Hermeneutic Humility

I was honored to have read a tall stack of excellent books in 2012, but when I think back on the year I’m reminded of one specific excerpt that drop-kicked me to the floor when I read it for the first time and led me to repent over how I approach my Bible. It comes from Jonathan Pennington’s new book Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, a book worth reading from cover to cover, but this is the excerpt I refer to (pages 139–141):

The Mother-in-Law—Jeremiah 29:11 Refrigerator Magnet—Diet Principle

Imagine yourself as a seminary student. Now imagine yourself as a young, male seminary student with a semi-educated, somewhat emotional, faithful churchgoing but biblically untrained mother-in-law. You like her well enough, but as your own seminary training has increased your exegetical skills, knowledge of church history, and theological acumen, you have found a corresponding increase in discomfort when talking to her about God and the Bible.

She is very passionate about the latest devotional book she is reading and the new insights she has gained into passages of Scripture from looking up Greek words in Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Every time you see her, you sense with increasing intensity that she could be on the cover of the next edition of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. On your better days you just nod and smile politely. In your grouchy moments you daydream about ripping the books out of her hands, mocking them, stomping on them a few times, and throwing them into the fireplace while quoting Greek paradigms.

But then when you arrive at her house one Thanksgiving, you see something that pushes you over the edge. On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11—”For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond?

Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this verse: this is a horrible translation of the Bible; this verse is taken out of context; this is a word spoken to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant and therefore can’t apply to her; God doesn’t care about her diet, and on and on. Thankfully, you have enough sense and wisdom not to attack or mock her and her refrigerator magnet, but in your quiet moments later you face a couple of crucial questions.

These questions are ours as well when we read Scripture and when we read and hear interpretations of Scripture. First, what is wrong with her interpretation/reading/application of this verse?

What is wrong with this use of Jeremiah 29:11? In the first instance, we are right to emphasize that what a text or verse means is best approached in its own literary and theological context. Her ignorance of the overall story of the Bible and the fact that this verse is from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the elders and priests of Jerusalem who were then in exile in Babylon is a regrettable oversight. This knowledge would deepen and contextualize the significance of these lines. We may also register some concern that not every word to the nation of Israel necessarily has a direct application to the individual Christian. Other examples come to mind including details of the Mosaic law concerning diet and clothing or promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah.

However, we must also ask what might be good about her reading. And herein lies much that we might initially overlook. Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency.

At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than, our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ (in whom “all the promises of God are Yes and Amen”; 2 Cor. 1:20). Jeremiah’s words are God’s words; they reveal God’s heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus—that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God’s promised to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.

Moreover, what is good—even glorious—about her reading of Jeremiahs 29:11 as applied to her diet is that she has the right posture toward God and Holy Scripture as she reads. That is, she is going to the Bible looking for God to speak and guide and direct her life very personally. She expects the living God to speak to her, and she is willing to listen. She has chosen the better part. Certainly we might want her to grow in her theological knowledge and interpretive skills, but not at the expense of this simple God-ward faith and posture.

We as trained exegetes and theologians can and should also have this posture, but honest self-reflection reveals that for most of us, our learning often creates layers of distance between us and hearing the Bible as God’s Word to us. Although it was obtained for the supposed goal of bridging the gap between us and the biblical text, our training in fact often creates in our hearts and minds an elaborate structure of paper walls and divisions that create a maze of distance between us and Scripture.

10 thoughts on “Hermeneutic Humility

  1. So TRUE! I am looking forward to reading your book Lit! as I am giving it to my Dad for Christmas.

  2. I laughed because the scenario is so true, but was reminded of the need for humility—always. Earlier in the year I read “A little exercise for young theologians” by Helmut Thielicke (Eerdmans) which discusses the need for intellectual humility on the part of a student of theology…. I think it was Carson on a short DG video that said that seminary students (or anyone studying theology) need to still go to the Bible in a devotional way. I wish I can remember the name of it, it was actually some good wisdom.

  3. Dear Tony, while appreciate the humility to which you call us when reading the Scriptures, I have to heartily disagree with your conclusion. The problem with our application of v. 11 to us individually as Christians is v. 10. God’s plan for His people, more specifically the remnant taken into Exile, is first 70 year of punishment. Thinking along the lines of Biblical Theology, we, the church, are “aliens and strangers” here in a world hostile to us. We await our “hope” of returning home to our promised land, the new heavens and earth. Now we wait, in patience, even though we have to suffer trials of many kinds etc. God’s plan for His people in general is suffering now, glory then. To apply v. 11 without understanding v. 10 can lead one to believe that all of our “diet plans” are “God’s plans” for our good now. Something we must not conflate or confuse.

  4. I find it interesting that part of the seminary student’s claim to superior theological knowledge is based on being taught a defective theology in seminary. It reflects a dispensational or similar view of Scripture. Pennington points out one of the errors that comes from that view – viewing Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church as having a radical separation and difference that is unsupported by Scripture. The dispensational view is that the promises to Israel don’t apply to the church, but Pennington is right that 1 Cor. 1:20 says the opposite.

    A related theological error made by the hypothetical seminarian and possibly shared by Pennington is that “promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah” don’t apply in the New Testament age. Actually the opposite is closer to the truth. OT Israel failed to experience God’s physical blessings to a great extent because of their disobedience to the Torah. The OT predicts that that will be reversed in the Messianic age, when God writes the Torah on the hearts of His people, as in Jer. 31:31-34 (Heb. 8:7-12). As nations learn to obey God’s word, peace and prosperity follow (Isa. 2:2-4, 65:17-25). Of course, there is persecution at times too, just as the OT prophets experienced persecution and death despite their faithfulness to God. Physical blessings and physical persecutions can co-exist to varying degrees: “a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).

    Pennington agrees that “the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.” Well, sort of. Sin and the curses that it brings won’t be completely abolished until the Second Coming at the end of history (1 Cor. 15:23-28). But the OT saints who lived as sojourners on the earth, looking for the heavenly city (Heb. 11:13-16) were looking for that which has become a reality in a sense under the New Covenant: In contrast to the OT saints, the author of Hebrews tells Christians, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb. 12:22). Christians are enthroned with Christ now: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Christ established His kingdom at His first coming: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). The Son of Man has ascended to the Ancient of Days, received His kingdom that has dominion over all nations (Dan. 7:13-14), and “the holy people of the Most High” reign with Him now (Dan. 7:27). Now the gospel promise given to Abraham is gradually becoming manifest on earth, the promise that “he would be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13).

    Pennington also seems to promote the egregious dispensational error that there was a different means of salvation in the OT from the NT when he says that God’s people “are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus.” Salvation has always been based on faith rather than ethnicity (see Rom. 4, Heb. 11). Jews who did not have faith in God and the words of His prophets were rejected by God, as Shemaiah of Nehelam found out (Jer. 29:32). The OT saints looked forward to the Messiah’s act of redemption, whereas we look in the past.

    The problem in the thinking of many mother-in-laws like the one described is that they hope for the blessings of God while ignoring God’s law. But they have the seminary professors on their side on this. They haven’t taken seriously Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. . . . Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17,19). Should those that Jesus calls least in His kingdom be teaching in seminaries? But they are. Mourn for the current condition of God’s church.

    God cares about this mother-in-laws’s health: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). Her main mistake is misplaced priorities, focusing on God’s grace to lose weight rather than something like comfort and help to “orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

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