God Favored Me: Course: How to Study Your Bible Part 2a

Monday, February 14, 2011

Course: How to Study Your Bible Part 2a

This course is presented by Dr. Mark Strauss. The following is my transcription of his lecture with minimal edits to make the text flow better for reading. You can download the lecture directly here (mp3) or go to the download page to download all nine lessons here.


Lecture 3: Hermeneutics or Biblical Interpretation

The word hermeneutics comes from a Greek word hermeneuĊ which means to interpret. Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation. It is a science in that there are methods. There are rules. There is a measure of objectivity. It is also an art in the sense that it is a skill that is learned.

Some of my students ask, "Do I really need hermeneutics?" Some people say, I don't interpret the Bible, I just read the Bible. But, of course, every act of reading is also an act of interpretation. You cannot read something without interpreting it.

2 Key Goals of Hermeneutics

1. Exegesis

Exegesis is from a Greek word meaning to draw out the meaning of the text. Our first goal in interpreting Scripture is to draw out the author's original meaning. We contrast exegesis with what we call iesegesis. Iesegesis is another Greek word that means to read into it, outside meaning. In other words, our goal is to hear Scripture speak to us, not to bring our ideas and confirm our own presuppositions and ideas in Scripture. We wanna read out of it, to comprehend what the original authors intended.

Clarifications in reference to what we mean by exegesis.
  1. THE ORIGINAL MEANING REFERS TO THE AUTHOR'S ORIGINAL MEANING.  This raises one of the most important questions that Biblical interpretation seeks to answer, and that question is, "Where does meaning reside?"

    In a written text, there are really three possibilities for where meaning resides:
    a. Original author of that text - the person that wrote it
    b. The text itself - words, sentences, paragraphs on the page
    c. Reader of the text - one, whether ancient or modern, who picks up that document and reads the words that the author wrote

    So in every passage in the Bible, as every written text in history, there are three possibilities as to where meaning resides: meaning could be a focus on the author who originally wrote it, meaning in the text itself, and meaning on the mind of the reader.

    There is a modern literary theory that is called reader response/criticism that puts all of the focus on the reader, suggesting that we actually create meaning when we read. Every reader approaches a text differently, so really the focus and locus on the meaning is in the reader rather than in the author or in the text itself.

    It certainly is true that reading is a dynamic interplay between the text and the reader, but ultimately, our goal is to get back to the author's intention—what the author intended when they wrote their document, what was going on in their mind, what their goal was.

    There are important clarifications with reference to that. The original meaning we are looking for is the author's intended meaning but our approach has to be text-centered. Why is that? It's because the author is dead. The author of every New Testament and Old Testament document is not with us. So if we say, we're looking for Paul's meaning, but we can't ask Paul what his meaning is. We have to look to the written text, the text that the author penned, and determine the meaning from that text. So the text is important, it's not just the author we're looking at.

    So our first clarification was that the original meaning refers to the author's intended meaning.

  2. MEANING IS TEXT-CENTERED. It is the author's intent as discernible from the text itself and its context. The context refers to everything around the text—the life situation that prompted the author to write it, the recipients to whom it was written, the time and place which it was written.

  3. TEXT IS HISTORICALLY POSITIONED. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that the text represents what linguists call a speech act, a communication event in space and time. Why is it important to identify the text as a speech act?

    Some people will say that you can make a text mean whatever it wants, because every reader comes to it and comes to it with their own conclusion on what it means. We can get around that difficulty, however, by recognizing the difference between what we call a sentence and what we call an utterance.

    A sentence is a grammatically complete unit of thought. Let me illustrate this: Suppose I say, "He hit the ball." That is a sentence because it is a grammatically complete unit of thought. But suppose I'm in my home and I'm watching the television and there's a baseball game going on and the batter swings the bat and hits the ball, and I say to my wife, "He hit the ball!" But then my son is out back. He loves baseball. He's swinging the bat, and he throws the ball up, and he hits it, and I say, "He hit the ball!" Notice what we have in that case. We have the same sentence, exactly the same sentence, "He hit the ball," but that sentence now has two different contexts: one related to the baseball game that I'm watching on television, one related to my son out in the backyard. So that sentence has two meanings: one meaning referring to my son and one meaning referring to the baseball game. Though that is only one sentence, the same sentence, it is two different utterances.

