Sunday, July 6, 2008

More Hermeneutics

All right, let's exercise the principles of Biblical interpretation we have discovered so far, and see if they lead us to discover more. First, a quick summary of the hermeneutics previously discussed on this thread. Feel free to disregard the numbering of these principles; it isn't set in stone.

Axiom: The whole Bible was written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, so God is its primary author. Therefore it is a) reliable [without error], (b) authoritative [the basis on which all godly teaching and practice is established and judged], (c) sufficient [requiring no other revelation to complete God's message], and (d) efficacious [empowered by God to work wonders in the world and in men's hearts].
  1. To interpret Scripture, then, one must seek the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit.
  2. This meaning can be found only by accepting the Bible's truth claims (re prophecy, miracles, etc.), at least for the sake of study.
  3. Since the Holy Spirit knows best what He means, proper Bible interpretation requires His presence in the interpreter (i.e., faith).
  4. Because of its unbreakable unity (John 10:35), any proper Bible interpretation must take into account the entire Bible's teaching on a relevant topic [analogy of faith].
  5. Also due this unity of Scripture, the Bible is its own best interpreter - the passages that clearly and directly establish an article of faith [sedes doctrinae] taking precedence over all others.
  6. The right interpretation of any Bible passage will agree with its context.
  7. To observe the analogy of faith, one must recognize Christ as the focal point of the entire Bible.
  8. To observe the analogy of faith, one must correctly distinguish between Law (what God requires of us, which we are unable to do) and Gospel (what God has done and does for us in Christ).
  9. To correctly distinguish between Law and Gospel, the interpreter must show his audience where Christ applies the grace of God to us: namely, Word and Sacrament.
Now let's plug these principles into a few Bible verses that are so widely and annoyingly misinterpreted that, at times, I am tempted to regret that the Holy Spirit uttered them.

First, let's consider the words: "Sing to the Lord a new song." These or similar words appear in Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1; and Isaiah 42:10. A "new song" is also described in Psalm 40:3 and 144:9, and in Revelation 5:9 and 14:3. If you go to church regularly, you may remember having heard, sung, or read these words aloud. And if you have ever been in an argument about whether or not old-fashioned liturgy and hymns should be replaced with "contemporary worship" (CW), you have probably heard the words "Sing to the Lord a new song" trotted out as an argument in favor of CW. This reflects lousy hermeneutics.

Why? Because, first, the argument, "Doesn't the Bible tell us to 'sing a new song'?" falls down under the weight of the Law-Gospel distinction. Just because the verb "sing" is in the imperative mood doesn't make "Sing a new song" a law. "Praise the Lord" also uses the imperative mood, but everybody recognizes it as a worship formula. Like "Praise the Lord," "Sing a new song" is a confession of joy and devotion to God, not a morally binding command.

Secondly, the pro-CW use of "Sing a new song" also miliates against the context. Read what David and Isaiah say in nearby verses, what rationale they give for singing a new song. You will find it is always a response to God's works, a spontaneous outpouring of music and praise (so, by the way, it sounds utterly absurd when the congregation speaks it together in a bored monotone).

Thirdly, the analogy of faith destroys the CW advocates' overly literalistic use of "Sing a new song." If God's command in Psalm 96:1, etc., obligated us to always and only sing new songs, then one must not sing even these very Psalms - for they were decidedly old songs, even at the time of Jesus and the apostles. Nevertheless Paul recommends psalm-singing in his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. And although the gospels and the book of Acts describe Jesus and the apostles singing "hymns," we have good reason to suppose these hymns were Psalms since, at the Passover meal described in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, it was customary to sing certain Psalms. The unity of Scripture obliges us to conclude either (A) that Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians erred in singing old songs instead of new, or (B) that the phrase "sing a new song" is a poetical expression, and should not be taken too literally.

Fourthly, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, you find that some of the verses listed above explain this "new song" in clearer terms than others. Psalm 40:3 puts the phrases "a new song" and "a song of praise" side by side in a poetic figure (frequently used in the Psalms) where both terms mean the same thing. Psalm 144:9; 149:1 and Isaiah 42:10 also equate singing a new song with singing praises.

Fifthly, the CW argument presupposes that there is something about a song's newness, something intrinsically needful or beneficial in a song being new. This contradicts our sacramental principle, which says that whatever is needful and beneficial in our worship derives from the comfort and power of the Word it contains: and that originates in God, not in man. A hermeneutically sound Christian, one who recalls Christ's promises to be present for us in His unchanging Word and Sacrament, will have little patience for the idea that the power of a song depends on its freshness and originality.

And finally, if we choose to quote what Martin Luther (for example) says about the words "Sing to the Lord a new song," we could do so without violating any hermeneutical principle, because his interpretation harmonizes with the way the analogy of faith, context, etc., compel us to understand those words. So Scripture, which judges of all other opinions and traditions, affirms Luther's opinion. If you have an interest, and access to the American Edition of Luther's Works, you may see what that great Bible interpreter says at 10.154 and 17.71f.

