Remember Hermes? He’s the little guy you see from time to time on the logo at the florist shop, wearing a WWI trench helmet and always on the run. Actually, in Greek tradition he was the messenger of God, delivering the word of some deity to humans who badly needed to hear it. Hermes, and the concept of his role, is the basis for the Greek words hermeneutike (first found in Plato Epin. 975C) which refer to the art of interpreting. We find the word hermeneia for instance in 1 Cor. 12.10 where Paul refers to the interpretation of tongues.
In modern discourse the term hermeneutics normally refers to the art (not science) of interpreting important, often ancient or sacred, texts such as the Bible. But why would we need a guide to the perplexed in regard to the interpreting of the Bible? After all, don’t Christians have brains and the Holy Spirit to guide them? Well yes, but all modern brains are affected in the way they think by the modern cultural milieu in which they are immersed. They are affected as well by their whole educational progress (or regress) through school as well.
And frankly, ancient Biblical cultures, languages, and modes of conveying meaning are often so different from what modern ‘common sense’ may deduce that we do need some guidelines to help us interpret the Biblical texts which came out of very different cultures and circumstances from our own, ESPECIALLY if we are only trying to interpret the Bible on the basis of one or more English translations, none of which are perfect representations of the original language texts.
WORD UP— Every translation is already an interpretation of an ancient Biblical text. Once you get this fact through your brain, you realize that all modern persons need some help in interpreting the Bible. We need to give the Holy Spirit more to work with in dealing with the modern thoughts that naturally go racing through our brains when we have a close encounter with the Word of God. What I offer below is just a few of the guidelines or signposts to help prevent misreading of Biblical texts. In this posting I am offering 3 guidelines. There are many more, and sometime later I will bring them up.
1) ‘What it meant is what it means’. Meaning comes contextually not from just having words in isolation but words in conjunction with one another in a specific sentence or larger context. For example, the English word ‘row’ can be a noun or a verb, depending on the context.
It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. Dictionaries are compilations of information based on close studies of how words are used in various contexts. Dictionaries do not define words, they reflect the denotations and connotations they have been discovered to have in texts, conversation and the like.
When I say ‘what it meant is what it means’ in reference to any text, but especially the Bible, I mean that the meaning is encoded in the complex of words and phrases we find in the text. Meaning is not something we get to read into the text on the basis of our own opinions or ideas. Meaning is not in the eye of the beholder. Meaning is something that resides in the text, having been placed there by the inspired author and requires of us that we discover what that meaning is by the proper contextual study of the text. ‘Significance’ however is a different matter altogether. A text can have a significance or even an application for you or me, that the original author could never have imagined. But the text cannot have a meaning that the original inspired author did not place there. Meaning is one thing, significance or application another. The job of hermeneutics is to help us rightly interpret the meaning of these important Biblical texts.
Let me give you an illustration. The Book of Revelation was written probably around A.D. 90 in the first instance for the seven churches in Asia mentioned in Rev. 2-3 to strengthen them and help them get through a rough time of persecution, prosecution, and even execution in the last decade or so of the first century when the evil Emperor Domitian was persecuting Christians. The whole book was written to them in the first place, and it was all meant to have meaning for them.
None of Revelation was written in the first place for 21rst century Christians. Thus when the book talks about an evil empire, and a beastly ruler named 666, and about flying things with scorpion-like tails, it is not in the first instance referring to some modern world dominator, or the European Union, or to Blackhawk helicopters! Those first Christians in the first century could never have understood those texts to refer to such things, because of course such things did not exist in the first century A.D.
Let me insist once more—‘what the text meant for them, is still what it means today’. John was referring to the Roman Empire and Emperor and speaking hyperbolically about plagues of insects, something all too familiar to that world. Now here is what is interesting.
Apocalyptic prophecy by its nature uses more generic universal symbols and metaphor to speak about certain historical realities. I am not at all suggesting that the text of Revelation is not referring to things happening in space and time—John IS speaking about such things. But he speaks about them in generic and highly graphic metaphorical ways. He uses phrase like ‘it will be like… it will be like’ indicating he is drawing analogies, not offering literal descriptions.
All too often modern interpreters of Revelation don’t understand this. They either assume if its figurative language it isn’t referential, or they assume you are denying the particularity of the text if you deny it refers to one particular person and set of circumstances. But that’s not how generic symbols work— Mr. 666 could just as well be Hitler or Stahlin as Nero or Domitian. It refers to any evil world dominator of a pagan or godless sort. This is precisely why Christians in any and all generations in the last 2,000 years have felt John was speaking to their situation. He WAS— but
there are wars, and rumors of wars, and plagues and cosmic signs in the heavens in every generation of church history, not just the last one.
2) ‘Context is king’. One of the great, great dangers in modern interpretation of the Bible is proof-texting. What this amounts to is the strip-mining of certain key terms and ideas, linking them together with similar or the same words in other texts and contexts, and coming up with a meaning which none of the original texts had. This is why I often offer the aphorism– a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.
