Hermeneutical Spiral

Grant Osborne, in his book Hermeneutical Spiral, gives us, his readers, a good introduction to the art and science of hermeneutics. According to Osborne, hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word meaning “to interpret”. Although other biblical scholars, such as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart distinguishes, at least for their purposes, between “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” in that the former refers to the study of the text’s original meaning while the latter refers to its significance in the present, Osborne opposes such practice because technically, hermeneutics is the overall term, while exegesis and contextualization are two aspects of that larger task. In this regard, I would tend to agree more with Osborne.

As a lawyer, we also had a similar subject in law school entitled Statutory Construction. That subject was also called legal hermeneutics. As students of the law, we were required to learn the skills necessary to properly understand and interpret the laws of the land. If this skill is required in studying human law, more so when it comes to studying God’s Law! In the study of both civil or State laws and Scripture, we are dealing with words. Albeit that ultimately, God is the author of the Bible, God used human beings and their skill in the usage of conventional words to record and communicate His message. That is exactly why as reader, students and especially, teachers of the Bible, we should possess the skills to correctly interpret what it says.  Preachers and teachers of the Word, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are accurately transmitting the heart and message of God to His flock. For we are Christ’s ambassadors, it is as if God is making His appeal through us. We must be faithful to the calling God has given us so as to be trustworthy mediators of God’s message.

I liked the way Dr. Osborne explained the three levels of the hermeneutical enterprise, namely, the third-person approach, asking ”what it meant” (exegesis), then passing to a first-person approach, querying “what it meant for me” (devotional) and finally, taking a second-person approach, seeking “how to share with you what it means to me” (sermonic/homiletic). He further stated that “Hermeneutics is important because it enables one to move from text to context, to allow the God-inspired meaning of the Word to speak today with as fresh and dynamic a relevance as it had in its original setting. Moreover, preachers or teachers must proclaim the Word of God rather than their own subjective religious opinions. Only a carefully defined hermeneutic can keep one wedded to the text.”

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

I first read the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in its entirety back in 2008. I read it just because I wanted to know how to properly understand the Bible and thereby maximize my learning. A few months thereafter, I was invited by my friend and co-faculty member at the University of Makati to speak at their church during their Lenten seminars. It was a Catholic parish in Makati and the topic was Scripture. So, I quickly grabbed the opportunity and reviewed the above-mentioned book in preparation for my talk! I felt so privileged that in spite of my being a “Protestant”, I was still invited to speak and teach about no less than the Bible.

Of course, as an Evangelical Christian, I hold to the five solas trumpeted by the Protestant Reformers, the most hotly contested of which was sola scriptura or scripture alone. This was relevant because unlike Protestants and Evangelicals, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s infallible Word is not only found in Sacred Scripture but also in Sacred Tradition as handed down by the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. Nonetheless, when it was my turn to speak (there were three of us, the others were Catholic seminary graduates), I only focused on Scripture and its primacy.

I started my talk by stressing the importance and significance of the Bible in our daily lives; that as God’s immutable Word, it should be the basis of all our beliefs about how to live our lives on earth and hereafter. Most of all, it is by reading the Bible that we get to know God better. However, it is not enough for us to just read the Bible but to read it with understanding. And that’s how I got into discussing hermeneutics, which I learned primarily from reading Drs. Fee and Stuart’s book and secondarily Knowing Scripture by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

I told the congregation that just like Jesus, Scripture has a dual nature, that of the human and divine. As a work of human hands and skill, it has historic particularity, meaning, that every book in the Bible is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written. But because the Bible is also the Word of God, it then has eternal relevance in that it speaks to all mankind, in every age and in every culture. Interpretation of the Bible is thereby demanded by the tension that exists between its historical particularity and eternal relevance. It is incumbent for teachers of the Word to stress this because while we adhere to the “plain meaning” of Scripture, there are still certain things that we need to consider, otherwise, we might fall into the common trap of “prooftexting” without context. Albeit Catholics usually just depend on the “official” interpretation given by the Magisterium, i.e. the Pope speaking “ex cathedra” together with the College of Cardinals, I nonetheless stressed the indispensability of hearing or reading God’s words to us directly from the Scriptures. To be able to do this effectively, one must at least have an idea of the basic principles of sound exegesis and contextualization. It was really good to have re-read the introduction portion of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It reminded me of the important things to consider while reading the Bible. All in all, it should be a recommended reading not only to seminary or Bible school students but to each and every Christian who considers the Bible to be the infallible written Word of God.

