Sunday, December 30, 2012

Interpreting Scripture: How to Avoid Spiritual Cancer


σπούδασον σεαυτὸν δόκιμον παραστῆσαι τῷ θεῷ, ἐργάτην ἀνεπαίσχυντον, ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15, NA28 and NASB)

Not since the dark ages have we witnessed such poor handling of sacred Scripture. However, even during those dark years, there remained a high reverence for the sacred stature of the Word of God. They say that familiarity breeds contempt. One might be tempted to say that this is what has happened to the modern Christian’s mindset toward the Bible. However, one could hardly accuse modern Christians of being remotely familiar with Scripture, let alone familiar enough with it to view it so casually as if it were just any other book there for my reading pleasure. And when we find it convenient and we have the luxury of time, perhaps we will open its pages to see what is there, or better yet, how it can serve me in executing on my life’s personal agenda.

“Everything must be done in proper sequence, appropriate proportion, and with the purpose of producing an end product that pleases the one who commissioned the work. Background information, word meanings, the context of a given passage, and many other factors must be judiciously assessed if a valid interpretation is to be attained.” [KÖstenberger, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 60]

“The most personal of Paul’s letters is clearly 2 Timothy.” [KÖstenberger, The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown, 647] Paul is in prison and his death is imminent. He writes what he knows will be his very last piece of communication to his closest companion and most faithful disciple, Timothy. One would expect that this great apostle, this ambassador of God would speak of those matters for which he had the highest regard. One would expect these subjects in this communication to this all-important leader in the ancient Church would be the ones that should really land on our radar. That is to say, if we are going to start with the really big theological rocks in the biblical stream so to speak, starting in 2 Timothy would not be an unreasonable decision.

“Are the meanings of texts “constructed” by readers, or are meanings “given” through texts by authors? This is a complex question of hermeneutical theory, but on this depends how we seek to answer a basic practical question: Can the Bible mean anything we want it to mean? How can we agree about norms or criteria for the responsible or valid interpretation of Scriptures?” [Thiselton, Hermeneutics, An Introduction, 1-2] In a culture where autonomy and independence reign supreme, modern American Christians seem to believe that no one has the “right” to question their personal understanding of Scripture. In addition, most Christians sitting in the seats on Sunday morning feel that they have some God-given inherent “right” to interpret the Scriptures as if they were on an island without the slightest sense of obligation to “get it right” or any sense at all of the impact their views may have on the Christian community at large. In fact, most Christians have no sense of duty or obligation to the Christian community whatever. Many could care less how their views and even their behavior affect the manner in which those inside and especially outside the community view them and the community as a result of their foolishness. I honestly do not know how hermeneutics can be rescued so long as such apathy is allowed to exist within the Christian community. The world needs to see the community excommunicating people who reject the loving admonition to repent of certain beliefs and unruly living. The world needs to see that the Church has a standard that she takes seriously because God is the source of that standard. Nowhere is it more important for the Church to take action than in the area of Scripture. Most ungodly behavior in the Church begins with the problem of how one views and interprets the Sacred text. Taken seriously, Scripture will produce godly lives growing together in godly communities where the love and fear of God consumes the group. Taken less than seriously, one ends up with a diversity of beliefs and behaviors that don’t even come close to cohering around a unified standard of belief and praxis. This latter statement reflects where we have lived now for decades and decades.

The initial sentence of our text jumps right off the page at you. Paul says, σπούδασον σεαυτὸν δόκιμον παραστῆσαι τῷ θεῷ. Literally, “make every effort to present yourself approved to God.” In the name of battling against legalism, we have all but eliminated the idea of striving and fighting to live holy lifestyles in the Church. We give holy living a wink and a nob and then go on about our sinning because, well, after all, we all sin every day. Paul’s command to Timothy really is quite foreign to that kind of thinking. The word σπουδάζω is used 11 times in the NT. Fundamentally it means to hurry or to hasten. It means to make every effort, to be eager, to be diligent. Paul uses it in Galatians 2:10 where he says he was eager to remember the poor. In Eph. 4:3 Paul tells the believers to be diligent in preserving the unity of the Spirit. Peter uses it to command his audience to be all the more diligent to make of His calling and choosing you. (II Peter 1:10) Louw-Nida says it means, “to do something with intense effort and motivation—‘to work hard, to do one’s best, to endeavor.’” In the LXX, it is translated horror in Job 21:6, terrifies in 22:10, dismayed in 22:16. In Isaiah 21:3 it is translated terrified. The Hebrew word that is most often translated σπουδάζω is בהל and it appears some 41 times in the Hebrew Text. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Archer/Waltke/Harris) says be disturbed, disturb, alarm, terrify; to hurry. There is no doubt a great deal of emotional energy bound up in the etymology of this word and this seems to remain over hundreds of years of diachronic shifts. When Paul tells Timothy to “be diligent,” after looking at the usage of this word over hundreds of years, we begin to appreciate the force of what Paul is saying. Suffice it to say, this is far more forceful than the modern idiom, “do your best,” even though that may be as close as we can get to the richness of Paul’s meaning. At the very least, the use of this word should serve to capture our attention now for what is to follow.

