Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I've ordered myself some material on hermeneutics and reading the Bible to help give me some foundation for this study I'm doing on the subject. Of course, when you're waiting for a good book to come in the mail, it always feels like forever before it gets here. In the meantime, I've been doing some thinking on the subject of meta-hermeneutics--or why we choose to read the Bible the way we do.

There's not a whole lot of material out there on the subject, but one interesting source I found compared the covenant theology hermeneutic with the dispensationalist one. Let's start with a little bit of background. Covenant theology / Dispensationalist theology are two major schools of thoughts within Christianity about how the covenants and testaments relate to each other.

Covenant theology tends to emphasize continuity between the covenants, creating a theology that maintains one covenant people, one way of salvation, and one standard of righteousness through time. Each of these things may change in definition over time, but each period flows right on into the next. This is where you get ideas like replacement theology and symbolic interpretation of the promises.

Dispensationalist theology emphasizes the discontinuity throughout history. Each covenant is its own unique entity. So, the physical people of Israel have one covenant (of law) which is distinct from the new covenant (of grace) of the church.

Covenentalism Dispensationalism
Focuses on harmonizing the Bible through the lens of the New Testament Gospel Focuses on the method of reading, emphasizing a scientific approach and plain sense meaning
Charles Clough (in the paper referenced above) seeks to understand how these differences developed and why these two schools of thought have such different ways of looking at things. I won't get into all the history (you can read the paper for yourself for that), but I do want to look at how he summarizes the underlying issues. Clough points out that each side has a particular goal that they are trying to work their theology around. For covenantalists, the issue is continuity of the central covenant of grace. Everything must be interpreted in such a way as to ensure that the whole Bible revolves around this one covenant throughout history. Their hermeneutic could be said to be more traditional, focusing more on harmonizing the Bible around what they perceive to be the central doctrine. For dispensationalists the issue is conforming interpretation to plain sense meaning. None of this reinterpretation stuff--the Bible should say exactly what it means. Their hermeneutic reflects the influence of the rise of rationalism and science.

Each side also has its compromises. Covenantalists sacrifice a literal reading for a theological concept. When we start assigning symbolic meaning everywhere, how can we be sure that's what the text was really meant to mean? Dispensationalists have to deal with God having two different people, two different standards, and two different sets of promises. Such distinctions can seem artificial and arbitrary and make it harder to figure out what God is really about. The issue is that there is unresolved tension within the Scripture itself, and how we approach that tension will determine how we interpret the Bible. Whatever we regard as our central focus, everything else will align around that, inconsistencies and all.

These are things we must consider as we seek to test our hermeneutics. Why do we read the Bible the way we do? Why do others read the Bible the way they do?

What do you regard as the central focus?


One might very well ask how does a Messianic hermeneutic fit into this framework? Well, like the covenantalist, the Messianic seeks continuity throughout the Scripture. Unlike the covenantalist, the Messianic does not use the New Testament as the plumb, but rather the Torah (in Clough's terms, the lexicon of Torah becomes the central lexicon). This results in reinterpretations such as: Yeshua representing the Torah made flesh, faith redefined in terms of the works that spring from it, and the universal nature of the New Covenant recast in terms of physical lineage from Ephraim. Granted, this only one version of the Messianic hermeneutic, but it is one that is fairly widespread. Here, it is the continuity of Torah that becomes the central point aligning everything else around itself. This is actually kinda ironic as most Messianics come in from a dispensationalist background. It is a plain sense reading of the text that leads them to believe in the validity of Torah, but over time the obsession with Torah takes over producing a theology that centers everything around Torah. Because of this, you will often still see remnants of the dispensationalist literalism as Messianics try to uncover how to keep certain commandments and in their conception of the end times.


  1. Hi there. This was VERY good reading. I came at all of this just as you said, from a dispensationalist church background, and for some time it I am sure it seemed as if my focus was going to drop off the edge of the planet as Torah became all-encompassing. I have seen this become a huge stumbling block in the lives of many friends, some who have eventually turned their backs on Yeshua in favor of converting to Judaism. One has to be careful, as I believe you have pointed out, not to go from one extreme to the other - Grace Only to Torah Only, or vice versa. The delicate dance, if you will, is seeing and understanding more and more that the two cannot be separated, just as the "old" and the "new" covenants cannot be separated, just as Yeshua and the Father cannot be separated. That brings me to your very last sentence... I"m on the edge of my seat, begging for you to expand your thoughts on this. Will you leave us hanging? ;-) THIS EXACT SPOT is where I find myself looking critically at what I was taught, what I have learned/applied and unlearned/quit applying and what I still need to learn/apply. Your thoughts here would be "as welcome as all get out" (as they say in Texas). Shalom to you! ~prairie

    1. Thanks! It's really great to hear from someone who a) finds encouragement in one of my more "technical" posts (sometimes I wonder how many people actually read these =P ) and b) has questions (I love sharing my thoughts and engaging people in conversation, but sometimes I'm at a loss for what types of topics people are looking for).

      So, by last sentence, I assume you're referring to how Messianics continue to use the dispensational hermeneutics they were raised with to determine how to apply the commandments. And from your comment, it sounds like you're trying to figure out how to sort through these old methods of reading Scripture, to determine whether or not they are legitimate (and if not, what the legitimate way is). And, of course, all of this plays out into the practical application of the commandments themselves. Am I tracking with you?