2 Sep 2008

Q & A on the Necessity of Hermeneutics

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Patternism, Preaching, Sectarianism, Unity
Over the last couple of weeks I have had an ongoing discussion through email on interpreting Scripture and whether or not we actually do it. This conversation was not initiated by myself but I have attempted to respond as I could to the questions. This exchange consisted of a number of questions I guess to peg me somehow. I have decided to share my rather off the cuff responses to this correspondent with my blog readers … I will preserve the informal nature of the correspondence here.

Bobby, The New Testament is God’s revealed will to His people in this dispensation … The New Testament is not so much in need of our interpretation as it is in need of being believed (Ep. 3:3-5) – I am to preach the Word, (2 Tim. 4:2)

(???) I have no doubt that the New Testament is God’s word. For the record I have no doubt that the Hebrew Bible is also God’s will and is inspired and good for doctrine and equipping the person of God (2 Tim 3.10-17). But your assertion that we do not interpret the Bible but simply believe or obey it is a matter I disagree with. Paul himself calls us to “handle” the word of God “rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim 2.15, NRSV). The context shows that some are indeed mishandling/misinterpreting the word thus Paul exhorts Timothy to know how to interpret correctly.

I suppose you can claim to simply believe but not interpret. Ok, then (since we have cited a number of passages in the Pastorals I will limit myself to them) do you believe that women are “saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2.15)? This is quite clearly what the text says, is that what you preach? Do you not call women to faith and baptism or simply to getting pregnant? Though I do not know you I have little doubt that you “explain” this text … you “interpret” it.

Just a few verses prior we learn that women are not to have braided hair, gold or pearls (2.9-10). That is what Paul actually says. Is that what the text means? Do the ladies in your congregation have “gold” wedding rings? Do any braid their hair? If you claim (in any fashion) that this text does not demand that of them then you are doing more than simply believing you are interpreting.

What about a few verses prior in v.8? The apostle commands men to “lift up holy hands in prayer” and ironically says “without anger or argument.” Just try that on Sunday and see if we simply “believe” but do no interpret. See how long it takes for “anger” and “argument” to break out. Some, perhaps you, will say that was “cultural” but brother that is an interpretation for Paul never places a footnote about it being cultural. This claim that we do not interpret the text is simply without foundation in reality. We do and we do every time we open the good book. The question is not whether or not we will interpret, rather the question is whether or not we will give a gospel interpretation.

You cite a lot of problems and controversies over the years … OK … I could cite tons more – that accomplishes nothing and proves nothing!! …

(???) but it does accomplish something. The folks in these controversies were arguing about Scripture … usually claiming to only read the Bible and not interpret it. Yet they were arguing about hermeneutics. We can say, as you did, we simply “follow the laws of communication” — ok so be it.

Hermeneutics is essential to communication, unconscious or conscious. Those folks, like W. J. Rice, quoted lots of Scripture to support his position. He appealed to the “pattern” revealed in Scripture. Interestingly he called R. L. Whiteside a “liberal,” “digressive” and a “rejector of biblical authority” because RLW did not quite see the pattern as he did. Whiteside accused Rice of inventing a pattern with details the NT itself did not. This was a debate over which incidental in the tapestry was ‘essential’ and which was not.

Our history is so relevant because it shows clearly that we never simply believed the word but rather we have interpreted it from day one. We can properly ask “did we handle it correctly” or “did we explain it” in a way that the mission of the Lord Jesus was exalted? This we can ask … and should.

The question is, I repeat, simply what does the Bible say? That’s what we want to know – I propose that we use the basic laws of communication … God revealed His will to us in words … human language, we therefore need to follow the laws of proper exegesis to come to a knowledge of the truth. Jesus used this method – Paul used this method – if it was good enough for Jesus it is certainly good enough for me. The CENI method is based upon these basic laws of communication … with all of your objections this truth still remains and cannot be denied.

(???), I agree that we need to know what the Bible actually says. But I also want to know what the Bible means. I think I have demonstrated the necessity of this in our previous exchange. Clearly Rice and Whiteside thought the words on the page meant something that they disagreed on, that fact proves that they interpreted the text.