    A utterance is a sentence which occurs in real life. Now think about my illustration. When I looked at the baseball game and I said, "He hit the ball," that sentence referred to that baseball game. It was a real life sentence. It had a meaning because it was a real life sentence. Now when I turned and looked at my son and said, "He hit the ball," that was another utterance, a different utterance because it was a different sentence in real life. Now why is the distinction between sentences and utterances important? It is because sentences only have potential meaning.

    Suppose I write on the board, He hit the ball! There is a sentence, but that sentence only has potential meaning 'coz I don't know who "He" is. I don't know what kind of a ball. I don't know what game this is. That sentence has potential meaning, but it doesn't have real meaning until I give it a context. With reference to the baseball game, with reference to my son, and say, "He hit the ball!" then suddenly that sentence has meaning, and it has only one meaning. It has the meaning that I meant when I stated that utterance.

    So the important question is, "What do we in the Bible?" Do we have sentences or do we have utterances? And the answer to that question is, ultimately, we have utterances. We have utterances, because every passage in the Bible was written by a real author in a real context and they had a real intention, a real meaning in mind, when they wrote that context.

    So our third clarification is that the Bible is historically positioned. Every passage, every sentence, every paragraph in the Bible has a specific place, has a specific time, has a specific historical position. And because it has a historical position, it has a meaning in that position.

    The Bridge Illustration

    I wanna illustrate our two goals with a bridge illustration. Picture a large bridge spanning a gorge or a river. This is the illustration we'll be using to describe what we're trying to do in hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation.

    On one side of that bridge is us, in the sense of the modern reader of the text. On the other side of that bridge is them, that is the Biblical authors. So us is the modern reader of the text, that is you and I. "Them" is the Biblical authors—Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah,  one of the unknown writers of the Old Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, or any of the other authors. That's us and them, but between us and them, there is a great chasm, a great gorge, a great river valley. That chasm represents the time, place, culture, and language difference. We speak a different language than Paul spoke. We're in a different time. We have a different worldview. So there is this great chasm between us and them.

    The first goal of hermeneutics or interpretation is exegesis, and exegesis is crossing the cultural and linguistic bridge that separates us from them. So if we want to understand what Paul meant when he wrote this letter. Well, how can we understand what he meant? We have to cross the bridge of time and space. We have to try to enter into the thought world of Paul. We have to learn the language. We have to learn the culture. We have to understand the life situation.

    Take Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, for example. For us to understand that letter, we have to understand what was happening in the city of Corinth in southern Greece. We have to understand a little bit about Paul and who he was, an apostle of Jesus Christ. We have to understand his relationship with the church, that he established this church. We have to understand the conflicts that he had with the church, and we have to understand the letter. We have to read it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and understand how one sentence relates to the next and how one paragraph relates to the next. That whole process is called exegesis. It's attempting to determine the original meaning of the passage in its original context. That is crossing the bridge in one direction: crossing the bridge from our life situation to the life situation of the Apostle Paul.
That's the first half of our task in reading and interpreting the Bible. That's what we call exegesis—determining the author's original meaning. But there's a second half of that process and that is coming back across the bridge—taking the message that you've discerned in the first century, Paul's message to his readers, to his context, and finding out how to apply that message to us today, in our cultural context, in our life situation.

2. Contextualization

If the first process, crossing the bridge back to the original context is called exegesis, we call of bringing that message back to us today as contextualization. Exegesis is determining the original meaning of the text. Contextualization is determining the contemporary significance—what that text means to us today, how that text applies to our particular life situation, to our culture, to our context.

Both steps—exegesis and contextualization—are crucial. We have to cross the bridge back and understand what Paul meant in his original context, in his original culture; then we have to find out how that applies to us, what God is saying to us, what truth we can draw from this passage.

Why do we need contextualization? It's because not every command in the Bible was meant for all believers for all time. Let me just illustrate this for you:

Exodus 29:38 commands, "This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old." Most of us don't follow this Old Testament command, because that command was not given to us. It was given to the nation of Israel under the old covenant. There are many, many, many Old Testament commands that we don't obey.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says, "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son... all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you." This passage calls for the stoning of a rebellious son. Most of us don't practice the stoning of rebellious children today. We have other ways to deal with our disobedient children.

Leviticus 19:19 says, "Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." The command here is not to plant, say, barley and wheat, two different kinds of seed, within in the same field. Or not to wear clothing made of cotton and polyester, two different kinds of material. Most of us break that command today. Many farmers plant different kinds of seed in one field. Many of our clothes are blended clothes. So are we disobeying God's Word? Most Christians do not believe that this command applies to us.

