Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

I was reared in a conservative evangelical tradition that was heavy on strict grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I have repented of that school of thought in favor of following the examples set by the NT authors themselves.

Look, you know I love you, but there’s no point in mincing words here: you guys suck at reading narrative. I mean, it’s terrible. Either you reduce the story to a disconnected set of little morality tales for Sunday school kids, or you chop it up into however many dispensations or homogenize it all into two covenants (or both). At best, you think it’s there as a means to the end of teaching “doctrine,” by which you mean something like systematic theology. In practice, of course, many of you mostly ignore the narrative in favor of the church epistles, especially in your preaching. To be fair, you’re mostly pretty good at the church epistles. Straight-out didactic literature is your forte.

But look, the narrative is three quarters of the Bible. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and your hermeneutics courses are all a-flutter with warnings against “getting doctrine from narrative.” This means — it has to mean — that there’s something wrong with your hermeneutics. As long as you insist that your hermeneutics are fine, you’re going to continue to have the same problem, to wit: you don’t know how to read three quarters of the Bible. As soon as you contemplate some sort of hermeneutical repentance, though, you feel as though you’re about to throw open the door to every perversion and silliness that hermeneutical laxity has ever visited upon the Church. How can you proceed? How can you gain the ability to read the other three quarters of the Bible well without falling victim to the many traps and pitfalls that have snared so many of your unwary brethren?

I want to make an observation and propose a way forward. The observation: you’re scared. If your reason for avoiding narrative is that you don’t know how to avoid hermeneutical excesses, and your response to your lack of skill is to run away and hide in a church epistle…stop it. You can’t learn to swim by running from the water. God has not given us a spirit of fear.

Now, for a way forward. It’s simple in concept, sufficiently rich to cover the variety of problems you’ll have to face along the way, and as a bonus, it starts in your old stomping grounds — the church epistles. Even there, however, you’re going to have to face hermeneutical repentance. You’ve missed some pretty obvious stuff. The authors of the church epistles had none of your reluctance about drawing doctrine from narrative. For example, you somehow fail to notice that Paul derives his doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 4 from the narrative accounts of Abraham and David — the very thing you warn your students not to do. Nor is that circumstance unique — the authors of the epistles overwhelmingly draw their doctrine from the biblical narratives. Peter does it. Hebrews certainly does it. James does it. Know why? Because they’re following Jesus–He did it too.

The authors of the epistles may not have left you a hermeneutics manual, but they certainly did leave you with an enormous set of examples. Start with Romans 4, and work your way out from there. What other examples can you identify? How might you follow the example set forth for you?

Of course I realize that there will be differences of opinion, excesses, and all that. Sure. But if you’re not willing to get out there and make some mistakes, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve gotta learn somehow.

Or you could keep being bad at reading three quarters of the Bible….

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2 Responses to Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

  1. mikebull1 says:

    Hi Tim – would you mind if I repost this on my blog?

    >

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Go for it! The wider we spread the word, the better. Oh, and thank you for the book! I’m looking forward to tackling it!

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