Home Repair and Hermeneutics

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It will be no surprise to students of church history that God has often used theological challenges, even attacks on biblical truth, from both inside and outside the church, to spur epochal advances in Christians' understanding and explanation of the teaching of Scripture. The doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, and Scripture have all crystallized into creedal form after undergoing the crucible of theological debate.

I am not one to make grand pronouncements about the premier battleground of our day ... but if I were such a one, I would surely include among the top contenders the area of biblical interpretation. This is a complicated field of study, but one vital to the lives of pastors and pew-sitters alike. Part of what makes it unnecessarily complicated, though, is that those within the church sometimes pick up tools for interpreting the Bible without giving them a thorough inspection or asking whether they are the right tools to apply to Scripture. After all, just because it has a binding and printed pages doesn't mean the Bible should be treated like any other book.

This morning I picked up a hammer (and a wooden block, and a screwdriver, and a towel) to try to pry open a window that had been painted shut. The wretched sound, flying paint chips, and the look on my wife's face were just enough to hand the cemented window an early victory. Sometimes well-meaning theologians and pastors will use a grid, a method, an approach, perhaps more than one at the same time, even unwittingly, and start hammering away at the meaning of a passage of Scripture, only to find that the results conflict with what Scripture is (i.e., the God-breathed revelatory record of God's saving words/deeds in history) and what it demands (i.e., the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of the crucified and raised Messsiah; cf. Rom 1:5).

One approach for interpreting Scripture that I believe will not get the proverbial window to open is the popular attempt to steer a middle course between absolutism and relativism when it comes to making claims about a text's meaning. The approach goes like this:

I know absolute truth exists, but I think it's unwise to make absolutist truth claims part of my evangelistic and preaching strategy. Not only does it fail to resonate with today's (more relational and less dogmatic) listeners, it's uncritical. Make no mistake: I'm not a relativist; I know there is a fixed meaning in the biblical text to be found. But I am also sophisticated enough to know that I bring personal baggage to the table that keeps me from seeing things in the text clearly. I realize that I am a fallible, situated, and finite observer of Scripture, and yet, with enough careful thinking, and with enough voices to correct me, I also believe that I can spiral towards the truth, making humble claims along the way about what I think the Bible means. If pushed, though, of course I'd have to admit that, in principle, all of my words about Scripture's content are provisional, open to correction and certainly not the final word.

I can sympathize with this approach. This tool looks likes like it will get the window open and let in the cool breeze without being harsh on the ears or my breaking a sweat. It will certainly get me a satisfied look and maybe a second listen from a skeptical inquirer of the Christian faith. But here's the real question: Does it blow the strong wind of the Spirit on the congregation that will effect real change or just send paint chips flying? 

Stay tuned...

Posted August 24, 2011 @ 2:01 PM by Carlton Wynne
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