The Problem with Interpretive (Hermeneutic) Frameworks
No Direct Bible Support
When the Christian “thinks through” the concept of truth, there is exactly one way to safely, legitimately proceed, and that way is straightforward and based on the answer to this very simple question:
“What does the Bible teach?”
No doubt that some of my readers will maintain at this point: “That is precisely why we need principles of interpretation! Without such a framework we can’t know for certain what the Bible teaches!”
If this is your reaction, then you have the matter entirely backward.
If you dare to presume that you must first define your “principles of interpretation” before approaching the Scripture, then the inescapable, unconditional result will be that you’ll never understand the Scripture “with certainty”.
Why? The answer is simple: you can never be sure that you’ve applied the “correct” hermeneutic because you applied an authority—your own or someone else’s—in place of and above the Scriptures!
You didn’t begin with the Scriptures! And, you certainly won't end up with only the Scriptures!
You began with presumed human wisdom. If you think about this for even a few seconds you’ll see that this assertion must be true; it literally can’t be otherwise! As long as you believe that you must apply an interpretive framework, you’ll NEVER understand the Bible.
[Certainly one hermeneutic of the OT Jews was that the Word of God as recorded in the Tanakh wasn’t enough; they thought that they must impose additional traditions.
During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic church thought that it must "protect the masses" from the direct, unfiltered Word of God and therefore conducted their religious deception behind the veil of Latin. Their hermeneutic was simple: only the religious elite of the Roman church were able to understand (the uneducated masses simply could not!), so they must interpret all “bible” truth (lower case ‘b’ intended!) to those same uneducated masses. They also, of course, added an interpretation of a ‘works-salvation” to anything in the Word that taught the free grace of God to save sinners.
Today, we have Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology, Postmillennial and Amillennial Eschatology, and scores of other eschatological frameworks, etc., along with scores of other hermeneutics.
We even have so-called “Bible translations” edited according to a variety of hermeneutics. Check sites like www.christianbook.com to find “translations” such as (please forgive the obvious sarcasm to follow):
- “Study” bibles: you don’t even have to know which hermeneutic is applied to the notes! Read the commentator’s notes and you’ll automatically know everything needed with “no muss, no fuss", no personal study, and certainly no work on your part.
- MacArthur Study Bible: contains 20,000 man-inspired notes spanning 35 years of study! And here I was naive enough to believe that the Holy Spirit’s job was to teach us the Scripture (such ideas are so passé!). Instead, let’s present the intellectually pre-digested thought from a man, package it with a well-known Bible translation but nonetheless call it a Bible! This is yet another way to show contempt to the LORD and His word.
- “The Woman’s Study Bible”: I guess that the Bible needed by women is different than the one needed for men.
- “Action Study Bible”: “… you'll read the most amazing true stories and see God's Word come to life in incredible detail with dramatic illustrations from comic book artist …”. What!?!? We need a comic book artist to make the Lord’s Word “come to life”? Really!?!?
- “Vines Expository Bible”: just what I need, a man’s notes in my Bible.
- “Life Application Study Bible”: I guess the masses can’t figure this out on their own because the Holy Spirit has failed at His job.
- “Student Study Bible”: Dear student, let me do your thinking upon and within the Scripture for you, since you’re clearly not able to read with any intrinsic understanding—in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit promised to teach you (and didn’t make any distinction regarding culture, background, age or gender).
- “Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible”: doesn’t the Word of God already span all times and cultures?
- “Amplified Bible”: just what we need: EVERY WORD IS IN BOLD CAPS—just the way it was written!
- “New Testament with Psalms”: sure, remove nearly 75% of the Word of God but call it a Bible nevertheless. Besides, who needs all that Old Testament stuff anyway?
- “Dramatized” audio Bibles: now you can have the actors’ verbal interpretation applied to your Bible; the Bible is sooooooo… dull otherwise. What a great plan!
