The hermeneutics of desire and fear

Have you ever heard something that you did not want to be true? We all have.

I remember a visiting professor from Oberlin College and Conservatory telling our class that when it comes to church history, practice has often preceded theology. Everything within me screamed this was wrong. Our understanding of God’s word should shape what we do and how we think. What we want or what we are doing should not determine how we read God’s word!

Walking with him across the parking lot after class, I discussed this with him further. He graciously pointed out that “what is” does not always align with “what should be.” My naivety was crushed. I had not considered that some might want to take a path other than the original message.

What I call the hermeneutic of desire is as easy to understand as it can be prevalent in usage. It involves rationalizing what we want or what we are practicing.

However, let’s not be naive. Good intentions often drive such rationalizations.

Consider these worthy goals. Numbers are important, since God does not want any to perish (2 Peter 3:9). God’s people should seek to appear winsome to the surrounding community (1 Tim. 5:14;6:1). God and Christ desire a unified community of believers (Ephesians 1:9-10; 4:3,4,13). Just as it was Paul’s practice, we too can present the message in audience-sensitive ways (Acts 17:22-31). The list goes on and on.

Yet, a problem arises when we pursue these values at the expense of what is more important. We are to love God foremost, that is obey God above all other objectives. After this, we are to seek the well being of others in the same way we desire to take care of ourselves. 

So, what would happen to our handling of God’s word if our hunger for the church to be appealing or to grow excedes our desire to obey God? What could happen if our drive to defend a particular idea might excede our thirst to have ears to hear God’s message?

The tools of a toddler to get what he wants are primitive, but they can be effective depending upon his parent’s skills. However our tools can be very sophisticated.

Rationalization can dismiss any inconvenient biblical teaching or practice with the stamp, “that was just cultural.” Of course, the incidental details of history do not actually by themselves prove causality. The reason why the early church believed or practiced something may have nothing to do with their surrounding culture and everything to do with God had spoken.

Other adult tools include cherry picking, taking something out of context, imposing reader-centric definitions upon biblical words, informal fallacies such as equivocation, bifurcation or begging the question, ignoring the biblical evidence, focusing upon what works or just trusting in the perceived security of a popular opinion or one’s own religious tradition.

If we allow our desires to determine our reading of the text, the result of such rationalization traps us within a hermeneutical circle. That is, our understanding of the text and of its applications mirror our own beliefs and values. When the text becomes a reflection of ourselves, how we interpret it reveals more about us than God’s message. Worse yet, those who are trapped are anesthetized to their predicament. They believe they are aligned with God’s will.

Sometimes the hermeneutic of desire will work hand in hand with the hermeneutic of fear. This fear thrives on information and the latest research studies. After divulging a mountain of information someone makes the strong assertion, “Unless the church aligns/changes, it will shrink/die.” Such fear depends upon evaluating the future solely in terms of how our own strength and wisdom can confront oppositional forces.

I’ve looked for an instance when God’s counsel for his people involved allowing fear to guide their decision making. I can’t remember any. Fear encourages us to believe in one or more lies.

What I do remember is twelve spies brought back a mountain load of information about fortified cities and giants. Ten spies examined the data and were fearful while two said, “God will give us the victory.” It is the two, not the ten, whom scripture celebrates. Is God able or is he not? Is God or culture or tradition more powerful?

I feel certain that some have misheard me. There is no suggestion here that we abandon being informed and identifying how good information can benefit God’s people. A healthy church relies upon God and works within the freedom provided by godly parameters.

Rather, let’s avoid missing the highest goal of loving God because fear motivated us to disobey his word. Such fear will fuel textual rationalization.

Maybe two worthy questions are:  What have we read in scripture that we do not want to be true for Christianity today? What do we feel the church of the Bible must give up to be successful in today’s world?

A third question might be: Have we recently read scripture and been reminded what God can do?

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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