Hermeneutics for the Crazy

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; specifically hermeneutics is often used in reference to the interpretation of the Bible.  When I teach the subject, the first rule I teach is one not found in most hermeneutics text books, but familiar to medical students:

Primum non nocere; First do no harm.

James, who grew up in the same house with Jesus, taught that religious teachers will be subject to stricter judgment.

I wonder, how responsible teachers and preachers are for the way the mentally disturbed take their words.  The LA Fitness murderer is quoted as saying that at the church he once attended the pastor taught that even a mass murderer can go to heaven.  The pastor never said that, but George Sodini said it was implied by the church’s teaching that sinners may be forgiven by grace through faith apart from any works needed to earn their salvation.

Of course, Sodini dropped out of church three years ago–so you can’t say his attempt at mass murder was inspired by last Sunday’s sermon.  His internet comment was part of a bitter rant against religion.

But what about the traditional protestant doctrine of justification by faith?  Does it in fact encourage cheap grace?  Is salvation a legal fiction, or does it involve God’s work of transforming our lives to make us responsible, compassionate adults?

Does a teacher of Scripture or the way of faith have a responsibility to think about ways teachings could be misconstrued.? Yes.  Maybe you can’t predict all possible ways a deranged mind could get it wrong–but at least teachers have to think about possible implications and misunderstandings.

When teaching on the book of Proverbs I have often done an informal survey.  I ask,

What percentage of men have an anger control problem?

The first time I asked this question I naively thought the answer would be about 5%.  Instead I consistently get figures of 50 to 75 %.  I was prepared to go with the low number.  My followup question was to be this:

Suppose there are 5 men present who have anger control problems, and they hear a message on the text, “If you beat your son, he won’t die”–what will they do with it?

My point is, that a man who can’t control his anger has no business using corporal punishment (if anyone does) as a way of teaching children.  A responsible teaching on the theme of “the rod of correction” in Proverbs would have to deal with the poetic imagery of the rod, the historical and social realities of Iron-Age Israel, and the potential of disturbed individuals to put a crazy twist on something.

Evidently the murderer of George Tiller took the comparisons of the abortion doctor to Hitler with deadly seriousness.  According to Dr Warren Hern, The Last Abortion Doctor, the murder of Dr. Tiller was “the logical consequence of thirty-five years of hate speech.”   Can one be pro-life without encouraging murder?

There are passages in the New Testament that refer to an evil figure called “The Man of Lawlessness,” the “Beast” or the “Antichrist.”  I believe these passages refer to one or more violent messianic pretenders or perhaps one of the more deranged Roman Emperors–in other words a historical figure from the first century.  Nevertheless, many people think these passages refer to someone yet to come.

The world has certainly seen its share of evil leaders, of anti-messianic tyrants, and it is always good to be on our guard.  I think a good theme song is “We don’t get fooled again.”

But a perverse twist on the Scriptures that warn against violent deceivers is using them to feed conspiracy theories.    Snopes has been a reliable source of debunking urban legends, modern myths, and fantastic conspiracy theories.  It has effectively debunked some of the myths and lies about president Obama.  But now–it should have been predictable–the conspiracy mongers are saying that Snopes is part of the conspiracy.

I heard once of a psychiatric patient who was convinced he was dead.  His psychiatrist thought of a novel approach.  He got the patient to agree that dead men don’t bleed.  Then he poked the patient with a needle and drew blood.  The man’s eyes got wide and he said,

Well, what do you know, dead men do bleed.!

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Four Rules for Interpreting the Bible

Here are four rules for interpreting the Bible that I teach my students, along with the acronyms that help them remember them.

1.  Do No Harm (DNH).  This is the first rule of any profession, and the Bible itself warns against twisting its words in a way that causes harm.  Judaism taught this principle, based on the teaching of Moses,

[These words] are your life.  By them you will live long . . .

Judaism takes this to mean that the commandments can only be interpreted in a way that enhances life, never in a way that threatens it.  Jesus taught a similar principle: It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, to save life rather than destroy it.

Of course, the Bible has often been misused.  Krister Stendahl said,

There never has been an evil cause in the world that has not become more evil if it has been possible to argue it on biblical grounds.  (Cited here)

2.  Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM). Don’t use the words of the Bible to push your own agenda.  For example, when the Bible talks about oil–it is not referring to barrels of petroleum–it is talking about olive oil.  We have to take the historical setting and the understanding of the human authors seriously.

3.  Author’s Intended Purpose (AIP). The first writers and readers of the Bible lived in a world far different than ours, yet they are trying to reach goals that are relevant to us: reconciliation, love, compassion, justice, for example.  Most of us in North America don’t worry about food offered to idols–but the purpose for the teaching on the subject in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is to teach us to respect cultural and religious differences, to embrace diversity.

4.  Whole Context (WC). This basically means we have to get the big picture, to read every part in light of the whole.  It also means we have to have a concept of progress.  The story of the Bible is the story of God interacting with imperfect people and leading them a step at a time a little closer to where thy need to be.  If we forget this, we will stumble over details along the way, and we may even interpret Scripture in a way that does harm.