Quiet time (4) — the hermeneutics of it all

In what will probably be the last post on this subject for a while (rather than thinking and writing about Quiet Time, if I have the time, I probably need to use it as Quiet Time!), I want briefly to treat the notion of “following Jesus’ example” as a subtopic of hermeneutics.

First, to retrace a few steps.  (Skip this paragraph and the next one if you’ve been with me all the way.)  I suggest that Quiet Time (hereinafter “QT”) is, to some extent, a creation of the marketable Christian world and is not, as such, a requirement put forward by scripture.  As support for this, I call attention to the facts that a) supposed “habits” of Jesus cannot be assumed based on scripture, and b) nowhere in the NC writings — in either a general imperatives or a specific, problem-addressing context — have I found an injunction that says “Christians are to have a regular, set period of quiet time.”  I quickly acknowledge that my particular personality type needs QT–however one defines it and works it out–more than I take or get it.  18% of me also suspects, on some gut level, that I would be better off spending this time right now in QT activities as conceived by Christendom than in explaining why QT is not a law.  While for me it is an imperative to resist attempts to legislate doctrines and practices not legislated by scripture, I do acknowledge that, in general, QT is a good idea.  The devoted advice “if Christ did it, we should do the same” is eminently well-intended, but the assumption that our Christ did QT regularly is just that–an assumption–thereby weakening the supposed imperative.

The verb tense in Luke 5:16 is ambiguous:  when the wording in English is “But he would withdraw into the lonely places and pray,” the Greek tense does not necessarily imply a habitual activity on Jesus’ part.  It doesn’t preclude a habitual action, but it doesn’t require one, either.  Even less to the point, Mark 1:35 mentions one instance and brings to the scenario no implication of a regular practice.  In my lifetime, I’ve probably heard 101 sermons and devotional talks that encouraged regular QT, and many of them appealed, obliquely, to English translations in these isolated verses.  Those appeals are largely bogus.  Now, if I had to guess about Jesus’ habits while on earth, I would suspect that He often, or at least periodically, had QT, but I seriously doubt that He always prayed for 30 minutes at 7 a.m. or before going to bed, or that He read a Torah chapter per day.

Now, for the new stuff:  hermeneutics. I think I learned this word when I was in college, and it’s been with me ever since, as my perspectives grow.  Not merely a religion word, it derives from Greek; a relationship may be seen with the name Hermes, the messenger “god.”  Hermeneutics, put succinctly, is the science of literary interpretation.  (Pause for excursion into Wikipedia land, where I just spent a few minutes making minor edits on the hermeneutics page!”)

In the American Restoration Movement tradition, a somewhat standard biblical hermeneutical formula emerged and has endured, to an extent:

  1. command
  2. example
  3. necessary inference

Although I am no real student of hermeneutics, I have been around long enough to observe the effects–both positive and negative–of adherence to this formula.  (Many more aspects and questions come into play in hermeneutics; in no way do I suggest that these three items encapsulate it all.)  Initially, it seems sound to categorize in this way, and I have assumed that those who propound this method of interpreting scripture view it as hierarchical, i.e., that commands come above examples, and examples, above inferences.  In actual working out, the 3rd level–the necessary inferences–have proven divisive within the ARM, even creating branches and sub-branches of denominations, while the 1st- and 2nd-level commands and examples are more universally problematic.  Stated another way:  while few outside the ARM care much about provincial “necessary inferences,” there is sufficient disagreement on the nature and implications of “commands” that plenty of arguments can occur there without descending to the 2nd and 3rd levels!

Commands

In scripture, at first blush, a command would appear to be just that–an authoritative instruction issued by the Father, the Son, an apostle, etc.–for us to follow, no questions asked.  However, it’s not that easy.  Jesus said “Go thou and do likewise.”  Does that mean I have to find myself a Samaritan?  When we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Greet each other with a kiss,” should I pucker 77 times per Sunday, or are handshaking and hugging approved substitutes?

Examples

In scripture, we find abundant examples.  Which ones are meant for us to follow, and which are merely to be taken as records of other people’s behaviors?  (Before I write what I’m about to write, I want the world to know that I have called my old friend to warn him that I was going to do something like this, letting him hear the grin in my voice before I actually wrote this, tongue in cheek.)  When scripture tells us that Jesus once (or more) had QT, you tell me I should follow that example?  Yeah, I guess you’re right.  Pardon me first, though, while I go change a Brita water pitcher into one filled with Chardonnay, chuck demons into pigs, precociously ditch my parents, sting a flock of Pharisees with my sharp criticism, weep because of Jerusalem has rejected me, and get transfigured.  🙂

You get the point, I’m sure.  In the world of examples, we must interpret contextually.  Some examples are clearly meant to be followed, others are clearly not to be imitated, and a bunch of examples in the middle are left to our interpretation.  We must figure out if and when we are to follow this last group.

Inferences

One question about so-called “necessary inferences”:  who decides whether they’re “necessary”? This question, for me, swings a heavy axe near quite a few roots:  of religious freedom, of the institutional church, of the clergy system, and even of the basic nature of Christian discipleship.  I may infer something that you don’t infer … or, you may infer it, too, but not find it as significant as I find it.  If it’s “necessary” for you, it may not be “necessary” for me, and after all, it was only an inference, not a clear statement.

Finishing off …

It’s not always easy to determine what falls in the command category,  the approved example category, or the necessary inference one.  I immediately think of a major area of Christian doctrine that is perpetually the source of significant disagreement and disunity.  In my estimation, for instance, Billy Graham was wrong in this area, having made little of the commands and examples involved, and not having inferred enough from the scriptural implications.  On the other hand, some in my tradition have been too insistent on particulars and have not found viable frameworks for Christ-centered unity, where sincere, studied differences surface.  For me, in this area, it’s a matter of a) what seem to be clear commands, b) supported by many examples, and therefore c) implications that are abundantly clear.  But for others, based on what I believe is  legacy-inflicted error, the commands are explained away, and the examples are neatly ignored … the inferences therefore become wispy to the point of non-existence.  A tough area for Christians, historically, and it all comes down to hermeneutics.

The “example” level in this ARM hermeneutical model–and particularly the assertion that “if Jesus did it, we should, too”–led me into this blogpost, but I’ve gone far afield of the initial topic!  One thing is certain:  heremeneutical differences create disunity.  How we handle that disunity, it seems to me, is highly significant.  For now, I’ll try to have more (and more focused) QT, and you have your QT … but please don’t try to require QT of everyone.  I know of no valid biblical hermeneutic or exegetical principle that requires QT or even suggests that it is to be a pattern.  At this juncture in my walk, I am opting for a more broad list of “devotional” practices, including communal experiences in Christian gatherings, worshipful noticements of nature on casual walks, special moments of closeness with God inspired by gratitude for private experiences of exercising gifts (such as musical gifts), biblical studies, some QT experiences, writing on things I believe are important to the Kingdom, and the like.

If I’ve annoyed or offended you in this essay, please know that two results of my thinking and writing about Quiet Time are

  • a greater consciousness of QT in general
  • a sense of increased need for QT in my own life

Quiet Time is no Christian law, period.  However, as one valid expression of the Christian disciple’s devotion, it can be highly valuable in deepening the connection with God.

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One thought on “Quiet time (4) — the hermeneutics of it all

  1. Evan Shows 07/10/2011 / 7:30 pm

    Brian-I am constantly blessed and encouraged by your in-depth study if scripture. Thank you for the great reminder that persons’ time with God is not law. Indeed we are no longer under law but grace. May our hearts so yearn to know our Father more intimately that we make time for Him, be it quiet or otherwise.

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