Hermeneutics Pt. II – Interpretation

11 May

Last week, we looked at the first step in good hermeneutics, observation. Observation is very simply just taking one’s time to see what the passage in question actually says. We have to resist the tendency to begin assigning meaning to things yet, but simply write down what we actually see in the Scripture.

Our example passage was Genesis 2:18-22. We ended up with a simple bullet list like this:

  • God said it was not good that man should be alone.
  • God said He would make the man a helper comparable to him.
  • God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would call them.
  • Adam named every living creature.
  • There was no helper comparable to Adam found among the animals.
  • God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep.
  • God took a rib from Adam’s side and closed up the wound.
  • God took the rib He had taken, and made it into a woman.
  • God brought the woman to the man.

Ideally, this first step of observation should include a lot more of the biblical context, but for the sake of space on this blog, we’re taking on just a few verses at a time.

Now it’s time to start asking the question, what does this mean?

To start off with, let’s look at God’s statement that it was not good for man to be alone. Why was it not good? I mean, Adam had all the animals. He had a whole big garden to work in. He seems to have had pretty amazing communication with the Lord. What does it mean that it was not good for him to be alone?

At this point, the temptation can be to interpose either our own opinion, or else one we’ve always heard taught and affirmed. So we begin to think things like, “Well, Adam would have gotten lonely.” “Adam had no means of procreation.” “Adam was incomplete by himself.” etc.

But if we start postulating those kind of statements, how do we know which one, if any, is right? We don’t. All we have is my opinion vs. your opinion vs. that other guy’s opinion, and no better way to substantiate our point than to say, “Um, well, it makes sense to me…”

That’s a remarkably bad way to form doctrine, especially considering how unlikely it is for any of us to be inherently and automatically right about anything.

Instead, the primary way we arrive at a safe interpretation is to look for it in the Word itself. To borrow the preacher phrase, we must “let Scripture interpret Scripture.”

To do this, we must first agree at the outset that the Bible is the Word of God, divinely inspired; it is truth, and does not contradict itself. If that is all true, then we can expect to find a consistent witness about a given issue across Scripture. Since there is a consistent witness, then we can begin looking at other places in the Bible that help explain the same subject, and give us further insight into what is being said.

There are several layers in the Word where we can look for biblical agreement and further interpretation. I’ve listed them below in order of priority (which I will explain more at the end):

Agreement and explanation within the immediate context. So what does it mean that it’s not good for man to be alone? To find that out, the first place we look is in the surrounding context. Reading back, we find out in Genesis 1:26 that God made man in “Our own image,” which tells us that even the Uncreated God does not exist as a single, solitary Person. In 1:27, we see that God made  mankind male and female. So it seems like God never intended humanity to exist with just one person of one gender. In 2:8-15, we see that God set man up with some pretty sweet digs, so it was not like man was living destitute and bereaved on a desert island somewhere. Reading forward, we see in 2:18 that God wanted to make Adam “a helper comparable to him”, which tells us about the way God intended to remedy Adam’s alone-ness. We see in verses 19-20 that nothing in the animal kingdom could be a helper comparable to Adam, so that tells us even more about what kind of remedy God had in mind. Verses 21-23 say that this helper was of Adam’s very flesh and bones, out of the same material as him, taken from his side. This also tells us something about this helper, and by extension, the prior alone-ness. Verse 24 shows the link between this creation and marriage, which tells us something about that prior alone-ness (as well as about marriage!). Verse 25 tells us something about the openness, harmony, and fellowship in this relationship, which again tells us something about why that alone-ness wasn’t good.

Agreement and explanation within the book itself. For instance, to use a hokey example with our phrase “It is not good for man to be alone,” we are not going to find a place in Genesis where God says “It is preferable for man to be alone.” This also helps us interpret those places where we think we see an inconsistency in the Word — within the Word of God, we will not see a glaring inconsistency within a singular book. Only a careless, uninspired author would suddenly reverse their own principles. To use an example: when we see Paul tell women how to publicly prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11, we can then deduce that in 1 Corinthians 14, he isn’t suddenly changing his mind and demanding that they don’t speak at all, ever.

