Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The Christianization of a Pagan Symbol

Long before it became a gold-plated religious ornament, the cross was an abhorrent symbol of brutality and death. Especially during the Roman Empire’s oppressive regime, one of the harshest insults a person could hurl at another was, “Be fixed to a cross!”1

Some form of punitive suspension can be traced as far back as the 6th-century BC in Carthage, Macedonia, and Persia. While the Romans may have borrowed this mode of execution from the Carthaginians, they perfected it as a means of humiliation and torture intended as a deterrent to insurrection. They reportedly crucified tens of thousands of people, aiming to inflict maximum suffering through a slow, agonizing death.2

Mainly intended for the lower classes, rebellious slaves, tomb defilers, and criminals, the Romans were much less concerned about the shape of the torture device as many are today. In fact, Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) notes at least three different forms and positions, although suspension with outstretched arms is often assumed.3 Early patristic authors, writing about the apparatus upon which Jesus died, unanimously describe it as having a crossbeam (e.g. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 15; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8). 

Conventional Perception Before Christ’s Death

Early in his ministry Jesus advised his immediate disciples: “And he who is not taking his cross and following after me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).4 This was before he had revealed that he would be “killed” (Matt. 16:21), much less “crucified” (Matt. 20:19; 26:2), so what would these words have meant to those to whom he spoke? What connotation did the “cross” carry at this time? On other occasions, employing comparable terminology presumably familiar to his listening audience,5 with what frame of reference were they to interpret such a disturbing admonition? 

First-century Palestinian Jews were very much aware of the cross as an instrument of suffering and death. As far back as the second century BC, Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes crucified Jews resisting his oppressive decrees (Josephus, Ant. 12.5.4). The Romans, who occupied the Jewish homeland throughout Jesus’ entire earthly life, were notorious for this brutal form of capital punishment. The imagery of a “cross” had absolutely no religious significance at the time, particularly in a pre-Christian Jewish context.

When discussing crucifixion, the Greek noun stauró(rendered “cross” in most English versions) is the term attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics, and employed in all four Gospels to describe the torturous gibbet upon which he died. Josephus also reported that Pilate condemned Jesus to a staurós (Ant. 18.3.3). The corresponding verbal is stauróō (“crucify”), and sometimes xúlon (“tree”) is used as a metonymy.6 All of these usages are clearly associated with shame, agony, and death.

A Change in Perspective

The killing of Jesus and the particular means of his execution were not unexpected,7 which the Lord willingly endured for the redemption of broken humanity.8 In the context of the first-century Mediterranean world, with the prevailing “honor vs. shame” mentality, the ignominy of crucifixion rendered the message of the cross offensive and foolish.9 Nevertheless, by the second century the cross was recognized as a uniquely Christian symbol.10 Having been commissioned to proclaim “good news” to the world, Christ’s atoning death by way of crucifixion was at the heart of the message his followers preached.11

From the heavenly perspective the cross was no longer a sign of defeat but a necessary prelude to the Lord’s victorious resurrection. It was the instrument of God’s grace, the devil’s demise, and deliverance from the shackles of sin.12 The cross was the means through which the new covenant of Jesus Christ was inaugurated (Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:15), making available forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11), and peace (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20).

Jerry Sumney comments: “Crucifixion almost universally signaled defeat and humiliation. But the early church radically reinterpreted it so that it came to symbolize the way God relates to the world …. In the cross, thus, God not only forgives sins but also defeats all forces of evil that oppose God by trying to separate God from God’s people.”13


The question is often asked, “Why does God allow human suffering?” While philosophers and theologians have struggled over the centuries to come up with a reasonable answer, perhaps we need to look no further than the cross. This is where Almighty God joins in our suffering to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, and hope out of despair. Maybe we should be asking, how did a barbaric Roman torture device become the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith? 

