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Critiquing Biblical Hermeneutics

No matter what biblical topic is being discussed be it homosexuality, ordination of women or the age of the earth; no matter what is being debated in the realm of Christian ethics, morality or behavior; no matter what is being argued in the area of theology be it the nature of Christ or the perfection of the saints; the bottom line always comes back to the Nature of Inspiration – how one is to view and interpret the Scriptures. This is, in my mind, the most critical issue facing the church today.

I have been a lifelong student of the Bible. In the 7th grade of church school I enjoyed outlining the book of Revelation with all the historical dates and events and drawing the diagram of the 2,300 hundred days of Daniel with its historical points of reference. It could have been this interest in biblical prophecy that led me to be a history major in college.

Nevertheless one of the most influential courses I took in college was not in history but in English. I took a course in Biblical Literature. As I studied the composition of the biblical short story, the forms of Hebrew poetry, the ways that the Biblical writers conformed to the literary genres of their day I was struck with the fact that even if one set aside the authority and place of the Bible in church tradition, the Bible would still exist. It is truly great literature! This was one of my first epiphanies.

This insight, combined with my interest in the historical relics and sites that modern archeology was uncovering almost daily, led to my next insight. The Hebrew people existed and wrote in the context of their environment and culture. I remember when I read of the discovery of ancient cultic places of worship with the same dimensions as those of the wilderness tent of meeting, my thought was how gracious of God to take the pagan worship practices that people were familiar with and baptize them with alternative meanings. For instance, if the Canaanite fertility cults worshipped the phallic symbol, God made sure his priests wore “pantaloons” when they officiated at the altar.

Another big leap in my personal spiritual journey came when I encountered the “synoptic problem.” Rather than leading me to question the veracity of the biblical records I found it exciting to learn that the gospel writers had gone to great lengths to pick and choose their materials and to deliberately arrange them in particular literary patterns for a reason! The study of the gospels suddenly became fascinating and alive!

For many years I simply accepted the notion that the Israelite people had a standardized form of worship and that their religious practices as outlined in the books of Moses were the modus operandi of the nation. But as I continued to read and study, I was impressed with the fact that there was never a period of time prior to the exile when the Hebrew people could be said to have practiced a pure religion. They were always mixing up their religious practices, synthesizing them with the surrounding forms of cultic practices. Even though there would be periodic attempts by “good kings” to restore exclusive worship of Yahweh, the habits and culture of the people did not change. One cannot, simply by fiat, even under orders of a king, change a society’s norms and culture. The Israelite people were polytheistic in their practices and offered human holocausts, even in the temple precincts, right up to their exile into Babylon. At least according to the biblical record.

So then, I asked myself, how did monotheism take hold in Israel, and when? And why is God so often portrayed in such negative terms? At first it appeared from various passages in scripture that God was seen as but one among many gods, albeit the Most High God. Each country in the ancient world had their own national deities with Yahweh being Israel’s personal god. The prophets continually called for exclusive worship of Yahweh with limited success. The problem for the Israelite people with having only one God was that this God must then be held responsible for everything. Fertility and famine, barren women, the good and the evil, anything and everything that happened must have been ordered by God or was God’s doing. And so the biblical writers recorded that conclusion.

But the bible writers also recorded the prophetic messages of a compassionate Deity; one who espoused ethical behavior and societal justice; one who was even concerned about the moral behavior of surrounding nations. Studying the Bible with a historical timeline, it did not take much effort for me to discover that the ideas and notions about God were a growing phenomenon throughout the Old Testament.

Then I arrived at the seminary and discovered, (gasp) I had been following the historical critical method of bible interpretation! The amazing book that I had come to love and respect for its honesty, beauty and diversity of thought was, so I was told, to be interpreted with the biblical historical method. But it was too late. I couldn’t put God back into the small box that the biblical historical hermeneutic required. My God was much bigger, much more accessible, infinitely more compassionate and definitely more interesting.

The argument that the historical critical method is devoid of God is spurious. My library is full of books by devout men and women whose insights into God’s ways with humankind have been informed by their use of the historical critical method. To tell seminary students that the historical biblical method is the only correct approach to scriptural studies, constricts intellectual scholarship and stunts spiritual growth and maturity. While a person does not have to believe in God to accept the scholarship of the historical critical method, belief in the supernatural is essential to the use of the historical biblical method. In addition, the historical biblical students’ have an intellectual default switch on which to rely whenever difficult questions arise: “It’s a miracle”.

Relying on the supernatural or miracles leaves no need for reason, logic or common sense. One merely accepts as fact that God creates land and vegetation and miraculously holds the planet in its orbit until the following day when he creates the sun. However, when the details of the story become more important than the truths of the story – the bible loses its power. When the literal words are used to negate the underlying message than the Bible is in danger of becoming an idol – fixed and static.

When one accepts the concept that violence in the Old Testament was actually ordered by God, this, in effect, gives God carte banc to inflict horrible cruelties befitting the worse despots. Justifying such atrocities in the name of God, rationalizing his actions as “emergency methods”, does nothing to enhance faith but creates monsters who in turn perpetuate such behaviors. The theology that springs from such rationalizations will result in a God whose laws are arbitrary and who must be obeyed under threat of punishment and death.

Unless theology students and serious bible scholars examine the development and transmission of the biblical canon with a hermeneutic that allows them to see the Bible as a living document written and rewritten, redacted and revised over time by successive generations, they are in danger of losing their ability to respond to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and limited in their walk toward increasing light.

Unless bible students are inoculated with a hermeneutic that allows for prophets to make mistakes, to grow in their understanding, and to contradict or copy other prophets, they are susceptible to agnostic conclusions when exposed to the rigors of higher learning and advanced studies.

If students are taught that the Bible is a unitary and univocal document, that everything one needs to know about God has been revealed in the words of Scripture, then spiritual light becomes stable and fixed; it does not increase with time. Seeing the Bible as literal and univocal creates a pastoral community devoid of the ability to think creatively and independently. Biblical poetry will be misunderstood and indecipherable. Critical thinking skills necessary to reason from cause to effect, connecting the dots and seeing relationships will be curtailed. Sadly, like the Jews of old, bible study becomes, precept upon precept, line upon line, so that when they walk they will fall over backwards and so be broken, trapped and taken captive.

Metaphorically speaking of course!

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