Hermeneutics, the art and science of interpretation, sounds like a horribly dusty affair. And of course, some have handled the subject along these lines. This is not how it should be; when the question of how a text is to be interpreted arises, we should feel a leaden weight in the gut, and adreneline in the veins, as men feel before a battle. Of course we need to pay sound attention to our texts — but not as the scribes.
How we handle the Word of God has eternal consequences. If we trifle with the text, we are risking our own eternal salvation. Peter spoke of hermenuetics as a life and death issue; he noted that ignorant and unstable people twist the Scriptures, and that they do so to their own destruction. The word he used to describe the twisting is a word out of ancient torture chambers. The plain meaning of the text is put to the rack, and bizarre confessions are coerced from it. And unfortunately, to this day, when many self-appointed interpreters turn to their text, mayhem is in the air.
But despite this introduction, the interpretation of the Scriptures is not my subject. That has been ably done elsewhere in these pages. My point is somewhat downstream from this important issue, but still directly related, as all downstream issues are. The adoption of a disobedient hermeneuutic with regard to Scripture — or even the toleration of one — has broad cultural ramifications as well. How we interpret our most sacred text will have a profound impact on the respect we show, or refuse to show, to lesser texts. And in American history, we see the church’s disrespect for the text of Scripture followed, imitatively, by disrepect in our culture at large for lesser documents. We as Christians are the people of the Word, and how we treat the Word will affect how we and others respect the meaning of words.
This explains how we came to handle the Constitution of the United States the way that we do. The prevailing sentiment in our courts today is that the Constitution is a “living document” and that we should not attempt to tie it down to the “original intent” of the framers. But if we are not to be bound by the intent of the framers, then why not dispense with the framers entirely, and with the very idea of a written constitution? If all we wanted was a blank screen on which to project our current desires, then it would seem that all those curious, old-fashioned words just get in the way.
The reason we do this is that we want to have it both ways. Suppose we had judges who delivered their skewed rulings and, when pressed, said that they did this because it seemed like a good idea at the time. They had too much pizza the night before, and this ruling came to them in a dream. The general public would be upset, and the game would be over. But, in contrast, if they limited themselves to the plain meaning of the Constitution, their party would be over. And so the Constitution must be kept around to provide the smell of a hoary antiquity, and a relativistic hermeneutic is slapped on to provide them with the untrammeled liberty of doing whatever they want.
But these exegetical monkeyshines were not invented by Supreme Court justices. They were not developed by secular humanists trying to overthrow our fair Republic. In her better days, the Christian church had given to our civil republic the idea of limiting and defining the role of government by means of a written constitution. Just as the faithful had creeds and confessions, so the civil government could have a written civil order. And in her days of decline, the Christian church then showed our civil authorities what to do when these written documents get to be a little too stifling. How does one honor a document one is trying to circumvent?
Often a liberal is far more honest in handling the text than is an evangelical. This is because the evangelical is stuck with the results of his exegesis. The liberal can say that the apostle Paul taught the headship of the male in marriage, and wasn’t that silly? The evangelical, trying to keep up with current trends, and also trying to keep the Bible, has to try to make Paul into a nineties sensitive male, which is frankly not very easy. In the same way, a disinterested observer is often more honest in telling us what the Westminster Confession is saying, for example, than a fellow who has sworn to uphold it, but doesn’t want to. The issue is not strict or loose subscription, but rather honest subscription.
Jesus taught us to pray, asking the Father to treat us in just the same way that we treat our enemies. The principle can be extended to other areas. Over the last century or so, the Christian church in our nation has mishandled the Bible in remarkable ways, and has reinterpreted her own creeds and confessions in a fashion that can only be described as entirely dishonest. By this we were asking God to give us civil rulers who would behave in exactly the same way with our civil texts. We now see He has granted our request — and sent leanness to our souls.