning of a verse, it is an interpretation coming from external sources: outside of the word of God. The third principle Parton outlines in his comparison of biblical interpretation and legal interpretation is

3. There is one best interpretation of a passage.

Traditional Biblical interpretation stresses the “sensus literalis unus est”–the one proper and intended sense of the text. This is determined from the words of the document itself. The law supports this approach unreservedly, and the rules of evidence in California set this forth in a number of specific principles of contract–or document–construction.

Does a pastor ascend the pulpit on a Sunday morning after a week of study, and say, “Open to John chapter 3, here is what the verse means to me. It may mean something different to you.” No. Not a good pastor anyway.

Via the Iranian Atheist agnostic movement.
“What this verse means to me” is only a step away
from how we view scripture as per this atheist flowchart.

In contrasting the “this verse means to me” approach with the biblical approach, we now turn to Acts 8:26:40. The Spirit directed Philip the evangelist to go up to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was seated in his chariot reading scripture, Isaiah 53 as it turns out. How did Philip begin the teaching lesson? Did He say, “Oh, I see you are reading scripture. What does the verse ‘“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth’ mean to you?”

Of course not. We read in Acts 8:30-31 that Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This indicates there is one understanding, not many understandings dependent on personal applicability, whether the reader likes it, or how it fits into their culture or era.

In humility, the Eunuch said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” indicating that interpreting a verse is not about a mutual exchange of different interpretations relative to an individual’s personal meaning, but a teacher-student relationship wherein one submits to the other’s greater knowledge and listens. (Always check for proper interpretations as a Berean afterward as per Acts 17:11). What happened next was,

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:35)

Philip told him. Dogmatically, authoritatively. That’s what a teacher does, he studies, submits himself to the Spirit and seeks the interpretation. Then he tells the Good News. Do we say “I will share the Good News. It’s Good News to Me. Maybe it won’t be to you.” Heavens, no!

Parton ends his essay about interpreting the Law and the Bible,

Second, lawyers deal with facts and evidence. As importantly, they deal with verdicts, some of which literally involve life and death for the parties. The law therefore has a distinct advantage over speculative postmodern literary criticism which remains insulated in comfortable academia, often totally isolated from the a world where postmodern approaches are totally and thoroughly unworkable.[13] In the final analysis, a Court hearing a case of contractual interpretation will decide that one party–and one party only–has the correct interpretation of a document. Any judge presiding over a case of contract interpretation who concludes that “everybody is entitled to their own interpretation” and that “all interpretations are equal” would be given time off to pursue other more productive occupations…

If a Judge is duty bound to search the documentation until he can offer a delivery of the ONE interpretation, how much more so should we do this in the scriptures?!

This is not to say that we aren’t humble. Philip was humble when he submitted to the Spirit’s order to go where he didn’t know and approach the person he didn’t know and explain the scriptures to him. The Eunuch was also humble in his reply.

The difference between errant dogmatism and correct dogmatism in hermeneutical interpretation is the Holy Spirit. He will settle you, if you earnestly seek the Lord and submit to His teaching. Once a passage or doctrine is settled in your mind due to the Spirit’s illumination, then is the time to explain, exhort, and defend.

This has been a lengthy explanation of why we should not say “here’s what the verse means to me.” It means what it means, and if you don’t know, study more and be quiet until you do. You’re not displaying sincere humility when you approach scripture by saying, “well I’m not sure, but what it means to me is…” you’re actually prideful, because you’re ignorant but speaking up anyway. ‘What the verse means to me’ only confounds, confuses and doesn’t help someone arrive at the crystal clear beauty of what Jesus is saying and who He is. Matthew Henry explains Peter’s verse in 2 Peter 1:20, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation“. Peter is talking about the origin of scripture and man’s responsibility to interpret it.

Observe, No scripture prophecy is of private interpretation (or a man’s own proper opinion, an explication of his own mind), but the revelation of the mind of God. … But though the scripture be not the effusion of man’s own private opinion or inclination, but the revelation of the mind and will of God, yet every private man ought to search it, and come to understand the sense and meaning thereof.

Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2436). Peabody: Hendrickson.

We don’t need a life verse to see His beauty from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, from the opening “In the beginning” to the last “Amen”. Life verses only diminish the majesty of the total picture. “What this verse means to me” is making yourself the idol instead of searching for what God intended for us to know.

Posted in bible, hermeneutic, interpetation

The Spirit’s illumination and how the Sadducees missed the boat

We know that it is possible to interpret the bible too liberally. We run into that all the time. People put their own spin on things, twist the scriptures, even add tradition or direct revelation to the sacred word. What comes out the other end is a different Jesus and a different Gospel.

But is it possible to interpret the bible too narrowly? To interpret it so strictly or literally that many general concepts are missed, and you wind up with a different gospel just the same as interpreting too liberally? Yes.

One example of a group that exhibited that kind of hermeneutic are the Sadducees.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were one of the major Jewish religious groups in Israel from the Maccabean period (167 BC) through the destruction of the temple (AD 70). While we do not have any of their writings, the information we do have paints a picture of a rather small group of individuals and families who maintained a strong influence on the leadership of the Jewish people under Roman rule. They were popular with the aristocracy and the wealthy, but they did not enjoy the support of most of the people.

