More Bible or Better Hermeneutics?

 

As I noted yesterday, my recent claim that more Bible is the solution to the problems of the church attracted some disagreement.  The comments I fielded in that blog post were similar to each other, but this one makes a different kind of argument.  It reads,

“1 – One thought that comes to mind in reading this is that if we want to eliminate group 1, we must first make a correct diagnosis of the root problem. I believe group 1 is a symptom, not the core issue. As is often the case, I believe the root problem is not a single simple black and white matter, but is multi-faceted and a bit more complex than that. The attitudes and behaviors of those within each group is part of the problem. In some cases lack of Bible is the problem. In many cases, however, the problem may be neither a poor attitude or lack of Bible, but perhaps the hermeneutical framework and paradigm we carry to the Bible.

“Take Bart Ehrman for example. I wouldn’t say the best cure for his agnosticism is more Bible as I believe he, as one who has committed his life and profession to textual criticism, has read the Bible more than almost any of us. The problem with Ehrman is not lack of Bible (and thus cannot be solved with simply “more Bible”) but rather the paradigm/worldview and hermeneutical framework which he carries into his reading of the text. In the same manner, I believe that much of the divide that we see has much to do with the hermeneutical framework each group is carrying into the text, which is a problem that cannot be solved without ‘more Bible’ but cannot be solved with ‘more Bible’ alone.”

HERMENEUTICS OR FAITH?

First of all, the commenter here is undeniably correct in saying that God’s word doesn’t always have a good effect in everyone.  Ever since God’s word was first proclaimed, there have been Bart Ehrmans, people who know everything they need to know but never follow God.  During the Exodus, there were 600,000 of them, and the Hebrews writer explains them by saying, “The message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”  I don’t think Ehrman has a hermeneutics problem.  I think he has a faith problem.

This, rather than hermeneutical difficulty, is the Scriptural explanation for falling away.  Jesus never criticized the Pharisees for being too legalistic in their study of the Law.  He criticized them for being inconsistent and hypocritical in their reading and application of it.  One might almost say they weren’t legalistic enough!  Tithing mint and dill and cumin wasn’t the problem; doing those things while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law was.

Underlying this failure was the larger failure to believe Him and believe in Him.  As a rule, people who aren’t reading the Scriptures from faith will weasel with them to justify what they want to do.

A UNIVERSAL HERMENEUTIC

If you want to argue that the churches of Christ (or, to be precise, specific teachers in specific churches of Christ) misapply their hermeneutic, fine.  However, I don’t see any grounds for critiquing the overall method.  Sometimes, disgruntled Christians behave as though CENI is a quirky logical abomination stitched together by Restoration preachers.  If you want to call the jargon an abomination, I will happily agree with you (I think it does more harm than good), but the jargon describes a logical process that, far from being unique to us, is universal.

Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone didn’t invent this method of reading the Bible.  Instead, they got it (along with a lot of their conclusions about Bible authority, proper mode of worship, and so forth) from John Calvin, who is perhaps the foremost example of good method and bad application.

Calvin was a lawyer, and he did nothing more than read the law of Christ (which, unlike “love letter”, is a description found in Scripture) the way he had been trained to read human law.  This approach isn’t terribly helpful through some parts of Scripture (like the bulk of Revelation, which isn’t prescriptive), but the majority of the New Testament sits comfortably within a legal framework.

The epistles, for instance, though they don’t look very much like the statutory law of the Law of Moses or the United States Code, bear a close resemblance to the case law that is the underpinning of our legal system.  Both epistles and case law represent the authoritative application of larger principles to a particular fact pattern.  With both, we can use the specific application to discern the larger principle.

MY EXPERIENCE ELSEWHERE

As a result, when I went to law school and was taught how to critically read case law and apply canons of legal interpretation, it lined up exactly with the way I already had been taught to read the Bible (though in interpreting case law, you’re dealing with texts that are considerably longer and not terribly well written).  The much-maligned argument from the silence of the Scriptures is simply our version of a legal principle that is so old it is couched in Latin:  “Expressio unius est exclusio alterius,” or “The expression of one alternative excludes all the others.”  Lawyers all over the world are using the concept to interpret statutes and case law right now.

The same goes for the equally maligned “necessary inference”.  I still can’t stand the jargon (I used to claim that I was going to name my children Direct Command Bassford, Approved Example Bassford, and Necessary Inference Bassford), but lawyers make inferential arguments all the time.  For instance, the foundational U.S. Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, holds that the structure of the Constitution implies the existence of the power of judicial review even though the Constitution never expressly grants said power.  Our whole legal system is built on inference.

Again, feel free to argue back and forth about whether a particular implication follows from the text!  However, inference itself is a universally accepted mode of reasoning.  Outside of religious debate, nobody even tries to deny its conceptual validity.

Nor was that my first encounter with “church teaching” about how to read a text in a different context.  When I hit AP English my senior year of high school, I discovered that I was good at close textual reading of poetry, simply because I read Shakespeare, Donne, and Marvell the way I had been taught to read the Bible.  I paid attention to every word, read in context, asked what the author was trying to communicate, and remembered that the author’s background could often provide important clues about his intent.  Not surprisingly, it worked.

CONCLUSION

Basically, the process that Christians use to extract meaning from the Bible is the same process that people everywhere use to extract meaning from any text.  Obviously, we can use this process to reach incorrect conclusions (People make mistakes?  Who knew???).  However, the process cannot be fundamentally flawed.  If we want to contend that such a flaw exists, we must argue either that no text is susceptible to logical analysis (and the human race has been fooling itself since the invention of writing), or that other texts are and the Bible isn’t.

I can’t accept either of those alternatives.  We serve a God who has said, “When you read, you can understand.”  He didn’t give us His word to taunt us and divide us.  He gave it to us so we could figure out what to do, and that has two important implications.  It tells us that in God’s revelation, we find a message we can comprehend, and that in ourselves, we find people who can comprehend it.

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