Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air?


Howard Hendricks, his wife Jeanne, my wife Susan, and me at a DTS post-graduation party, May 7, 2005.

“Have you ever left a bible study feeling like you have your feet firmly planted in mid-air?” That is the question that Dr. Howard Hendricks used to ask when I was one of his Hermeneutics[1] students during my first semester at Dallas Theological Seminary. He knew, as most of the rest of us knew, how so many small-group bible studies are racked with superficiality and are “bible studies” in name only.

How many times had I myself sat in a bible-study circle of earnest young believers where the leader reads a text then asks the question: “What does this verse mean to you?” The inevitable response from the members in the circle is a cascade of ill-conceived interpretations that contradict one another, ramble into therapeutic incoherence, and ultimately miss the point of the Scripture. Then, after all had offered their version of “what this verse means to me,” the leader says “amen” and closes with prayer with everyone feeling satisfied that they had shared their feelings with one another. What I learned from Dr. Hendricks is that those kinds of “bible studies” are less a study of the Bible than they are a haphazard pooling of everyone’s ignorance.

As I finish my third semester of teaching hermeneutics to undergraduate and graduate students, I am contemplating Dr. Hendricks’ question again. It is clear to me that as long as there have been readers of the Bible, there have been disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture. This situation is due to no deficiency in the Scripture, but to the fallenness of its readers. How do we get our feet planted on the ground in our interpretation of the Bible?

The one question that must be answered as we interpret the Scriptures is what is the criterion by which we evaluate whether a particular interpretation is valid or invalid. Think about the young people sitting in the bible-study circle offering their contradicting interpretations. When interpretations contradict, it is possible for all of them to be wrong or for one of them to be correct, but it is logically impossible for all of them to be correct! So what is the criterion by which we distinguish a good interpretation from a bad interpretation?

I answer that question to my hermeneutics students by pointing out that any written communication involves three components: (1) author, (2) text, and (3) reader. Hermeneutical theories differ from one another in where they locate meaning. Some say the author controls meaning, some say the text controls meaning, and others say the reader controls meaning.

For instance, the New Criticism is an example of the second approach. This mode of interpretation was popular among literary critics from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s, and it focused its attention on the text as the determiner of meaning. Meaning was thought to be a property of the text itself, quite apart from anything external to it (including the author and the reader!). If you are familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot or Robert Penn Warren, then you know a little bit about the text-focused work of the New Critics.

I recently blogged on Stanley Fish, a prominent contemporary literary theorist, who falls in the third category. He would argue that it is not the author who gives meaning to a text, but the reader.[2] Fish, who is not the originator of this point of view, is but one of many literary critics that belong to the reader-response school of interpretation—“a group of approaches to understanding literature that have in common an emphasis on the reader’s role in the creation of the meaning of a literary work.” This approach is all the rage today in universities across America.

As with the New Criticism, the reader-response school of interpretation has not only affected the interpretation of biblical texts, but also the interpretation secular texts as well. Recent controversy over the role of federal judges in the intepretion of the U. S. Constitution is fundamentally a debate about who controls the meaning of texts: the author (i.e., the framers) or the readers (i.e., the judges).[3]

The hermeneutical approach that I advocate to my students is that the author is the controller of meaning. In other words, meaning is defined as the message that the author consciously wills to convey through the words that he uses.[4] That means that all attempts to distinguish valid interpretations from invalid interpretations must be grounded in what the author willed to communicate.

This is essentially the common sense approach to interpretation. When you read the words that I have written in this blog, you are trying to understand what I mean by what I say. If you were to have a conversation with me, you would try to interpret what I mean by what I say. If you try to read your own meaning into what I’m saying or writing, then there will be no way for us to communicate. You would never hear me, but only yourself. Common sense says that you should try to understand me (the author) and my intention in writing (the text) as you read (the reader).

