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12 Hermeneutical Principles14 min read

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Theologian D.A. Carson had a nice 12 point article on hermeneutics (now gone) where he discussed how these apply to such thorny questions as those below (we’ve discussed them here):

The issue is this:  What parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not?

Consider some examples.  ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’: the French do it, Arab believers do it, but by and large we do not.  Are we therefore unbiblical?  Jesus tells his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet (John 13:14), yet most of us have never  done so.  Why do we ‘disobey’ that plain injunction, yet obey his injunction regarding the Lord’s Table (‘This do, in remembrance of me’)?  If we find reasons to be flexible about the ‘holy kiss,’ how flexible may we be in other domains?  May we replace the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper with yams and goat’s milk if we are in a village church in Papua New Guinea?  If not, why not?

And what about the broader questions circulating among  theonomists regarding the continuing legal force of law set down under the  Mosaic covenant?  Should we as a nation, on the  assumption that God graciously grants widespread revival and reformation, pass laws to execute adulterers by stoning? If not, why not?

Is the injunction for women to keep silent in the church absolute (1 Corinthians 14:33-36)?  If not, why not?  Jesus tells Nicodemus  that he must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom; he tells  the rich young man that he is to sell all that he has and give it to  the poor.  Why do we make the former demand absolute for all  persons, and apparently fudge a little on the second?

Below, I have excerpted from the whole article, which is worth reading.  Note that Carson is not well liked by some fundamentalists, and for some good reasons – he’s not a hard core inerrantist.  However, this post of his I liked.

1. As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

In fact, the ‘balance of Scripture’ is not an easy thing to maintain, in part because there are different kinds of balance in Scripture.  For example, there is the balance of diverse responsibilities laid on us (e.g. praying, being reliable at work, being a biblically faithful spouse and parent, evangelizing a neighbor, taking an orphan or widow under our wing, and so forth): these amount to balancing priorities within the limits of time and energy.  There is the balance of Scripture’s emphases as established by observing their relation to the Bible’s central plot-line (more on this in the 12th point); there is also the balance of truths which we cannot at this point ultimately reconcile, but which we can easily distort if do not listen carefully to the text (e.g. Jesus is both God and man; God is both the transcendent sovereign and yet personal; the elect alone are saved, and yet in some sense God loves horrible rebels so much that Jesus  weeps over Jerusalem and God cries, ‘Turn, turn, why will you die?  For the Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’).

2. Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute.  The context must decide where this is the case.

When Jesus insists that if anyone is to become his disciple, he must hate his parents (Lk.14:26), we must not think Jesus is sanctioning raw hatred of family members.  What is at issue is that the claims of Jesus are more urgent and binding than even the most precious and prized human relationships (as the parallel in Mt.10:37 makes clear).

3. Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding.  The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied.  When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake.

That is why the famous ‘baptism for the dead’ passage (1 Corinthians 15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church.  Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative. This principle also underlies one of the reasons why most Christians do not view Christ’s command to wash one another’s feet as a third sacrament or ordinance.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are certainly treated more than once, and there is ample evidence that the early church observed both, but neither can be said about footwashing.  But there is more to be said.

4. Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

So when God commands people to rend their clothes and put on  sackcloth and ashes, are these precise actions so much of the essence of repentance that there is no true repentance without them?  When Paul tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, does he mean that there is no true Christian greeting without such a kiss?

When we examine the rationale for these actions, and ask whether or not
ashes and kissing are integratively related to God’s revelation, we see the way forward.  There is no theology of kissing; there is a theology of mutual love and committed fellowship among the members of the church.  There is no theology of sackcloth and ashes; there is a theology of repentance that demands both radical sorrow and profound change.

If this reasoning is right, it has a bearing on both footwashing and on head-coverings.

5. Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. 

If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive (and pastoral!) errors will inevitably ensue.Compare these two sayings of Jesus:

(a) ‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters’ (Matthew 12:30).

(b) ‘. . . for whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40; cf. Luke 9:50).As has often been noted, the sayings are not contradictory if the first is uttered to indifferent people against themselves, and the second to the disciples about others whose zeal outstrips their knowledge.  But the two statements are certainly difficult to reconcile if each is taken absolutely, without thinking through such matters.

6. The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social  structures between biblical times and our own day.

‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’ (Romans 13:1-2).

