Scenario #1: A single mom is in a small group with a first-year seminary student. The young man just completed an introductory course in biblical hermeneutics. During the group’s sharing and prayer time, the following interaction unfolds:
MOM: I have been really struggling to make ends meet. But just this week I found a verse that has really given me confidence and peace about my finances: ‘And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).
STUDENT: You might wanna be careful about claiming that verse as a promise for your personal finances. As the context of Philippians indicates, that is a specific promise Paul gave to a local church because of their sacrificial financial contribution to his missionary efforts. It is not a generic promise to be claimed by just any individual Christian struggling with his or her finances.
Scenario #2: Later that week the same student finds himself in a discussion with a friend:
FRIEND: My parents are considering a divorce. My father is unwilling to go with my mom to counseling to work on the marriage. My mom has her issues, too. I have been real discouraged. But I came across a passage in Matthew that really gives me some hope. Jesus says, ‘ I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’ (Matthew 18:19-20). Would you claim this verse with me and pray with me for my parents’ to go to counseling together, and for their marriage to be healed?
STUDENT: Uh, I’m sorry, I really can’t do that. You see, that verse has nothing to do with your parents’ marriage. Matthew 18 is about one brother sinning against another and about the authority of the church exercising discipline towards a brother who refuses to repent. You’ve taken that verse out of context.
Now what’s the problem here? Well, maybe you’re a seminary student with a hermeneutics class or two under your belt and you’re saying, ‘Hey, there’s no problem at all! Those verses ARE taken out of context.’
Yes, they are. But the above situations are not the places to say so.
Scenarios like these really do happen in our churches. Bible students at times get excited about the new things they are learning. Some of them just can’t resist doing a little ‘hermeneutical law enforcement’ among their brothers and sisters at church. But responses like these (accurate though they are on paper) only serve to discourage less informed Christians, by undermining their confidence in their ability to understand God’s Word.
There is another reason I am slow to correct individuals in my church who claim ‘the right promise from the wrong text.’ In my thirty-plus years of church ministry, I have often seen God greatly honor the faith of such persons and respond in the affirmative to their requests.
As it turns out, hermeneutical sophistication is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a continuum, a matter of degree. At one end of the spectrum are brand new Christians who come to the text with faith, but without a clue about authorial intent, literary context, or any of those other precious tools in the seminarian’s hermeneutical toolbox. At the other end of the spectrum are professional Bible scholars like myself. We have circled our way down the hermeneutical spiral, again and again, and we’ve had gads and gads of Gadamer.
But here’s the point: None of us gets it right all the time! Not even the brightest and most skilled exegete. Yet God still uses our imperfect understandings of His Word—no matter what our hermeneutical I.Q. happens to be at any given moment—to transform us and to transform the people we serve.
None of this is intended as an excuse to ignore the importance of accurately dividing the Word of God. I wouldn’t be teaching exegetical methodology in a seminary, if I didn’t think that good hermeneutics matters.
I offer the above comments simply to remind us (a) that acquiring a degree of hermeneutical sophistication is an ongoing process in all of our lives, and (b) that God delights in responding to our faith, wherever we are in the learning process, when we hold His Word in high esteem and live our lives according to the light that He has given us.
How can we help our people to properly interpret the Bible and avoid wrongheaded readings and applications of Scripture? I can think of a couple ways:
- Through Our Preaching — People who hear their pastor(s) accurately interpret and apply the text on Sundays will be more likely to read their own Bibles in context during the week. Good hermeneutics is not a cudgel to wield in the halls of the church against perceived individual ‘offenders.’ It is a spiritual discipline to be modeled Sunday after Sunday, as a pastor feeds his flock.
- Through Church Electives — Some pastors offer courses in Bible interpretation as part of their church’s adult education program. This is another great way to help our people learn good hermeneutics.
Both the pulpit and the classroom provide settings where proper biblical interpretation can be modeled and taught as life-long practices. This is far better, in my view, than directly challenging the faulty interpretations of personally meaningful passages that people happen to be clinging to in times of crisis.
I close with a great story about John Wesley. Apocryphal? Genuine? I’ll let you decide. But I can almost guarantee that you have hardly heard Scripture misinterpreted at all until you hear this one! It goes like this:
In the days of John Wesley, lay preachers with limited education would sometimes conduct the church services. One man used Luke 19:21 as his text: ‘Lord, I feared Thee, because Thou art an austere man’ (KJV). Not knowing the meaning of the word austere, he thought the text spoke of ‘an oyster man.’ (!)
The preacher proceeded to explain to his congregation how a diver must grope in dark, freezing water to retrieve oysters. In his attempt, he cuts his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. After he obtains an oyster, he rises to the surface, clutching it ‘in his torn and bleeding hands.’ And then the preacher gave his punch line:
‘Christ descended from the glory of heaven into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven. His torn and bleeding hands are a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest.’
When the sermon was over, twelve men came forward to receive Christ.
John Wesley happened to be present at the meeting. After the service, an upper-class gentleman who was also there cornered John Wesley to complain about ‘these unschooled preachers who were too ignorant even to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on.’ The Oxford-educated Wesley simply said, ‘Never mind. The Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.’
Sometimes, when we’re up to our ears in the delights of theological education, it helps to be reminded that, when all is said and done, from God’s perspective it’s all about the oysters.