Apparently what something meant in the distant past does not dictate what it currently means (see addendum below). As Peter Wehner observes, “the crucifixion — an emblem of agony and one of the cruelest methods of execution ever practiced — became a historical pivot point and eventually the most compelling symbol of the most popular faith on earth.”14

The iconography of the cross is not enhanced by precious metals and stones and elaborate ornamentation. It is of far greater value. “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Pompeii Graffito, CIL IV, 2082: graffiti, dated between the first century BC and AD 79, discovered at Pompeii, wherein “there is clearly an invective here that derisively invokes the cross upon the reader” (David W. Chapman and Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary, WUNT 344 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2015]: 753).
     2 “Is there such a thing as a person who would actually prefer wasting away in pain on a cross—dying limb by limb one drop of blood at a time—rather than dying quickly? Would any human being willingly choose to be fastened to that cursed tree, especially after the beating that left him deathly weak, deformed, swelling with vicious welts on shoulders and chest, and struggling to draw every last, agonizing breath? Anyone facing such a death would plead to die rather than mount the cross” (Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales 101.14).
     3 Seneca the Younger, Ad Marciam De consolatione 20.3; David W. Chapman, “Perceptions of Crucifixion: Evidence from Ancient Inscriptions and Graffiti,” ETS Annual Meeting, 21 Nov. 2019. In Classical Greek (until the early 4th century BC), the term stauróreferred to an upright stake for impaling (H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon 595), but in Koinē Greek it denoted the wooden object upon which the Romans executed criminals. There are basically four popular representations of the cross: the traditional crux immissa (Latin cross), with a longer base (); the crux quadrata (Greek cross), with four equal appendages (+); the crux commissa, the shape of the Greek letter tau (T); the crux decussata, in the form of the Roman numeral ten (X). Seeing that there is no clear description in the NT of the particular shape of the gibbet upon which Jesus was executed, idolizing it as an iconographic ornament was apparently not the Lord’s intent.
     4 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     5 Luke 9:23 (par. Matt. 16:24/Mark 8:34); Luke 14:27; also Mark 10:21 (N/KJV). The metaphor draws meaning from the practice of the condemned forced to carry the implement upon which he would die to the place of execution (Plutarch, De sera 554; Titus Maccius Plautus, Miles gloriosus 358-360; Mostellaria 56-57). Cf. Sverre Bøe, Cross-Bearing in Luke WUNT 278 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010): 63-71. Seeing that an entire Roman cross could weigh over 135 kg (300 lb.), it was the crossbeam, weighing approximately 35-60 kg (75-125 lb.), that was typically carried. 
     6 The noun staurós is translated from Jesus’ Aramaic speech (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), and used in descriptions of his execution (Matt. 27:32, 40, 42; Mark 15:21, 30, 32; Luke 14:27; 23:26; John 19:17-31). The verbal stauróō is employed congruently (Matt. 20:19; 23:34; 26:2; 27:22-44; 28:5; Mark 15:13-32; 16:6; Luke 23:21, 23, 33; 24:7, 20; John 19:6-41; Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10), along with xúlon as a metonymy (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24).
     7 Psa. 22:16; Isa. 53:8-9; Matt. 20:19; 26:2; Acts 2:23. See also Matt. 16:21; 17:12, 22-23; 20:18-19; 21:37-39; 26:2; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33; Acts 3:18; 4:27-28; et al.
     8 Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 1:13; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:24.
     9 1 Cor. 1:18-29; Gal. 3:13; 5:11; 6:12; Phil. 2:18; Heb. 6:6. See Sociocultural Context (Part 2): Honor and Shame.
     10 Justin Martyr, Apologia 1.5-60 and Dialogue with Trypho 85-97; Epistle of Barnabas 11-12; Tertullian, Apologia 12, 17; Apostolic Constitutions 3.17.
     11 Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:2; 15:1-4; Gal. 3:1.
     12 Heb. 2:9-17; 12:2; see also 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 2:8-9.
     13 Jerry L. Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary (Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox, 2003): 146.
     14 Peter Wehner, “What It Means to Worship a Man Crucified as a Criminal: A God who allows suffering is a mystery, but so is a God who suffered,” New York Times (19 April 2019), <Link>.


