Biblical Hermeneutics and the Indian Christian Student

The Indian Christian university student, says a member of an Evangelical Union, is interested in the Bible. He would like to understand it. He has had no formal Bible training, but has opportunity for Bible study, in groups, through the activities of the E. U. Still, he knows that he has little real Bible knowledge. And what is worse, he doesn’t think that he can get it.

As for hermeneutics, he may never have heard the word. But he reads his Bible (probably in the King James Version), thinks about it and gets some convictions of its meaning either through his own reading or through what he hears from preachers. So, he uses hermeneutics, though he doesn’t know it. He interprets the Bible. The trouble is that the hermeneutics he uses may be good hermeneutics or bad hermeneutics, probably some of both. What is serious is that though the student may use both good and bad hermeneutics he may not know the difference.

The result is that the Christian student is largely ignorant of the Bible. And there are factors that help to produce this result.

One major factor comes from the prevailing religious climate in India. A second comes from a section of the evangelical church. A third comes from within the student himself. A fourth comes from a current philosophical outlook.

There is a religious climate prevalent in India, one that is primarily in Hinduism but which also invades the Christian church. It is the conviction that religious knowledge can be possessed only by an expert. One may become an expert through a long period of discipline, self- mortification, meditation and specialized prescribed activities. These are means to that inward illumination or knowledge of the divine that makes the expert. He has experienced, he knows. As the idea comes into the church, it is that the expert is the one who has been theologically trained, or has a deep spiritual life and acquaintance with the Bible. But however he has attained it, the expert becomes a teacher or “guru. “ He alone has the knowledge, he alone can impart it. Others must get it from him.

Consequently many Christian students believe that only the theologian, the priest or pastor- the Christian guru -can know the Bible, and that they cannot know it themselves. Unfortunately, many of the clergy foster and perpetuate this notion.

This idea of knowledge only for the expert is not confined to India or the east. For example, note the following statement made by Dr. Daniel Fuller, of Fuller Theological Seminary, in his mimeographed volume, “The Inductive Method of Bible Study.”

“Likewise, if we are really interested in thinking along with the biblical writer’s thoughts-and thus God’s thoughts-we will never be satisfied until we are working, not with the translations of the original, but with the original words themselves. Yet by their very nature, translations come between the original author and the interpreter, and should therefore be of only secondary interest to those who wish to study the Bible with precision.

“In addition to the knowledge of the original languages, the interpreter should assure himself that the words of the text which he is studying represent the best results of textual criticism, but should examine the textual evidence himself.

“But now let us consider the various kinds of historical data that can be useful in interpreting the Bible. First of all, we must know the historical situation at the time a passage was written.

“We must also be aware of the customs of the people to whom a particular passage was addressed.

“We must also have an understanding of the temperament of the national group to which the writer and readers belonged.

“In addition, we should become well-versed in the geography, topography, and climate of the lands where biblical narratives occured. “We must know the cultural background of the writer and his readers.

“Where then should we look to find all this information? The answer is that we look to every source which gives promise of help. Parallel passages in the biblical text, grammars, lexicons, commentaries (preferably exegetical), word studies, atlases, secular histories, scholarly investigations in the biblical field, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias . . . all these and many more are to be consulted to gain that historical knowledge third party readers need in order to interpret the Bible.

“The great critical and exegetical commentaries are essential for interpretation.”

What is to be said about such a point of view? If it is true, several obvious things follow. Since only a tiny minority of Christians can get such theological training, then the precise knowledge of the Bible is confined to them and to those whom they can adequately teach. But they will still be a tiny minority of Christians. Again, it is only in recent years that the commentaries and books of Bible study have been printed and circulated widely, therefore the precise knowledge of the Bible has been shut away from Christians during most of the period of the church. Furthermore, these Bible helps are largely in the English and European languages, therefore Christians in many countries of the world have no access to them, and so are shut off from precise knowledge of the Bible. And since vast numbers of Christians in many countries are so poor that only with difficulty can they even afford to buy a Bible, they cannot think of the additional helps. Therefore, even where the helps are available, most Christians cannot have them. This seems to force the inescapable conclusion that though God has revealed himself and His truth in the Bible, yet this Bible is largely a closed revelation to nearly all of the Christians in the world throughout the church’s history.

That is to say, in effect, that the Bible is written for experts. I believe that is a dangerous error. The Bible is written for the common man. It is written for Christians and most Christians are laymen. The Bible is written for laymen, and if so, then laymen are able to understand it. The idea of accurate Bible knowledge only for the expert is not only wrong by logic, but there is empirical evidence to prove it.

The university student is schooled in research and investigation. There are several ways by which, without going through a prolonged process, he can see the evidence contradicting the idea that precise knowledge of the Bible can be gained only by profound scholarship.

– Dr T Norton Sterrett, To be continued

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