Why Humility Makes Sense

Last time I wrote about genuine humility in Bible interpretation (click here to go there). We live in a time when there is an increasing pseudo-humility, and a decreasing genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Why does humility make sense?

Increasing Pseudo-Humility – As truth apparently becomes more personalized, people can sound increasingly gracious if that is the tone they choose (there is a militant version of it too, which is also dangerous). The gracious tone and pseudo-humility sound like this: “I can’t tell you what this means to you, but my personal interpretation, for me, is this…” If anyone ponders whether this is a humble approach to the Bible or not, they will end up thinking about the horizontal dimension. That is to say, I don’t insist that my truth must also be your truth. Horizontal.

Decreasing Genuine Humility – But what about the vertical dimension? After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, then humility in interpretation should be evaluated vertically. Beneath the shroud of pseudo-humility lies an incredible arrogance. It says: “I have sufficient knowledge of every relevant subject, and have no worries about being culturally conditioned, so that I can evaluate the content of the Bible and sit in judgment over what it should mean in the realm of ‘my truth.'”

So why does humility make sense? Three quick facts to anchor our hearts as preachers and as readers of the Bible:

1. I am not God. Seems obvious, but in a fallen world, it certainly bears repeating! What I actually know is an infinitesimally small fraction of all there is to know. I am so shaped by my environment and culture, and yet incredibly unaware of how much my values reflect that reality.

2. God is God. He always has been and always will be. He is very good at being God. (Included in this statement of the obvious, but worth stating nonetheless, is that God is a wonderful communicator…why do we think we should sit in judgment on his inspired Scriptures?)

3. God is humble. It is easy to think that God values humility in us because it serves the pride in him. Dictators demand subservience. But the Bible reveals a God to us who is anything but a demanding dictator. His other-centred, self-giving and self-sacrificing nature appreciates humility in the human heart for the right reason. It is not to crush us, it is to lift us up and embrace us. God values humility in us because it resonates with who he is.

Let us be and help others to be humble and gracious. Vertically, we sit under the teaching of God’s Word with humility. Horizontally, we can speak of the meaning of God’s Word with gracious attitudes but also with boldness. This is what our “subjective truth” world desperately needs.

Handling God’s Word With Genuine Humility

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. 

Humble Hermeneutics

So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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!

Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

________________________________________

This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

7 Dangers of Fanciful Interpretations

Fanciful interpretations get great feedback, but they do great damage.  Fanciful interpretations get some people very excited, but those who know their Bibles, or have been to Bible school tend to look glum in the midst of the hysteria. Is this because all who have training are killjoys?  Or is it perhaps because they see through the hype like a parent watching children getting excited about excessive amounts of sugar?

You can usually spot the indications of fanciful interpretation.  One big red flag is when people are saying, “I would never have got that from that passage, wow!”  Or even, “That was so rich, deep, original, (you choose the description)!”

But if people are so obviously blessed and encouraged, what is wrong with it?  Let me offer seven problems with fanciful interpretation:

1. Fanciful interpretation teaches listeners bad Bible study. You may have convinced yourself that that particular reference to a boat has a deeper meaning relating to postmodernism, or that the name of the valley is an anagram of a suburb of Manchester, or whatever.  But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that your clever interpretation doesn’t seem to do any harm and is motivating for the listeners on a spiritual level (perhaps a spiritual theology of David’s brothers’ names, or the significance of a geographical feature for the Christian life).  Surely no harm is done?  It is if the listeners then copy your way of handling Scripture and come up with an application you find objectionable (the cults do this all the time).

2. Fanciful interpretation offers nutritionally empty fare. Perhaps you’ve come across the notion of empty calories?  Something made with highly processed sugar and white flour and unnatural ingredients.  These things tend to taste good (temporarily), but have no nutritional value.  In fact, over time and in excess, they can do great harm to you.  The same is true of overly sweet, overly processed Bible fancies that stir excitement but offer no nutritional value.

3. Fanciful interpretation may cause listeners to give up on their Bibles. After all, if they can’t see how you got there, maybe instead of copying your approach, perhaps they’ll just feel inadequate and give up on their Bibles.  They may look forward to hearing you again (which is the motivation for some speakers), but their Bibles will gain dust in the meantime.

The rest of the list tomorrow . . .

TheologyNetwork.Org Article

A modified form of an article I wrote a while back has now been posted on theologynetwork.org . . . here’s a taste:

True exposition should not be boring, for we would not want to give the impression that God gives of Himself in self-revelation in a way that is boring.  True exposition should not be disconnected from real life, for in the incarnation we see God giving of Himself, His ultimate self-revelation, in the most relevant manner imaginable.  Perhaps if more preachers would truly grasp the need for effective hermeneutics in their sermon preparation, perhaps then we would not have so much occasion to point the finger at others and complain of dumbed-down diet sermonettes abounding in our generation.

But is improved hermeneutics enough?  The article makes a further move that I believe is critical and often overlooked.  To read the article, and then look around at the excellent resources, click here – www.theologynetwork.org

Our Posture Before the Bible

Recently, Tom Lyon wrote an article for The Banner of Truth magazine entitled “Our Posture Before the Word of God.”  As preachers who spend time studying God’s Word, it would be wise to remind ourselves of these principles.  Equally, as preachers who preach to people who also may be spending time in the Bible and may also be tempted to twist its teaching for a personal agenda, it would be wise to convey these attitudes in how we handle Scripture before them.

1.    If I find something with which I cannot agree, I am wrong.

2.    If I find something which I cannot understand, I am wrong to judge it on that account. A quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “You have a very small brain and you have a very poor spirit within you; do not be surprised that you cannot understand.”

