16 May 2011

Hermeneutical Tea Party

I've mentioned this before but there's a scene in Fiddler on the Roof that always makes me chuckle.
Perchik, the Marxist student from Kiev is staying with Tevye the milkman and his family. This all takes place in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka around the turn of the 20th century. Perchik receives room and board with Tevye's family and his task is to teach his daughters who otherwise would not have educational opportunities.

Sitting along the riverbank Perchik is having a Bible lesson with the younger girls and though we come in part way, it's obvious they've been looking at the story of Jacob and Laban, the years of labour ending with Jacob's acquisition of Rachel and Leah as wives. If you recall Jacob got tricked into working an additional seven years.

Wrapping it up, Perchik concludes...you see the moral of the story is, never trust your employer!

We always chuckle at the Marxist hermeneutic at work. Undoubtedly many meanings might be extrapolated from the Genesis narrative, but I'm quite certain the Marxist interpretation is not a valid option.

It's a case of the culture milieu driving the hermeneutic....thankfully in this case for a comedic purpose.

Recently I was perusing Scott Hahn's book describing his conversion to Romanism. He had been theologically Reformed and after converting to Rome has become something of a marketing tool for them, a poster child for Protestant proselytism. At one point in the story he was challenged by someone regarding the rosary. He was accused of praying to Mary. He replied that was silly, they merely 'venerated' her. After all, he added in all seriousness, the Scriptures say that all will call her blessed. And in the rosary, that's all they're doing. It's perfectly Scriptural.


For those interested, you might enjoy delving into the terms doulia and latria. Latria means worship and we get our word idolatry form it. Doulia (or dulia) means service. They don't offer 'latria' to Mary, but they do practice 'doulia' with regard to her. Actually Mary is special. She gets 'hyper-doulia,' so make sure you get it right. (wink)

This would be another example of system categories being created in order to make the system work. It also reminds me of the same kind of creative arguments I find in American Evangelicalism to justify their innovations.

These are fairly obvious hermeneutical errors, but another that to my astonishment, I keep encountering comes from conservative and often Reformed circles. It concerns Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12.

If you recall, Rehoboam ignored the advice of the older men and followed the advice of the younger men and rather than relieve Solomon's heavy tax burden, he sought to increase it. This led to the division of Israel into the ten northern tribes, still referred to Israel and the small but more faithful kingdom of Judah and Benjamin. We read:

16 So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents.

17 But as for the children of Israel which dwelt in the cities of Judah, Rehoboam reigned over them.

18 Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem.

19 So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day.

20 And it came to pass, when all Israel heard that Jeroboam was come again, that they sent and called him unto the congregation, and made him king over all Israel: there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only.

21 And when Rehoboam was come to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah, with the tribe of Benjamin, an hundred and fourscore thousand chosen men, which were warriors, to fight against the house of Israel, to bring the kingdom again to Rehoboam the son of Solomon.

22 But the word of God came unto Shemaiah the man of God, saying,

23 Speak unto Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and unto all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the remnant of the people, saying,

24 Thus saith the LORD, Ye shall not go up, nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel: return every man to his house; for this thing is from me. They hearkened therefore to the word of the LORD, and returned to depart, according to the word of the LORD.

Now, it's clear that God wanted the kingdom divided. Providence guides the hearts of kings and Shemaiah makes it clear that is was part of God's plan to divide the kingdom.

Why? Probably several reasons. There are many lessons derived from the division...the apostasy of the north, idolatry, judgment, the remnant in the south, the kingly line/the seed, preparing for the lessons and typology of the exile, setting the stage for the Messiah to come, etc...

But I keep encountering variations of this argument:

Since Rehoboam was increasing taxes.

Taxes are bad because the Bible teaches limited government.

Rehoboam wasn't allowed to pursue the rebellious northern tribes, he was forbidden by God to do so.

Therefore, tax revolts are legitimate, vindicated, and God honouring.

I'm sorry but that's right up there with....never trust an employer. Some of these folks are trying to find principles from the Bible to apply to all of life. While that's commendable on the surface and certainly the Bible instructs the Covenant People...the Church, this provides an excellent example of how skewed this way of thinking is when applied to modern politics.

