Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the Bible. I love hermeneutics. For a long time I believed good hermeneutics would save us in the end. That hope has had a slow and painful death. We have lofty ideas of how we can learn to interpret scripture and clear up all our controversy, but that isn’t the way it happens historically. In the real world, hermeneutics are usually the way the church justifies itself after the fact.
Take for example the telescope that changed the world. When Galileo looked at the solar system through the telescope he invented, what he saw demanded a new understanding of the universe and our own part in it. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time Galileo’s claim that the earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around was an existential crisis for the church. At least they thought so.
These new theories about the universe were contradicted several passages of scripture. Making way for Galileo’s theory meant making way for new ways of understanding scripture. In other words, new hermeneutics.
Galileo was a deeply religious man and advocated for new approaches. He suggested that passages speaking about the sun standing still in the sky could be understood figuratively instead of literally. The church rejected this idea as undermining the authority of scripture.
They didn’t reject it because of strict literalism, but because for many centuries the church taught a cosmology that conflicted with the heliocentric model.
They believed in concentric circles above and below our world, traveling deeper into hell below and higher into heaven above. The sun was in one of the heavenly levels. If you’re familiar with Dante’s inferno, you’ll recognize his description of levels leading deeper into hell. They believed the universe was best represented by layers, not orbiting planets, and they believed the Bible taught this. And taken literally, they have a pretty good point.
Changing cosmology seemed like a threat to more than just their current way of doing things. It was a threat to scripture itself. If they were to accept that the earth rotates around the sun, where would it all end? Would all credibility be stripped from the Bible?
But they were wrong. Christianity and the Bible turned out to be more resilient than they thought. Their attempts to protect and defend the scripture did more damage in the end when the church lost credibility.
History On Repeat
Again and again this pattern repeated through history. Political ideas about the equality of all people lead to freedom for slaves. Women were given the right to vote as the understanding that they are equal to men in intelligence and capacity as human beings became undeniable. All these changes were hailed by traditionalists as threats to the authority of scripture. They were wrong, though.
It continues in our day. There is a steady erosion of patriarchy and some traditional churches are try desperately to maintain some vestige of the fading system. They say that men are still the leaders, and women are still the followers. They claim the Bible teaches this, and that if we stop believing it, we will no longer have any trust in the Bible. But are they right? Have these claims ever been right?
We must stop this destructive pattern. It is unacceptable for the church of God to continue standing in the way of the work of God in the world.
Things Change, and the Bible Remains
When it comes to specifics, the Bible has shown itself to be more flexible than we realize. After history marches on, God’s people accept new revelations. Then scholars come and explain why these changes were also hermeneutically sound. But hermeneutics don’t drive change.
Living as we do, confined to a moment in history, it’s hard to see it without looking back. And when we look back, we tend to look back from our point of view, and not understand theirs. We shake our heads at those silly Catholics, most of whom didn’t even look through Galileo’s telescope to see the obvious. We don’t do them justice. They were afraid these new understandings would undermine the faith itself. What looks tertiary to us seemed central to them.
By taking a compassionate view towards those who resisted change, we quickly learn the most important lesson there is to learn about hermeneutics: Hermeneutics are better at making room for the past than they are at making room for the future.
Stepping out of our time, and seeing through another vantage point shows us that what seems unchangeable isn’t. Things can change. Things must change. It will be okay.
It isn’t until after their inevitable changes occur that theologians look back, the quintessential armchair quarterbacks, and explain to us how the real problem all along was our interpretation of scripture. So they devise new hermenetics. They teach us new ways of interpreting the scriptures that make way for the changes that have already happened without undermining the authority of the scripture.
But did Galileo do what he did because his interpretive strategy was better? Or because of his insatiable desire to see and understand God’s creation? Did abolitionists in America work to free the slaves because they had a superior hermeneutic? Or because they excelled in compassion? Was any of this really a theological debate at all? Obviously not.
Real Faithfulness to Scripture
Traditionalists are concerned with loyalty to what the church has always taught and believed. They focus on protecting these beliefs against any change that might be threatening. New ways of living and thinking pose a threat to the system, so they defend the old ways. But by defending against these fresh invasions that seem so central at the time, they miss out on what really is central in the teachings of scripture.
In all these cases, the church in its fear of change allowed a rigid understanding of a few Bible verses to undermine the most important principles of scripture. They lost their way. They lost their heart. In their desire to defend the scriptures, they ignored them.
The only reason we have a church to defend is because of people like Galileo, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, MLK, and so many others who were heretics and radicals in their day. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that though they venerate the prophets now, they would have killed them, and nothing has changed.
The radicals and reformers harmonized with the Bible all along. Motivating these social changes was a deeper understanding of the true principles and values of scripture. Love. Justice. Compassion. Hope. Truth. The creation of all people in the image of God. What are our petty fears in the face of such as these?
Hermeneutics can’t save us from our fears. Only love can. Because love is the true heart of the Bible. A biblical approach to any topic must be drenched in the uncompromising love of God.
If you’re paying attention, you might realize that I just pulled a switch on you, because what I’m proposing is not no hermeneutics, but new hermeneutics. What motivates our understanding of scripture shouldn’t be a desire to defend it’s credibility, but a desire to live out it’s core principles. Religious leaders of old should not be our models in understanding scripture. Prophets, radicals, and reformers should be.
How do we keep from using hermeneutics to serve the status quo, ignoring the pain our theology causes and stubbornly insisting that our rigid interpretations are correct?
We reorder our hermeneutical priorities around compassion and justice. We think long and hard about the lives of people who will be impacted by our theology. We stop getting caught up in the weeds of literalism and reach instead for the principles of scripture that were prioritized by Jesus. This is biblical hermeneutics. We get so caught up in love, compassion, grace, and truth that we forget we were ever afraid.