Tag: hermeneutics


Review: Biblical Hermeneutics (Five Views)

bib-herm-five-viewsBiblical Hermeneutics: Five Views
Stanley Porter, Beth Stovell


How should we read the Scriptures? Should we try to figure out what the author meant, assuming God is the ultimate author (and hence the human author’s words should be taken at something less than full value), she we try to understand the application of these words to our lives (without worrying so much about what they “mean”), or… ?? Is there an overarching narrative binding the Scriptures together? If so, what is that narrative? All of these questions – and more – fall within the realm of hermeneutics, or the study of the way we read and apply a text. Many of the modern theological controversies devolve to hermeneutical questions, or end up being expressed in the language of hermeneutics. Hence, hermeneutics is one of those things the average Christian should read on, and try to understand, at least.

But where to start?

There are few better places to start than with a four or five views book, such as Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views. When dealing with an overview of this type, there are several important points to consider. Is every essay in the book understandable, or easy enough to read that the average person can “get it?” Are the topics covered fully and fairly? Is there enough focus to explain and illustrate without overwhelming? Is there a good set of “contra” essays, providing balance?

This book does a good job in each of these areas. The five views represented cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical ground, from more literal readings to generally post-modern readings. The assignment each essay author is given is two-fold: explain the view, and then provide an example using Matthew 2:7-15. This narrowness of scope does a fairly good job of focusing each essay along a common set of themes that allow the reader to make a reasoned comparison of the different views presented. Some of the contributors do launch into esoteric or technical language, but it’s difficult to find any solid discussion of hermeneutics that doesn’t, so this is something the reader is just going to have to bear with if they want to gain any traction in this space.

If there are any weaknesses to this collection, it is in two areas. The first is the lack of real sparring. While no-one really likes to argue, sometimes a more pointed exchange can bring out a greater depth of understanding in the area being discussed. There are few pointed discussions here. The second is the deliberate choice of mostly “middle of the road” examples of each view. While this does help promote understanding by furnishing the reader with a core of ideas from which to work, it also flattens the discussion a bit, making all the views seem much more similar than they truly are.

The five views covered here are the Historical-Grammatical view by Blomberg, The Literary/Postmodern view by Spencer, the Philosophical/Theological view by Westphal, the Redemptive-Historical view by Gaffin, and the Canonical view by Wall. The three that will be of interest to most readers is the Historical-Critical, the Postmodern, and the Redemptive-Historical – these three views actually relate to Dispensational, emergent/postmodern, and Covenant theology, which are the three broad movements within the Evangelical Christian church today.

Overall, if you’re looking for a foundational book in the area of hermeneutics, to gain some understanding of what the field is all about, and what the different views are, there are few better places to start than with this collection of essays.


Review: Him We Proclaim

him-we-proclaimHim We Proclaim
Dennis E. Johnson


How should the modern pastor or teacher take the Old Testament (the Tanakh), a series of books written thousands of years ago, and relate it to life in the modern world? This is a question of some urgency in the modern world, a question embedded in the larger question of how the Church can be (or become, in the thinking of many pastors), relevant to the world in which we actually live.

The theme Dennis E. Johnson takes in Him We Proclaim is this is not a unique problem — the Church has been here before, and has solved this problem before. In finding relevance in today’s world, the Church should look back to the Apostles, and the way they made the Scriptures they had available, the Tanakh, relevant to the situation they found themselves in. Framed in this way, the problem moves into more familiar territory: how do the writers of the New Testament, the Apostles, use the Tanakh?

The author begins this book by noting that the answer to this question is primarily theological; that the Scriptures are one unified set of books telling one unified story. Discovering this single story will allow modern preachers and teachers to make the entire Bible relevant to our modern culture. The key to discovering this single unifying story is, for Johnson, understanding how the Apostles used the Tanakh. To lay this foundation, Johnson works through the priorities of preaching, and then examines Paul’s Preaching, to reach an understanding of what he calls Apostolistic Christ Centered Preaching. He then examines objections to this type of preaching, including the objections of those who read the Scriptures more literally, and those who read the Scriptures more allegorically.

