Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Convergence of Hermeneutics and Exegesis – Part II

Vern Poythress writes, “We need color vision when we read the Bible. God needs to open our eyes. Let me put it another way. When God works powerfully in us, we may feel that we have passed through the door of a wardrobe into a new and marvelously different world. The Bible appears different. And through the Bible we see that the whole world appears different.” [The Supremacy of God in Interpretation, pg. 2] If you have ever been to a 3-D movie and removed the glasses during the show, you know the image on the screen is terribly blurred. In order to see the 3-D show, you must wear 3-D glasses. In order for your eyes to see the divine revelation that is Scripture, divine activity must enable the eyes. The art and science of hermeneutics serves as the foundation for biblical exegesis. It is the 3-D glasses through which you may see the images on the screen so that you can begin to interpret the movie.

Hermeneutics and exegesis have the same goal: to know the truth. However, hermeneutics serves as the guardrails upon which exegesis runs. Everyone does hermeneutics, but not everyone does exegesis. Your hermeneutic will determine how you engage in exegesis, or even if you engage in it at all. Your hermeneutic may result in radical eisegesis rather than biblical exegesis. Eisegesis is reading things into the text rather than out of it. For instance, if you deny the principle of sola scriptura, your exegetical process will certainly be impacted. A denial of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture opens the door to all kinds of exegetical malpractice. Perhaps an example of what exegetical malpractice looks like in real life will be helpful.

A few years ago I had, what turned out to be, an upsetting exchange with a female minister who was a Methodist. I was not upset, but she sure seemed to think my view was upsetting. She had received her doctorate from Duke Divinity School. For whatever reason, we were discussion the merits of female ministers. When I pointed out that Paul prohibited this practice in his day and that the universal reference to Adam and Eve precluded his comments from being limited to a local problem, she become quite annoyed. Her response was that Paul’s instructions were the product of the culture in which he existed. In other words, that culture had a bias against women leaders, Paul inherited this bias, and it was this bias that accounted for Paul’s prohibition, rather than God’s inspired teaching. In order to exegete the text in this manner, this woman had to reject the principle of verbal-plenary inspiration.

The minister’s philosophy concerning the text of Scripture is the foundation for her hermeneutic. In her world, the Bible may contain God’s word but it also contains the words of men, and hence may contain errors. Since this is the case, she may exegete or eisegete I Tim. 2:12 differently from someone who accepts the verbal-plenary principle. She ran into a major issue when I discovered she was against homosexuality. I asked her if it was possible that the NT writers wrote from a position of bias against homosexuality, much like they did when instructing the church on women leadership. In other words, I was asking her how she could reject Paul’s instructions regarding women leadership on the ground of cultural bias but not his teaching on homosexuality on the same ground. She became quite incensed and abruptly ended the conversation.

Another example is Bultmann’s demythologizing approach. If one presupposes a naturalistic worldview, denying the possibility of miracles, then each miracle occurrence in Scripture can be reclassified as a literary device simply created to emphasize a point. It is easy to see how one’s hermeneutic is magistrate over their exegesis. The question everyone must ask is, “what is magistrate over our hermeneutic?”

We can extend the example to liberation theologies, liberalism, and a host of other hermeneutics that have been conjured up in an attempt to explain the text of Scripture. That is the goal, after all, to explain the text of Scripture. What we often fail to realize is that our explanation very often is an attempt to harmonize Scripture with prior commitments and beliefs.

If I believe that God is pure love, as I define love and I attempt to exegete a passage of Scripture, then I must harmonize that passage with my previous commitments about who and what God is! Let’s say I do believe that God is pure love as I define love and I am attempting to understand Rev. 20:11-15. Since, in my view of love, God could never literally send someone into eternal torment, I have to come up with a device or rule to help me explain this text so that it harmonizes with my previous understanding of love. I may say that these people burn up immediately and are no more. On the other hand, I may say that the fire is symbolic, representing separation from God. What could be worse than that? The point is that my presuppositions shape my hermeneutic and serve to legislate my exegetical process. The whole exercise of reading the Bible becomes an attempt at self-affirmation rather than a genuine discovery of truth. Yes, that’s right: it is one more way for me to validate my autonomy. This is a very serious problem for anyone wanting to understand the text of Scripture. And every Christian should want to do that.

In summary, hermeneutics concerns your foundational beliefs about God, man, knowledge, reality, and ethics. These beliefs frame up your hermeneutical method, which in turn guides your exegesis of the text. When your hermeneutic is poor, your exegesis ends up calling historical narrative poetry because that is the only way you can harmonize your reading of Scripture with your prior commitments. We all have this problem. It is the basic challenge in interpreting Scripture. The way the process should work is as follows:

Our hearts are regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. The new birth begins to open our eyes to our sinful hermeneutic for what it is. We recognize the authority of Scripture and read it as such. Scripture clarifies our ungodly commitments and beliefs causing us to begin abandoning them, helping us to better understand Scripture which helps us to abandon more erroneous beliefs which helps us to better understand Scripture which helps us to abandon more erroneous beliefs, etc. This process begins at the new birth and continues until we are present with Christ. However, the sin nature never gives up so easily. The temptation to hang onto our prior commitments is great.

Vern Poythress issues a sober warning we would all do well to heed: “The most obvious form of autonomy is blatant blasphemy and hatred of God. But other, more subtle forms exist. With a most refined self-deceit, we may twist God’s truth in order to cover up an almost invisible longing in our heart for an area of self-sufficiency. The attempt to be god characterizes both the most blatant self-assertion and the most subtle.” [Ibid. pg. 38]

Hermeneutics deals with one’s philosophy of language, how they view the nature of Scripture, God and His activity in creation, the nature of man and his ability to hear God and understand Him. Exegesis is more concerned with understanding the language text, as it was originally written. It is concerned with a process and method for getting to the meaning of an author. It deals with things like textual criticism, grammatical and lexical analysis, diagramming, genre, literary devices, etc. Hermeneutics and exegesis serve the church in the preaching of the gospel and the sanctification of her members. They are indispensable to both of these goals. Without the Holy Spirit, both are beyond our reach. With the Holy Spirit as our Master-Teacher, the hard work of both hermeneutics and exegesis can at least begin.

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