We can not simply say, "God said it, and so I obey it," because many of these commands were not intended for us to obey. Take even one of the the 10 commandments, the Sabbath command:

Exodus 35:2, a restatement of the command, says "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death." The Sabbath, of course, is the seventh day, which is Saturday, but most Christians work on Saturday. They do work on the original Sabbath; yet according to Exodus 35:2, whoever works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Why don't we put to death people who do work on the Sabbath? The answer is most of us do not believe this Sabbath command is meant for us to obey.

How do we determine what commands are to be obeyed and what do we not have to obey? Contextualization, the second half of hermeneutics or Biblical interpretation, is to take the message as it was given, the original meaning in its original context and determine how that meaning applies to us today.

Now take this Exodus 35:2 passage, and let's do it with this: If we do our exegesis, what does it mean "for six days work is to be done but on the seventh day is a holy day, whoever works shall be put to death"? In our exegesis, we realize that this was a command given to the nation of Israel, that they were not to work on the Sabbath and that any Israelite who worked on the Sabbath was to be executed, because the Sabbath day was meant to be a day of rest given exclusively to God. That's our exegesis. We're looking at the passage in its original context and that's exactly what it means. It means that someone is to be judged guilty and executed if they worked on the Sabbath.

But that's only half of the process. The second half of the process is how do we apply that passage today? How do we keep the Sabbath today? Is that command given to us or is it not given to us? Or is it not for us? If it is not for us, then what application does that passage have? That is the question of application or contextualization.

You might say, we've been talking about Old Testament commands, but what about New Testament commands? Are we supposed to obey all New Testament commands? Let me just give you a few New Testament commands that many Christians today don't obey:

Peter 5:14 says, "Greet one another with a kiss of love." Many Christians today do not greet with a kiss. They might greet with a handshake. Many cultures do greet with a kiss, but certainly not all Christians believe that this command is meant for today.

1 Corinthians 11:5 says "For every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head..." Paul says that a woman must not pray or prophesy in church with her head uncovered. She has to veil or cover her head. In many churches around the world today, women worship, they pray or they prophesy, with their head uncovered. Are those women disobeying God? Are they disobeying the truth by praying with their head uncovered? Many Christians believe, at least, that this command is not meant for Christians all time.

The process of contextualization is looking at a passage of Scripture and trying to determine whether it applies today and in what way it applies today. One more example:

1 Timothy 5:23 says, "No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments." In this passage, Paul apparently commands to drink wine, but of course we recognize that Paul is writing to Timothy in a very specific situation and that the command is meant for Timothy.

So the question of contextualization is asking the question, How does this command apply to today? How do I understand what God wants me to do?

So here's our bridge again. The first part of our bridge is exegesis, that's moving from our context—the context of the modern reader—crossing the bridge backwards the chasm, the gorge of time, place, culture, and language to understand what the text meant in its original context.

I can tell you, if we understand that passage correctly, Paul meant for women in Corinth to cover their head when they were worshiping, when they were praying, when they were prophesying. That's exegesis, determining what the significance of that head covering was in its original culture, in its original context. But that's only half the process.

Then we have to say, okay, that's fine. That's what Paul meant for them, but how would Paul want us to do it? More importantly, what would God want us to do in our particular culture and context, which is very different in Paul's culture and context? Contextualization is determining the meaning for today.

In reading Paul's letter, we are reading someone else's mail. We are reading the letters of Paul—this individual from the 1st century, this missionary, this church-planter, this world traveler. He is writing letters to specific 1st century churches. The letter to the Galatians is written to a variety of churches in the Roman province of Galatia. The 1 and 2 Letters to the Corinthians is written to the church in southern Greece or Achaea in the city of Corinth. The Letter to the Romans is written to the house churches in Rome. So every one of Paul's letters is written to a specific life situation, to a specific church or churches, to a specific cultural context.

Here's a statement that I'll make to my students that sounds a little shocking to many Christians. The statement is: The reason the Bible is sometimes so hard to understand is because it wasn't written to you. Now that's true. None of these books originally, in their original context, were written to us as individuals, to us as modern readers. Isaiah wrote to the people of Israel of his time. Moses wrote to Israel of his time. John wrote to the churches to which he was ministering. Paul wrote to the churches that he had established and to the churches that he knew. But none of these writers were writing specifically to us as modern readers. So one of the reasons why the Bible is so hard to understand is we don't live in that cultural context. We don't speak that original language. We don't always know the circumstances, all the situations, everything that was going on.

