Tag Archives: hermeneutics

I Am Haunted by Waters (Walking on Water, Part 3)

To borrow a line from A River Runs Through It: I am haunted by waters.

Specifically, I am haunted by the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water in Matthew 14. More than 6 years ago now I wrote a post pondering my negative reaction to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based entirely on Peter’s little episode. (Or more specifically, my negative reaction was to the first 30 pages of the book. I couldn’t read any further.) That turned out to be one of my most discussed musings: a long (for a blog) conversation about calling, growing as a Christian, trusting in God, and stepping out in faith. I look back at it as marking a watershed (heh-heh-heh) of sorts in my life. I had been in a personal rut, directionless, for about 6 years, but within a year of writing that post I began what some might call “stepping out of the boat,” according to the popular interpretation of that story.

My beef with the popular interpretation remained, however. Two years ago, I came across a different though equally, if not more, plausible interpretation of the passage, one in which Peter’s actions aren’t commended as a model for all Christians to follow.

I hadn’t thought about it at all since then, but as it happened, the speaker at this weekend’s family camp used that passage in one of his sessions. He was preaching a series on trust and his take on this passage was again along the lines of the popular stepping-out-in-faith reading. My response was again negative, though to a much lower degree. Perhaps this will mark another watershed in my life, but this time my response is more along the lines of how we interpret this passage.

Let me say this first: I’m not questioning the speaker or his motives or his overall message. I believe that we need to trust in God fully for everything. That is what faith is. I believe that sometimes we are called to do difficult things and when that happens we need to “step out in faith,” but that this could mean anything from sharing the Gospel with a friend, repairing a broken relationship, making Kingdom choices rather than cultural choices, moving to the inner-city to work with the poor, or selling everything and moving to the jungles of South America. Some are called to what from the world’s perspective are “great things”, but I believe that we are all called to something specific and, when it comes down to it, things greater still in the Kingdom of God: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

My concern with the popular reading of Peter walking on water is a general concern about how we read scripture. In the case of Peter walking on water, there are several dangers I see which could be applied to our interpretation of any passage of scripture.

One is that we interpret how we’ve always interpreted it. I value the tradition of the church—that is, the wisdom of the Christian witnesses who have gone before—and so I want to be careful not to argue for innovative readings of scripture for no reason other than innovation. What I intend to say is that whenever we read scripture, we need to read with fresh eyes and open ears. We may have misinterpreted it previously, we have missed a detail or an important contextual element, or the Spirit may simply have something different to tell us about the passage.

A fine example of this happening to me was Matthew 24:36-41. That’s the passage where Jesus talks about what it will be like when he returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” This is where I assume the Left Behind book series gets its name; I imagine this was also the inspiration for Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The popular interpretation among conservative evangelicals, and the assumption behind both the books and Norman’s song, is that those in the passage who are “taken” are taken to be with Jesus and the ones who are “left” are unbelievers who, depending on your eschatology, will either have to suffer through the Great Tribulation or suffer some other terrible fate from which the believer is spared. But when you look at the context of Jesus’ words, you notice that he says that his return will be like the days of Noah in which “the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, it seems that Jesus intended a meaning reverse to the popular reading: those left behind are the children of God; those taken are unbelievers. When it comes down to it, it’s a rather minor point (though it may have repercussions for our eschatology), but it was an eye-opener for me in terms of needing to read scripture with an eye for the details and context. We need to be attentive rather than lazy readers (I continue to struggle with lazy reading).

When we look at the details of Jesus and Peter walking on water, we see this: Jesus walks out to the disciples on the lake; they are afraid; Jesus reassures them by identifying himself; Peter says, “If it’s you, let me come to you”; Jesus calls him; Peter walks on water; Peter becomes afraid and starts sinking; Jesus calls Peter one of “little faith” and wonders why he doubted; Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat. These things we know for sure. In addition—and I think this is important—we note that Jesus does not challenge the other disciples for staying in the boat. From the looks of things, they weren’t all meant to walk on water.

We don’t know whether Jesus intended for Peter to walk on water or if he was just responding to his request. We don’t know to what Jesus was referring when he asks Peter why he doubted: did Jesus mean to ask why Peter doubted his ability (through Jesus) to walk on water or why he doubted Jesus’ self-identification or maybe both.

The problem I see with the popular interpretation of this passage is that it makes much of Peter’s getting out and walking on water, but makes little, if anything, of his doubt. In addition, the popular reading tends to project a negative image on the rest of the disciples (who did not get out of the boat) which the text in no way calls for.

