hermeneuticsThis is the third post in our series, The Gay Christian Question. If you missed the previous two posts please head over and read them first in order to understand what the series is about and where we are headed.

The Gay Christian Question – A New Series

The Gay Christian Question – 3 Questions for You

I am pretty sure this will be the last foundation-type post before we begin looking at the actual Bible verses that speak about gay relationships, or more specifically…gay sex.

I know that some of you want to dive right in to the Bible passages and start the discussion.

I get you. I, too, feel a little impatient!

But, I think exploring these foundational matters before we look at the verses is extremely important. Defining what we are really asking, knowing our biases, and understanding our view of the Bible matters in how we interpret and apply the Bible.

Hang in there, in the next post we will start looking at the verses.

This week we are going to build on what we learned about ourselves last week and develop a foundational understanding of hermeneutics; the art and science of interpretation.

Herm-a-what?

hermeneutics [hur-muhnoo-tiks] – 1. the science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures; 2. the branch of theology that deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis.

Don’t you love it when the definition of a word relies heavily on words that you also need the definition for?

interpret (interpretation) – 1. to give or provide the meaning of; 2. to construe or understand in a particular way

exegesis – critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible

I think you see where we are headed here. Hermeneutics in its simplest form is how we read the Bible.

Why does hermeneutics matter to the Gay Christian Question?

Because how we read the Bible ultimately determines the conclusions we stand on about the gay Christian question!

Let’s start by looking at the most common hermeneutic techniques (source: Biblical Hermeneutics – from Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation by Henry A Virkler)…

  • Lexical-syntactical analysis – This step looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.
  • Historical/cultural analysis – The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of the Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.
  • Contextual analysis – A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.
  • Theological analysis –  It is often said that a single verse usually doesn’t make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poor interpretation.
  • Special literary analysis – There are several special literary aspects to look at, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry have more figurative and allegorical language than does the narrative or historical writing. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.

As you can see from this list, there is much more to truly understanding a passage of scripture than simply reading it in a literal manner. Considering history, context, original languages, and literary genre all play in to how we should obtain the meaning of Bible passages.

In learning it is helpful to not only understand what to do but also what not to do. Let’s look at few common interpretive mistakes (source: Tough Questions Answered – from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart)…

  • Allegorizing – “Instead of concentrating on the clear meaning of the narrative, people relegate the text to merely reflecting another meaning beyond the text.”
  • Decontextualizing – “Ignoring the full historical and literary contexts, and often the individual narrative, people concentrate on small units only and thus miss interpretational clues.  If you take things out of context enough, you can make almost any part of Scripture say anything you want it to” (emphasis added).
  • Selectivity – “It involves picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on while ignoring the others and ignoring the overall sweep of the narrative being studied.”
  • Moralizing – “This is the assumption that principles for living can be derived from all passages.  The moralizing reader, in effect, asks the question , ‘What is the moral of this story?’ at the end of every individual narrative.  An example would be, ‘What can we learn about handling adversity from how the Israelites endured their years as slaves in Egypt?’  The fallacy in this approach is that the narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles.”
  • Personalizing – “Also known as individualizing, this refers to reading Scripture in the way suggested above, supposing that any or all parts apply to you or your group in a way that they do not apply to everyone else.  This is, in fact, a self-centered reading of the Bible.  Examples of personalizing would be, ‘The story of Balaam’s talking donkey reminds me that I talk too much.’  Or, ‘The story of the building of the temple is God’s way of telling us that we have to construct a new church building.’”
  • Misappropriation – “It is to appropriate the text for purposes that are quite foreign to the biblical narrative.  This is what is happening when, on the basis of Judges 6:36-40, people ‘fleece’ God as a way of finding God’s will!  This, of course, is both misappropriation and decontextualizing, since the narrator is pointing out that God saved Israel through Gideon despite his lack of trust in God’s word.’”
  • False appropriation – “It is to read into a biblical narrative suggestions or ideas that come from contemporary culture that are simultaneously foreign to the narrator’s purpose and contradictory to his point of view.”
  • False combination – “This approach combines elements from here and there in a passage and makes a point out of their combination, even though the elements themselves are not directly connected in the passage itself.”
  • Redefinition – “When the plain meaning of the text leaves people cold, producing no immediate spiritual delight or saying something other than what they wish it said, they are often tempted to redefine it to mean something else.”  Fee and Stuart use the example of 2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” Christians today want to apply this promise to their own land, but as Fee and Stuart point out, this promise was only directed toward the ancient land of Israel.

Summary

Once again, reading and understanding Scripture is more complex than one might expect. This may be why many of us, myself included, have a tendency to delegate the responsibility of studying the Bible to pastors and scholars instead of putting forth the time and effort required to really dig deep in to the meaning of Scriptural passages.

The point of this series is not for me to do the work for you. I am studying this topic because it is of great importance to me and relevant to the future of the Church. My hope is that you will grab some of the resources and dig in and study along with me.

In the next post we will start our study in first book of the Bible, Genesis.

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