Sound hermeneutics—the principles of interpretation—are crucial to effective Bible study. Good interpretation offers a reliable grasp of the meaning of a given text and a proper sense of how to apply it.
This interpretive work comes as part of a Bible college education. Graduates ideally go on to coach church members in sound Bible study. It all starts with impressive texts on Bible Exegesis and Bible Interpretation to help students build their expertise.
Given this level of support we should be secure in the benefits of formal hermeneutics. But that’s not the case: instead we find many Bible texts—especially those that address morally sensitive issues—being read differently by various ministers. A survey, for instance, of current discussions in gender issues and sexual preferences makes the case; or, in earlier days, issues of church polity, baptism, or the certainty of salvation.
So what’s wrong?
One crucial interpretive principle offered by Jesus during his ministry is being overlooked.
But before turning to Jesus let’s consider what a standard Bible study methods text offers. There will be discussions of the Bible documents: how they were first composed, including the literary, grammatical, and historical features that carry their content. Then the job of analyzing the texts is explored. This includes rules of context, of poetry, of narrative elements and literary devices. Each element is weighed and applied.
While this brief list may not represent all the contents of a given text it still illustrates a silence shared by virtually all hermeneutics texts. They remain quiet about the reader’s subjectivity; especially about the biasing effect of the reader’s morality.
This first dawned on me as I had a front row seat for a fascinating slow-motion event. I arrived in Chicago as a theology student in 1978—in time for The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy that met there in 1978, 1982, and 1986. These meetings eventually produced The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.
I came to see this event as a disappointment. The Council began in 1978 with a keen sense of purpose as inerrancy was loudly affirmed. Next came a less-ringing affirmation of key hermeneutical principles in 1982. Then it ended in muted tones with a host of disagreements as the conferees tried to apply their principles to particular ethical issues in debate. In the end it seemed that all the applied issues remained as contested as they had been in the beginning.
How does this speak to the subjective element of interpretation? Let me risk using a broad brush. Those who came to the Council as infant-baptists remained infant-baptists; and those who were adult-baptizers held their ground as well. All the hermeneutics in the world didn’t change their views because their views, from the beginning, were all heartfelt and community based. The same was true of the feminists and the anti-feminists; the gay-receptive and the gay-opposers; the covenant theologians and the dispensationalist theologians. And so on.
Now to the point Jesus made. He viewed all humans as essentially subjective: as heart-driven. In Mark 7:21-23, for instance, he made this clear: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder . . . All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” In effect he identified thinking and choosing as instruments of the heart, and the heart as the location of motivations; and never the other way round.
So any notion that rationally derived interpretive principles will reshape a heart disposition is naïve. In New Testament terms we are always responders, either to the Spirit of God, or to the spirit of the world. There are just two masters of the world: God or his foe. So our hearts are ruled either by a love for the one or the desires of the other. Jesus made this clear in John 8:31-44.
That’s not to dismiss the rules of interpretation. But they only work properly when the interpreter’s heart is aligned with God’s heart. We see this in John 5 where a group of Bible scholars were ready to kill Jesus even in the face of compelling evidence that he was the Messiah. Their problem, according to Jesus? “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (verse 42).
Their problem was compounded by the mutual “glory” they received as a community of scholars: they operated on the basis of mutual approval—a point reaffirmed in John 12:43, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”
So the only proper starting point for sound Bible interpretation—for reading the Bible rightly—is a love for God. Then all the other rules have a proper subjective grounding.
Here, then, is the first rule for heart-defined Bible students: hermeneutics must begin with the prayer of Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!”