Reflections on Hermeneutics, History, and the Bible

Some time ago I was asked to participate in a formal dialog with some fellow teachers about the role of history and historical studies in Bible interpretation.  The topic was important because I held historical context to be very important in doing effective Bible study; yet I also knew that at least one of my colleagues was very dismissive of history: “It doesn’t add any new truth content to the Bible—because the Bible, after all, is both coherent and self sufficient truth, isn’t it?”


His point sounded pretty impressive, but it sure didn’t fit my experience!  What I’ve learned through historical studies and as an archaeology volunteer in Israel have done much to make the Bible clearer as I study it. 


So I puzzled over the topic for a week or so.


“Why,” I finally asked myself, “Why this question?”


 That is, it dawned on me that the question was like a chain bolted around some interior ankle.  It wasn’t the right starting point.  The point is, of course, that a question can shape a discussion in a way that redirects us by inserting flawed assumptions that cause us to miss the true issue.  It was actually a loaded question—with a “right answer” already in bed with the question.  I think, for instance, about the man who came to Jesus asking, “What good deeds must I do to inherit the kingdom?”  Jesus denied the premise by saying the “No one is good but God alone.” 


So, the point I came to is that any idea of a “proper interpretation” already carries a set of assumptions that actually miss the point of our reading and studying the Bible.  It isn’t an activity of collecting correct information!  The Bible is ultimately a relational resource.  It tells us the story of God’s plan to create a people for himself.  It’s a love story.  So I must come to the Bible with a view to respond to the ultimate author.  I come to the Bible in order to get to know and love God through his Son, Jesus Christ.


So if we assume that Bible study is the “good deed” of having proper interpretations I’m sure I’m right there with the guy who asked Jesus “what good deeds must I do!”  Instead, we need to start with a relational premise: that God “is love.” And that his Son is “the way, the truth, and the life!”  Shouldn’t God, himself, be the focal point of any question related to proper interpretation? 


Is God, for instance, a reliable communicator?  After all, listen to John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God.”  And does God choose to reveal himself only narrowly—only in the Scriptures—or widely?  Hasn’t he offered himself in all of creation, all of life and throughout history?  And if he is a good communicator, why is it so hard to hear and understand his voice?  Does he have a problem in speaking?  Or do we just not listen because we prefer to suppress the truth in our stubborn, stupid, but very proud, unrighteousness?  If that’s the real problem—and I’m sure it is!—how will any hermeneutical debates ever solve what is really a moral blindness.


If, for instance, we simply assert as an axiom—a rule never to be challenged—that biblical interpretation is strictly the exercise of unlocking propositional, or literary, or symbolic features of the target texts in order to report their significance and meaning with some level of certainty—thus establishing a ‘proper’ interpretation—what actually happens?  By adopting that axiom we find that the limits of the text have actually become a wall or barrier that blocks access to other events of God’s self disclosure.  I would argue, for instance, that God’s providence is broader than his written revelation, but the Bible illuminates his providential working throughout history with significations we would otherwise miss or misinterpret.


So, let me ask as a different but related question, “Who is God and what is he like?”  By asking that question we avoid using the biblical text as a set of blinders, yet we still trust the Bible to have absolute interpretive authority in explaining how God has providentially worked throughout the epochs of history that he chooses to address.  And from discovering his faithfulness in the past, and in reading his promises for the future I grow to have more and more faith in his flawless ways and purposes. 


Thus my real interest is larger than the text but it still includes the text as central because it offers me the most explicit and extensive exposure to God’s values, his character, and his instructions about living life ‘under God’—of what pleases and displeases him.  What I really want to know is defined by a relational ambition: who is the person who directed his prophets to write about himself, about ourselves, and about the world in which we live?


