I teach biblical hermeneutics—how to study the Bible—at Reformation Bible College. I enjoy teaching all of the subjects assigned to me, but hermeneutics is certainly one of my favorites. I especially enjoy the first couple of class sessions. We spend significant time thinking about what constitutes a good and faithful hermeneutical method—a good, explicitly Christian way of interpreting Scripture. To set the context for that discussion, I read a quote to the class that comes from Augustine’s On Christian Teaching: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
This quote challenges every interpreter of Scripture—professor and student alike—not only to know the text but also (and especially) to live out the text. Putting the text into practice is absolutely essential to knowing Scripture truly. A person successfully attains knowledge of God when he embodies the life of Christ to others. What impresses me most as a professor is not when a student knows the right interpretation of a text but when he lives rightly in response to the right interpretation of a text. It is impressive when a student, by his understanding of Scripture, can “build up this double love of God and neighbor.” It helps me, as a professor, to do the same.
Hermeneutics is fundamentally relational.
Augustine’s quote is also convicting. We—professor and student alike—may have the kind of “understanding” mentioned. We may find ourselves treasuring the theology in the text at the expense of treasuring Christ Himself (John 5:39), craving theological debate rather than intimate fellowship (1 Tim. 1:3–4, 6–7), and challenging the honor of others rather than outdoing one another in honor (Rom. 12:10). All too often, this sort of ignorant understanding manifests itself on the campuses of so many Bible colleges and seminaries—the places, ironically enough, where people are being equipped with an understanding of the Scriptures that, when rightly employed, generates a double love of God and neighbor in oneself and others.
If we’re honest, our hearts are inclined toward this sinful, even paradoxical, disposition—to know but not to know truly. Professors can teach and relate to students in a way that reeks of cold intellectualism. Students can happily exist within their misguided zeal and not even know it. And Christians in general can, strangely enough, profess to love the Bible but fail to love the God of the Bible or His people. Recognizing this proclivity in my own heart makes me thankful for the gospel of Jesus Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the law, which depends on the commandments to love God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40). It makes me thankful for the church’s union with Jesus, where what is His is ours by faith alone. This means we can receive Christ as a gift, as all of His accomplishments become ours by faith. And only after receiving Christ as a gift can we, as Martin Luther insisted, receive Christ as an example. We can look to the One who lowered Himself for the sake of others, out of love for God and neighbor, and, by the Spirit, find the strength to do the same.
What does this have to do with hermeneutics? Everything. Too often, we read Scripture like we fill up our gas tanks. We pull up, put our card in, fill up our tanks with gasoline, and drive away. There is neither a relationship with the owner of the gas station nor with those around us filling up their individual tanks. Our interpretation of Scripture can’t be that way. Studying Scripture, as Kelly Kapic emphatically asserts, “is not the acquisition of information.” It’s not just about filling up our individual gas tanks. It’s not just about gaining knowledge. It is “emphatically and deeply relational.” More to the point, Kapic insists that “faithful theology is relational.” We shouldn’t want merely to be good interpreters of a text. We should want to be faithful disciples who submissively come under the God of the text. As Luther argued, Scripture knows no “masters, judges, or arbiters.” It knows “only witnesses, disciples, and confessors.” We should not want only a good hermeneutic. We should want to be faithful disciples who know God and love God, who know our neighbors and love our neighbors. We shouldn’t see the study of Scripture as an opportunity to acquire information in order to impress our professors, our pastors, or other believers in the church. We should want to see the study of Scripture as the means of enjoying deeper communion with our triune Lord. And after having come under the cascade of God’s love in Christ, we then overflow with love, grace, and encouragement to those around us, and vice versa. All the while, God receives the glory.
Hermeneutics is fundamentally relational. It is simultaneously an act of interpretation and an act of relating—relating to our Lord by the Spirit, relating to those beside us in the pew, and relating to those brilliant pastoral theologians, such as Augustine, who came before us to help guide our reading and living. Understanding hermeneutics any other way harms the church. May God give us the grace to ask, as Augustine did, if we have succeeded in understanding the Scriptures.
Dr. David E. Briones is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a teaching elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is author of Paul’s Financial Policy: A Socio-Theological Approach.