The NT itself indicates we may need “help” in properly interpreting and understanding, not just reading it, even some very basic stuff in Scripture. For example in one of our all time favorite texts in Acts you will recall the story of Philip and the Eunuch. We have preached that text hundreds of times. But perhaps we rush to fast past what set up Philip’s teaching opportunity. The Ethiopian was dutifully reading the word. I am sure he even believed it. Yet interestingly enough the question Philip asked was not “Do you believe what you read?” but rather he said “do you understand what you are reading?” (8.30). Of course the Eunuch did not understand! Was Isaiah speaking of himself or someone else (v.34). Then he freely confesses, not his disbelief, but that he cannot “unless some one guides {explains for} me” (v.31). This shows that the text was not simply believed at all but “interpreted” and in point of fact interpreted Christologically.

You and I are on the same page regarding the “laws” of exegesis. Yet by confessing this you also confess the necessity of hermeneutics. Now it is my contention that we need to be continual students and refine our hermeneutical approach. It is necessary to do this on two fronts:

1) it will continually reflect the nature of the biblical text and the Gospel mission of God in Jesus Christ and

2) it must be able to address the world we live in.

Answers to questions that no one asks are irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worst. So, like Philip, we can look for a responsible “guide.” The guide the Ethiopian had been using proved useless in understanding the text … he needed a “new” hermeneutic. If our older way of reading and applying Scripture proves as unhelpful as the Eunuch’s is it any wonder that thousands in the pews of Churches of Christ are looking for a helpful guide. It is our responsibility to know the Gospel well enough to prove to be a guide. He who has an ear let him hear.

Here ends the current status of the dialog. I look forward to future conversation …

Seeking Shalom,
Bobby Valentine

27 Responses to “Q & A on the Necessity of Hermeneutics”

  1. Tim Archer Says:

    I’ve heard people say “We don’t interpret the Bible, we just try to understand it.” I guess I’m not sure what they think interpret means.

    We can never begin to come to an agreement on what Scripture means until we can come to an agreement on the rules of interpretation.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Jeanne Says:

    Oh, but doesn’t that scripture really say, “rightly dividing the word of truth”? So, if you divide the Old from the New, and just use the New, you’re doing it rightly, right?

    (Yeah, I’m kidding. Good article, Bobby.)

  3. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    It’s not always easy to see the line between “be patient, bearing with one another in love” and “avoid foolish controversies.” But it’s there.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Tim thanks for the comment. On target.

    Jeanne. What you say in jest some say with a straight face. For them “rightly DIVIDING” is simply sticking a page between the “Old” Testament and the “New”. It is interesting that Paul did not have that under consideration when he actually said those words though. Yeah Dispensationalism is bunk IMHO! Glad you liked my short Q & A.

    P.S. I proudly had my helmet on …

  5. Candle (C & L) Says:

    Bobby- Thanks for sharing and it is good to see a calm but clear explanation of the flaws in the statement “I don’t interpret.
    I just do what the Bible plainly tells me”

    One question I like to ask is “Have you ever been told that you failed to do some simple thing that someone asked you to do- even though you believed what they said and followed their instructions?”

    Most people if they are really honest and take the time to understand the question will admit – Yes that has happened.If you then ask why — it will likely beit was because “they” gave poor instructions but regardless the real answer is you failed to correctly interpret(understand and apply) their instructions. Even when the person giving the instructions is perfect(as God is) the receivers are always fallible humans and they will almost always misunderstand unless they pay close attention to their interpretative practices.

    I’ll admit that even after this exchange I still hear the broken record–butI don’t need to interpret the Bible- Sigh!!!

    God Bless

  6. James A. Wyly Says:

    Good blog, Bobby.

    I sometimes think that those who claim they do not “interpret” the Bible, but instead merely “believe and apply” it are so oblivious to their own thinking and reasoning processes that any dialogue with them is hopeless.

    Jim Wyly

  7. Ramblin' Red Says:

    Somehow, I’ve remained on your mailing list, Bobby – and I must confess, in withdrawing from God (though not turning away, just distancing) for a season recently (I’m back to clinging to Him) I thought I’d pop over.

    This resonates with me.

