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Group thinking

Reading the Bible with new eyes is not easy to do

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

A big determinant of your hermeneutics is the people you sit next to in church. Calvin, Barth, Bultmann, and Meredith Kline have all trickled down to you a little, but they don't hold a candle to the influence of Joe, Steve, Liz, and Mary. Hermeneutics, in other words, is mainly taught incarnationally.

Nobody knows this, of course. We all think we're just believing what the Bible says. But as the fish is the last to know he is in water (because of the ubiquity of the water), so each church swims in its own soup, that only an outsider can see. Without anyone ever having to lay out the rules of interpretation, we assimilate the views of the group we inhabit, with the precision of a child's mimicry of his parents' accent.

I am not talking about the meaning of this or that verse, though it comes down to that. I mean the expectations we bring to the Bible before we ever crack it open, before the pastor opens his mouth. He can preach "More faith!" till kingdom come. He can wax eloquent on "Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20). It is no match for the collective weltanschauung, through which it has to filter. His words will land like a snowflake hits a pond and melts into oblivion.

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The dullest of us is a sophisticated hermeneutician, able to hold two competing realities at the same time. (A dog cannot do that.) If a pastor isn't incarnating absolute trust in Christ when outside the pulpit, his words in the pulpit will be "like a lame man's legs, which hang useless" (Proverbs 26:7). If no one in the flock has ever encountered a man "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19), when they read the verse, they will dumb it down automatically. It will become poetics:

"You are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (Ezekiel 33:32).

I am presently fighting tooth and nail to understand the Bible. Trying to read like a child when you've lost your childhood is not easy at first-like Nicodemus said, can a man enter a second time into his mother's womb? But here are a few good hermeneutical habits I am cultivating, as I pray daily for new eyes:

• Whenever possible, read a verse as applying to myself (e.g., "Be filled with all the fullness of God"-Ephesians 3:19).

• Do not assume, without good reason, that a teaching is meant only for the early church (e.g., "Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy"-1 Corinthians 14:1; "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord"-James 5:14).

• Do not assume, without good reason, that a blessing is meant only for the future, at Christ's return (e.g., "that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the greatness of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead" -Ephesians 1:18-20).

• Prefer, unless there is good reason, the plain meaning of a passage, over the poetic or deflated (e.g., "Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us"-Ephesians 3:20).

• Err on the side of expecting too much from God (e.g., "Whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you"-John 16:23).

God wants us to understand His Word. He can make a flower grow through the cracks in a city sidewalk. But it's much easier to have the eyes of your heart enlightened when you're surrounded by other people with good eyes; hermeneutics is communal. Still, you can always be the first one in your pond.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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