Because Genesis is written as more of a history book than a personal letter, it does not do a lot of overt explaining within itself. However, this principle comes greatly into play in a lot of the New Testament epistles where, if an author sets forth a principle, he is very likely to spend a bit of time somewhere in the book elaborating on what he means. This is also a good principle to keep in mind for very large books, such as Isaiah.

Agreement and explanation within multiple works by the same author. It is generally agreed upon that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (known as the Pentateuch — Genesis through Deuteronomy). So if we find insights about community, and especially about marriage, in those first five books, we can be confident that these all agree with the principle of Genesis 2:18. It is valid to bring those ideas into our study for comparison, to see if they’re talking about the same thing, and if so, how they reflect upon each other and help us understand the concepts better.

We must remember that, although every book of the Bible is fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were still written through individual human beings who had unique styles, voices, and main points. Their personalities and passions come forth through their writings, so we can look for lots of overlap in different things that they’ve written. For instance, you’ll find a lot of amazing stuff about Jesus’ heart for the poor and outcast in Luke and Acts. You’ll find a lot of  exhortations about love in John’s Gospel and his Epistles. A singular voice can produce very clearly related bodies of work.

Agreement and explanation across the whole Word of God. Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:16), we know that all Scripture is true. And if all Scripture is true, no Scripture will contradict itself. Even though it is written at different times, by different authors, with different purposes, it is all inspired by the same Holy Spirit. He has given His approval to all that is written in it.

So when we see Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone,” we can look to other places that might help tell us why this is. Looking at the general idea of fellowship and community among humans, Hebrews 10:25 says that we shouldn’t forsake assembling together, that we might exhort one another — so we see that in the context of community, people can exhort one another to righteousness. Ephesians 3:18 talks about receiving revelation of God’s love “together with all the saints”. Proverbs 18:1 says that someone who isolates himself is seeking his own desire and raging against wise judgment. Psalm 68:6 says that God sets the solitary in families, which tells us a lot about God’s heart for people not to be completely alone. It seems that God is really into this community thing.

Looking at marriage more specifically, Proverbs 18:22 tells us that “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord,” so we can see that marriage is good, and God’s favor is on it. The kicker for me is in Ephesians 5, where Paul, talking about marriage, says, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32).

If earthly, human marriage is a picture, or image, of our heavenly Bridegroom — that sounds like it agrees with Genesis 1:26, our being made in God’s image.  So could this have something to do with why it was not good for Adam to be alone?

Hmm… we might be getting somewhere. But it’s not because we sat there and wondered what we think about the concept, but because we’ve done some digging in the Word to see if God, through His Word, says something that tells us more about it.

Good commentaries seek to do this, as well. As we read them, we should be able to follow with the author to see how he/she arrived at his/her conclusions. It’s good, and truly quite important, to be teachable and to gladly receive sound instruction from godly men and women of the faith. But the interpretation still needs to stand up to the overall witness of Scripture, as seen above.

So primarily, interpretation is taking our observations and holding them up to to the rest of the Bible to see what Scripture has to say about itself. We want to strive to throw out our preconceived notions and agendas, and simply look for what God has to say about the concept(s) we’re studying. We want to let His Word inform our theology and shape our mindset.

The reason the above points are listed in order of priority is not because Scriptures are less likely to agree with each other the further apart they are. The reason is simply because the more immediate the context, the more direct of a comment we can expect to see on the verse we’re studying.

