Poor biblical hermeneutics have consequences

Pastor Matthew Best
4 min readMar 16, 2016

Unless you are pastor or someone who has studied theology formally, you probably don’t know what biblical hermeneutics is. It’s not something you use in everyday sentences. It’s one of those terms insiders use to express something specific. A simple definition would be how we interpret the Bible.

Here’s an example of what happens when you have poor biblical hermeneutics.

There is a group building a life-sized Noah’s ark.

Here’s a quote from the article that caught my attention:

The $90 million boat, dubbed the Ark Encounter, will be the eventual centerpiece of a religious theme park aiming to illustrate the story of the legendary great flood, in which God instructs Noah to build an ark to save his family and a pair of each of the animals in the world.

$90 million project? A theme park? Really? Does anyone see a problem with this?

Here’s what this comes down to — how we interpret the Bible. There are a few methods. The way the Young Earthers interpret the Bible is literally. Others interpret the Bible through a historical criticism context and still others interpret the Bible just a literature. And you get the point — there are many ways to tackle this.

Is the Bible meant to be interpreted literally? If you say yes, be careful what you are endorsing. You’re endorsing things like stoning women, that slavery is ok, that you shouldn’t eat shellfish, etc. Beyond those things, you have other problems to deal with. Like what are you actually interpreting?

The original manuscripts no longer exist. That’s right, we don’t have any original manuscripts — they disappeared. What we have are translations from the originals. And more accurately, we have copies of copies. Ever try hand copying thousands of pages of another handwritten document? Think a few mistakes might happen that might affect your version?

Second, you have the issue of language. The Bible was not written in English. Any serious study of the bible requires some working knowledge of the language the books were written in along with an understanding of the culture. Culture is important in order to understand the use of imagery in the text, humor, common expressions, etc. There are some terms that would have made sense to people hearing the words at the time that take on different meaning today, especially in a culture that is pretty far away from the Middle East as the US is. And understanding the language is important from the mere fact that different languages arrange their sentences differently — which has an impact on what is emphasized in the sentence. For instance, in English, the subject is most important and is usually first in the sentence. In Koine Greek, which the New Testament was written in, the verb is most important and usually comes first.

Does all this mean the Bible is out of date, unreachable and worthless? Not by any means. Instead, we read the Bible as a book of theology, not a book of science. It doesn’t have all the answers, as some claim. Instead, it usually raises a whole bunch of new questions. Theology, at it’s core, is the study of God. Just like anything we study, we are driven by the questions. Which is why theology is one of the oldest areas of study. We’ll never have all the answers.

Reading the Bible literally promotes fundamentalism, which doesn’t allow for critical thinking or questions or doubts or most importantly the truth that we just don’t know everything. It doesn’t allow for the idea that things happen outside of our knowledge. It doesn’t allow for mystery — which is what God truly is. It doesn’t allow for the idea that sometimes some stories are told to express ideas and that the specifics are not what are important.

When we aren’t open to mystery, when we have to use resources to know for certain the answers to questions, we end do things that only convince us of our pre-established beliefs. We build up a fortress around us — one that will not fall down, one that supposedly withstands the criticisms and questions. Because when we take a fundamentalist or literalist way of looking at the Bible, then we know that one unanswered question can bring down the whole house of cards. And then what? If one belief falls, that must mean everything falls.

When we allow for mystery and knowing that we just don’t know everything and never will, questions are enjoyed. Answers are great, but not the point. Faith isn’t about having all the answers. Faith goes beyond head knowledge. Faith is knowing God, not just knowing about God. I don’t need a life-sized ark. Besides, that money could be better spent to live out our Christian faith — things the Young Earthers might find in the New Testament. Things that they might consider interpreting literally, like Jesus’ commands to feed the poor, visit the imprisoned and the sick, etc.



Pastor Matthew Best

My name is Matthew Best. I’m an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor who attempts to translate church and churchy stuff into everyday language.