Let’s continue with our hermeneutic principles (see the previous post for the first four). Remember to practice just one at a time for a while and don’t get overwhelmed. Author Josh Kaufman has found that twenty hours of practice can make you pretty good at something, if you’re focusing on key ideas like these.
5. Circumstances alter meaning.
In response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Bible gives two different and contradictory answers in Mark 10:17 and Acts 16:30. In Mark, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he needs to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, pick up “his cross” and follow Jesus. In Acts, Paul tells his jailer that all he needs to do is believe in Jesus. So is the Bible contradicting itself here?
The circumstances of the persons asking the question were far different. The rich young ruler’s problem was greed. In order to be happy and able to follow God, he needed to be freed from the love of money that blocked his love for humanity and for God.
But the jailer, in contrast, didn’t have that particular problem. As a pagan, his challenge was that he believed in many different gods, and it would require a new way of life for him to acknowledge and follow only One and to admit that what he had believed all his life was not true.
This principle is similar to studying the culture of the Bible, but it’s more specific: studying the particular circumstances in which a Biblical statement was first made, including the unique people involved.
6. A word may have different meanings even in the same book, written by the same author.
This is a tricky one. Once we figure out that a word means something, we want that meaning to stay the same, but that doesn’t always happen. A modern example is the word “bow,” which can refer to a curved weapon, to a part of a violin, to the act of bending down in front of someone, and other meanings. So when reading the Bible, it can take work to figure out which definition of a word is meant each time that word is used.
For example, the word “glorified” can refer to the state of Jesus’ body when He was first resurrected. But it can also refer to His new status in the universe when He ascended to Heaven. So we can say He was glorified when He came out of the tomb and the Roman soldiers saw Him, but He was not yet glorified in His new position of power and authority on the Throne in Heaven until later. Same word, different meanings.
7. A given act or a given word may be interpreted quite differently by the same person, or by two persons (or more) who approach identical data from different perspectives — different cultures, different contexts, etc.
This reminds me of when creationists and evolutionists can look at the same data in nature and come to very different conclusions about what they mean based on their different theories. In reading the Bible, too, people get very different ideas of it depending on where they’re from or how they were raised. So we shouldn’t expect interpreting it is easy.
Deep, Complex and Simple?
But remember that some parts of the Bible are very simple to understand. For example, all Christians agree that salvation comes through depending on Jesus. So don’t get hung up on the tough parts!
I heard a story about a guy in the 1800s who traveled on ships to various parts of the world, often stuck in small rooms for weeks on end. The only book he had with him was the Bible, and he ended up reading it all the way through five to ten times, if I remember right.
Well, he said that it was the greatest thing he had ever read, that the incredible story of love and truth and salvation changed his life. So the overall story of a loving God is what’s most important.
A Tiny Bit of Interest Plus Practice
Most of us mere mortals won’t be in that world traveler’s situation. But remember if you have even a tiny amount of interest in the Bible right now and you read just a little bit following that interest, your interest will grow as you get to know the Bible better and better. Your journey may take a long time, but that’s okay.
And I really I hope these principles of hermeneutics show you that even if the Bible seems confusing or self-contradictory sometimes — and if someone is trying to discourage you and make you feel that the Bible is just a relic that should be discarded along with bronze spears and chariots — remember that these principles show that it just takes some work (sometimes a lot of work) to understand something written by someone thousands of years ago.
But the God behind it all is still exactly the same as always, just as willing to help you grow in wisdom and happiness and in the knowledge of Him.
(Praise Team Leader at New Horizons SDA Church in Republic, MO)