The term Sadducees is likely derived from Zadok, the high priest at the time of David (1 Sam 8:17; 15:24) and Solomon (1 Kgs 1:34; 1 Chr 12:29). The sons of Zadok controlled the Jerusalem temple and high priesthood from the rebuilding of the temple (520–525 BC) through its desecration by Antiochus IV (AD 175–164). In the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans emerged as occupiers of the priesthood. Many descendants of Zadok and other priestly and lay followers believed the appointment of the Hasmoneans was illegitimate and sought to reestablish the dynasty of Zadok from the Davidic age. This opposition party likely grew to become the group called the Sadducees.

The NT mentions the Sadducees several times. In the Synoptic Gospels, they are often paired with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Matt 16:1) and in receiving Jesus’ condemnation (Mark 3:7; 16:6–12). They are specifically identified as those who challenged Jesus about His teaching on the resurrection and the afterlife (Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40). The book of Acts also mentions the Sadducees as members of the Jewish ruling class who were challenging the preaching of the apostles—particularly their teaching on the resurrection (Acts 4:1; 5:17). Acts 23:6–8 recounts an argument between the Pharisees and Sadducees over their views of the resurrection. Luke specifically tells his readers that, “the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” There is no definitive explanation for their disbelief other than their strict adherence to the clear teaching of the Pentateuch alone. Jewish teaching regarding the resurrection, afterlife, and rewards was largely developed during the years following the postexilic prophets.

References to the Sadducees in Josephus and the rabbinic literature portray them in constant conflict with the Pharisees. However, both of these sources were closely aligned with the Pharisees themselves. Although the Sadducees are generally seen as the stricter of the parties, in some instances they were more lenient for the Jewish people when the Pharisaic teachings were seen as extrabiblical and therefore nonbinding. They saw themselves as the “old guard,” who sought to maintain the ancient Jewish traditions and teachings that originated with the Pentateuch and defend them in the face of what they viewed as dangerous innovations introduced by the Pharisees.

There are no references to the Sadducees following the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Perhaps most of them fell during the attack. Since the temple and worship laws associated with it were central to their existence, it is not hard to imagine them being willing to die for their cause. If they did survive, their influence was completely lost after the temple’s destruction. We simply have no record of their demise.

(Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

The Sadducees thought they knew truth. The Pharisees thought they knew truth. Saul certainly thought so, and then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and the newly converted Paul was taught otherwise. So it it ever possible to know that you know the truth? Yes.

Picture the moment when your bicycle training wheels came off, and you were wobbling all over the road as you tried to stay upright. You on your bike swayed toward the left hand sidewalk, then curved dramatically to the right, and wobbled and wiggled all the way down the road.

However you don’t always wobble and wiggle all over the road. As your legs got stronger your bike stayed more upright and your path became straighter. Eventually you were flying down the road on the centerline. “Look, Ma! No hands!”

The Spirit’s work in our minds as He biblically illuminates truth is just like the kid on the bike. We are on a narrow road. We are on a bike. We wobble here to the left and then wiggle to the right, our handlebars making dramatic swoops and sways. But…we stay ON the road, not going off because we’re saved after all, and not swaying too far to the left like the Sadducees nor too far to the right like the Pharisees, because we are on a road that is narrow. And second, and we quickly gain traction and skill, and we soon are submitting to the Spirit’s illuminations and staying doctrinally centered. We won’t be interpreting the bible too narrowly nor will we be interpreting it too liberally. It will be juuuust right.

S. Lewis Johnson on the doctrine of “Illumination- or Truth Made Clear“, 1 Cor 2:6 to 1 Cor 3:4

Now, tonight we are studying Illumination, and that is the work of the spirit in granting understanding to us as we study the inspired revelation, so that illumination has to do with understanding the Bible. In fact, this is the secret to the understanding of the word of God. P. T. Forsyth was a man who was a very famous theologian in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and he once made a statement that we can use as a kind of motto for our study tonight. He said, “The truth that we see depends upon the men that we are.” “The truth that we see depends upon the men that we are.” And I think that we’re going to see that that is taught by the Apostle Paul in the passage to which we shall look in just a moment. To put it in a popular way, the divine side of the understanding of the Bible is illumination. From the human standpoint, looking at it from the standpoint of human effort, we speak of interpretation. So, interpretation is the human effort expended in the understanding of the Bible. Illumination is the divine activity by which the Holy Spirit enables us to understand.

the apostle says the five senses are insufficient in divine truth. He said, “As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” So, divine truth is not attained to by means of the senses. It is something that is revealed in another way. Now, the second thing that he says is that it is known and revealed by the spirit.

“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit who is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.” Therefore, what Paul is affirming is that it is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to understand divine truth. I think Phillips has rendered this something like this, “But God has through the spirit let us share his secret.” So illumination then is the means by which we come to understand things that we could not possibly understand about divine truth.

Please go to the link to listen to or read the transcript of this very good sermon on how the Spirit makes truth clear to us.

But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:9-13)

Freely given. Freely! We can understand the things of God, by His Spirit, because He knows the mind of God. And it’s free. The gracious gifts from our Savior are plentiful and manifold.