Hermeneutic Duplicity

“to say that the Bible is authoritative is [only] to begin a discussion, not to end it.”

– Joseph Lienhard*

This is only going to be a short post.

I’m just a venting some brief thoughts, so this might not be the “tidiest” post so far.

But I’ve been thinking recently about certain statements that get dropped into general conversation that just aren’t helpful.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about those “tag-lines” that we Christians can use when in disagreement between ourselves or with others. Especially in the context of our scriptural understandings.

One of my biggest irritations being, “the bible clearly says…”.

(I have to admit, I’ve used this one myself.)

This line is usually tossed out as the vernacular holy hand-grenade that we hope closes the debate, “winning” us and argument and thus validating our personal stance.

But is the Bible really clear?

When I think about the numerous divisions and opinions that exist in the church, the scores of scholarly and pastoral books that occupy shelf space around me as I type, the changes of stance (the “contradictions”) within the bible itself, and the kinds of issues that the bible does/doesn’t address; I’m left wondering.

Now, this isn’t a post about the “Infallibility of scripture” (and whatever we understand that to mean), but on the fallibility of it’s readers. You and me.

Because I can’t help but notice, that some of those people who throw this holy hand-grenade of scriptural clarity — and often what is meant by this bombshell is ,”it’s written in black and white” — seem happy to adopt this simple method of interpretation on certain issues, whilst avoiding it on others that land a little closer to their own personal pressure points. There’s a duplicity in their hermeneutic, and often this can be accompanied by no admittance or acknowledgement of this duplicity.

For example; it’s possible to hear a tattoo-toting, long-haired youth minister, within in a fairly evangelical conservative environment, preach on how the “black and white” text of the bible says that same-sex monogamous relationships are wrong.

When pushed to explain further, they may submit a few small verses that use the English word Homosexuality and nothing more as ultimate proof of the Bible’s stance. But when asked about their decorative blue-ink version of Jeremiah’s “I know the plans I have for you”, you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an essay of their defence.

To be clear, I’ve picked those two issues only to highlight what I’m trying to say (and, it’s a example I’ve seen). I am not saying either are wrong or right, “biblically” speaking. That’s not the purpose of this post. What I am trying to highlight is that certain people happily shove the punctuating “Bible is clear” statement into a conversation as an unwillingness to hear and understand other perspectives/interpretations contrary to theirs; whilst at the same time they’re more than happy to pull out all the hermeneutic acrobatics they can in order to defend their own actions/opinions.

It could be the “tatted” youth is absolutely spot with their digression and interpretation of the meaning of the Torah’s ban on “marking ones skin in remembrance of the dead”, appealing to ANE (ancient near east) cultural contrasts and linguistics. But why are they not willing to take a similar journey when it comes to other issues?

And that’s the cause of my irritation; how some can be happy and open to a deeper and more developed and considered approach to the text on certain matters, but not on others.

If we were prepared to take that journey, we may change our mind on what we feel the bible “clearly says”, we may not; but at least we’d develop to the ability to listen to one another and scrutinise/de-construct/strengthen our own understandings of the bible text.

Maybe, we’re just unaware that we hold and use any interpretative approach at all?

I can’t help but wonder; would our ability to listen to each other and our willingness to understand each other be greatly increased if we could just acknowledge to ourself that we have an understanding of how Scripture should be handled? In other words, we all have a hermeneutic approach — maybe a few conflicting approaches — and that it isn’t just what the text says in and of itself, but also the lens we have adopted to view it through which determines a large part of what we say the text says. Just a tiny bit of humility, on our part, would go a long way in being able to disagree in an agreeable manner without labelling and scapegoating others as heretics.

If we are aware and honest about holding a means to interpreting scripture, how did we come by that approach? Is it correct? Is it a denominational thing? Is it open to man’s teaching and correction, or just “led by the Spirit”? Can church tradition speak into it? Can culture influence it, both negatively and positively?

I have no clear resolution to this; I’m no scholar, just an explorer. But through my explorations over the past few years I’ve gleaned a few tools/filters that I try and expose my understandings through when grappling with scripture:

  • A Christocentric understanding of Scripture
  • Scripture is Culturally tethered
  • Is their a Redemptive Movement in the text?
  • Writers employed literary genre as a mode of communication
  • Am I reading Scripture responsibly, ethically and morally?
  • Does this understanding lead me to love others?
  • Resurrection/Kingdom of God/Renewal of All things Eschatology, stemming from a  Protology of the goodness of creation.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, and I’m not going to give any descriptions next to the terms above (as I did intend to keep this post short). Plus, I could be wrong.

But I would be interested in hearing about the “Hermeneutic tools” that you use. So, please comment and let me and others know. I’m not promising I’ll return any comments or engage in any lengthy discussion, but I will, eventually, get round to reviewing them and maybe post something further to this entry at a later date.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Ps. As I said at the start, this isn’t the tidiest post I’ve done; so I apologise if this has been unclear.


*Joseph Leinhard, The Bible, the Church, and Authority: The Canon of the Christian Bible in History and Theology (Quote taken from The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith, Brazos Press, 2012)

Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed

Love Expressed Book Board3

The header image is entitled “Tunnel Vision” by mschlaud, at deviantart.com

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