Holy Love: The Hermeneutic

​Chapter two of the book opens the door to many things which call for our attention.  I will devote multiple posts to this chapter.  This one deals with hermeneutics—that is, the necessity and means for interpreting Scripture.

Everyone reads the Bible interpretively.  There is no such thing as a purely objective reading of it. We all bring things to the reading of Scripture which effect how we read it, and having read it, we take things away which will influence how we read it in the future.

Furthermore, there is no single interpretation of Scripture that is “the true one” in contrast to other ways of interpreting it.  Any group that would have you believe “our interpretation of the Bible is the correct one” is simply not telling you the truth.  The diversity of interpretations across the centuries renders that claim bogus.  No interpretation is perfect, and that is one reason why bonafide biblical scholars seek to learn from and contribute to other points of view.

The aim of biblical interpretation must be to develop a view that is credible and plausible.  Hermeneutics does not seek a right/wrong outcome; it seeks to bring together interpretive principles that make a particular interpretation worthy of our attention.  Hermeneutics says, “You need to pay attention to this, and here’s why.”

In the Wesleyan tradition the ingredients we use to interpret the Bible are fourfold: Scripture itself (the text), tradition (learnings from history), reason (thoughtful reading informed by other disciplines), and experience (engagement with the text through application of it in life).  We believe these interpretive lenses enable us to see the revelation and respond to it faithfully.

In the book I not only make use of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in developing a theology for human sexuality, I also employ an interpretive method called inductive Bible study.  In the Church today there is a great need to teach inductive methodology, so that Christians can responsibly engage Scripture for themselves rather than taking someone else’s word for it. [1]  In fact, with respect to a theology of human sexuality, one of the problems we face today is that too many Christians have become passive with respect to it.  They do not study it for themselves, and as a result are vulnerable to falling prey to misunderstanding.

Sadly, church history shows that Christianity has been weakest when the laity became passive in their study of the Bible.  In that vacuum there have always been teachers who said in effect, “I will tell you what the Bible says; you only need to accept and parrot what I tell you.”  This is in direct opposition to the instruction of Jesus, who told people, “Go and learn what this means” (Matthew 9:13) and commended the process of asking, seeking, and knocking (Matthew 7:7) as the means to discovery.  The Church is always at its best when it eschews “gurus” and discovers the will of God through firsthand exploration.  Hermeneutics invites the active study of the Bible by everyone.

A key factor in this is determining the larger message before we look at the parts. Biblical interpretation begins with context before turning to the text.  This is true for individual books in Scripture, and it is true for the Bible as-a-whole.  Applying this to a theology of human sexuality, I discovered that many of the books written on the subject do not do this.  Many books extract six to eight passages from the Old and New Teatament and then attempt to “work their way up” to a message.  But this approach goes in reverse of how the best biblical interpretation operates.  Hermeneutics begins with the widest point, with the panorama, and uses it to “work its way down” into selected passages.

In the next post, I will describe what I believe to be the widest context for interpreting what the Bible says about human sexuality.  Today, I only want to reveal the fact that we all read the Bible interpretively, and we inevitably do not all read it the same way.  If we admit this, we will find ourselves in a conversational mode rather than a competitive mode.  Hermeneutics calls for humility  as we read the Bible—a humility that makes us pilgrims who want to make progress in holiness.  Hermeneutics places us in a learning mode, and being a learner is a core meaning of what it means to be a disciple.  Hermeneutics creates a receptive mode, not a resistant one.  Hermeneutics builds bridges, not walls.

When it comes to developing a biblical theology for human sexuality, hermeneutics is a way forward—a way that takes what we know and interfaces it with what we do not yet know, so that the written Word will become a living Word in us and through us.

So……

(1) Are you open to exploring interpretations of Scripture concerning human sexuality other than the one you currently hold?

(2) Are you willing to bring tradition, reason, and experience alongside Scripture in order to glean a credible and plausible interpretation?

(3) Can you hold your view with conviction while acknowledging yours is not the only way to interpret Scripture?


[1] In ‘Holy Love’ I reference some good books that teach inductive methodology.  In addition, the CEB Study Bible has a good overview article entitled, “Guidelines for Reading the Bible,” written by Dr. Brian Russell.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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