…on Hermeneutics, History, and the Bible
Some time ago I was asked to participate in a formal dialog with some fellow teachers about the role of history and historical studies in Bible interpretation. The topic was important because I held historical context to be very important in doing effective Bible study; yet I also knew that at least one of my colleagues was very dismissive of history: “It doesn’t add any new truth content to the Bible—because the Bible, after all, is both coherent and self sufficient truth, isn’t it?”
His point sounded pretty impressive, but it sure didn’t fit my experience! What I’ve learned through historical studies and as an archaeology volunteer in Israel have done much to make the Bible clearer as I study it.
So I puzzled over the topic for a week or so.
“Why,” I finally asked myself, “Why this question?”
That is, it dawned on me that the question was like a chain bolted around some interior ankle. It wasn’t the right starting point. The point is, of course, that a question can shape a discussion in a way that redirects us by inserting flawed assumptions that cause us to miss the true issue. It was actually a loaded question—with a “right answer” already in bed with the question. I think, for instance, about the man who came to Jesus asking, “What good deeds must I do to inherit the kingdom?” Jesus denied the premise by saying the “No one is good but God alone.”
So, the point I came to is that any idea of a “proper interpretation” already carries a set of assumptions that actually miss the point of our reading and studying the Bible. It isn’t an activity of collecting correct information! The Bible is ultimately a relational resource. It tells us the story of God’s plan to create a people for himself. It’s a love story. So I must come to the Bible with a view to respond to the ultimate author. I come to the Bible in order to get to know and love God through his Son, Jesus Christ.
So if we assume that Bible study is the “good deed” of having proper interpretations I’m sure I’m right there with the guy who asked Jesus “what good deeds must I do!” Instead, we need to start with a relational premise: that God “is love.” And that his Son is “the way, the truth, and the life!” Shouldn’t God, himself, be the focal point of any question related to proper interpretation?
Is God, for instance, a reliable communicator? After all, listen to John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God.” And does God choose to reveal himself only narrowly—only in the Scriptures—or widely? Hasn’t he offered himself in all of creation, all of life and throughout history? And if he is a good communicator, why is it so hard to hear and understand his voice? Does he have a problem in speaking? Or do we just not listen because we prefer to suppress the truth in our stubborn, stupid, but very proud, unrighteousness? If that’s the real problem—and I’m sure it is!—how will any hermeneutical debates ever solve what is really a moral blindness.
If, for instance, we simply assert as an axiom—a rule never to be challenged—that biblical interpretation is strictly the exercise of unlocking propositional, or literary, or symbolic features of the target texts in order to report their significance and meaning with some level of certainty—thus establishing a ‘proper’ interpretation—what actually happens? By adopting that axiom we find that the limits of the text have actually become a wall or barrier that blocks access to other events of God’s self disclosure. I would argue, for instance, that God’s providence is broader than his written revelation, but the Bible illuminates his providential working throughout history with significations we would otherwise miss or misinterpret.
So, let me ask as a different but related question, “Who is God and what is he like?” By asking that question we avoid using the biblical text as a set of blinders, yet we still trust the Bible to have absolute interpretive authority in explaining how God has providentially worked throughout the epochs of history that he chooses to address. And from discovering his faithfulness in the past, and in reading his promises for the future I grow to have more and more faith in his flawless ways and purposes.
Thus my real interest is larger than the text but it still includes the text as central because it offers me the most explicit and extensive exposure to God’s values, his character, and his instructions about living life ‘under God’—of what pleases and displeases him. What I really want to know is defined by a relational ambition: who is the person who directed his prophets to write about himself, about ourselves, and about the world in which we live?
Let me press the point by shifting to a human analogy. In my study of Richard Sibbes—the 17th century puritan who was the focus of my doctoral research—my ambition was to find out all I could about him. Given the historical distance between us of four hundred years my most important resources were his sermons. But I also wanted to study in England in order to see where he worked, to find out about others he worked with, to see pictures of him, and to visit the places where he lived, walked, and talked as much as they are still available to me. My real interest was to get to know all I could know about him, short of a direct meeting with him. The project was multifaceted, with each element of exposure serving to form a larger, coherent sense of his life and character.
Now, let me shift the analogy to another possibility: What if I’m trying to get to know about a distant figure in order to write a biography about him. In my research I travel to London in order to look through a collection of his handwritten documents and discover a manuscript that offers a life-story? Yet as I read it I find it to be so dramatic at points that I begin to suspect that it might be a novel. So my question is, am I reading a novel that happens to contain bits of his life experience, or am I reading his actual autobiography? My solution, as you might guess, is to start comparing what I discover in the manuscript with what I find in the other resources available to me. I will, for instance, look for any drawings or photos from his life; I’ll look for any dates or particular events in the manuscript and then go look for newspapers of his era to see if the two accounts correlate with each other. If it’s a novel, I’m not expecting any correlation, but if it’s an autobiography I’ll expect a complete correlation.
And that’s where I am with the Bible and the question of how history shapes our interpretation. It has everything to do with the Christian presumption that God, in revealing himself, does it in the context of history. That is, he is the architect of history—what we call the doctrine of providence—and the Lord of the present moment and the ruler of all that will come in the future. The key question I have, then, is whether we’re dealing with a novel, or with an autobiography. The correlation—or ‘coherence’—of God’s claims in the Word must correlate with all we find in history for me to be assured that I’m actually meeting the Person the Bible claims God to be.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.