Our challenge is to find harmony in the pneumatic and cognitive ways of interpreting a text. According to Fee and Stuart, the proper control for understanding what the text means now is to understand what the text meant then. 1 God did not speak into a vacuum. His words had meaning to the first folks that heard them or read them. The sacred texts arose from real life situations from real people’s lives. The message of the text we read today was to them. Hermeneutics helps us read what was written several thousand years ago and finds meaning for us in the present. If we don’t use some way of grounding the text, then the reader, as is common in the “cult of the individual” who is devotionally reading the text, can and often does make the text say something completely different than what it is really saying. That subjectivity reigns is the most often leveled criticism for those reading with pneumatic interpretive eyes or rather listening to the text with pneumatic interpretative ears.
When we allow a guide, like the one from Fee and Stuart, to help us in our interpretative journey, we will have less of a chance to misunderstand a text thus making a mistake like the Jehovah Witnesses, which say “Jesus is not God.” Or, that the church “should baptize on behalf of the dead” as the Mormons do. Or, that “healing” and “prophecy” are more important than “caring for the poor, the widows, and the orphans” as some church groups boisterously and festively celebrate today. Or, misreading critical texts about “women in ministry” that is prevalent in today’s church. These are all errors in hermeneutics because we start with ourselves as the final arbiter for interpretation, and we have an arsenal of “prooftext” to prove our point, instead of good exegesis of the text. The end results of following this pattern of individual subjective readings is to realize that the meanings we hold as valid are likely invalid because we simply started with a misguided presupposition.
As readers, we all want to know what God has said so that we can better live into his story today. That’s a righteous concern. However, what could be considered unrighteous is taking the liberty to make the text mean anything that we want it to mean and then give the Holy Spirit credit for that meaning thus giving our readings a sense of authority.
From the quietness of my writing space, I can hear the wailing “moos” of sacred cows as the knife of death is striking them to the ground. I know, I know, I’ve been there and it’s painful. However, to be clear in this section, let me say that I am not saying that we should stop reading our Bibles devotionally. What I am saying is that we need to learn to read with a guideline that says, “what it meant is what it still means” to guide us along and bring some harmony into our life of living into the story. In short, sometimes we should allow the Bible to read and interpret us and not the other way around. We should look for the harmony of cogitative and pneumatic reading of the text and not be dominated by either. Remember, the context of these thoughts is interpreting Scripture. I am not writing about hearing God’s voice as we chat with him and he chats with us. That’s a completely different issue, which is not within the scope of this presentation.
However, it is fair to say that a purely individualist devotional reading of the sacred text leads us to some pretty bizarre interpretations. You’ve heard them. You may have taught some of them. Ouch, to myself as I write and read those words.
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 74. ↩