Saturday, February 15, 2014

Trump Verse Hermeneutics

I wish I had it all crystallized, but I've been pondering for some time how to present in a convincing way to the church that they are reading the Bible wrongly in a way that does ultimate harm to the kingdom and its causes. It fits with my "greatest common denominator" theme. I thought I would try to collect some more thoughts and blogging is the most effective way for me to do that.

I put it like this to a class--before the 1800s, people interpreted individual verses in the light of their overall theology. Now, individual trump verses, often unclear verses, create a miscellaneous collection of atomized beliefs and practices. American Christianity has become Pharisaical--we have a list of things to believe and do, without underlying reasons for believing or doing them.

Let me see if I can unpack that a little. In their support of slavery, the Princeton Calvinists used a "trump verse hermeneutic." Forget the big principles of Scripture, Colossians 3:22 tells slaves to obey their masters. A context developed in which people focus on individual verses rather than on the big principles of Scripture.

The problem with trump verse hermeneutics is:
  • These words weren't written to you originally. It is on the most localized level that verses are most likely to be context-bound to the worlds and situations they first addressed.
  • It is on this micro-verse level that meaning is most ambiguous and susceptible to multiple interpretations.
So let's look at John Wesley, who lived in the 1700s. He can quote Scripture like the Dickens, but he quotes them as examples of an overall theology, just like the apostle Paul did. By contrast, in the fundamentalist hermeneutic of today, individual verses are planks in a Pharisaic platform. I call it Pharisaic because the rules and ideas are not a matter of underlying principles playing themselves out but they are a collection of arbitrary dictates from God to be followed.

You think of the fact that Jews don't eat meat and dairy in the same meal because "you will not boil the kid in its mother's milk." The reason for this rule is lost to history, but today it is observed blindly in a context that makes the rule seem silly. In the same way, fundamentalists today insist the husband must be the head of the home not because it fits the big picture of Scripture applied today but because there are some trump verses, like the verses used in support of slavery in the 1800s.

We have created a culture in American Christianity where we urge and drive the person in the pew to pour over the Bible and linger on every word, but we have set the individual Christian up for failure. First, they have no hope to understand the words in context, at least not on their own. The first meaning of the Bible was a meaning of the times when it was written. Period. No debate. To disagree is not to understand the situation.

This has never been the end of the story, however. The Spirit can speak to anyone through the Bible, whether they know what the Bible really meant or not. Nevertheless, the problem I am addressing is that in our enthusiasm to get Christians into Scripture, we have inadvertently made them into Pharisees.

History has taken away from the American Bible reader the key to success when reading the individual verses of the Bible without contextual training. We have not given them an overall theological compass into which they might fit those individual verses. We have not taught them to see in the individual verses of the Bible the great truths of Scripture. We have not given them the "clear" by which to approach the "unclear" individual verse.

Instead, we have programmed them to come up with a thousand individual truths from a thousand individual verses, ripped from their contexts. We have not given them a dictionary by which to read the individual verses but have programmed them to see each individual verse as an individual truth. Their theologies are a loose collection of direct mandates and atoms to believe.

American Christianity has become a grand company of Pharisees and theological lawyers, and the mechanism for propagating this system has only become more and more sophisticated. We have trained our pastors to train our people to read the Bible this way. The pro-slavery interpreters of the early 1800s have won.


Pastor Bob said...

At Asbury we studied about (local cultural truth) and (trans-cultural truth) which I understand, however there is truth to be learned and applied if only ,the principle there of, in the local cultural truth. The scripture example discussed was 1 Cor. 11:6 and the woman's hair covering. Local cultural, but the principle of reverence and witness implied.

Cheryl said...

Could you recommend a book on biblical hermeneutics for the lay person?

Paula said...

I had similar thoughts here. This is also the reason I think the Bible should be rendered in paragraphs rather than verses; see here under "Format and Terminology".

Ken Schenck said...

I've heard a little book I wrote called Making Sense of God's Word is easy on the read.

Mark Kennedy said...

Thanks for the heads up. I've ordered a copy in the hope it will prove useful with hungry-to-understand teens.

Christopher C. Schrock said...

FYI Dr. Schenck--I most enjoy your posts on hermeneutics.

Also, reading this made me think of John Frame's The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, specifically his third chapter where he takes Charles Hodge to task for an "objectivist" view of Bible/Theology, i.e., treating Bible "as a 'body of facts' and neglecting the fact that is also language." Frame goes on to say: "The purpose of Scripture is not merely to give us an authoritative list of things we must believe [contra- fundamentalism] but also to exhort us, command us, inspire our imaginations, put songs in our hearts, question us, sanctify us, and so on" (78).

Also, I agree with you--this is a real problem, i.e., "Instead, we have programmed them to come up with a thousand individual truths from a thousand individual verses, ripped from their contexts. We have not given them a dictionary by which to read the individual verses but have programmed them to see each individual verse as an individual truth. Their theologies are a loose collection of direct mandates and atoms to believe."

The Westminster Confession of Faith has been incredibly helpful for me exactly at this point. Specifically, WCF. 1., teaches basic principle of analogy of faith and interpretation exercised through "good and necessary consequence"--and if this is actually being exercised, then theological truths will be gathered out of more than one place. My two cents.

dan said...

I think you've nailed the major problem here! I personally think that this is the major issue that people in the Evangelical circles have with the text when they talk about reading the text "literally". The general movement of the text, the emphasis on the person of Jesus, the presence of interpretive lenses are all lost when we emphasize "literalness".

I think this mostly because when people are attempting to be literal readers, they're not really being literal readers…they're just finding verses that they want to promote and grab bag style picking and choosing what they want.

I may be wrong, and I'm not dismissing reading the text assuming that it can be simply and literally read (its how I read) but starting there, we lose the big picture thinking about the purpose, form, and direction that the Bible is moving in.