by Al Maxey

Issue #493 ------- July 13, 2011
God's Word speaks to every generation, and
the relationship between meaning and significance
summarizes the hermeneutical task. It is not enough
to recreate the original intended meaning of a passage.
We must elucidate its significance for our own day.

Dr. Grant R. Osborne

The Hermeneutical Spiral
Dr. Grant R. Osborne's Overview of
the Rudiments of Theological Study

Over the years I have had quite a few people ask me to recommend books on various subjects; books that, in my opinion, might be valuable additions to one's personal library (or even church library), and might serve as aids to research and/or stimulants to deeper spiritual and theological reflection. I especially like to suggest works that challenge an individual to think. Too often, young ministers will put together a library of books, periodicals and audio-visual materials that tend to support their personal or party perceptions, preferences and practices. Such resources are not really conducive to one's spiritual and intellectual growth. Rather, they provide a comfortable theological cave in which to spiritually hibernate. I'm most certainly not suggesting we surround ourselves with heretical writings, and then swallow "hook, line and sinker" everything we read. We clearly need to be discriminating and discerning readers. On the other hand, we should never fear having our positions and practices challenged by those who have a differing perspective, nor should we fear a critical examination of all our cherished convictions. If they are true, they will withstand any challenge; if they're not, then may we be personally honest enough to embrace any change in thinking and practice (and teaching and preaching) that such revelation might necessitate.

One of the most significant areas of study for those persons who have been called to convey the great eternal truths of God's inspired Word is biblical hermeneutics. How someone approaches the task of seeking to understand the sacred writings will directly impact the nature not only of his own beliefs, but also the nature of his teaching and preaching. Those who perceive the New Covenant writings as comprising a "pattern of doctrine and practice," the precise practice of which is essential to salvation, will have a tendency to be rather legalistic in their public proclamation of those perceptions, which, in turn, leads quickly to an arrogant isolationism: an exclusion of all others who dare to differ with them as "apostates." On the other hand, those who perceive the inspired writings as more of a loving revelation of the Father to His children, a revelation of His nature and of His love, will have a tendency to embrace a more accepting view of others, in spite of differences, just as the Father has embraced each one of us. What are we looking for when we open the pages of His Word?! Pattern or Person? Law or Love? Religion or Relationship? Jesus rebuked the legalists of His own day (and, by extension, ours as well) for a fatally failed hermeneutic, saying that they searched the Scriptures scrupulously, "because you think that in them you have eternal life." And yet, He told them, "it is these that bear witness of Me" (John 5:39)! Like too many brethren today, their hermeneutical approach was flawed. They were searching the Holy Scriptures looking for LAW (obedience to which might merit them life), when the purpose of the Scriptures was simply to reveal God's LOVE in the person of Jesus Christ -- life being granted to all who embraced the Son in faith (vs. 40). This is as true today as it was then!!

Whenever I am asked to recommend a book on the subject of biblical hermeneutics, especially when asked to suggest such a book for preachers and teachers of God's Word, I immediately think of Dr. Grant R. Osborne's very powerful and insightful work -- The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [InterVarsity Press, 1991, 500 pages]. This book is designed primarily for "seminary students and working pastors," challenging them to take the truths perceived from the inspired Scriptures and make them applicable to the daily lives of the people who dwell around them. Biblical interpretation is not just some complex, convoluted theological exercise for theologians, rather it is a tool for sharing God's gracious revelation with our fellow man -- and sharing it in a way that is meaningful and relevant to their personal life-situations! As Dr. Osborne stated in the quote at the top of this article, "the relationship between meaning and significance summarizes the hermeneutical task. It is not enough to recreate the original intended meaning of a passage. We must elucidate its significance for our own day."