What something meant in the past does not necessarily determine what it currently means. Consider, for example, the statement: “Sunday is a special day of worship.” In the context of ancient Greco-Roman astrology, this would have reference to the day on which the sun (or sun god) is venerated. However, the word “Sunday” no longer carries this meaning in a modern-day westernized culture. The same is true for how the other days of the week are designated: Monday (day of the Moon), Tuesday (day of the Norse god Tiw), Wednesday (day of the Anglo-Saxon god Woden), Thursday (day of the Norse god Thor), Friday (day of Freya, the Norse queen of the gods), and Saturday (day of Saturn). Using these common monikers, irrespective of etymology, is in no way an endorsement of polytheism.  

Initially circumcision signified a covenantal relationship with God (Gen. 17:10-11), but it has not borne this significance since the third decade of the first century AD (Gal. 5:6), orthodox Judaism notwithstanding. The swastika () was originally a Buddhist symbol of luck and prosperity, but since the early twentieth century, thanks to German Nazism, it has conveyed a very different meaning.

Christmas, as a celebration of Christ’s birth, was not observed for the first three centuries of the Christian era. Many, therefore, do not regard it as a religious holy day in view of its initial connection to the pagan celebration of birthdays, the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar (Dec. 25th), the innovation of Roman Catholic traditions (“Christ’s mass”), and the absence of biblical authorization. Regardless of what the festival and any of its symbolism may have meant in the past, both Christians and non-Christians can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday for family gatherings and gift-giving, without any inherent pagan or religious connotations. In this sense, Christ cannot be removed from Christmas any more than he can be removed from Christopher Columbus Day. A man-made holiday is not necessary to remember Christ on any day of the year.

The same can be said about any number of other festivities (Easter, birthdays, Halloween, etc.), symbols, flags, and customs. What something means is not necessarily dictated by what it meant. Moreover, what something represents to me may not be what it conveys to you. Is it that difficult to be neither hyper-sensitive, hyper-offensive, nor hyper-critical? Can we not extend to each other empathy, understanding, and grace?

Related PostsK. L. Moore, “Cross-bearing: the Cost of Discipleship,” Moore Perspective (12 August 2012), <Link>.

Related articles: Wes McAdams, “Is it Wrong?” Radically Christian (24 April 2019), <Link>; Neal Pollard, “A Passage I’ve Neglected,” PreacherPollard (17 Dec. 2019), <Link>.

Image credit: Nicholas Grundy Photography, “Celtic Cross,” Inis Mor, Aran Islands, <https://www.facebook.com/NicholasGrundyPhotography/photos/a.489662601046278/1368603503152179/?type=1&theater>

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Biblical Exegesis (Part 3 of 3)

A further extension of the Grammatical-Historical Approach to biblical exegesis and often assumed in the CENI schema (discussed in our previous post) is the application of general principles and prohibitive silence.1

Principles are general exhortations requiring basic common sense and mature reasoning to make specific, practical applications (cf. Heb. 5:14). Without general principles, imagine how enormous the Bible would have to be to specifically address all moral, relational, and religious life situations. Applying biblical principles in modern times should not be as daunting as some may surmise. William Larkin observes: “As human beings we have a commonality that enables us to interpret and apply ideas and patterns and forms from other cultures and time periods” (Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics 200).
·      When Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), no specific details are given about how to actually do it, so it is up to the Lord’s disciples to carefully determine how this principle should be applied in every area of our lives. 
·      The same is true for principles such as abstaining from every form of evil (1 Thess. 5:22), not being conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2), modest dress (1 Tim. 2:9), etc.

Prohibitive silence, also known as the “rule of exclusion,” is based on the conviction that the entirety of what God wants us to know about his will has been fully disclosed in scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3). Whatever is not communicated or authorized in scripture (explicitly or implicitly) is therefore excluded from God’s revealed will. In other words, divine silence = no divine sanction. 
·      In Acts 15 certain Jewish Christians were advocating mandatory circumcision (vv. 1, 5). How were they, and those they taught, supposed to know this wasn’t right, seeing that it was integral to the old covenant system? The Spirit-guided answer was simply, “we gave no such commandment” [prohibitive silence] (v. 24). 
·      Another example is found in Heb. 7:11-16. The Israelites knew the divine will concerning the appointment of priests because God explicitly revealed this information (Lev. 8:5 ff.), specifying the tribe of Levi as the priestly tribe (Num. 18:1-2; Deut. 33:8-11; Heb. 7:5). He did not (and did not need to) supply a list of other Israelite tribes in order to directly forbid the appointment of priests from any of them. By specifying Levi, all other tribes were implicitly excluded, as “Moses spoke nothing” [prohibitive silence] concerning them.

