the weblog of Alan Knox

Toward Mutual Hermeneutics

Posted by on Sep 1, 2008 in discipleship, scripture | 12 comments

Saturday, I published a post called “Mutual Hermeneutics“. I that post, I recalled a discussion in a PhD seminar on Hermeneutics concerning the fact that most believers do not practice hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) on their own. Instead, Christians tend to wait for teachers and leaders to interpret the Bible for them.

Concluding that post, I made one statement and asked four questions:

There seems to be a tendency in the church today that leaders are responsible for interpreting Scripture for everyone else. 1) Do you agree that this is a tendency? 2) If so, should something be done about this? 3) What can leaders do about this? 4) What can others (non-leaders) do about this?

There was a great response to this post – especially for a Saturday. So, I decided to respond to the comments and my own questions in a separate post.

First, I do believe that there is a tendency in the church today to leave interpretation up to the “professionals”. Second, I believe that this is a very unhealthy tendency. So, something should be done about it. But, what should we do?

As I consider what should and can be done to encourage mutual hermeneutics – that is, for the entire church to be involved in biblical interpretation – I recognize that churches meet in many different ways. There are many different teaching styles, learning styles, discipling styles, leadership styles, and organizational styles. Because of the variations, my suggestions will not make sense in some contexts. I recognize this, and I do not think that all churches should or even can meet in the same way that we meet. However, I think that all churches can consider and implement ways to encourage everyone to take part in biblical interpretation.

Certainly, we can move toward mutual hermeneutics by encouraging, exhorting, training, and expecting everyone to study Scripture for themselves. Likewise, modelling and explaining is very important. Since people teach and learn in different ways, those who are training others to interpret Scripture should use different methods themselves. But, these should be considered the first steps – and small steps – toward mutual hermeneutics.

The next step – and perhaps a more important step – is giving people opportunities to practice biblical interpretation and opportunities to present what they have learned. If any time is considered off-limits to anyone but the pastors, then people are taught by implication that they really can’t interpret Scripture for themselves. Yes, Bible studies are good contexts for those who want to begin interpreting and teaching Scriptures, but if we honestly want to encouraging mutual hermeneutics, then we should open “the pulpit” for any who wish to teach.

Yes, it is a scary proposition to allow anyone to teach the church. There are steps that can be taken to make this proposition less scary. Those who are comfortable studying and teaching Scripture to the church can help train those who want to learn. Similarly, we should not expect everyone to use our teaching or study methods. Homiletics and professionalism are not necessary to communicate God’s truth to God’s people. The most important aspect of teaching is life transformation – actually living what is being taught.

If the idea of allowing “anyone” to teach is just too much, then consider teaching teams. There are many ways to implement teaching teams. 1) Have a different person teach each week. 2) Have each person teach two or three weeks at a time, then rotate. 3) Have different people teach shorter lessons during the same church meeting. Either way, you are explicitly teaching people that they can interpret Scripture for themselves.

Giving other people opportunities to teach means that some pastors will need to give up “the pulpit” – even when they are present. This, in itself, is an excellent example for people. Pastors and leaders should be learners as well as teachers. What better model for the people than a pastor who is willing to learn along with others.

Another positive way of encouraging mutual hermeneutics is to allow people to discuss the teaching or “sermon”. Some people are not willing or able to adjust the “worship schedule”, so consider having a discussion period at another time, perhaps even during lunch immediately following the “worship service”. Discussion was certainly a part of early church meetings, and I think that spiritual growth has been hindered by adapting a monologue type meeting.

Humility – especially on the part of leaders – is also important in encouraging mutual hermeneutics. Leaders must be willing to seriously consider viewpoints and perspectives that are different than their own. If all interpretations that differ from the pastors’ interpretations are dismissed with consideration, then people will soon learn not to try to interpret Scripture on their own.

Finally, for all of us, we should seek to understand Scripture on our own, and we should expect that our brothers and sisters are seeking to understand Scripture on their own. We must be willing to share with one another what God is teaching us through Scripture, and we must be willing to ask others what God is teaching them. If someone never wants to talk about Scripture, then there may be a problem. This is a good opportunity for discipleship and to help someone begin to study Scripture on their own.