In the second part of the book, the author works through a “practical guide for the modern preacher,” ending in an appendix providing a step by step instruction set for putting this method of preaching into practice. Here the author provides three main themes, Preaching Christ, Preaching the Promises, and Preaching the Promise Keeper.

Johnson’s work has some foundational problems, however. He begins with the assumption that the Church Fathers, those leaders who followed the Apostles, kept the path of “Apostilistic Preaching,” alive, but that this style of preaching was overcome by the belief that the Church replaces Israel on the one side, and the reaction of literal reading on the other side. The reality is far different — the two groups that didn’t want to read the Scriptures literally immediately after the Apostles left the scene were the Church and Jewish leadership. In the one case, to gain social status for the Church, in the other, to prove the Church was wrong.

A second problem he faces, or never resolves, is what the relationship between “preaching Christ,” and “preaching salvation,” really is. The author insists that Christ centered preaching is the answer to the problem, but constantly lapses into salvation and personal holiness as the narrative through which Christ is preached. For instance:

“Whether the focus is on personal holiness, corporate responsibility within the church, or cultural engagement, the objective of “preaching to edify” is to engage Christians in the intentional pursuit of transformation in both behavior and relationships.” Kindle Location 709

The reader is never told why preaching Christ should center on improving the moral condition of man, rather than on actually preaching Christ. The author seems to leave out the steps of a changed mind and a changed heart; it is through better thinking that Christians can learn to make better decisions, rising to become the witness of the world God intended. Better thinking requires a focus on Christ, rather than on the story of salvation or personal piety. Johnson often lapses into “salvation as the central theme,” as well, mixing his themes in various places.

These issues swamp the usefulness of this work. The author, in an attempt to find a “middle way,” between the literal hermeneutic of the conservative, and the allegorical hermeneutic of the liberal, finds a mixed bag of possibilities, finally resulting in resorting to the allegorical hermeneutic of the liberal with the caveat of “pay attention to the original context.” No matter how strongly the reader believes they must pay attention to the original context, the reader who takes this line will always fall into comparing the weight of the original context against the weight of making the Scriptures “relevant,” and will virtually always find relevance to have more heft than the dictum.

Overall, well written and well thought out. The argument is structured nicely, and the practical application is a welcome addition to books that fundamentally resolve to hermeneutical issues. The author’s assumptions aren’t well explained, and drive the final point into the very place the author is trying to avoid, however.


Review: The Midrash Key

The Midrash Key
Edward J. Vasicek


Our modern worldview is so alien from the worldview of a religious Jew in the first century that it’s often difficult for us to read the Gospel accounts of the Life of Christ and even make a beginning of penetrating what they are saying. In The Midrash Key, Vasicek argues that the key to understanding these Gospel accounts, the words of Christ, is through the Midrash, which is not only a written commentary, but also a method of teaching and understanding.

The author begins this work by explaining the Midrash, and the cultural ideas and concepts behind the Midrash. He brings some very useful information to the table in this background, including that Galilean Jews were well known for their practical, down-to-earth religious faith, and that it was quite common for Jews of the first century to leave their homes and occupations for a while to follow a specific teacher. Part of this ritual, he insists, is in the memorization of the Midrash, or the sayings, of the teacher the Jew has decided to follow.

This concept of memorization, in the author’s explanation, provides us with a good understanding of how we got the writings of the Apostles. In their culture, memorization of sayings was the key to understanding, not writing things down and studying them; the followers of Christ would have seen things no differently. Hence, there is no need for some “Q document,” each follower of Christ would have relied on their own memory, along with other written accounts, and the memories of those they knew, to build a Gospel. While Matthew came first, in other words, Luke didn’t wholly rely on Matthew. They didn’t have modern reference systems, nor modern quote systems, and hence the concept of a “primary document,” from which other documents were built would have been foreign to them.

