Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3: Avoid importing foreign hermeneutical grids which dictate beforehand how one is going to interpret a passage. This distorts exegesis.
This criterion is straightforward. Do not come to the text of Scripture with your mind already made up with a theology which every text must be fitted to. Again, we all tend to do this, so we must be on our guard. It is crucial in interpretation that we have self-awareness on the one hand, and text-awareness on the other. Self-awareness is needed so that we don’t fool ourselves that we bring no prior assumptions to our reading. Text-awareness is necessary because we should be keen “listeners” to exactly what is being communicated. We should be attentive to what is being said, not what we think it says. Let us look at some examples of this criterion:
In John 10:27-29 Jesus says:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
This passage is all about preservation and security of Christ’s flock. The basic ingredients are:
1. They are Christ’s sheep and they know Him
2. Christ grants His sheep eternal life.
3. This gift insures the sheep shall never perish
4. Not just the gift of life but the power of Christ against enemies is provided
5. The sheep were given to Christ by his Father.
6. The Father’s will and power provide further security for the sheep.
Despite the clarity of this promise of Jesus, there are some Arminian Christians who, because they believe other verses (especially in Hebrews) support a theology of conditional election and security (i.e. they hold that a Christian may loose eternal life). The way they argue is by pointing out that even though no one can take the sheep from Christ and the Father, it doesn’t mean they cannot jump out themselves.
The problem with this view is that it overturns the clear message of assurance which Christ intends in the passage. But further, it completely ignores the context and the theological message. Contextually, Christ is “the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14) who owns the sheep. If He were to allow the sheep to escape He would be an incompetent shepherd, not a good one! We may be as sure that Christ will insure all His sheep “never perish” as that He will not let them be snatched away from Him. Thus, the passage cannot be explained away in order to preserve a theological view.
On the other hand, the Book of Hebrews contains very clear warnings to believers (Heb. 3:1; 6:9-12) that their salvation can be imperiled (Heb. 2:1; 3:12-14; 4:1, 11; 6:4-8; 10:26-31). Some have tried to get around these warnings by claiming they are aimed at “professors who are not possessors” (e.g. Owen, Pink), or that they are not speaking about salvation (Hodges, Dillow), or that they are speaking to the elect about salvation, but they are really empty threats (Schreiner & Caneday).
What does one do with these texts then? Well, i have my own ideas, but whether I am right or not, one thing is for sure; I know what these texts SAY. And knowing that I cannot allow my theology of eternal security to act as a damper on these passages. There will have to be an explanation which allows the writer of Hebrews (who was a very skilled author who knew what he was saying) to have his full voice without being toned down by our theologies. The text of Scripture must be allowed to say what it likes and our theologies, which are man-made approximations, must give way to it, whether we can understand it fully or not.
We owe the Holy Scriptures this loyalty. I am confident Hebrews does not contradict Paul’s theology in, say, Romans 8. The answer lies somewhere in the identification of “the Hebrews,” the “rest,” and the answer to the question, “Why write a letter to Jewish believers with such an OT flavor in the age of the Church?”
This rule ensures that the interpreter pulls up and dismounts his theology before reading the text. Other “hermeneutical rules” which distort “pure” reading of texts are the belief, stated nowhere in Scripture, that the NT reinterprets the OT. If one comes at the great prophetic passage in Zechariah 12-14 with such a presumption it is a foregone conclusion that the plain-sense will be rejected and replaced by some sort of allegorical or spiritualized hermeneutics. When the warrant for such an enterprise is inquired after, the reply always involves special pleading and circular reasoning, based, not upon what the NT writers actually said, but on what certain interpreters infer from what they said (e.g. the Church is “the New Israel” and so Zech. 12-14 must be given a “heavenly” interpretation).
The most glaring example of this problem is the “Covenant of Grace” of Covenant Theology. This non-biblical “covenant” has no clear warrant in the text of Scripture, yet it dominates Reformed exegesis. I shall not discuss it here, but this article may help.
b. “Christological” Interpretation: a Word
An example of this is so-called “Christological” interpretation. This is where the interpreter comes to Scripture with the maxim (should I say cliche?) “Christ can be found in every verse of Scripture.” This kind of assertion, which sounds so pious as to be positively intimidating (for no one wants to deny anything to their Lord), is nevertheless, plainly false. We know this intuitively, and it can be proved demonstratively with the greatest of ease. Where is Christ in the account of Judges 19? (Yes, i know it features Bethlehem, but that is for thematic reasons to do with David, not Jesus).
Coming to any Bible passage determined to find Christ whatever it says is hermeneutical hare-kiri. Logically speaking it would mean that any and every form of wacky hermeneutical gymnastics would be acceptable if only Christ could be magically produced at its end. This is interpretative pragmatism of the zaniest kind!
These first three rules are the basic ones which help us interpret the Bible as a communication from God to us which we are supposed to shut up and listen to. If someone, whether our bosses, our spouses, our pastors, or our God, tells us something, we must first be prepared to attend to what is being said. We cannot think that it is okay to avoid the pain-sense of the words so that we can infer them to mean what we want to hear. That is not “listening with respect for the Talker,” it is ignoring and despising the Talker.
The next “Rule” will try to derive a hermeneutical base from the Bible itself.