A Case Study in Hermeneutics

A tree outside my office window bloomed. I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, so I investigated it. I walked around it to gain different perspectives of its shape, the patterns and shapes of the leaves, the precise color of the blossoms, and how many lobes were on a leaf. Once I made my observations, I explored the internet for an answer. I concluded that it was an eastern redbud. Now, suppose an arborist from South Korea visited and examined the tree. The arborist immediately knew it was a Kanzan cherry tree because it is native to South Korea. He knew that I was a graduate student, so he gave me the Latin name—prunus serrulata. Needless to say, the context in which we grew up, life experience, and audience shaped our understanding of the tree and how we communicated it.

The same thing happens when Christians study the Scriptures. Their context, how they study the text, what they communicate, and their audience all shape their understanding of the text.

In order to demonstrate the relevance of proper hermeneutics, 3 different men from different time periods—John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and Christopher Wright—will be examined in the context of Genesis 18:19 to determine which of their frameworks employ the proper principles of interpretation.

Who were these men, who were their audiences, and how did their contexts impact their reading?


John Chrysostom

Biography

Chrysostom was a church father in the late fourth century. He lived in Antioch where he studied rhetoric and law.[1] However, Chrysostom ceased studying law and pursued asceticism through an increasingly rigorous lifestyle as a monk when he intently studied the Scriptures.[2] He departed from the ascetic lifestyle and was ordained as a deacon, then elder, then patriarch of Constantinople.[3] He addressed cultural issues in Antioch through his comprehensive understanding of the Scriptures and rhetorical training.[4] Chrysostom preached to a congregation mixed with “pagan[s], Jew[s], heretic[s], and sophist[s].”[5] Even with a wide audience, Chrysostom’s rhetorical training allowed him to preach effectively because they were an intelligent people.[6] They could bridge the gap between the study of Scriptures and applying to their life. With Chrysostom’s knowledge of Scripture, analytical mind, and persuasive style of speech coupled with his diverse and knowledgeable audience led to a deep understanding of the Scriptures.

Homily Structure

Chrysostom structured his homilies in a unique fashion. When Chrysostom preached, he read the passage, connected it to the previous homily and then gave the day’s lesson. This often led to an unrelated discourse about ethics, although this would eventually return to the day’s lesson followed by application.[7] In his application, he would focus heavily on how to live righteously due to the young nature of the church and mixed congregation.

In the first sentence of Homily 42 on Genesis 18, Chrysostom summarized the previous day’s homily and offered his main point for the day: “[L]et us move to what follows and come to discover the patriarch’s love and compassion.”[8] As the homily progressed, Chrysostom followed tangents related to virtue and various components of right living with corresponding applications. When Chrysostom reached Genesis 18:19, he focused on the future of Abraham’s children by giving them an example of “virtue”— or an example of righteous living.[9]


John Calvin

Biography

Calvin was one of the forerunners of the European Reformation in the 16th century. He initially desired to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood, but his father had him study law.[10] He turned Protestant during his study of law.[11] As a result, throughout his whole life he sought the reformation of the church through his pastoral and complex publications and sermons.[12] His audience was often recovering Roman Catholics who were still attempting to shake off their old beliefs. He engaged in a scholarly fashion through the exegetical exposition of the Scriptures, even though his audience was simple minded. While attempting to remain faithful to the Scriptures, he occasionally ranted against the Roman Catholic church. His deep care for people and the truth of God ignited him to regularly create resources for the church so that she might be reformed.

Commentary Structure

When Calvin wrote his commentaries, he expounded the Scriptures phrase by phrase within a verse, often writing long paragraphs of explanation because many were reading Scripture for the first time. When Calvin reached Genesis 18:19, he spent his time explaining God’s election of Abraham since election was one of the key doctrines of the reformation.[13] According to Calvin, the primary reason for God’s election was “for the benefit of [Abraham’s] race.”[14] Abraham’s race benefited from his election because the parents had an example of God’s desire for holiness by punishing wickedness to teach their children:

“Wherefore, it is the duty of parents to apply themselves diligently to the work of communicating what they have learned from the Lord to their children. … For our carnal security requires sharp stimulants whereby we may be urged to the fear of God.”[15]


Christopher Wright

Biography

Wright is an Old Testament scholar, Christian theologian, and missionary.[16] He was a missionary kid who studied at prestigious universities.[17] However, as he grew up and studied at these places, he recognized that there seemed to be no reference to missions, and even when they did reference missions, it was often devoid of proper theology.[18] Due to his concern over this unnecessary division between missions and theology, he wrote, “My major concern has been to develop an approach to biblical hermeneutics that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God’s people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible.”[19] Essentially, Wright defines God’s mission as redeeming his creation through his people.[20] His audience is typically students pursuing theological or ministerial training in the majority world. Recognizing the divorce between theology and missions that he experienced, his purpose in his lectures and writing is to refashion their understanding of missions by showing its complexity (incorporating theology) and breadth (seeing all of life as missions).