Dr. Osborne has divided his book into three main sections: (1) General Hermeneutics -- He deals with such matters as context, grammar, syntax, semantics, and historical and cultural backgrounds. (2) Genre Analysis -- In this section, Dr. Osborne analyzes in some depth the genres of narrative, epistle, prophecy, poetry, parable, apocalyptic and wisdom. (3) Applied Hermeneutics -- In my view, this is the most valuable section of the book, especially for those called to preach and teach. He not only deals with biblical theology and systematic theology, but also homiletics -- in particular: how biblical interpretation impacts the preparation and delivery of the sermon. He discusses the importance of contextualization, the part of the Holy Spirit in this process of interpretation and proclamation, principles for determining application, the need for relevance, practical methods for applying a text, and much, much more. Frankly, it should be required reading for every leader within the Body of Christ. In this dynamic section, the author shows us how to progress "from the exegesis of individual passages and toward the delineation of their significance for the church today" [p. 263]. "The static study of the original meaning of a text dare never be an end in itself, but must at all times have as its goal the dynamic application of the text to one's current needs and the sharing of that text with others via expository teaching and preaching" [p. 318]! In a number of very practical ways, Dr. Osborne demonstrates to the reader just how this can be accomplished.

Several Selected Quotes

I realize that not everyone who reads this Reflections is immediately going to rush out and purchase this book (although I believe many of you would greatly benefit from Dr. Osborne's work). Therefore, I would like to utilize the remainder of the space in this article to share with you just a few quotes from the book that I think are rather insightful, and which, hopefully, will challenge your thinking somewhat. Reflect upon them, and permit them to motivate you to further examination of your own perceptions and public proclamations.

  1. "Hermeneutics when utilized to interpret Scripture is a spiritual act, depending upon the leading of the Holy Spirit. Modern scholars too often ignore the sacred dimension. ... Scripture speaks to humanity through divinely controlled 'flashes of insight'" [p. 5]. Dr. Osborne refers to this as the doctrine of "illumination," and discusses it later in the book in some depth.

  2. "Biblical interpretation entails a 'spiral' from text to context, from its original meaning to its contextualization or significance for the church today. ... A 'spiral' is not a closed circle but rather an open-ended movement from the horizon of the text to the horizon of the reader" [p. 6].

  3. "The sacred author's intended meaning is the critical starting-point, but not an end in itself. The task of hermeneutics must begin with exegesis, but is not complete until one notes the contextualization of that meaning for today" [p. 6].

  4. "The basic evangelical fallacy of our generation is 'proof-texting,' that process whereby a person 'proves' a doctrine or practice merely by alluding to a text without considering its original inspired meaning" [p. 7].

  5. "Doctrines should not be built upon a single passage, but rather should summarize all that Scripture says on that topic. If there are no clarifying passages (for example, on baptism for the dead in 1 Cor. 15:29 or a compartmentalized Hades in Luke 16:22-26), we must be careful about seeing a statement of dogma" [p. 11]. Dr. Osborne clarifies this point even more in his section on parables. "Do not base doctrines upon the parables without checking corroborative details elsewhere. For instance, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is often taken as proof of a compartmentalized Hades. However, such a doctrine is not found in Jesus' teaching in Luke, and indeed nowhere else in Scripture. Therefore, the setting of the parable in Hades is local color rather than dogma and cannot be pressed too far" [p. 249].

  6. "Symbols are actual objects often placed in strange combinations to convey forcefully some religious truth. ... In moving from the symbol to the reality it envisages, the reader should seek first the biblical background behind such symbols and then use this to interpret later allusions. ... Allow the background behind the symbol to become a key to unlock its meaning" [p. 228-229].

  7. "Many believe that dogma emerges automatically from Scripture. One need merely quote a few verses and the doctrine becomes clear. However, this ignores the fact that the meaning of those passages is far from clear, and that many have been debated for centuries" [p. 287].

  8. "Communicators must apply the text to their own lives before considering how it touches the congregation's lives" [p. 339].