Beyond the origin of the Gospels, this view of the way discipleship worked in the first century also explains the form of the Gospels. In Vasicek’s view, Jesus would have moved from location to location, preaching from a somewhat narrow set of themes, using the same parables over and over again. His disciples would have memorized parts of these two and three hour sermons, rather than the entire sermon in each case; the Gospels are essentially the pieces the disciples memorized as being the most important, or the foundational pieces.

The author also does a good job of dealing with issues of salvation, and with the humanness of Christ. While he doesn’t dive deeply into these topics, what he does say is a breath of fresh air in a world that seems to have lost focus on what the Incarnation was for.

Where I must depart company with the author, however, is in his view of the Midrasihic quality of the teaching of Christ as a set of fences around the Mosaic Law. The purpose behind treating the teachings of Christ in this way is to preserve the Mosaic Law for modern believers, to get to the point where fulfillment is seen as explaining, rather than fulfilling. In the service of this cause, Vasicek claims Jesus was building fences around the Law when he preached the Sermon on the Mount, for instance —going beyond the Law in order to prevent the ordinary person from unintentionally breaking the law.

This view, that Christ, the Son of God, very God Himself, would go beyond the Law in order to “protect the people from the Law,” is simply nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. In fact, there is a good case to be made that these “fences,” are just as much the cause of man’s fall as anything else —Eve built a fence around the Law, and Satan used that fence to convince her to eat. While the author does try to make the case that these fences are supposed to be secondary, this is very dangerous territory. That he goes in this direction simply to support the modern application of the Mosaic Law is a case of chopping off your nose to spite your face.

Overall, this is well worth reading. Just remember to spit out the watermelon seeds of “fences,” and all that implies, along the way.


Word Play

At first, “to discriminate” meant to choose between one of several options. More specifically, it meant to wisely choose between more than one option.

Then it came to mean to choose not to like someone else because of the color of their skin, because discrimination often meant to avoid those who were in a “lower class,” and the “higher class” was generally of one skin color.

Then it came to mean to choose not to like someone else because of their religious beliefs, or lifestyle choices, because these are often associated with culture, and culture is often associated with the color of your skin.

Then it came to mean to choose not to like someone else, just in general, because almost all dislike is based on race, religion, or culture. At least that’s the theory, whether or not it’s true.

Now to be racist, to discriminate, simply means not to be a liberal. Because we all know that liberals like everyone, and conservatives are always racist, and always discriminate against people based on their race, religion, or something else. Don’t we?

The proof is in the cartoon just above —it’s perfectly fine to fire someone because they don’t believe in evolution. It’s fine to not hire someone because they believe in Creation as described in the Scriptures. It’s okay not to hire someone because they’re conservative. It’s okay for people of one skin color to hate people of another skin color, so long as the skin colors in question are right –but change the skin colors around, and it’s not okay.

So the word “discrimination” has moved from meaning something good, to something bad (even morally wrong), to something political.

The mantra of the left is words mean just what I want them to mean, and nothing else. So long as you can control the terms of the conversation, and the definitions used in the conversation, you can control the outcome. But of course that’s the point, isn’t it? Controlling the language has always been an essential element in deception and control, starting right there in Genesis 3.

You will not surely die.


Review: A History of Interpretation

A History of Interpretation
Fredrick William Farrar

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If you’re trying to really get a grasp on the failures of hermeneutics throughout the ages of the Christian Church, and you want specific examples of each error, this is an excellent resource. Dr. Farrar actually delivered this book as a series of lectures at the University of Oxford in 1885. The book stops, obviously, at the “modern” age of the late 1800’s, but is exhaustive in its review of almost every major theologian and Biblical interpreter up to that time.

The key, when looking through this book, is to remember it is meant to be a negative tome. The point isn’t to describe interpretation and hermeneutics in general, but rather to bring out specific failures in each time period covered. Some, of course, are given a stronger dose of approbation than others —but this is as the reader might expect.

The author begins his task with an overview of the meaning and task of interpretation and exegesis. Today we would call this topic hermeneutics. He lays out the necessity of interpretation and the seven main periods of interpretation up to the late 1890’s. In the following chapter, he lays out various systems of rules that have been created to guide the interpretive process, shredding each set as he sets them out.

