Hermeneutics: How Do We Correctly Interpret What the Bible Says?

This week’s episode of the Theology for the People podcast is a discussion I had with pastors Benjamin Morrison and Craig Babcock on the topic of hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation.

Hermeneutics is the method by which we interpret communication, particularly texts. Legal hermeneutics, for example, is the study of how laws, or the constitution for example, are to be understood and put into practice.

Biblical hermeneutics is all about how to correctly interpret the Bible, so that we can be doers of the Word, not hearers only.

The reason hermeneutics is worth considering is because different people, reading the same Bible, can come to differing conclusions about what it means. The reason that happens is an issue of theological method (see: Theological Method: Sources of Theology and Why People Arrive at Different Conclusions About Matters of Faith & the Bible) and hermeneutics.

It must be said that not all hermeneutics are equally valid. Some hermeneutics are better than others. Sometimes we even intentionally use a hermeneutics in order to properly interpret something, as we do with “Christ-centered hermeneutics” – in which we intentionally read all of Scripture as pointing to Jesus, which we do because Jesus himself told us that this was the proper way to read and interpret the Old Testament Scriptures (see Luke 24:44-48).

Other examples of good hermeneutics would be “biblical hermeneutics,” in which read the Bible understanding all of the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, meaning that each individual part of the Bible should be understood in light of what the rest of the Bible says. We might intentionally choose to read the gospels through a Jewish lens, seeking to put ourselves sin their shoes in order to understand the things that happened or were said.

Oftentimes, however, our hermeneutics are not intentional, and we may not be aware of them, and they do impact how we interpret and understand what the Bible says. How then can we become aware of the hermeneutics we’re unintentionally using so that we can determine if they are good or not?

In this episode we discuss this and other questions surrounding the topic of hermeneutics. You can listen here or in the embedded player below.

Hermeneutics: How Do We Correctly Interpret What the Bible Says? – with Benjamin Morrison & Craig Babcock Theology for the People

In this episode Nick Cady and special co-host Craig Babcock speak with Benjamin Morrison, lead pastor of Calvary Chapel Svitlovodsk, Ukraine and coordinator for City to City Ukraine, about the topic of hermeneutics: the interpretation of texts, particularly the Bible. Hermeneutics and biblical interpretation is the focus of Ben's masters studies at London School of Theology, Nick's alma mater.  What is hermeneutics, and why is it important? Can't we just read the Bible without having to worry about interpretation? As Ben shows us, everyone who reads the Bible has a hermeneutics and we are all interpreters, the question is: are you a good and faithful interpreter of the biblical text? If, as Ben points out, not all hermeneutics are equally good, then how can we determine which ones are better than others and how do we identify our own hermeneutics in order to examine whether they are good or not? We discuss these questions in this episode.

Theological Method and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in Pisa? There are actually several leaning towers in Pisa as a result of the soft soil in that area.

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa originally leaned in the other direction? As the builders saw the tower beginning to lean, they built the subsequent levels with one side higher in an attempt to straighten it out by putting more weight on the one side. It ended up being an overcorrection which resulted in the tower leaning in the opposite direction, in which it currently leans.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa as a Picture of the Importance of Theological Method

In my studies at LST I have been studying the topic of theological method. Everyone who thinks about God or the Bible does so methodologically, although they do so with varying degrees of self-awareness and consistency.

There are 5 universally recognized sources of theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience and Community.

The way in which a person orders these, the role they believe each of these play, how much importance or credence they give to each one, and how they believe each relates to the other are the questions that go into play in one’s theological method.

Basically: theological method is about the foundations of how we think about God and the Bible.

What we learn from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that foundations are pretty important. And what happens if you build on a poor foundation, or don’t take care about the foundation you lay – the mistakes the builders in Pisa made – then you will likely end up with a faulty edifice.

Another thing that can happen if you don’t pay attention to foundations is that, like in Pisa, you will end up trying to save your edifice by trying to compensate or over-correct, in which case you may end up leaning in the opposite direction. As Martin Luther said, many of us are like a drunk man trying to ride a horse, who – upon falling off the one side, resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling of on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.

A proper theological method will always be driven by Scripture. Reason is a God-given ability which helps us understand His divine revelation, but one which does have its limits in fallen humanity. Tradition is about recognizing the historic interpretations of the Bible by the Body of Christ, such as the Trinity. Again, tradition is not without its errors either, as it has humanity’s fingerprints on it, so this cannot be what drives our theology either. Experience is effective in confirming what we read in Scripture, but what about when we feel something that seems contrary to what the Bible teaches? In these cases, we are to interpret our experiences by the Scriptures, not the other way around. And our community obviously shapes how we read Scripture, but we are to apply the Scriptures to our times and places rather than changing our understandings of Biblical truths based on present cultural mores. Scripture, God’s revelation of Himself, is the proper foundation.

Here is a short video about the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

Wesley on Money

I’ve been reading a book on John Wesley’s theological method for my master’s course, and found an interesting section on his teachings and practice in regard to money.

Here’s an excerpt:

Wesley’s care for people extended beyond their spiritual well-being. In his time he was in the forefront of helping to alleviate the social ills of 18th-century England. His care for souls extended to the whole person, especially among the poor, the uneducated, the sick and the dispossessed – for example, slaves and prisoners.

The poor received special attention. He provided basic medical care and wrote simple medical manuals to help those who could not afford professional healthcare. At Kingswood school he set up a benevolent loan fund for people with immediate financial needs, the only stipulation being that they should repay the loan within three months.

Wesley preached what he practiced. Many sermons were intended to instruct on how to handle money. His best-known sermon dealing with money is entitled “The Use of Money.” In it Wesley exhorted Christians to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Wesley soon discovered that his followers were good at the first two principles, but ignored the third principle against surplus accumulation, which he considered the leading ill of Christian praxis. He was so concerned over the misuse of money and corresponding injustices that he published several sermons specifically warning about the spiritual danger to the person who does not give.

(Thorson, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: a model of evangelical theology, 53-54)

Several stories are told about Wesley’s passion for good stewardship of money came about. First of all, he grew up in poverty. His father was a minister and John was one of 9 kids.

As a young man, Wesley was accepted into Oxford University. At Oxford, he had just finished paying for some pictures to decorate his room, when one of the maids came to his door. It was a cold day and she only had a threadbare gown to wear with no coat. He reached in his pocked to give her money to buy a coat, but he found that he had too little left after decorating his room. He asked himself, “Will thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward’? O justice! O mercy! Are these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

Starting in 1731, Wesley reportedly began limiting his expenses so he would have more that he could give away. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses were 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give away. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.

Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away extra income. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but their standard of giving.

With increased income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but their standard of giving.

One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds.

Wesley encouraged Christians to “gain all you can,” meaning that it is good to make a lot of money. However, he added that in gaining all you can, Christians must be careful not to damage their own souls, minds, or bodies, or the souls, minds, or bodies of anyone else. He prohibited gaining money through industries that took advantage of others, exploiting them or endangering them.

Wesley outlined four guidelines for spending one’s income:

  1. Provide things needful for yourself and your family (1 Timothy 5:8)
  2. Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:8)
  3. Provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:17) & Owe no many anything (Romans 13:8)
  4. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10)

I was challenged and encouraged by reading about Wesley’s attitudes and practices with money. I hope you are too.

Let’s not stop with only being inspired – but may we be moved to action! Is there a change that needs to be made in the way you view or handle money?