  9. "The true goal of hermeneutics is not the commentary but the sermon. The commentary performs an important task in opening up the original intended meaning of the biblical passage. However, the true purpose of the Bible is not static (as an object of study) but dynamic (as a life-changing mechanism)" [p. 339].

  10. "The sermon is a bridge-building mechanism that unites the ancient world of the biblical text with the modern world of the congregation. Contextualization is the mortar that binds these two worlds together, as the preacher attempts to help the congregation understand the relevance of the text for their own lives. The sermonic process is a continual bridging enterprise in which the preacher helps the audience to relive the drama and spiritual power of the text for its original audience and then to understand how that original message relates to similar situations in their own lives" [p. 339].

  11. "The sermon must be forged in a spirit of dependence and devotion, that the strength may be of the Spirit rather than of the flesh. The effects of the gospel are entirely the result of the Spirit rather than of our skill" [p. 340].

  12. "We cannot ask someone to do that which we have been unwilling to do ourselves. If a congregation hears a preacher inveigh against losing one's temper and knows him to be continually irritable and cantankerous, they will lose respect for both messenger and message. Simple logic demands that we earn the right to be heard before we take leadership in the church" [p. 342].

  13. "Sermon preparation must be a devotional exercise (a first-person encounter) before it becomes a proclamation event (a second-person encounter). Preachers continually must place themselves before the text rather than merely place themselves behind the text in order to direct it to this or that situation in the church" [p. 344].

  14. "It is crucial to apply a text with sensitivity and tact. When we strike at the 'cherished sins' of a person (long rationalized), we must pray for a divine wisdom so that the person will know we speak with love and understanding. We should not overly personalize the application, and those who are convicted by the sermon need to feel our compassion" [p. 347].

  15. "Above all, preachers need to share themselves; to be honest in showing how they have handled similar temptations. The audience can identify far more with a 'human' person behind the pulpit" [p. 348].

  16. "While secular hermeneutics concludes with the impartation of meaning and significance, biblical hermeneutics is not finished until the hearer is persuaded of the relevance and truthfulness of the message and motivated to act accordingly" [p. 352].

  17. "Persuasion dare not be attempted too quickly or too directly. It cannot be accomplished in a moment, and it is a common error of preachers to expect instant acquiescence to their arguments. It takes time and patience to help people alter the direction of their lives" [p. 352].

  18. "The pastor should lead people to agreement slowly, showing empathy for the difficulty experienced by many as they confront an area of their life that needs to be changed" [p. 353].

  19. "There is no greater privilege than to be the proclaimer of divine truth within the desperate situation of our world today. May we be careful to make certain (through the leading of the Holy Spirit and our own hard work) that it is indeed God's voice speaking through us as we contextualize His Word for our world" [p. 357-358].

Special CD Offers

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Readers' Reflections

Special Note --- An Author/Lecturer in Arkansas, after reading my previous issue of Reflections (#492), sent out an email, with a photo of me affixed to it, in which he quoted the second paragraph of my article and then declared in giant letters: AL MAXEY DECLARES ALL OUT WAR ON JESUS AND HIS FOLLOWERS. I have read and reread that short paragraph (indeed, the whole article), yet fail to see how it constitutes a declaration of war against the Lord and His people. I am beginning to think that some people are reading far more into my articles than was ever intended. I shouldn't be surprised, though -- legalists have been doing the same with the Bible for centuries. Please pray for this brother, as he seems to be looking for and "finding" heretics and heresies where none exist.