So the reason the Bible is sometimes so hard to understand is it wasn't written to you. That's why we need exegesis. We need to enter into the world of the text. We need to learn the languages of the text. We need to understand the 1st century culture and context and background. That's why we need exegesis.

But although the Bible wasn't written to you, it was written for you. We just changed the preposition from to to for and this suddenly becomes a true statement. In order words, this is God's Word for you, even if it wasn't written to you.

In our last session, we talked about the nature of the Bible as both fully human and fully divine. And we can relate this point we just made to this idea of being fully human and fully divine. It's fully human in the sense that it had a real life situation. It was written by a written by a real author (Peter, Paul, Luke, or John) in a real life situation (Paul writing to the church in Rome, John writing to his community, Mark writing perhaps to a suffering church in Rome). Every writer is writing to a specific situation. Every writer is writing in a human reality, in a human situation. That's the human side.

But this is also God's Word. It's meant for God's people of all time. So even if it wasn't written to you, it was written for you, because the Bible is divinely inspired. Because the Bible is God's word, it has truth and application and relevance to us today.

So contextualization or application is determining how the Bible relates to you. If exegesis is the meaning for them in their original context, contextualization is the significance for us today.

Now I've been using the word contextualization instead of the word application; it means really roughly the same thing. The reason we use the word contextualization instead of the word application is because application means simply applying the Bible to ourselves, but there can be good application and there can be bad application. In other words, I can take a passage of Scripture and apply it to my life, but I may be misunderstanding how God intended that to be applied.

The reason we use the word contextualization is it means appropriately taking that message and applying it to a new context. That's where the word, contextualization, comes from. It had an original context, and now it has a new context—our context. Paul's letters were written one context, the context of the 1st century world of the Mediterranean. We wanna take that message to them that we determine by exegesis, and we wanna apply that message to us today. Take it from one context, the 1st century context, and bring it into our world, into our context.

Quick Review

So we have talked about what is hermeneutics—the science and art of interpretation. Secondly, we have talked about the two basic goals of hermeneutics:

  1. Exegesis - determining the author's original meaning and 
  2. Contextualization - determining the significance of the text for today. 

Using the bridge illustration, exegesis means moving from us to them, going back into the world of the text, understanding the author's intended meaning in its original context; and contextualization means taking that message and bringing it into our life situation and applying it today.

We will talk about both rules of exegesis and rules of contextualization (rules of both exegesis and contextualization), principles we can apply to understand God's Word in its original context and then principles to apply to determine how that applies to us today.

Avoiding Shortcutting the Hermeneutical Process

There are mistakes that are sometimes made, and we want to avoid those mistakes as we read and study God's Word. Let me give you two possible mistakes that we want to avoid:
  1. Application without exegesis
    In other words, applying God's Word without fully understanding God's Word. Application without exegesis. One form of this is called subjectivity—assuming that whatever I first understand the text to mean is what it means to me. Applying the passage directly to my life without understanding its original meaning or context. So this is application without exegesis—applying it without determining its original meaning.

    You may have been in a Bible study perhaps where a passage was read, and then everyone went around and described what they thought it meant or how it applied to them.

    I have one cartoon where a Bible study leader is reading a passage in Paul's letters and he says, "Paul says that because of his chains, others had been encouraged." And then he asked the Bible study group, "What do you think that means?"

    One man responds, "Paul is writing a letter, right? So this is a chain letter, like the one I just got." So he misunderstands Paul's chains to mean a chain letter.

    Another woman says, "No, no, you're missing the point. I'm a chain smoker and God is speaking to me through this to tell me I'm to encourage other chain smokers."

    A third man says, "Well, it reminds me of that Aretha Franklin song, Chain of Fools. Maybe Paul means we're all fools for Christ."

    So each one applies the passage directly to themselves. The Bible study leader says, "Those are interesting insights, but don't you think Paul could simply be referring to his prison chains?"

    One of the Bible study participants says to another, "I told you this Bible study wasn't about practical living."

    You see, the point is that in that Bible study, the people were not thinking about what the passage meant in its original context, what the passage meant to Paul. They were simply taking it and applying it in any way they wanted to with reference to themselves. But that's a misapplication of the passage.

    Here's our point: We must understand the original meaning of the original author, before we can make application for today. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, say it this way, "A text cannot mean what it never meant." A text cannot mean today something that it never meant in its original context.

    So that's one form of application without exegesis, applying the Bible before we understand.

