The Problem With Shotgun Hermeneutics


 Introduction

If you have followed this blog for some time, you will have heard me mention that I went to a Christian high school. While I have my disagreements with the theological position of this school on some issues, I am grateful for some of the things that the school instilled in me. As I am grateful, for example, for the fact that we opened each day with Bible classes, which instilled in me a love of Scripture and a practice of making Scripture study a regular part of my life. I am also grateful for the fact that we would be required a verse of Scripture each week. However, this is part of the problem. The issue is that we were required to memorize A VERSE of Scripture each week. While the memorization of Scripture is a positive practice that all Christians should engage in, there is an issue with memorizing a single verse of Scripture to the exclusion of the passage as a whole. The issue is simply this: When we memorize a verse of Scripture, we often miss the literary context in which we find that verse. Context is key in understanding a passage of Scripture, and this is also true when it comes to memorizing Scripture. The failure to understand the context of the verses that we read has led to an interesting phenomenon that has been called "shotgun hermeneutics." In this post, I would like to explore some major problems with shotgun hermeneutics.

Misunderstanding The Message

Perhaps the biggest issue with shotgun hermeneutics is that, when we only look at a single verse, we often miss the message. Let's look at a common example that I see on an almost weekly basis: Jesus' words in Matthew 7:1. Many people are aware of the words that Jesus says here: "Do not judge." This is then interpreted as a ban on any judgement, anywhere, at any time, in any way shape or form. I have seen this used as a justification for Christians to not speak about Jesus (since the idea that we need a Savior can sometimes come across as judgmental) and as a basis to argue that Christians should participate in the practices of other religions (since it can sometimes be misinterpreted as judgmental if a person believes that we should only worship God), as well as a basis for claiming that, if Christians make exclusive claims for Christ, then they are wrong (since some will misinterpret the exclusivity of Christ as judgmental towards other faiths). However, none of these are accurate representations of what Jesus is saying in this passage. When we explore the context (by reading through verse 6), we see that what Jesus is warning against is hypocritical judgment. If you struggle with an addiction, for example, don't throw stones at someone who struggles with that same addiction. Instead, let God work his grace in you and pull you away from the addiction you struggle with. Instead of casting stones at those who share your addiction, the better solution is to grow closer to Christ and away from that addiction together.

Let's look at another example. I am currently working on a series on the King James Only movement that I plan to release within the next couple of months. One passage that is used to support the KJV-Only doctrine of preservation is Psalm 12:6-7, which reads (in the KJV):

"The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever."

On the surface, it seems that this is a clear statement that God will preserve his [written] word. In this case, the assumption from the KJV-Only movement would be that that the promise that God would preserve his word is the same as the promise that God would preserve his word in the King James Version. It takes a pretty significant leap to come to this conclusion. However, we can at least trace the line of reasoning for the average King James Only advocate. There is only one problem: The entire basis for reaching this conclusion from this passage is that the passage teaches the preservation of God's written word. The problem is that the context of this passage argues against this interpretation. One of the major themes of this passage is the reliability of God's word over against the unreliability of the words of those who oppose God, this is true. If we don't dive any deeper into the passage, we could understand how the KJV-Only activist could derive some kind of doctrine of preservation from this passage (even if it doesn't point directly to the KJV). However, when we look at the context of the psalm as a whole, then we see that this doesn't work for at least 2 reasons:

1. Psalm 12 is a lament, which deals with a specific situation in the life of the author or his community.

2. Psalm 12:6-7 looks back on the promise that God made in Psalm 12:5. Therefore, to apply this verse to a written document is to rip it out of its literary context.

Since these two things (as well as several others that will be raised in the KJV-Only series) are the case, this passage is not expressing trust that God will preserve a specific document, but rather that God will keep his promise to protect the victims of the evildoers mentioned in verse 2.

These two issues lead me to the second major problem with shotgun hermeneutics.

Bad Theology

The second major problem with shotgun hermeneutics is that, when passages are taken out of context, we often end up with bad theology. When passages are taken out of context, we start to see things in Scripture that are not truly there, or fail to see things in Scripture that actually are there. Because Scripture is the key player in developing our theology, it is important that we interpret it properly.

If those who misinterpret Matthew 7 in the manner mentioned above, for example, will see a contradiction between Jesus' words here and the commands found within Scripture to preach the Gospel. In reality, there is no contradiction here at all, when both are understood in their proper contexts.

In the same way, KJV-Only advocates who ignore the context of Psalm 12 (or, more precisely, only look at part of the context of Psalm 12) see a doctrine of preservation that is not supported by this passage. In addition, because of the failure to look at the full context of this passage, they also often miss the fact that God is making a promise to help the poor and needy that were in desperate need in this passage. Rather than understanding this passage as pointing towards God's mercy toward those in need, this is taken as a prooftext for a doctrine that didn't arise until around 1900 years after the Church was founded.

Conclusion

In short, it is a good thing to read Scripture, and it is a good thing to memorize Scripture. But I would caution against reading only a single verse or memorizing only a single verse. If you are going to read Scripture, read at least one chapter (preferably more, since it only takes about 15 minutes of reading per day to read the Bible in a year). If you are going to memorize Scripture, it is best to memorize at least a paragraph. While a paragraph may not provide all of the context, it will at least point you in the right direction. Whichever way you decide to practice this, just keep in mind that it is important to avoid shotgun hermeneutics.

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