An author-centered approach is also the one that best accords with what the Bible teaches. I could point to many texts, but let me select one: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:20-21). According to this text, the authors of the Bible were given a Divine competence that enabled them to express adequately the revelation that God had given them. If you want to know what God means in the Bible, then you have to get to the bottom of what the Spirit-moved human author meant when he wrote.[5]

I say all of this so that I can encourage all of you Bible readers to plant your feet firmly on the ground of the Bible, God’s holy and infallible word. But you cannot have your feet planted firmly on the word if you are seeking to find meaning in any place other than the author’s intention. So when we are sitting in the Bible-study circle, and the leader asks, “What does this verse mean to you?”, in love and with great patience, let’s endeavor to point our brothers and sisters to find out what it meant to the author. This may throw a wrench in the stream-of-consciousness approach to Bible study that is so popular today, but it will be the only way to avoid having our feet planted firmly in mid-air.
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[1]“Herman who?” is the question that many people ask when they first hear the word hermeneutics. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek word hermeneuō which simply means to interpret or to explain. Textual hermeneutics is the study of the principles that govern the interpretation of texts. Because preaching the biblical text is the central work of the Christian minister, a hermeneutics course is typically included in the core curriculum of seminaries and bible colleges.
[2]Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (London and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.
[3]On this topic, I commend to you John Piper’s sermon: “Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage,” preached August 7, 2004 at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
[4]This definition and indeed my whole hermeneutics course rely almost entirely on the work of Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). Dr. Stein was a great mentor to me when I worked as his graduate assistant at Southern Seminary. Other significant influences include: E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1979); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan, 1998).
[5]There is much to be said here about the issue of Sensus Plenoir, but I shall refrain for the sake of space.

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Stomping Your Baby To Death: Just or Unjust?

There are at least 30 states “that recognize the unlawful killing of an unborn child as homicide in at least some circumstances.” The laws that forbid such killing have come to be known as “Fetal Homicide Laws.” There is a situation brewing now in Lufkin, Texas that might call some of these laws into question from a constitutional perspective.

A 19-year-old young man in Lufkin, Texas was just sentenced to life in prison for ending his girlfriend’s pregnancy (source). The man was accused of stepping on his girlfriend’s stomach and causing her to miscarry. The hitch here is that he did this deed with the apparent consent of his girlfriend who wanted to end the pregnancy (source). Could he not argue on appeal that his girlfriend has the constitutional right to choose to end her pregnancy (à la Roe v. Wade), and he was just helping to carry out her wishes?

The case brings into sharp relief an inconsistency in our laws—an inconsistency that illustrates the immorality of abortion. John Piper has commented to this effect on the fetal homicide law in Minnesota:

“There is a fetal homicide law in Minnesota. According to the Minneapolis Tribune it ‘MAKES IT MURDER TO KILL AN EMBRYO OR FETUS INTENTIONALLY, EXCEPT IN CASES OF ABORTION.’ Now what makes the difference here? Why is it murder to take the life of an embryo in one case and not murder in the case of abortion? Now watch this carefully, because it reveals the stunning implications of the pro-choice position. The difference lies in the choice of the mother. If the mother chooses that her fetus live, it is murder to kill it. If she chooses for her fetus not to live, it is not murder to kill it. In other words in our laws we have now made room for some killing to be justified not on the basis of the crimes of the one killed, but solely on the basis of another person’s will or choice. If I choose for the embryo to be dead, it is legal to kill it. If I choose for the embryo to live, it is illegal to kill it. The effective criterion of what is legal or illegal, in this ultimate issue of life and death, is simply this: the will of the strong. There is a name for this. We call it anarchy. It is the essence of rebellion against objective truth and against God” (“Challenging Church and Culture with Truth”).

Pro-choice forces are aware of this tension, and that is why they are generally opposed to fetal homicide laws. Pro-choicers argue that these laws grant an unborn child legal status distinct from the pregnant mother, and this is a notion that they cannot reconcile with their own pro-abortion ideology. Therefore, they “prefer to criminalize an assault on a pregnant woman and recognize her as the only victim” (“Fetal Homicide Laws–What You Need To Know”).

It remains to be seen whether the 19-year-old Texas teen will have any success on appeal. But one thing is certain. The Texas state law is just and reflects the intrinsic value and personhood of the unborn. There is, therefore, nothing wrong with the Texas Fetal Homicide Law. I wish I could say the same for our ailing culture. Believe it or not, there are actually those who would want it to be legal for a father to stomp the life out of his unborn children. God help us.

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Chuck Colson vs. Mark Felt: Who’s the Hero?

