Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Importance of Hermeneutics

So many people nowadays get themselves into a false interpretation of the Bible because of the hermeneutics they use. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and uses specific principles to interpret a text.

These general principles have historically been understood by the Church as the historical – grammatical interpretation of the bible. That is, we understand the text by its grammatical construction and take notice first up of its historical setting so that we can get the clear meaning of words used. The historical setting for example tells us what the writer understood by the word he used. Some of course have ridiculed the clear or literal interpretation but have done so because of a poor or an incorrect understanding of what it’s about. Indeed S. Lewis Johnson over at Believers Chapel in Dallas in his eschatology series points out it may be best to avoid using the term “literal” interpretation because it’s like a red flag to a bull. He prefers maybe we should speak just of the plain meaning of the words or text. I however consider that we’d do better to correct the poor thinking associated with those that disdain the word literal when it comes to hermeneutics. They confuse literalism with understanding words in their literal sense[1]. There is an enormous difference between the two.

You don’t have to read far before you come across this confused notion that taking words literally is the same thing as literalism. However for words to mean anything, they have a limited range of application, a dog is not a cat nor a frog and must be distinguished in the hope of getting at the meaning of the author. The old rhyme which includes the line “the cow jumped over the moon” is funny because the word cow signifies that animal, and moon is that astronomical body which orbits around the earth. What we see is that words are taken literally, but the context, firstly the sentence and then the verse or paragraph, indicate if we are reading a poem or rhyme or hearing a metaphor.
What is properly understood as literalism is to take everything literally even when it is clear from the context, either grammatically or historically, that what we have before us is a form of language such as rhyme or a metaphor or simile or figure of speech and so on. This can easily lead into absurdity.

Take for example where we find the Scripture that says “Herod is a fox”. Now no person who takes the literal interpretation of Scripture, that is, taking it in its clear sense would take this to mean that Herod had a snout and a bushy tail. However we do take each word literally, Herod is a name of a person which the immediate context makes clear is a person, and fox is the name of an animal with a snout, and bushy tail. What is meant here is that Herod has the character of a fox in that he is cunning, perhaps sneaky and dangerous as well.

To see how to come to grips with this whole process lets look at an example of a known interpretation problem with one of our own cultural icons. Billy Joel in one of his songs has the lines
“Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife”

Debate a number of years ago arose over just what is a real estate novelist?
Is it a person acting in the role of a real estate agent who really wants to be a novelist? Or is he a person who writes the scripts for selling real estate? The point here is that context will help you see the point being made by the song writer, but more importantly, you can understand meaning even without knowing the specific meaning of the phrase here. The following lines make it clear that his preoccupation with work and the amount of time spent at work, prevented him from finding time to get a wife! Meaning then isn’t obscured, but rather is still available for the reader or hearer.

Remarkably I think this is often the case with Scripture. Apart from the mighty work of God’s Spirit in our lives to bring His Word to bear upon our lives, still much of the Scripture are straight forward and clear, though admittedly, submitting to that Word of God isn’t an option for the unbelieve because of his moral rebellion against the Lord, unless of course the Lord God acts upon his life.

However the point is that in most cases the meaning can be ascertained by giving attention to the historical grammatical context. Indeed we do this at times without even having to see the context as the written text but the situation.

If I were to say that my wife is hot, then the context matters greatly as to my intended meaning. If I was with a group of friends discussing the Song of Songs, they would take it to mean that I am saying my wife is the delight of my eyes and passions. Whereas if I were at the doctors then we’d take it that she had a temperature which was in need of quick medical attention! The context can make all the difference can’t it? I remember hearing Dr Edwin Orr many years ago talking about Science and the Bible and saying that different explanations are evoked by different contexts. So that if you were at his house and asked him “Dr. Orr why is the kettle boiling?”, he might reply “because of the heat due to the flame under the kettle causing the water molecule to agitate and bump against each other with kinetic energy etc etc”, or he might merely reply “because my wife is making me a cup of tea!” Both are valid explanations, and both can be true, but the required explanation depends on the context.

