lundi 9 avril 2012

How Can I Understand the Bible?

I wrote this piece a year ago, but given the need to always clarify scriptures to new comers to the Christian faith, i thought this might help them navigate better during their exploration of the Christian faith. 
Please feel free to also Check My Book here.
Have you ever wondered why are there so many diverging views among Christians about even the simplest biblical issue? Something tells me that you have indeed noticed. Why are people who believe in the unity message of the bible also known as the word of God have so little unity in their understanding of it? People have suggested many answers and I do agree with some of them; and in this brief written presentation I will reiterate some of them using my own words. I want to clarify before hands that there is a difference between learning to listen to the voice of God and the subject under consideration in this chapter.

The discussion below will not follow an academic format and for the purpose of keeping it engaging I’ll write it in a dialogue form making it easier to the readers to follow with much ease the line of reasoning. My reasons are simple. First, many excellent books have been written on the subject of hermeneutic and exegesis. I do not envision any reason that may require me to take the scholarly tone when eminent and trained scholars have already done that in their scholarly journals or in their respective books. Second, since my words are limited in this chapter, it will be off the purpose of this essay to investigate about the subjects of “hermeneutic and exegesis” in a formal way. Finally, I do believe that people tend to understand better an introduction of a topic when they are discussed in a dialogue format or during public debates.

A. What does the word hermeneutic and exegesis mean?

Hermeneutics are usually defined as the science or the study of the methodological principles of interpretation[1]. In other words, it is the art of Biblical interpretation. Exegesis on the other hands is the application of the principles of hermeneutics. The relation between the two can be summarized as such; hermeneutic is about the principles and methodology of interpretation while exegesis is about applying those principles of hermeneutic. So when a person takes the Bible and decides to look for the meaning of a given text, s/he is doing an exegesis of the text. So if the exegesis leads to an erroneous conclusion or understanding of the biblical texts, the reasons as I see them are two folds 1) the principles of interpretation (of that hermeneutic) have not been well followed; or 2) the principles of interpretation (of that particular hermeneutic) are incorrect because they are based on incorrect or unsupported assumptions.

B. When you say “that particular hermeneutic”, are you implying that there are many sorts of hermeneutics?

Matter of fact yes! Even a cursory look on the internet would reveal that. For example, there are: Talmudical Hermeneutics which is the interpretative system used by Jews to interpret the Hebrew bible; Roman Catholic principles of hermeneutics; Christian biblical hermeneutics which involves mainline protestant churches[2] interpretative systems, and Trajectory hermeneutics. All these hermeneutics have similarities and dissimilarities in the foundational principles.

C. Why do people feel the need to interpret the Bible? Why not just take it just as it is and read it literally?

Aha! Here is the tough reality. Truth is not always self-evident and it needs to be defended and explained. To interpret is generally defined as to explain or tell the meaning of. Even the scriptures[3] admit to that need since some parts of the scriptures itself can be confusing for some people since they deal with deeper truths or unusual concept to their experiences. In 2 Peter 3:16 we are informed by the apostle Peter that some writings of the apostles Paul where being misunderstood: “As also in all his epistles (Paul), speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”  As this shows, some scriptures are hard to understand, hence the need for interpretation in order to get their proper meanings. If they are not properly interpreted, those who lack descent learning on the appropriate topic might and probably will misunderstand them and arrive to incorrect conclusions and resolutions.

D. If I have to ask you, “What is your take on all of this”, what would you say?

I would say that not everybody should be actively involved in doing hermeneutic or the exegesis of the whole Bible in search of doctrines. For to do that demands on the part of the interpreter to be properly equipped for such a task. There are usually three obstacles that stand in the way of correctly interpreting the biblical writings: We speak a different language, we live approximately two millennia later, and we bring different expectations to the text. Anyone who wants to do a fair and good job with the biblical texts needs to ensure that he can surmount those obstacles.

E. Do you mean that understanding the bible is reserved to some people?

Not in that sense. I mean that not everybody is capable of interpreting the Bible correctly. The bible is a collection of books and letters. The two main divisions of the Bible:
The Old Testament has thirty-nine books that could be grouped in five divisions: Law (Ex: Leviticus), History (Ruth), Poetry (Song of Solomon), Major Prophets (Lamentations) and Minor Prophets (Obadiah).
The New Testament has twenty-seven books grouped in four divisions: Gospels (Ex: Matthew), History (Acts), Epistles (Philemon) and prophecy (Revelation).

