In this two-part post, I want to talk about why I believe the “Jesus Hermeneutic” is necessary in helping us to develop a consistent view of God.
Hermeneutic is just a fancy word for the science or method of interpretation.
I will first need to briefly deconstruct some myths about the Bible, outline the problems with our interpretations, and show how we’ve tried to solve this in church history, along with the problems these approaches have created. In part two, I will specifically describe the Jesus Hermeneutic and show why I think it’s the best approach to Scripture for developing a consistent theology.
As I mentioned in my comments to a reader in “The Sin of the World,” one of the biggest challenges to our view of God is the apparent disparity between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. Scholars, theologians, and heretics have been tackling this problem since the beginning. Marcion tried to resolve it by dismissing the Old Testament altogether. This, of course, is unacceptable, which is why he is considered a heretic.
Reading the Bible like the Atheists
Modern atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, point to this discrepancy in order to discredit both God and the Bible. This quote from Richard Dawkins is a good example:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (“The God Delusion,” p.51)
If we’re totally honest, we can understand why Dawkins would come to such a conclusion. What’s ironic is that Dawkins’s conclusions come from reading Scripture exactly the same way a lot of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians read it, using the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” method! All words, from Genesis to Revelation, carry the same weight in revealing who God is.
The problem with our “flat” Biblicist reading of the Bible is that, unlike Dawkins and Hitchens, we never question whether what we’re reading is even moral or good. We end up creating a picture of a God who…shows no mercy (Deut. 7:2), condones slavery and treats virgins like cattle taken in booty (Num. 31:25-41). He becomes the ethnic-cleansing God of Joshua; one who condones child sacrifice (Judges 11:30-40) and cannibalizing (Lev.26:29; Jer.19:9); who blesses those who dash babies heads against the rocks (Psalm 137:8-9) and ripping pregnant mothers open (Hos.13:16).
This picture of God is juxtaposed with the enemy-loving, child-suffering, grace-giving God of Jesus—the unconditionally non-retributive Prodigal’s father, a friend of sinners, blessing those who persecute Him, returning evil with good. A God who is described in the New Testament in one word—love.
Now you can understand why Marcion wanted to throw out the Old Testament! These two pictures of God are hopelessly incompatible.
I don’t think we “Bible-believing” Christians” are coming to grips with the conclusions we must draw if we adopt the “Every word of the Bible is accurately describing God.” And all our convoluted ways in which we try to “balance God out” aren’t even close to being honest or rational explanations.
The problem of final authority
The second problem with our theology is one of authority. We’ve already seen how just reading the Bible (as opposed to “rightly dividing” it) can lead to all sorts of serious problems.
First understand that the Bible wasn’t dictated by God; it was inspired by God. Much of it is a narrative of human events without commentary, and some of that narrative sounds borrowed from ancient myths. And our 66 books didn’t just fall out of the sky to us. It took the church four centuries to come up with what we call the Bible, and there was still lingering disagreement on that.
In the first and second century church, there was no such document. They had the Septuagint and various letters they collected, including many that are not part of our Bible. Even the New Testament writers included books as “Scripture” that we don’t recognize as canon. They also quoted from Jewish apocryphal writings, like Enoch.
Since there was no standard between churches, the early church decided that the final authority should rest with the bishops. The reasoning was that they succeeded from the apostles, so they were the most qualified. In fact, it was the bishops who finally gave us what we call the Bible.
The Roman Catholics adopted this standard. The Eastern Orthodox deferred to the patristic tradition and the Seven Ecumenical Councils as their standard. This method did provide unity and harmony in the churches, but it also led to many religious traditions that were unbiblical and very harmful, like the selling of indulgences (Of course, this type of fearmongering, manipulation and control is still prevalent in evangelical churches.)
Then, in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, in order to break from Papal authority, declared the Bible as the final authority (Sola Scriptura).
Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and infallibility was created. But understand that this view of the Bible is a modern innovation. The early church didn’t teach this and the Bible nowhere calls itself inerrant or infallible, only inspired and profitable. Of course, there’s the issue of translations and the 200,000 to 300,000 differences among the various manuscript copies. I won’t go into that. You can read more about that here.
While Luther’s view successfully takes the final authority away from the bishops and popes, it creates new problems. Whose interpretation of the Bible is right? Which means, we’re still leaving the revelation of God in the hands of men. And the more serious problem is that we’ve never been more divisive, proven by the fact that we have over 33,000 “Bible-believing” protestant denominations and non-denominations and growing!
The other problem with this view is that it turns the Trinity into the Father, Son, and Holy Bible. It makes us Pharisaical (which means “separatist”), trusting the Bible text more than Jesus (John 5:39).
As I said in “Deconstructing our Christian mythology,” the early church didn’t have our view of the Bible. They called Jesus the Word of God, not the biblical text. The Bible text is not God; God Himself is God. While the text is inspired, our interpretation of it may not be.
So, if we can’t defer to the bishops or to the Bible itself as our final authority for understanding God, are we left without a compass? Will we just end up like at the end of the book of Judges where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”? No, not at all! Quite the opposite. We already have a perfect standard! And this Divine “Tuning Fork” brings perfect unity in the Body of Christ. Not only that, the whole world will see it, too (John 13:35; 17:23). It’s actually quite simple. You don’t need to be a theologian and know Hebrew and Greek, you just need to know Jesus!
And we will look at that next time.