The Messenger

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By R.C. Sproul About The Bible
Part of the series Article

The ubiquitous logo that appears on a window decal at almost every flower store in America, indicating the service of F.T.D. (Floral Telegraph Delivery), displays the image of the mythological deity called Mercury by the Romans and Hermes by the Greeks. Mercury (or Hermes) is depicted as having wings on his helmet and wings on his feet. These wings were used for superhuman speed, an attribute necessary for the deity described as the “messenger of the gods.”

The term “hermeneutics” contains the same root that serves as the name of the Greek counterpart to Mercury, Hermes. The root concerns the delivery of a “message.” When we read the Bible, we do not believe we encounter the Olympian wisdom of Zeus or Jupiter but the very Word of the Most High God. The Bible is the divine word or “message” of God. It is the message of God because it belongs to God and it comes from God. Orthodox Christianity affirms the infallibility of the divine message and the inspiration of the human authors God used to deliver that message. The prophets and apostles did not originate the message; they were merely the deliverers of the message, or God’s appointed messengers. (It is ironic that the apostle Paul once was mistaken for Hermes himself.)

The problem we face with biblical interpretation is that though the message is infallible and the messengers are inspired, the recipients of the message are neither infallible nor inspired (unless you believe in the infallibility of the church — which only removes the problem one more step). Sooner or later the message gets to us, and we are capable of misunderstanding the message and the messengers.

That is why we have a science called hermeneutics — to assist us in gaining the correct interpretation of the biblical message. Notice that I said the correct interpretation, not a correct interpretation. I used the definite article rather than the indefinite article. My assumption here is that though there may be 1000 applications of a given text, there is only one correct meaning. We say this because we do not believe that the Bible is a waxed nose capable of being formed or shaped into any figure according to the subjective whim of the reader.

Classical hermeneutics seeks the objective meaning of Scripture before it may properly be applied to the reading subject. In recent decades, this matter of objective meaning has become a huge issue among biblical scholars. At present, a hermeneutical war is being waged on this very point. Rudolf Bultman, for example, argued that the discovery of the objective meaning of the Bible is not only not possible, it is not desirable. Here the influences of existential and subjective philosophy have taken away the body of Scripture, and we know not where they have laid it.

The Reformation brought an emphasis on seeking the literal sense of the Bible. This principle is often seriously misunderstood. What Luther meant by the sensus literalis (literal sense) of Scripture is that the Bible is to be understood and interpreted as literature. It is a written message that employs a wide variety of literary forms and devices. It contains historical narrative, letters (epistles), poetry, etc. It makes use of personification, similes, aphorisms, proverbs, sermons, hyperbole, and the like. To interpret the Bible “literally” is to treat narrative as narrative, poetry as poetry, didactive as didactive, proverb as proverb, etc. To impose the literary rules of poetry on historical narrative or the rules of narrative on poetry is to distort the meaning of the text. In this regard, the Bible, though it is not like any other book in light of its inspiration and divine origin, has to be read like any other book. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not turn a noun into a verb or the active voice into the passive voice or a subjunctive into an indicative. To be responsible in interpreting Scripture requires that we learn the rudiments of grammar and of literary interpretation.

Because the Bible has been translated into a multitude of languages, it is important to remember that no translation conforms exactly word for word with the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. This is why many, if not most, seminaries require a study of the original languages of the Bible.

The Bible also was written in a historical context. It is helpful to the serious student of Scripture to know something of the historical context in which the Bible was written. This helps safeguard us from the tendency to read our own cultural and historical context into the text of the Bible. We are separated culturally, historically, and linguistically by thousands of years from the original texts of the Bible.

Another problem we encounter in interpreting the Bible is a logical problem. Even if we master the ancient languages in terms of vocabulary and grammar, and become expert students of ancient history and culture, that is no guarantee that we will interpret the Bible accurately. One of the most frequent causes of misinterpretation of Scripture is the making of illegitimate inferences from the texts. That is, we make mistakes in logic, drawing gratuitous conclusions from what we read. The rudimentary rules of logic and logical inference from the text are of vital importance to sound interpretation. For example, we need to know the difference between a possible inference and a necessary inference. Let me illustrate. Did Jesus in His resurrected body have the ability to pass through solid objects such as doors? How you answer that question may depend on how you understand the significance of the biblical record that Jesus appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room where they were assembled. The account tells us that the door was shut “for fear of the Jews.” Was the purpose of the inclusion of this detail about the door intended by the author to tell us something about the state of Jesus’ resurrected body or was it to call attention merely to the state of the disciples (fear) at the time of Jesus’ appearance? The Bible does not explicitly state that Jesus walked through the shut door. It merely says that He appeared in their midst. The text may imply that Jesus passed through a solid object but it does not explicitly declare it. That He did pass through solid objects is a possible inference drawn from the text, but not a necessary inference.

This is but one example of a host of texts that are used to build theologies or inferences that are either merely possible or actually illegitimate.

These are some of the reasons the prudent student of the Bible will be diligent in the use of good commentaries, as they often help us prevent our own subjective inclinations from distorting the text.

The final interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself. The primary rule of biblical hermeneutics is the “rule of faith,” that the Scripture is its own interpreter. We must never insult the Spirit of God by interpreting Scripture in such a way as to do violence to what the Scripture says in other places.

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