Sunday, June 10, 2012

1.4 Memory Verse Hermeneutics

This is the last in a first group of posts talking about my hermeneutical pilgrimage.  I'm calling the group:

Reading out of Context
1. Stages of Hermeneutical Development
2. Does History Matter in Interpretation
3. Meaning is Always Local
Historical context is something you can't get fully from the text of the Bible itself.  The Bible gives great clues, to be sure.  And it needs to give the deciding vote.  One problem that scholars of the Bible can have is knowing too much.  A scholar may know a parallel to a biblical text somewhere that they try to make a connection with when that other text has absolutely nothing to do with the passage you're looking at.  It's sometimes called "parallelomania," looking for parallels to shed light on a biblical text and finding ones that are completely irrelevant.

The problem is that the bulk of historical evidence has been lost to history.  Those who wrote things were usually the privileged--who hardly represent the majority of those who lived and died in the ancient world.  Was the author of Genesis really aware of the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Gilgamesh Epic? It's a very legitimate question.

It thus was rarely this sort of historical evidence that convinced me on various issues.  More than anything, it was the inductive Bible study method I learned at Asbury Theological Seminary.  This is a method that gathers its primary evidence from the biblical texts themselves in order to draw the most likely conclusions about the original meaning.  It's called "literary context."

Once you ask the question, "what did the verse say that comes right before the verse I'm reading," everything changes.  What comes right before the verse that says, "I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (Jer. 29:11, KJV)?  It's a letter to Israelites who are in exile in Babylon.  They are the ones God is talking to.  If the text is also for me, it is only for me indirectly in terms of what it really meant originally.

It's popular to see Isaiah 14:12 in relation to the fall of Satan from heaven before Adam sinned: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (KJV).  In our dictionary, "Lucifer" is one of the names of Satan.  But it wasn't at the time of Isaiah.

The NIV translators are not evil perverters of truth by translating it "morning star."  Even the slightest read of the verses that come before this one make it clear that this passage was not originally talking about Satan but about the King of Babylon (cf. 14:4).  I'm not saying it couldn't have an additional meaning, a "fuller sense."  I'm just saying that's not at all what it meant originally.

I was raised on the King James Version and I still love its lofty prose, but it is interesting that it often lists each verse independently, like a list.  The disadvantage is that you then can tend to see individual verses as stand-alone statements of truth.  You don't read them in paragraphs.  You may lose a sense of the literary context and literary flow.

So we are trained as children in Sunday School to memorize memory verses.  I'm all for it.  I often find myself quoting verses and excerpts from verses.  I think it is great when the way someone talks breathes and echoes Scripture, where the text regularly leaps from a person's sub-conscious.  The down-side is that if one focuses too much on small snippets of biblical text, then you are not as likely to get a sense of its context.  You will have a tendency to read it wrongly.

So the first stage of my Bible reading was what I initially called the "mirror-reading" stage.  You come to the words of the texts with a host of assumptions, a "dictionary" you inherited from wherever you grew up speaking whatever language you spoke with all the assumptions of that particular culture and subculture.  You will define words like "Lucifer" in accordance with the way you've heard the word used.  You will define the words of your memory verses in the terms you have heard.

But you will not come to the text with its historical context.  This is something largely assumed by the text.  After all, the most significant, most central assumptions in the communication of two people are often the things they don't say to each other because they already know them.  So it takes a great deal of unlearning and relearning to be able to read the books of the Bible for what they really meant.  The tendency to find in the Bible what you already think is almost more difficult to overcome than smoking. At least a smoker knows he or she is smoking and needs to quit.  We often aren't even aware we are reading the Bible out of context.


John C. Gardner said...

You refer to Is 14:12 and state that the specific reference is not to the Devil. I concur with that judgment. However, you also state that you are not denying a fuller meaning(i.e. sensus plenior). What limitations might help us define what sensus plenior might be in relation to specific passages in the Old Testament? How would it be possibole to keep hermeneutics from becoming untied from historical reality(think of allegorical interpretations in the Patristic period or Middle Ages)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

What has become of "Biblical Christianity" is far removed from "the ancients", I believe. Why? because we have grown aware in so many areas (human knowledge, Constitutional government and personal self awareness). Scribes are not priviledged and humans can find their niche under "liberty of conscience" and the principle of "free association".

