Ah, it’s the first day of summer, when a young man’s thoughts turn to anything but hermeneutics. I’m old though, and haven’t quite run out of things to say about the subject.
Now for all you folks out there who are just joining us, a hermeneutic is a way of understanding a text – and I’m focused on the Biblical text. Strictly speaking, a hermeneutic is a way of understanding a text on the basis of the text itself, and that’s what I’d like to stick to.
A good part of the divisions in Christianity – going back all the way to the first century (when only a few Biblical texts had been written, namely, the Old Testament) – are hermeneutical. Folks chose up sides even then about how to understand scripture: strictly or loosely, to put it simply, and that’s where the problem arises.
The version of it that has had a great divisive effect on Restoration churches is the question of the silence of scripture. One view says that if the Bible doesn’t specifically forbid something, it must be permissible. The other view says that if the Bible doesn’t specifically authorize something, it is forbidden by God.
Two extremes. And therein lies the problem with both.
“The Law commands that we stone such.” That was the scripture put before Jesus when presented with the adulterous woman. He could have taken one side: “Where is the other? Doesn’t the Law require both to be stoned? You can’t stone her unless the man is stoned, too.” Or He could have taken the other side: “Here, give me a stone; I’d like to be the first one. The Law doesn’t say we have to catch both of them and stone them; just that if both are caught, they are both to be stoned.”
But Jesus embraces an heretical hermeneutic that is neither right down the middle nor avoiding either extreme. He chooses to interpret the Law in a way that was 90-degrees perpendicular to both; adding a whole new dimension to it: the fallibility of all people, the need for grace, the power of forgiveness:
“Let the sinless one cast the first stone.”
So why do we Christian folks keep getting caught making an artificial choice between two man-made alternatives: silence always forbids, or silence always permits?
I think the point of our Christian lives is neither the leading of a perfect, sinless life by not breaking any of the rules, nor the leading of an unremarkable life that powerlessly leans on God’s grace all the time. A Christ-like life isn’t supposed to be composed of easy, rational, logical answers that fit every situation and that someone else can codify in a book for you; yet it’s also not a hopelessly unknowing, mystical spiritual relationship where there are no answers at all.
A Christian life is meant to be a life of struggle, of constantly encountering new questions and trying to compose the elegant, 90-degree answer. It is always seeking out what it means to live as Christ in this world, and it is learning by doing as well as hearing, reading, reciting, watching and imitating.
Inevitably, we will fail. We will not be perfect. That’s not the point at which we give up hope, or flagellate ourselves, or shrug off what only Jesus’ own blood can obliterate.
That’s the point at which we repent again. We confess our own weakness and His power. We pray the guidance of His Spirit in our lives. We give thanks for inestimable value of the chance to begin again. And always, always, we remember what the Price was.
And when people see that in us, they see through our transparency one Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior and Lord – not us; but Him.
It isn’t easy to sort out the unorthodox hermeneutic. Sometimes silence forbids. Sometimes it permits. But mostly, it speaks loudly of God’s awesome justice and mercy in our lives.
Because it’s the sound you make at the foot of the cross.