This wealth of diversity in the texts of the Bible requires an ability to understand the difference of genre in order to understand them properly. Some texts are written with a literal language, other in a Figurative language. For example, the book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark can be read quite[4] literally because they are historical books but it would be a mistake to read a poetic book such as Ecclesiastes or a prophetic book such as Ezekiel in the same literal fashion. Having this in mind, it become imperative that anyone involved in elucidating the meaning of biblical doctrines must be familiar with the documents s/he is trying to understand. I do not recommend new comer in the Christian faith to be involved in the self study of the Holy Scriptures. I always try to apply the noble reasoning of watchman Nee, who always encouraged his young converts to faith to first get familiarize with the text of the bible. He made them first read the whole Bible at least once before they start getting involved in its studies. I have found it to be an effective way to train responsible and mature Christians.  First they get familiar with the document they want to study and then they can start the study.

F. So how would they learn if they can’t start studying the scripture from the beginning?

New converts do also learn as they read their Bible as they get familiar with its content. They are learning facts, a lot of spiritual facts. At this stage of high vulnerability in their spiritual development and growth, they need to learn from those who are more mature than them. As the apostle Peter says “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow” (1Peter 2:2). It becomes then an imperative to Christian leader to make sure that those still in their faith infancy be taught, instructed about the Christian doctrines because if they are left as independent thinkers, they will undermine their own spiritual growth or worse, they might be bent to teach what should not be taught. Falsity should never be taught. And this is what will happen if unequipped Christians are encouraged to get involved in the practice of exegesis without mature Christian’s supervisions. The author of Hebrew shares the sentiments: “For when for the time you ought to be teachers, you have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that use milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Hebrew 5:12-14). Those who are still in their spiritual infancy need to be taught even the most basic things. No interpretation of any of the oracles of God should be given to them unsupervised until they growth and maturity becomes evident to all.

G. Can’t new Christian study the Bible while reading it for the first time? Is it really such a bad idea?

Let say that it was a bad idea for me! I’ll just use one example; One that didn’t have any apparent or lasting negative effect on me. When I was young in my faith, at that time I was yet to have read my whole Bible for the first time, I was reading the book of Revelation of John and fell on a text that made me secretly take a decision to never marry. Since my desires to be so close to the Lord Jesus was strong (and is still so strong)  I concluded that if I ever wanted to have the chance to be among the special 144000 people I will have to abandon any project of being married. My love for Him pushed me to get the closest proximity I could biblically figure out at that time. You might wonder what kind of Bible I have read to desire an eternal celibacy. Here is the text: “… the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.  These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” (Rev 14:3-4). ‘You see’, I thought to myself, ‘even if those who are married will get to see and live with the Lord, they will never have this privilege of being part of His closest entourage in the future in the eternity’.  As you can see, I had a biblical support and a strong desire, hence making the sacrifice was regarded as acceptable.

Let’s take this old reasoning of mine and show exactly how and where they were faulty. First, although I read Revelation 14, I didn’t make at the time the connection with its mirror passage in Revelation chapter seven. This inability to connect the two texts was my first error. This error is the most frequent error made during biblical exegesis. It is most and easily made by those who are unfamiliar with the scriptures as a whole or those who are still unskilled with regards to the word or righteousness. I was guilty of the later. I knew the chapter seven of Revelation, but since I was still unskilled, I didn’t make the relevant connection. Chapter seven identified who are those 144000 people that would be chosen as firstfruits: “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” (Rev. 7:4). Years later as I was re-reading the book of Revelation, I realized that whatever sacrifice I decided to make, I would never be part of the 144000 people I secretly envied. For those people were people chosen from the twelve tribes of Israel. It then dawn on me that I was not a Jew by birth hence I couldn’t possibly qualify to be part of one of the Israelite tribes.  So was the first blow against my premature exegesis.

The second blow came when I read the book of Hebrew. At this point, I needed to learn a second lesson. I needed to re-embrace the value of marriage and realize that married people were not second class celestial citizens nor sexual intimacy a defiling practice for those who are married. Here is how the book of Hebrew reads: Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” (Hebrew 13:4). This was rather a timely needed distinction. By saying in Rev. 14 that some people defiled themselves with women didn’t mean that this was applicable to married people, for there is nothing defiling in a married couple intimacy as suggested in Hebrew text above.