Shall we take another example? All right, you twisted my arm! Consider 1 Corinthians 9:22, where Paul writes: "I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some." I have seen very few Bible verses knocked around as brutally as this one. It is such a favorite target of crummy interpreters that, when I hear someone start to quote it, I get nauseous. What makes it particularly sickening is that, most often, a faithful pastor or congregation is getting a beating right along with the text.

It happens in a couple of ways. First, Mr. Bible Bruiser may point out that Paul says, "I have become all things to all people," and therefore so must we (as Christians), or perhaps you (as a Pastor). So if we (as a Congregation) aren't sucking up to every crass expectation of the great unwashed, we aren't doing enough to reach the lost. Or, if you (as a Pastor) aren't meeting every one of my expectations ("me" typically being the "my way or the highway" type of parishioner), you aren't fit for the office. Second, the assault may focus on the other phrase, "that I may by all means save some," though it generally replaces "by all means" with something like "by any means possible." And therefore we/you must keep (y)our horizons open to any and every "means," or method, of tricking people into coming to (y)our church - even methods that some might regard as scandalous, dishonest, or improper.

How do these very, very widespread readings of this verse stand up to our Biblical hermeneutics? Badly. In fact, these interpretations stink with such an odor that several additional principles come a-sniffing, and reveal themselves at last.

First, the analogy of faith. Christ has told us by what means we are to save people, and Paul firmly supports Him on this. We are to make disciples by baptizing and thoroughly instructing people of all nations (Matthew 28:19). The apostles preached openly and frankly, calling their hearers to repent and believe Christ's gospel (Acts 2 ff). The early Christians devoted themselves to the doctrine and liturgy they had received from the apostles (Acts 2:42), in which both Paul and the anonymous writer to the Hebrews urged them to persist (1 Cor. 14; Eph. 5; Col. 3; Heb. 10). The power to bring people to faith lies in the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 10:17). Paul repeatedly warns the churches and pastors under his supervision to hold to the "standard of sound words" he has passed to them, to be wary of opportunists who would lead them to change their teaching, and to avoid being bound together (by a common religious practice) with unbelievers (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; Rom 16:17; 2 Cor. 6:14ff; 11:4; Gal. 1:6ff; etc.).

To save us both the time and trouble of preaching an exhaustive sermon on this, suffice it to say God's Word, as a whole, does not support the idea that the church should adapt its teaching or practice to make itself more agreeable to outsiders. On the grounds of the analogy of faith alone, we can make a pretty strong case that 1 Corinthians 9:22 must mean something else.

How about the context? In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is defending his authority as an apostle: his unique call to preach Christ to both Jews and (especially) Gentiles; his right to receive a living wage for this ministry; his decision not to assert that right so that no one could accuse him of preaching the gospel for personal gain; his habit of using his Jewish background and learning to persuade the Jews, other forms of argument to persuade the Gentiles, and his own weakness to win the weak. For examples of these contrasting approaches, see Paul's speeches in Acts 17 and 22, and his argument in 2 Cor. 11; to see whether Paul actually supported the idea of living under Jewish laws in order to win the Jews, see Gal. 2:11ff; to see whether Paul advocated adapting to Greek worship customs, see 1 Cor. 8; Rom. 14:14ff. See, we're applying some of that "Scripture interprets Scripture" stuff, too.

In view of all this, what Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:22 about "becoming all things to all people" does not mean he would stoop to anything on the chance of making a disciple. Rather, it shows he was uniquely connected to reach both Jews (having been trained as a rabbi) and Gentiles (having also learned Greek rhetoric). And this particular rhetoric about "being all things to all people," etc., also summarizes his point about not letting anything (such as his income) be an impediment to the gospel. He insists that he would be within his rights to do thus-and-so, but he does not use that right so that it may not offend the weak; but he also urges the Corinthians to permit other pastors, such as Barnabas, to receive the wages they deserve.

Now let's add a few necessary principles to our list. First, subject as always to the analogy of faith and the context, any Biblical interpretation should agree with the common usage of the words and the grammatical structure of the original language, at the time and place at which the text was written. Lest we forget, the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The English phrase "by all means" is a translation of the Greek word pantos, an adverb based on the Greek word for "all." Responsible translations of this word include "altogether, at all, certainly, no doubt, undoubtedly," and of course, "by all means." Therefore, playing the English phrase "by all means" into "by any means possible" betrays either ignorance of the language or willful distortion. The phrase "by all means" in 1 Cor. 9:22 has the same meaning as when you use it in answer to a yes-or-no question. No concept of methods or possibilities involved.

Second, related to the principle just explained, any available data on how the words were understood by their original audience should also be considered, subject again to the analogy of faith and the context. For example, in John 3:3 Jesus told Nicodemus that one must be born anothen in order to enter the kingdom of God. The Greek word anothen could mean "again" or "from above." Which one did Jesus mean? Nicodemus clearly thought he meant "again," because he asked, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" (John 3:4). That might be enough to tip the balance toward translating anothen as "again." On the other hand, Jesus' explanation in John 3:5ff suggests that Nicodemus may have misunderstood him, and he really meant "from above."

