As evangelicals, we tout the importance of interpreting Scripture by the grammatical-historical method. But it is my contention that we have actually failed to do so in nearly all of our biblical studies, and need to be called back to the sound hermeneutic.
J. Julius Scott Jr. begins his work titled Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, with the following: “As the apostle Paul stood before King Agrippa II, he expressed gratitude that he could speak to one ‘familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews’ (Acts 26:3). He assumed that to understand his case, and by implication Christianity as a whole, it was necessary to have some awareness of Intertestamental Judaism. That situation has not changed.”
To be fair, we generally do hold to the “grammatical” part of the grammatical-historical method; but we have miserably failed to give adequate weight to the “historical” part. The fact that one can be faithfully in church his entire life, attend an undergraduate Bible school, and the idea express in Julius Scott’s opening paragraph be relatively novel to the “life-long Christian” is proof of that failure. Rather than properly employ the grammatical-historical method, we have anachronistically read our historical setting back into the text. I think this has been a well intentioned error, because that’s how I had blindly engaged in it previously, which springs from a desire to hold to two ideas: contemporary relevancy and the timelessness of the truth of God. I’ll address each of these and how they are actually compromised in our previous attempts to uphold them and strengthened by our return to a true grammatical-historical method.
Our approach is not that we force an irrelevant text to be relevant because we wish it to be, rather we believe we are approaching an immensely relevant text and are attempting to interpret it as such. The problem isn’t with the idea we are trying to uphold so much as our short circuiting the process. Knowing the text to be relevant to us, we open it up and begin to read with the question of “How does this apply to me today?” This is one of the last questions we should be asking. Among the fist questions to be asked are: “What were the circumstances that spurred the text to be written?” and “How did the original hearers interpret what was being said in the text?” When we skip questions like the two just mentioned and head strait for the application of the text, we more often than not get the application wrong. Having literally ripped the text away from its historical setting, we make it open to an infinite number of erroneous applications. Having divorced it from it’s historical meaning, we are able to inject our own meaning into it and act surprised when we find how a passage dealing with the Babylonian captivity of Israel applies to our dilemma of whether to go visit our mother-in-law for her birthday using the money we had set aside for the tithe.
This is how we successfully compromise accurately interpreting the text, which leads to an inaccurate application of it, by trying to apply it before we’ve understood it. Like my 1 year old son who is amazed to find that other boy staring back at him through the mirror looks exactly like him, not realizing it’s his own reflection; we are merely reading out of the text what we’ve read into it.
The Timelessness of the Truth of God:
Although a little different mental approach to the text, reading the text as unfading truth rather than just looking for relevant principles, the end result as well as the process of arriving there are pretty much the same. We pick up the text and begin to read stories that take place, as far as we’re concerned, in a historical vacuum. For example, we interpret the parables and other teachings of Jesus without regard to the meaning of His chosen phraseology. For example: for Jesus to tell a Jew, whose entire life was steeped in studying and memorizing the Torah and the prophets, that He is the True Vine will be understood differently than had He said that to a Gentile with no understanding of Israel and it’s history. The Gentile would hear Jesus saying that He is the main source of life that we need to be plugged into (this isn’t as wrong an interpretation as an incomplete one). The Jew would understand that Jesus isn’t merely saying that He’s the source all need to be plugged in to, but that His is claiming to be true Israel and all the ramifications that go along with that claim. The error in this instance isn’t that we have completely misunderstood the text, but that we have not completely understood it.
To accurately understand Christianity as a whole, we must have something of a proper understanding of the time and place in history it was revealed. To restate: as Gentiles, we have left out one of the keys of understanding the Scripture – Israel. We have failed to understand the nation through whom God had chosen by which to bless the world. We treat the gospel story as: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation; when it is really: Creation, Fall, Israel, Redemption, Consummation. This lack of historical context has allowed us to spin as many interpretations as there are cultures in the world. We need to get back to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, which would give us a more proper understanding of the Scriptures and the Christianity they reveal, for (as J. Julius Scott Jr. put it) “it is through Israel’s history that God works redemption and makes Himself and salvation known.”