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January 27, 2011

Thursday Is for Thinkers: Lizette Beard

Thanks to Amy Hanson for last week's post on The New Old.

Today, I am excited to have Lizette Beard at the blog. Lizette is a part of our team at LifeWay Research, where she serves as a Project Manager for many of our research projects. She already has a Masters degree is missiology and is now pursuing her Ph.D. in the same.

Lizette has been a missionary to Alaska and Africa, and has been involved church planting for many years. If you have read any of my recent books, you will see her name in the acknowledgments. Lizette is one of the people that I am investing in and encouraging to be one of the future leaders in North American missiology. Simply put, she is an invaluable part of our team and I want you to hear from her.

Lizette writes on the topic of hermeneutics:

I took a hermeneutics class last fall-- not out of scholastic curiosity, spiritual hunger, or any other noble reason. I took it because someone made me do it. It was part of my prerequisites for the program at Southeastern Seminary where I am pursuing my Ph.D. in missiology. I had heard about hermeneutics, especially about those people who had "bad ones" or none at all, but I wouldn't have recognized one in its natural habitat. Five months later, I am pleased to report that the class was terrific and one of the most beneficial I have ever taken.

So what is hermeneutics? Danny Akin defines hermeneutics in his class notes as "the science and art of interpretation. It is a science because it follows certain rules. It is an art because it is a skill one develops with practice." It's the package of reading, understanding, applying and then communicating the Bible. It studies cultural context of Bible, the interpreter, and the audience. It addresses the challenges the interpreter faces when studying and communicating with all three contexts in mind. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes a bit of "want to," and I concede that my "want to" looked a lot like a "have to" when I signed up for the class. But, I was encouraged that those of us who serve the church should have a comprehensive approach to how we interpret and communicate God's Word.

First, I want us to help those who are confused by the Bible to be less confused. I experienced this as a new believer when I sat through a college retreat confused about the whole Saul/Paul situation in the New Testament. Regrettably, I developed the same bad habit when I teach. Too often I parachute drop people into a text with very little orientation to their surroundings. I can encourage people to read their Bibles, but if I've failed to equip them with tools to understand what they are getting into, how have I helped? So now I work to orient my listeners as to how a text fits in the overarching message of Scripture so they know where they are on the map.

We all want to read and feel something very specific for us when we read the Bible--at least I know I do. But a fixation on "what's in it for me" often leaves us looking for something that isn't always there and thereby missing what is most obvious. A foundational step is helping people seek to understand what the original author of the book meant to say and how the original audience understood it.

Second, I want us to help people learn to feed themselves from the Bible. We all want our pastor's Sunday message to be engaging, insightful, deep enough, practical enough, and specific enough for our own needs to satisfy us for the week. But that isn't always going to happen, and how grumpy we become depends on how starved we are for biblical nourishment. People will starve spiritually when we give them a spork to eat with--it's good for a drive-thru, but not a balanced diet. We need to teach them how to properly handle the scriptures through a strong interpretative process.

For example, consider how we often deal with biblical commands. We tell believers to obey them, but all of them? Or are some of them civil and ceremonial laws that have been fulfilled in Christ? Or are they moral laws that transfer from culture to culture and throughout time? Rob Plummer says that the Bible is not a "policy book, with each page giving equally timeless instruction" (40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, p. 169). We need to learn when we read texts in the Bible whether they are prescriptive (commanding us to do something) or descriptive (describing what someone has done--could be good, could be bad).

Another way we can show them is by example when we teach. We should say only what the passage truly says. So, after reading a passage and seeking to understand it on our own, look at a few reliable commentaries and a Bible dictionary to make sure our understanding lines up with trusted scholars. What appears on the surface as a simple explanation can miss the point that the author intended for the audience. For instance, when we teach on the passage about Jesus calming the wind and the waves, do we emphasize that it revealed Jesus as divine ruler or do we make a quick comparison to Jesus calming the "wind and the waves of our lives?" Hermeneutics is not your opinion of the text but instead communicating what God intended through the text.

I'm also more intentional now to remind people about how to read the different genres in the Bible. If someone reads a proverb like a promise, they are probably going to be disappointed. They aren't the same thing. Misunderstanding the type of genre being studied can lead to devastating results.

Finally, I think we need to learn and share a comprehensive approach to studying the Bible so we can "fight against crazy." And by crazy, I don't mean people who disagree on the finer points of theology or even big points of orthodoxy. I mean - CRAZY, you'll-grow-hair-on-your-bald-spot-and-lose-55-pounds-at-my-crusade crazy or send-me-$100-I-will-send-you-happiness-water crazy. When people are in pain and in crisis, they look for someone who will hold out hope. If we are diligent in equipping people to find their hope in Christ through faithful and responsible study of His Word, then the crazy patrol will not find an entry point to swoop in and lead the hopeless astray with a skewed understanding of the gospel.

I suggest starting with a foundation of learning why God's Word can be trusted. This is where systematic theologies begin--the study of truth. Helping believers gain confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible and familiarity with how to study it, equips them to feed themselves on God's revelation and makes them less vulnerable to those who manipulate it for irresponsible gain.

Where to start? Here are four books that I have enjoyed and have helped me find my bearings. None have to be read cover to cover but the first two lend themselves well to that.

  1. Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding & Living God's Word by George Guthrie.
  2. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by William and Howard Hendricks is a very easy read but jumps right into how to read the Bible with specific steps for observing, interpreting, and applying scripture.
  3. 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer
  4. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Dr. Bob Stein.

Hermeneutics helps us not to treat the Bible like it's a source to devise our own earthly insights but rather to search and hear God's timeless wisdom.

Feel free to discuss. Lizette will be interacting with comments.

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Thursday Is for Thinkers: Lizette Beard