May 18, 2009

“What does it mean to you?” – The Post-Modern Hermeneutic

C. Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen, published a great blog post on this topic this morning in a post entitled “It Does Not Matter What the Bible Means to You.”  Here is an excerpt:

It is my contention that we are still struggling with the basic presuppositions of a Gnostic worldview in the church today. Right now, I am simply dealing with this with regards to our Bibliology and Hermeneutic, but we can find the influence of Gnosticism infecting our view of Christ, Humanity, Culture, and the end times. As I mention above, most Christians are reading the Bible with a subjective hermeneutic. They read the text as if there is some secret, hidden, underlying meaning in the text. This hidden meaning is the true “spiritual” meaning that transcends the ordinary, physical, evident, mundane reading. This hidden meaning can only be discovered by Christians. Why? Because Christians have the secret decoder ring. We have the Holy Spirit who meets us at the text and whispers in our ear what the meaning really is.

This hermeneutic started very early in Church history in Alexandria and was predominant until the Reformation. Many in church history laid it out logically in this way: Just as the body has three parts—body (physical), soul, and spirit, so the Scripture has three interpretations—literal (physical), moral, and spiritual. While the literal was not completely disregarded, it certainly took a back seat to the more important spiritual meaning. The problem quickly became evident as people would search for this deeper hidden meaning without any rules or reliable guidelines for finding such. The result was that everyone came to different conclusions about what it meant (sound familiar?). The Reformers led the Church back to authorial intent hermeneutics, claiming that it is the only way for us to understand what the Scriptures really mean.

Today, I believe that we (evangelicals included) are dangerously close to Gnosticism with regards to our Bible study. We have lost the spirit of Reformation hermeneutics, especially in the pews. We sit around in Bible study circles and ask “What does this passage mean to you?” We applaud as someone gives their answer and then move on to the next and ask the same question. “What does it mean to you Billy?… And what does it mean to you Sal?… What does it mean to you Kevin?” We affirm each person’s response even if it means something different to each person. Can the text have different meanings? Only if you are practicing a Gnostic hermeneutic where the Bible becomes a magic book with a secret spiritual meaning that transcends the literal.

While the Bible can have different and subjective applications, it cannot have different and subjective meanings. It means what it meant. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no person, group, denomination, tradition, or magisterial authority who has a magic decoder ring. There is no secret hidden meaning. The only meaning that we can discover is what the original author meant.

While this does produce fear of the Scriptures, I believe that this is a healthy fear. After all, the Bible is God’s word, isn’t it? We can’t take it lightly.

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