How Do We Know What to Believe? (AKA: Biblical Hermeneutical Crash Course 101)

100_3162   You’ve probably heard the same arguments over and over to the point of it almost becoming nauseating.  It seems that churches still focus on the key issues and regardless of which position you take, you will always find opponents.

What are your views on pacifism?  The Just War Theory?  Should we fight in self-defence or be absolute pacifists?

What do you think of women as leaders?  Can women be embraced and encouraged in any level of church governance or only in select roles?  Or should she merely be silent and submissive to her husband and male leaders?

What is the role of a Christian single?  Is celibacy the ideal or to be shunned and discouraged?

How should a Christian respond to inter-faith relations?  Should they be rigid and only maintain their own beliefs or open-minded and accepting of all world faiths without trying to convert or evangelize?  (A blog post coming on this one later)

These are just a select sample of the various questions you may be barraged with at any given time.  And in most of these cases, one can easily point to verses in FAVOUR or also AGAINST the position.  And the frustrating thing is that sometimes these contradictory viewpoints come from within the same passage, more often the same book, and always within the same canon (the Scripture itself).  It can be therefore becoming extremely challenging to navigate the maze between finding a convicting value while also appropriating the right amount of attention and care to the variety of factors that play into the text including: the socio-historical and economic climate of the Biblical world at the time, the writings and teachings of early church fathers and mothers, Spirit led guidance and interpretation (taking place within the community), our own cultural perceptions and biases formed from our unique experiences and cultural worldviews, and finally, of course, what the text itself is saying.

While I cannot answer all of these important questions for you (I will leave that between you and God), I would like to suggest a few invaluable tools that will hopefully aid you on your journey of discovering more about what you actually believe and why you believe it.

Tips and Tools For the Trade: A Biblical Student’s Handy Toolbox

#1: Humility in Admitting Our Blind-Spots

It is impossible to read the Bible without any form of bias and anyone who tells you they let the Scripture speak solely for itself without reading anything into it themselves is either intentionally prideful or, more often than not, simply ill informed.  The truth is that when we read the Bible our own thoughts and opinions are constantly being read into it, and due to our own life experiences and circumstances we may become overly passionate, zealous, or even dogmatic and defensive over certain texts whereas we may approach others in a rather apathetic or confused manner.  Here’s an example of what I mean:  As you all know (assuming you’ve read more than one of my blog posts) I am a woman who studied theology and trained as a pastor.  Thus, when I approach Scriptural passages describing a woman’s submission or suggesting a woman should not be in a key leadership position, my back instinctively goes up.  Even though I’ve studied these passages on numerous occasions and perhaps have come to several points of justification, I still have a difficult time reading what the text actually says on the matter.  Conversely, a passage speaking about how a master should treat his slaves does not appeal to my emotions in such a way because the concept of Biblical slavery is fairly foreign and repulsive to most modern day Christians (I am not speaking about sex or human trafficking here, I am speaking about slavery in terms of the Biblical injunction to act as servants and care for the land).

When determining what you believe on a topic and why, it therefore becomes important to do your best to step aside and see the text for what it is without bringing in your own personal and cultural pre-understandings.  Certain Scriptural texts such as those alluding to the polygamy at the time or injunctions to inflict physical harm and violence (for example through stoning adulterers) must be seen in light of the historical cultural time-frame rather than judged by our standards and values today.  A common phrase often employed in theology is: “don’t measure yesterday’s system by today’s yardstick.”  It is also helpful to keep in mind that if 2,000 years from now in the year 4016 a spaceman were to appear on our earth he may also be repulsed at some of the ways we treat one another or go about our daily habits even though what we are doing is commonplace and socially acceptable at the moment.  The same could be said about our cultural limitations.  That what might be encouraged as fine behaviour in one country may not be acceptable in another.  For example, some cultures believe it respectful to glance away and avoid body contact on first meeting an individual (especially one of a different gender) whereas in a culture like North America, the most socially acceptable thing to do would be to look the person in the eye and offer a handshake.  Some cultures find greeting one another with a kiss (perhaps even on the mouth) to be a form of great hospitality, warmth, and welcome, whereas other cultures would find this an intrusion on personal space.  And so on.  Therefore you see that when we are looking at a text that is so ancient and from a culture than the majority of us are not familiar with, it becomes important to state from the start our own limitations and prejudices that may thus hinder a truer reading and interpretation of the text.

#2: Humility in Acknowledging our Own Hierarchy of Rules

As stated above, certain texts garner more attention and interest on our part than others, but we must ask why this is.

Is it simply the result of our upbringing (perhaps a culture or denominational structure that valued some rules but not others)?  Is it the result of our own personal encounter with Christ – something He has taught us personally or that is especially relevant at the moment?  Is it the result of a current cultural issue (for example, the current ongoing trend about how the Mennonite Church should or should not accept people in the LGBTQ+ community)?

It is not necessarily a negative thing to have certain texts appear greater than others, but we must be willing to admit this is the case.  And it is for everyone.  I have a few friends who claim they follow all the rules in the Bible equally, but I have never actually met someone for whom this is truly the case.  A person may believe that a woman can’t preach, but then they proceed to attend church without a head covering.  A woman may believe that homosexuality is a sin, but then they do not grow their hair long.  A person may believe in the injunction to love their neighbours as themselves and to care about the social welfare of others, but then they completely neglect their own body and treat themselves with contempt or have a low self-image of who they are.  No one is immune from this and you shouldn’t think you are either.