    This Sunday at church, a guest preacher (actually a member of our body) shared a great method (I thought) of interpretation – because yes, we have to interpret what that means to us in order to apply God’s word in our lives.

  8. David Says:

    I appreciate your article, Bobby, and am glad that others are thinking along these lines. It gets very frustrating dealing with the ‘it means what it says and it says what it means’ crowd who will then go great lengths to make something not mean what the plain meaning would indicate or bring an interpretation out of scripture that was never intended in the first place.

    Maybe the problem goes back to Alexander Campbell…didn’t he say something about being able to interpret scripture as if he’d never come across it before (you’re the historian, you’d know better than I)? It’s a great plan, but impossible to execute.

    Again, thanks for giving us stuff to think about.

  9. Lantz Says:

    Thanks for wrestling with this in an open and honest manner. You reached a balance of speaking the truth in love that we desperately need.

  10. John Gaines Says:

    Herman? Herman who? And what’s he doing with new ticks?

    Apparently there are a few naive people who don’t understand the simple fact that if we are going to “cut straight” the word of truth, we must have some method of doing so that leaves us with at least a reasonable degree of confidence that we have arrived at truth. The question is not IF we will do Bible interpretation, but HOW we do it. This is one of those things that is easier done than said. At least, all Bible students do interpret the Scriptures (with varying degrees of success), but it has proved to be exceptionally hard to clearly explain how it should be done. Many have written about it and provided some helpful principles, but no body has gotten it altogether right. This is as important as anything we’re doing as Christians. I agree with Tim — we have to agree on the rules of the game before we can settle the contest.

  11. preacherman Says:

    Wonderful thoughts Bobby.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    I hope we will interpret the Bible the way God desires. So many times I think we take it out of context to prove points, ideas, what we think should be doctrine. I have seen this done in the “great debates” of the past. I think it is sad. I hope we will read the Scripture like Christ. Again, thanks for your thougths on this important subject.
    I hope you have a great week.

  12. Royce Ogle Says:


    Of course you are right on target. Last night I read parts of an on going “debate” (ugh) between Al Maxie and some legalist zealot from Tenn. What an eye opener and makes your point perfectly.

    Religeous zealots have placed their flawed view of Scripture on the same or a higher level of authority as Scripture itself.

    In a part of the world I will not mention, the patternists are withholding money and food from the starving until they agree to preach thier warped view of the Bible. Men like that are not saved by any Bible standard.

    His peace,

  13. Bill Denton Says:

    Bobby, I was reading through your article and wondering where you were going and suddenly, there was the flag, provided by the guy with whom you were conversing: CENI! That explained a lot. Any good course on communication between human beings will educate a person to the fact that we all “interpret.” You have to. Thanks!

  14. Cheryl Russell Says:

    Your blog is a great encouragement to us! Thanks for using your gifts for good and not evil! (I mean this in a very Star Wars kind of way).

  15. Gardner Hall Says:

    Good,thoughful post! Of course you are right that we put meaning to the words of the scripture. The big question is how to do it correctly. You and others have effectively shown the pitfalls of trying to elaborate unwritten (usually five point) creeds, especially when such efforts are accompanied by a sectarian spirit that overlooks the greater principles of God’s grace and mercy. I’m with you in that battle.

    However, as you know, I fear that in legitimately reacting to some very real abuses, you may end up relying on a kind of overly subjective interpretive procedure that will be completely ineffective in dealing with apostasies such as those that have historically occurred through the centuries. May God bless you and help us all.

    P.S. Royce, the debate you mentioned is disgusting, with all the name-calling and exaggeration that too often characterizes debates. When I read I can’t help but be saddened at the way both sides miss basic spiritual principles. Both sides are a long way from the humble Carpinter from Galilee.

  16. Royce Ogle Says:

    The sad thing is that patternist zealots have reduced Christianity to rule keeping. That’s bad enough, but to complicate matters even more, what individual patternists find from the “silence” of Scripture, or from “necessary inference” are almost as varied as hair styles.

    Those who try to comply with the “pattern” (rules) may be comfortable in a congregation and then move to a new town only to find a completley new “pattern” there.

