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June 16, 2016

The title above, and its variations, is one of those words that intimidates some people when others use it.  I remember being in a Bible study some years ago where the leader, in response to a comment from one of the participants, put a serious look on his face and said “You are making a grave hermeneutical error.”  The poor woman winced and I suspect that she is traumatized to this day.

Simply put, hermeneutics is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.”  When you try and understand what the Bible (or other texts) means you are engaging in hermeneutics.  Lately I’ve been following a rip-roaring but rather arcane hermeneutical debate among a small group of evangelical theologians.

At issue is an assertion made by some evangelical, reformed, complementarians that I Corinthians 11:3 teaches that Christ was and is eternally subordinate to God the Father and that this is the model for wives being subordinate to, and submissive to, their husbands.  This prompted a number of other evangelical, reformed, complementarians to take vigorous exception to the idea of the eternal subordination of Christ.  It is rather interesting to see two groups of scholars who are so close theologically that you couldn’t slide a piece of paper between them getting so irate over this debate.

Charges of error, and even heresy, have flown back and forth and a number of incredibly dense articles have been written to support both sides.  One such writer, having made his point, sums it up this way:  “I just don’t know if it is possible to salvage the subordinationist argument for marital submission….when two of the biggest names in fourth century trinitarian theology graciously dismantle your theological argument for basing human relationships on a subordinationist trinitarianism, the game is over.”

Ah, I get it now.

I’ve been following this discussion with a semi-befuddled amusement for several days now but more than anything I’ve wanted to shout at both sides, particularly when they accuse each other of not accepting the authority of the Bible.  This issue is not about biblical authority.  It’s about how the Bible is to be interpreted.  It’s about hermeneutics.  Simply put, when someone says, “I read I Corinthians 11:3 this way and here are the reasons why,” that person is not denying biblical authority. That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than saying “You’re denying biblical authority.”  Or, in other words, saying “It is me and the Bible against you.”

This debate, thankfully, is raging in such a small corner of the evangelical world that it probably doesn’t make much difference but there is one thing that it teaches – when we are doing hermeneutics it is all too easy for the best and brightest of us to bring our own ideas of how things should be into the discussion and passing them off as coming straight from God.

For the umpteenth time on this blog – let’s all express our understanding of the Bible with a large dose of humility and grace.


From → Christianity

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