Is biblical silence always prohibitive, or is it sometimes permissive? It depends on whether the issue at hand is specifically or generically addressed in scripture.2
·      If the divine injunction had been, “Appoint priests from among the Israelites,” anyone from any of the tribes would be allowed; but the requirement was not this generic. The law directed the appointment of priests from among the Israelite tribe of Levi, which would permit anyone within the stated category, including tall Levites, short Levites, brown-haired Levites, black-haired Levites, etc., none of which deviates from the specified command. But the injunction would prohibit Egyptians, Assyrians, Reubenites, Simeonites, etc. (even serving alongside the Levites), because these options exceed the parameters of the specified command.
·      If the Bible had said, “Commemorate the Lord’s death with food and drink,” any type of food and drink (brownies, carrots, water, coffee) would be permissible; but the stipulated elements of the Lord’s Supper are not this generic. The directive to use unleavened bread and fruit of the vine (Matt. 26:17, 26-29) would permit plates or trays or baskets or containers for the specified elements, none of which adds to or deviates from the stated instructions. But the directive does prohibit brownies, carrots, water, coffee, etc. (even if consumed along with the specified elements), because they are unauthorized additions to what scripture teaches.
·      If the NT had said, “Offer music to God as Christian worship,” any type of music (singing, electric guitar, saxophone, etc.) would be permissible; but the musical praise specified in the NT is not this generic. The NT affirms, “… singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19 + nine other verses), which would permit song books or overheads (for words), a tuning fork (for pitch), a song leader (for tempo), none of which deviates from the specified instructions. But there is no NT authorization for playing and making melody on a piano in worship (even to accompany the singing), or beating drums, or juggling Bibles, or dancing with hula hoops, etc. All humanly-devised additions to the specified instructions are implicitly prohibited if the Lord has given no such directive.

A More Thorough Exegetical Approach

While maintaining the tried and tested methodologies that have served us well over the years, as our biblical knowledge increases there should always be room in our exegetical toolkit for additional information. Multiple in-depth academic approaches to biblical exegesis have been proposed over the years,3 but what I find most helpful when examining a passage of scripture is the following:

1. Establish the contextual setting: authorship, audience, date, provenance, destination, circumstances, including geographical, political, historical, sociocultural matters; i.e., who is speaking/writing and who is being addressed? 
2. Establish the literary context beyond a single verse: genre, paragraph or pericope, the entire document, collection of writings, theological linkage, relationship to the overall context of scripture.
3. Identify key words, phrases, and concepts.
4. Word analysis: textual criticism, translation, comparative study. 
5. Sentence structure, syntax, grammar.
6. Consult secondary literature if needed.
7. Contemporary application. 

Not all of these apply equally to every text. As John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay remind us, “no mechanical system of steps or stages in the exegetical process can be set up and rigidly followed…. An appropriate way of proceeding in doing an exegesis of a passage is to let the questions and issues arise from the text itself…. allow the text to speak for itself” (Biblical Exegesis [Rev.] 132-33). 

The primary aim of biblical exegesis is deeper understanding and continual growth in grace and knowledge through the living and abiding word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; 2 Pet. 3:18).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 See K. L. Moore, Getting to Know the Bible (Winona, MS: Choate, 2002): 45-49.
     2 See K. L. Moore, “Musical Praise and Biblical Silence,” Moore Perspective (10 June 2015), <Link>.
     3 For example, the 10-step process of Craig L. Blomberg in A Handbook of NT Exegesis xiv-xv; or the 13-step process of Gordon D. Fee in NT Exegesis [3rd ed.] 6-7).

Image credit: http://scottroberts.org/how-much-should-we-revere-gods-word-and-should-bible-pages-be-marked-up/

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Biblical Exegesis (Part 2 of 3)

Although there is a “sufficiently bewildering set of exegetical possibilities,”1 
for our purposes we will briefly consider the more prevalent ones.