    What Christ has accomplished for sinners is enough, satisfies all the demands of a Holy God, or all of us will go to hell. NONE of us can of ourselves live good enough, comply well enough with law, to measure up to His standard of perfection. This is precisely why Jesus died in our place, completely paid for all of our sins, and fully met all the demands of the law. He did because we can’t.

    His peace,

  17. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    As always love to have your comments. I suppose in response I would say the first step is to actually admit, as you have done, that we DO interpret and must!

    Second I would suggest that there is plenty of “subjectivity” in the so called objective CENI approach. I think it can be and has been demonstrated conclusively to be the case. I also believe it has been shown that this approach is a distinctively “Modern” way of reading that has everything to do with the modern and even secular worldview and not much with the world view of the Bible.

    Heresy is a problem. But in the early church heresy (real heresy) was combated but not with the methods of any wing of the of CofC. Athanasius never heard of CENI. So we reflect, we pray, we ask guidance from the Loving Father, we stay focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ … this is how we avoid apostasy and heresy.

    Bobby Valentine

  18. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks as always for your loving response. I have no desire to defend some systematic hermeneutic and agree with you that seeking to impose such has been counterproductive (and yes, often involved much subjectivity) in Restoration History. Neither do I want to defend “CoC” or “noninstitutional” tradition and yes, such has often been reactive rather than submissive to God. In spite of the sectarian abuses that we agree have been harmful, I still believe that a common sense approach, i.e. an effort find Biblical precedents to authorize our practices is correct when properly placed in perspective with the overriding principles of God’s grace and mercy. The problems you (and Royce in his last post) often cite come from overlooking the latter, not from a humble desire to apply the former. Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to sort out what may or may not be the important elements in some Biblical examples, but such challenges reflect our lack of growth, rather than any flaw with trying to find precedent.

    You are probably right that few in the second or third centuries seemed to say “Where is the authority from Christ for diocesan bishops?” I know of no one during the development of the Roman hierarchy asking, “Where is the authority for archbishops?” That’s at least in part why we have Romanism! Let’s learn from the mistakes of the second and third centuries and ask those questions today. Is similar sectarian machinery today from heaven or men? Any approach that doubts the legitimacy of such a question should itself be doubted!

  19. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    In those years following the 1st century there was plenty of diversity. In reference to the development of “Romanism” as an example of what happens if we loose sight of proper approach to scripture is to nearly to miss the entire point.

    The canon was not quite agreed upon. Of course the general books that we now recognize were also recognized then but not quite exactly like ours. When heresy (like Gnosticism) was on the rise how did the church settle not only the controversy of which books but also what Doctrine of Christ? The bishop was seen as the holder of apostolic tradition. I don’t think this can be over emphasized. They certainly didnot have pocket NT to consult.

    How did they determine what heresy was? How did they combat it? It does seem to me that he early church had a much firmer grasp on what “heresy” actually involved … being noninstitutional or the opposite was not the the litmus test. What did you believe about Jesus … this was where it was at.

    Bobby Valentine

  20. Joshua L. Pappas Says:


    Kind greetings to you.

    My question, I suppose, is how do we draw lines based on what one believes about Jesus? It seems to me that if that was the sole way the ante-nicene church overcame apostasy, they had to have some standard or basis for deciding what one had to believe about Jesus. There’s a “pattern” or something there, is there not? No matter where we draw the line of apostasy/heresy, it seems to me that we have to have a concrete hermeneutic to do it. I agree with John G. and Gardner above, we’ve got to agree on the means of interpeting, or we’ll never be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

    p.s. It seems to me that if what you are saying about the ante-nicene church is correct, then they used a method that was itself a road to apostasy to overcome a worse apostasy.

  21. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    One more kind note and a question:

    In Acts 20, Paul said that from among those to whom he spoke would arise savage wolves. The seeds of apostasy were in place before the close of Century 1. Therefore, while we may find useful insight from the Biblical foreground of the 2nd Century, how can we know what is good and sound and what is not in their practices?

  22. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Glad to have you on board. First, for the moment lets put the canon question to the side, though it is of the utmost importance here. Just do an “inductive” study of the NT for yourself and look at the “pattern” … the “pattern” in the NT is not church structure which is where we have historically focused. The “pattern” is a community that imaged the kingdom of God in the present age. Or to put it more simply it was a community that was the Image of Jesus Christ in this age. That was the the “pattern” in the NT and it was in the second century too. The LIFE of the believer in the community of faith was where the pattern met reality. There is very little interest in the NT regarding structure … very little. I am not saying there is no interest just not much.