“Do your best” to present yourself to God approved! What? This imperative intensifies the command expressed by the infinitive clause that it governs.”[1]

Hence, presenting oneself to God as one who is examined, not by man, but by God and approved by Him is that for which Timothy is to strive. The question in the context of this pericope centers around how young Timothy is supposed to achieve such a lofty goal. What does this look like in the specific context in which Paul is speaking? This question moves us to the subject of hermeneutics, which is the subject of my post, and the subject of Paul’s central concern with Timothy, so to speak.

Before we get to the point, I would be remiss not to discuss one more rich theological nugget from this text. Paul follows these words by contrasting his positive command with the negative connotation of shame. He uses the phrase, “as a workman who does not need to be ashamed.” This comes from the root αισχρος. The word simply means to feel shame, to be ashamed. However, there is more to the idea of shame in the Mediterranean world of Greco-Roman times than might meet the modern western reader’s eye. “In both the past and present Mediterranean societies, however, honor and shame have played a dominant role in public life.” [Moxnes, Honor and Shame in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, 19] Even in America, a few years ago, the family name meant something. You did not want to do anything the reflected poorly on the family name, the family’s honor. Today, younger generations don’t even think about such a concept as they go about conducting their lives before the public. If you use this tactic as a parent in modern America, the response you are likely to get is, “all you care about is your family name, your family honor, what about ME?” The point here is that in order for us to appreciate the NT Text, we must journey back in time and attempt to understand the values of the people in that society. “Honor is the value of a person in his or her own eyes (that is, one’s claim to worth) plus that person’s value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth.” [Malina, The New Testament World, 30] Not only is it important for the private person to live according to the societal code to maintain honor in their own mind, but they are equally concerned with maintaining this honor and avoiding public shame that would result from public failures. This concept served the NT Church very well in her formation and Jesus and His apostles invoked the honor-shame value system throughout the NT. Jesus’ teaching on excommunication is a perfect example of collective shame for those who reject the group’s corrective actions. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 5. Peter deals with it in his commanded to His audience to be ready to stand up to the antagonists. When Paul uses this language with Timothy, young Timothy has a much richer understanding of what Paul is saying that we do, unless that is, we bother to do our homework on such issues and “do our best” to handle the text appropriately.

What is involved in this “unashamed workman” status that Paul is speaking about? The phrase ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας offers a clue. The material that this worker is to handle correctly is “the word of truth” (τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας). Only when he handles it correctly will he be unashamed (ἀνεπαίσχυντον). The rendering given in several of the modern translations, using a combination of the verb “handle” and some adverb such as “accurately” (NASB), “rightly” (RSV), or “correctly” (NIV), for the compound verb ὀρθοτομοῦντα with the phrase “the word of truth” as the direct object captures this relationship quite well.[2]

The idea is that the Word of God, the Word of Truth is a tool in the hands of a workman. The workman can perform quality work and show himself approved of the one who hired him or he can perform work of inferior quality and when that work is inspected, he will lose honor and be ashamed for his work will prove to be poor.

Immediately preceding this statement, Paul instructs Timothy to instruct those under his charge not to wrangle about words. In v. 2 of this same chapter, Paul instructs Timothy to entrust these teachings to faithful men. In 1:13 he tells Timothy to “retain the standard of sound words.” Obviously, the immediate and expanded context of our text deals with the matter of hermeneutics. Moreover, that Paul uses words like standard, entrust, diligence, approved, and ashamed indicate the seriousness with which we are to handle the text.

In v. 16 Paul commands Timothy to avoid ‘worldly’ and ‘empty chatter.’ Since failure to avoid these things leads to greater impiety, or greater ungodliness, it is in the best interest of Christians to understand what these things are. What is it to engage in “worldly and empty chatter?” The Greek text actually says, τὰς δὲ βεβήλους κενοφωνίας περιΐστασο, which translates, “but avoid the worthless chatter.” Paul uses the simile of gangrene to describe unrestrained false doctrine. γάγγραινα is disease involving severe inflammation and possibly a cancerous spread of ulcers which eat away the flesh and bones.[3]

This disease, if left untreated, will spread, which is its nature, to other parts of the body and hence destroy the body. The simile of false doctrine and cancer should arrest the attention of any sober Christian immediately. Moreover, scholars, theologians and pastors are in a most perilous place because it is their occupation to touch the sacred text almost daily for the purpose of interpretation and propagation.