3.    If I find something which would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere, I cannot be right.

4.    If I find something which would slander the revealed character of God, I am certainly wrong.

5.    If I find something which brings up an apparent contradiction, I am wrong not to face it squarely.

6.    If I find something which leads to a summary principle, I am wrong if I do not follow it to its conclusion.

7.    If I find something which disturbs my settled convictions, I am wrong to dismiss it on that account.

8.    If I find something which calls for decisive action and I remain inert, I am fatally wrong.

9.    If I find something which I dare not follow in its practical drift, I am destructively wrong.

10.    If I find something which others blush to admit or struggle to avoid, I am unwise to follow them at that point. A quote from Calvin: “The delicacy of those who affect an appearance of greater prudence than the Holy Spirit in removing or resolving difficulties, is quite intolerable.”

11.    If I find something upon which popular religion frowns, I may presume I am on the right track. C.H. Spurgeon quote: “Be assured there is nothing new in theology except that which is false.”

12.    If I find something which would tend to humble man and glorify God, I am most probably right.

I quote the list as it is, perhaps wanting to add an extra qualifier here and there (such as #11 – not everything old is right, of course).  But I’ll leave the list as it is.

Preaching and Affective Hermeneutics

I don’t spend much time going from blog to blog.  However, one blog that I do read and appreciate is A Spreading Goodness by a good friend and major influence on my life – Dr Ron Frost. He kindly asked me to write a guest post for his site which I was delighted to do. It’s a little longer than my typical post on this site, but I hope it’s worth taking the time to read. I won’t re-post it here as I’d like to redirect you to A Spreading Goodness – you might enjoy the earlier content on there and become a regular (I particularly recommend “I’m a Sinner…” posted on December 15th).

So for today’s post, please click here: spreadinggoodness.org

What is Preaching Primarily About?

Just a short teaser of a post today, then a break tomorrow (because you really shouldn’t be reading about preaching on Christmas day!)  I’ve just been writing a longer article for another blog.  I’ll link to it once it is posted there.  But in it I address the real foundation of homiletics. While some may consider the field of homiletics to be all about communication techniques – “mere rhetoric” if you like, this is missing the point.

Preaching is a complex subject with many vital tributaries.  I would suggest that the technical stuff has to be built on a solid foundation of the hermeneutics and the spirituality of the preacher.  There are other critical foundational elements too . . . but the article is already too long!

Have a great Christmas!

Weighing Interpretation Options

Yesterday I made passing reference to the process involved in deciding between options when interpreting some aspect of a passage.  Perhaps you can think of two or three ways to take it, to understand what it means.  Perhaps two commentators differ on the interpretation and offer different sets of evidence for their view.  These kind of decisions face us all the time as we are interpreting the Bible.  So how do we evaluate the accuracy and relative weight of the various evidences used to support possible interpretations of a passage?

I still use an approach I was taught in seminary.  It is not a formula that guarantees results.  It is not something that can be put in a spreadsheet and simply crunch the numbers, but as a guideline it is very helpful.  I will list six categories of evidence.  Evidence that sits in category 1 is generally worth more than evidence in category 3.  On the other hand, multiple evidences in different categories may outweigh single evidence in a “better” category, although not always.  This is a guide, not a hard and fast rule.  Here are the categories from most valuable to least:

1. Syntactical Evidence – support found within the passage’s structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

2. Contextual Evidence – support found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context, section context, book context, same writer context, etc.)

3. Lexical Evidence – support found in specific meaning of words used.  Since meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support stands here in third place.

4. Correlational Evidence – support found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  A different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distance passage that is directly influencing your passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is much more significant and may be considered as category 2 evidence.)

5. Theological Evidence – support found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlation, but with a theological creed or system.

6. Verificational Evidence – support found in “experts” (ie.commentators, etc.)  Simply because a big name agrees is of minimal value.  Much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above, then using the commentary adds much greater value to your study.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context.  Many people seem to lean heavily on distant unrelated, but familiar, passages.  They tend to rely on their system of theology and having an expert or two on side in an interpretive decision.  Much better to have the better evidence to support an interpretation too!

A Life’s Work

As preachers we have the privilege of intensive Bible study. Most believers have the privilege of Bible study, but few have the added pressure of having to communicate it to others. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of simply meeting the next deadline and preparing the next sermon. This way of functioning can easily get us trapped in a “micro” approach to God’s Word. Instead, I’d like to encourage us all to be “macro” students of the Word.

Bible study requires both micro and macro views. My first professor of hermeneutics used to refer to the analysis-synthesis interchange. This speaks of the moving back and forth between analyzing the details and synthesizing the passage as a whole in its larger context. Details, like words, can only be truly understood in their context or setting.

Three things push us toward micro Bible study. The first thing is preaching itself. We tend to need details that “will preach” in order to make the sermon sound biblical and interesting. The second thing is personal preference. Some of us are more micro-inclined, while apparently fewer are more macro-inclined. Third, Bible school training has traditionally given more micro tools and approaches, leaving many students unsure how to pursue “bigger picture” study.

We need to master the Book, book by book. As we study a book in order to preach it (or for personal growth – imagine!), let’s try to be aware of the whole. How does the argument flow throughout, how do the pieces fit together? Keep a document that is all about the big picture of the book. As one writer puts it, “Begin to build up a living understanding of Colossians, or of Genesis, or of Mark’s Gospel – whatever – as a whole. Make it your life’s work, and take your time. Let yourself enjoy it.”

I agree. We can never truly master the Book, but let’s spend our lives trying, book-by-book.