Wrong and incorrect exegesis may lead people to implement wrongly the scriptures. In my case there were no tragic consequences even though some resolutions were already secretly been made. It is by sheer divine grace that I wasn’t leading or teaching young converts. I suspect I would have led the ‘144000 celibacy movement”.

H. What about the church elders then? Since they are mature how come that they still don’t agree with each others?

Authority is the answer. When we become learned we tend to see ourselves as an island standing alone in the sea of confusion. But no one is an island. We all need each others' expertise and we have to learn to submit to God’s leadership. This is how the ‘milk drinker’ grows (1Peter 2:2) and this is also how the ‘meat eater’ stays strong (Hebrew 5:14). The scriptures is inspired by God as an instrument to perfect the body of Christ (2 Timothy 4:16-17). However the scripture alone will not do that. That is why God has established ministers who can make use of the scriptures in order to bring the body of Christ into perfection (Ephesians 4: 11-15). By the word perfection I mean completeness, well furnished. We can even suggest it to mean great maturity. Even ministers need to grow even though they have a measure of maturity. The measure that we are all pursuing is the measure of Christ maturity. In Ephesians 4:11 we are informed that the Lord “gave some (to be), apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;” (underline added). And if each minister realizes that each minister has something that the other doesn’t have and humbly cooperate, I suspect that there would be more agreement than not. And it is befitting to the adults in faith whatever their given ministries, to learn to exchange and speak frankly when there is a topic under contention (Acts 15).   

I. So you have a high view of the Church[5] structure when it comes to understanding the meaning of scripture?

Yes I do! The first Christians trusted the church leadership in matter of faith and I think that if we get rid of our modern individualistic approach to the Christian truth, we would have little confusion. It is well known that truth needs to be supported otherwise it gets forgotten and lost. God’s remedy to that is the Church. Paul in his pastoral letter of 1Timothy 3:15 wrote to Timothy, a young leader in the Church of Ephesus, how he should lead the church and as we read we uncover a precious truth. “you may know how you ought to behave yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Since the word of God is the truth (John 17), we are told that the ground on which the truth stands, and the pillar that supports IT, is the Church. That is why I found it to be risky to engage in a self-style hermeneutics and exegesis when God has established a protective system that doesn’t revolve on a person or individuals but on a community that uses the Gospel truth as its standard (Galatians 2:11-14).   

J. As a summary what would you want to say to people who want to learn to do exegesis?

There aren’t much new theological questions that we are currently thinking that have not been addressed in some extent in the long past history up to today by the Church leaders. First, I’ll encourage people, to read a lot their bibles cover-to-cover before wanting to start pronouncing themselves on doctrinal matters. Second, I will strongly encourage the abolition of individualistic interpretation[6] of scripture and promote the corporate exegesis and the cooperation as advised in 1 Peter 5:1-5: “Elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not … being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock ... Likewise, you younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resist the proud, and give grace to the humble.” Third, I encourage the reading of Christian literatures from knowledgeable Christians from different school of thoughts on a given topic of interest and compare ones’ understanding and interpretation with what other have been finding. Fourth, deal with your prejudices when it comes to the Bible, the church and your uniqueness in the history of the Christian thought[7]. Finally, pray! Prayer really opens up one’s life to the truth of the scriptures. It also positions yourself in receiving God’s guidance when you search for the truth[8]. It creates in us the ability to be sensible to the voice of God and by that, we get enabled to receive directive from the Lord as He guides us either to proper instructive sources or He allows us to get sudden understandings about subject that troubles us.

[1] Gene Taylor. Hermeneutics: How to Study the Bible _ A practical Approach to Understanding Scripture. Page 15.
[2] By Mainline churches, I mean Methodism, Lutheranism, Baptist, etc.
[3] An expression used to refer to the holy writings.
[4] The Gospels do mix literal language and figurative language in its narrations such as parables, simile, metaphor, allegory, etc.
[5] It is beyond the scope of this current work to argue on the identity of the Churches that should be trusted.
[6] 2 Peter 1:20: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
[7] In a way we are unique in God’s plan for the church and on the other hand we are just one among many, one living stone among many others who form the spiritual edifice. So cool off your head, you are not the only precious character for the life of the Church of Christ. You too can learn from others.
[8] More about the importance of prayer will be discussed in a future chapter.

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