This rule of “equivalence” has always been prevalent in scholastic systems. It means the isolation of phrases, the misapplication of parallel passages, the false emphasising of accidental words, the total neglect of the context, “the ever-widening spiral ergo from the narrow aperture of single texts.” It is just as prominent, and quite as mischievous, in Hilary and Augustine, in Albert and Aquinas, in Gerhard and Calovius, as in Hillel or Ishmael. Hillel was personally a noble Rabbi; yet by his seven rules he became the founder of Talmudism, with all its pettiness, its perversion of the letter of the Scripture which it professed to worship, and its ignorance of the spirit, of which no breath seemed to breathe over its valley of dry bones. -Page 21

From this point he provides several examples of what he considers false exegesis centered around the first several verses of Genesis 1 —while the author’s discussion around these verses is good, he supports those who find long ages of time in the text.

The next chapter is actually more useful; Dr. Farrar works through the history of Rabbinic exegesis, going back to the days of Ezra the Scribe. For those who haven’t considered this historical precedent, and the impact these scribes had on Christian thinking and hermeneutics, this section is worth looking through. From here, the author works through Alexandrian thinking, the Church Fathers (the Patristics), the Scholastics (Aquinas is covered here, for instance), the Reformers (Calvin is in this lecture), the Post Reformation thinkers, and finally modern interpreters.

Dr. Farrar defends a rather more loose view of inspiration than many modern scholars in the conservative world might be comfortable with. He is good at pointing out the excesses of wooden literalism, and the inevitable result of allegorizing the text, such as in this passage:

One of these, and the source of all the rest, was a vague, superstitious, unproved, and purely traditional conception of inspiration. It was confused with verbal dictation, and the Bible was turned into an amulet or fetish with which the hierarchy, which arrogantly usurped the name of “the Church,” could do as they liked. -Page 283

But he sometimes drives over the other side of the mountain in his quest, seeming to advocate a rather spiritualist and imprecise view of God’s providence in forming the Scriptures.

The book itself is somewhat difficult to read; examples tend to pile up mercilessly. This might be because it was originally delivered as a lecture, but it also relates to the time in which the author wrote.

Recommended as a resource, and particularly for the overall view of each time period, especially the Rabbinical scribes. On the other hand, this probably isn’t a book you want to sit and read cover to cover (or bit to bit, as the case might be).


Paper: Reading Romans 9

I just finished this paper for the hermeneutics class I’m taking at STS. If you’re at all interested in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, and how it relates to Dispensational thought, this paper will probably be of interest —whether or not you agree with my conclusion.


Review: How to Write A Sentence

nullHow to Write a Sentence
Stanley Fish

Sometimes hermeneutics sneaks up on you when you least expect it. I originally picked this book up just to learn better writing, and I wound up in an unexpected world of hermeneutics. Why sentences? Is it the thought or the form that counts? What is a sentence? Each of these questions is lovingly and carefully considered by an author who clearly loves sentences simply for their own art.

It is true that you can’t get from form to content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge. When it comes to formulating a proposition, form comes first; forms are generative not of specific meanings, but of the very possibility of meaning. Despite the familiar proverb, it’s not the thought that counts. Form, form, form, and only form is the road to what the classical theorists called “invention,” the art of coming up with something to say. -Page 27

The focus of this book is sentences, of course. Examples provide a road map for understanding three types and two locations of sentences, the simple styles of discourse that fill books and minds with great thoughts. There are practical tips along the way, exercises to engage the reader. My only wish is the author would have gathered the exercises into one place.

A lovingly written book on the art of written language with hermeneutics bound into its core —what more could you ask for?

Note: The author of this book is a fairly well known proponent of reader-response, which removes authorial intent from texts, with all the implications that has for the Scriptures. While the book is solid, readers should remember this when considering other books by Stanley Fish.


Review: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

Dr. William W. Klein
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg
Dr. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.

All theological disputes begin, and end, in hermeneutics. This might seem to be a truism, or a trite factoid devoid of content in the modern world, and yet it remains true —and relevant— in our Christian lives. In light of this, some good solid reading in the interpretation of the Scriptures is useful.

