Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Does Theology Superintend Hermeneutics?

The plainest interpretation of a biblical text is not always the best one. In fact, sometimes its the worst. Lets imagine that Peter Pagan is a person who has grown up in an entirely secular home and has never been taught even the most basic biblical truths about God. If Peter decides to read the Bible one day, and chooses, naturally, to start at the book of Genesis, it wont be long before he reads this verse: But the Lord called to the man and said to him, Where are you? (Gen. 3:9).

For a totally non-theological secular person like Peter, the plainest way to interpret the content of this verse would be something like this: God is here seeking to gain information that he does not yet possess. He is unsure of Adams location and so, in order to find out, he asks Adam the question, Where are you?

After all, is this not the plainest way to understand a question?1 If I send my friend a text message with the same inquiry, “Where are you?”, I expect him to understand that I have a deficiency in my knowledge of his current whereabouts and would appreciate his help in obtaining that information. So our friend Peter will likely assume the same thing of God as he first reads Genesis 3:9, and Im willing to admit that this is, in fact, the plainest way to understand Gods question; and yet it is emphatically incorrect.

Peters plain understanding is actually the worst way to interpret Gods question because the same God reveals elsewhere that he is a God whose knowledge has no deficiencies (Psa. 33:13-15; Pro. 15:3; Heb. 4:13). There is not one true fact, nor one state of affairs in the whole universe of which he is not aware. This will rightly lead Peter to reevaluate Genesis 3:9 and abandon what he initially thought was the best (i.e. plainest) interpretation of the verse. He will understand Gods question as simply a rhetorical confrontation, or perhaps a way of testing Adam, but not as a request for unknown information. Theology does, at times, dictate the way we interpret certain texts, but that is not always a bad thing.

And I suppose neither is it always good.


1. Irony intended!

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