The Saw and the Key

Get it wrong from the beginning, and you get it all wrong.

Hermeneutics of Convenience (2)

“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?
Or where were the upright ever cut off?
Even as I have seen,
Those who plow iniquity
And sow trouble reap the same.”
Job 4.7, 8

Wrong from the beginning
I’m not a carpenter, but I know a little bit about using a circular saw. What I know is this, if you don’t have the blade set at a right angle before you begin to cut, you’re not going to make a straight cut no matter how many times you try. If you want to make a straight cut, then the set of the saw is all important.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonoeffer exposed a form of Scripture-twisting common in every age. An interpreter takes an idea – it may even be a Biblical idea, like grace, or love, or devotion to God, or companionship, or justice – and he elevates this idea to the status of a kind of master key for all Scripture interpretation. This master key used for opening a passage of Scripture in a manner not in line with its plain meaning, making the text say something entirely different – even the very opposite – of what it actually says. Bonhoeffer says we “do violence to the Scriptures by interpreting them in terms of abstract principles, even if that principle be a doctrine of grace.”

The wrong set of the saw will not make for a straight cut; and no faulty master key will open the door to truth. The same principle applies when interpreting the Bible If you start from the wrong place, no matter how many texts you examine or how eloquent or passionate your argument may be, you’re not going to arrive at the truth. If the starting-point for interpretation is wrong, the interpretation will be wrong. Every time.

It’s all about convenience
Why do we do this? Because, Bonhoeffer explains, it is not convenient for us, or agreeable to us, simply to obey the text before us. Because we have some other agenda we want to pursue, it is more convenient to our agenda to twist the Scriptures rather than submit to them. 

Bonhoeffer explains, “By eliminating simple obedience on principle, we drift into an unevangelical interpretation of the Bible. We take it for granted as we open the Bible that we have a key to its interpretation. But then the key we use would not be the living Christ, who is both Judge and Saviour, and our use of this key no longer depends on the will of the living Holy Spirit alone. The key we use is a general doctrine of grace which we can apply as we will.”

In other words, we come to the Scriptures – or to a situation the Scriptures address – with our minds already made up as to the will of God concerning the matter. So it doesn’t really matter what the plain reading of the text indicates; we will twist those Scriptures to suit our interests, convictions, beliefs, or practices, all the while claiming that Scripture supports our view. We will “open” the Scriptures with the “key” we’ve brought to them, rather than the key of plain meaning and simple obedience. We will cut the Scriptures with an angled, rather than a straight, set of the saw.

The key being faulty, and the set of the saw wrong, our interpretation of Scripture will therefore be not a matter of truth, but of convenience.

Job’s friends
In the book of Job, Eliphaz and his friends made this classic hermeneutical blunder. They took a valid Biblical truth – in this case, divine justice – and exalted it to an ultimate abstract principle, which they then used to interpret God’s will into Job’s situation.

To them, justice was the key to understanding God’s will concerning Job’s situation. Their case was carefully reasoned and highly logical, even salted with claims to some kind of special revelation from God (cf. Job 4.12-21), but they conveniently overlooked some important facts in order to make their case – such as the fact that upright and righteous people often do suffer and perish.

Job tried valiantly to point out their inconsistencies, but to no avail. They were undeterred and continued to press their point, seeking to convert Job to their view and thus to vindicate their claim. In the process, they lifted many true and valid Biblical teachings, and twisted them to fit their interpretive framework, thus rendering those true teachings invalid in the situation, and thereby casting doubt on the reliability of God’s Word. They had made up their mind en route to see Job what the problem was, and they were determined to stick to their guns, come what may. Despite the many truths they cited (Paul endorsed one of their claims in 1 Cor. 3.19, cf. Job 5.13), these men were condemned by God for not speaking correctly of Him (Job 42.7).

Eliphaz and his friends decided that Job was only getting what he deserved – he who was so wealthy and esteemed and pious, that, given his present troubles, they concluded it must have all just been a sham. It was convenient for them to argue thus because here was an opportunity to “help” a “friend” in need. In fact, here was an opportunity, as they seem to have really seen it, to take Job down a few notches and validate their pop theology, pastoral smugness, and superior – because they were not suffering – righteousness.

Scripture-twisters don’t really care about people – except themselves and those who agree with them. If they did, they would understand that the way to love God and others is through simple and consistent obedience to the plain teaching of the text, and not by means some contrived ideal of justice or grace or love or you-name-it.

Beware those who can look the plain teaching of Scripture in the face and rationalize their way around simple obedience. Their “key” to God’s Word will not open the truth for you; rather, the set of their saw will rip God’s Word to shreds.

For reflection
1.  Eliphaz and his friends made up their mind about Job and his situation before they even arrived to be with him. Then they made every effort to bend Biblical truth to support their view. Do people still do this sort of thing today? Can you give an example?

2.  Scripture-twisting can seem to be very Biblical – just like Eliphaz in his response to Job’s situation. How can we tell when someone who appears to be very Biblical is practicing the hermeneutics of convenience?

2.  Meditate on 1 Corinthians 2.12, 13 (see the ESV marginal note here) and Acts 17.11. What do these passages suggest as a way of guarding against Scripture twisting?

Next steps – Conversation: How can we determine when a text of Scripture is speaking plainly enough that we can obey it, just as it requires? Talk with a Christian friend about this question.

T. M. Moore

To learn more about understanding and using the Bible, enroll in the course, Introduction to Biblical Theology. It’s free and online, and you can study at your own pace or with friends. To learn more and to register, click here. This week’s study is Part 6 of a series on The Word of God, and is available as a free download by clicking here.

The key to understanding the Bible is to see Jesus in all its parts, as centerpiece and fulfillment of God’s covenant and promises. Our workbook,
God’s Covenant, takes you through the entire Bible, following the development of themes related to God’s covenant, and consummated in Jesus Christ. Here’s an effective tool for helping you read the Bible through God’s eyes. Order your copy by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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