What role does hermeneutics play in Southeast Asian Churches? Does it even play a role? Technically, the answer is “yes”, for a reader always uses some method of interpretation when approaching the text. A better question might be, “What role does “sound” hermeneutics play in the Southeast Asian Church?”
The answer to this is hard to quantify and personally I can only offer what I have witnessed within the Thai Church. While there are some skilled exegetes out there, most of what I have seen is well-meaning pastors that desire to be faithful to the Bible, but do not understand how to handle God’s Word in the way it was meant to be handled. The typical sermons that I have heard are topical in nature, using proof texts ripped from their original context because they seem to support the theme of the day.
Suppose a pastor would like to preach a sermon on God’s goodness towards Christians. This is a topic worthy to be expounded at any Church, whether it is in Southeast Asia or anywhere else in the world. Once this topic has been chosen, the pastor might then try to think of verses that describe God showing his goodness towards His people. He may bounce from Genesis 1:31 to Psalm 23:6 to Jeremiah 29:11. He will try to come up with every passage he can find that describes the goodness of God. Once he is finished, he will weed out the verses that do not bolster his talking points enough, leaving him with maybe three or four proof texts that will support the framework of his sermon.
By using this style of sermon preparation, many issues can arise. While those three or four passages most likely talk about the goodness of God towards His people, without the surrounding context, the hearer will only receive a vague notion of what God is truly communicating through those verses. At times, the true meaning could even become twisted or lost altogether. Take for instance Job 22:21…
“Agree with God and be at peace;
thereby good will come to you.” (ESV)
Without context, this passage seems to indicate that God’s goodness is dependent upon one’s agreement with Him. Yet to get at the heart of this verse, the reader must understand the flow of the whole book of Job. This saying comes from Eliphaz the Temanite. Eliphaz is challenging Job’s claim that he is righteous. Eliphaz believes that the reason Job is suffering is because of sin in his life. This is worldly wisdom, which is in opposition to Godly wisdom. If one reads to the end of Job, he will understand that the world does not function in a karmic manner, but often God allows the righteous to suffer for reasons we do not understand. If a pastor does not take the time to figure this out, he may make Job 22:21 a major point in his topical sermon. And where does this leave his hearers? Stuck in a legalistic system of tit for tat.
Why does this problem exist in the Church? Part of the reason is the existence of false teachers. These people will purposely twist God’s Word in order to scratch itching ears. They desire things such as fame, money and power. These teachers have existed from the days of the early church until our present time and I do not expect that fact to change. Yet they pass their poor hermeneutical methods onto the next generation.
But I am not writing this article for false teachers. Rather, I am writing to those pastors who desire to be faithful to God’s Word but are not sure how to do it. This issue is a hermeneutical issue. Since a person’s hermeneutics is driven by presuppositions, a few questions must be answered at the start. The first question a pastor must ask himself is…
1) What is the Bible?
Is it a divine book? If so, how did it come to us? Did angels from heaven deliver a scroll from God to the prophet Jeremiah? Did the Holy Spirit temporarily take over David’s mind as he penned Psalm 32? Was God whispering in Paul’s ear the exact words he was to write in his letter to the Church in Rome?
Is it a human book? When we read the Bible, are we just hearing the thoughts of men? And if the authors are really just men, what role does God play into all of this? Where does the Bible’s authority come from?
The reality of the matter is that the sixty-six books of the Bible are both divine and human in nature. God inspired ordinary humans to communicate His message in normal human language. The fact that it is a divine book means that it is both authoritative and trustworthy. The fact that God used human authors means that it is both accessible and understandable.
Where much of the hermeneutical trouble lies, is an overemphasis on the divine nature of scripture while ignoring the human aspects, such as literary style and the historical context of both the author and his audience. This is why verses get pulled from their context. Without taking into account these human literary techniques, one can just pull verses at random and declare it authoritative. However, the normal way that the Holy Spirit gives us a message to preach is through diligent study of God’s Word, not just grabbing a few texts that sound good and praying for a powerful sermon.
2) For what purpose was God’s Word written?
Here is another important question that lays the framework for a person’s hermeneutical presuppositions. Why did God give us the Bible? Is it His instruction book filled with rules for humans to live by? This is how many approach Scripture. This slant often results in sermons that are moralistic in nature. The preacher will end up teaching messages full of practical things one needs to do to make their life better.
However the Bible was not written for this purpose, at least this is not its central purpose. Rather Scripture follows a narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. God is the central character in this story, and He is most fully revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Once readers realize that the Bible isn’t about them and what they must do, but rather about God and what He has done, only then can honest hermeneutics be accomplished.
However, solely answering these two questions does not automatically lead to good, biblical sermons.. In Asia, one of the biggest hurdles to leap is a cultural one. Many of the literary forms used by the inspired authors of Scripture can grate against cultural norms of Asian society. Exegetes need to contend with texts, for when taken in their literary context, some of Scripture may sound foreign and somewhat bizarre.
To give an example, when Paul wrote his epistles, he often used sarcasm (a medium not often understood in many Asian cultures) as a vehicle to emphasize his emotion to his readers. The book of Second Corinthians is a great example of this. Look at 2 Corinthians 11:5
Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. (ESV)
What does Paul mean by super-apostles? Did some apostles have greater abilities than others? Does Paul consider himself to be a super-apostle? Without understanding sarcasm and how it is employed, one could come to this conclusion. But that is not what Paul is trying to communicate. Instead, he is saying that these “super-apostles” are not apostles at all, but rather false teachers. Understanding sarcasm is the key that unlocks Paul’s message.
Another great hurdle is the notion of prior Biblical knowledge of the intended audience. Some New Testament writings often assume the reader will be well versed in Old Testament writings. Matthew makes many allusions to O.T. narratives as he follows the life of Jesus. Once the reader understands Matthew’s technique this gospel becomes a richer and more meaningful text.
With issues like these, what can the Church in Southeast Asia do to jump such hurdles? Seminaries are helpful, but as many of you probably already know, moving to attend a residential seminary for three or four years is not a viable option for many Asian pastors. So what can be done?
What is desperately needed are study helps written specifically for these men who want to handle God’s Word rightly… hermeneutical guides… solid commentaries… sound study Bibles… Biblical encyclopedias… all translated into native tongues, or better yet written by native speakers. Skillful pastors should be sent out to the different regions of Southeast Asia to give training seminars on basic hermeneutics and sermon preparation. Missionaries who are establishing new Churches need to set the bar in sound hermeneutical practices as they disciple their successors. While these initiatives are already happening in some places, there needs to be more.
As the expectations of how a shepherd is to handle God’s Word move toward honest faithfulness to both the divine and human aspects of Scripture along with a right understanding of the overarching meta-narrative, the result will be Churches in Southeast Asia experiencing true spiritual growth.