For an upcoming seminar I am taking, the professor wrote in the syllabus that we should be ready on the first day to answer the question, “What is your hermeneutic.” The book he has us reading in preparation for this discussion is Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post). At its core, Vanhoozer proposes what he calls a canonical-linguistic approach. With this, he critiques a postmodern tendency to place the authority of interpretation into the hands of a reader’s tradition and instead places the authority back onto God via his communicated word. Tradition does not critique Scripture, rather Scripture critiques tradition (hence, canonical).
The linguistic side comes into play as he draws elements from literary theory, and particularly plays, to introduce a way of reading the Bible: It is God’s story and God’s script that he has given to us to act out. Some cues and directions we must keep, while others we are free to improvise in the language and context of our culture.
My example: regardless of what we do, love must always reign supreme in our actions—both a love for God and a love for others, thus the command to love our neighbor as ourselves always applies without question. But in our context, if we are seeking to lead into the grace of repentance a transgendered person who has undergone a gender-change operation, then we must take the wisdom of the script and improvise the best we can… because, frankly, the Bible doesn’t really talk about that situation.
For me, I’m a guy who never has taken much interest in plays and classical theater, but I love stories. I like Vanhoozer’s overall direction, but with some modification.
In the talk recently about authorial intent and Christ-centeredness in hermeneutics (does that have to be an either/or?), I’d like to present what I call a hermeneutic of story. I’ve personally never encountered that terminology, but the ideas are far from original to me. Essentially, the way I read, teach, and try to lead others to read the Bible is as a story.
The Bible first is God’s story, second it is the story of people who lived its history, and third it is our story now.
As God’s story it is the perfect story he has decided to tell about himself and the universe he chose to create. At the heart of the story is his own glorification through the cross of Jesus as he creates an eternal people who love, follow, and worship him. The story starts, “In the beginning, God.” The finer points of theology help us understand that Father, Son, and Spirit eternally existed in perfect love and harmony before he brought our universe into being. The Bible doesn’t much go into detail about God’s eternal existence before he created, nor does it much attempt to explain God’s existence. Rather it assumes it. He is the author, after all, and a story only exists because the author pre-exists.
We find in 2 Timothy 1:9-10 one of the few hints of God’s thoughts and activities before he brought our universe into being. Paul wrote that God saved us “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (or before times eternal), and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus.” When we couple this with the fact that all things were created through Christ, for Christ, and by Christ (Colossians 1:16), we see the Father’s intention has always been his glory through the cross.
Towards the start of his ministry, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). And after Jesus was crucified and rose from the grave, he appeared to different people and taught them that everything which had happened to and through him was the whole point of the Old Testament (Luke 24:13-49). Every page of Scripture, every passage, and every story within the story drips with meaning about Jesus. It is indeed Christ-centered.
It is God’s story that he is telling.
I don’t know who thought of it first, but I see it several places now—I like the breakdown of the plot into four major movements: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Each point can be found all throughout Scripture, but in general you have creation in Genesis 1-2; the fall and it’s tragic effects in Genesis 3-11; the move towards redemption via the cross in Genesis 12-Revelation 13(ish); and the final judgment of sin and the restoration of creation and God’s people in Revelation 14(ish)-22. It all flows from beginning to end—The Garden of Eden to the Eternal City.
And all for the glory of God.
As the story of those who lived its history, we see that God chose to write his story through the history of a particular people spanning a few thousand years. In a world broken by sin, these were people meant to provide hope. Chosen by God for no reason other than his own mercy and grace, they were to illuminate the world with righteousness and the knowledge of him. God made covenants with (promises to) the people; and though he was always faithful, they often strayed back into the tragedy of sin as they let the world darken their light. Yet even in their unfaithfulness, God raised up One Man from among them to be Light and Salvation. Through this Man, his Son, God reshaped his people and gave them his Spirit—his seal of a new covenant that would never be broken. This people would take his story to the entire world until the time of the Son’s return to restore creation.
The lives and happenings of these people, good and bad, were written down and handed to the world. In some cases, we find books of their history and genealogies; in other cases, their poetry and songs of worship; and still in other cases, their prophecies and letters of instruction, rebuke, and encouragement. Each details the history and lives of real people and God’s interaction with them in their language and their culture. The story is historical.
As our story now, we find we have a place and part. If we belong to Jesus, we are Abraham’s children. The history of those who lived it becomes our history, our linage. Our culture and language has changed but God still moves and works. He told his people then to take his message to the ends of the earth. We are the ends of the earth. If we receive Jesus, we receive his story with joy. Through Jesus, God has redeemed us from all lawlessness and purified us for himself to be a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). In Jesus, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that we might proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
The pages of the written story have been long completed, but we still carry on the living story. We live in redemption, marching towards restoration. Though physically we may belong to this world and the nations of our time; eternally we belong to the Kingdom of heaven. We live as strangers and exiles, longing to see the day that Kingdom also becomes the Kingdom of a new earth.
Though Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago, through his church indwelt by his Spirit, Jesus walks the earth in us today. We continue the story by continuing to spread the light and knowledge of God to the world around us. The story is present.
Christ-centered. Historical. Present.
Such a hermeneutic views each piece of the story through these three lenses. Take the Exodus for example, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As historical, this was an event that happened to a particular people living centuries ago. It fulfilled a promise that God made to Abraham—to make from him a great nation and give them a land, after a 400 year wait. God redeemed them for his glory, manifesting great wonders before a godless nation as he marched the people away from their bondage and towards their promised land.
As Christ-centered, the people foreshadowed Jesus. After his birth, his family was forced to hide for a while in Egypt before returning to their land. Not only this, but Jesus stood as the greater Moses—a Savior who would miraculously pull his people out of their darkness and enslavement to sin and bring them into a true and eternal Promised Land.
As present, we are a people born in Egypt, born under the curse of sin and guilt of Adam. Enslaved, we cannot free ourselves. But Jesus rescues us from the bondage by grace through faith. Now we follow him, our Moses, as we march through the wilderness; feeding on him, our manna; and drinking from him, our water from the rock. One day we will find ourselves no longer in wilderness as we step into the Promised Land.
And the story continues…