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Link: Bible Criticism – A Common Sense Approach to the Bible

Link: Bible Criticism – A Common Sense Approach to the Bible

This article is quite helpful in understanding what biblical criticism is, how it is helpful, and also how it may be threatening to some.

Here’s a quote:

The basic point, however, is an important one: until we know what kind of material we are dealing with, we don’t know what questions it is sensible to expect it to answer for us.

Read the rest and enjoy!

Choose Your Shape!

Choose Your Shape!

Well, perhaps, “choosing” should be “recognizing.” Weird? Doesn’t make sense? Read on!

In the late 1990s I participated in a program here in Escambia County called CommUNITY Dialogues, led by a creative and interesting communications specialist (and I had not, up to that time, used “creative” or “interesting” with regard to such people!) named Dr. Dolly Berthelot.

It was a great program, and I learned a great deal. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is that it was the first diversity training program I’d experienced that I considered personally valuable.

While I valued and value diversity, I felt that many interfaith and diversity programs negated their own value by asking people to give up their own beliefs on entry. The result was a debate largely centered around whether divesting oneself of one’s own “diverse” views was a good idea or not.

What Dr. Dolly did was invite us to explore our beliefs and those of others and to look at ways in which we could understand one another and work together by celebrating and taking advantage of our differences. I have always believed that this would be valuable, but in my experience people of strong convictions tend toward excluding others, and those advocating diversity want to diminish the value of one’s own values.

You may, in fact, decide to change your belief on some topic as a result of dialogue, but eliminating the differences before they are experienced and understood is, in my view, suboptimal. (I like that word!)

I say all of this to bring us to the present, and some of the work of Dr. Dolly Berthelot. I publish her book PERFECTLY SQUARE, and I have spent some time looking at a training program she has developed, SELFSHAPES. She has developed a simple quiz based on this program, and I have implemented it on our web site.

I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, because it is best experienced first. I have commented before that I have found things I’ve learned about human nature, including sociology and psychology, and definitely about different personality characteristics more helpful in Bible study and teaching than learning biblical languages. (I in no way regret learning the languages. I say this to emphasize the extreme value of learning to understand people for biblical studies and theology.)

And, of course, for life.

So head on over to the Energion Publications retail site and check out the quiz. It’s called Dr. Dolly’s SELFSHAPES. There are no pop-ups, and very little advertising. At the end we offer you the opportunity to share on social media and to sign up for an e-newsletter to keep up with developments.


The Limitations of Word Studies

The Limitations of Word Studies

It’s a common question, but it’s one I don’t like: What does that Greek word really mean? (You can substitute Hebrew or Aramaic for Greek.)

The basic problem is the assumption that a word “really” means anything specific. Underlying this is a tendency to think that one discovers the meaning of a communication by mentally finding the meaning of the individual words and then adding them together. Language isn’t that simple.

In English, we see this in appeals to the dictionary when word meanings are concerned. “The dictionary says that word means ____, so that’s it.” I have encountered great frustration when I don’t find that the final answer. But the way we use dictionary definitions can help us with understanding definitions in biblical languages.

A look in the dictionary will help at this point. You’ll notice that the definitions of words come in groups, and that there are multiple possibilities. If you have definitions 1, 2, and 3, which one applies to your particular case? I’ve seen angry debates occur because the participants were using a different, valid definition for a particular word. Valid, that is, apart from the particular context.

How do you know which one to use? The answer is context. Your dictionary is not written as a form of sacred writ, derived from some mountaintop revelation and delivered on unalterable tablets. Lexicographers study the ways in which words and used and then develop definitions that reflect those uses. The meaning is determined by the way words are used. Even what words get the official status of being in the dictionary is determined by usage. Who uses them? Where? Are they slang, or have they become part of mainstream languages. Lexicographers debate this sort of things, sometimes quite vigorously.

Now you need to avoid the reverse problem. This doesn’t mean that words can mean whatever you want them to. Well, they can, but not if you want to be able to communicate with someone else. Language is social, which is why lexicographers look at the way people use the words.

Words in the Bible behave as words do anywhere else. While we may debate the working of inspiration in the choosing of the words, it is clear that they are there to communicate with humans. These words function as human language.