1. The Impressionistic Approach is when scripture is evaluated in a way that equates the meaning of the text with the interpreter’s immediate thoughts. This is the simplest approach that requires the least amount of effort. But its subjective and emotive nature practically guarantees missing or misconstruing scripture’s original intent.

2. The Dogmatic Approach views scripture as a storehouse of proof-texts to be selected and arranged to bolster a preconceived doctrine or set of beliefs. The danger (and tendency) of this method is to allow little consideration of authorial intent or literary, historical, and sociocultural context. It may give the appearance of biblicality (book, chapter, verse!), but without context, scripture can be made to mean just about anything the interpreter wants it to mean.2

3. The Grammatical-Historical Approach3 is a concerted attempt to understand what the words of scripture meant in their original setting, i.e., what the inspired author intended to communicate to his targeted audience.4 For exegetes with a high view of scripture, this methodology is also concerned with modern-day application.

3a. An extension of the Grammatical-Historical Approach, “Command, Example, Necessary Inference” (CENI) is a common description of the exegetical method historically characteristic of the North American Restoration Movement.5 
Perhaps a better way of expressing each tenet is “direct statement,” “approved example or precedent,” and “implication.” Not everything we learn that is explicitly conveyed in scripture is in the form of a command. Not every account of action recorded in scripture is a pattern or example to be followed.6 While inferences are deductions of the human mind, a “necessary inference” is necessarily drawn from what the Bible implies,7 i.e., it is truth, not because we have inferred it but because God, through inspired writers, has implied it. 
·      Direct statements are facts, instructions, or commands that are communicated explicitly. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6, NKJV), no further logic or reasoning is needed to deduce what is being stated.
·      Approved examples are accounts of action that help illustrate or clarify what God expects of his people and therefore serve as a pattern (example or precedent) to be followed. Baptism is described as a burial and resurrection (Col. 2:12), and the account in Acts 8:36-39 depicts the action of baptism. The Lord’s Supper is a recurring memorial of Christ’s atoning death (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and the account in Acts 20:7 shows when it was observed by early Christians.8
·      Implication refers to something not directly stated but necessarily drawn from what the text conveys. Mark 1:11 reports, “Then a voice came from heaven …” The question is, whose voice? The text does not say explicitly but we can infer it was the heavenly Father’s voice, implied by the reference to Jesus as “My beloved Son” (cp. 1:1; 13:32), and confirmed by other passages (Matt. 7:21; 10:32; 2 Pet. 1:17). We read in Acts 8:35 that Philip “preached Jesus” to the Ethiopian official, which resulted in his request to be baptized (v. 36). The implication is, preaching Jesus is inclusive of baptism.

If all other forms of communication effectively operate by way of these interpretive parameters, why should the Bible be approached any differently? While the traditional CENI methodology may assume other basic interpretive principles (to be discussed in our next post), it is still subject to abuse (e.g. proof-texting), omission (e.g. not considering contextual matters), resulting in faulty conclusions and unnecessary brotherhood divisions. It is necessary, therefore, for us to dig deeper, broaden our exegetical horizons, and fill in any exegetical gaps. To be continued … 

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 I. Howard Marshall, “Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 15. See also Ralph P. Martin, “Approaches to New Testament Exegesis,” in I. Howard Marshall, ed. NT Interpretation 220-51. For descriptions and critiques of additional methods, see D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics 58 ff.; also Gene Taylor, Hermeneutics: How to Study the Bible 11-12.
     2 The so-called “Roman Road to Salvation” (popular in a number of denominational tracts) cherry-picks selected verses from the epistle to the Romans to create a seemingly biblical case for salvation by faith alone, but in so doing context is ignored and allusions to obedience and baptism (e.g. Rom. 1:5; 2:8; 6:1-18; 10:16; 16:19, 26) are curiously omitted.
     3 Also called Grammatico-Historical, this methodology stands in contrast to the more philosophical historical-critical method (or “higher criticism”) that is chiefly concerned with the origins of an ancient text and reconstructing the historical situation behind it, often dismissing the divine element, and includes sub-disciplines like source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.
     4 Reader-response theory is less concerned about authorial intent and focuses more on audience perception. The more extreme advocates of the “new hermeneutic” deny any objective truth based on the original intended meaning, arguing for multiple valid meanings according to the subjective reasoning of interpreters.
     5 See N. B. Hardeman, Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons (Nashville, TN: GA, 1975): 4:46-59.
     6 See Thomas B. Warren, When is an “Example” Binding? (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press, 1975).
     7 Opponents of this principle typically object to the prospect of fallible human reasoning but fail to consider the “necessary” aspect. If an inference is necessary, no other conclusion can legitimately be drawn.
     8 Not every account of action recorded in scripture is to be imitated today (e.g. Matt. 3:4). As a general rule, there must be an implied or understood requirement behind it to make it relevant as an approved example. 