So how do you determine which texts to give importance to?  Here’s what I recommend:

  • Keep the texts with a common theme. If the same (or a similar message) is constantly being repeated, pay close attention to it.  Especially when Christ Himself was the one to say those words.  On the other hand, if the command lies only in one of the Epistles and nowhere else and seems rather obscure, look more closely at the cultural context.  Perhaps it was meant only for a specific church in a specific geographical location for a specific reason.
  • Keep the texts which promote peace, harmony, and unity rather than discord and division. Although theological arguments are commonplace, this does not mean you have to enter into them needlessly.  In fact, sometimes for the sake of peace, it becomes more important to maintain a right relationship or friendship rather than simply being correct (even if you are).  Within any major world religion (including Christianity) there are certain Biblical texts that are inclusive and some that are exclusive.  Choose the inclusive ones over the exclusive ones.

In a recent course I took on Religious Literacy from Harvard University, Dr. Ali Asani posed the following questions (while although were geared towards Quaranic study are equally vital and valid when applied to the Biblical text):

How does an interpreter even know whether or not she is performing an exegesis [exposition, analysis] of the Scripture or an eisegesis [reading into]?  Is it even possible to know?  Is pure exegesis or pure eisegesis even possible? 

What do you think?

#3: Humility to Hear Other Viewpoints

Someone who is secure in their position not only tolerates, but welcomes, appreciates, and embraces a wide variety of opinions on varying theological matters.  This is not to say, of course, that you can’t question or push-back on areas you disagree with, though we should strive to do so with tactful respect (not with loaded arguments, name calling, or suggestion).  [If you need some help on how to do that go here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/when-we-disagree-with-each-other-tips-learned-in-life/]

What does this look like?  Here are a few tips:

  • Make intentional space and time to hear opinions that are different from your own. Ask open-ended questions that are straight-forward and to-the-point.  Don’t simply argue your position and then end with a question such as: “so even after all of this, why would you still believe that?”  Avoid value judgements.  Defend your own points, but once again, acknowledge your cultural blindspots.  (By the way, no one’s perfect, I say all of this, but I’ve fallen prey to doing some of the very things I’ve just suggested not doing…that’s why I’m encouraging you to learn from my mistakes).
  • Put your nerdy cap on and do some reading. As I’ve alluded to in other posts, it’s important to know the other position just as well as your own – in fact, if you are going to be a serious scholar, you should be able to debate the other viewpoint as if you truly owned it yourself.  I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but when trying to determine my values on controversial topics, I always try to get as wide of a range of opinions as possible.  As I mentioned in my Harry Potter post, when deciding if I would allow my children to read H.P. or not, I intentionally took the time to ask a variety of people (parents, educators, pastors, Sunday school teachers) on both sides of the spectrum for their input.  I also did my own reading (including reading through the entire series and books and websites/blog posts both for and against) so when I ultimately arrived at my conclusion I was confident that it was not one taken lightly.  Please don’t be one of those people who argues your point without fully understanding why you arrived at that conclusion.  [If you want to read the Harry Potter post look here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/fantastic-fiction-or-wicked-witchcraft-a-critical-view-of-whether-christians-should-read-harry-potter/)
  • Make room for the Holy Spirit to move. In Anabaptism, we place a high value on the Holy Spirit freely working within our congregational and corporate lives, just as much as we place value on Him working in our personal experience.  Oftentimes, it can be quite helpful to approach a text communally and to live and share the experience of how He speaks to each of us through the same text.  One of the coolest things about Christianity is that 25 people can read the exact same text and we would get 25 different interpretations (this is not to be feared nor is it cause to defend our viewpoints as “the ultimate truth” over anyone else’s, but rather adds to the beauty of Scripture being acutely personal and practical).  It is also important to take time to pray and ponder passages on our own, but if we do so, we must guard ourselves against proof-texting (in other words, taking verses out of Scripture in order to prove a point).  Recently, for my Harvard course, I was listening to a great lecture by Dr. Sajjad Rizvi, who prompted me to think of this classic example we can all learn from:

 

A father beats his young son for being disobedient and stealing toys from his siblings.  The father beats the child so badly that marks appear on his body and when the boy shows up at school, the teacher questions him about this.  The father responds that he has only acted in this way because he is in Christian and in the Bible it states, “Those who withhold the rod hate their children, but the one who loves them applies discipline.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Proverbs%2013%3A24).  In this case the question is: did the father apply harsh discipline because of this verse – because he thought it was the most accurate way to continue his religious practices and beliefs and because he truly wants his son to grow up to be a responsible member of society?  OR did the father abuse his child, then look for a text that justified his behaviour and applied it (trying to convince himself this was truly the case) in order to assuage his own conscience and guilt?

Obviously depending on the actual scenario, the correct answer could be either one depending on his true motivations, but this is a question we must all ask ourselves.  We must especially guard against using Scripture verses to deny someone their basic human rights, or to look down on a certain people group due to their culture/ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, or sexual orientation.  We must be aware not to justify cruelty or abuse on the grounds of Scripture, but we also must do this in less obvious ways just as rigorously.  We must do it on matters that make us prideful, insecure, or resentful.  We must do it in order to take the best care possible of those entrusted to us, but we also must do it on order to take care of ourselves and not let others take advantage of us.  In other words: we don’t always need to convince ourselves that we are in the wrong.  We don’t always need to be the stereotypical apologetic Canadian!

Although this blog post was not able to cover all of the major facets of a theological debate, I do hope it’s given you a bit of ground with which to think and work with.  Ultimately, our theological differences should work as our greatest strength and asset, not as a weakness.  We should constantly remind ourselves that our academic theological debates represent a greater desire to serve Christ and to be faithful to the text and thus it is not about simply being right or wrong, but rather having a greater appreciation for the whole character of Christ and His inspired Word instead.  I hope that on your journey to discovering what you believe and why, you will meet many wonderful travelling companions – both those who agree with you and can support you in your personal opinions, but more importantly, those who see the world differently than you do.  Because it is really the latter that makes your life all that more beautiful, complex, and special.

 

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