All of this presupposes relationship. Allowing “anyone” to teach assumes that we have relationships with the people who will be teaching. Through relationships we help one another interpret Scripture, we know how they are living their lives, we know if what they say matches what they do, we are willing to speak up when they say something heretical (not different… heretical), we are willing to help them mature, and we are willing to let them help us mature.

Today, in the church, relationship is rare. We tend to deal with one another from position instead of relationships. If we want to see mutual hermeneutics develop in the church, we must have mutuality first – relationship.

Sermons are powerful way to communicate information about God. However, in reality, most sermons that are heard are usually forgotten within a few days – if not a few hours. However, someone who studies Scripture for themselves, who allows the Spirit to transform their lives toward what they are studying, and who then teaches that to others both through their words and their lives remembers what God did in them and through them.

In what other ways can we encourage all believers toward mutual hermeneutics?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-1-2008


    While I agree with you about the importance of allowing others to take turns preaching in public “worship services,” there are those who may have important contributions that are never going to feel comfortable communicating them in a forum like a sermon preached in front of a large (or relatively large) group of people.

    Thus, I think it is important to have small group contexts in which there is an opportunity for “mutual hermeneutics.” Something like in “interrelational discussion group” there in Wake Forest.

    There is a danger, though, in this type of setting. A lot of times, in small group Bible study, you go around the circle, and everyone says something like, “Well, this is what this passage means to me.” However, while Scripture may have a number of different applications, it only has one correct meaning. We should not, therefore, give validity to anyone and everyone’s subjective impressions regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. I think it is because of this that many pastors are afraid of small groups.

    I think there must be a balance, allowing for free participation, while at the same time allowing those who have more training and expertise in Scriptural hermeneutics to train and “oversee” those who do not. In a lot of ways, this is more of an art than a science. It involves, as you observe, relationship, trust, and discernment.

    Another interesting model, which I have observed mostly in Plymouth Brethren congregations, is that of giving opportunity in Sunday services for various individuals (usually men in the PB context) to give words of exhortation and/or teaching (e.g. 2 or 3 shorter “sermons” instead of just 1). In my opinion, this model has both “pros” and “cons.” But, it is another interesting way to tackle this problem.

  2. 9-1-2008


    I agree completely about the importance of teaching and interpreting Scripture in small groups. I only mentioned “worship services” in this post because that is context in which mutual hermeneutics is usually lacking.

    I also agree that there is a danger of small groups – or any type of mutual interpretation – becoming a time for sharing “what this passage means to me”. This is where mature believers should work to help others understand that Scripture cannot mean different things. Mature believers cannot help other look at scriptural meaning from different perspectives and with different points of application. This works best – I think – within relationships.

    By the way, I refer to “mature believers” instead of believers with “training and expertise” because the latter does not always indicate the former.


  3. 9-1-2008


    Good thoughts and all of your suggestions are possible if not desirable. But you summed up a great difficulty when you said, “All of this presupposes relationship…Today, in the church, relationship is rare.”

    I think, in a nutshell, what you (and David) are describing is “making disciples.” Mutual hermeneutics is a part of the process. It is a relationship around God and His word. We proclaim, explain, demonstrate, live, love the Scriptures together and prepare people to go and do the same. That process may take many different forms and the results may manifest themselves in many different ways. Both of you have described forms and manifestations (good and bad) of that process.

    But without relationship, there is no process, no disciple making.

  4. 9-1-2008

    Hey Brother David,

    We did just this in our gathering.
    We just finished up a class on bible study methods (which was really an intro to hermeneutics class). Each person in the class had to work through the book of Ephesians, prepare a chart a structural diagram by chapter/paragraph or thought (there was freedom in this). However they couldn’t go to interpretation until they had mulled over the observation stage, giving key words, doctrines, people and places, looking for things such as: explanation, contrast, conjunction and pictures. They also had to learn literary genre and was given a few books and they had to tell us what the genre was.

    So anyway we did this so we can get rid of “it means this to me” habit that is plaguing the chuch like crazy. But I do agree with you and Kieth and say this was a first step for us.

  5. 9-1-2008


    Yes, discipleship (through relationships) is necessary for mutual hermeneutics. In fact, I would say that relationship is necessary for discipleship. We can probably share information with people without having a relationship with them, but I don’t think we can disciple people apart from relationship.