- “The Story Bible”: the “Reader’s Digest” version in 31 short chapters! The Bible was really too long and boring to begin with so we've conveniently shortened it for you.
- “The Evangelism Bible”: since the LORD can’t seem to manage to present the gospel directly in His Word, this translation adds notes to ensure the lost can understand the message of the gospel.
There are many, many others, but I think that this makes my point. The abundance of “translations” and formats are nothing more or less than pre-packaged hermeneutics bound together in a so-called Bible. Make no mistake: this explosion of “translations” is merely another way to sell “bibles” (again, lower-case ‘b’ intended) for profit; this is a business model with virtually no evident desire to protect the efficacy, sufficiency and authority of the Scripture!]
If you stop and think about it for even a moment you’ll realize that this must be the case. Who is to say which set of hermeneutic principles is the “right one”? The reason that scores of so-called “biblical hermeneutics” exist is because so-called Christians
- don’t have the wisdom to realize that they’re already in the “theological weeds” by assuming that hermeneutics are valid in the first place, and
- they can’t agree on which of a multitude of self-destructive paths to take!
[In this respect they emulate political parties.]
This result shouldn’t, won't and can’t be surprising: attempt to apply a man-defined set of rules to the Scripture and you get nothing but confusion, contradiction, division and destruction. It is the perfect storm to dilute the Scriptures and show active contempt to the LORD and His Word.
The scene is played out throughout history and in pretty much every place “Christians” are found: scores of divided groups of Christians, each pushing their own principles of interpretation and typically aligned along denominational boundaries—or, conversely, priding themselves on their “independence” from denominations!
How could there be any real obedience to the following commands in this naturally corrosive and destructive atmosphere:
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Cor 13.11
Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.
1 Pet 3.8-9
To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.
In a word, the acceptance of the principle that "hermeneutics is needed" is itself divisive! It works to destroy the Scripture, not protect it!
The fundamental error is that this thinking starts with something that is not Scripture, yet nonetheless is over the authority of the Scripture. It can never result with anything that is truly Scripture: by definition, it is a human interpretation devoid of the Holy Spirit and shows active contempt to the work of that same Holy Spirit!
It is yet another of the myriad ways that humanism seeks to usurp the authority and sufficiency of the Bible while claiming to protect it.
It is a brilliant ploy by Apollyon.
I hope that you are beginning to realize that by imposing a system of “interpretive principles” upon the Scripture you must move away from the Scripture rather than toward it. The result is that you can never say:
“Thus says the Lord …”
The best you could say is:
“Thus says the Lord—if the interpretive principles I’ve applied to His Word are valid.”
But, what would typically be said is:
“Thus says the Lord—but, we really can’t know for sure, can we?”
Seeking understanding of the Lord’s word through the filter of a man-inspired set of interpretive principles is a fool’s errand. And, yes, this must apply to the well-known Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology; the Pre-Trib, Mid-Trib, Post-Trib, Pre-Mil, Post-Mil and A-Mil eschatologies; as well as to (a likely very large number of) other interpretive “systems”.
[I’m pretty sure that some of my readers will object to my sweeping criticism of those very well-known “Bible” frameworks. Their retort is probably something like:
“Then, Dave, you maintain that each of these frameworks is primarily error, that there is nothing in them that is useful to help us understand the Bible?”
I maintain that these “frameworks” are based upon a foundational premise that is fundamentally flawed, namely that it is necessary to establish an interpretive framework before one can truly understand the Scripture.
They may—or, more likely may not—actually express valid Bible truth; but that doesn't change the condemning fact that these types of frameworks are logically placed above the Scripture..]
[I recently visited a Sunday School class in a nearby supposedly conservative, evangelical church. Rather than studying the Bible in the class that day, the teacher led a discussion from a book by Jay Adams. (I don’t remember which one.) When I asked the teacher after the class regarding the reason he taught from Jay Adams instead of the Word, he became flustered and floundered around with some of the silliest reasoning I had ever heard. The scope of the discussion soon widened to include the “Pastor” of the church; at that point the teacher left and I was left speaking with the “Pastor” alone.