Related PostsBiblical Exegesis Part 1Part 3

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Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Biblical Exegesis (Part 1 of 3)

The Challenge Before Us

If we accept the Bible as the inspired word of God, we are compelled to approach its message with utmost respect and care. D. A. Carson reminds us: “We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly” (Exegetical Fallacies [2nd ed.] 15). Bible study is rewarding only when it is done right, requiring a serious mind and a strong commitment. 

In 2 Timothy 2:15 we read in English translation:
·      “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (NKJV).
·      Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (NASB).
·      Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV).
·      Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET).1

What is this passage saying, and how does it apply to us today? Among other things, biblical exegesis involves establishing the literary context, considering the broader context, translation, comparative analysis, identifying key concepts, and word study. By engaging in biblical exegesis, we learn something here about biblical exegesis. Contextually this is Paul’s final apostolic manuscript, and leading up to the above admonition he has been urging Timothy to be brave, faithful, and strong, to endure and work hard. And Paul’s instructions have much broader applicability (cf. 2:2; 3:16-17; 4:2).2

What do we learn from this text about how the word of truth is to be interpreted and applied? What would be the opposite of this that ought to be avoided? What is required, according to this passage, to receive God’s approval and avoid shame? 

I. Howard Marshall observes: “The problem of interpreting a passage from the Bible is one to which we would all like to find the key, some simple and easy formula that will enable us to approach any text of Scripture and quickly establish its meaning. Alas, there is no such simple answer …” (“Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 11). Without the investment of considerable time, devotion, mental exertion, and prayer, we run the risk of missing and/or misunderstanding God’s revealed will.

Defining Terms 

While “interpretation” is seeking to understand and explain the meaning of something, “hermeneutics” is the artful science and methodology of interpretation.3 Biblical hermeneutics is a broad umbrella term that encompasses both what the biblical text meant to the original audience and what it means to current readers.4 More specifically, “exegesis” is the process of drawing out of the text its original meaning (what it meant),5 whereas “exposition” is the explanation and practical application of the fruits of exegesis (what it means),6 although some would use these terms interchangeably. The primary aim of the conscientious Bible student is to apply exegetical understanding of biblical texts to the contemporary church and world (G. D. Fee, NT Exegesis [3rd ed.]: 2).

Acknowledging Our Presuppositions 

Integrity demands that as exegetes we must be aware of our own presuppositions stemming from personal experiences, influences, preferences, and ideologies. Even among highly intelligent and well-educated scholars, no human exegete is exempt from this reality. 

Presuppositions are involved in every aspect of the relationship of the interpreter to his text…. An examination of presuppositions must be the first step taken in scientific interpretation. This is no easy task; for it is so hard to see the spectacles through which one looks and without which one cannot see anything clearly at all…. An interpreter’s work will always be affected by human foibles and fallibility. Prejudice arises in all scholarly disciplines. The individual’s personality will play a part in his work, even though this will usually be an unconscious influence; an optimist and a pessimist may well assess a literary or a historical document differently…. the interpreter may be so conditioned by his environment that he is almost automatically biased in one direction or else he is quite unable to consider all the alternative approaches…. The interpreter must be aware of and attempt to allow for the prejudice which may influence his judgment… a completely detached and unbiased stance is impossible” (Graham N. Stanton, “Presuppositions in NT Criticism,” in I. Howard Marshall, ed. NT Interpretation 61-62).