The second, and possibly more insidious danger in how we read the text is hearing what we want to hear. I think this danger is possibly worse than the first one because it appeals to our emotions so much—we understandably like hearing positive, encouraging things, and we don’t like the resulting feelings to be questioned. We may continue interpret a passage a certain way simply because it’s a nice, encouraging sentiment, because we want it to mean that. What we want it to mean may even be a true sentiment, but it may not be the meaning of the verse or passage. Nobody likes a bubble-burster; nobody likes to have their bubbles burst. We may reject  a bubble burster’s attempted bursting by saying, “But my reading is also true, right, so…” as if the truth of an idea is itself enough to justify imposing on any old text. This is the problem with proof-texts or life-verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”): it may be true about me in a general way (insofar as I fall into God’s redeeming work in history), but this verse is not about me or you, it’s about Israel first and foremost. So I can claim this verse as my hope for my part in God’s future for creation; I’m not sure it’s proper for me to claim it as God’s specific promise to me and my life as it relates to my career or family or retirement, as much as I would like it to mean that.

How does this apply to the popular reading of Jesus and Peter walking on water? The popular reading smacks a bit of a Christianized version the “American dream”: you can do great things through faith in Jesus, almost to the point of Jesus being the means to the end of doing great things. We like to hear the message that God has wonderful things in store for us and that we are destined for great things if only we would believe and act. While I am inclined to say that, with some reservations (e.g. those mentioned above in reference to the Jeremiah passage), that this is true, given what we know and what we don’t know about this passage I don’t think we can honestly say that this is what this story is about.

For one, the story survives if we take away Peter’s part of it, as the other gospels have done. One could say that Matthew included it for a purpose, but the knows and know-nots of the passage are such that it’s difficult to say what that purpose might be. So I’m inclined to think that we misplace our focus if we pay too much attention to Peter in this passage. I think the story calls us, not to walk on water, but to trust in Jesus, whether he wants to walk on water or stay in the boat. Jesus where our focus should rightly lie.

My other concern with this story and our superimposing the things we like or prefer on it is how we define “walking on water.” I think the tendency is to think of this as “doing great things” for God (at least on the surface) or otherwise. But there is no clear idea as to what such “great things” might be. Will we then come up with our own things? will we superimpose the American dream of wealth and happiness? I’m reminded of Jesus’ observation that the poor widows offering of a few coins was greater than the large offerings of the wealthy; I’m reminded of the Beatitudes: the great things of the world are not the great things of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may well be calling you and/or me to “walk on water,” but I’m not convinced the story of Peter’s walking on water is intended to do this. Neither am I convinced that “walking on water” would be becoming the next Billy Graham or Mother Theresa any more than becoming a peacemaker in our communities or sincerely praying for our enemies and wishing them the good life.

And so ends today’s musings on scripture and Peter walking on water. You may wonder why I would waste so much time and energy talking about this passage. You may even think this is all done in resistance to the truth in this passage. You might be right. Time will tell. Part of this post is certainly “reactionary.” But I find great joy in this sort of thing: to go back to a passage like this one (or, say, Genesis 1), to really pay attention to it and wrestle with it again and again.

What happened to Judas?

I’m not sure where her question originated (since it wasn’t discussed in class), but after Sunday school on Sunday one of my jr. highers asked me how Judas actually died. The question is arises out of the apparently inconsistent scriptural details surrounding Judas’ demise. Matthew 27:3-8 says this:

 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Acts 1:18 says,

Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.

So did Judas hang himself or fall to his death? And who bought the field–Judas or the priests?

Let’s break this down. The details on which both passages agree:

  • The field was bought with blood money.
  • Judas died (suicide is suggested by both passages, but that might be Matthew influencing our reading of Acts).
  • The field was known as The Field of Blood.

Details on which both passages may or may not agree:

  • How Judas died–did he hang himself? or did he fall to his death? Or was it both? This, I think, is only an apparent contradiction, not a real one, because Acts doesn’t necessarily contradict Matthew on Judas’ death.

Details on which the passages disagree:

  • Who bought the field.
  • The reason for the field’s naming.

