monterey church

There are a lot of people in the religious community today who like to throw a big word around called “hermeneutics.”  If you have never heard of this word before, don’t be alarmed; all it means is the method by which we decide which decisions are good and which decisions are bad.  In a religious context, we mean specifically how we get the authority for our teachings and practices; that is, what does the Bible say is “OK,” and what does it condemn?

There are many different views about which hermeneutics are good, and which are bad, and reasons the supporters and opponents of each of these views gives as to why they hold the opinions they do.  I would like to suggest to you a simple way to solve this question with an absolute minimum of fuss: use common sense!

There are people who speak of applying Francis Bacon’s Scientific Method to Scripture (gathering all evidence before making a final decision) or applying Bayesian Probability Theory in more uncertain situations (base decisions on experiential knowledge, evidence from combined texts, and principles illustrated elsewhere in Scripture, making a judgment call after all has been taken into account about what the safest route may be), but I would suggest to you that both of these are nothing other than the common sense we all (hopefully) use every day of our life no matter what situation we are in.  A succinct and apt definition of common sense, if anyone really needs one, can be found here.  The Bible itself supports this simple idea of using our brains to make intelligent decisions:

The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly assume that people will use common sense to observe, remember, and apply the history of obedience and disobedience, and its consequences, as well as the commandments given by God.  Jesus Himself taught people to use common sense when approaching the Scriptures in Luke 10.  He says in Luke 10:21 that his teaching would not be universally accepted, just before he sends out 70 of His disciples to prepare the way for Him on His journey to preach and teach at a certain destination.  While the disciples are pondering the comments He has made about what it means to have true understanding, He has an opportunity to teach about using this “common sense” hermeneutic:

Luke 10:25: And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is a very clearly a good question.  The lawyer is also very clearly not really interested in the answer.  Jesus also offers a good, but simple answer, appealing to the man’s common sense:

Luke 10:26-28: He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

Jesus says, simply, that if we want to know what God wants from us, all we have to do is read His instructions!  Had God given instructions on how to “inherit eternal life?” Certainly!  Moreover, the lawyer knew exactly what they were.  So Jesus points out to him that his problem isn’t knowing what God has said, but doing it.  Surely it can’t be that simple!  There must be something more, so the lawyer again asks another question:

Luke 10:29: But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

It is remarkable how much this question resembles the postmodernist thought so prevalent in the intellectual circles of today.  The answer Jesus gave is so simple…one might describe it as almost “scientific” or “Baconian.”  Such simple reasoning often has the side-effect of restricting our conduct in ways we just don’t like, so the lawyer says that such simple and rational appeals to evidence must surely be blurred by the vagueness of words and our inability to communicate precise meanings.  What exactly does “neighbor” mean?  It sounds all well and good to just do what the Bible says, but can we really understand?  Here’s the common sense answer given by Jesus:

Luke 10:30-37: Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The parable of the good Samaritan is a simple common sense answer to a completely loaded question about hermeneutics.  There is no sophistry here.  There are no appeals to logical models, no technical explanations, just a simple appeal to the common sense share by all human beings.  Our experience teaches us exactly what it means to be a good neighbor quite clearly.  The lawyer’s issue, Jesus reaffirms in the end, is not knowing what is pleasing to God, but doing it.

Just as important as using common sense to read the Scripture is using common sense to ask the right questions.  There are many religious groups in existence today who try and restore themselves to the Christianity of the New Testament, but end up practicing things that were never intended to be a part of the teaching and practice of the church after the apostles and other prophets died.  For example, there are those who try to restore themselves to the church in every way they can, including the use of miraculous gifts, where a simple “common sense” reading of passages such as 1 Corinthians 13 clearly state that a time will come when they will go away and not come back.  There are others who try to restore themselves to the culture, clothing, visual appearance and technological level that existed within the church of the first century.  This, too, has no common sense Scriptural support, because God’s people are simply commanded to be righteous no matter what country, culture, or year they live in.  The problem with many of these religious groups is not truly a misinterpretation of Scripture; it is simply that they ask the wrong questions.

(all Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted, emphasis belongs to the author)

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