Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part IV: Addressing the Issues (Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives)
Chapter 20 – Biblical Hermeneutics: Basic Principles and Questions of Gender. Roger Nicole.
This is the first of five essays in Part IV dealing with hermeneutical issues.
Nicole writes that twentieth century hermeneutics has come to mean something different than its classical meaning.
[twentieth century] exegesis refers to the search for the meaning of a statement in the original setting, while hermeneutics attempts to evaluate its impact at the present time and in the circumstances of the reader or hearer. (355, f. 1)
He describes hermeneutics in its classical sense as “principles that serve to ascertain the meaning of verbal statements.” (355) He describes exegesis as “applying hermeneutical principles to particular texts.” (355)
Nicole acknowledges “God as the primary author of Scripture” and suggests the search for the author’s intent in any biblical passage can’t be divorced from divine intent. Yet the understanding of human authors was not exhaustive as Jesus himself identifies meaning in texts that “transcend the intention of the human author.
Nicole identifies six foundational hermeneutical principles.
Literal or Figurative Meanings
Nicole reminds us that the Bible is rich in metaphors and figurative language. Expressions like “eyes of my heart” or “the Lord’s arm” are clearly figurative. It is important to understand what those figures of speech meant in their context. I think one of this type of misunderstanding is the figurative use of the word “head” and our tendency to read back our contemporary understanding into the Greek text .
Prescriptive or Descriptive Texts
Yet it is imperative to recognize that certain practices in both Testaments are merely described, or serve as the cultural background of the activity even of some who were God’s children, without implying that we should conform to these practices. (357)
As an example, concerning the relationships between husbands and wives Nicole writes:
Although the wife’s submission to her husband in the Greco-Roman household was prescriptive within that cultural context, husbands are never instructed in the Bible to “exercise authority over,” “provide leadership for” or “be responsible for” their wives. …However, the passage does clearly prescribe for the husband Christlike behavior of love and sacrifice toward his wife. (358)
Individual, Collective and Universal References
As an example, Nicole compares Jesus command to a blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:6) and the injunction “You shall not murder.” (Ex 20:13) The first is directed to a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The second is a universal prescription. Concerning passages like 1 Timothy 2:9-15, it must determined if it is addressed to all the women in the congregation or just wives.
Peripheral Versus Central Doctrines
Nicole writes that “Some elements of our faith or duty are more basic to our understanding of our doctrine of life, while others are more peripheral.” (359) To illustrate he writes:
When this principle is applied to gender issues related to church leadership, it is of some interest that many patriarchalists affirm the gifting of women for ministry of various kinds but are resistant to women’s holding positions of leadership in the official structures of the church. On the is matter, on would think that Spirit gifting, which receives considerable attention in the New Testament with regard to the ministry of the body of Christ to itself and in the world (Rom 8:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14; etc.), would be more central than “church order.” This is especially so since there is no prescriptive passage that dictates the structures or nature of church order. Church order was undoubtedly assumed; but the lack of prescriptive instruction about it suggests that it is a more peripheral consideration than ministry itself.” (359-360)
Fragmentary Versus Canonical Interpretations
Here Nicole warns against lifting verses or passages out their context. Each passage must be understood in light of the passages written before and after it, in light of the book in which it is found, and in light of larger Canonical Interpretations. The whole of Scripture serves to interpret individual passages of scripture.
The Situation of Those Being Addressed or Represented
Nicole stresses the importance of remembering that what we read in scripture was not written directly to us. It was written by and to people living in ancient Near Eastern (Old Testament) and Greco-Roman (New Testament) cultures. The letters were in time and space to people in these cultures. Our first effort has to be to understand what it meant to the original author’s and audiences before applying the scripture to contemporary circumstances.
Nicole closes out his essay observing that much of the disagreement in the gender debates occurs because sound hermeneutical principles have not been identified and followed. Finding agreement on sound hermeneutics could help bring clarity to the disagreements.
Roger Nicole received his M.A. from Sorbonne in Paris, B.D., S.T.M. and Th.D. from Gordon Divinity School in Boston, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. After forty-one years of teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Semianry, he is now professor of theology emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of numerous articles, including those published in book form in Standing Forth (twenty-three essays) and Our Sovereign Savior (fourteen addresses). Roger is an ordained Baptist minister and lives with his wife, Annette, in Longwood, Florida.
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