D.A. Carson on Application of Hermeneutical Principles

There is hardly a better exegete alive today than D.A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve personally known two of his Graduate Assistants who were at TEDS while I was. He’s the real deal. A serious biblical stud. Anyhoo… Here’s a good article by him from 1996 that answers the question, “Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” It’s a great little guide for working to apply healthy hermeneutical principles when approaching Scripture.

Here are his 12 guidelines. I’ll letcha fill in the details by reading the article, if you’d like.

  1. As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.
  2. Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute.  The context must decide where this is the case.
  3. Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.
  4. Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.
  5. Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality.  If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive—and pastoral!—errors will inevitably ensue.
  6. The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between biblical times and our own day.
  7. Determine not only how symbols, customs, metaphors, and models function in Scripture, but also to what else they are tied.
  8. Thoughtfully limit comparisons and analogies by observing near and far contexts.
  9. Many mandates are pastorally limited by the occasion or people being addressed.
  10. Always be careful how you apply narrative.
  11. Remember that you, too, are culturally and theologically located.
  12. Frankly admit that many interpretive decisions are nestled within a large theological system, which in principle we must be willing to modify if the Bible is to have the final word.
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Bible By Osmosis

Bible By OsmosisI figured I’d share an article I recently wrote for our church newsletter, the First Christian Church Family Focus, which will most certainly not be coming soon to a newsstand near you…

Some modern upper crust ladies in the cities are engaging in a practice that reveals milk-over-meat values. Book is the new black. Books are the latest fashion accessories for the well-appointed socialite, who is easily identifiable because she totes a trendy tome and speaks expertly on its contents. The bigger, the better. And if she is seen carrying it into Starbucks to chat with other moms who just left their kids at Montessori, they all nod approvingly and murmur while she waits for her tall half-caff no-fat vanilla latte, “Pretty… and smart.” Bonus cool points for driving up in a Suburban Über Vehicle, especially if, by sheer audacity, it merits two spaces.

But there’s one problem. These women have never even read the book. Perhaps they heard about the book from a friend or they have read (okay, scanned) a review. Or, more accurately, they probably heard someone else talk about the review. Especially prepared book osmoters may have even watched Oprah’s Book Club. Yet they’ve never actually read the book. Osmosis, if you can remember back to high school biology, is the natural process whereby molecules pass through a cell membrane from an area of high concentration to low concentration. In many churches today, Bible by osmosis is so rampant, it’s normative. Christian demographer and pollster George Barna claims that 80% of Americans who call themselves “born again Christians” receive 100% of their Bible intake during the Sunday morning worship service. Many Christians are holding out hope that osmosis works. But, unfortunately, osmoting the Bible doesn’t work just like it doesn’t for Tuesdays With Morrie.

This is a sobering statistic, no matter how you slice it. But the sad part is that we’ve enabled the osmoter by providing him with an arsenal of weapons that mimic regular engagement with Scripture because, as we all know, survival at church most often means being able to look like a Christian. In churches where discipleship is measured in terms of likeness to Christians instead of Christ, Bible has become the new black.

Like an accessory to liven up a bland dress, Bible osmoters employ a couple strategies to feign a deep relationship with God. For one, speaking fluent Christianese is a helpful smokescreen. The adept Bible osmoter will throw in terms like ‘revelation,’ ‘eschatology,’ or even ‘synoptic’ to mimic godly wisdom. I mean, c’mon, someone who uses ‘synoptic’ must know what they’re talking about, right? Who needs more evidence than that?! Another disguise often employed is the Bible Proximity Principle. This tactic is the closest to osmosis. It is thought that carrying a Bible often or keeping one close on the nightstand means it will rub off on them. Some even go so far as to always keep one handy in the car or briefcase, like an umbrella… just in case. This Bible toter can sometimes be easily identified by the mammoth Bible cover embroidered with an icthus and stuffed full of bulletins, pens, and highlighters.

These tools of the faithful-ish are quickly learned and easily developed in a context where “discipleship” is more about mimicking a culturally conditioned expectation of being disciple-like than being Christlike. We often socialize Christians into acting like little Christians rather than discipling them into, as C.S. Lewis says, “little Christs.” We have trained Christians to be like drug dealers who push their wares but never smoke a single joint. In churches where being perceived as “together” trumps spiritual formation, why would anyone care about actually reading and learning the Scriptures as an authority for living?! We often fail to create an environment where God’s Word is the standard by which all other authorities are measured.

So, the question for church leaders is, as Rob Bell says, “Are we smoking what we’re selling?” If church leaders are not regularly engaged in meaningful dialogue with our Creator through His Word, then we are simple peddlers.