So when I’m asked what a Hebrew or Greek word “really” means, I need to know where it is in the text so I can ask who is using it, when it is used, and what the various elements of context are. The Bible was written and transmitted over many centuries. If we take the oldest suggested dates for elements of the text, this history covers more than a millenium and a half. Many of those dates are debatable, but the time period is fairly long. Try reading something written in English in the 15th century CE (make sure it hasn’t had its language updated) and see how hard it can be to understand. Then be aware that the biblical languages underwent similar changes over time.

One way we learn how to guess and then remember words is etymology. A word is derived from one or more other words, and we combine the meanings to determine what the word means in its current form.

This procedure is helpful in guessing the meaning of a new word and in remembering meaning, but it doesn’t determine the meaning. That is because words develop in meaning as they are used. A favorite of New Testament teachers is the Greek ekklesia, which is derived from the words for “out” and “called.” I don’t intend to run through the history here, but that meaning is at best very doubtful for uses in the New Testament. The word has developed in meaning, and now refers to the gathering of believers.

Another technique that has been applied to that particular word is a search for historical meanings. An ekklesia could, historically, be a legislative assembly, but there is no evidence of this usage in the New Testament. My point here is not to develop a “correct” interpretation of this word, but rather to point out that such a result must ultimately result from reading the texts of the church that use the term.

What can a word study do for understanding the text in that case? Is it a waste of time?

Hardly! It is no more a waste of time than lexicography is. What word studies can do is discover the range of meanings a word may have. A good word study would find different contexts, different categories of use, and appropriate examples. That’s one of the differences between a good dictionary or lexicon and a vocabulary guide.

Strong’s concordance, for example, is a vocabulary guide. (With questionable content in many cases.) It provides a general survey of the English words used to translate a particular term in a particular Bible version, not a good range of definitions. It’s a challenging tool to use for word studies. A good Bible app with search, or a good concordance of a text will make it much easier.

Similarly etymology doesn’t tell you what a word really means. Rather, it provides some options for what a word may mean. That’s why we have a named fallacy, the etymological fallacy, which refers to the improper use of cognate words as determining meaning.

Debates about linguistics and biblical languages were in a much earlier stage when I was studying, but I was able to observe this in connection with using Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew, but definitely not identical. After five years of Hebrew it was easy for me to learn.

At the same time there was a temptation to use Ugaritic to determine the meaning of obscure Hebrew words, as well as to determine the meaning of unknown or obscure Ugaritic words from Hebrew. The latter was necessary. The language was an unknown, and we had to start from what was known.

In both cases, however, we had to watch for the problem of letting something other than the context determine the meaning. Words in Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic (among others) could give us a range of possibilities, but we had to work to interpret the text in order to get a good definition of a word in a particular context. (No, I was not one of the folks who interpreted these texts initially. My professor encouraged us to walk in those steps to develop our own skills.)

Thus the etymology, parallel languages, and summaries of word uses (word studies) all contributed to understanding, but none of them determined the meaning. That involved understanding the context.

Now suppose we’re looking at a New Testament word. What goes into determining the meaning of a word in a particular text? You need the known options. You also have to consider that a creative author can re-purpose an existing word. You need to understand the passage not just as a matter of the definitions of the words in the local context, but in terms of the author’s overall message. You could add to all these contexts a theological context.

Then you have to ask whether the author always uses the same word in the same sense. As an example, I suggest reading Romans 1-9 (if not further) carefully, looking at how Paul nuances the use of the word “law.” If you don’t watch his dance with that word, you will have a hard time coming up with a definition that will work. If you try to force something on the text from the outside, then you will miss what Paul is actually saying.

One of the negative results of studying biblical languages is that one can develop a tendency to study only the nuts and bolts. You spend so much time on specific words and even phrases or idioms that you lose site of the passage and its message.

That sort of careful study is essential. It provides the foundation for understanding. All comments about words not having singular, specific meanings should not give us the idea that we can do anything we want.

But once that sort of work is done, we have step back and read more rapidly, hearing the message in its broader sense.

In turn, we go back to the nuts and bolts and see if we understand them differently now that we’ve seen the overview.

