Humble Hermeneutics

A big part of reading the Bible has to do with interpreting the Bible. That’s what hermeneutics refers to: the science of interpretation. For all of church history there have been debates, schisms, persecutions, and even wars as a result of disagreement over how to interpret certain parts of the Bible. Right now, in our own communities, we see the multitude of different denominations that have sprung up over differences in interpretations. And on a personal level, we all have preferences when it comes to how we read and interpret certain passages of Scripture.

I’ll just come out and say it. I thought I was right about Romans 7. You know the passage? It’s at the end of the chapter where Paul agonizes over doing what he doesn’t want to do. For years I was absolutely sure that Paul was describing his post-conversion experience of fighting with the sin that remained in his flesh. Of course it was! I heard John Piper preach on it that way! (Insert appropriate sarcastic emoji) I had even read John Owen on it. And it seemed obvious from my plain reading of the text.

But something interesting happened the other day when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Knowing Faith. If you haven’t heard of it, go check it out. This season the hosts have been going through the first half of Romans. When they came to that passage in Romans 7, I eagerly anticipated their takes. Would they agree with me? (What I was really thinking was, “Would they hold the correct interpretation?”) And guess what? They threw me for a loop in their interpretations. They didn’t come down firmly on either side: pre- or post-conversion. I was surprised. But as I continued to listen I was humbled. I realized that I had been holding so firmly to my specific interpretation, thinking it was the only correct one, that it had led me into a dangerous ditch.

I was so sure for so long of my position on this passage that I had become inflexible. I wasn’t willing to entertain other possibilities. And not only that, I had unwittingly categorized people who held the opposite position as somehow unenlightened or ignorant. As a result, I would avoid teachers and scholars who held that position and would’ve looked down upon their other work because of their position on this one passage.

The truth is, your position on whether Paul was speaking of his pre- or post-conversion experience in Romans 7 isn’t an essential of the faith. The major doctrines of the faith – the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, etc. – don’t depend on it. But I had elevated my interpretation to such a level that it had produced a kind of hermeneutical pride that prevented me from loving my fellow brothers and sisters who held a different interpretation.

How often do we allow this to happen in other areas? How often do we allow our view of baptism or our preference in worship music to drive us toward looking down on others instead of thinking of them as more significant than ourselves? (see Philippians 2:1-4) Earlier in my life, I am embarrassed to confess that I looked down on moms who went back to work after having kids. I had elevated my interpretation of Titus 2:5 to such a level that it caused me to look down on my sisters in Christ who made different choices for different reasons that were none of my business. Truthfully, I am becoming more and more convinced that the majority of our problems in the church could be solved if we just sought to obey this one command – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

For sure, be a lion on the essentials! But just as importantly, be careful to exercise wisdom in knowing what is essential and what is not. Don’t elevate your or your favorite teacher’s interpretation on a disputed passage to such a high level that it causes division and only puffs up your ego. Examine yourself and your reactions to those who differ with you on these non-essentials. Is your default reaction one of pride and scorn, or are you humble enough to realize you might be wrong?

We would all do well to adopt the motto that originated with an obscure 17th century German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius who wrote a tract on Christian unity during the bloody Thirty Years War:

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

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