I've been reading an "intellectual history" that I'd probably enjoy better, if I was more fully educated in philosophical terminology. The book is written by two renowned historians that are ruminating between themselves about what it means to be a Jew within certain contexts and with certain personal experiences using real history in real time to make their points. These are not "spiritual Jews", but ethnically identified Jews within nation states (aware of their bias). What is a "Jew", then? and what does it matter?

This is really how humans interpret reality; experience within context. Personal history, as well as history among other identifiers (religion, ethnicity,etc.) are complex and make for "war" about whose "reality" is the REAL and whose power will win over all others. Myth is born on the heels of grappling to make sense of "self" within context.

What was once a marginalized people group, "the Jews", is now a nation-state. Should marginalized people groups be supported in the development of a nation that constitute principles of justice? Differences abound as to convictions about "nation building" and rightly so. Similar arguments have been made for civil rights/civil liberties.

The West seemed to want to restore some dignity and protection to Jews for their persecution. Is the West to be concerned about each and every "social injustice" problem in the world. How can we be and still maintain the focus on our own needs at "home"? Nations do need to defend against enemies. And enemies are those that don't affirm our national values (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). Some don't want anything to do with such thinking of Constitutional government and justice for the inividual? Their reality is REAL to them and they hate the Jews and America, because of what we stand for. Such thinking is not easily persuaded by any amount of evidence concerning history, myth, culture and science. It is confimation bias, not a search for understanding. Their right is right because of "God". Are these not enemies to liberty itself?

Others might affirm a Constitutional government, but compromise (distort) our sense of human rights (individuality) and justice for their ends of "God", as the Muslim Brotherhood has done in Egypt. What is a Constitutional government to do when we believe in the rights of individuals? Should the West bother them, unless they threaten us? What "should" be the West's responsiblity? Or should "should" be a forbidden question about responsibility, when it comes to a standard for measuring behavior?

It is certain, though, that it is very dangerous to allow those that are so biased to "steer the ship" for others, because they won't be for liberty, but for control. The West has put a priority of controlling those that limit liberty as of major importance because we believe "the human" is more than one mind-set or a particular lifestyle. Otherwise, "spirtual authority" will supercede natural rights, which was to limit power, not further its ends, even the ends of "God" (whether "God" is defined as monotheism or authoritarianism via dictators).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Revisionist history is popular today in attempting to "equal the playing field".

I found this one interesting too in light of understanding history;

David Barton holds to the "myth" of America as a "Christian Nation". While it is 100% true that our nation was founded by Christians of many definitions, it is also true that the particular arguments for "natural law" and "natural rights" were not exclusively "Christian" per se. They were "humanistic", not theologically, but politically.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't want to imply that I believe revisionist history will "work", because it diversifies various interests, but at the same time, could it clarify? And even so, would clarification necessarily make for "peace"? I don't know, as all people are bent on understanding things in particular ways.

If rights are granted to groups, then we might be headed for rough waters, as has been seen in most "group thinking". Grant groups power and they might intimidate, as much a use their liberty for "good". I think of the Black Panthers intimidating voters last Presidential election or other revolutionary groups. Groups tend toward "mob mentality", not thoughtful, or respectful civility.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

One more comment, then I'm done. I'm sure you are aware that Shairia is being considered as an "option" to our Constitution?! I mean that Shairia is being considered equally binding to Muslims as the Constitution...and Nebraska's governor has resisted such nonsense! This is revisionist legal-ease for dissolving our nation state to the "mass of humanity" , under the U.N., because we cannot hold to exceptionalism....."humanity" means "nothing". It is like saying something is "biblical"....meaning resides in the eyes of the beholder, but held unaware of its localized meaning....

Our nation state stands for justice for individuals in our Bill of Rights! Religious traditions define things on "group think"....which is theology.

Glen Robinson said...

I really appreciate this post. I learned a great deal in the IBS class you taught via ATS online. One of the things that's really helped me lately, even with sermon prep and personal study, is to attempt to memorize large portions of texts. I started doing this with the Ephesians series I'm preaching this summer, trying to memorize the whole epistle. It has transformed my preparation as I'm meditating on it constantly. The "Fighter Verse" iPhone/iPad app has really helped with this. It makes memorizing large portions very easy. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially for pastors preaching exegetically through whole books.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this series!

Gustavo said...

Whether the author of Genesis was aware of Babylonian creation myths is not as important as whether the audience he wrote to swam in the same cultural milieu as those who understood Babylonian creation myths.

Thus history is pretty crucial in some cases unless we just want to read the words that an author wrote and try to make sense of them from our 20th century linguistic mindsets.