For instance, Genesis 2:24 talks about a husband and wife becoming “one flesh.” If we want to find out what that means, we should not start by cross-referencing the word “flesh” like crazy, finding a verse by Paul that tells us “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8), and concluding that marriage is not pleasing to God. This is an obvious logical fallacy, but let’s break down some of the specific reasons why this doesn’t work:

  • Moses wrote in Hebrew, Paul wrote in Koine Greek. They literally were not speaking the same language, and so there may be different connotations to similar-sounding English terms.
  • Moses and Paul were writing different genres. Genesis is a book of origins/history (technically part of “the Law”); Romans is a letter of teaching.
  • Moses and Paul were writing at vastly different times, and to a vastly different immediate audience. This does not mean that either one is more or less right, or more or less relevant, but it does mean that we should not read them like they were writing abstractly to nobody in particular, as if they were just spouting theological truths because it would be in the Bible someday. Part of how we figure out what they mean is by trying to see how their original intended audience would have understood their writings (commentaries are often very useful tools in this process).
  • Moses and Paul were writing with different purposes. Moses was recording the creation narrative, and Paul was telling the Roman church not to live in sin. This actually takes us back to the first priority of interpretation: letting the immediate context inform our understanding of the concept.

So when we start with the immediate context of Genesis 2:24, we see that Adam and Eve started as one flesh (literally–Eve was taken out of Adam’s side). The marriage unity, then, has to do with a very intimate unity of two people. The “flesh” talks about physical bodies, not an unrenewed nature. Because we gave priority to interpreting it in its immediate context, we can then discover Paul talking about “the flesh” and realize that it’s a different concept entirely, not bearing immediate significance upon our specific point of study.

Additionally, sometimes the immediate context is all it takes to make abundantly clear what the specific verse means. For instance, Mark 10:1 says, “Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan.” Before we run off to find out what “arose” means, what “Judea” means, or the prophetic significance of “the Jordan”, we take a quick look at what we’re actually reading. This is Mark, so it’s telling the story of Jesus’ life — it’s a literal, narrative genre. We only have to read back as far as 9:33 to see that Jesus had been in Capernaum. He did some teaching there, and in 10:1, He got up and went somewhere else, and it really is as simple as that.

I realize I’ve let this post end up pretty long — again (thanks for bearing with me!) — so I want to wrap it up with one final point: What interpretation isn’t.

Interpretation is not, in and of itself, the inspired Word of God. Most especially so when it is of a controversial topic, such as, say, women in ministry. Now it’s true that there are lots and lots of scriptural interpretations that are universally agreed upon in, and very important to, orthodox Christianity. These are things such as the nature of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.

However, there are also a number of things that are not universally agreed upon in Christianity, and are not foundational to our salvation. Of course, all sincere believers are going to be genuinely pursuing a right understanding of these. Just as obviously, we are going to be quite convinced that we have arrived at a right understanding of the interpretation (because who would knowingly believe a fallacy?). It’s fine to have zeal about our viewpoint, to disagree with other believers, and even to see it as a serious error if they are in the wrong. But what we can’t do is look at someone who respects the Word, but disagrees with our interpretation, and say, “You are disagreeing with the inspired Word of God!!

For example, to keep with our Genesis 2:18 example, if I were to say, “I actually think it was good that man was alone,” I’m in big theological trouble, because I am dismissing the explicit claims of the Bible. But if I say, “I don’t think Adam was lonely”, then I am not questioning the text itself, but rather a common interpretation of it. I may be right (believing truth), or I may be entirely off in left field (theological error), but I am not throwing out the Bible (full-on heresy).

This is so, so important when we are handling sensitive and controversial issues like women in ministry. We have got to maintain a clear distinction between what is actually in the Bible (observation) versus what we think it means (interpretation). When someone rejects explicit Scripture — even if it’s a difficult and seemingly obscure verse — then we can, and should, recognize that and call it out. But when someone disagrees with our interpretation of that difficult Scripture — no matter how well-founded we believe our own interpretation to be — it is not doing anyone any favors to accuse them of rejecting the Bible itself.