When I maintained to the “Pastor” that Jay Adams has no intrinsic authority and therefore should not be the subject studied in place of the Word, that authority must derive from “Scripture alone”, the “Pastor” objected with the comment (this is a very close quote!):
“We believe that to refer only to the Scripture as sole authority would be error. We must defer to the writings of the church fathers and those who’ve gone before, our established leaders, and continue to follow what we have accepted as our traditional set of doctrines.”
I then said, “You sound like a Catholic.” The discussion pretty much went downhill from there…]
But, let’s “cut to the chase”: we need to establish the fact that the Bible itself provides no support for the notion of hermeneutics. Therefore, at this point in this series, it is appropriate to show that the Lord presents His word alone as sufficient and authoritative:
You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
How did the Lord Christ “interpret” this powerful truth?
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
He didn’t “interpret” at all: He simply believed and obeyed it, and thereby derived from that belief and obedience the strength that He needed to resist the temptation to sin! He acted in a manner consistent with a firm belief that the LORD meant what He said and therefore the LORD would strengthen Him to resist the very powerful temptation by the devil—because by the LORD’s word man lives!
Consider another very powerful NT text:
2 Tim 3.16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
We must answer two questions:
- Is there any part of Scripture which is not “profitable …”? No!
- Would the study of the Scripture alone be sufficient for the Christian to fully grow and mature in Christ? Yes!
There is an important detail which I need to point out about this verse, namely, what is meant by “adequate” and “equipped” in verse 17:
so that the man of God may be adequate (adj.), equipped (verb) for every good work.
ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.
The adjective, ἄρτιος ("adequate"), occurs only here. The related verb, ἐξαρτίζω ("equipped"), occurs only twice in the NT; the other occurrence is in Acts, part of the record of the Apostle Paul at the end of his third missionary journey on his trip back to Jerusalem. Paul and his companions landed in Tyre and stayed 7 days:
When our days there were ended (ἐξαρτίζω) …
The context in this passage is that the time for the visit with Christians in Tyre ran to its conclusion; it was fully complete and it was now time to move on.
Both the adjective and the verb come from the same root, ἄρτι. The well-known theological dictionary, Kittel, provides some important insight into these rich words:
Vol 1, ppg 475-476
In the LXX ἄρτιος is found only as an adv. of time meaning “until now” (2 Bas. 15.34). Elsewhere it means a. “suitable” or “adapted” for something; b. “right,”, “faultless,” “normal,” “meeting demands,” posed to the subst. regens: τοῖς σώμασιν Diod. S. III, 33, 6; of movements of thought, Theogn., 946; in the ethical sense, Theogn., 154; more religiously, Philo Det. Pot. Ins., 7 (ἄρτιον … ἀγαθόν); c. “eveness” in mathematics; ἄρτιον and περιττον are for the Pythagoreans partly στοιχεῖα of the basic principle of numbers, and partly one of the ten basic principles (Diels, I, 347, B5).
At 2 Tm. 3:17 ἄρτιος is used in sense b. to denote what is right or proper, and more particularly what is becoming to a Christian, obviously with a moral accent, as shown by what follows.
At 2 Tm 3:17 ἐξαρτίζω means to bring to a suitable state for Christian moral action. It is used in Ac. 21:5 in the secular sense of “to end as prescribed.”
The NASB translation is a bit surprising; “adequate” is not a strong enough term for the translation here. A very common connotation of “adequate” in typical English, within the context of 2 Tim 3, is “equipped enough to get by”. As shown above in Kittel, the adjective and verb are much richer terms: the man of God is not only “adequate” for his responsibilities, the ἄρτιος man abounds in every way.
He is “fully complete”, right and morally mature.
But, back to the main point: it is the work of the Word of God through the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about this maturity in the faithful Christian. Nothing else can accomplish that.