Paul does not leave us hanging. He informs us that two individuals, Hymenaeus and Philetus, have engaged in teaching a view that the resurrection has already passed. In I Tim. 1:20 he says he has turned the former over to Satan. In other words, he has been publicly excommunicated. This is how we treat spiritual cancer. In fact, this is the Chief Physician’s prescription for treating spiritual cancer.

Paul tells Timothy that the Word of God is a tool in his hand like the tool of a workman. He informs Timothy that he must handle that tool skillfully, accurately, cutting the path straight. In the end, the Master for whom he works will inspect the manner in which he employed the tool by reviewing his completed work. With this in mind, Timothy is told to conduct himself like a workman of whom his Master would approve, skillfully using the tool of the Word of God  which has been entrusted to him.

“The desire to keep God’s commandments, the determination to do God’s will – this is the great prerequisite for true biblical understanding.” [Silva, Who Needs Hermeneutics Anyway? In Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 26.] When I think about much of the work that is done in the area of philosophical hermeneutics, linguistics, historical analyses, textual criticism, and a host of other areas, I wonder what the core motivation is of many of the men involved in the work. If it is not to know Scripture so that they may truly know and love God, then one has to wonder just what it is they are doing and why.

What are the implications for hermeneutics that we can derive from II Timothy 2:15? First, deconstructionism, if valid, would make II Timothy 2:15 nonsensical and irrelevant. Therefore, from the very start deconstructionism would be classed among the βεβήλους κενοφωνίας that Paul commands Timothy to shun or avoid. Second, a low view of Scripture would make absolutely no sense in this context since Paul uses the extremely authoritative language and invokes severe consequences for those who refuse to go along with his instructions. Third, that there is a meaning in the text rules out meanings that are not that meaning. In other words, there aren’t multiple accurate meanings in the text, otherwise Paul would have indicated such to Timothy. Accuracy of the tool was foremost in Paul’s mind. Accuracy indicates a normative standard in place for the right handling of the text. That Paul emphasized the importance of this behavior cannot be reasonably denied. Hence, those who ignore this principle do so to their own detriment. In fact, Paul says their teachings will spread like a spiritual cancer which will eventually destroy the entire body. Paul says not to ignore them, but to intentionally shun and avoid them. In other words, put them out from among you. Do not allow them to go unrestrained. The word for shun in the active voice means to stand around someone or to circle, but here, in the middle voice, it means to “turn oneself about” to avoid, “shun.” [Mouton & Millian, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament] To shun someone in the Christian community is to remove them from the community. To think that to avoid someone is just simply to avoid them in the modern sense would be anachronistic. When the Mediterranean mind heard this, they fully understood Paul's sense to be to cut them off from the community. Walk around them, if you will. BDAG says it means to go around so as to avoid. The example is the excommunication of Hymenaeus in I Tim. 1:20. Men who insist on holding to a low view of Scripture, or preferring science over the text, or expanding orthodoxy to the point that it is indistinguishable from heterodoxy have to be examined, corrected, discipled, and brought back from their godless views. Otherwise, they must be shunned, excommunicated because their teachings will spread like spiritual cancer and destroy the body of Christ.

Jesus did not command His apostles to merely go out and preach. He did not command them even to go preach and baptize. No, Jesus commanded His apostles to go make disciples! Disciples are students, but they are more than that. Disciples are students whose entire enterprise now is to learn and understand the teachings of their Master so that they may become just as He is. Implicit in this command to make disciples is the idea of hermeneutics. Teaching, understanding, learning, and student all require communication, interpretation, understanding, and even appropriation and application.

“The Christian interpretation of reality is a function of its interpretation of Scripture, those books set aside as authoritative testimony to the gospel – call it a philosophy of “canonical sense.” It is the sum total of the biblical books, the various parts in their interrelatedness, that communicates the wisdom of the Christian way, which is to say, the wisdom of Christ and the wisdom of the cross.” [Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics, 347]

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32) Is it any wonder that so many professing Christians live in bondage to sin, to darkness, and to biblical ignorance? The cure is not therapy. The cure is to know the truth, the Son of the Living God! To what shall we turn? He has the very words of eternal life. All that is required of us is that we read them with a passion to understand so that we may please Him in all we do.

 



[1] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 411.
[2] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 412.
[3] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 271.

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