The Purge

In its early years, Christianity suffered enormous setbacks. The early Christians suffered persecution under various Roman emperors. At first, the Roman Empire saw Christianity as just one new sect of Judaism. This is significant because the Romans had a policy of leaving the Jews alone in their religion since they were very inwardly focused and hence, generally did not bother other people. In fact, even the first Christians, being Jews themselves, did not even believe that they were following a new religion. The only difference between them and the other Jews was that they were convinced that the Messiah that they have all been waiting for had already come. Thus caused serious rifts with the ruling Jews because of their varying ideas on what the Messiah would be like. Most Jews, including Jesus’ apostles at first, believed that the Messiah would be a sort of military leader who would liberate them from Roman rule and restore the glory Israel had during the reign of Kings David and Solomon. Unfortunately for them, they saw that the man Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Messiah, was killed by crucifixion by the Roman authorities. They thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah for he had failed in his mission miserably. Nevertheless, the early Christians did not see it that way. They saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as a victory and not as a defeat. As a result, Jesus was recognized as the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ.

As the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clear, along with the Christians’ observance of Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize and teach, and as more and more Gentiles were converted, the Roman authorities quickly took notice of this new growing sect. It did not help at all that rumors of cannibalism and other horrific practices were being spread about Christianity. Due to the riots and disorder that this new sect has been causing among the Jews, the Roman authorities decided to expel and prevent them from teaching in the name of Christ, just as Peter and John experienced in Acts 4 under the Jewfish temple authorities.

As problems caused by Christians increased, including their stubborn refusal to burn incense to and worship the pagan gods and the emperor, not to mention their abstinence from participating in pagan festivities, the persecution against the followers of the Way increased all the more. First was under Emperor Nero, then under Domitian, the Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Diocletian and Maximius. It was during this time when a lot of Christians suffered horrific tortures and death. Thus, the rise of the martyrs. Simply put, a martyr is a witness. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that his disciples shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon and that they will be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth! And this, they, the Christian martyrs such as Stephen, Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Thelica and Justin, among others, fulfilled without shame or ambivalence.

Fortunately however, these persecutions later on came to a decisive end during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first so-called “Christian” Emperor.

The Dawn of the Kingdom

The Bible says that in the fullness of time, God sent His own Son, born of a woman, born under the Law. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into the world, the world He himself created, at a certain point in time. A lot of people would ask why Jesus wasn’t sent earlier, maybe right after Adam and Eve sinned or after the Great Flood of Noah’s time. Others would ask why He wasn’t sent during our time today when there are thousands of people who refuse to believe in God and the Messiah or Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born during the time when Israel was under Roman sovereignty. Prior to that, the Jews enjoyed a brief period of independence from foreign rule due to the revolutionary efforts and leadership of Matathias and his son, Judas Maccabeus. This period in Israel’s history was known as the Maccabean period or the Maccabees. However, after the death of Judas Maccabeus, his descendants fought over the territories causing a weakening of Israel, precipitating the intervention of the Roman Empire.

Jesus often refers to the Kingdom of God whenever He teaches, especially in His parables. If Jesus came earlier the conditions would not yet be ripe for the people to understand His message about the Kingdom of God. Albeit there were already kingdoms existing later on and before the Roman Empire, such models were still insufficient for the purposes of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, leaven, etc. These illustrations show that the Kingdom of God is something that starts small and then spreads to other nations and kingdoms, just like the expanding Roman Empire, which started out as a republic.

In addition to this, the paved and well-guarded roads built by the Romans greatly aided in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which was not even due to intentional missionary activity but to commercial trade where Christians were involved, especially after the dispersion due to Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the same. Jesus commissioned His disciples to go and make disciples of all nation, to baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them everything He had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). Unlike the Jews who were inwardly focused and tended to see themselves as God’s special people to the exclusion of others, the Christians went around sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only to Jews but also to the Gentiles.