- When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, we often "extend" the literal meaning so that it speaks to us today.
But when we get into disagreements, it is helpful to open up the hermeneutical hood of the car to see how the meaning actually breaks down. And surely a pastor should at least have some sense of what is under the hood, even if most of the time he or she just drives the car.
1. Here is an important hermeneutical point:
- There is a difference between reading the books of the Bible as historical documents and reading them as Christian Scripture.
- Perhaps most importantly, there is an existential difference. I do not read these books as mere artifacts of history. These are my books. These books tell the story of my family. These are not curious stories of other peoples from other places. These are the stories of my people. They are stories that provide a framework for identifying who I am.
- I read these books from a perspective of faith. If I am reading these books as Christian Scripture, then I read them from a Christian faith perspective. In philosophical terms, I place the content of these texts into a Christian "metanarrative."
- This perspective provides the rules by which the original meaning of these texts can be expanded.
- When I read them as Scripture, I see them as mediating God's authority over me in some way.
Our Christian point of view does. As Christians, our "metanarrative" sees Christ as the "goal of the law" (Rom. 10:4). We know, not because of the texts themselves, which could be integrated in more than one way. We believe, because of the Christian glasses we wear, that Hebrews gives a more complete answer than Leviticus.
From a historical perspective, Leviticus did not give any hint that the animal sacrifices would ever end. The text of Leviticus itself knows nothing of the sort. It is when we read Leviticus from a Christian perspective that we see the Levitical system as temporary, a foreshadowing of the death of Christ.
There is a theorem in mathematics called Gödel's incompleteness theorem. To put it in layman's terms, the theorem basically says that a closed system of ideas cannot show itself to be entirely coherent without the introduction of some framework from outside the closed system. To apply this to the biblical situation, the books of the Bible themselves cannot establish their own coherency without the use of a metanarrative that comes alongside them and organizes their content from the outside.
The difference between the historical meaning of the biblical texts and reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is the introduction of the Christian metanarrative. Without this metanarrative, the coherency of the Bible falls apart. Without it, the result is predictable--the atomization of the texts. This is what happened in Protestant Liberalism. This was the death of biblical theology. Theological interpretation has tried to recover it, but to the extent that it pretends to be based on the text alone, it is simply an exercise in self-deception.
The metanarrative is supplied by Christian tradition, and the most important metanarrative is that which derives from common Christianity, that is, Christian orthodoxy.
2. So what are the concrete mechanisms by which the biblical meaning is expanded? Here are some examples:
In its literary context, the story of Adam and Eve explains why men have to work hard on the land, why women have painful childbirth and are subject to their husbands, and why humans and snakes do not get along. The rest of the OT knows nothing of this story. We have no evidence to say whether David or Isaiah or Samuel even knew it. It plays no obvious role at all in the thinking of the rest of the OT, which never mentions it again.
Yet when we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, the Adam/Eve story provides the problem for which Christ is the solution. This is the "metanarrativizing" of this short story. It extends the scope and significance of the story from two local chapters to make them one of the key texts in all of Scripture. This is an extension of this passage's original meaning that happens when we read it as Christian Scripture.
Read on its own terms, the Sabbath command is about not working on Saturday (It can also refer to other rest days on Israel's calendar). It is a day of rest but also a day that signifies Israel's association with Yahweh, for there are capital consequences for those who work on this day. There is little association in the OT between the Sabbath and worship, although Ezekiel 46:3-4 is a very rare exception. It refers, however, to the obligation to make a Sabbath sacrifice in the sanctuary on Saturdays.
In the NT, Paul's writings explicitly tell Gentile believers that they are not obligated to keep the Jewish Sabbath (Col. 2:16; Rom. 14:5). When Christians today interpret the Sabbath law as taking any day for rest or when they transfer the idea to worshiping God on Sunday, they are changing the connotations of the original command by generalizing it. A specific command about a specific day becomes a general principle of rest and worship. This is not what the command originally said but is a generalized version of it.
Sometimes, the specifics of the original context are subtly replaced with our own. So whenever the Bible says "you" and it was referring to an ancient audience and we take ourselves as the "you," we have subtly replaced our specifics for the original ones. We make sense of the words of the Bible against our context instead of the original one.
So when we use the Bible to come up with "biblical principles" on how to manage your money or how to relate as husbands and wives, we are usually projecting the dynamics of a modern economy or a modern family onto the text. Originally, of course, any instruction on money in the Bible came from an agricultural world and a highly patriarchal system.
A subset of the respecification above is when we end up introducing ancient elements as normative for our contemporary behavior. The result is usually bizarre or even oppressive. So we start to treat women according to ancient norms or we start to dress with some veil substitute. Perhaps we try to make an ancient picture of the world fit with modern science or psychology.
Sometimes we make sense of a biblical passage by redefining the words. There is the old sermon from the King James of Isaiah 35:8 about how you can be stupid and still live a godly life--even fools will not err therein. Where "fools" were originally the ungodly, they are redefined as the stupid. Where "err" in this context meant to wander onto a path accidentally, it is redefined to mean "go astray" or "go wrong."
Individuals regularly find meanings that make sense within their overarching Christian theological and ethical framework by finding a potential meaning in the words that fits. This eliminates any distance between the text and the themselves, often by redefining the meaning of the words. So the food laws may have had everything to do with an ancient priestly way of understanding the world, but we make sense of them by making it have to do with dietary hygiene.
We can extend the original meaning of the text by applying it somewhat metaphorically. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 when he takes instruction about not muzzling an ox when it is treading grain and applies it to ministers of the gospel--they should be supported materially for the work they do.
We sometimes reinterpret elements of ancient worldview metaphorically. Whereas Paul may have literally believed in three layers of sky (2 Cor. 12:1), we take it figuratively. When I read imprecatory psalms as a young person, I took my enemies in terms of my temptations and my challenges, the things that would lead me to sin. Of course originally they were quite tangible people.
There are any number of OT texts that we, without thinking about it, ignore. These are the texts that just don't fit our metanarrative. Who spends much time lingering over Psalm 137:9 or Nahum? They are "naughty verses" that don't fit our Christian metanarrative as easily. Specific Christian traditions also tend to have some passages they pay a lot of attention to and others that they may not even notice are there.
3. These are all strategies to extend the literal and original meanings of the Bible to make them speak directly to us today. We are often not even aware that we are extending the meanings, these dynamics are so much a part of our inherited way of reading biblical texts. They are subconscious. We do not even know we are doing it.
The result is that we read Scripture unlike we would read any other book. We would never pull a single sentence out of a letter we found on the street and apply it to ourselves, substituting ourselves for the "you." The default way of reading Scripture is an out of context one, one that is programmed to bracket context and apply the words directly to ourselves.
This is not bad, except when it becomes harmful or oppressive or hinders the gospel because it gets plain weird. We also get into situations where, because neither of us is reading the words for what they really meant, we have no basis to arbitrate between competing interpretations.
4. Finally, modernist evangelical hermeneutics derived a more scientific method of fusing the horizons between "that time" and "our time." You identify the "why" behind the original instruction or the "principle" inherent in the original meaning of the text. Then you reapply that principle to our contemporary context.
This is a valid method but it is one that the average person is not trained to do. You might also argue that the method is often practiced with some elements of a premodern perspective retained in the sense that original meaning interpretations sometimes stop short of a penetrating cultural analysis and there are sometimes artificial boundaries both to the limits of what the original meaning can be and the way in which it must be applied.