The Age-Old Issue OF A Humble Hermeneutic

of a humble hermeneutic

I was privileged to be raised in a Christian home. In fact, in the small town in Central Alberta where I grew up my parents spent almost their entire adult lives in the little church we attended. Both of my grandmothers attended that same church. My only living grandfather did not though – he was Catholic. And sometimes, when we would gather with extended family at my grandparent’s home, after the meal the card games would begin. Face cards on the kitchen table where grandpa played solitaire – all alone, while the rest of us gathered around tables in the living and sitting rooms playing Rook. No one said Grandpa was sinning with those “questionable” face cards, but we kind of treated him like he was. (Honestly, to this day I deeply regret my part in that wrongdoing.)  Rook cards were more safe, more acceptable for a Christian. My world, even and especially my Christian theological world, was pretty small.

When I left with my wife to go to Bible School, we began to rub shoulders with people from different contexts, different Christian backgrounds, different countries. I began to realize that people who can be solid orthodox believers of God and followers of Jesus and still believe many things differently than I did. They were as committed to the bible, to obedience, and to Jesus, as I was — often more so.

Meanwhile, back home, my parents continued to attend that same small church until it “aged out” and closed its doors. They then had to find a new place to worship, to learn, to commune. Surprisingly to me, they ended up attending an “evangelical leaning” parish of a mainline denomination. There they found a home, a place they could meet God. Their theological world was getting bigger too.

Then, a few years later, when my father was around 90 years old (in May of 2023 we celebrated his 94th birthday) he said something to me I doubt I will ever forget. We were talking about some issue, probably a social issue of the day, and he commented that on many such things he was far less dogmatic than he used to be, much less certain, and he was less convinced of the absolute nature of his position. Now, let me be clear. My father had not, and has not, slid into any heresy, nor weakened any of his perspective on the Triune God and the plan of salvation. But on numerous other issues his grip has lessened with age. I actually don’t think there are many things he believes differently, except the manner in which they should be held – loosely and humbly, rather than harshly and dogmatically.

Now, my dad is not one who will read books on theology and study the latest authors, but he exemplifies a humble hermeneutical attitude that I want to emulate – an attitude that says I may not understand everything, and I may not be right.

But the journey to get to that place requires intentionality of me.

I have come to understand that listening, learning, being curious, broadening my circle (especially outside of North American Christianity), reading people I don’t agree with, getting outside of my echo chamber, and engaging in conversations with people who have hard questions are all necessary for me to have a humble hermeneutic.  I also recognize that it is still important to be anchored in the essentials. Actually, a strength of belief in the essentials shouldn’t lead me to shutting my ears, but rather to a confidence to open them more fully, with grace.

I am learning that unless I can describe someone’s position on an issue as good as, or better, than they can, my default position toward them and their position should be curiosity and listening, grace, and humility – not a response of argument, being close minded, and belligerent.

It is never too late to embrace a humble hermeneutic. Over the next weeks I expect we will write more about making sure our hermeneutic is accurate, but I want to start from a place of humility. That, in and of itself, is the first “age-old issue” I need to address.

Terry Kaufman
EFCC Leadership Catalyst

The Romans Road
Age-old Issues and a Humble Hermeneutic

the romans road

“Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it is all right to eat anything. But another believer who has a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who think it is all right to eat anything must not look down on those who won’t. And those who won’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.”  (Romans 14:1-3)

Today we kick off a new blog topic, focusing on why it makes perfect sense to have a humble hermeneutic – especially when it comes to age-old issues that Christians (with equal trust, love, and knowledge of the Scriptures) have long disagreed about. I called this blog “The Romans Road” for a reason. Many of us grew up learning “The Romans Road” as an evangelistic tool. It used key verses from Romans to show an individual “why they needed to be/how to be” saved. In some sense, it grew out of the assumption that this is the central message of Romans: individual salvation. This emphasis has been a Western, post-reformation interpretive framework for the book of Romans – and largely grows out of Martin Luther’s personal crisis of faith and his subsequent “conversion” experience that was rooted in his study of Romans.

About ten years ago I was chatting with Pastor Fariborz Khandani, who was then pastor at the Iranian Church of Richmond Hill. He said to me, “Bill, you are such a Westerner! You read the Bible like it is a Western book, with a thesis, then the theology/argumentation (that you think is the main point of the book), and then some unimportant application at the end of the book. Then you do a sermon series on Romans and preach 100 sermons on Romans 1-11 (the theological argumentation) and only 2 sermons on Romans 12-16 (that is merely the unimportant application of “how we should live”). “But Bill”, he said, “the Bible is an Eastern book!”

And in an Eastern book, the purpose of the book is not found in the thesis at the front of the book, it is found at the end of the book!

Fariborz then went on to show me how many Old and New Testament books clearly spell out the author’s purpose for writing them in the very last chapter!

He then pointed out that the purpose for Paul writing Romans is found in Romans 14-15 not in Romans 1. The Jewish and Christians in Rome were fighting over what “good Christians” could eat or drink, or which religious festivals they needed to celebrate. Fariborz argued that in Romans 1-11 Paul, reveals why and how Jews and Gentiles needed to be saved and made One in Christ. Therefore, they need to treat each other differently – how they lived out their faith together was actually the point! The theological argument of Romans 1-11 is simply explaining why they need to live differently. So, while the traditional, post-reformation, Western reading of Romans saw it as a great treatise on individual salvation with a bit of application tacked on at the end, Eastern Christians viewed it as all about how we ought to treat fellow believers (with a bunch of theological foundation proving we are One in Christ).

Ironically, since I had this conversation, there is a mighty debate over this very issue. Whether or not you hold to the “New Perspective” or the traditional, post-reformation interpretation, it is a good reminder that a humble hermeneutic is a great place to start. Paul reminds us in Romans 14 to not look down on or condemn/judge each other over food, drink, and days (14:1-3, 10) and to act in love, so we are not a stumbling block to a brother or sister (14:12-16). Instead, we are to act following what we believe (14:21-23) and accept each other as Christ has accepted us – even when we disagree (15:7). What a good Christian should or should not eat or drink is one of many age-old issues that believers have broken fellowship over. May we heed Paul’s call to humility: to love and live out our Oneness in Christ even as we agree to disagree on secondary issues!

Bill Taylor
EFCC Executive Director