And rather than honour God, they're actually demeaning and degrading the Scriptures and the Old Covenant people. Israel was not a nation like the United States or any other. It was the Covenant People of God, analogous to the Church in this age. We shouldn't treat Old Covenant Israel like they were just some other nation...like the Amorites, Syria, Egypt, or the United States.

This is just completely missing the fact that 2 Corinthians 1 says:

19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.

20 For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.

Israel was a picture of Jesus Christ as were all the promises of the Old Testament. It wasn't about the land. It still isn't. It wasn't about Israel being some kind of geo-political pattern for so-called Christian nations.

It was about Jesus the Christ.

Is it applicable in some sense to a modern nation? No. Modern nations are not analogous to Israel...they're Babylon's, Rome's, in fact anything BUT Israel.

The culture of our day drives this political interpretation. Maybe we should call it the Tea Party hermeneutic? It's every bit as bad as the Marxist or Roman versions. It completely misses what the passage is actually about and forces an interpretation that isn't there...all to serve a political and cultural agenda.

This is a failure to rightly handle the Word.

If we want to understand the Old Testament, we need to first turn to the clear didactic passages in the New Testament, passages that aren't clouded by apocalyptic imagery or prophetic typology, passages that aren't poetic wisdom, or even parable contained within narrative. We should first turn to the clear passages, like the Epistles. There we can safely derive principles and definitions which will help us go back and visit other less clear passages of Scripture. Or in the case of Old Testament narrative, but rightly understanding what or more particularly who Israel represented, it will help us understand the scope and limits of application.

Also we should be careful of blatant contradiction. I'm not referring to dynamics or perspectival difficulties that might arise when trying to reconcile metaphysical concepts with physical manifestations, or eschatological and temporal tensions.

The above example would be a case of deriving a moral principle from Old Testament narrative that blatantly contradicts a moral imperative from the superior New Testament/Covenant. We are told to pay our taxes. We may not like what they're used for. If you don't like paying them, then by all means take legitimate action. You can vote, sign a petition, or whatever as a private citizen. Protesting taxes is not really the task of the church, but as citizens of common grace kingdoms if there's a means to do that...fine. In a worst case scenario, you can leave to avoid paying them.

But we're never told it's alright to revolt against taxes we don't like...even ones that are immoral. Paul was well aware in Romans 13, as Christ was in Luke 20, that Rome would use the taxes to fund the murderous legions, pay for bread and circuses...the Roman welfare programme, as well as fund idolatrous temples.

Were they upset about this? No. Were Christians to protest these taxes? No.

For those unfamiliar, the counter-argument is....they just didn't have the means to. Roman government had no democratic voice. If it did, then they should have.

Arguments from silence are usually a bit shaky and in addition this one is not true. The office of Tribune still existed though certainly by Imperial times it had lost some of its weight. Nevertheless, the Tribunes wouldn't have been interested in the grievances of Jewish sect. But you know what? That was alright. There's no dilemma...unless you're a Sacralist.

Then, you have constructed what you believe to be a 'christian' version of the state. And like it or not, your own cultural history is bound to affect and shape how you look at the issue. Or to put it another way, since the Scriptures don't really provide a blueprint, and the Israel analogy is fraught with difficulties, you have to fill in the gaps. Consequently, I think this is an example of Tea Party hermeneutics hunting for Bible passages to support their presuppositions. This is a distinctly American hermeneutic, and unless you believe hermeneutics to be subjective and situational...then it is patently wrong.

This is the same kind of error that has led Christians to vindicate Total War. The Israelites did it in the conquest of Canaan right? So we...Christian America don't have to feel bad about Iraqi civilians getting killed.

Or, since the land belongs to the Jews, they're justified, maybe even mandated to treat the Palestinian Arabs the way they do.

Sometimes this hermeneutic can have some pretty serious implications. In the case of taxes, it's bad enough, but revolt and/or oppression can leave the Church with blood on its hands. It's the story of Church History....which is often something quite different than the story of the Church.


Mr. Mcgranor said...

Is it clear that God wanted the kingdom divided? Perhaps it was man--that insisted on such a division, as i understand it..?

David said...