Or could it have been a play on words? Could Jesus have intended more than one meaning for a given word? To say "yes" to this question would lead to insurmountable problems. It would finally mean that the Holy Spirit could have intended any number of meanings for practically any word or passage in Scripture, and there would be no point claiming that one or another interpretation was what the Holy Spirit intended to get across.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am all for leaving ambiguities ambiguous. No one gets more upset than I do when a given Bible translation - including the supposedly "confessional-Lutheran" Beck Bible - foists a specific interpretation on an expression that could be left open to more than one meaning. I call this going above and beyond the call of a Bible translator and into territory that rightfully belongs to the preacher, who can then instruct his people by saying something like, "This word anothen could mean either 'again' or 'from above'..." I like the nice, literal translations of the Bible that slowly and cautiously back off, with their hands in plain sight, from textual ambiguities. When translators meddle with my interpretive prerogatives, I get ticked - sometimes, even when I agree with their interpretation - but most of all, when I think they might be wrong. Why? Because most Bible-readers don't have a solid grasp of Greek and Hebrew. And having all the options taken away by some scholarly klutz who thinks he can clear up all the ambiguities, cheats the average Bible-reader out of the opportunity to measure two possible interpretations of a phrase (such as "by all means") against the analogy of faith and the context. What is Joe Sixpack supposed to think if his edition of the Bible actually sides with "by any means possible"?

But when I speak of ambiguities, I am not talking about a word actually meaning two things at the same time. I am talking about cases where the original word offers a range of meanings from which we can choose; cases where the choice isn't so clear cut that we should pretend there isn't any question at all; cases where it may even be helpful to let people think about the alternatives, argue one way or another, and so exercise their hermeneutical chops. Cases like anothen.

As to God's actual, intended meaning, however, the Lutheran hermeneutic must be: For each occurrence of a given expression in Scripture, the Holy Spirit intends for us to understand exactly one meaning. But here I need to point out a distinction that blew my mind when I first studied this subject. Many people, including Lutherans, look with scorn on the Latin formula sensus literalis unus est ("there is one intended sense"). I think they mistake the meaning of the word literalis in this instance - which, ironically, illustrates this very hermeneutic. Contrary to unpopular belief (ha, ha), this principle does not mean every word has exactly one literal meaning, and we must always use that meaning. Many words can be understood in more than one way. Plus, due to the vicissitudes of analogy of faith, context, etc., the significance of a word, phrase, or even whole sentence can be different from what you would expect on seeing it by itself.

One of the teachers who shaped my appreciation of Lutheran hermeneutics used to distinguish between the sensus litterae and the sensus literalis; which is to say, the literal meaning of a word (its most common and usual meaning) may be one thing, while its clearly intended meaning in a particular literary structure may be another. It would be very silly to claim that any given word could only, ever mean one thing. It would be almost as silly to stake out a whole hermeneutical principle on the proposition that we should interpret everything in the Bible "literally," by which I mean "in the most commonly understood sense of every word, subject to the etc. etc. etc." The principle Sensus literalis unus est recognizes that many times, the context and analogy of faith will compel us to bend our interpretation toward a less common meaning of a term; and that in poetic diction, prophetic visions, and figurative passages we often find instances where the literal meaning of the words is at variance to the clearly intended meaning.

So this, finally, raises one more principle of interpretation: the degree in which an expression is taken as either figurative or literal will be determined in light of the express character of the passage that contains it (biblical genre, etc.) and cues within the text (such as the words "like," "as," and "He told them a parable, saying..."), subject of course to the analogy of faith and the context. If we're considering a verse in a book of poetry, such as the Psalms, we will be alert to the way the rhetoric of poetry can affect things like the words "Sing to the Lord a new song" (i.e., not a commandment, but a poetic way of saying "Praise the Lord!"). Or, for another example, when Psalm 45:1 says, "My tongue is the pen of a ready writer," we are not to imagine that the sons of Korah whittled their tongues to a sharp point and then licked letters onto the paper in their own blood; rather, they are using poetic diction to express how their verses flow out of them.

If we are evaluating part of a parable, we should keep in mind that it is part of a fictional story and that its meaning is tied to the point of that story. If we are going to assert that something is figurative language, we should look for a reason to do so in the text itself, such as: "This is part of St. John's apocalyptic vision of heaven, so it is probably at last partly symbolic and even, perhaps, an attempt to describe the indescribable." On the other hand, we can't rule that something is figurative language just because we don't understand, or care to believe, what it says: such as the creation of the world in 6 days (which Genesis describes in very straightforward prose as periods of time consisting of an "evening" and a "morning"), or Jesus' claim that the bread in the Sacrament "is" His body (a concept quite different from "represents").

We're not done yet, but I'm done for now. Whew!

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