Paul and the Gospel, Part Seven

Two useful words when considering the role of Scripture in formulating our individual and corporate theologies in our unique time and place are exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis comes from the Greek word exthegeisthai meaning “to lead out/to explain/to interpret”. Exegesis is a critical investigation of a text within its various contexts to discover its original or inherent meaning. Biblical scholars use various methods to do valid exegesis. Exegesis is contrasted with eisegesis which means to read into a text a meaning which is not true to the original writer’s intent. 

Hermeneutics refers to a set of principles used to determine the meaning of the text under investigation. One’s theology often influences what principles are used in deciding both the meaning and the application of a text for a new setting. In the four articles we looked at regarding the Quadrilateral, we saw how Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience affect how we in our time determine, apply, and communicate the basic meaning and intention of passages from the Bible. (See those articles under the title “Quadrilateral.”) Such hermeneutics are necessary if we are to be faithful and successful in making the Bible understandable in our own culture. Sound exegesis and sound theology are both necessary for explicating the message of a biblical text for our unique setting. (The term hermeneutics reminds us of the Greek god Hermes who served as the messenger of the gods. With hermeneutics, Biblical scholars and theologians attempt to serve as God’s messengers in applying and interpreting ancient texts in new and modern settings.) 

I would suggest that both exegesis and hermeneutics are impossible for those who believe that the Bible is infallible and inerrant. The assumption of inerrancy and infallibility already imports into the text an understanding which will never allow for any critical and proper investigation of Scripture. The very development we see in Scripture (what I call the trajectory) allows us to see that the Bible itself is self-correcting and growing in its understanding of God, humanity, community, truth, and the world. It is a product of human faith which increases in knowledge as the community grows in its understanding and experience of the Eternal God who is always more than any or all of us together can ever fully comprehend. For millennia the communities of faith have practiced exegesis, eisegesis, and hermeneutics whether they are willing to admit such undertakings or not. The best we can do is to vigilantly seek truth and apply what we find to our own time and place. We will all err. However, we will make fewer mistakes if we practice authentic, objective, and diligent exegesis and hermeneutics. 

The following are questions I suggested in a previous article that we must consider as we determine how relevant Paul’s understanding of the gospel may be for our own time in the 21st century. There are countless other questions we could and probably should consider. However, these may be a good starting place.

  1. How tethered are we to Paul’s understanding of the gospel? Do we need to see the gospel as announcing the great event Israel had been waiting for over the past 500 years? How Jewish should our interpretation of the gospel be? What should we keep and what might we let go in our own time and place? Both Jesus and Paul were part of the Temple Judaism of the 1st century. Issues like food laws, proper Sabbath worship, the practice of sacrifices, clean and unclean distinctions, pagan oppressive governments, the place of gentiles in the salvation of God, less enlightened understandings of medicine, science, and cosmology, and the theological assumption that the world was about to undergo a radical and cataclysmic change do not dominate much of our conversation and concerns today. What in the Bible which was unique in the 1st century need not concern us today? What can we jettison? And how can we make sure we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater? 
  2. What should be the response of 21st century people to the gospel of Jesus Christ? What place do repentance, forgiveness, justification, redemption, sanctification, etc. play in our response to this announcement of God’s grace? How can we explain such terms in ways that are true to their inherent 1st century meaning and at the same time are communicated in ways that are relevant and understandable for a postmodern world? Through such efforts might we discover afresh the deeper meaning that the original authors intended but which have been obscured by theological assumptions and arguments over the centuries which have no bearing to those intended meanings?
  3. Paul and the New Testament use a lot of metaphors to refer to the “saving power” of Jesus’ death. What did those writers intend by those metaphors? Are any of those metaphors useful in our day? What metaphors might we find more helpful? Which of the metaphors did you find helpful in our study? What metaphors might you suggest which would be both true to the gospel and relevant to our own time? In all our efforts we must remember that theology is simply human attempts to understand God. We are all theologians—even atheists! The challenge is to be good theologians, and in order to be faithful we must express the gospel in ways that communicate in our setting. We can be as creative as Paul and the countless theologians who have tried to do theology in the past. Good theological metaphors always find ways to express the source and intention of one’s faith. For example, I find some of the metaphors suggested by the Rhineland mystics (most of whom were women) to be both true to the essence of the good news about God through Christ and breathtakingly novel. Good theology always needs inspired poets. As Whitman said, “Finally comes the poet” when all others have failed to understand or experience anything that really matters. 
  4. Paul and most people in the earliest church believed that the final consummation of God’s plan for the world would take place very soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, here we are 2000 years later and “Caesar” is still on his throne, greed, violence, and arrogance still strut across the pages of history even into our day, and evil seems to be entrenched in virtually every aspect of human existence. How do we understand and deal with this “delay” in God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven? II Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” I can appreciate the writer’s faith that God’s love is such that She wants everyone included in whatever consummation may ultimately come to pass. Perhaps this statement can serve as a springboard for a wider and more relevant perspective for our day. Paul tells us in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13 that love is patient and kind and doesn’t insist on its own way. Such love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Such divine patience, forbearance, and endurance is a form of suffering. Cruciform is both the nature of God in Christ and the nature of the world a God of compassion and mercy creates. Whatever consummation awaits us and all creation takes time (and I would suggest a good portion of eternity). The eschatology of Paul and other people of faith was in its infant stages. It was only in the 2nd century BCE that the Jews even dared to posit in a life after death. The resurrection of Jesus served as the foundation stone for Paul and the early church’s eschatology. But they were only groping for the wider application of such a dramatic event. They did the best they could to make sense of the unimaginable. We continue today trying to unravel the meanings of the Christ Event—especially Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are not tied to their initial and limited attempts to make sense of what happened to Jesus and what will happen to us. And we are certainly not tethered to some cosmic timetable. Suffice it to say that whatever ultimately happens, God’s love will be the determining factor. Love will win. However, that victory has been, is, and will be costly. The “delay” is inevitable given human nature and God’s patient love. [Remember that the word patient comes from the Latin root pati which means “to suffer.” Our words compassion (meaning to suffer with) and passion (meaning to suffer as in the passion of Christ) also bear witness to the cost of authentic and stubborn love.] God is not tied to Paul’s timetable or ours. Love will find a way, but because of the necessity of cruciform, that way takes time and involves pain. The question for us is this: dare we trust that such love wins? I suggest that the future of Christianity depends on our answer to that question and how we live out such trust in our suffering world. 
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