I really believe hermeneutics are at the very center of all the issues plagueing the American church. Currently, many churches are feeding their people a watered down, intellectually vaccuous version of Christianity. At best, they refuse to challenge people or demand anything at all from them; so while they may teach truth, it is a children's Sunday school type of truth, offering simplistic interpretations of compartmentalized biblical stories. Other times, it is moralistic appeals and pop psychology devoid of any real gospel teaching, or an appeal to the flesh which attempts to emulate the consumer/entertainment culture which results in something that nothing more than theatre or a circus. Worst case, the scriptures become a tool to manipulate people to hold certain cultural views and to take certain political actions. But unfortunately, the modern man and women in the pew do not understand or acknowledge the complexities and difficulties inherent in the interpretation of the scriptures. Until this is resolved many will continue to be led astray. This must be taught, for even many of those I know who hold to a very solid theology don't know how to read and interpret their bibles for themselves, and thus are still subject to being led astray. Reading comprehension is a lost art in our culture. People know how to read words and sentences, but it ends there. They don't know how to "understand." The bible is such a rich text with such a variety of ways it communicates. It doesn't always teach truth in a straightforward manner. It doesn't read like a technical manual or the instructions to put together a bookshelf. Sometimes the theology is implicit in the story but never made explicit. Sometimes the author communicates a point through the way he chose to structure his narrative, or what he chose to omit. There is subtlety and word play. Yet so many take the hermeneutical approach which consisits of: I'm going to read these sentences in a plain, simplistic way and whatever they mean to me (through my cultural lens) is what it means. This simply won't do. And until pastors choose to do the hard thing and teach people hermeneutics and make them aware of their own presuppositions and challenge them and help them to grow to intellectual maturity, the church will suffer and will be tossed to and fro and blown about by every new wind of doctrine.

Protoprotestant said...

David- obviously I agree with everything you said. I think you raise an excellent point concerning the focus for most people is...what does the text mean to me.

I don't think you have to have a degree to understand the Bible...I know you don't either. But at the same time, when people say, 'I just read it literally,' demonstrates that they just haven't even thought about it very much. Because guaranteed, 100% of the time, they're actually NOT reading it literally. They read portions of it that way, but they witout realizing it, impose their presuppositions.

My wife and I were talking about how so many people we know are literally unable to concentrate on anything for more than a short time. We know people who are really almost incapable of holding a conversation for more than a few minutes. They're incapable of watching a movie that has any depth of plot, let alone actually reading a book. There are so many people like this.

I've talked to Pastors who say...well, that's where people are at...so we have to meet them part way...or just teach them to trust what we say.

I cannot agree with that. If we're to be renewed in our minds, then it would seem we need to quit being mentally lazy. If it's God's Word, then we had better find the time and apply ourselves to understanding what He's saying to us.

But at the same time......certainly not everyone is called to be an expert or a scholar. Many of us just don't have the time...and yet many could certainly make more time if they really wanted to.

There has to be some balance. I don't know where it is....probably a different place for different people....but I agree, this is a critical and really a pretty basic tool that helps SO MUCH in reading through your Bible and understanding it. And it eliminates the whacked out stuff like I was talking about in the post.

A big problem I've seen in Bible Studies is a simple refusal to submit to the text. If it says something they don't like...people will wiggle out of it, explain it away, make an excuse.

It's definitely a two-edged sword.

Protoprotestant said...

Mr. Mcgranor,

I think most people would understand that the prophet speaks for God. So if he's saying it...it's the same as if God was saying it.

This is a good example of a dynamic. On the one hand, the people in the North...they wanted the division to bail out on the taxes and the House of David.

On the other hand...it was all part of God's plan.

There's a lot of folks that have trouble reconciling the fact that man makes choices and is respobsible for them...but at the same time everything transpires according to God's will.

For most that's a logical contradiction. I would just say our logic-tools can't decipher the eternal as it relates to the temporal.

So on one level...you're kind of right. The people wanted it.

But in this special case, through the prophet and the Special Revelation of Scripture...the windows of heaven are opened and we get to see something of the Divine Decree...the fact that God wanted it to happen.

We don't have those windows today. It sure would be easier sometimes if we did.

David said...

