The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics

I have been pondering something so much lately I have a headache. Mind you, my mental capacity could never be described as excessive, and it is dwindling by the year – but still, I have a couple of synapses that are still firing.

My conundrum is this: how can people who hold to virtually the same concept of the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture come to such varied, and sometimes even diametrically opposed, interpretations of some passages of that Scripture? I get it that classic liberals and hard-core fundamentalists should be at each others’ throats. But what disturbs me is that I have acquaintances who, at least on a surface level, agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they and I are so far apart on some issues that we cannot even worship together.

As Ricky would say to Lucy, “‘Splain me.”

What I have decided is that the problem is not one’s view of inspiration (although, at one level it might certainly be). It is certainly not one’s love for the Bible, or for Jesus, or for his church. The problem, as I see it, is the issue of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is one of those words for which there are probably as many definitions as there are individuals who use it. For me there is a very simple definition, although some might find it lacking: hermeneutics is the process by which we apply, or interpret, Scripture. It is differentiated from exegesis in that exegesis is the process by which we determine what the passage meant in its original, historic context. Therefore, while some disagreements are narrowly focused on matters of exegesis (meanings of words, aspects of grammar, specific details of historical setting), I am growing more convinced that it is actually the process by which we selectively apply Scripture that is the cause of most problems.

As honestly as I can say it, we are all hermeneutical sinners. We all violate certain hermeneutical principles that we demand others obey. None of us are entirely, perfectly consistent. All of us selectively use or dismiss passages that support or challenge our interpretation. All of us come to the Bible with preconceptions (even believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God is a preconception!) None of us are entirely successful in removing, or bracketing out, those preconceptions. Some are certainly better than others, but the minute you declare perfection you have just violated the principle of approaching the Scripture in humility.

In other words, in the immortal  words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I reflect on this as I consider an interview conducted with Ken Ham, he of the Noah’s Ark museum and a staunch believer in “young earth” (approximately 6,000 years old) creationism. He said in so many words that if Christians challenge the “literalness” of Genesis, they have no means of supporting their doctrine.

Well, I hate to burst Ken Ham’s bubble, but I am one of the committed believers in the divine and authoritative inspiration of Scripture, and I cannot now, nor will I in the foreseeable future, ever accept the conclusion that the Bible scientifically proves the earth to be not much older than 6,000 years. It may, in absolute fact, only be that old. That is not my main disagreement with Ham. What I object to, in the most emphatic of ways possible, is the proposition that we can use the Bible as some sort of a chronological textbook to ascertain the age of the earth. This number was first arrived at through the prodigious effort of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (d. 1656), who determined that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. (I have seen the book which documents Ussher’s work – it is ponderous!) The problem with this, and many other efforts to date the age of the earth, is that you have to depend on genealogical lists that were compiled, not as literal, physical lines of lineage, but for specific political and/or theological reasons. That, and then you have to work with some incredibly difficult comparisons and computations of ancient calendars (which, if I remember correctly, comprises the bulk of Ussher’s work).

For evidence, I offer two genealogies. One, the lineage of Zadok, found in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 and in a much abbreviated form in 1 Chronicles 9:11, and in Ezra 7:1-5. The genealogy in Ezra has a six generation gap – which is interesting in and of itself, but is even more interesting if it is true that the author of the books of the Chronicles was Ezra himself, as many scholars believe. Now, if you want to argue that the list in 1 Chronicles 6 is the full and complete list, go ahead. But here is the problem: the list in Ezra 7 is just as inspired, and just as authoritative, and just as theologically important for Ezra’s readers as the list in 1 Chronicles was for those original readers, and the two lists are significantly different! You cannot elevate the Chronicles list as being more historically accurate without denigrating the historical accuracy of the Ezra list. Yet, if you accept that both lists are inspired and accurate for the purpose for which the author’s intended, you have just accepted my premise – you cannot use the biblical genealogies as scientifically perfect specimens of biological lineage. (Critical exegetical note here: the word “father” in ancient Semitic languages can mean anything from one’s own specific human father to a grandfather, or even more remote male relative. Here is where exegesis can, and should, inform hermeneutics).

The second genealogy is far better known – that of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Even a cursory glance reveals significant differences between the two lists. These differences have been summarily dismissed as the result of the Matthean genealogy being that of Joseph, and the Lukan genealogy as being that of Mary. I will wager a year’s salary to anyone who can prove to me from Scripture that Luke intends his genealogy to be through Mary and not Joseph! It cannot be done, and I have tried every which way from Tuesday to do it. The only way you can arrive at that conclusion is to assume it from the beginning – and as I compare the two lists that is just not a valid assumption, for while they have significant differences, they share a remarkable level of agreement.

But, let’s say I am wrong (and that would not be the first, or the last time), so let’s look at Mathew’s genealogy more closely: he has arranged it in three groups of 14. This in itself lends toward a theological, and not purely historical, arrangement. But look even more closely: in the first two sections there are 14 generations, the first beginning with Abraham, the second beginning with Solomon. But the only way you can come up with 14 in the third set is to count Jeconiah twice – once as the last generation in the second section and once as the first generation of the third set. (David is not so counted in the second group). I’m not making this up – you can count for yourself and, besides, it has been documented and discussed thoroughly in critical commentaries. So – are the lists false? Did Matthew not know his history or his theology? NO! and NO! But he did create his “genealogy” with a specific purpose in mind, and if we are going to stand under Scripture instead of standing over Scripture, we must first accept Matthew’s listing as being different from Luke’s, and then proceed to attempt to determine the historical and theological reasons for the discrepancies.

Artificially harmonizing differing accounts in Scripture in order to prove a debatable theory is dishonest. To do so, and then to demand that everyone accept your conclusion, is even more than dishonest. Those who do so to gain a following do great damage to the cause of seeking the truth.

So, how are we going to untie the “Gordian Knot” of hermeneutics? I’m afraid that solution is beyond my limited mental capacity. There is one thing about which I am absolutely convinced, however: no Christian should be afraid of seeking the truth of any matter. God has nothing to fear from human inquiry.

Let us begin with a proper posture before the text, however, and remember we stand under it, not over it!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics”

  1. Thank you for the thoughts, Paul. Each passing year finds me appreciating and yielding to the mystery and wonder in the Word more than the last. I’ve made many mistakes by attempting to force a mastery over certain passages of scripture which maybe were never intended by God that I master. We fear not knowing answers and yield to choosing speculation as truth too often. Maybe living by faith is as much about acknowledging an incomplete understanding of certain passages of scripture as it is standing firm against a multitude who challenge both God’s existence and scripture’s inspiration by Him.

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    1. Thank you, David, for the comment. I fully get the fear of not knowing answers. When we are younger, I think our insecurity is the driving force to have an answer for every question and an explanation for every verse. As we get older, and perhaps at peace with our limitations, it becomes easier to say, “I don’t know.” I will always remember two professors in particular – recognized scholars in their respective fields – each being able to answer students’ questions with a humble, “I don’t know.” At first I thought they were pulling our legs – they were brilliant! How could they not know? But, they taught more by saying they did not know than they would have if they had tried to foist a speculative answer off as some authoritative truth. It is a memory worth treasuring.

      Paul

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