This book, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, is organized into four parts, each one covering a different aspect of interpretation. The first part discusses the importance of Biblical interpretation —the need for a good hermeneutic. Here the reader will find a chapter on the importance of exposing and understanding the hermeneutic you use when reading the Scriptures, some history of Biblical interpretation, and a discussion on the canon of Scripture. The history of interpretation is of particular interest; this is a topic not often addressed in Christian history or hermeneutics. The interplay between hermeneutic principles and the form of government churches take on, for instance, is fascinating.

The second section moves into the goals of interpretation. The first chapter in this section discusses the interpreter himself; what are the qualifications necessary to the task of interpretation? What presuppositions should an interpreter bring to the task of drawing meaning from the Biblical text? The third section discusses the two primary types of text in the Tanach, Prose and Poetry. A chapter is dedicated to each type. The fourth focuses on literary types within the Old and New Testaments.

The fifth section contains two chapters, one chapter on the output of interpretation, including gaining information and understanding, formulating theology, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and other defined results, and one chapter on drawing applications for the Christian life based on the interpretive effort.

The argument underlying this entire book is that hermeneutics is interpretation.

In essence, then, hermeneutics involves interpreting or explaining. In fields like biblical studies or literature, it refers to the task of explaining the meaning of a piece of writing. Hermeneutics describes the principles people use to understand what something means, to comprehend what a message—written, oral, or visual—is endeavoring to communicate.

And that if we are read and understand aright, we must interpret the text through a solid and well thought out hermeneutic. The authors spend a good deal of time breaking the interpretive process apart into varying dimensions, and examining each set in some detail. For instance, the authors break communication down into three meanings to be understood when interpreting: what the author intended, what the reader read, and what the text actually says (as an abstract concept). This neatly captures the three different methods of understanding texts today —author centered, reader centered, and text centered. They break the meanings of words into denotative and connotative meanings, and the process of interpretation into two crucial dimensions; the meaning as it would have been understood by the original readers, and the meaning as it is understood within our own cultural context. All of these breakdowns are useful, but it is difficult to see where they all tie back together into a single “thing” called interpretation —there isn’t a section that clearly links them together into a complete “system,” of interpretation.

The most helpful parts of the book are the discussion on tracing the flow of thought through a Scripture, and the section on Hebrew poetry. The authors do a very good job of bringing light and understanding to placing emphasis on the discourse within a text, and they do a good job of explaining the various types of parallelism in Hebrew poetry.

The least helpful parts of the book are the sections on theology; the authors are clearly progressive dispensationalists, and aren’t afraid to let their theological grid influence their reading of the text. Their take on the Revelation is that it really can’t be understood, so it’s best just to get what you can out of it (in terms of theological content), while only trying to gain a “high level” view of the prophecies. They insist that everything within the Revelation be interpreted as a symbol because the book is apocalyptic literature.

But it is amazing how often those same readers do not recognize that they should interpret the other images in the book as equally symbolic. Instead, many insist that references to a temple (e.g., 11:1 ) must refer to a literal, rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, that the battle of Armageddon (Hebrew for Mt. Megiddo, 16:16) must occur at that specific geographical site in northern Israel, or that the mark of the beast (13:16-17) has to be some actual visible sign that distinguishes unbelievers from believers.

If the writer cannot indicate what is symbolic and what is not within the context, and the reader cannot discern these things, then all Biblical interpretation is hopeless.

The authors make a number of other mistakes of this magnitude and order, insisting that we not read “the world is round,” as an indication that the Biblical authors believed the world was not flat —simply because we all know everyone who lived before the modern scientific age truly believed the world was flat. It’s important to understand the Biblical writing within the culture that produced it, but it’s also important to allow the Biblical writings to inform us about that culture. Assuming scientific ignorance on an ancient culture is no better than assuming scientific genius.

Overall, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation is worth reading for the stronger parts. Theology tends to intrude more than I would have liked, but —on the other hand— I’m not certain this is avoidable in a book on Biblical interpretation.

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