Humpty Dumpty and Hermeneutics
The following article appeared in the January addition of Joy magazine.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
At first glance this brief dialogue from Alice in Wonderland might seem to be just some more word games from the mind of Lewis Carrol. Unfortunately, however, we are now living in that reality. Postmodernist philosophers and linguists tell us that, ‘There are no absolute truth statements. It is impossible to understand an author’s intention.’ This is ironic because if there are no absolute truths then their statement is incorrect and if we cannot understand an author’s intention then why do they write so much and expect us to understand it?
Despite the logical inconsistencies in postmodernism the worldview has filtered down into everyday life and has poisoned all of us to one degree or another. We see this in the inane mantras, ‘That is your truth’ or ‘This is my truth.’ It has even crept into Christianity and can be seen at so called Bible studies in which everyone’s opinion of a verse is considered equally valid and there is no correct interpretation.
Humpty Dumpty rightly understood that whoever gets to define meaning is the master. As Christians we know that the Triune God is Master (Lord) and He tells us what is true. So how do we make sure that when we are reading the Bible we are interpreting it correctly? We need to ensure that we have the same hermeneutic as Jesus and the Apostles. The word hermeneutic is a technical term that refers to the principles of interpretation. The first part of hermeneutics is exegesis, drawing out of the text what the passage is saying. The second step is to interpret the passage in the light of Christ’s coming and lastly to apply it to our lives.
So how did Jesus and the Apostles interpret the Scriptures? Well they certainly understood the literal, historical meaning of the text (exegesis) but they interpreted every complete passage in a Christocentric way. So, the first step, and one that is desperately needed today, is to figure out the original context. In other words, who is speaking, when did they live (Before or after Christ, before or after the Mosaic Law etc.), who was the original audience, what was the cultural setting at the time? In other words, we need to know the cultural context, as best we can. But more importantly, we need to see the context within the passage, within the book and within the Bible. Study Bibles, commentaries, atlases, extant literature all help with this section. Once we have determined the original context we can move to interpretation.
An example of what not to do is the common misuse of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Now this is a wonderful verse, but it doesn’t mean that I will win SA’s Got Talent, play soccer for Liverpool FC and become the CEO of Apple. Paul wasn’t writing to you or me (while the books of the Bible were not written to us, they certainly are for us), he was writing to the believers in Philippi in a specific situation. Paul is trying to encourage them to learn contentment. When Paul says that he can do all things through Christ, in context, he is saying that he can be content whether he is experiencing poverty or abundance. This is a promise that in Christ we can learn contentment not complete your bucket-list.
When we come to the Old Testament things become more complex. For one, we are separated by a lot more time and cultural distance. Secondly the coming of Christ is the fulfilment of all the promises in the Old Testament (cf. 2 Cor 1:20). This is clear in the fact that Jesus saw Himself as the true Temple (Jn 2:19), the New Testament authors saw Jesus as the true Israel (Mat 2:15) and the final Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). This is where we have to work hard to read the Bible with the same Christ centered lenses that the Apostles had.
To give a full teaching on Christ centered interpretation is beyond the scope of this article but I want to encourage you to begin to see Christ as the fulfilment, in either His person or His work, of every complete passage in the Bible. If your interpretation could be taught in a Synagogue or a Mosque without any problem, then you have a big problem!
Now, I think most Christians know this innately. For example there are no NT passages that tell us that the account of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac and the ram taking his place is a pointer to the crucifixion. Yet we cannot read that passage and not have our minds and hearts drawn to Christ taking our place on the cross.
Finally, one may interpret correctly and then say, “So what?” Faithful, Christ centered interpretation must move us to action. Some pastors love to give dogmatic application that is simply not Biblical. For example, commanding couples to go on a date night every week. While this may be a helpful suggestion that the person speaking may have found beneficial it is a very middle class, urban application. How would a poor person in a rural area obey this? If you are going to give a dogmatic application then make sure it is biblical and is connected to or flows from the text you are studying.
So Humpty Dumpty was wrong, words cannot have whatever meaning you want them to have. Jesus is Lord and we must read our Bibles in submission to Him. When the Scriptures clash with our preconceptions and cultural norms then they must be forsaken or else we will have a great fall!