"I've talked to Pastors who say...well, that's where people are at...so we have to meet them part way...or just teach them to trust what we say."
- Yes, I've heard this argument also, but I don't accept it. I actually spoke to one pastor about this. I was trying to coax him to be a proper leader, to be a shepherd of his people, to put the metaphorical crook around their neck and give them a gentle pull in the right direction. He told me flat out that he didn't think his congregation was smart enough. He said he couldn't teach anything that involved any degree of complexity or critical thought; rather, he must keep everything very simple, and in the course of an hour he must make sure to just rehash one thought or idea over and over. He felt that if he did anything beyond people would leave his church. So there he was, a supposed shepherd, who actions were being directed by fear of his sheep.

However, I understand your point about balance. I was reading Knowing God by J.I. Packer recently, and he makes the point about balance as well. He makes sure to be clear that there are some who may have great intellectual knowledge but no real relationship with God. Despite all their learning they may not really know and be known by God; they just know about Him. There are also others who may not be deep theologians, but who know their God deeply and truly in the practice of their lives. It is certainly more complex then a matter of who can score higher on a biblical knowledge test. That being said, one can still argue that if knowing God is one of the most significant things we can do with our lives, then we shouldn't be put out by the thought of spending a little time in the word or putting forth a little effort to know how to properly interpret and apply the scriptures. But as much as the problem ultimately lies at the personal level, it is in my opinion the failed leadership that has the most to answer for. Ultimately, how are the congregants to know what is expected of them when all they've ever encountered from their spiritual leaders is a lazy, simplistic, watered-down Christianity. As you say, our minds are to be renewed and we are to love God with all our mind, yet many still see faith and intellect as antithetical.

And, as you point out, many people try to wriggle out of the things they don't want to hear. They push the sermon on the mount back into the Mosaic era, or forward to the millennium. They add qualifications to the ideas of loving our enemies or submitting to government that aren't in the text. They redefine grace (it is for those who deserve it!!). And then they go back and read that God commanded the Israelites to put to death heretics and sodomites and they wish to re-establish these principles in the here and now. There is basic confusion as to what the bible is, how to read it, and how to apply it. Until this begins to be resolved American Christianity will continue to be plagued by all sorts of bizarre behavior which ultimately hurts the witness of the true Church. Without the proper hermeneutical grid people will continue to use the scriptures to justify violence, warmongering, hatred, constantinianism, greed, licentiousness, hedonism, legalism, etc.

David said...

One more thought from my personal life. It is a perfect example of what happens when you can't critically think about and examine things. Lately, I have run into several Christians who love Ayn Rand. They've read her books. They're excited to see the movie Atlas Shrugged. They latch on to her because she supports their presupposed beliefs about limited government and laissez faire capitalism, but fail to recognize that her teachings wage war against the truths presented in scripture. But if they thought about things from a scriptural standpoint from even a second they would reject her, but somehow they can't put 2 and 2 together. Her ideas are not biblical, and in many instances they are directly contra-biblical. Christ asks us to be conformed to his image and to act as he acted, laying down our rights and even our life for the sake of others and for the gospel. Rand says no action is to be considered rational unless it maximizes one's self-interest. She argues that greed and selfishness to be the greatest virtues, and any kind of altruism or self-sacrifice to be not only foolish but actually evil. The Bible says that the purpose of life is to glorify God and to be a light to the world, even at great cost to ourselves. Rand's philosophy explains that "the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness." We are meant to depend on God, yet she argues that we must depend on ourselves. The biblical story views the eating of the fruit in the garden as man's greatest downfall, yet Rand claims this was man's greatest triumph. She was ardently opposed to faith, constantly denigrating it in her writings, saying that religion is what people came up with until they were smart enough to produce philosophy. She sees faith as the death of the intellect.

Yet in reading her, they are blind to all of this - they see only her pro-capitalism and they love her. People need to be taught again to read, to see, and to think, for it seems they are spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind. These are Tea Party hermeneutics indeed.

Anonymous said...

David, I commiserate with your pain. But I would say that people need not merely be taught to read, see, and think; but that they need to be BORN AGAIN OF THE SPIRIT, because that is the only remedy for spiritual blindness, deafness, and dumbness. Scripture says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. It is not firstly teaching that people need, but firstly PREACHING, under the unction.