Often times you will read people talking about hermeneutics, who suggest that the main principle of interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. You might like to read jollyblogger over at his blog on ‘Is Reformed Eschatology hard to understand?’ The point to remember however is that the primary principle of interpretation has to be the grammatical – historical method, taking the words in context which then include all of Scripture and using Scripture to interpret Scripture, the clear and plain meaning to inform the unclear. Language and communication require that you take that approach, but some in the Reformed camp seem to ignore the primary step and rather just state the Scripture interprets Scripture principle.

Next time we will look at a Biblical example and just how important hermeneutics is in understanding the text. Until then, peace be with you.

[1] There is a whole area of study concerned with this called semiotics which talks about the sign and the signified and so on, but that need not concern us here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What is Worship Pt4 - Critique of Mark Driscoll on Worship

These days you get the opportunity to read a wide variety of perspectives on Worship and on the internet you will find an abundance of mp3’s on the topic. Recently I downloaded and listened to Mark Driscoll speaking on Worship from Revelation chapter 5 in his series on Doctrine.

Now I have much admiration for Mark. I enjoy his enthusiasm and passion and desire to see people come to know the Lord Jesus. The way he preaches reminds me sometimes of Martin Luther in ‘the Bondage of the Will’ in His debate with Erasmus. The same direct hard hitting words of a passionate man enamored by Grace. Mark’s succinct way of stating things are powerful and you and I both need to hear Mark when he declares “Jesus is your friend but in no way your peer.”

I have delighted, learnt from and been challenged by many of Mark’s talks, but I have concerns with his sermon on Revelation 5 as I will discuss below. It is my hope that in his passion shall not be led astray to deception as I believe Rick Warren of Saddleback has been over the last few years. When Rick began his ministry there was a true sense in the movement of God’s Spirit and yet Rick has really gone off track lately, and clearly so from the time of publication of ‘40 days of purpose’. The one true way to guard against such deception is to take heed to godly council of fellow elders who truly can say the truth without fear. Mark, I do hope that those who give you council will take time to direct you in honing your exegetical skills and in preaching. So Mark if you ever get to read this, it is done with utmost concern to be faithful to our Lord Jesus, and so loving of the brethren including you.

To summarize the sermon:
Driscoll if I understand him correctly takes Revelation 5 to express worship of the Lord God. He helpfully draws attention to Romans 1:25 that people either worship God the Creator or created things. Yet it’s not long before he declares that the scroll of Revelation 5 is the Scriptures. This slip may be from the Greek word for scroll being biblion, however I doubt if he made such a simple blunder. Sure that's something we can regrettably all do at times, but if so, then amends must be made. It seems certain he considers the scroll of Revelation 5 to be the Scripture’s however this interpretation has not been taken that way by any Commentator that I have in my half a dozen or more Commentaries on Revelation.
This is not my misreading of Driscoll for he repeats this notion over and over again throughout the sermon. Consider the following excerpt

Here we see the scriptures come from the hand of the father on his throne exalted in heaven. And the scriptures we are told here come literally from his right hand. His hand of authority and power. The Bible wasn’t just written by the hands of men, it was written by the hand of God. through the hands of men.”
And then he says:

The scripture originally written down on a scroll. Now the problem is the Father has the scroll, he has the bible in his hand still the promises God has for you and me, save us heal us redeem us. transform us.. conquer enemies of satan sin and death. he will be coming to execute al these great promises of God. on our behalf. The problem is no one is worthy to open the scroll. .. to take the scriptures from the hand of God and deliver them to the people of God. no one is worthy to work of Gods behalf to execute all the promises ..he has given is. John sees this as a pastor, he knows the needs of people, and he’s just devastated. .. this is a crisis, God has all of these desires, these intentions, all of these people he wants to love.. all these promises he has given and there’s no means of executing that on the earth. That’s why Isaiah says God literally stretched out his hand to us in Jesus Christ. This is where this is going to go.”

And later
And God has sent Jesus. ... “Jesus takes the scriptures from the father..”

