Monday, October 30, 2006

Let's Beat This Hermeneutical Discussion to Death

In two previous posts we've batted around the possibility that modern Bible-believing interpreters of Scripture have abandoned their professed conviction of the sufficiency of Scripture by using extra-biblical information (history, geography, culture, literary genre) to inform their understanding of the biblical text.

Another question crossed my mind over the weekend: For those of you who believe that it's appropriate, yea necessary, to interpret the Bible in light of extra-biblical information, why would you not also interpret the Bible in light of modern science?


Bruce McKanna said...

Psalm 19:4b-6
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

So, do you interpret this in light of modern science, or do you interpret it literally? [I'm smiling, Ben.]

Perhaps another question would be, how do I determine when it is appropriate to "harmonize" the non-technical expression of the Scriptures with the results of modern scientific/historical study, and when it is more accurate to say that the Scriptures stand against the prevailing knowledge and/or conventional wisdom of the day?

In the passage above, an overly literal reading would put it in contrast with modern scientific understandings of our solar system, but because I understand how David is writing, I don't have a problem saying that these are not contradictory. [Did I need outside information like genre studies of Ancient Near Eastern texts to conclude this? Maybe, maybe not.] Bottom line: David is not trying to explain how the sun works in a scientific sense, and yet his words do reflect literal (i.e., actual, true) characteristics of the sun as he sings of the glory of God revealed in the created order.

So how about the minefield of Genesis 1-2? I am fine with using a similar process in relation to understanding Genesis 1:16: "And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars." I know the moon is not technically a light-producing object, but I can still understand why the Bible is accurate in describing it as such. Therefore I want to have reasons for saying that other parts of the creation story should not be thus harmonized with science, not just starting with a presupposition that the sufficiency of Scripture means that I can ignore what science says.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that harmonization and interpretation are two different things. When science or archaeology come up with a fairly well established observation (not the same as a fact, necessarily) that seems to contradict a scriptural statement, it is necessary to think through the discrepancy and come to some kind of harmonization.

Of course, the difficulty is certainty on the side of the scientific/archaeological observation. As we have seen, things in these realms that once were 'facts' are often enough discredited.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


Good points. But I would argue that the poetic genre easily explains Psalm 19. I agree that Genesis 1:16 is more difficult since I believe it's a narrative text. But it doesn't seem as though language would prohibit us from understanding the moon to be a light.

Like you, I want to be able to explain how the Bible is consistent with what we can observe about the world. My more pressing interest, though, is that we not allow that interest to drive our exegesis or our preaching. Yet that is what seems to happen when so many folks focus primarily on harmonizing the text with science in their handling of Genesis 1-2. It says so much more than that.

tjp said...


Over the years I've taken several courses in hermeneutics and have profited by them. But when I ask myself, What fundamental (or even non fundamental) doctrine did they settle for me? I must answer, NONE.

Since I've always approached the Bible from a normal literal perspective, I don't ever recall having difficulty identifying the main themes of Scripture, even though at the time I was rock ignorant concerning its history, culture, language, politics, literary structure, rhetorical devices, or social milieu.

In the early days when I opened my Bible, I took it at face value and believed what I read, assuming its normal intent. And I still do that today. And it works!

Indeed, formal hermeneutics helped me to refine some things and even bring to light many interesting details of the Scripture and its historical setting. But not having studied formal hermeneutics was certainly barrier to my grasping the central message of Scripture and its fundamental teachings.

The Scriptures are sufficient or, shall we say, perspicacious.

tjp said...


Read "no" between "certainly" and "barrier" in paragraph 4.

Keith said...

How'd you know that Psalm 19 is part of something called a poetic genre? Is that in the Bible?

Ben said...


Everything I know about Hebrew poetic genre is from people who know way more about Hebrew and Hebrew poetry than I do. Some of those people probably base their knowledge on similarities to extra-biblical forms. Others, however, argue that one can identify distinct characteristics of Hebrew poetry just by looking at the biblical text in Hebrew.

Bruce McKanna said...

We might be able to recognize intuitively that a piece of ancient writing is in some sort of genre/form (such as poetry), but I'm not sure we would know how it works or the rules by which it plays without comparing it to other literature. Even for those of us who have no knowledge of ancient poetry forms, we can be helped by poetry of other civilizations, including our own, as we see how poets use metaphor, simile, etc.

By the way, how does your admission to dependence on others who know more about Hebrew and Hebrew poetry fit into our discussion on the sufficiency issue? Are we now to veer off into issues of authority in interpretation? Or should we just say that the Scripture is sufficient, but we are deficient? Even though, as Protestants, we would be wary of giving too much authority to the church (particularly any hierarchical leadership therein), I don't think we should deny the reality that we depend on others for help in our interpretation and application. If we didn't, preachers would be out of a job!

Ben said...


This answer will fall short because I don't feel qualified to speak to the conventions of language particularly when it's a foreign language, but I think intimate familiarity with a language can give skilled linguists pretty solid clues to what's going on in a particular text--including when imagery is figurative.

On your second paragraph, why is it that every time I suspect that someone is going to call me on a seeming inconsistency, you are the one who's all over it? I think I choose the second option. Even if Super WalMart might have everything I need, that doesn't mean I know how to find the spot remover without a little help from someone with more knowledge.