What in the world is that!? It’s the shortest little phrase I know to communicate a practice that I believe has been and currently is a destructive force in the church today. With it, the best-case scenario is that congregations will continue to decline and eventually fade away and die; and, a worse case situation, congregations will abuse other people in the name of Scripture and leave a footprint of pain, depression, and woundedness that has terrible effects for all. But without it, congregations can learn to do more than survive; they can thrive and flourish under a fruitful understanding of Christianity.
“Hermeneutics” is the technical word for Bible interpretation. “Hubris” is excessive pride coupled with misplaced self-confidence. I can’t think of a better two words to describe the current state of a great deal of churches today. It typically comes in the guise of “upholding the authority of Scripture.” This is an evangelical catch phrase which means, “a literal interpretation of the Bible is what we hold to, and any other way of looking at Scripture is just wrong, and we will squelch any other view because we are right.” Other interpretations are categorically labeled as “liberal” and discarded as progressive bunk. Without a literal interpretation of Scripture, many churches believe that the Bible is thrown under the bus. Like I said, hermeneutical hubris.
Now, before you try and label me as liberal, just know that I take a “literal” interpretation on a good chunk of the Bible. But I also take a poetic interpretation of Scripture; a mythological interpretation of Scripture; a metaphorical interpretation of Scripture; and, a typological interpretation of Scripture. I do this because Scripture itself interprets itself in several different ways. This is the reason why folks who hold to a solely literal view of the Bible continue to be befuddled by all kinds of Scripture verses.
As one of many examples, the New Testament Gospel writer Matthew had a habit of referring to Old Testament passages in very non-literal ways. When the child Jesus was taken to Egypt and came back to Judea years later, Matthew (2:15) quotes Hosea 11:1 – I called my son out of Egypt. Matthew only quotes part of the verse. The entire verse says, When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Hosea was talking about the ancient Israelites’ deliverance from Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Matthew employs this kind of interpretive method throughout his Gospel. It is an old Jewish hermeneutic called pesher. It is a way of interpreting Scripture that believes there is a plain surface meaning to the text which everyone can know, but also a deeper level of meaning buried within which one must dig out. Matthew was “pesherizing” the prophet Hosea to identify Jesus with Israel as the Son who fills and fulfills the promises of God.
Another Jewish mode of interpretation is midrash, which is a way of looking at Scripture as a practical means to live by, and uses the narratives and stories of the Old Testament for contemporary significance. Paul does this in his letter to the Galatians in talking about the Old Testament characters of Hagar and Sarah. “The son of the slave woman [Hagar] was born in the usual way. But the son of the free woman was born because of God’s promise. All of this has another meaning as well [my emphasis]. Each of the two women stands for one of the agreements God made with his people…” (Galatians 4:21-31). Paul was using an Old Testament story to highlight the freedom which believers have in Christ and that they should never return to the bondage of the law.
Speaking of bondage, insisting that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority that exists with the Bible. Let me be clear: I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. What I am saying is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, not to mention that the early church fathers did, as well. Its just one reason that I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed.
Far too often churches stick to a literal interpretation with the notion that they are keeping its fidelity out of fear that Christendom will be lost to the broader culture, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.
It’s time to do your homework. Quit listening to evangelical pundits who prognosticate with scare tactics, and take up your God-given freedom in the power of the Holy Spirit to read your Bible. The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word. Set the hermeneutical hubris aside, and allow Scripture to do its intended work of leading us to Christ and to live into his words and ways.