Did you know that Chuck Colson went to prison for the very thing that “Deep Throat” is being lauded as a hero (click here)? Both men broke the law by leaking confidential FBI files to reporters. Both men’s crimes eventually came to light. Yet Colson went to prison, while “Deep Throat” (a.k.a. Mark Felt) got a pension. It seems so strange, therefore, that the big question on everybody’s mind is whether Mark Felt is a hero. Hardly.
In this Jan. 20, 1958 picture, Salt Lake FBI chief Mark Felt shows off his pistol skills. Breaking a silence of 30 years, Felt stepped forward Tuesday, March 31, 2005, as Deep Throat, the secret source to the Washington Post that helped bring down President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. (AP Photo/Deseret Morning News, Howard Moore)

So who is the real hero? Watergate was a national tragedy in which the whole nation got to see that some of its greatest generation had feet of clay. But God turned the scandal into a moment of sweet redemption for one of the villains, Chuck Colson. While in prison, Colson was born again into a new life of faith in the One who came to seek and save those who are lost. Chuck Colson never went back to politics but began a ministry to prisoners all around the world. Chuck Colson is not the hero, nor would he claim to be. The real hero is the One who takes broken men and puts them back together again. This One has become Colson’s hero, and He’s mine too.

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You Might Be an Evangelical If . . .

Common Grounds Online is running a hilarious blog-entry titled, “You might be an evangelical if . . .” All of the following is an excerpt. I’m laughing out loud!

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If you say the word “just” more frequently than the word “Jesus” when you pray…you might be an evangelical. . .

(See John Stackhouse’s Books & Culture review of Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf….

There is . . . a hilariously sober account of evangelical prayer practices that involve both the frequent use of the modifier “just” (as in “Lord, we just want to ask you”) and what Bramadat calls the typical evangelical mouth-click. He tries to interpret the latter remarkable mannerism:

Its location in the rhetoric is similar to and often follows the word “just”: “God, we just [pause.. click] want to thank you for your son and to ask you…” By implying that the speaker is unable to finish a prayer because he or she is overwhelmed by the opportunity to communicate with God, this sound softens the believer’s petition [which otherwise might sound arrogant].

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Disenchanted with Nixon and with “Deep Throat”


W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. ”Deep Throat”

The big story. “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon, has finally been identified in Vanity Fair as former FBI second-in-command, W. Mark Felt. The Washington Post confirms that Felt is indeed the man who provided critical information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their quest to expose the sinister machinations of Richard Nixon and his subordinates in the Watergate scandal.


Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and editor Ben Bradlee, center, confirmed “Deep Throat’s” identity on Tuesday. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post)

The coverage of this revelation has been pretty predictable so far. The old lines are still drawn. There are those who continue their loyalty to President Nixon who feel that Felt is a “snake” (e.g. Pat Buchanan), and others showing an obvious antipathy for the former president laud Felt as a national hero (e.g. John O’Connor). Republican talking heads seem to favor Nixon over and against Felt, while Democrat talking heads tend to favor Felt over Nixon.

Yet I don’t think an honest evaluation of the Watergate scandal allows us to be so blindly partisan. I am, quite frankly, disenchanted with the behavior of both President Nixon and Mark Felt. Both were duplicitous and told outright lies. For the President’s part, even if he did not direct the Watergate break-in (which is still up for debate, I suppose), he certainly tried to cover it up. The tapes reveal that much, as well as his not-too-infrequent ethnic slurs against Jewish people.

Felt also betrayed a trust when he leaked information to the reporters. Certainly he was under pressure, but he should have just resigned his position as second-in-command at the FBI, called a press conference, and told the world about the cover-up. Now that would have been heroic.

While I am thankful that the scandal finally came to light, I don’t want to be forced into the position of endorsing the actions of either man. They both had feet of clay.

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“Devoid of Content”


Stanley Fish, dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Stanley Fish has contributed an opinion editorial in today’s New York Times titled “Devoid of Content.” As a professor who teaches Greek and hermeneutics to undergraduate students and who has graded many papers, I have observed the same thing that that Fish has. Too many students are “utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence . . . Students can’t write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.” Though I am in substantial disagreement with Fish over hermeneutical theory (he is a reader-response critic), his analysis of the literacy crisis and the remedy in his pedagogy are brilliant. For the few language buffs and teachers who read this blog, I recommend that you read “Devoid of Content.”

