Pick-and-Choose Hermeneutics? image

Pick-and-Choose Hermeneutics?

Do you obey some Bible passages and not others? If so, aren't you guilty of picking and choosing?

Quite a lot of the articles we’ve written here have been, in some way or other, about the doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics. The reason for this, as I argued a year ago, is that in many ways this is likely to be the defining discussion for the next twenty years amongst professing evangelicals, and it is at the root of numerous disagreements about other issues (as a quick flick through recent posts like this, this and this will indicate). But one thing I haven’t yet done is to express, in simple sentences, the key scriptural and hermeneutical principles that undergird my interpretation of God’s word. Consequently, the question is occasionally being asked on what basis I (or anyone else) see scriptural imperatives as applying to us today, and what assumptions provide the foundation for those decisions. So this morning I took a few minutes to identify the most important five.

    1. When interpreted correctly, with careful attention paid to context, purpose, genre and authorial intention, the scriptures do not contain mistakes.
    2. The primary way of establishing the meaning of a text is to establish what the original author meant their original audience to understand.
    3. The Bible is a big story, and the big story is authoritative for all Christians, although instructions given in one part of the story are not necessarily binding on those who live in other parts of the story.
    4. We live in the same part of the story as the New Testament church, and therefore we should obey all instructions given to believers in the New Testament, unless there are clear indications that they only apply to specific individuals.
    5. Obeying New Testament instructions will sometimes require cultural translation, where the meaning of symbols has changed across the centuries, in order to preserve the meaning of the original symbols.

Each of these, of course, could be (and no doubt have been) the subject of a book in themselves, so these short propositions beg numerous questions and require much more substantiation than a sentence can provide. Helpful books that address these points in much more depth include Greg Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy, Tom Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays’ Grasping God’s Word, and Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth. But as an all-too-brief summary, they may be helpful to articulate how my hermeneutic (and that of many others) actually works, and hopefully ward off the charge that I am involved in a massive picking and choosing conspiracy.
So: I, like many readers of this blog, believe that we should love God and love our neighbours, that we should not enslave people, that we do not need to get circumcised, that husbands and wives have different roles to play in marriage based on Jesus and the church, but we do not stone adulterers, that we should eagerly desire spiritual gifts and especially prophecy, that people in Britain don’t have to kiss each other in church, that men are allowed to wear hats in church and women are allowed not to, that breaking bread is an important part of regular church life, but we don’t have to literally wash each others’ feet as a regular observance, that we can eat pork and shellfish but not sacrificial food in an idol’s temple, that speaking in languages/tongues is for today, that all sexual immorality is sinful, that elders should be appointed in all churches, that I don’t have to rip my eye out if I sin with it, that baptism is for believers, and that I am not required to go to Turkey to look for parchments for the apostle Paul. For some, that would make me guilty of “pick and choose” hermeneutics on a colossal scale. But I plead not guilty: I think it involves using the five principles above to guide my interpretation and, to the best of my ability, I’m trying to use them consistently. My hope is that, if you were to go back through all the articles on this site, you’d find a whole host of examples of these principles being explained and applied.
Obviously, it’s possible to agree on the principles but still come to different conclusions in practice. Lots of people would share all five of these principles, but would disagree with me about baptism (through exegetical differences), gender roles (through differences about what counts as clearly limited to specific individuals), and so on. So it’s not as if agreement on the principles eliminates theological debate. What it does, however, is to make clear the hermeneutical submarines - the assumptions that operate deep under the surface, out of sight - and hopefully clarify the terms of the discussion.
Anything I’ve missed? Or, perhaps, any sort of text that slips through the net?

← Prev article
Next article →