MY SON AND THE DONKEY
T. PIERCE BROWN
In the ongoing discussion of the new hermeneutic, there is one aspect of the subject that I have not seen addressed. Some discussion is couched in such “scholarly” or abstruse language that my simple mind cannot comprehend the meaning of the author, or possibly the reasoning is so stupid that it really makes no sense. In either case, whether I try to understand by using the old or new hermeneutic, I gain no new insights. Part of the problem may be that no one has adequately defined how the new hermeneutic works.
There apparently are two broad concepts: 1. That when Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John8:32) He meant that we can understand or interpret properly what God means for us to do. 2. The contrary concept is that since we all have a different sociological background, preconceived notions and inherent prejudices, it is certain that we will arrive at different interpretations of God’s Word. So we should accept that fact and agree to differ, as there is no way to be certain that our interpretation is the right one. That, apparently, is the meaning of the new hermeneutic.
It has been my observation over the past 60 years of listening to many false doctrines that there is usually enough truth in a false doctrine to make it interesting, and enough lie to cause us to be lost if we follow it. It has been so since Adam’s time. The Devil knew that it was far easier to get Eve to believe a partial lie than a whole one. Those who have studied governmental propaganda, whether Hitler’s, Hussein’s or others, know that the most effective propaganda is a partial truth rather than a blatant lie. The only exception to this that I have noted is that sometimes Hitler and others were aware that if one tells a lie so big that it seems utterly stupid for one to make up something so preposterous, many will believe it for that very reason. That is, assuming that Hitler was a smart man, they could not believe that he would simply make up a story that sounded so unbelievable.
It cannot be properly denied that each of us has a different background, and words have different connotations to us. A child who has had an abusive father will not get the same impression from the expression, “Our Father who art in heaven” as the child who has a loving, caring, protective father. Yet, we should carefully note an important truth: The abused child can understand the meaning of the expression, “Our heavenly Father is a loving, caring, protective, gracious Father” the same as the other child.
There are two truths I want to emphasize now. First, when Jesus spoke, some aspects of His meaning would be revealed in the inflection of His voice, the emphasis on particular words, the movement of His hands or body that do not reach us as we read the written words. Second, the basic truth of those statements is unchanged, though the specific emphasis might be changed by a different inflection.
Let us illustrate this. If a person were reading Mark4:21he would find, “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?” If he reads that with a rising inflection of finality in his voice at “bushel” and “bed” the meaning is, “Under which one is it to be put?” If he reads it with the words given a different tentative inflection, the meaning is, “The candle is not bought to be put under either a bushel or a bed.” In this case there should be no serious doubt about the meaning of the question. The Greek scholar can discern the use of the negative particle “me” that shows the question to mean, “The candle is not brought to be put under a bushel or under a bed, is it?” Whereas, if he had used the negative particle “ou” the question would mean, “The candle is brought to be put under a bushel or bed, is it not?” We thank God that one does not have to be a Greek scholar to read all of verse 21 and see that when he adds, “and not to be set on a candlestick?” His meaning is clear to anyone who has a proper grasp of the English language.
If the Bible reported that a man said, “My little boy rode that donkey to town” one might not know with absolute certainty the exact emphasis the man had in mind. If he had said, “My little boy,” he would have suggested that it was his instead of yours, mine or some other. If he had said, “My LITTLE boy,” he would be letting us know it was not his BIG boy that did it. If he had said, “My little BOY,” we would understand that he might want us to know it was not his GIRL that did it. Emphasizing “RODE” would suggest that he might have LED the donkey. His emphasis on “THAT” donkey would lead us to assume that there was a possibility that other donkeys would not have been as significant. “TO” town is different from “AWAY FROM” town. To “TOWN” is not the same as “TO THE BARN.”
Notice carefully this important point: Your concept of what emphasis the man had in mind might well be colored by your preconceived notions, your experience with donkeys or any number of things. Sometimes it might be impossible to know “the truth” about all that was involved in the statement. Yet we should clearly see that though there might be eight “interpretations” each of which would be as valid as the other, the one great underlying truth is not hard to understand. No honest person can miss the fact that his “little boy rode that donkey to town.” If such a passage were in the Bible (and there probably are several similar ones), it is almost certain that some would use it to try to prove that since we cannot know for sure exactly what aspect of that sentence the writer wanted to emphasize, any interpretation or explanation one may have is just as valid as another, so there should be no charges of “false doctrine” about anything. That is, one could say, “Since we cannot know for sure that he wants to emphasize that it was his little boy rather than his big one, then he may not have had a donkey at all.” This is false and improper reasoning.
Surely one can see that if the Bible teaches that “My little boy rode that donkey to town” anyone who says it does not teach that is in error. Just because there may be different “interpretations” about the implications of whether the father was wanting to brag about his little boy riding the donkey, or wanting to emphasize that the donkey got along fine in town, we have no right to any interpretation or “hermeneutic” that leads us to conclude that it might be that his sister is the one who really rode a horse to the barn, and any idea of a donkey was either a figure of speech or a figment of imagination.
This principle has many applications. When God said, “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians3:16), it is possible that the expression “psalm or spiritual song” might evoke in us a different concept or “interpretation” of the meaning. Yet there is no way our different “interpretations” could cause us to logically conclude that “Teaching and admonishing one another — singing” could mean, “Entertain one another — playing.”
When Jesus was giving instructions about taking the Lord’s Supper and said, “This do in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians11:24), one might understand or “interpret” the phrase “in remembrance of me” to refer only to his death on the cross. Another might understand it to refer to any or all of the aspects of His sacrificial life for us, climaxed at the cross. No method of interpretation might clarify that completely to the satisfaction of all. Yet this does not authorize us to conclude that since we may not understand all that Jesus might include in the phrase, it is just as acceptable to do it in memory of Mother’s Day.
Surely there is no question that a more complete understanding of the culture, customs or problems of the time would help us to understand better the deeper implications of many statements, commands and doctrines. One might even be able to make a good guess about why a man might say, “My little boy rode that donkey to town” if he knew that the common custom was to allow only the biggest, oldest boy to do that. But in no case would that allow him to “interpret” the passage to mean “My big boy rode the donkey,” or “It makes no difference who rode the donkey, or even if they had a donkey.”