Source: Stanley Fish, “Devoid of Content,” The New York Times, May 31, 2005.

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From the Halls of the M.A.S.H. Unit to Shores of the Abortion Clinic

The opinion editors of The New York Times have struck again. In one of today’s editorials, an attempt to be patriotic on Memorial Day weekend appears to be just one more cynical tip-of-the-hat to the culture of death. With a manipulative appeal to the compassion that Americans have for victims of rape and incest, the editors urge that our patriotic duty includes financing abortions for military women serving overseas who might not have access to affordable “healthcare” (In case you didn’t know, “healthcare” has become one of the left’s euphemisms for abortion).

Here is one more example of why the abortion debate in America remains stifled. The piece contains no serious engagement of pro-life arguments, just the same old hackneyed accusation that pro-lifers don’t care about victims of abuse. I guess the editors think that supporting the right of military women to have tax-payer financed abortions is the same thing as supporting the military. If they think they can use this ploy to trick pro-military conservatives into being pro-abortion, they have another thing coming.

Sources:
“Disrespecting Women Soldiers,” The New York Times, May 29, 2005.
“
California Democrats try to allow abortions for troops overseas,” Associated Press, May 25, 2005

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D. A. Carson Slams the Emergent Church

Carson, D. A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 250pp. $14.99.

If you were wondering whether D. A. Carson had an opinion on the so-called “emergent church” movement, wonder no more. In his new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, Carson delivers a biblical and theological wallop against a movement that he argues has been animated by the values of postmodernity. Carson saves what is perhaps his severest denunciation for the very last page of the book, and it packs quite a rhetorical punch against emergent thought: “Damn all the false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ” (p. 234). Continue Reading →

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Pro-Choice Groups: “No Comment” on Killing Infants Born Alive


President George W. Bush signs the Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 in Pittsburgh, Pa., Monday, Aug. 5, 2002.

In April, President George W. Bush issued a directive instructing doctors to make every effort to save the lives of premature babies born after failed abortions. The new measure is a step towards enforcing the 2002 law known as the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. Under this law, an infant that survives an abortion procedure is no longer a fetus, but a person entitled to emergency medical care and protection against child abuse and neglect.

This law was aimed at preventing situations created by botched abortions, where the baby survives the abortion procedure but is nonetheless left to die. Hearings in Congress on this topic produced disturbing testimony about failed abortions. One medical worker testified concerning one baby who survived an abortion: “the child was breathing, the heart was beating and the child continued to live for several hours” before finally dying.

According to the New York Times, Naral Pro-Choice America and the Center for Reproductive Rights were asked to comment on the new enforcement measure. Their response was a “no comment.”

I think it is remarkable that Naral and the CRR cannot recognize the absolute atrocity of letting a little baby die on the operating table. I know that Naral and the CRR are clear about their support for legalizing the killing of unborn babies. But why can’t they be just as clear in condemning the killing of babies born alive?

Maybe it’s because these pro-choice advocates would have to admit that there is no morally significant difference between the baby inside the birth canal and the baby outside the birth canal. If the baby is treated as a human person immediately after birth, why is not treated as such immediately before birth? Does the baby go through some magical transformation from non-person to person in the inches that separate the pre-born form the born?

I think the pro-choicers know that if life is treated as precious just outside the womb, then there is no reason not to treat it as precious just inside the womb. And they don’t want to go there. This is why the pro-choice group had “no comment.” Truly there is no sane comment that could justify their morally indefensible position.

Source: “New Attention for 2002 Law on Survivors of Abortions” – New York Times

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Exploding the Myths of Pro-Choice Arguments

The results of a new study in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology say that women who have an abortion are 1.7 times more likely to give birth prematurely in a later pregnancy. This finding has the potential to explode some of the myths of pro-choice advocates who do not want to admit that any adverse consequences result from abortion. The only way to keep this bomb shell from going off is to keep it buried and out of public view. Let’s see if we hear anything about this story in the news in the coming weeks. Don’t hold your breath.

Sources:
“
Revealed: how an abortion puts the next baby at risk,” by Michael Day, The London Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2005.
“
Previous induced abortions and the risk of very preterm delivery: results of the EPIPAGE study,” by Caroline Moreaua, et al., BJOG (April 2005).

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