A few years ago as several brethren and I chatted about a medley of Bible topics, the discussion turned to hermeneutics. One of the fellows, his voice full of exasperation, blurted out, "Who is this Herman fellow? I'd never even heard of him until a few months ago and now nobody wants to talk abut anything else." He was just putting us on, of course, but the annoyance was real. The use of the "fancy" term, hermeneutics, for Bible study bespoke a trend that concerned him. It smacked of intellectualism. He saw it as one more indication of a growing dissatisfaction with simple, direct language in the pursuit of Bible knowledge.
Whatever the merits of this brother's concern, Bible study, under any name, is a critical topic for Christians. Knowing how to do it well is an absolute necessity. I don't mean to suggest that we all must take formal courses in Logic and Hermeneutics before we can understand the gospel message of salvation. But at the very least, we need a common-sense grip on how communication works if we are going to understand God's message to us.
If we are to "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save (our) souls" (Jas. 1:21), if we are to "know the truth" which shall make us free (Jno. 8:32), if we are to have some grasp of "all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue" (2 Pet. 1:3), then we need some skill at the business of interpretation. Whatever natural gifts we may possess along that line, additional knowledge and polishing won't hurt.
In our previous article we discussed the importance of context in Bible study, noting that we are almost certain to go wrong if we take a verse out of its surroundings.
No Contradictions: Another common hermeneutical priciple is the presumption of harmony. We grant this even in general hermeneutics: every author is assumed to write in agreement with himself, unless it is clearly established other wise. In sacred hermeneutics (interpretation of the Bible) this rule is considered an absolute. If the author of the Bible is God, it will have no contradictions, since He is all-knowing and all-powerful.
Clinton Lockhart, in Principles of Interpretation, lists this rule as an axiom: "One of two contradictory statements must be false, unless corresponding terms have different meanings or applications" (p. 28).
Defense: This issue confronts us in two practical situations. The first is when an unbeliever, in an effort to prove that the Bible is not written by God, charges that it contains contradictions. This puts us on the defensive and obliges us to show the harmony of the matters in dispute. How we do this depends on the specific facts of the case.
Suppose, for example, that the unbeliever charges that Paul, in saying that we are not saved by works, contradicts James, who says that we are saved by works. Here, our task is to show that these two writers use the word works in different ways. Paul speaks of works of merit which would put God debt to us; James has in mind the obedience of faith, which Paul also taught (cf., Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
Or perhaps the skeptic believes Matthew, when he mentions one angel at the tomb of Jesus (Matt. 28), to be in conflict with Luke, who refers to two angels (ch. 24). Here we have two possible solutions. First, the writers may have had different time frames in view: at one point there was one angel, and either earlier or later, there were two. Second, different or additional facts (one angel/two angels) may be complementary rather than contradictory. Matthew felt it necessary to mention only one angel, while Luke, in accord with his purpose, gives us more detail.
These two examples suggest some general guidelines for resolving alleged inconsistencies in Scripture.
Offense: The other situation finds us on the offensive, as we study to interpret a given passage correctly. In Matt. 4:7, Jesus showed us that one verse cannot be pitted against another. The devil had tempted Him to jump from the pinnacle of the temple by citing Psa. 91:11,12, which promised Him God's protection. But Jesus replied, "It is written AGAIN, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'" Psalm 91 must harmonize with Deut. 6:16.
As another example, it is faulty exegesis to attribute salvation to faith only in passages such as Jno. 3:16 and Acts 16:31. Why? Because other verses say that matters such as repentance and baptism also play a part in salvation (Acts 2:38). Not to mention Jas. 2;24, which says that a man is not saved by "faith only." One text cannot oppose or nullify another.
Finally, whatever meaning we ascribe to God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exo. 9:12; 10:20, etc.), we cannot advance a view that denies man's freedom to choose (Deut. 30:19; Jos. 24: 15; Prov. 1:29; 3:31).
Sound interpretation of Scripture is based on sound methods of study. Stay tuned. We'll talk about hermeneutics some more.
By Jim Ward in Lost River Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 19.
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