Difficult? Time consuming? It can be. Yet each step you take builds your understanding of the text.

For more on word studies, see my post on Word Study Dangers, starting with Word Study Reprise, which links to the rest.

Above and Below: Thoughts on Exodus 32

Above and Below: Thoughts on Exodus 32

Yesterday I taught the Sunday School lesson for my class. The primary scripture was Exodus 32, the story of the golden calf. Our Adult Bible Studies title for the lesson was “The Permission Trap” and the goal was “To recognize the consequences of giving ourselves permission to do that which we know to be wrong.”

In one sense, one can’t argue with that. The Israelites knew they shouldn’t be making an idol, and that is precisely what happened, Aaron’s claim to miraculous sourcing notwithstanding. (Have you ever thought, “I know nobody is going to believe this, but I need some excuse”?) The Israelites did sin, and there were consequences for their sin.

The question in my mind as I read the lesson was whether this is actually the intended message. No, let me be honest here. I pretty much disagreed with that as the primary message.

It’s quite possible for something to be true on one level and to miss the mark when one goes deeper. The point here is not to say that making calves is OK, but rather that the message is somewhat deeper than “Remember not to make golden calves.” When interpreting stories, I would suggest that finding the moral (or a moral) of the story is not the point at which you have found the meaning. In fact, finding that moral can often prevent you from truly learning from the story.

To lead into this, let me note one Christian reaction, which is to blame the Israelites for being so faithless while imagining that we would do better. I would imagine that people who think this way have either spent very little time in the wilderness, or even in campsites, or they have ignored their own behavior. People who get away from their normal source of food and other supplies tend to get nervous. So the idea that the Israelites were faithless while we would be faithful involves looking at our own characters through rose-colored glasses.

That rosy view of our own characters also results from seeing only the surface problem. We cannot imagine ourselves constructing a golden calf and then dancing around it. We think we could avoid that. Unfortunately, our idolatry often takes less work-intensive forms.

To lead in from another direction (anything to avoid getting to the subject!), let me note that I read from Brevard Childs’ commentary on Exodus. Childs is one of my favorite commentaries, up in the top three. He goes through some of the source and redaction critical ideas on the chapter and does an excellent job as always. He points to some critical aspects of what the chapter teaches based on some of the “problems” certain people have noted in the text.

In an aside about the aside, Childs is a foremost, if not the foremost, advocate of canonical criticism. Canonical criticism involves seeing a passage as part of the whole canon of scripture. By nature, it can make a text look different depending on your religious tradition and view of the canon. For example, Jewish and Roman Catholic interpreters are working from a different canon of scripture than one another and than protestants. I would say that Jacob Milgrom does the best job of seeing the canonical picture from different perspectives. His own perspective is that of a conservative Rabbi, but he looks at usage and interpretation in other traditions.

In practice, scripture comes to us a part of a canon, whether that is the canon of our religious tradition or perhaps of our own making. We will read differently based on the setting in which we place the book. I will read a passage differently myself if I’m trying to understand Israel as an ancient near eastern people, Judaism as a faith, Christianity, or simply looking at a document as a piece of literature. I think we do well to be aware of all of those and I personally don’t privilege one or another point of view. (I would comment Edward W. H. Vick’s book From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully on this topic, particularly section 2, Canon.)

For my Sunday School class, I looked from the canonical view, and that leads me to think that the calf itself was an instance, a symptom, and not the underlying problem. I think the text is arranged to emphasize that.

Note, for example, that after we have the introductory story we begin and end dealing with the results on the mountain. In verse seven, YHWH tells Moses about the peoples’ failure. The conversation between YHWH and Moses goes on through verse 14, at which point YHWH repents (more on this in a moment). In verse 31 Moses returns to the mountain for a conversation about the same topic again.

The thinking on the mountain and the thinking at the foot of the mountain are quite different. The people are impatient with God’s timing. Moses doesn’t seem to realize that so much time has passed. This is a good place to put yourself in the shoes of the people at the foot of the mountain. Supposing you are climbing a mountain with a guide. The guide tells you to wait in the based camp while he goes away for some purpose. It could be supplies. It could be information. It doesn’t matter. If the guide doesn’t return in good time, what do you do?

