Monday, February 15, 2016

The Hermeneutics of Happenstance

In John 19, the inscription on the sign at the top of Jesus’s cross reads “King of the Jews.” The chief priests take exception to this and request that the inscription be changed to read, “This man said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” But Pilate denies their request: “What I have written, I have written.”

Now why would John include this element of the crucifixion story? Well, because there’s meaning in it. But on the part of whom? Obviously, Pilate himself was not trying to make a theological point about who Jesus was. The sign just happened to be written a certain way, and he chose not to have it changed despite the Jews’ protest. In one sense, this is really just a happenstance of history, and yet John finds significance in it. The irony in this “coincidental” sign-inscription episode was too theologically meaningful for John to leave it out of his gospel. Jesus really is king of the Jews, and there is nothing man can do to change that.

Now some might say that John was allowed to do this sort of thing – finding theological significance in happenstances – only because he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and so this doesn’t mean we are allowed to do the same thing. But that just seems artificial to me.

Is there still a place for finding meaning in “happenstances” today? I think there is, but let me issue some initial caveats: I’m not saying that we should bank very much on these things, or try to discern God’s will for our lives from them. So don’t look for messages from the Lord in your alphabet soup. And I’m also not saying that meaningful happenstances have any real apologetic value – they don’t. Things like this are far too easily dismissed by unbelievers.

But that doesn’t mean “happenstances” can’t carry legitimate significance for believers – people who understand that God made the world and everything in it, and who understand that in God’s world there really isn’t any such thing as a happenstance. Believers have a capacity for noticing things about the world that other people don’t.

Take for example the fact that around Easter time every year, pine tree shoots take the form of a cross. Again, I would never bother presenting this phenomenon to an unbeliever as a way of persuading him of the Christian faith. But from the perspective of a Christian worldview, if this really is the world that God made, why should we not find meaning in a “happenstance” phenomenon like that? Why should we not take it as a visual symbol of Christ’s work embedded in the creation itself? What else could its meaning be? Personally, I won’t be the least bit surprised if we get to heaven and God says, “Did you like what I did with the pine trees?” Then we’ll tease all the seminary graduates who rolled their eyes at such things, in good fun of course.

Dreams might give us another example. What could be more erratic and “coincidental” than a dream? Good luck trying to convince an unbeliever that God is real based on a dream you had. They’ll dismiss you, but that’s not surprising. They’re unbelievers; that’s what they do. But we’re not unbelievers. We believe this is the world God made, and dreams are part of that world.

Repeatedly in Scripture, dreams are understood to carry meaning. All dreams? Maybe not. But personally, I’ve woken up from dreams in tears before. I’ve woken up from others terrified, from others with a renewed appreciation for life. Some dreams just stick with you. And oftentimes, dreams cause me to reflect on the Lord in some way, or to reflect on my life in general. Should I dismiss this inclination? Should I discourage myself from reflecting on dreams? And should I be closed to the prospect that God might actually have a hand in the way that my dreams personally affect me? Why?

I readily acknowledge that more needs to be said, but so far I stand by this much.

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