Some Christians have reasoned from this passage that we must always submit to the governing authorities, except in matters of conscience before God (Acts 4:19).  Even then, we ‘submit’ to the authorities by patiently bearing the sanctions they impose on us in this fallen world.Other Christians have reasoned from this passage that since Paul goes on to say that the purpose of rulers is to uphold justice (Romans 13:3-4), then if rulers are no longer upholding justice the time may come when righteous people should oppose them, and even, if necessary, overthrow them.  The issues are exceedingly complex, and were thought through in some detail by the Reformers.

7. Determine not only how symbols, customs, metaphors, and models function in Scripture, but also to what else they are tied.

But is it then acceptable to lead a group of young people in a California church in a celebration of the Lord’s Table using coke and chips?  And how about yams and goat’s milk in Papua New Guinea?  If in the latter case we use bread and wine, are we not subtly insisting that only the food of white foreigners is acceptable to God? […]In the case of some expressions, an analogous idiom may be the best way to render something; in other expressions, especially those that are  deeply tied to other elements in the Bible’s story-line, it is best to render things more literally, and then perhaps include an explanatory note.  In this case, for example, it might be wise to say that ‘bread’ was a staple food of the people at the time, as yams are to us.  A slightly different note would have to be included when leaven or yeast is introduced.

8. Thoughtfully limit comparisons and analogies by observing near and far contexts.

‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8).

Since he never finally refused to heal anyone who approached him  during the days of his flesh, and since he is the same yesterday and today and forever, therefore he will heal all who approach him for healing today.  I have had that argument put to me more than once.  By the same token, of course, Hebrews 13:8 could be used to prove that since he was mortal before the cross, he must still be mortal today; or since he was crucified by the Romans, and he is the same yesterday and today and forever, he must still be being crucified by the Romans today.

9. Many mandates are pastorally limited by the occasion or people being addressed.

Paul can say it is good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Corinthians 7:1 – NIV) (‘not to marry’ is an unwarranted softening of the Greek).  But (he goes on to say) there are also good reasons to marry, and finally concludes that both celibacy and marriage are gifts from God,  charismata (1 Corinthians 7:7 – which I suppose makes us all  charismatics).  It does not take much reading between the lines to  perceive that the church in Corinth included some who were given to asceticism, and others in danger of promiscuity (cf. 1 Corinthians  6:12-20).  There is a pastoral sensitivity to Paul’s ‘Yes, but’ argument, one that he deploys more than once in this letter (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:18-19).  In other words, there are pastoral limitations to the course advocated, limitations made clear by the context.

10. Always be careful how you apply narratives.

When…postmodern voices turn to the Bible, they are often attracted to narrative portions, since narratives are generically more open to diverse interpretation than discourse.  Admittedly, these narrative portions are usually pulled out of their contexts in the books in which they are embedded, and made to stand on their own.Without the contextual constraints, the interpretive possibilities seem to multiply – which is, of course, what the postmodernists want. Narratives have other virtues, of course: they are evocative,
affective, image-enhancing, memorable.  But unless care is taken, they are more easily misinterpreted than discourse.

11. Remember that you, too, are culturally and theologically located.

Does our Western culture place so much stress on individualism that we find it hard to perceive, not only the biblical emphasis on the family and on the bodyof the church, but also the ways in which God judges entire cultures and nations for the accumulating corruptions of her people?Are the biblical interpretations advanced by ‘evangelical
feminists’ compromised by their indebtedness to the current focus on women’s liberation, or are the interpretations of more traditional exegetes compromised by unwitting enslavement to patriarchal assumptions?  Do we overlook some of the ‘hard’ sayings about poverty simply because most of us live in relative wealth?

12. Frankly admit that many interpretive decisions are nestled within a large theological system, which in principle we must be willing to modify if the Bible is to have the final word.

Systems are not inherently evil things.  They function to make interpretation a little easier and a little more realistic: they mean that you do not have to go back to basics at each point (i.e. inevitably you assume a whole lot of other exegesis at any particular instance of  exegesis).  If the tradition is broadly orthodox, then the system helps to direct you away from interpretations that are heterodox.  But a system can be so tightly controlling that it does not allow itself to be corrected by Scripture, modified by Scripture, or even overturned by Scripture.  Moreover, not a few interpretative points of dispute are tied to such  massive interlocking structures that to change one’s mind about the detail would require a change of mind on massive structures, and that is inevitably far more challenging a prospect.