    I like that idea. I think you’re right that your idea would help us move away from the “what it means to me” thing. I also like the idea of studying a book as a whole before studying the individual pieces. I think this is a good hermeneutical practice.


  6. 9-1-2008


    The contrast and comparison between “mature believers” and those with “training and expertise” is an interesting discussion that would probably be worth a whole separate post.

    I agree that spiritual maturity should be a key qualification for teaching and overseeing others in the Body. However, I think there are probably some spiritually mature people who, due to a lack of training, are not all that adept at proper hermeneutics.

    As far as training others in hermeneutics, I think that both characteristics–spiritual maturity, and a certain level of training and expertise–would be helpful. I definitely agree with you, though, on the dangers of placing too much priority on training and expertise, and not enough on spiritual maturity.


    I like the way you handled this in your church. I have taught hermeneutics in a local church setting as well.

    One question I still have, though, is what do you do with those believers who, for one reason or another, are not all that academically inclined. Should we push everyone in the Body to use their minds more and become proficient at basic hermeneutics? I think probably so. But, maybe this is just my bias as an academically inclined person.

  7. 9-1-2008


    You said, “The contrast and comparison between ‘mature believers’ and those with ‘training and expertise’ is an interesting discussion that would probably be worth a whole separate post.” I agree! Would you be willing to tackle that subject?

    You also said, “However, I think there are probably some spiritually mature people who, due to a lack of training, are not all that adept at proper hermeneutics.” I would interested in how you define “spiritually mature people”. To me, someone who is spiritually mature also knows how to interpret Scripture. But, perhaps I’m including too much in my definition.

    On the other hand, I know that there are some (many?) who are trained in hermeneutics, but who are not spiritually mature.


  8. 9-2-2008


    I’m thinking I’m going to confine my comments on this subject to this comment string, for the time being. The separate post idea was just a thought.

    In any case, as I have reflected a bit on your answer, I agree that a good case can be made for including Scriptural understanding as at least one element of spiritual maturity. Passages such as Hebrews 5:11-14 and Eph. 4:11-16 (especially v. 14) come to mind.

    However, I am thinking of people who may, as a result of years of walking with the Lord, have a sterling Christian character, a deep devotional love for the Lord, a powerful prayer life, a faithful witness, etc.; yet, due, perhaps, to a lack of academic inclination, gifting, and/or training, not know the first thing about parsing a Greek verb, or the historical context of the ancient Roman world. While I believe I should remain open to being taught by such people, at the same time, I will also value the type of knowledge that others, who do have special training and expertise, are able to contribute to my understanding of the Word of God.

    If we were to limit ourselves to only those who, despite their sterling character, etc., do not have academic training, I believe we would be poorer, in regard to our “mutual hermeneutic.” But, if we were to limit ourselves to those who are academic experts, but who do not have the character and walk with the Lord to validate their knowledge of Scripture, we would be even poorer still.

  9. 9-2-2008


    I agree completely with your last comment. I think that biblical interpretation goes along with spiritual maturity. There will certainly be some aspects of biblical interpretation that some mature people will struggle with. I think this is true even of those who are trained. For me, this shows how we should rely on one another – that is, mutual hermeneutics.

    Thanks for this discussion and for helping me think through this issue.


  10. 9-2-2008

    I think allowing people to teach is critical. First, I learn the most when I teach, not when others “teach” me. Second, the Holy Spirit does the real teaching and if we truly trust that the Holy Spirit will do His job, then we can be unafraid when we allow someone to teach. Third, because people learn so much when they are vulnerable enough to stand and teach, the greatest way to disciple them is to give them room in which to grow by allowing them opportunities to teach what they are learning.

    It is a Kingdom principle that we cannot keep what we do not give away – meaning, that even if we are learning something we will lose that new learning unless we are then “giving it away” by teaching it to others.

    there really are no professional Christians – there are only followers of Jesus, all of whom can be filled by the Holy Spirit to accomplish what God has prepared for them to do. Let ‘em loose!

  11. 5-9-2012

    Many good points here. I say again that this was just opposite what my church and pastor practiced. The pastor was against discussing any scripture that was off topic, or answering any questions that were raised regarding his interpretation.

  12. 5-9-2012


    I’m sorry to hear that, although it’s common. I think we can all learn from each other as the Spirit teaches us all together.