For most of my life, people I know personally have challenged me on my interpretation of the Bible. They have insisted that I change my understanding. In the days to come, I expect those shouts to increase in both volume and frequency. To that end, I am writing this open series to explain my method of scriptural study and address some specific questions.
As I have thought about the questions, a famous scene from history kept running through my mind. Those familiar with church history will likely have already realized it from the title of this essay.
The date is April 1521. The place, Worms, a city south of Frankfurt in what will become Germany but was then the Holy Roman Empire. A meeting known as a Diet had been called by Emperor Charles V to address challenges faced by the Roman Catholic Church. The largest challenge came from a German monk who had the audacity to publish calls for reformation within the church. Martin Luther was accused of heresy and assured safe passage to and from the Diet of Worms to recant.
He was already in defiance. The year before, Pope Leo X censored Luther in a writing known as Arise O Lord (Lat. Exsurge Domine). Luther was given 60 days to recant. Instead, he burned the letter. The kind of writing was called a papal bull which simply means that it was sealed with the Pope’s official bulla. The reader might be familiar with the current pope releasing a similar type of letter Be Praised (Lat. Laudato Si).
Arriving late on the 16th, Luther was instructed to appear for his trial the next day at 4pm. On April 17, 1521, Luther appeared before the Diet. He and the presiding ecclesiastical officer, Johann von Eck, had clashed and held a 23-day debate in 1519. Eck asked if the collection of 25 books and writings on the table was Luther’s and if would recant them. Luther’s lawyer insisted the titles be read for the official transcript. These works included The 95 Theses, Address to the Christian Nobility, On the Papacy at Rome, and On the Freedom of a Christian. Luther admitted they were his and was granted 24 hours to give a proper answer to the question of recanting.
Luther spent much of the night awake, praying, meditating, and speaking with friends and mentors who were present. At the appointed time he appeared before the court. First, he apologized for not being as eloquent as the court might like. Then he asked which books he should recant, because they were not all alike. Some were well received by his enemies. Those he saw no reason to recant. The second spoke against abuses of the church. To recant those would encourage further abuses. The third category included attacks on individuals. For those he apologized for his harsh tone but not the substance of his statements.
Luther ended his defense with the famous speech. However, the most famous words of it, “Here I stand, I can do no other” while possibly historical do not appear in any official transcripts of the time. It is also often thought that the speech was said in staunch defiance of the court and its authority. Actually, the speech was given in humility. Luther knew this was his Rubicon. He had long worked for a reformation within the church that he loved and served. That was not going to be possible.
The speech, as tradition records it, is repeated here.
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.
This, too, is my statement. I am bound by the Scriptures and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not turn away from that understanding of Scripture unless it can be shown to me that either Scripture is wrong or my understanding of it is wrong. To that end, this essay is the first in an open-ended series exploring and explaining my biblical hermeneutic.
“Hermeneutic” simply means the discipline of interpreting communications, including written, verbal, and nonverbal. It is best summarized by two passages from 2 Timothy.
2:15 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.
3:15-17 and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.
Everyone who reads the Bible has a hermeneutic. Unfortunately, there are bad hermeneutics as well as good hermeneutics. It doesn’t take a lot of training to establish a good one, but it does require careful thought and one must not let themselves be carried away on emotion and fads.
In this series I will explain and explore sound hermeneutics and address serious questions that have been presented to me and others possessed of a sound method of interpretation. For today, my hermeneutic can be summarized in two rules:
Pay attention to the text
Pay attention to the context
Pay attention to the text. Every passage and verse must be understood in its plain meaning before reading between the lines. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is useful…” The writers of Scripture chose the words and the phrases not by accident but because they were moved by the Holy Spirit to use that word instead of this word. As part of this, one interprets poetry differently than prophecy and prophecy differently than historical works. This is unquestionably sound.
When someone challenges me with the apparent contradiction of Proverbs 26:4 and 5, I simply note that those are Proverbs, not meant to be taken as solid rules for each and every day of your life. They aren’t the same as, for example, the Ten Commandments. Moreover, we know that these are not meant to be hard and fast rules for every occasion because the two verses, right next to one another, state exact opposite guidelines. What then can this mean? Simple. There are times to answer a fool and times to walk away from the discussion. To put it in the common vernacular, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
Pay Attention to the Context. This includes not just the verses around the passage in question but the Bible as a whole, though one does not jump from the passage to the rest of the Bible in one step. Following this rule, the reader recognizes the history of the passage and allows the surrounding Scripture to shed light on the question. Also part of context is the question of what happened that this Scripture was written. Paul wrote his letters to encourage and correct churches. On the other hand, Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts to explain the history of Christianity and its spread from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. Naturally, the two sets of writings (Paul’s letters and Luke’s histories) will approach questions differently. Likewise, when Peter writes to encourage Churches to stand firm in persecution, his tone will be different than where Paul takes them to task.
Hermeneutics. Everyone who reads the Bible has one. Take the time to make sure you use a good one.
Essays to come in no particular order include:
The Best Bible Study Tool I Know
- Why I am not Postmodern (and Neither is Anyone Else)
Not All Interpretations are Equal
Marcion Lives! (Or What to do With That Pesky Old Testament)
Simony and Arson: Sins Jesus Never Mentioned
Why I am no Longer Cessationist
Inspired: The Very Words and All of Them
There will likely be more as the Spirit moves me.