Bohemian Hermeneutics

 “I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”

-Freddie Mercury

That, according to songwriter and musician Freddie Mercury, is the fantastic beauty of Queen’s hit song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Released in 1975, the song has wowed listeners with layers of literary allusions and a fusion of musical styles – from ballad, to rock, to opera. Its meaning, however, remains a mystery. Generations of music lovers have asked: what did Mercury mean when he wrote the song?

Mercury and his fellow band members stayed mum. If there is a meaning, it is shrouded in the past. According to guitarist and vocalist Brian May, it’s pointless for anyone to try to unravel the meaning behind those lyrics. Like an abstract painting, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

This “any way the wind blows” method of interpretation is fine for some types of music, art, and poetry, but it is dangerous ground for interpreting the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into “bohemian hermeneutics” (no disrespect intended towards free-spirited artists, lovers of boho décor, or natives of western Czechia).  Have you ever been to a Bible study where each person reads a verse and then answers the question, “What does this verse mean to me?” The implication, if we aren’t careful, is that meaning is determined by the reader, not the Author.

We live in a postmodern culture, where truth is seen as subjective and reality is defined by each person. As a result, the type of spirituality that has mass appeal in North America today is the type where I get to determine the meaning. The notion of allowing objective and authoritative truth to confront our own thinking seems like an assault on our freedom.

Historical-Grammatical Hermeneutics

Imagine, though, if we used “bohemian hermeneutics” to interpret street signs and traffic laws.

“Sorry, officer, I didn’t think the red octagonal sign meant I should literally stop. I usually interpret those signs as simple reminders to pause for self-reflection, take a deep breath, and find my inner peace.”

We all know this argument is hogwash. Stop signs are intended to communicate a specific and objective message — issued from a position of authority, intended for a universal audience, and accompanied by consequences if the message is ignored. God’s Word is no different.

Here at Emanate, we advocate a historical-grammatical approach to biblical hermeneutics. We believe God is a communicator. He is not a God of confusion, but a God of truth. The Bible is God’s intentional message to humanity, written in human language so that we would heed what it says. Concerning the origins of Scripture, the apostle Peter wrote:

“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

-2 Peter 1:21 (NIV)

Because language and customs have changed in the thousands of years since Bible times, it can be hard at times to understand the Bible’s original meaning – but it’s not impossible. The meaning is still there, and the diligent student of the Bible can know what God means. To be effective in life and ministry, we would do well to heed the advice the apostle Paul gave to Timothy, saying:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

-2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)

The Greek word translated “correctly handled” is orthotomounta, a compound word that literally meant “cutting it straight.” This word was used to describe exacting craftsmanship, such as in a straightly laid road. Cutting the Bible straight means extracting the originally-intended meaning, which we call exegesis. The opposite would be eisegesis – imposing our interpretation on the text.

So how do we go about correctly handing God’s Word? Here are a few hermeneutic principles that can help us steer clear of the “bohemian” approach:

  1. What does it say? Usually, the simplest and most straightforward meaning is the right one – not some sort of elaborate hidden symbolism or numerology. Unless there’s a clear metaphor being used, words tend to mean exactly what they say.
  2. Read the next verse. Often, the clues to understanding the meaning of a confusing verse are in the surrounding text. Is the verse part of a poem, a dream, a history, a parable, or a specific prediction about the future? If the passage is a parable, then look to the surrounding context for the lesson being taught. If the passage is part of a history or a series of measurements for the tabernacle, there’s no good reason to turn it into an allegory. Context is king.
  3. Watch your pronouns (I, you, we). Is the passage about the speaker, the recipient, a particular group of people (Israel? The church? The 12 disciples?), or all people everywhere and at all times? Again, looking at the surrounding context can help sort this out.
  4. No Contradictions. Because God is a consistent and truthful God, we can use Scripture to interpret Scripture. If we’re digging into a confusing passage and coming out with a meaning that’s contrary to fifteen other clear verses, we need to dig further.
  5. Interpretation Precedes Application. God’s Word should and must be allowed to speak directly to our lives today. But a useful application must flow out of an accurate understanding of what the passage actually means, in its context.

Interpretation Matters

Our students are preparing for the exciting task of planting indigenous churches among unreached people groups. The goal isn’t just a few isolated believers, but a thriving church. One of the marks of maturity for any church is a reliance on and submission to the Word of God as the ultimate authority. This attitude towards God’s Word must first be modeled by the church planter, and that’s why it matters so much to us here at Emanate. The problem with “bohemian hermeneutics” is that it leaves man in a position of authority. It can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Please pray for our current Emanate students and our alumni around the world, that they would grant God’s Word the place of ultimate authority, that they would interpret it diligently, and that they would allow it to transform their lives. May His Word be their lifeline, their encouragement, and their power for effective ministry!