A Christ-Centered Hermeneutic (Jan – Feb 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
January – February, 1994

23There is a great deal of discussion these days (most of it without real substance or value!) about a subject many of us have trouble spelling. The issue is hermeneutics. People around the shallow edges of the discussion think its point is to force a choice between “old hermeneutics” and “new hermeneutics.” What a shame.

Hermeneutics is the technical term for a discipline of study that focuses on principles and procedures of interpretation. For religious people, the text we are concerned to interpret is the Holy Bible. Biblical hermeneutics, then, is the search for a technique of fruitful study of the 66 books of our Christian Scripture.

Although there is one divinely given Scripture, there is no divinely ordained system for its study and interpretation. Every proposed method of systematic Bible study is of human origin. Thus every one of them is faulty in some respects, and all are subject to the limitations—and I am thinking here not so much of intellect as purity of heart versus self-willed and sinful agendas—of the women and men who apply them to the sacred text.

Until the current discussion of hermeneutics began among the Churches of Christ, there was only one setting in which the term had been used seriously and applied with any consistency. That setting? Debates.

With much of our theology framed on polemic platforms, the only consistent approach to Scripture we have evolved in our small branch of the Christian community is a hermeneutic of “command, example, and necessary inference.” In my opinion, it has been a helpful approach—to some parts of the Word of God.

This tripartite method is derived from British and American legal methodology. How do courts come to decisions about matters of dispute? First, the parties involved look for a law that specifically addresses the issue. Second, they search the history of legal interpretation for a precedent to establish how courts have ruled on similar matters previously. Third, they file briefs and make oral arguments about the implications of law and precedent to the specific case at hand.

Does it sound familiar? It should, for it is the same approach we make to the Bible when disputing matters of authority, statute, and law. Must people be baptized? What ought the church to do with funds from its treasury? How should a local church be organized? We have looked for guidance in solving these issues by searching Scripture for a law (i.e., command) or precedent (i.e., example). Lacking either to specifically address an issue, we have filed briefs (i.e., tracts, church papers) and staged oral arguments (i.e., debates, church fights).

I repeat: This method is not “bad” and ought not be abandoned—when dealing with certain parts of the Bible. Minus the inflated egos and personal agendas that have employed this method to sling mud, alienate brothers, and destroy churches, the method itself is not a bad one. Since there are segments of the Bible that are written as law codes (e.g., Deuteronomy), a standard method of legal interpretation is the natural and correct one to employ. When dealing with the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ or apostolic edicts given by his authority, the approach that searches for the command, looks for examples of its application in Scripture, and draws careful inferences from the relevant facts is appropriate.

But a rather small percentage of the Bible is delivered as a law code. Jesus gave many more parables, for example, than statutes. Trying to interpret a parable by a legal methodology can produce interesting (bizarre!) results. Is God really a reluctant dispenser of justice and compassion? (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Did Jesus really admire and applaud a dishonest manager? (cf. Luke 16:1-9).

The command-example-inference method does not address issues of textual criticism. Its application without regard to historical and grammatical criticism has produced eccentric readings of the Bible. What about the insights of literary or form criticism? And what is the contribution of the reader’s own personal spiritual life (i.e., surrender to the indwelling Spirit of God) to the interpretive process?

We must get past the petty infighting and shouting about hermeneutics to the real issue involved. Bible study that is redemptive follows a “guiding principle” that is offered in Scripture itself.

In the life of Jesus, he once chided the professional students of the Law of Moses (i.e., scribes) for thinking their approach to Bible study would bring them eternal life (John 5:39a). Their scrutiny of and debate over the text blinded them to the presence of Jesus in their midst! “These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” he said, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5a;39b-40).

Paul pointed to the same guiding principle in his writings. He affirmed that the “veil” on Bible- readers’ hearts is lifted only when he or she “turns to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:16). With whatever human methodology one employs, the Bible must be read through Christ-colored glasses to discover God and how to have a relationship with him.

This guiding principle may be called Christocentricity. It is perhaps best explained by identifying its alternative. Reading the Bible as a text of rules for right conduct makes us moralists, critics, and judges. Simply searching out commands to enjoin and examples to imitate may reduce the Bible to a self-help manual. Devoting all of one’s energy to the minutiae of textual and grammatical-historical criticism may reduce him to a dry academic who lacks the fire of personal spirituality.

On the other hand, seeing Scripture as a record of God’s self-disclosure in Christ (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2) opens new possibilities. It does not set us free of moral restraints and spiritual duties, but it leads us to undertake them in grateful response to God rather than in dutiful compliance out of fear. It does not release us from the duty of solid and responsible academic research, but neither will it allow us to remain detached from Christ and the people for whom he has died.

Read the Bible to discover Christ. When you are confused about living out some spiritual obligation, study the example he left (cf. Mark 2:23-28). And if you ever catch yourself systematizing Scripture so that you are hindering people who are seeking Christ, scrap your system and start over.

While we are looking for “hermeneutical keys” to unlock the door to understanding God and his will, we must remember that the clearest word God ever delivered to us was Jesus. All theology generated apart from that definitive word will be nothing more than “foolish and stupid arguments” that subvert faith (2 Timothy 2:23).

In this issue of Wineskins, a collection of writers looks at the hermeneutical issue from this Christocentric perspective. We hope some clarifying insights come to our readers. Above all, we pray that our efforts will move people beyond fear and fussing about the methodology of Bible study to the reading of Scripture as a personal quest for the living Lord.

Rubel Shelly

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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