Consider that you have no way of knowing where the guide is. He might have fallen over a cliff. He might have been killed by a wild animal. He might even have gotten lost. If any of those things occurred, and you keep waiting in camp, you could wait until you die. How long do you wait before you move out and try to save yourself? Your life could depend on accuracy.

Yet the meeting on the mountaintop moves at its own pace and the Israelites have to wonder. It’s Moses who has done everything. (We can remember, from the comfort of our easy chairs, that Moses was the agent of God’s action, but to the people, it looks like Moses.) Moses met with Pharaoh and announced the plagues. Moses stretched out his rod over the Red Sea. Moses announced the Manna. Moses struck the rock and brought water. And now Moses is gone.

Be honest! How long do you wait?

Moses hears what God has to say, and God proposes destroying the people. I don’t want to go into detail about this conversation, except to note that this is often the time when we get into debates about foreknowledge, predestination, and whether God can repent. I would suggest those debates don’t go well in this story. Let the story be the story.

Consider: If God is at least as intelligent as an ordinary human, don’t you think he’d know what reaction Moses would have at this point? We don’t have to settle issues of theology and philosophy to understand that God is making a point, and that the storyteller is making points about God and about Moses. Even a God without foreknowledge would know the outcome of this conversation.

We make this point of God’s faithfulness before we hear about what Moses did in the camp. There are consequences and results of my actions, yet neither my actions nor those consequences cause God to be unfaithful. This is stated before Moses goes down to deal with the people.

Let me compare this to someone who gets drunk and falls off of a cliff. This behavior was perhaps sub-optimal. Can God forgive? I think doubtless God does. But the body is still lying broken at the bottom of the cliff.

In Israel’s case, God can forgive the unfaithfulness, but behaving in an unfaithful manner has results. Let me put that into my own perspective. I tend to worry about money. When one problem is solved, I immediately find another one. Since I run a business with many bills, and in many cases narrow margins, I can always find a bill to worry about. Many bills have been paid. God can forgive me for being a worrier, and yet I will suffer the health effects of sleeplessness and tension.

The Israelites have a simple problem. It’s said that in war (and I suggest everything else) most tasks are simple, but are very hard to accomplish. After this event, for example, would be the story of the spies and the decision to turn back. Faithlessness breeds trouble.

Moses takes visible action in the camp. I can’t say that I’m in love with his procedure, but he is, after all, Moses, and I’m so not. Visible, human inflicted consequences can have a substantial impact on behavior. Behavior can be important in many ways. I see no contradiction here between God’s faithfulness expressed on the mountaintop and Moses’ actions taking control of a camp that was very much out of control.

And then we have the final, enigmatic statement. After the next debate with God on the mountaintop, we are told that God punished the people. We are not told when and we are not told how.

My suspicion is that faithlessness has its own punishment built in. I gain nothing and lose much by worrying. That’s how things work. For punishment to occur, all that is required is for God to continue being God, and maintaining the universe.

As a final note, I want to look at the basis of God’s grace and faithfulness. In verse 13, Moses appeals to the promise God had made to the patriarchs. There are those who hold that in this passage Moses is calling up the collective and collected merit of the patriarchs. Because of their merit, God should show grace to God’s people now.

There is no indication of such a thought in this text. It is not the merit of the patriarchs to which Moses appeals. Rather, it is God’s promise, God’s oath, sworn on himself to those patriarchs. That is why the appeal is precisely what works. It is an appeal to something solid and firm, the faithfulness of God who promised.

One can look through this story for the details of what was done wrong, and there is plenty of that. But the ultimate failure, and I know my ultimate failure, is that I lose trust. It’s the sin that underlies the sins, sin “living in me” (Romans 7:17).

I’d rather deal with the sins because I can measure them, count them, and even deal with them in some sense. How many times was I angry today? Can I be angry fewer times tomorrow? It sounds doable. But under it all, there is that sin, which is not one I can deal with myself.

That requires the One on the mountaintop.

(Theme Image Credit: Adobe Stock # 279252149. Licensed, not public domain.)

