Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hermeneutic of Hair-Splitting

The house lights were down. The preacher stalked back and forth across the stage. He wore dark glasses. His voice was severe (as always). No notes.
“At the Lord’s Supper you come prepared with something to give! But at the Lord’s Table you come empty—you come to get!
He carried on with a list of antitheses, but that’s the only one I remember. He was on the subject of about 1 Cor 10:21, which he would have quoted from memory in the old King James, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” He was adamant that the Lord’s table referred to was something other than the ordinance of communion. It was the experience of being nourished by the Word, or something like that. It meant to fill your mind with God’s Word, not with “doctrines of devils,” which I suppose would have meant values of the world or theology he disagreed with or whatever.
I believed what the preacher said, and I remembered it. We always said “the Lord’s Supper.” There were others who came in with the habit of saying the Lord’s Table to mean the Lord’s Supper. I corrected one of them once, but later I decided it was probably a pretty minor point and started letting it slide. But we never called it Communion. Our understanding of the sacrament was unidirectional—an act of worship and remembrance, never a means of grace.
But we thrived on this kind of hairline distinction. Our whole system of interpretation depended on it.

One more story. This time we’re on the front porch of a camp cabin, in the sunlight. A lazy afternoon. Teenagers were sitting or lounging in different directions, eyes and ears turned toward the teacher in their midst. He finished what he had to say, and they began to scatter. I moved forward and got his attention.
“Hey, could I ask you a question?”
“Of course.”
“I’ve been wondering about this for awhile, but how do we know from the Bible how the gospel fits together? There isn’t really one passage that explains it. In one place we are told to repent. In another we are told to believe. In yet another we are told to be baptized. And then it says in one place that we will be saved. In another we will enter the Kingdom. In another our sins are forgiven. But there is no common phrase that tells us they are all speaking of one reality. How do we know these aren’t each distinct experiences?”
“I think the reason there are so many different descriptions of the gospel is that the gospel is this huge thing, far too big to encompass in one turn of phrase. Each of those truths you mention (and many more) are like facets of the enormous diamond that is the gospel, and the New Testament writers are turning it around and looking at it from every angle.”
He didn’t offer me an argument but understanding, which was far better. Again I believed and I remember. And yet because I believed this I could not continue to believe what the other had said. I don’t think he intended his answer to be subversive. But years later I find that it has leavened the whole lump. In time it unmade and re-formed my understanding of so many things.
Whatever his actual words were, which I feel I have done a rather poor job of reconstructing above, he communicated a different way of looking at the Bible. The term I have settled on to describe this perspective is synthetic. It seeks to synthesize what the Bible says into a cohesive whole rather than chopping it up with myriad distinctions. A more proper term is harmonization. This shift was for me a kind of copernican revolution.

And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.
(The prophet Joel predicting day of Pentacost, at least if St. Peter is to be believed)

The shift from hair-splitting to synthesis was intuitive. It made sense in itself rather than being shored up by arguments. But as I have learned more about Hermeneutics proper I have come to understand different components of this shift.
One critical component is the realization that we cannot assume that the biblical writers are using words in a technical way. They might use multiple terms interchangeably to refer to the same reality. They might use a single word to mean different things in different contexts. They might even describe a concept in different ways without tagging it with a summary term at all. This is all just the normal functioning of language. It is possible to argue that a given writer uses a particular word in a technical way, but this has to be argued from evidence, and we cannot assume that the theological import that we attach to that word is exactly what the apostle meant. At best this will be an anachronism because every theological term has acquired post-apostolic baggage.
Implied in this first point is a second, bigger-picture one, which is attention to the intention of the human author. We believe that the Scriptures are God-breathed. And yet we believe that the divine intention in the words of Scripture accords with the human intention of the individual writers, even if they did not understand the full import of what they wrote. A basic level of attention paid to what the human author could have possibly meant precludes a number of spurious distinctions. If we take say the Pauline epistles, it is obvious that they were written with an intent to communicate clearly and practically. While I would not presume to say they are always easy to understand, a hermeneutic that turns them into intricate puzzles does not do justice to authorial intent.
There is also a sense in which this is just a restatement of Occam’s razor. A harmonious interpretation with fewer distinctions is to be preferred. I’m not sure how far you could press this as a principle, but it certainly appeals to me as a general guideline.
In one way or another the entire field of Hermeneutics has bearing on this question. It is hard to give just one explanation. Attention to textual context is yet another line of argumentation, because unjustified distinctions are frequently at odds with any sense of flow in a passage.
In coming to terms with all this I have been greatly helped by Vern Poythress’s book on dispensationalism. He works through all the subtlety of the hermeneutical issues. A sampling:

Critics should also appreciate the remarkable degree to which dispensationalism is a harmonious whole. Every part harmonizes with almost every other part. If critics attempt to reinterpret in their favor a single text, dispensationalist respondents can often cite two or more other texts which support their own interpretation. Critics soon find themselves called upon to reinterpret many, many texts simultaneously. 

One element of dispensationalism making this impressive harmony possible is a joint working of two complementary hermeneutical procedures. The first of these procedures is the multiplying of distinctions. Dispensationalists are willing to introduce some sharp, fine-grained distinctions where almost no one else has seen distinctions. For instance, the rapture is distinguished from the second coming of Christ, even though (as many dispensationalists acknowledge) there is no consistent terminological difference between the two in the NT. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are distinguished from one another. And so on. (However, many modified dispensationalists no longer hold to as many sharp distinctions. One must be prepared for differences on this point.) 

Complementary to this procedure, there is the procedure of doubling the application of a single expression in a single text of the Bible. Many prophetic texts are thought of as having an earthly fulfillment in Israel and a “spiritual” application to the church (recall diagram 2.2). Whereas the first procedure splits apart texts that are verbally similar, this procedure joins a single text to two different levels of fulfillment. 

Now, in principle, it is altogether possible for us to discover in the Bible some distinctions that have not been recognized before (procedure 1 above). And it is possible for some texts to have more than one fulfillment or “application” (procedure 2 above). But one must also recognize that dangers accompany the application of these procedures. If we permit ourselves to invoke both procedures a lot of the time, we greatly multiply the number of options available for harmonizing different texts of the Bible. We increase enormously the flexibility that we have in interpreting any one text. Hence, it becomes relatively easy to harmonize everything even under the umbrella of an over-all system that is not correct. Dispensationalists rightly feel that the dispensationalist system is in large measure harmonious, stable, consistent. But this consistency may all too easily be the product of a hermeneutical scheme that is capable of artificially generating consistency by (1) the multiplication of distinctions and (2) the doubling of relationships. Thus, in the case of dispensationalism, consistency is not a guarantee of truth 

(Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists)

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