Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

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Explanation (click the image for an expanded, clearer view):
Illustration (click the image for an expanded, clearer view):

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The following simple flow diagram and accompanying comments place Romans 13:1 – 7, a passage often used to justify Christian service in the military, within its larger context of Romans 12:9 – 13:10.

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This simple flow diagram of Romans 12:9-21 will help you better understand the author’s flow of thought and to identify exegetical problems that need further consideration.

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  • Authors want to be understood in the way they intended to be understood. Therefore, readers should seek to understand a book’s contents in the way the author intended it to be understood.
  • If one has not read a book, one should not comment on the book.
    • One who violates this principle has the difficult burden of defending his or her action, since it seems to contradict accepted canons of scholarship, common courtesy, and biblical love. In other words, it bears an essential likeness to gossip.
    • Consider the following questions that help illustrate this point:
      • How should one regard a movie review based on either viewing only the movie’s trailer or viewing only a portion of the movie?
      • How should one regard the practice of assigning grades to student papers either without reading them or after only reading portions of them?
  • If one wants to know the contents of a book, one should carefully read the book. One should refrain from reading comments on the book before reading the book for oneself.
    • Comments written by others do not reveal the book’s contents. They reveal the commentator’s interpretation of the book’s contents.
    • Reading someone’s comments before reading the book for oneself will likely prejudice one’s reading and prevent one from understanding the meaning the author intended.
    • This action, then, seems to deny, in practice, the affirmation that every believer is a priest, since it likely will elevate the “decree” of the “priest” above the reader’s own conclusions.
  • Readers benefit from conversations about the contents of a book with those who also have read the book.
    • Conversations increase the likelihood that readers will approach an understanding of the book that approximates what the author intended.
    • The most valuable conversations will be with those people whose evaluation of the book differs from one’s own.
  • Readers may carry out conversations about the contents of a book in written form. The following guidelines should direct these conversations:
    • Principles for written conversations:
      • The mode of one’s interaction with a work is just as important as the content of one’s interaction with a work. In other words, character and creed are inseparable; each informs the other.
      • Love must characterize written conversations: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4 – 7).
    • Rules for written conversations:
      • One must clearly reveal one’s presuppositions and preunderstandings.
      • One must fully disclose any possible conflicts of interest.
      • One must adopt the following goal of written conversations:
        • It is not to win an argument.
        • It is to conduct a serious engagement that  . . .
          • Seeks to understand the meaning of the book intended by the author and that
          • Helps conversation participants to conform their convictions and behavior to truth.
      • One must focus on the content of literary works, not on the people who compose them or on their suspected motivations.
        • Avoid: “X believes _____,” “X is guilty of _____,” “X is a _____,” or “X is _____”
        • Barely adequate: “This position holds _____” or “X’s position is that _____”
        • Better: “This position appears to hold that _____” or “X’s position appears to be that _____”
      • One must be gracious and fair: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
        • One must give authors the benefit of the doubt.
          • One must portray an author’s work in a way that satisfies the author. If the author disagrees with a portrayal of his or her work, one must apologize and immediately revise the portrayal.
          • One should always point out a book’s positive contributions.
        • One should cite the precise place and language in the author’s work to which one is referring.
        • One should avoid labels. Labels short-circuit understanding by creating stereotypes that tend to impugn authors and that lead others to dismiss not only the work under discussion, but the author and his or her entire body of work.
      • One must reject potentially inflammatory or emotional language. Three examples that seem to violate this rule coming from the same author within the last three weeks:
        • Blog post headline: Universalism as a Lure? The Emerging Case of Rob Bell
        • Blog post headline: We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology
        • Characterization of Love Wins in a panel discussion: Velvet Hell.

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Ground up?

It’s almost time for the Fall term, so I’m brushing up on some of my standard teacher-to-student aphorisms. Here’s one of my favorites: “Your opponent is your best friend.” After the appropriately-long dramatic pause, I seek to soothe the souls before me, recently unsettled by my provocative statement, with something like the following explanation:

“Why do you choose to read texts that confirm what you already know or believe? In order to feel good? Superior? Certainly it is not for the purpose of learning.

“If you want to learn and arrive at a place closer to knowing the truth, you must recognize that your opponent is not your enemy; he or she is your best friend. Your opponent is anyone whose position opposes your own. Your opponent may present arguments and evidence which your position does not answer adequately or against which your position cannot stand. In the course of grappling with these arguments and evidence, you will find yourself getting closer to the truth. Therefore, you should not avoid works written by authors with whose positions you disagree. Instead you need to seek out these friends, and read widely and sympathetically from their works.”

Burned to a crisp?

Peter Berger is someone who writes things—for example, The Social Construction of Reality—with which many good folk of faith disagree. However, he should be viewed not as an enemy, but as an opponent, one whose ideas need to be taken seriously.

For example, Berger has recently co-authored a book and edited another in which he explores the possibility of holding convictions without being a fanatic, something with which all of us should be interested. Berger summarizes the argument of these books in “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism,” The American Interest: A Review of Policy, Politics, and Culture Vol II, No 1, September/October 2006.

Eight years earlier Berger wrote an essay for The Christian Century that anticipated the themes of these recent books. In some ways, this article from 1998 is a clearer and more thought-provoking summary of his recent books.

Since you want to learn and arrive at a place closer to knowing the truth, I have reproduced Berger’s 1998 essay below.

Don’t forget to thank your opponent, er . . ., friend. (more…)

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1 Corinthians 11:3–16?

The fall semester begins in forty days. Consequently, today marks the beginning of a sort of academic lent—a period marked by self-denial and an intense focus on preparing for the coming term. In anticipation of this “fast,” I have perused a number of books and readings.

One of the books was Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics, by Gordon D. Fee. I first read this book while preparing to teach my first collegiate-level hermeneutics course. Its contents recall themes found in Fee’s earlier book, written with Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, one of those books whose profound effect on my thinking I can clearly identify.

Is the message of Gospel and Spirit relevant for today’s entering college student, who has breathed nothing but postmodern air for 18 years? Yes! I found the following selection from pages 30 – 33 particularly apt. It deals with the dual authorship of Scripture, more precisely, the problem of Scripture’s historical particularity.

Now I have a dilemma: How do I add this selection, or better yet, the first five chapters of Fee’s book to an already lengthy required reading list? If I cannot come up with anything better, I can always rely on the truth contained in that timeless axiom that describes student behavior, whatever version of modern he or she may be: “Will work for ‘extra credit.’”

“It is the doctrine of inspiration, that God inspired not only the people who spoke but also the words they spoke, that distinguishes the evangelical view of Scripture, and also forces us to wrestle with the issues of hermeneutics. Inspiration maintains that God indeed “spoke all these words and said. . . .” But it does not maintain that he dictated all these words. To the contrary it recognizes, indeed argues, that these words are also the words of people in history. Thus our understanding of the nature of Scripture is that the Bible is God’s word spoken in human words in history. As God’s word it has eternal relevance; he addresses us. It is ours to hear and obey. But as human words in history the eternal word has historical particularity. None of the words was spoken in a vacuum. Rather they were all addressed to, and conditioned by, the specific historical context in which they were spoken.

“Evangelical hermeneutics, therefore, by its very understanding of the nature of Scripture, must always be interacting with the intersection of the human and divine in these words that are believed also to be the word. As such it must struggle against the tendency to come down on either side (the human or the divine) in such a way as effectively to negate the other.

“Let me illustrate. (more…)

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