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, "Walk Thou Straight-Footed" was one of your very best!! Your Reflections have surely helped us all to be more Sure-Footed. My heart breaks for all those who come into the Kingdom with all their rules and regulations. Our fears turn us into Pharisees. I want to fight legalism, and yet I don't want to cause further division. Thank you so much for all you have done in the church, and for proclaiming the Good News of our salvation in Christ.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Brother Al, Amen! Excellent!! Our siblings among the Churches of Christ too often have missed the point of John 13:34 -- "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." If we insist on wearing the straightjacket of our traditions, whatever they may be, we miss John's point in instructing us to love one another as Christ loved us. As Paul wrote in Romans 14, we must accept one another despite our misunderstandings and disagreements about statements found within the Scriptures. If we refuse to accept "erring siblings," then we have missed John's point, since we too were (and are) "erring siblings" in Jesus Christ.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, I really believe that God prepares me in advance for each one of your Reflections. Just this past Sunday I was following along with the preacher in 2 Corinthians, but then my eyes latched on to something I had previously underlined that just leaped from the page at me! In 3:6 I saw that we are "made adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." I had been vexed in my spirit about some who have a tenacious grip on Law and Rules, and who want to bash anybody and everybody who doesn't see it their way (some of the blog sites, for example, are downright awful). Your comments today in "Walk Thou Straight-Footed," however, are confirmation to me that the Lord is doing a great work in His church and among His people, and that those who continue to promote this murderous false teaching (legalism) will be opposed by God. That's a sobering thought!! Peter was fortunate that God chose to use Paul to straighten him out!! Blessings, my friend. You enrich my life!!

From a Minister in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I have been meaning to do this for a while, but if you could add me to your mailing list for Reflections it would be much appreciated. I catch most of your articles via your Facebook site, but have missed some. Once again, thank you so much for what you are doing for the kingdom of God. Your honest study and application is refreshing!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Bro. Al, Thank you for a careful and detailed look at Paul's teaching in Galatians 2. Peter's hypocrisy reminds us all of how weak the flesh is. Yet, self-righteousness and legalism cannot come from one who truly says, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner" (Luke 18:13).

From a Pastor/Author in Florida:

Brother Al, The cornerstone for all legalism (salvation based on one's own obedience to law) rests on the sandy foundation of cultic conviction that believes, teaches and breeds a false sense of security and competitive pride from the "right church doctrine." This deadly doctrinal disease can subtly attack, infect and destroy any congregation, any noble movement or denomination (brand-name religious group). Keep exposing legalism, brother, and its resulting cultism as the deadly cancer it is and always will be to the true Body of Christ. We praise the Lord for the forum the Lord has given you. This is also what we are trying to do in our little corner of southern Florida with very limited resources and influence. We love you deeply in the Lord for your keen mind and stubborn faithfulness!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Maxey, I have been a member of the Church for a number of years. I have just recently taken a look at your Personal Web Page, and it looks like a great one. I look forward to exploring it some more in the future! One thing that really struck me was your 2002 Maxey-Thrasher Debate --- Eternal Destiny of the Wicked: Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction (An In-Depth Biblical Discussion). I must admit that I find the Conditionalist view quite interesting, and the points that you made for this view really made some sense!! Thank you very much!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I am reading Philip Yancey's book -- "Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?" He has become one of my favorite authors, and I have read most everything he has put in book form. I am also sending you a selection from the blog site of Terry Rush, the minister at Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Tulsa, OK, which I thought was excellent. It is titled The Parable of the Finished Father. It would not surprise me, however, to learn that you had already read it. Keep on keeping on, my brother. Although you are not my "twin," nonetheless you are still my brother!!

From a New Reader in Texas:

Brother Maxey, I found your web site while searching for information on Dr. Leroy Garrett. My search led me to your review (Reflections #107) of his book "A Lover's Quarrel." This spring, Leroy taught a seven-part lesson series on the unity heritage of the church. These seven hour-long classes were presented at Singing Oaks Church of Christ, which is where Leroy attends (as does my own family). He was absolutely amazing, especially considering his advanced age!! Memory and a command of the Scriptures is a true blessing from God. These seven lessons were video-taped, and they are now available for $2 per CD through our church office. If you're interested, you may contact Kim Cook at the following address to order a set: My best wishes to you in your service to God. May He bless your efforts.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: