Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hermeneutics: Implications and Ramifications

The goal of biblical hermeneutics is a transformed life. This is because the goal of the Holy Text itself is transformation. Without proper understanding, proper change is impossible. The only change that really matters is eternal change. This change is genuine. It is real and therefore, lasting. Moreover, the only way this change can happen is by divine action. Not to confuse the issue, I am not contending that outward change is beyond the reach of carnal men. It is not! Carnal men change their behavior all the time. They do so because the consequences of some behaviors become distasteful, unattractive, or unsatisfying. While the percentages may be small, men can and do reform for various reasons. The church has neglected to recognize this phenomenon with devastating consequences. True change, real change begins with the heart, a new heart, and works its way into outward behavior. Therefore, in order for change to take place in any meaningful sense, a true understanding of the meaning of Scripture is indispensable. The authority of the text rests in its significance. An egregious interpretation of the text is no more authoritative than any other book. Jesus pointed this out to the Sadducees when He accused them of invalidating the word of God through their tradition. The Sadducees did not overtly replace Scripture. They hoisted a meaning on it that was never there to begin with and in so doing, they robbed Scripture of its authority by changing its significance. Their understanding was no more authoritative than any one of the pagan philosophers’ view of living at that time.
The authors of Scripture, Divine and human, had something to say, something to communicate, and something they wanted us to know, to understand, and to do. What was it? Can we discover the significance of the text of Scripture in a culture as far removed from the biblical culture as ours is? If the answer to that question is yes, then it only stands to reason that we ask how we can know what the authors’ of Scripture wished to accomplish by penning the sacred Writings. After all, if it is true that Scripture is revelation, then it is necessarily true that something or someone very specific was the subject of that revelation. The thing revealed does not depend on the object to which it is revealed for meaning. What is being unveiled has self-contained meaning to the one doing the unveiling. Contrary to popular notions about meaning, it is not merely individual, dependent on the experience of the one to whom it belongs. Meaning is not neutral any more than observed facts. Meaning is simply one’s interpretation of the encounter. This does not mean (pun absolutely intended) that there is no such thing as one right meaning and many wrong meanings. Of course, I use the word meaning in the sense of one’s personal understanding. What does the text, a text, actually mean? Is there real meaning in the biblical text? Kevin Vanhoozer thinks there is and I agree. Vanhoozer says, “So it is with the interpreter: he or she must be assured that literary knowledge and understanding are possible, but not led to think that reaching understanding is easy.”[1] Sometimes the text is very difficult to understand. But this is not the same is impossible. And it is not justification for defaulting to skepticism.

The problem with the Bible is that it threatens our way of life. It represents a way of living that is antithetical to man’s desires for autonomy. Ah, there it is again! That intriguing word we all love to say but so few truly understand: autonomy. Yet, no word has ever damned more humans than this one. Vern Poythress writes, “Christianity has been practiced in the West for hundreds of years. In the course of that long history, Christians have committed plenty of horrendous sins and made ghastly mistakes that discredit the faith. Moreover, those antagonistic to the God of the Bible, have over a period of several centuries, produced a whole marketplace of culturally fashionable stratagems for evading God. Some are incredibly sophisticated and awesomely complex. They include ways of immunizing ourselves from the Bible and its message. So we have plenty of ways to hide our spiritual nakedness.”[2] There you have it. The Bible does its sanctifying work in us only when it threatens us! It threatens to remove that one thing we love so dear: us! It threatens to kill “me.” I should die that He may live in me. John said I must decrease but He must increase. Is it any wonder that men hate the Scriptures? Scripture indicts us for our sin from one end to the other! But, you may say, they also contain a grand and glorious story. God loves us! He sent Christ for us! Ah, yes, the gospel is indeed a grand and glorious story. But it is only a grand and glorious story for those who are being saved. To the saved ones, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But it is only so for the saved ones. To the rest, it is either foolishness or a scandal! The sin nature that remains in us, also finds Scripture offensive on several fronts. To spot these areas, we must rely on the presence of God the Holy Spirit. He leads us into all truth, the truth that is sacred Scripture. Scripture leaves sin open and naked, exposed for us to see. This is why sin blinds us from that glorious light. Scripture exposes it for what it really is. Unless we have a new heart, we love our sin. Love for sin places strict limitations on man’s willingness to change. It clearly affects man’s motivations for the change he is willing to accept.

By its nature as revelation it is necessary that Scripture come from without. Otherwise, internal, radical change is impossible. If meaning is experiential and subjective, the only change that takes place is change that has its source within. This kind of change is not true change because, it has its source within and as such is part of the very object that is supposed to change. Domestic change is mechanical. Behavioral change that is limited to behavior is not true change. Godly change begins by changing the nature, not merely the behavior. Change that is limited to behavior always fails to meet the standard of motive. Unbelievers never change behavior for the right reason, out of a love for God. They are completely unable to change their behavior for the right reason. Their nature must be changed! They must be born again. Enter the Scripture! God changes the human heart through the preaching of the gospel. But this is only the beginning. Progressive sanctification is the process by which the life of the individual is transformed by the renewing of the mind as it absorbs and appropriates the Scripture. A deficient hermeneutic impedes this outcome by obfuscating the understanding of the only message capable of true transformation.

What is at stake? In short, the integrity of divine revelation is at stake. Hence, truth itself is at stake. The product we call Scripture is a product of divine action. God did something in order to provide us with His revelation. His person demands that we approach the text with the gravity that the idea of divine action merits. Finally, what is at stake is transformed lives. If transformation depends on clarity of understanding, then it follows that the entirety of salvation and sanctification depend on a sound hermeneutic. Otherwise, we risk preaching a false gospel and engaging in religious moralism with a Christian label. Many pastors and elders have abandoned the basics of Christian doctrine. So bad is the situation that entire generations have grown up in the church that cannot even begin to articulate the basics of the gospel. I taught a Sunday school class a few years back and asked anyone to define justification. No one was able to provide a biblically accurate definition of this doctrine. Basics can never be abandoned. They must always be part of the discipleship within the local church. There is nothing more basic to the “people of the book” than being able to clearly understand that book. That being said, there is nothing more basic than hermeneutics.



[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon, 1998), 466.
[2] Vern Poythress, God Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Press & R Publishing, 1999), 4-5.

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