I would be suspicious of the actual "christianness" of people who love the blatant humanistic writings of a humanist.


David said...

Yes, absolutely! The Spirit is undoubtedly needed. That was a sad omission on my part. Let me clarify. I don't feel that the church's greatest need is a dry hermeneutics class full of rules and philosophies, etc. What is needed is for people to encounter the scriptures, not as they are being wielded by one interest group or another, but to encounter them as they are. To hear the true gospel (there is only one!) preached in its fulness. To see how scripture itself views the unity and disunity between its parts. To see how scripture itself deals with the progressive nature of revelation, and to see how the NT authors handle OT texts. It is a learning that comes from encountering the text itself (the very word of God), not from external sources.

Protoprotestant said...

You're both right..

1. We've got a massive number of unregenerate people in the churches that can't understand the Scriptures......nor do they really want to.

2. And we've got lots of folks that have never been taught how to read something, think through an issue etc...

They don't grasp what Scripture is, so they're sure not going to read it as an Authority. It's something to throw into the equation along with their own intuitions and feelings...not to mention cultural values.

3. And we have a system that functions like a bureaucratic institution...career minded men in some cases who want to perpetuate their income and their position...in some cases their pension and other benefits. They don't want to drive off the income.

In some cases, they're less income minded and more given over to the power. A lot, not all, but many pastors function as gurus, holy men, little popes, and I can only imagine what that does to you...hard to give up I would imagine. You sure don't want people questioning you.

In other cases I know of doctrinally minded men who honestly believe the masses are stupid. They're uneducated and therefore you don't want them learning too much...they'll start questioning you, possibly sow discord. A certain degree of ignorance and awe of authority is preferred. If you get someone that's sharp...you either want them gone or you want them on your side...make them an elder.

The last statement would be attacked by some, but I've seen this on more than one occassion. The latter scenario tends to take place in Reformed churches.

We've got a real mess...the term 'Christian' has become virtually meaningless in 2011 America. The lack of Word-focus and Word-based Christianity has filled the Churches with literally millions of lost people...and thousans upon thousands of lost pastors. I've talked to a lot of them. I'm not using some narrow criteria when I say this. These are guys that don't even grasp the basics of the gospel message and deny and reject real basic and foundational truths essential to the gospel.

In the case of Dispensationalism..the system is really too complicated for the average person. They trust the scholars. And that right there takes care of about 90% of the American Evangelical scene.

It's bad......but it's good. The Constantinians are going to be in the depths of despair over what's going to happen over the next 20 years.

But actually this is going to open the doors for some real opportunities.

Unless they pull of some stunt and seize power...which they're trying to do. I don't think they'll even achieve anything near what they want.......just enough to guarantee further cultural backlash which we'll all suffer through.

Suffering? Now there's another hermeneutical issue that both Rapture-minded Evangelicals and Post-mil Triumphalists have problems with...(smile)

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Proto-protestant i see nothing wrong with chance in God's natural order. The belief that 'everything happens for a reason' is lofty and superficial.

Protoprotestant said...

Ah, well then you don't believe in Providence. I have two problems with chance.

1. It's contrary to the Bible's teaching concerning God who numbers the hairs on our head, and not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside his will...Matthew 10.

Ephesians 1 makes it pretty clear that everything is decreed by God.

2. It would mean that rather than a God who is both immanent and transcendant....omnipresent and yet wholly outside the physical realm...we would end up with a kind of Deism...a concept of God that means He's not involved in the affairs of men or that He's somehow dependent upon our actions.

Now there are some who say 'everything happens for a reason' in order to put their spin or interpretation on events. I do think everything happens for a reason, but very rarely can we figure out what the reason is...and if we think we know, it's guaranteed we only know in part what God's plan is. If we could see it all and how it plays out over thousands of years...it would blow our minds. Things that seem insignificant are often earthshattering when viewed over time and their exponential impact.

So, I don't agree with you...BUT, I might be able to somewhat sympathize with what you're saying. Not the chance part...I don't think the universe is chaotic and outside of Divine Government, but I do think people interpret things in a lofty and superficial manner.

Feel free to fire back.