    So in the first century and the second it was not you are a heretic because you were a premillennialist but because you rejected the Christ. Maybe if accepting Christ was really a life or death decision today as it was then perhaps were would not think that is such a small matter. The early church did not.

    As for the nature of scripture that was discussed at length in A Gathered People and I simply refer you to that.

    Apostasy did arise from among leaders in the early church. Acts 20 I doubt is speaking of the development of Catholicism however. No more than 1 & 2 Timothy are. The heresy was already present with in the congregation. Interestingly enough it seems that a mark of unsound teaching was a thrill in wrangling over words … you see it was hard for folks who never had a printed page to argue over words. That is a modern development. But those who did Paul suggests are false teachers (2 Tim 2.14-18, 23-24). Again LIFE is very prominent in the context here not traditional CofC doctrinal concerns.

    Love for Jesus results in being a resident alien. This the early church embraced. This is where we need to go.

    Bobby V

  23. Gardner Hall Says:

    I think we’ve already been over some of this territory a few months ago, but at the risk of beating a dead horse, maybe a rephrasing of some of my points will help.

    * On the canon – Of course the canon wasn’t completely formed in the early part of the second century. This is a fact, but it’s beside the point. This was a time when the oral teachings were gradually being replaced by the written teaching of the apostles and prophets. Whether in oral form or written (“word or letter”), however, disciples had teaching of Christ’s inspired apostles about godly living, Christ’s deity and yes, about the organization and work of local congregations. Though the latter, of course, wasn’t by any means a hot topic nor as weighty as the others, neglect of it in the following centuries led to tragic results.

    * Though you are right that none of the earliest recorded controversies involved the development of the embryonic stages of the Roman hierarchy, maybe they should have! That’s my point! It seems that many second and third century disciples simply overlooked the development of the hierarchal monster in their midst. Let’s learn from their mistake and avoid it today!

    Perhaps a “back to the future” scenario might help: You are a Christian living in the late Second Century Asia. A powerful bishop you know wants to exert more and more control over other churches in the area and he sincerely feels that such control is compatible with his concept of Christ’s love and sacrifice on the cross. How do you respond? (a) Say that such an exercise of power goes beyond what Christ authorized through his apostles and prophets (whether by oral tradition or written documents) (b) Tell him that you would prefer that each congregation be independent and be governed by its own elders, but that such is only your opinion. (c) Don’t worry about this but focus only on Marcion, Montanism or some other more popular heresy (d) Say that it’s not that important because it’s not a weightier matter, (e) other.

    I wouldn’t have any problem choosing the first response “a.” There is nothing incompatible with that and with being a resident alien! How would you respond to such a scenario?

  24. nick gill Says:

    Like Rome’s growth, I do not believe that the growth of a bishop’s authority was typically motivated by the bishop himself.

    Rome grew because Rome did not like noisy neighbors, and because it had a reputation for fair dealing. It has been demonstrated pretty effectively that much of Rome’s growth (Palestine is a PERFECT picture of this) came because local rulers INVITED Rome.

    The same is likely true of early bishops. It is always easier for us to pass the buck than to think for ourselves. Far more likely that the most respected and well-known Christian leaders of certain areas were sought for answers to questions, and out of this came the short step from advice to authority.

  25. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    I’ve got “A Gathered People” with me and plan to read it soon. I’m sure I’ll let you know how I interact with it sooner or later in one way or another, but I’m not much of a book reviewer. 😉

  26. pfutrell Says:

    Hey Bobby…how many different “levels” of priests were there under O.T. Law ??

  27. Anonymous Says:

    GW – Hey Bobby, I think Gardner Hall has a very good set of questions and I look forward to your thoughts.

    I have often wondered what a book / movie would look like if someone today went back to the early 2nd century and tried to dialog *and* what the same would look like if someone from the 2nd century were brought here.

    What would we each say? What would I learn from them? What would they learn from me?

Leave a Reply