Using proper hermeneutics when reading the Bible is as necessary as following a recipe of your favorite dish. Change one ingredient, and you have a whole different food and experience. Proper hermeneutics is a relatively straight forward process, and this process has been passed down for millennia and has been used for all of that time. This is a large undertaking, so let’s get started.
The Bible has 73 books (Catholic version) approximately 40 authors and was written over a time span of about 1600 years. The vast majority of Catholic theologians and many Protestant theologians state the Bible is the inspired word of God, which is reflected in the fact that the time span reflects differing philosophical and societal changes, which in turn reflect the writer’s personal influences as well. That being said, the Bible is the most consistent and intact Book on the planet concerning the Nature of God and the story of creation and our existence, as well as the most accurately written record of prophecy, and the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Because there are cultural and philosophical influences in the writings, it became imperative to come up with a way to read and interpret, as well as teach what the Bible says. This in turn, gives us an understanding of what God wants, how we are to behave, how we are to treat our fellow man, and ultimately what becomes of us after death. This in essence, is what hermeneutics is all about.
The proper definition of hermeneutics is the study of interpretation of written texts in the areas of literature, religion, law and prophecy. It also incorporates the times, history, context and language used, with emphasis on symbolic meanings. Hermeneutics looks for consistencies in texts, and applies these consistencies into contemporary life in order to guide and direct those who seek to know the truth. The central tenets of the Bible transcend time and society, and thus, are applicable to all peoples at all times.
Hermeneutics has evolved over the centuries, and the further removed from the Biblical times, the more the interpretations have changed and been influenced by our times. The main framework however is intact and the art of interpreting the Bible can be broken down into these four structures: literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological/mystical. Literal interpretation would read the texts as straight forward as written. Allegorical interpretation would read the text as having symbolic meanings, as poetry, or as relating to secondary symbols, with the symbols being defined in other texts. Moral interpretation would read the text as teaching the faith, such as dogma, and are reflected in most of Jesus parables. Eschatological/mystical interpretations go into the ‘deep thoughts of God’ and involve the future and end of time, as well as salvation, condemnation, heaven and hell and the spiritual realm. (This is also the most dangerous of the four interpretation methods, as it has been the genesis of many of the heresies that will be covered in future postings)
Where many expositors get into trouble is when they use one of the interpretive methods on passages where it does not apply. For instance, the Beast rising out of the sea in Revelation is not a literal seven headed, ten horned monster, but is an allegorical description of a one world religiously lead government. Likewise, many of Jesus parables, that are clearly in the moral interpretation category, have been misinterpreted as literal, and end up causing problems among believers. A modern example of this point would be our colloquialism of “I feel Blue”. Anyone would understand that I am not literally the color blue, but the use of the word blue would be seen as symbolic of a mood that most everyone could relate to. Those who would take it literally would ultimately end up on a wild goose chase, and look very foolish.
The art of reading and interpreting the Bible needs to be understood in light of what passages and contexts are being addressed. When one knows which of the four interpretive methods to be used, the Bible reads fairly straight forward and clear. When this does not occur, it brings about confusion. We had a phrase in seminary for this called ‘fractured scripture”, and the funniest example I ever saw, was in a girls’ dorm room in which they printed up on a banner “Now, I will make you fishers of men”. On a more somber note, another example of fractured scripture is from the heretical “Gospel of prosperity” which misquotes 2 John 1-2 in wishing “for you to prosper as your soul prospers”. This is a personal greeting, standard for those times, and (intentionally) misinterpreted to be a theological reality and promise of prosperity to some believers. That would be analogous to taking the command from God to Moses to “strike the rock with your staff” and produce water, which was time specific and meant only for Moses. (I don’t see anyone striking rocks now a days believing water will flow from it.)
I will end this discussion today by going over one of the responses I received from the oil spill posting. This individual accused me of misinterpreting the oil spill, and insisted the burning platform did fulfill the burning mountain being cast into the ocean, that a third of the sea creatures will eventually die form the contaminated water, that also has a red hue which fulfills blood, and eventually, one third of the ships will be destroyed, by being dry docked or out of commission due to ocean conditions.
I will give this person the benefit of the doubt (despite the fact the first trumpet did not take place, and that it was not a cosmic event). John the evangelist had a vision and was told to write it down as he saw it. John saw a burning mountain being cast into the sea, the sea turned to blood, one third of the sea creatures died and one third of the ships were sunk. In order for this individual’s interpretation to be correct, there would be an interchange of both literal and allegorical interpretations going on at the same time. For instance, the burning platform being the mountain would be seen as a literal interpretation, but the platform sank, and was not cast down. The sea has many colors from the spill, one of which is red, but the dominant color is black. So the word ‘blood’ would have to be allegorical, as it would be symbolic and not literal. As of this time, there are not the massive deaths of sea creatures, and not one ship has sunk or has been destroyed. If one decides the sinking of the platform fulfills the word ‘cast down’, then the problem is what does one do with ships being sunk? Both the platform and ships float, and John would not have used different words to describe the same events. Casting down is different than sinking, and we have the literal interpretation method being used for the first part of the prophecy, and then switching to allegorical, back to literal with the sea creatures, then back to allegorical for the ‘destruction’ of the ships.
An asteroid fulfills the prophecy in totality. It is cast into the ocean from the heavens, burning as it enters the atmosphere, vaporizes trillions of gallons of water instantly, sending a massive tsunami in all directions that washes out coastal areas, killing most of the sea creatures in the ocean it hits, and sinking all the ships in the vicinity. The water would turn red from the blood of the dead sea creatures, as well as possible red algae plumes due to de oxygenated waters. This interpretation is using the literal method, due to the fact that there is neither allegorical language used, no moral teachings involved in this verse, or eschatological principles. It describes a deliberate event sent from God, and therefore, qualifies as a literal event in its totality and should be read as such.
I hope this was not too long, and hope this made sense. See you next week for the next addition.