Hermeneutics matters massively for us preachers. It also matters for the people to whom we preach. How we interpret the Bible makes all the difference in every aspect of faith and life.
When hermeneutics is taught, you will typically find some standard elements. There will be a foundation in bibliology – establishing the unique nature of the inspired Word of God. There will usually be a set of general hermeneutical principles – guidelines that work whatever passage we may be studying. Then comes the special hermeneutical principles – guidelines for each specific type of literature or genre.
I want to suggest that we need to include humility in our hermeneutics. I don’t just mean humility that we may be misinterpreting a passage – although that is always helpful. I mean humility as a foundational attitude.
Humility or Hubris?
We live in an age when many believe it is not right to claim any definitive interpretation of a text. Most people in our increasingly subjective age dismiss the idea of authorially intended meaning that retains any authority.
Many will see this subjectivity as a source of genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Bombastic declarations of a definitive biblical interpretation have always been the antithesis of humility, have they not?
The logic of this position seems to make sense. After all, people will say, there are many interpretations out there in the wider church world. Furthermore, nobody has the right to claim to be right in their interpretation and thereby critically evaluate the interpretation of others. And so, the logic goes, we are free to make of each text what we think best in our context.
Many people will feel this approach is the epitome of humility. In reality, the tone may feel humble, but the core posture here is hubris, not humility.
Any Fixed Points?
Let’s be simplistic and imagine two marks in a diagram. One represents the Bible. The other represents you or me.
The Bible is a fixed point. I know the Word of God is active, but hear me out. The biblical text is an objective and fixed point. God inspired the Scriptures so that every word in the original manuscript of each document is precisely what he wanted it to be. We may release new translations, but the original text does not move. And it still has absolute authority.
We are not fixed points. When I come to the Bible, I bring all sorts of assumptions. My culture, my place in time, my worldview, my experiences, etc., will all influence how I understand the biblical text as I read it.
Human nature, and the tendency of our time, is to subject the Biblical text to my subjective evaluation. So the Bible becomes “unfixed” while I sit fixed in my position as the evaluator. Chronological arrogance creeps in. I start to evaluate what the text should mean in light of my great cultural insights. Rather than acknowledging my arrogance, I can avoid the problem of sounding proud if I simply declare my interpretation to be personal to me. Then I won’t tread on any toes by declaring it to be the truth for anyone else.
The reality is that the Bible is not subject to us; we are subject to it. We are the moveable ones in the diagram. Swayed by every wind of fashionable thinking, we don’t know as much as we might think we do. So wherever we live in the world, or whenever we live in history, we are subject to evaluation by the Bible. The Word of God comes against our assumptions. It speaks against the spirit of the age. It opposes the arrogance of our minuscule knowledge.
On a horizontal level, our tone toward others may be humble. But vertically, our subjective approach to God’s Word is the height of arrogance.
So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?
- Let us be humbly thankful for God’s Word. What a privilege we have to read, in our language, an accurate translation of the Bible. What an honour it is to have this gift from outside of our world. What a blessing to be able to read God’s self-revelation – we would be grasping in the dark without it. What an encouragement it is to have God shepherd us through His Word. He knows what we need and works in our specific circumstances, by His Spirit, and through His Word.
- Let us be humbly responsive to God’s Word. Instead of arrogantly evaluating the Bible against what I think I know to be true, let’s humble ourselves. Humbly respond to God’s Word as He challenges your thinking, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and every possible aspect of your life.
- Let us be humbly confident interpreting God’s Word. As we carefully apply a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, we can confidently assert the meaning of the text. Always humbly recognizing that we could be wrong, or there could be a better way to state it, we can speak the Word of God as God’s Word. This does not mean our tone should become bombastic or unloving. But let’s not settle for the pseudo-humility of subjectivity in our Bible reading.
We need a humble hermeneutical approach to the Bible as we prepare to preach. Our hearers need to learn that same posture and approach. We live in an era of subjective pseudo-humility. Let’s pray that God will raise up generations with a genuine humility in handling God’s Word and a courageous willingness to respond to it and proclaim it!