The Christian Examiner
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith. (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Volume V, Number 8: July 2, 2005
In this issue:
* The Need For a Consistent
Methodology, by Ethan R. Longhenry <mailto:disciple_of_iesus@...
The Need For a Consistent Interpretive Methodology
(Ethan R. Longhenry <mailto:disciple_of_iesus@...
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the
sense, so that the people understood the reading, (Nehemiah 8:8 ESV).
This verse explains how Ezra read the Law of God to the assembled exiles who
had returned to Jersualem by the time of Nehemiah. He read the Law clearly,
but also gave the sense so that the people understood. Ezra, clearly, is
reading, and then interpreting, the Scriptures.
In the absence of prophets, interpretation has become the critical vehicle
for understanding God's will for us. We read the Bible and pray for proper
discernment so that we can understand what God desires from us-this
necessitates interpreting the Scriptures.
Interpretation itself requires some standards-- without such standards being
upheld, you get the confusing morass known as modern "Christendom," with the
multiplicity of interpretations on almost any issue. The confusion is a
stumbling-block to many, yet ought not dissuade us from attempting to
understand what God desires from us. The word hermeneutic, describing such
standards, has been demonized constantly, but without good reason: we all
have to have a hermeneutic, and our hermeneutic must be based on principles
of interpretation as seen in the Scriptures.
I have found that many discussions go nowhere because the methodology used
by each party behind the interpretations do not work together. Both sides
will often walk away believing that they have scored the victory over the
unanswering opposition, yet in truth one or both sides walks away clearly
flawed because of the underlying methodology of interpretation and not from
the Scriptures themselves.
Methodology, then, is just as important as the final, interpreted, product.
If Ezra's interpretive methodology was more allegorical than literal,
something like in Philo of Alexandria, the resulting lesson to the people
would be nothing like a more literally-based interpretation.
Does discussion of methodology require terms not used in Scripture? More
often than not, yes. Does this mean that we shouldn't talk about it?
Absolutely not! If we cannot agree on how to interpret the Scriptures, we'll
never agree on our interpretations!
Time would fail me to list all the various methodological issues relating to
Biblical interpretation. I will content myself with a few important ones.
1. Handling the text aright (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). Not being careful to
present God's Word accurately leads to massive problems. Many times people
have gone astray because they have imposed their inferences on the text or
their conclusions based on Biblical principles upon the text as if they were
exactly what God said.
a. owning up to inferences: many times we believe things based on inferences
we have made from a text. There is nothing inherently wrong with inferences,
but we run afoul of God's Word when we act as if God literally said what we
have inferred. Any inference, by necessity, is based on shaky ground: there
is no direct indication from the text that the inference is right, and the
inference made may not take into account other plausible inferences that
would contradict the first one. It is also impossible to discuss what
Scripture says when someone is arguing not for Scripture but for the
inference they have made from the Scriptures. People tend to infer far more
than authors imply...and this is exceedingly true in Biblical studies.
b. Command, Example, Necessary Inference. When we use our hermeneutical
methods to interpret the Scriptures, we need to keep them straight. I don't
know how many times I have heard that "we've been commanded to come together
the first day of the week to break bread..." No, we haven't. We've been
commanded to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25), but it is by
approved example that we do so on the first day of the week to break bread
and drink the cup (Acts 20:7). Since commands carry more weight than
examples or inferences, we need to make sure that we speak properly lest we
c. the use of Biblical principles: the Scriptures make it clear that
Christians are to use their brains and use principles from the Scriptures to
decide whether to participate in various practices or believe various
doctrines (cf. Galatians 5:19-23, Hebrews 5:14). Making deductions from
Biblical principles, however, is not the same as receiving a "thus saith the
Lord." Example: gambling. When I look at the practice of gambling, I discern
that it represents covetousness, idolatry, and greed, and is not anything
like the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23); I can say, therefore, that
based on Biblical principles, gambling is sinful. I cannot say, however,
that God says that gambling is sinful, because I cannot point to any
Scripture that explicitly says that gambling is sinful. I can point to
Scriptures that show that covetousness, idolatry, and greed are sinful, and
show how gambling involves these sins, but God never explicitly said that
gambling is sinful.
We're not going to gain anyone's respect if we are too casual with God's
Word. If God explicitly says it, say He said it; if He did not explicitly
say it, own up to that, and make your argument. We ought not confuse the
2. Balance. If I were asked to point to one factor that has led to
division and dissension over two thousand years of "Christianity," I would
point to lack of balance. Almost every denomination was formed as a reaction
to a previous denomination's practices or beliefs, and the new denominations
were as off-balanced as the "parent" one. The Protestant Reformation denied
the Roman Catholic system so much that they went too far the other way:
Roman Catholics may over-emphasize works, but Protestantism under-emphasizes
them. Religion breeds extremism, and such extremism is never right.
Now, let no one believe that by "balance" I mean the center of any issue.
One can create a balance that is further right or further left than center,
and in many instances, proper spiritual balance is not in the dead center
but to the left or right of center. Extremes, however, are rarely, if ever,
right. It is no more right to deny that Christians must work to obey God
than to deny that we need God's grace. If one's beliefs are being formed as
an opposition to another belief, and not based on what the Scriptures say,
then the belief will most probably be imbalanced.
3. Contradiction and perspective. We know that the sum of God's Word is
truth, and this is an essential truth to have in our perspective. On the
surface, there are plenty of seemingly contradictory ideas. We must use
proper discernment-- and holistic discernment-- to rightly divide the word
of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
This proper discernment will force us to make decisions, and to understand
some verses in terms of other verses. We also have to consider the whole
perspective of the Scriptures on a given issue. For instance, in
interpreting Romans 14, I do so in light of Paul's statements in Romans
15:1-3, 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, 33, and Philippians 2:4. I begin to look at
Romans 14 in terms of Christians needing to put others first and recognizing
that things that are lawful but do not encourage are not profitable-- and
because of that, my interpretation of Romans 14 differs greatly from those
who wish to use it to continually justify the "strong" brother.
Many more examples could be used, but I the above gives the idea. We need to
test our interpretations and attempt to find the key: that passage that
allows all other verses to be understood in its terms to remove all
contradiction. Our understanding may not be what we perhaps would personally
like, but let God's Word be true and every man a liar.
We can understand God's message for us.but there will never be any
agreement, or proper understanding of truth, until we're on the proper page
of interpretive methodology. We must be as Ezra, reading out the Scriptures,
and giving the sense, so that all may understand.
Ethan R. Longhenry
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