There are a number of ways we could deal with these discrepancies. With a little help from the ol’ noodle as well as commentaries on Acts by F.F. Bruce and I. Howard Marshall, here are three possibilities:

1. Who bought the field? Perhaps the priests, wanting to distance themselves from Judas’ blood money, purchased the field in Judas’ name. In this way, the story Luke (or Peter) had heard around Jerusalem had Judas’ name associated with the purchase. Matthew’s source perhaps knew who was actually behind the purchase. (As an interesting aside, the Greek does not specifically name Judas as the purchaser, but context makes it pretty clear that the writer had Judas in mind.)

2. Did he hang himself or fall to his death? It could be both. It does not say in Acts that he threw himself down, but simply that he fell. Actually, it’s not even clear that it says that. The word that is usually translated “head first” or “headlong” could also mean “swelled up”, as a footnote in most modern Bibles indicates (though, to be fair, “headlong” is the more likely meaning, at least as a standalone word). Additionally, the verb “falling” does not appear, but is an interpretive addition by the translators, presumably to makes sense of the noun “headlong.”

So here’s a proposal: Judas hanged himself, his body bloated in decomposition, and then the rope broke or his decomposing body broke apart and it fell to the ground, splitting open his stomach and spilling his guts. Gruesome!

It’s difficult to decipher much from the context. The passage in Acts is only one sentence and really seems to be glossing over the details anyway. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that falling in a field doesn’t generally cause one’s stomach to split open. Pertinent details are clearly missing from both accounts, and the writer of Acts doesn’t seem all that concerned about it–he really tells us very little. He’s just interested in telling us that Judas is dead and needs to be replaced in the Twelve.

Which leads me to the third and probably best approach:

3. Don’t reconcile the two accounts at all. It’s certainly fun to surmise, but it’s not an exercise necessary to understanding these passages or trusting scripture in general. The writers of Matthew and Acts don’t seem too worried about those particular details, so why should we be? Scripture is a divinely inspired text, but it was nevertheless written by humans with all their limitations in perspective and knowledge. And it was written in a time when the kind of detail modern, “enlightened” westerners expect was not necessary. And this: even a divinely inspired text need not have every detail spelled out to their minutea.

So, there are theoretical ways to deal with discrepancies between the two accounts of Judas’ death, but they remain theoretical. And they are in the end unnecessary, particularly for a minor point of history like this one. So, in the end I have no firm resolution to the problem presented!

Hermeneutical trump cards

In order to produce a ‘normative’ statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest. This functions, at both a scholarly and a popular level, by means of elevating certain parts of the theology of the New Testament…into a ‘canon within the canon’…. This is not to say that one should not operate with some sort of inner canon: all interpreters do, whether they admit it or not, in that all come to the text with some set of questions that begin the encounter. The question then is: what should we do with this starting-point? Should we use it simply as a way in to the material, remaining conscious of its implicit bias? Or will it be used as a Procrustean bed by which to measure, and condemn, the other bits that do not fit? (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21-22.)

Hermeneutics is not just a question of what we do with the text. It is also about recognizing what we each bring to the text or impose on the text.

One of my papers for my hermeneutics class last semester was on the subject of infant baptism. The assignment was to take an issue that has divided our church (or the church in general) and examine the hermeneutical questions and challenges of each position. What made this paper particularly interesting and useful was that we were not to take a side on the issue, not to argue for one or the other, but simply to present the respective arguments and then examine and critique the hermeneutical issues at hand.

I chose infant baptism because I grew up in a believer baptism setting. That is, the denominations in which I participated did not practice infant baptism, but only baptized adults (or individuals beyond a certain age) who have made a personal decision to follow Christ. The denomination of which we are now a member and in which I hope to be ordained practices both infant and believer baptism.  What this means is that the child of believing parents is not automatically baptized. Instead, parents choose whether they want their child baptized or simply dedicated so that they can choose to be baptized on their own when they are older. After writing this paper, this conscience-based position seems like the sensible thing. However, pastors in our denomination are required to do both. If the parents want their child baptized, the pastor has to be willing to administer it. So this paper was a useful exercise for me.

There are a number of issues at stake in this issue, but I won’t get into all of them now, but one hermeneutical issue in particular stood out to me: giving certain verses or passages precedence over others. Among the various arguments for or against this position, there is one significant place where both sides use the same passages to argue for opposing positions: the household baptisms in Acts. The text is technically silent on the presence of infants in these household baptisms. The believer’s baptism-only side (credobaptists) argues that since infants are not specifically mentioned, they must not have been included. The infant baptism side (paedobaptists) will say that while infants are not specifically mentioned in the text, a household would by definition and in all likelihood have included infants.  In this instance, both sides are using the silence of the text to argue for their position. In other words, the Bible itself nowhere else explicitly states whether there were or were not infants included in these household baptisms. The interpreter has to make a hermeneutical decision as to how to approach these texts and “outside” (that is, from other parts of scripture or theology) influences inevitably come into play.

