Last week in my class on Revelation, I talked about a simple hermeneutical exercise that I find helpful in interpreting any biblical text. I got this picture from a textbook called Grasping God’s Word by Scott Duvall & Daniel Hayes. And when I say, “I got this picture from” I mean I used my phone to take a picture of the page:
I’m pretty sure I just violated some sort of copyright law, but I’ve given credit to the authors and cited the textbook. I’m hopeful my friends in the theological and publishing communities will cut me some slack!
Now, here’s how I used this illustration in my class. You see the little community on the left. It’s ancient. You can tell because there’s a guy wearing a dress. For some reason, that means “ancient”. Imagine that as the original readers of the Bible.
On the right you can see contemporary society. Even within that, there are differences between big cities (top right) and smaller places (center and lower right).
Our task is to take something that made perfect sense to people in the village on the left and figure out how to interpret and apply it to people who live on the right.
We understand that there is a river that separates us. That river includes time and differences in language and cultural mores. The river may be more narrow in some places (where the ancient culture is similar to ours) or wider in other places (where the ancient culture or language or situation or context is vastly different from ours).
The question is: How do we carry the message from one side of the river to the other?
The answer is in what is known as the “principlizing hermeneutic” — in other words, find a timeless and eternal principle, then figure out how to best apply that principle in your current context.
Let’s take an example from the Old Testament. God commanded the people of Israel to be a little sloppy in the way they harvested their crops. He told them to leave the corners of their fields untouched. This was done so that widows and orphans and strangers who had fallen on hard times could have a way of eating while also maintaining their dignity. Let those people “glean” the fields.
If you pretend there’s no difference between their culture and ours, you might find yourself at a loss as to how we should apply such a command. I don’t have any fields. Should I only mow the middle of my front yard and leave the corners alone?
No, there is a principle beneath that command: Be generous and thoughtful towards those who are in need.
Now, armed with that principle, we can cross the bridge between their culture and ours and figure out how that principle may be applied in a big city or a rural community in 2014.
This concept is going to really help us as we move through the Book of Revelation. I’ll refer back to this often.