Book Structure

When Wright wrote The Mission of God, he lamented that much of missional theology has a small Old Testament pull but dives deeply into the New Testament.[21] He desired to show the roots of missional themes in the Old Testament, tracing them to the New Testament.[22] Instead of focusing on the imperatives of the New Testament, Wright started with Abraham as the foundation for how the people of God were to live, then traced the idea to the New Testament. In Genesis 18, he views the characters and places as models for the world Israel interacted with. For instance, Sodom is viewed as “a model of the world under judgment” and Abraham is viewed as the one engaging that world.[23] In short, Wright views this story as an example of missional engagement in the sphere of ethics by juxtaposing righteous and wicked living.


Evaluation

The main idea each of these men focused on is character education concerning ethics. Each man highlighted Genesis 18:19 as the main purpose of the chapter, but they approached the interpretation from different angles.

  • Chrysostom focused on Abraham’s righteous example to his children.[24]
  • Calvin focused on Abraham’s election so his family could learn to live rightly and be saved from judgement.[25]
  • Wright focused on engaging the world through righteous living.[26]

Chrysostom did well in his preaching because he focused on the story positively and accounted for the literary structure of the text by connecting it to his previous homilies on Genesis.[27]

However, he did not account for the historical context of the passage in his homily. As a result, he used this passage as a springboard for a topical homily on virtue. This idea is certainly in the text and a topic worth preaching on, however he focused too narrowly on virtue—he missed the redemptive-historical connection.

Calvin focused on the opposite of virtuous living by focusing on the example Sodom and Gomorrah.[28] Calvin interpreted this passage as application to the parents as a teaching opportunity for children on what right living should look like by a negative example.[29] He did focus on the literary context of the passage by going through this text in an expository fashion.

However, like Chrysostom, he did not interact with the historical context of the passage. While Calvin’s interpretation is connected to the text, he missed the overall redemptive-historical component of this passage.

Although Chrysostom and Calvin have meritorious interpretations, Wright’s interpretation is the strongest out of the three because he accounted for the historical, literary, and redemptive-historical context of the passage.

He accounted for the historical context by recognizing who the intended audience was—Israel. In his book, Wright focused in on “their election, redemption and covenant.”[30] Since they knew who they were, they had to know how they should live:

“The ethical challenge to God’s people is, first, to recognize the mission of God that provides the heartbeat of their very existence and, then, to respond in ways that express and facilitate it rather than deny and hinder it.”[31]

In addition to the historical context, he demonstrated the literary context by spending time interpreting Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4 in the same chapter he interacts with Genesis 18.

Finally, he accounted for the historical-redemptive context by looking further into the Scriptures and presenting the covenantal thrust this passage possesses. As mentioned before, God’s mission is redeeming his creation through his people. Since the people of Israel know who they are, they need to live in accordance to what God requires, thus fulfilling their covenantal obligations which forwards God’s mission.[32]


Living as Exiles

John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and Christopher Wright were formed by their contexts, life experiences, and audiences. These factors heavily influenced the assumptions they brought when they interpreted the text and communicated with their audiences. They drew out certain aspects of the text by prioritizing what their audience needed to hear. None of these men were unscriptural, but it would have benefited Chrysostom and Calvin to consider the broader context of the passage like Wright. Every interpreter of the Bible should learn from this example and consider the literary, historical, and redemptive-historical contexts as they seek to faithfully interpret and communicate God’s Word.


This was originally an academic paper submitted to Professor Aaron Goldstein in Covenant Theology and Covenant Theological Seminary. This post may be more technical in nature and has been modified from its original submission.


Endnotes

[1] H. K. Gallatin, “Chrysostom, John,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 246.

[2] Gallatin, “Chrysostom, John,” 246.

[3] Gallatin, “Chrysostom, John,” 246.

[4] Gallatin, “Chrysostom, John,” 246.

[5] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 1-17, trans. Robert Hill, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 3.

[6] Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 1-17, 1:8.

[7] Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 1-17, 1:10.

[8] John Chrysostom, “Homily 42,” in Homilies on Genesis 18-45, trans. Robert Hill, vol. 2, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 418.

[9] Chrysostom, “Homily 42,” 423.

[10] W. S. Reid, “Calvin, John,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 201.

[11] Reid, “Calvin, John,” 201.

[12] Reid, “Calvin, John,” 201.

[13] John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 480–1.

[14] Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:481.

[15] Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:481.

[16] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 18.

[17] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, ed. Jonathan Lunde, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 19.

[18] Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 19.

[19] Wright, The Mission of God, 17.

[20] Wright, The Mission of God, 22–23.

[21] Wright, The Mission of God, 17.

[22] Wright, The Mission of God, 17–18.

[23] Wright, The Mission of God, 360.

[24] Chrysostom, “Homily 42,” 423.

[25] Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:481.

[26] Wright, The Mission of God, 368–369.

[27] Chrysostom, “Homily 42,” 418.

[28] Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:481.

[29] Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:481.

[30] Wright, The Mission of God, 357.

[31] Wright, The Mission of God, 357.

[32] Wright, The Mission of God, 369.

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