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom and Responsibility

I posted an extract from Dave Black’s blog on The Jesus Paradigm today. (I do this because you can’t link to a specific post on Dave’s blog, and I have his permission.) Dave is talking about Galatians 5:13-15, and what freedom means.

Rather than commenting on this passage myself, I want to put a quote from one of my other authors alongside Dave’s. I like to do this both in terms of seeing where we disagree, but also to note where we might come from different denominations and/or tradition streams, and nonetheless agree.

This is from Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly:

We are called to freedom, Paul proclaims. Many people believe that freedom means doing exactly what they want without regard to its impact on others. In individualistic North America, we hear the following cries of freedom: “It’s my money and I can do whatever I want with it,” “It’s a woman’s choice,” “It’s my property and I will use it as I please,” “Don’t infringe on my right to gun ownership,” “It’s not hurting anyone, I can do what I want in my private life.” Paul sees Christian freedom from a very different perspective.

Freedom finds its fullest expression in loving relationships that take into consideration the needs of others. Christian freedom is not coercive, it is invitational, and it invites us to let go of our individualistic possessiveness and live in light of God’s grace and generosity, manifest in our willingness to sacrifice some aspects of our freedom for the well-being of others and the communities of which we are a part.

“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (5:13). Freedom involves responsibilities as well as rights. In fact, in Christian community, Paul asserts that freedom involves sacrifice for the greater good of those around me. Paul’s understanding of freedom within the Christian community is captured in his Letter to the Romans: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:14-15). True freedom goes beyond self-interest to embrace the best interests of those with whom we interact.

Epperly, Galatians, 57-58

I find that a critical element of my Bible study is to consult a variety of sources, not just different theological positions, but also different approaches. In my current study of Romans, for example, I follow a theological commentary, an exegetical commentary (from a different perspective), and a linguistic/technical commentary.

How People Mess Up Interpretation

How People Mess Up Interpretation

No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.

When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)

But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.

So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.

People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.

Like this one.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.

Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.

I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.

Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.

Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.

(Featured image credit:

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.

That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.

On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.

What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.

Literal Problems, Literally

Literal Problems, Literally

I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.

I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.

On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.

For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.

What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.

Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.

All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.

Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?

In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”

Of Hermeneutics and Annoyance

Of Hermeneutics and Annoyance

I tend to harp on hermeneutics. Sometimes that’s precisely what people want me to do. Groups that have me back to speak twice, at least, are generally happy with that topic. But others find it annoying, pedantic, and perhaps intellectually snobbish! “Why can’t we just read our Bibles and get on with it?” they ask. Or “Quit making it so complicated!”

I understand their frustration, but without a great deal of sympathy. Christians have been “just getting on with it” for centuries, and the result is that we’re scattered all over the map in terms of how we understand scripture. I don’t consider having a variety of interpretations to be a problem in itself. To those who yearn for the magisterium, I would say that this simply means choosing one probably wrong option and then sticking with it.

To a certain extent, just getting on and reading the Bible is a workable devotional approach. But even so, such a devotional approach requires a filter. Just try reading Numbers 31 devotionally and you may see the problem. Now there are many approaches to handling Numbers 31, though the most common one seems to be to pretend it’s not there as long as possible. Pretending that less enlightening (or apparently so) passages aren’t there is an approach to interpretation and application.

This approach can even be made explicit. I’m embedding a clip from The West Wing, in which Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his Rabbi. In this discussion the fictional rabbi expresses explicitly an approach many take implicitly. (To those annoying people who like to point out that various quotes/clips/etc come from fiction, I’m aware of it. I find fiction an excellent source for launching thinking.)

Relatively few people (though there are some) would state this quite as explicitly as the rabbi does at the end, “wrong by any modern standard.” But it’s a common hermeneutic in practice.

And as long as you’re prepared to argue modern standards or what seems, to you, to be spiritually enlightening, and to do so with other people who share your view of “enlightening,” that approach will work. It works quite well on the more conservative side as well, just with different definitions applied to what to keep and what not to.