Let me press the point by shifting to a human analogy.  In my study of Richard Sibbes—the 17th century puritan who was the focus of my doctoral research—my ambition was to find out all I could about him.  Given the historical distance between us of four hundred years my most important resources were his sermons.  But I also wanted to study in England in order to see where he worked, to find out about others he worked with, to see pictures of him, and to visit the places where he lived, walked, and talked as much as they are still available to me.  My real interest was to get to know all I could know about him, short of a direct meeting with him.  The project was multifaceted, with each element of exposure serving to form a larger, coherent sense of his life and character. 


Now, let me shift the analogy to another possibility: What if I’m trying to get to know about a distant figure in order to write a biography about him.  In my research I travel to London in order to look through a collection of his handwritten documents and discover a manuscript that offers a life-story?  Yet as I read it I find it to be so dramatic at points that I begin to suspect that it might be a novel.  So my question is, am I reading a novel that happens to contain bits of his life experience, or am I reading his actual autobiography?  My solution, as you might guess, is to start comparing what I discover in the manuscript with what I find in the other resources available to me.  I will, for instance, look for any drawings or photos from his life; I’ll look for any dates or particular events in the manuscript and then go look for newspapers of his era to see if the two accounts correlate with each other.  If it’s a novel, I’m not expecting any correlation, but if it’s an autobiography I’ll expect a complete correlation.


And that’s where I am with the Bible and the question of how history shapes our interpretation.  It has everything to do with the Christian presumption that God, in revealing himself, does it in the context of history.  That is, he is the architect of history—what we call the doctrine of providence—and the Lord of the present moment and the ruler of all that will come in the future.  The key question I have, then, is whether we’re dealing with a novel, or with an autobiography.  The correlation—or ‘coherence’—of God’s claims in the Word must correlate with all we find in history for me to be assured that I’m actually meeting the Person the Bible claims God to be.




  1. David

    Thanks Ron for this. I say thanks because you give me so much to think about and spark questions I would think of without your thoughts. I often struggle to answer a question like this because I don’t question the assumption behind the question. Your answer to why a historical context is so important makes me question much of the hermeneutics I have been taught and the way I come to scripture.

  2. R N Frost

    Good words, David. I’m presuming, by the way, that when you wrote, “questions I would think of without your thoughts”, that you meant to say “not have thought about”, or did I miss your point?

    Certainly the question of how a subject is framed is crucial! In fact, I’m only beginning to realize how important that question is in every sphere of life. My “blogs” here are, in part, an effort to reflect on that question as it applies to a number of important realms.

    The importance of the relationality of God as a Triune Unity whose Being is a communion of love–the starting premise of the original entry here–is so big and rich a truth! So why not apply it to the question of Hermeneutics? Once I did, it helped me see the Bible more as an expression of God’s love than I had been taught in any stage of my theological training.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. The topic is very important and I’m pleased to have you affirm its significance.

  3. Clive

    Ron, thanks for your time in posting this particular article. At the core of this article is a rebuttal against your colleague and his premise. The rebuttal is that his interpretation already carries a set of assumptions that not only can miss the point but that they put a wall around accessing other events of God’s self disclosure. I trust that is a concise summary of that side of the argument. Additionally, I do concur with your arguments.
    Now I’d like, in the context of discussion and relationality (as opposed to just arguing), apply your framework to your ideas for the purpose of analyzing robustness and fidelity. Is what is good for the goose, good for the gander? Of course the danger may be that I am falling into the trap of your colleague by myself wanting to unlock to “get the correct information.” Oh well! So, being as careful as I can and without making assumptions, may I offer two questions as starting points, namely, might there be a deeper/separate point than the one you’ve acquired and might your ideas themselves construct a wall that is limiting?
    If I had to answer this, first, I don’t believe that there is another deeper point, but I still think the question is relevant – Is there yet another deeper point? Much like the boy who lives in foggy smoggy 19th century London, he believes that the sky is only fog and smog until he speaks with another boy from the Lake District who tells him about a canopy of stars and a moon and a sun that exists beyond his vision. Could there indeed be a deeper point? Second, might your framework itself place an unnecessary wall? That’s much harder for me to know. I certainly believe you encounter a larger-deeper relationality (and I have too in somewhat similar fashion) but again, is there any potential shortfalls that you might be willing to offer? Your brother in Christ. Clive.