  2. Prooftexting
    Prooftexting is trying to find a verse that supports our perspective. We have a tendency to come to the text of Scripture, and we know what we believe. Maybe we know what we believe because our church has taught it to us or we know what we know what we believe because our parents taught something to us, and so we read the Bible assuming we know what it's going to say.

    I've got another cartoon where a young man is reading his Bible and his sister comes up to him and he says, "Don't bother me! I'm looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions." You see, he knows what he believes. He's not going to Scripture to understand what it means. He's going to Scriptures to defend his own perspective.

    But you see, we'll never hear God speak to us unless we allow the Bible to speak for itself, until we seek to understand it on its own terms.

    So, in that case, you are trying to apply God's Word before you understand God's Word. We need to avoid shortcutting the hermeneutical process by applying it without exegeting it.

    The opposite is also true, however. Some people do exegesis without contextualization, or they might understand what the text meant but they misapply it to their life today in some way. Let me give you a couple of examples of that.

    A liberal error related to exegesis without contextualization is not allowing the Bible to transform your life. Reading it, understanding it in its original context but not allowing it to change us. I have read many commentaries that are very well-written, that quite fully understand the original context in culture, in background, in language; but then the author is not a true believer. That author doesn't allow that message to change his/her life.

    Hebrews 12:4 says, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." God's Word is meant to be read and understodd and, ultimately, applied. It's meant to transform our lives. We cannot fully interpret God's Word until we allow it to change us.

    That might be a liberal error associated with exegesis without contextualization, but there are also conservative errors that misapply God's Word, and one example is confusing eternal principles with cultural applications. Sometimes in Scripture, what we have are specific cultural applications of eternal principles, but God did not mean for those things necessarily to apply for all time.

    For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul says, "Women should remain silent in church." Now we have to first of all exegete that and understand what it means it its original context, because it's obvious that Paul doesn't mean that command to apply to all women, in all churches, for all time. We know that because even earlier in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul assumes that women are prophesying and praying in church.

    So exegesis without contextualization would say, "Paul said it this way, therefore this is the way we should apply it," without fully understanding why Paul said it and then determining what its appropriate application is for today.

    A second conservative error with reference to exegesis without contextualization, we might call the magic answer book or the verse for the day syndrome, and that is, searching Scripture for the answer for a specific problem and so taking a passage out of context.

    It's like the young soldier who was in boot camp, and he was really suffering under the rigors of military life, and he desperately wanted to go home. So he began searching his Bible for an answer, for something to help encourage him; and he came to Genesis 31:13 where it says, "Arise! Get out of this place." And he took that as a message from the Lord, so he deserted his army post and went home. His exegesis was fine. He understood what that meant, but he applied it inappropriately to himself. That passage was never meant to be for him. It was meant for an entirely different life situation.

    In many Christian books, I read stories of people who understand and discern God's will in this way. I remember reading a story of a woman whose husband was considering taking a new job, but she wasn't sure that it was the right job to take because it would require them to leave their home and move to another town. She was reading her Bible and came to Luke 4:43 where Jesus said, "I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent." She read that verse and read that as a message from God, that they were to move from this town to the other town.

    Well, the problem with that is that passage was never meant to tell us that we should move from one town to another. That passage was Jesus telling his disciples that his mission was to proclaim the good news to all the towns of Israel. In fact, that woman could have read another verse. She could have read Isaiah 32:20 that says, "Look upon Zion, a tent that could not be moved." She could have taken that as a passage telling her she should stay put. The passage goes on, "Its stake shall never be pulled up nor any of its rope broken." So she could take that to mean she should stay in her town and they should not move.

    You see, the problem is, that's not what the passage ever meant. As Stuart said, a text cannot mean today what it never meant its original context. Appropriate contextualization, appropriate application has to come from appropriate exegesis—determining what the author meant in their original context.

Lecture Summary

Okay, let me summarize the points that we looked at in this session.
  • Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation. It's a science in that we need to bring specific principles, a specific method to bear. We have to diligently study God's Word in order to understand it.
  • 2 Goals of Hermeneutics
    1. Exegesis - determining the original meaning, the author's intended meaning in that author's original historical, cultural, and literary context
    2. Contextualization - determining the contemporary significance—what that text means to us today, how that text applies to our particular life situation, to our culture, to our context
  • 2 Ways to Avoid Shortcutting the Hermeneutical Process
    1. Application without exegesis - misapplying the text without first exegeting the text
    2. Exegesis without application - exegeting the text but then not applying it to appropriate situations

This lecture was provided by BiblicalTraining.org.


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