THE EPISTLES: THE HERMENEUTICAL QUESTIONS (Part 5)
The Basic Rule:When applying exegetical study to the practice of hermeneutics it is imperative to remember that a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers. This is why good exegesis is important to do before attempting to discover what the text means to you and how to apply it to your life.
The Second Rule: Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them. This is also what gives modern day Christians a sense of immediacy with the first century. To find what the comparable particularities are and to properly evaluate how to apply scripture you must perform a careful reconstruction of their situation.
The Problem of Extended Application: When there are comparable situations and comparable particularities, God’s Word to us in such texts must always be limited to its original intent. Furthermore, it should be noted that the extended application is usually seen to be legitimate because it is true, that is, it is clearly spelled out in other passages where that is the intent of the passage. The problem with extended application exists because in some situations it is impossible to know exactly what the original text means and therefore should not be extended.
The Problem of Particulars That Are Not Comparable: The problem here has to do with two kinds of texts in the Epistles: those that speak to first-century issues that for the most part are without any twenty-first century counterparts, and those texts that speak to problems that could possibly happen also in the twenty-first century but are highly unlikely to do so. Here are two ways of helping with this situation. First, you must do exegesis paying close attention to hear what God’s Word was to the original audience. You should find that a clear principle has been articulated, which will usually transcend the historical particularity to which it was being applied. Second, the “principle” does not now become timeless, to be applied at random or whim to any and every situation. It should truly only be applied to genuinely comparable situations.
Matters of Indifference: Here are a series of guidelines that might help in identifying matters of indifference.
1. What the Epistles specifically indicates as matters of indifference may be things such as: food, drink, observance of specific days, etc.
2. The matters are not inherently moral, but are cultural¬-even if its stems from religious culture. Matters that tend to differ from culture to culture, therefore, even among genuine believers may usually be considered matters if indifference.
Something very important to remember when dealing with matters of indifference is that a person that does not feel bound by something should not flaunt his or her freedom, just as a person who feels convicted should not condemn someone else.
The Problem of Cultural Relativity: (1) The Epistles are occasional documents of the first-century, conditioned by the language and culture of the first-century, which spoke to specific situations in the first-century church. (2) Many of the specific situations in the Epistles don’t apply to us as individuals in the twenty-first century. (3) Other texts are also thoroughly conditioned by their first-century settings, but the Word to them may be translated into new, but comparable settings. (4) This leaves other texts conditioned by the first-century that share some comparable particularities, leaving the question of whether or not these texts need to be translated into a new setting or simply left in the first century. The following guidelines will help you distinguish texts that are culturally relative, on the one hand, and those that transcend their original setting, on the other hand, and have a normativeness for all Christians of all times.
1. One should first distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent upon or peripheral to it. An example of centrality would be the fallenness of all mankind, redemption from that fallenness as God’s gracious activity through Christ’s death and resurrection, the consummation of that redemptive work by the return of Christ, etc.
2. One should be prepared to distinguish between what the New Testament itself sees as inherently moral and what is not. Those items that are inherently moral are absolute and apply to every culture, for all time.
3. You must make special note of items where the New Testament itself has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences.
4. It is important to be able to distinguish within the New Testament itself between the principle and specific application. It is possible for a New Testament writer to support a relative application by an absolute principle and in so doing not make the action absolute.
5. It is important, as much as one is able to do this with care, to determine cultural options open to any New Testament writer. The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position.
6. One must keep alert to possible cultural differences between the first and twenty-first centuries that are sometimes not immediately obvious.
The Problem of Task Theology: The difficulty here exists in that the Epistles are occasional in nature. They are focused on delivering theology through practical situations and sometimes do not speak directly to the questions that we have today. Posing a question about the morality of abortion is asking a great deal of the Epistles to perform because this was not an issue in the first-century. This does not mean that Scripture has nothing to ay about abortion for example, but we need to take great care when applying theology from the Epistles to particular situations that were not present when the Epistle was written. Remember that our immediate aim is for greater precision and consistency; our greater aim is calling us all to greater obedience to what we do hear and understand.
(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)