Before we place too much weight on information offered in any extrabiblical sources (scholarly or otherwise), we need to consider and determine (if possible) what presuppositions undergird a particular interpreter’s conclusions.7 Thorough and honest investigation does not begin with having one’s mind already made up, then searching for scholarly works that support the pre-drawn conclusion and ignoring all others.

Despite the unavoidability of presuppositions, it is not a foregone conclusion that understanding the Bible is therefore impossible. The so-called “hermeneutical circle” is the idea that an interpreter’s mental baggage shapes the conclusions drawn from biblical texts, which in turn shape the interpreter’s mental baggage, and so on. But this is an unnecessary extreme. A more realistic concept is the “hermeneutical spiral,” i.e., as conscientious exegetes gather more and more information, potential meanings are eventually narrowed down until the inspired author’s original intent is grasped.8

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, obtaining knowledge of the divine will as revealed in scripture is conditional and proactive. The state of one’s mind (spiritual heart) is paramount to understanding God’s word. When certain ones could not comprehend what Jesus was trying to teach (John 8:27), he said to them: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (v. 43, ESV).9 Their biased minds, preconceived misconceptions, and hardened hearts prevented them from understanding the truth (v. 47). No matter how much of God’s word a person is exposed to, if one’s heart is not prayerfully inclined to the truth he or she will never understand it (see Matt. 13:13-15; 2 Thess. 2:10-12).10

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Other interpretive renderings include: “Study … a workman … rightly dividing the word of truth” (KJV); Be diligent … a worker … correctly teaching the word of truth” (CSB); Do your best … a worker … rightly explaining the word of truth” (NRSV).
     2 When Paul penned these directives, “the word of truth” was not limited to the OT and the spoken word. The NT Greek term graphē (“scripture”) applies to something written, and Paul goes on to say that all “scripture” is divinely inspired (3:16). At the time, the writings of Luke were already regarded as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), and within a comparable timeframe so were Paul’s (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
     3 Derived from the Greek noun hermēneía (“interpretation”), via Hermēs (“Hermes”), the messenger of the gods. G. R. Obsborne describes hermeneutics as “a science, since it provides a logical, orderly classification of the laws of interpretation,” but also “an art, for it is an acquired skill demanding both imagination and an ability to apply the ‘laws’ to selected passages or books” (The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.] 21-22). Bernard Ramm says, “It is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of the rules is by skill and not by mechanical imitation” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation [3rd ed.]: 1). Simply put, hermeneutics is “the attempt to understand anything that somebody else has said or written” (I. H. Marshall, “Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 11).
     4 G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.]: 21. G. D. Fee acknowledges the traditional usage of the term but chooses to apply it more narrowly to “contemporary meaning” or “application” of biblical texts (NT Exegesis [3rd ed.]: 1; see also G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 18), for which we are employing the word “exposition.”
     5 Derived from the Greek preposition ek (“from” or “out of”) and the verbal ágō (to “lead” or “bring”). There is considerable overlap between hermeneutics and exegesis, and the boundaries between them are not always clear. Generally hermeneutics (a subset of philosophy) is more theoretical, while exegesis is more practical. Exegesis applies the principles of hermeneutics. Exegesis is mainly focused on interpreting the text, while hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretive process (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.): 25).
     6 From the Latin expositus, meaning to “show forth.” Contextualization would be a practical extension of this methodology.
     7 Obviously we can’t read minds and assign motives, but if an author has made enough of his works available to the public, he often reveals, whether indirectly or explicitly, an underlying agenda.
     8 See G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.] 22-23; D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies [2nd ed.] 126-27; J. S. Duvall and J. D. Hays, Grasping God’s Word [3rd ed.] 137-47.
     9 The Greek akouō (to “hear”) is not limited to the reception of audible sounds; its biblical usage includes listening, understanding, accepting, and heeding.
     10 This can be taken a step further. Jesus also said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17, NASB). In order to know the will of God there must first be a personal willingness or desire (cf. 1 Pet. 2:2; Rev. 22:17). But it is not simply a desire to “know” God’s will – one must also have the willingness to “do” God’s will. Bible study has to be more than a mere academic exercise (see Ezra 7:10; Matt. 7:13-14; 28:20).

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