Of course, both sides have ways of supporting their position by drawing on other Biblical texts which indirectly relate. The credobaptist, however, will say something like this: “Every instance of individual baptism in Acts is preceded by belief/decision, so it follows that the same happened in the household baptisms.”  This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how I put it in my paper:

The question must be asked…whether the cases of believer baptism and the cases of household baptism are to be understood in the same way.  Is it reasonable to set a pattern for baptism that runs straight through both individual baptisms and household baptisms? Should the clear cases of individual believer baptism be given hermeneutical precedence so [that] they define the parameters of the more ambiguous household baptism passages? The believer’s baptisms are clearly dealing with adults, so it is not clear how they apply to the baptism of infants…

We do this sort of thing all the time, of course.  We use the passages that support our current position to smother the passages that seem to suggest something else. We are not comfortable living with the tensions of scripture. We like everything to be smooth and unambiguous, so we either overpower contrary texts  with the texts that support our position or ignore the contrary texts altogether.

But there’s no good reason that I can see for doing this sort of thing.  This is an example of what Wright calls “a canon within the canon”. We give certain texts more heremeneutical power than others, and it’s usually the passages which support our current position.  It looks kind of like this:

Paedobaptist: I think the household baptisms may at the very least allow for the possibility of infant baptisms.

Credobaptist: Every instance of an individual getting baptized in Acts shows clear personal commitment to the way of Christ.  So, I don’t think so.

Somehow, we think that simply naming the supporting texts is enough to deal with the contrary texts. But there’s no real reason for this.  The same thing will happen with many other issues. Christian universalism is a subject that I keep returning to.  It seems to me that the “hell passages” have been given trump powers over passages which may hint at something else or beyond.  So the conversation may look like this:

Universalism: I think the New Testament certainly allows for the possibility for universal reconciliation. Take, for instance, Paul’s writing about Christ dying once for all and Christ being the new Adam who does the sin of the first Adam.

Exclusivism: Yeah, but the New Testament has all sorts of references to hell and judgement.  So, I don’t think so.

End of discussion. But this kind of trump move is hermeneutical dishonesty.

Steam, Balls and Brass Monkeys: A Lesson in Hermeneutics

Wednesday morning in Hermeneutics class, we were discussing Biblical wisdom literature, and Proverbs in particular. Our professor, the esteemed August Konkel, was telling us that Proverbs function like riddles. He then used a cliché as an example: “He ran out of steam.”  The meaning behind this phrase is not self-evident–it requires a context outside of the text itself in order to be understood. The Korean students in the class did not know what this phrase meant, so we discussed steam power briefly in explanation.

Then Dr. Konkel said, “Here’s another good example: ‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.'” The Korean students didn’t understand this one either.  The North American students all started to laugh. The incongruity of the president of an evangelical seminary using such a crass phrase as an example in class was both shocking and delightful. We were all, of course, thinking of that brass monkey’s testicles.

The professor went on to explain that it is an old naval term, from back in the day when ships had cannons. “Brass monkey” was the name for a ring or triangle of brass that was used as the base to stack cannonballs in a pyramid (think of the thing you use to rack up billiards balls). Metals shrink in cold weather and brass shrinks faster than the iron in the cannonballs.  When it got really cold in the North Sea, the brass monkey would shrink and cause the pyramid of cannonballs to topple. Hence: it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Whether this explanation for the term is true or not (it appears that it is not) is beside the point.  The Westerners understood the term to be a crass phrase referring to a particular part of a monkey’s anatomy; the Easterners in the class simply did not understand the phrase at all; people from say, somewhere in Africa, may have interpreted it in another way. But none of our interpretations reflected the meaning of the phrase.

The point of the lesson was what a proverb is, but the unintentional lesson was one about how the inevitability of our cultural and experiential biases influence our interpretation of a text.  “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” made perfect sense to me, so I assumed to know what was meant by the phrase when in fact, my interpretation of that phrase was not even close to its actual meaning.

We do this with all sorts of “texts”: books, advertising, films, and even (perhaps especially) the Bible.