[Let’s assume the following very-contrived scenario:
A person is stranded alone on an island, completely cut off from the outside world, and he will remain on that island for the remainder of his natural life. By equally incredible circumstances, he has all the water and food he needs to safely and comfortably live out his life on that island within the natural shelter and resources that it provides.
We also assume that our survivor is spiritually lost; that is, he does not know the Lord Christ as LORD. But, he has a Bible and for the sake of this contrived story, we assume that it is a reliable translation. He has no other written material or any device. In every human way he is completely alone.
So, let’s ask a few questions:
- Can our survivor be truly saved?
- Can our survivor, after being saved, grow to maturity as a Christian, only from the use of the Bible he has?
- Can our (now) Christian survivor also develop sound, biblical theology, eschatology, anthropology, harmatology, Christology, pneumatology and so on, also using only the Bible he has?
The answer to each of these questions is an unqualified “YES!”. This is precisely what the Holy Spirit meant when He said, through the Apostle,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”]
What the Apostle stated is simple: the Bible is all that we need for our lives as Christians.
Did you also notice that there is no corresponding “interpretive formulae” placed alongside these powerful references, something like:
“… that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. But, beware: you must apply the correct set of ‘interpretive principles’ so that you don’t wander into something I didn’t intend. But, oh, by the way, you’ll need to figure out those principles on your own because I—the LORD—will not tell you what they are.”
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. Now, here is how I want you to interpret My Word: principle 1 is …; principle 2 is …; …”
You see, those who maintain the necessity of developing and applying a set of “interpretive principles” actually impugn the Almighty, since it must be that when the LORD gave us His word without a corresponding set of unambiguous rules to apply when “interpreting” His Word that He acted stunningly irresponsibly and must therefore be culpable for the theological mess that exists in the so-called church!
You see, man has from the beginning consistently added to, removed from, diluted, twisted, perverted, doubted, distorted or simply ignored the Word of God; to the natural man, the Word of God is always unsuitable in some way—and usually in many ways.
For those who pretend to believe it, the Bible must always be interpreted—because, after all, the LORD did not write the Bible as a Systematic Theology. In their minds, that was a huge strategic error for any “God” who actually intended His Word to be believed and obeyed without confusion. Therefore, in this twisted thinking, we must apply a set of “interpretive principles” to get out of this divinely-created mess!
As beings created by the LORD, we must submit to His wisdom; namely, He declared in Deu 8 and 2 Tim 3 that His word is everything we need to grow and mature as Christians: therefore, the Bible—without human “principles of interpretation”—is all we need and will ever need!
End of story!
The only “hermeneutic” (and I oppose calling it that because it tacitly implies that hermeneutics are valid!) we observe within the pages of the Bible, as will be shown in the next chapter in this series, is this: the LORD said what He meant, meant what He said and expects that Word to be believed and obeyed as written!
Anything either more or less is error; it is carelessness and distortion.
I dare any of my readers to show me—in context from the pages of the Bible—anything even approaching the notion of modern hermeneutics.
It isn’t there!
When the prophets of old proclaimed “Thus says the LORD, …” they rendered a direct quote. The people who heard the declaration were expected to receive it as the Word of the LORD and implicitly believe and obey it. And, just as importantly, the LORD held them accountable for just that reason—as He will also for us, especially because we have the privilege of the completed and closed canon of Scripture!
And, not to put too fine a point on it, if the LORD demanded obedience to His Word—and He did!—then it is unconditionally true that His Word is understandable as delivered!
[Sometimes the LORD supplies truth in a form designed to obfuscate that truth. The classic example of this is found here in the well-known parable of the sower/soils:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.’
The Lord Christ presented truth to the obstinate and disobedient Jews of His day in a form designed to hide the truth from them. It was the just judgment foretold centuries before by the prophet Isaiah. (Isa 6.9-10)
That is, the truth thus given was designed to condemn, not illumine.]