The problem here is that this understanding of the scroll is not taken that way by any Commentator I know of. Certainly none that Osborne lists. He gives six understandings of the Scroll on pages 248-249. Commentary on Revelation by Grant R. Osborne, ECNT, 2002.
  1. The Lambs Book of Life.
  2. The Old Testament, especially the torah. [ Note this does not include the New Testament. ]
  3. The last will and testament containing the inheritance of the saints and sealed with seven seals.
  4. A divorce bill, ... borrowing Old Testament imagery on the unfaithfulness of Israel.
  5. The doubly inscribed contract deed.
  6. A heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan and the future history of God’s creation.

Osborne himself suggest a combination of #5 and #6. John F. Walvoord himself says “the scroll contains the prophesy of impending events to be unfolded in the book of revelation” pg 113, thereby agreeing with Osborne’s point #6.

As an aside, I might point out that taking the scroll as the Scriptures implies all sorts of strange things regarding the sequence of events in the book of Revelation. For it is the lamb slain in chapter 5, and thus who is worthy who takes the scroll, yet the Scriptures have already, well the Old Testament for sure, been given to God’s people!

Indeed Mark follows this illogical path in the next few statements where he says:
someone needs to take these promises and bring them into human history, to execute them.”

What is Driscoll referring to? The First or Second Advent? Clearly he means the first Advent because he talks of Jesus bringing them into human history, “born of a virgin.”
All this I will leave that for you to ponder.

The point I wish to make is that this is a serious error, equating the scroll here in Revelation 5 with the Scriptures. Now Mark may retort that the term “Scriptures” in the Bible as for eg 2 Tim 3:16 means ‘the writings’ and certainly there in 2 Tim 3 it has to at minimum refer to the Old Testament, but Mark has already said clearly in the sermon that the scroll is the Bible.

Mark is right in pointing out that in heaven God surrounds himself with singing and prayers of the saints. These things are indeed in heaven, yet when referring to chapter 4 one really shouldn’t say that the light and colours are what God surrounds himself with, rather John is using the brilliant colours of the precious stones to describe God himself.
Yet Mark says
What do you keep close to you? God keeps people, colour, music and prayers close to Him.”

It’s not like the light and colours at a rock concert which is the impression Mark leaves us with.

Indeed Revelation does say the 4 creatures in heaven and the 24 elders do sing a new song in worship of the Lord God, 5:9 yet it’s not merely that song writers can “speak best out of experience and passion and life..” The new song does not come from a song writers experience and passion and life. Rather Song writers need to use their gifts to write theological songs just as we see the content in Revelation 5:9-10 talking about. We need less of the mindless drivel of some Choruses and Hill Song songs. Read the chapter by Paul T. Plew in 'Think Biblically' edited by John MacArthur for a good reminder on this.

Again Mark may differ from me on how one understands Isaiah 11 and I will graciously concede that, even so I would point out that to say the text mentions animals in heaven is to spiritualise the text without any warrant for doing so. It’s a hermeneutical issue, but one I would say makes nonsense of hermeneutics. I will deal with this another time.

So I find a couple of major problems with Mark’s interpretation Revelation 5 which do not edify the saints but lead them into error.

But how does Mark get to that point of teaching error? I have suggested a couple of things above as we dealt with the sermon but I think there’s a couple of areas that cause this and which I believe Mark could change with great benefit.

Some reasons for such a failure in understanding Revelation 5 may be partly due to Mark’s technique in sermon delivery. From what I have seen on the internet his sermons notes that he takes into the pulpit are far too cursory at best. Over at we can find the above picture at the top of this blog, an example of Driscoll’s preaching Notes.

Now I am not saying Mark hasn’t put a lot of effort into understanding the text and doing his preparation, but I think because of his short notes and his conversational manner he tends to go off on tangents and actually says things he wouldn’t say with a bit more forethought. He says things off the cuff that are either unhelpful and also at time untrue. A case in point would be his comments in the sermon on Revelation 5 when referring to the 24 elders. He said “24 elders, are the leaders of the Old and New Testament CHURCH!” What this says is that Israel in the Old Testament is the Church, a very common statement found among Amillennial preachers, but impossible to justify Biblically.

I actually like the conversational approach in preaching, but there are dangers to be avoided and unless Mark has a photographic memory he should use better notes. And if he does have a photographic memory then he need to carefully choose his words and do better exegesis.

In Christ