Biblical Hermeneutics and the Indian Christian Student – I

Continued from the previous issue May-June 2015
One way is to take a verse of the Bible that is difficult to understand, then compare the critical commentaries which are the fruit of thorough scholarship, to see if they give finality. Such finality would show that scholarship is the necessary means for knowing the Bible. That would lead us to the conclusion that only a few scholars in the world can know the Bible directly, and all others can know it only in a second hand way, as they are taught by the scholars. But if the commentators do not agree, or fail to clarify the difficulties of the verse, it will indicate that scholarship is not the necessary key to Bible knowledge.

A passage that has challenged interpreters and scholars in all periods of the church is Hebrews 6. We need not consider the whole passage now, in fact, one phrase will be sufficient. We may note “of the doctrine of baptisms”, found in verse two. This is a simple phrase composed of straightforward words, and it might be thought that the interpretation would present no major difficulties. But an examination of the commentaries shows that the Greek scholars come nowhere near agreement. It would seem that the plural “baptismoi” is the main thing that hinders precision of interpretation, as seen in the following comments:

]. P. Lange, in lac., mentions the views of a number of expositors, some of them quite early: “outward and inward baptism” (Grotius, Braun, Reuss); “different acts of baptism” (Calvin); “triple immersion” (DeWette); and threefold baptism:
“fluminis, flaminis, sangunis” (Thomas Aquinas).
The Interpreter’s Bible refers to various views held: “Christian and Jewish proselyte baptism” (Winer); ]. F. B. also suggests this view. Jewish ablutions alone is the view of other expositors, and K. S. Wuest agrees. “Christian baptism as over against the use of water in contemporary cults” is another view.

Dr. James Moffat in the LC.C. mentions the view of Theodoret that what is meant is “the plurality of the recipients.” He indicates his own view that the word means “ablutions or immersion such as the mystery religions and the Jewish culture required for initiates, proselytes or worshippers in general.”
So here it is the teaching of the difference between the Christian rite and the rites for Jewish proselytes and ablutions of Christians in worship.
Dean Alford, in his Greek New Testament, adds one more variation to the list, that the baptismoi include “the various washings which were under the Law, the baptism of John, and even Christian baptism also perhaps included, the nature of which, and their distinctions from one another, would naturally be one of the fundamental and primary objects of teaching to Hebrew converts.”
The point to be made is not that all these views are totally distinct or mutually exclusive. Indeed there is considerable overlapping. But the differences are considerable and sufficient to show that scholarship (at least as represented by the above interpreters) may not give a precise understanding of Scripture.

It may be said that the point at issue above is a minor one, and therefore the divergence of views is not important. But that is to miss the point. The question is whether knowledge of Greek and other competence in scholarship can bring finality of interpretation, whether the issue is large or small. Furthermore, if there is no finality with regard to a minor matter, how can it be expected in a major one, which is presumably more difficult of interpretation?

This point may be confirmed by consulting the commentaries on almost any problem passage. If precise knowledge of the Bible includes finality in its interpretation, then the scholars who write the commentaries have not reached that knowledge. If certainty of biblical interpretation is a mark of precise biblical knowledge, then the scholarship available to the church so far appears to lack that knowledge.

A second way of investigating this question is to consider a passage of Scripture, using only the tools that may be available to many Christian students today. Those tools are mainly the various translations and versions of the Bible. While there are Christians in the world who do not have the whole Bible in any language, and many others who have it only in their mother tongues, still others have access to several different versions. An Indian student, for example, can have the Bible in his mother tongue, one of the regional languages of India. He will more than likely own a copy of the English Authorized (King James) Version. And he can easily have a cheap edition of the New Testament; say the R.S.V., N.E.B., or T.E.V. Various other versions also are available in the Christian book stores. Another tool that he can have and should use is an ordinary dictionary. Some good English dictionaries give the biblical usage of a word along with the other meanings.

A passage such as Philippians 2 is worth considering. It certainly is not an easy one to understand. In fact, there is one word here that has, it is said, occasioned as much theological writing as any word in the Bible. That is the word “ekenosen,” or the phrase “heauton ekenosen”: “he emptied himself.” Wrapped up in this phrase is the mystery of the hypostatic union of the two natures, divine and human, in the person of our Lord. Scholars have wrestled with this mystery, and still do. They think deeply upon it, and they have been able to answer the heretical views and theories of the “kenosis” that deny the true theanthropic person of Christ. But no one has unravelled the mystery.

So this is a good passage to consider. For if the scholars cannot probe the meaning it may be thought that an ordinary Christian student must find the passage simply mysterious, perhaps pause to worship, but pass on with no clear understanding. But that is not the case.
The student who knows that the Bible asserts Christ’s deity might wonder uneasily whether “being in the form of God” could mean that Christ is less than God. But when he finds in his English dictionary that one meaning of “form” is “mode of being,” he realizes that no denial of deity can be proved here, and this passage is quite in line with other clear statements in the New Testament that Jesus is God.
But the student may be baffled when he comes to verse 7, that Jesus “emptied himself” (ASV, RSV). What does this mean? He emptied himself of what? That he “emptied himself of all but love” may be a beautiful and good thought, but is hardly an accurate doctrinal statement.
– To be continued

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