The Bible cannot be altered. Our interpretation can, and it may need to be, from time to time. The Bible cannot be wrong in its assertions. Our interpretation can be. We cannot question the Bible’s authority, even on troublesome topics. We may safely question a troublesome interpretation, as long as we continue to let the Word stand over us and shape us — truth can survive the scrutiny, and error needs to be exposed and corrected.

So first, we observe. Next, we let Scripture interpret Scripture and shape our idea of what we believe about what we have observed. Soon to come, we’ll look at how we take those truths personally – Hermeneutics pt. III: Application.


Posted by on May 11, 2010 in Bible, Theology, Women in Ministry


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6 responses to “Hermeneutics Pt. II – Interpretation

  1. brianbeattie

    May 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for posting this. It makes great sense, and I’m learning from you stuff I’ve never really spent any time thinking through. You rock!

  2. Deborah

    May 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Good foundation-setting!

  3. territippins

    May 13, 2010 at 10:39 am

    This was written by Christiane Carlson-Thies. This is a portion from “Hermeneutics in Pink and Blue.”

    The bedrock of human identity, the source of all human authority, and evidence of God’s intentions for human life on planet Earth are found in Geneis 1:27-28, which declares,

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (NIV)

    In Genesis 1, God unambiguously blesses both the male and the female with the common identity and a common calling: to represent him as his image-bearers. However, in the course of history, Genesis 1 has come to retain very little of that image-bearing identity and task for women.

    Traditionalists typically begin chipping away at a woman’s Genesis 1 identity in their interpretation of Genesis 2. By their reasoning, while we may entirely understand a male’s identity and calling from Genesis 1, we only begin to discover a woman’s identity and calling once we have further evidence in Genesis 2.

    According to John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 96) humans uniquely find thier “identity upward in God andnot downward in the animals”. But in developing their argument that male rulership over the female is rooted in Creation they draw the following from the fact that God first brought all the animals to Adam before creating the woman in Genesis 2: “Yet in passing through ‘helpful’ animals to woman, God teaches us that the woman is a man’s ‘helper’ in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden” (Recovering,87).

    Despite the fact that the word for helper, Ezer, is most often used in the Bible to describe God as our helper (and never used to describe animals as our helpers), when Piper and Grudem read Genesis 2 and find the word ‘helper’ applied to the woman, they toss out the sweeping human identity statement of Genesis 1 where woman, just like man, fully bears God’s image and is fully called to fruitfulness and rulership. Instead, they banish woman from the man’s side and place her alongside the animals. She loses her place among the rulers and must join the ruled. They create two distinct readings of what it means to be an image-bearer: one image-bearer, the male, has authority under God, and one image-bearer, the female, is –just like the animals–under the authority of the male image-bearer.

    If Piper and Grudem and other traditionalists used a consistant hermeneutic they would be compelled to take seriously not only the new information provided in Genesis 2 about the woman, but also the new information provided about the man: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (NIV) Thus, even as they have adjusted the woman’s identity to fit this revelation of his inadequacy as the “not-good-one,” indeed, as the ‘help-less” one.

    They aren’t however, consistant. And this illustrates that a fundamental error of traditional interpretation is to transform texts that mention women into texts that define women. Or, more accurately, as texts that redefine women as creatures under authority rather than image-bearers who have authority alongside the man.

  4. Don

    June 3, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I like what you said so far, but I think you could go farther. Discuss the whole Gen 2 pericope, why start in v.18, as that is starting in the middle, as it were. Then you see there was a problem, which God solved and which created another problem, which God solved.

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 5, 2010 at 5:36 am

      Hi Don,

      The reason I’m not going into more detail on Genesis 2 is because that’s not actually the point of this post. My goal was to illustrate methods of biblical interpretation, not to develop a thorough exegesis of Genesis 2. I tried to emphasize at the beginning of this post that ideally, one should work with a much broader context than I have here. But for the sake of brevity, I used only a small snatch of the passage that would be easy to put through the paces of the interpretive process.



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