  4. R N Frost

    It’s nice to hear from you in this context, Clive.

    Let me cite the first feature of your central question and offer a brief reflection. You wrote: “So, being as careful as I can and without making assumptions, may I offer two questions as starting points, namely, might there be a deeper/separate point than the one you’ve acquired and might your ideas themselves construct a wall that is limiting?”

    My post actually posits that we all begin with some prior assumptions: as created beings we are part of a relational creation-fabric that equips us and informs us. I wrote, for instance, “we need to start with a relational premise: that God ‘is love.’ And that his Son is ‘the way, the truth, and the life!’ Shouldn’t God, himself, be the focal point of any question related to proper interpretation?”

    Then as my next sentence I moved to a more basic assumption that stood behind these biblical allusions, posed as a rhetorical question: “Is God, for instance, a reliable communicator?”

    Why this approach? Because it moves the focus of the conversation to God himself, and to his initiatives, rather than centering on human limitations. With the latter there comes the standard corollary that we must remain skeptical about all we know; and that skepticism is only overcome by setting out indubitable axioms and proofs. Yet what I suspect is behind this apparent humility is a fallen human effort to presume autonomy, and not absolute dependence on God, as a starting point.

    But with God himself as our starting point we begin (as dependent beings) with a faith that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Embedded in that faith is a confidence that a God worth his salt must be a good communicator. The remaining question, then, is “when, where, and how does such a God communicate?” Jesus, as God’s “Word” answers that question for Christians.

    So that’s where I’m going in all my posts: “Let’s start with God, and assume he made us in order to have conversation and communion with us because he is a lover who is spreading his love to us.”

    Where I differ with so many who are captivated by a Cartesian rationality is that I’m skeptical about skepticism. I’m happy, for instance, to be skeptical about an advert that tells me “You may have won the lottery!” but I’m not ready to apply that same sort of skepticism to God’s ability to communicate.

    So, to your analogy of the lad in the clear skies of the Lake District in England (or, the big sky of Montana, for us Americans) compared to the youth who grew up in the old smogs of London: yes, their perceptions will differ. But what if the Father of the child in London takes him on a holiday to the Lake District, wouldn’t that solve the problem?

    My point, of course, is that while I can’t know or say more about God than he reveals of himself, I can at least be sure that he never struggles to communicate: whatever, whenever, and however he chooses to share his heart to us, he succeeds . . . unless we, as sinners, suppress the truth about him. And even then he is able to transform hearts. So, to summarize the point: he’s able, as our creator, both to share himself effectively and to make us effective recipients of all he wants to share of and about himself.

    What of the widespread human use of Pyrrhic skepticism that continues to pervade both Modernity and even Post-modernity? Consider the source: “Did God really say…?” It was the enemy’s effort to relocate the starting point of every conversation. Rather than looking to God as “the Word” it adopts an independent moral stance by presuming an ability to judge God. This is the realm of autonomy.

    So rather than taking our lack of knowledge as a barrier or a wall of some sort, I trust God to break down barriers that block our understanding of his heart and his ways for the rest of eternity. I know that I know very little, but I also know that God offers us a love that surpasses knowledge, and that all of eternity offers a context to explore that love. The real barrier is our own sin, with a devotion to human autonomy as its ultimate premise. Looking to God offers a better place to begin.

  5. Clive

    Ron, thanks for the insights in response to my inquiry… and we can close it here. Just to say, as I suspected, we humans are very apt to be focused on ourselves and we often fail to view things from God’s perspective, His being and the worthiness of His attributes and actions…from what we learn in Scripture, in Prayer and in His creation.

    Its ironic, isn’t it, that even in my approach there was the danger of autonomy – although I made every effort to remove that. I take from your response an enlarged view of God and you’ve also reduced my autonomy. Its a progressive journey, tis it not?

    May I be increasingly less skeptical of God and who He is.
    Responding to Him, I can’t help it.

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