Let’s take a ‘perfect’ example—the word perfect in the NT. Jesus said “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ in Mt. 5.48. In 1 Cor. 13.10 Paul says that “when the perfect comes, the partial disappears.” Are they talking about the same thing just because they use the same term? Well, no. The context of Mt. 5 indicates that Jesus is referring to that sort of whole-hearted loving of others that characterizes God. ‘Be perfect’ means be loving like the Father is loving.
Paul on the other hand is talking about when the eschaton (the final perfect condition) comes, and we see Jesus face to face and understand all things perfectly and clearly. Words only have meaning in contexts, and plucking words out of contexts and linking them to other uses of the same word is often a recipe for disaster and misinterpretation. Each verse of Scripture, indeed each key term in Scripture should be interpreted in its historical, literary, religious, theological, canonical contexts, to mention but a few. This of course means that the modern interpreter of the Bible must be a student of Biblical interpretation, must study to find themselves approved. Treating the Bible like a Ouija board, and just opening it up and thinking the meaning will leap out of the verse on the page into one’s brain, especially if we keep thumbing through and looking for other examples of the same word, is simply laziness and not careful contextual study of God’s word. Read Ps. 119 and how it talks about the diligent study and meditation on God’s Word that is required.
Let me give you an illustration. I had a phone call over twenty years ago from a parishioner from one of my four N.C. Methodist Churches in the middle of the state. He wanted to know if it was o.k. to breed dogs, ’cause his fellow carpenter had told him that it said somewhere in the KJV that God’s people shouldn’t do that. I told him I would look up all the references to dog in the Bible and get to the bottom of this. There was nothing of any relevance in the NT, but then I came across this peculiar translation of an OT verse—“thou shalt not breed with the dogs’. I called my church member up and told him “I’ve got good news and bad news for you.” He asked for the good news first. I said “well you can breed as many of those furry four footed creatures as you like, nothing in the Bible against it.” He then asked what the bad news was “well” I said, “there is this verse that calls foreign women ‘dogs’ and warns the Israelites not to breed with them.” There was a pregnant silence on the other end of the line, and finally Mr. Smith said “ Well, I am feeling much relieved, my wife Betty Sue is from just down the road in Chatham county!”
3) Genre matters. Before we can interpret a particular type of literature we need to understand what literary type or kind of literature it is. Prose should be interpreted according to the kinds of information prose is meant to give, poetry should be interpreted as poetry, historical narrative as narrative, parables as the literary fictions that they are, and apocalyptic prophecy must be interpreted as the highly metaphorical literature it is, and so on. As C.S. Lewis once said, until you know the purpose and kind of a text, what it intends to say or convey, you don’t know how to read it, properly. And frankly no one should ever start reading the Bible with its last book. That’s not because its unfair to peek at the conclusions before you read all the rest. It’s because Revelation, as apocalyptic prophecy, is the most complex material in the canon, the literature most likely to be misinterpreted by modern persons. Let me give one more illustration
1967-68 was an interesting time. Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon and hit a golf ball a mile! If only my driver would do that. But seriously folks, I was riding with a friend on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the clutch blew out of my Dad’s 1955 Chevy. As the Bible says ‘my countenance fell’. There are no gas stations, or really any kind of help of that sort to be found on that beautiful mountain parkway. Luckily my friend Doug and I got a push off the parkway into a Texaco station, and then, on that hot July day we decided to hitch hike back to High Point in the middle of the state.
Almost immediately we were picked up by a really ancient couple dressed in black driving a black 48 Plymouth. Doug, now a lawyer in Greensboro, decided to strike up a conversation and referring to the moon walk of Neil Armstrong. The elderly man driving said that was all fake—a TV hoax. Doug, not recognizing invincible ignorance when he saw it, decided to argue with the man. Meanwhile, picture me elbowing him and whispering for him to shut up, since we needed the ride.
Turns out we had been picked up by genuine Flat Landers from the N.C. mountains. Doug however persisted and asked “Why don’t you believe they went to the moon, and why don’t you believe the world is round?” The man retorted “It says in the book of Revelations that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. World couldn’t be round, could it, if its got four corners to stand on.” Now what was wrong with this man’s comment, other than that Revelations (plural) is not the name of the last book of the Bible! The problem was he had mistaken the genre of that book. He had assumed it was teaching him cosmology and geography, when in fact it was teaching theology and eschatology. It was saying in a metaphorical way that God’s angels will come from all points on the compass to
do his will and span the globe. If you don’t grasp the kind of literature you are reading, you aren’t going to know what kind of information it is trying to convey. Interestingly, the problem with that Flat-Lander’s interpretation is not either that he took the book of Revelation seriously, or that he thought it was referential. It is indeed referential. But the realities it is describing, it describes in metaphorical terms.
Well, I think I hear ole Hermes calling me to move on to other floral venues. So we will leave it at that for now.