Which, incidentally, is why not even the most ‘literal, word-for-word’ English translation of the Old Testament will retain the phrase “hot of nose” in reference to God’s anger, because that phrase simply does not translate into English (just as “He ran out of steam” did not translate into Korean).

This is Our Father’s World.

I haven’t written anything about creation/evolution in a while.  I’m not really going to in this post, either. At least not in terms of theories or possibilities. However, the BioLogos Foundation has been posting a series of short video clips on YouTube, in which a variety of Biblical scholars talk about various aspects of creation/evolution, theology and Genesis 1. The videos featuring N.T. Wright were interesting, but this one with Bruce Waltke (conservative OT scholar, connected with the NASB, NIV/TNIV translations) sparked some new thoughts in my mind:

Initially I had some reservations with his concern about church becoming a cult (or at least looking like one), because that seems like a poor reason to accept a different view. But I think that what he says in this context (as well as his specific definition of “cult”–a “group which does not interact with the real world”) is important.

I think that if the data is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution, then to deny that reality will make us a cult–some kind of group that is not interacting with the real world…To deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death.

The implication of the creation story is that this world is God’s world and it his creation. To deny or ignore the evidence* in creation of the method or process of creation is in essence to deny the message of the creation story. It would be to “deny the truth of God in the world”–to deny what God has done.

In other words, to deny the evidence for evolution found in God’s creation is potentially more dangerous to our view of God than to affirm it. “It would be,” says Waltke, “our spiritual death.”

If God created the world, and the evidence within the world he created points to an evolutionary process, then we must conclude that God may well have used an evolutionary process to create the world.

God and evolution are not mutually exclusive.** For some reason this isn’t self-evident to many Christians. In fact, many Christians, at least by implication, would say that they are mutually exclusive, and so to preserve the one, we deny the other (some scientists will do this as well, except vice versa). So, for some Christians, the evidence must be either non-existent, faulty, or misinterpreted.

The comments on blog posts about this video show a certain lack of self-awareness on the part of the Christians commenting with unequivocal rejections of evolution. The general response of the Christian skeptic is generally that scientists are reading the evidence however they want to or that they are imposing their views on the evidence. However, Christians have to have the humility to recognize and accept that we are often no different when it comes to interpreting the “evidence” of scripture. We are often imposing our view on scripture rather than letting scripture be what it is.

Another comment might go something like this: scientists are making the evidence say more than it can. This is normally in reference to coming to naturalist/materialist view of the universe based on the evidence–i.e. the suggestion that the evidence proves that God doesn’t exist. This is a legitimate concern, but not reason to deny evolution or the evidence for it altogether (evolution and evolutionism/materialism/naturalism are different things**). But, once again, are we able to recognize that same tendency within our own views? Particularly as concerns the question of creation/evolution, are we making the Bible say more than it can or was meant to say?

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*the “if” in “if the data” is important. It’s important for two reasons: 1) most people discussing this issue in this kind of forum are not scientists. So we are dealing with what we think we know about the issue, which is probably not very much. 2) the “if” is not an implied denial of the evidence, but actually an affirmation of what is accepted by scientists generally (but, again, I need to be careful here, because I don’t know for sure), including scientists who are also Christians.

** it’s important to make the distinction between evolution and evolutionism–which is basically a distinction between science and worldview. When I say “evolution” I am referring to the scientific theory relating to the evolution of biological organisms. I am not referring to “evolutionism” or any of its worldview relatives. Unfortunately, many Christians conflate the two, making evolution a denial of God’s existence, which I think does a disservice to the scientific community as well as this whole conversation.

Buy me this t-shirt:

Somehow or other last week I wound up at the Cafe Press website looking at this t-shirt. It reads:

God said it.


I interpreted it
as best I could in light of all the filters
imposed by my upbringing and culture,

which I try to control for but you can never do a perfect job.


That doesn’t exactly settle it
but it does give me enough of a platform
to base my values and decisions on.

It is a satirical reworking of the old saying, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  If I didn’t have such bad experiences with fun t-shirts shrinking and wearing out very quickly, I might order one.  Perhaps there’s a mug available.

My hermeneutics classmates and I had a good laugh over that one, as it happens to be a fitting t-shirt for the stuff we’ve been discussing in class.

A couple of friends and I were talking about some “facts” one of them read on the internet and we came up with another variation: “The internet said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  Good times.