The Bible is susceptible to this sort of thing because it does reflect a long time period and lets us see a variety of experiences in different times and places. It doesn’t codify that much, and where it does, it is often under circumstances that don’t apply. In a post yesterday I used Leviticus 18:22 and 19:34. Those each evoke extremely controversial topics. Here’s another text I used in the same Sunday School class:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby. (Leviticus 6:1-7, NRSV, from

In this passage the class largely came to the same conclusion about what applied and what didn’t with some variation. Feeling guilt, accepting responsibility, making restitution—these all seemed very applicable. Not so much bringing a ram without blemish.

That doesn’t reflect a bad hermeneutic. In this case, most people were distinguishing lasting principles from temporary requirements. Both Judaism and Christianity have theology that removes the need for animal sacrifices in the present.

The problem comes in when we try to discuss, and more particularly when we try to enforce our view of scripture on someone else. I’m fond of a quote from one of the books I publish, Philosophy for Believers. On page 119 of that book he says:

Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook.

In this case, I’m not simply looking for considerations that are overlooked, though they are, but for the underlying approach that results in a particular view. Quite frequently the way someone understands a scripture is simply locked into the tradition so thoroughly that an individual doesn’t even think about why. A single tradition might function well that way, but when you then discuss the text with someone else, the argument gets immediately heated.

The reason these arguments get heated quickly is both that we often have a great deal of emotion (way too much, I believe) invested in our religious views and spiritual practices, and also that the other person seems obtuse and perhaps bullheaded not to see the obviously correct and plainly clear meaning of the passage presented. But you may have grown up and studied in a tradition that sees that passage completely differently. The difference may be in what applies and doesn’t, but it can also be in just what it means and how it applies. (I discuss this more in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method.)

Let me give an example. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says a number of things, but I had a debate that dealt with two of them. It started with this one:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV, from

Now it happens that I believe that this is an intensified command that we should conduct all of our dealings with others truthfully and with integrity, and thus it would negate the need for an oath. I would go so far as to consider “I swear to you” in conversations or business dealings to be at least unnecessary, and probably more so, it reflects the idea that some of my conversation can be a lie. I don’t think it forbids me from taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court, though I consider “so help me God” to be questionable for the same reason as “I swear to you.” I speak always with God’s help, not being able to take my next breath without it. The words I would utter in court should be no more and can be no less with the help of God than any others.

Now you can disagree with me on my interpretation. That’s part of my point. I’m not even fully explaining my approach, though many will see how I’m reading the passage. I’m certainly, in this case, allowing Jesus some hyperbole. For example, I would identify “anything more than this comes from the evil one” as hyperbole. Am I right? That would be an excellent point for discussion.

Which, in this exchange, my correspondent and I did. I asked him how he interpreted it. He told me that it should be taken in the plain sense. I asked him to define that further. He said it should be taken as it would be understood by any high school student in the U. S. Having dealt with not a few high school students, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I then brought my counter-example.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30, NRSV, from

My question here was (and is) just how an American high school student would undersand “tear it out and throw it away” or “cut it off and throw it away.” I see these as hyperbole, emphasizing the need to avoid lust, to get in ahead of the cause of adultery and not just stop before one crosses the threshold.

My correspondent said that this passage should be understood as one’s willingness to stand up for one’s principles even to physical assault or martyrdom. I have great doubts that this is the way the average high school student would read the passage.

Now for me, further discussion of the applicability of the passages would require that we first address our points of interpretation. Is it possible that Jesus used hyperbole? If not, just what does the second passage mean? If he does use it, is the first passage actually using hyperbole or is that just my literary excuse to get out of obeying the command of Jesus?

All of those are great questions to discuss, but to discuss them profitably, we need to ask the questions under the question. In this case my correspondent was willing to do that. Some think I tell this story to denigrate my correspondent. In fact, the discussion was quite profitable and enjoyable. Yes, we disagreed profoundly in the end, but I certainly learned.

There is one further layer worth mentioning and that’s to ask why a particular hermeneutic is chosen. We’re not actually stuck with our hermeneutic. We had to delay my discussion with Dr. Alden Thompson (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers), but it will be rescheduled. That’s where we discuss the inspiration of the Bible, and how one understands that will impact what hermeneutic one will use. Back when I was an extremely arrogant undergraduate, Alden is the one who set me to thinking about this more seriously.