What is the “RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics?”

from Mar 27, 2011 Category: Articles

I’m so glad you asked. Hermeneutics, of course, is the science of interpretation, typically Bible interpretation. There are any number of basic, fundamental principles we all ought to be aware of. One principle argues that we interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. Anyone who builds a theology on that text that mentions “baptism for the dead” is likely all wet. A second principle reminds us to interpret the historical sections of the Bible in light of the didactic, not the other way around. Here we learn our understanding of Christian marriage from Jesus’ reminding the Pharisees that from the beginning it has been one man and one woman. We don’t develop our understanding of marriage by looking at Solomon’s family portrait. The Bible, in its historical books, tells us all sorts of things people did wrong. When it is teaching, rather than giving us true history, it tells us what we need to know. For a simply wonderful introduction to proper biblical interpretation, let me commend to your reading Knowing Scripture, by a completely different RC Sproul.

The RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics is a tad more personal, and not just for me, its namesake. I did not, by the way, name this after me because of my pride. I named it for me because of its subject matter- stupid people. The principle is this- “Whenever you see someone doing something really stupid in the Bible, do not say to yourself, ‘How can they be so stupid?’ Instead say to yourself, ‘How am I stupid, just like them?’” You see it’s all too easy to look down our noses at those unsophisticated, pre-modern  people in the Bible, and to pat ourselves on the back for not being like them. Trouble is, we are like them. We think, for instance, that had we been sent to spy out the Promised Land we would have come back like Joshua and Caleb, confident that God can deliver the land. Chances are, 10 in 12 in fact, that we would have been among the frightened and foolish crowd.

This principle is born out of two more basic ones- people don’t change, and people are sinners. If we see a sin crop up in the Bible, it’s extremely likely that we will struggle with that same sin. Because we are sinners, however, we sinfully think ourselves not to be sinners. That, of course, is just what the sinners in the Bible thought about themselves.  The Bible is a mirror, and we are ugly. If we would be changed by it, we have to be willing to face that reality. We need to learn to see ourselves in the sinners in the Bible in order to rightly learn from the Bible.

Which reminds us of the first corollary to the RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics. Whenever you are reading a story in the Bible, whether it be a parable or even history, and you want to know how it applies to you, you have to first know who you are in the story. Here’s the Corollary- You are the sinner. If there are two sinners in the story, such as the Prodigal Son parable where both sons were sinners, you are both.

The Bible is a mirror. And we ought to be able to look at our own sin. Wishing it away does nothing. Jesus, however, is busy washing it away. We can boldly face the fullness of our sins because we live in light of the fullness of His grace.