Harold Camping and Hermeneutics
May 23, 2011 by Matthew R. Malcolm
The sad debacle of an unfulfilled prediction of rapture & judgement raises the question of how we interpret the Bible – because Harold Camping was absolutely insistent about two things:
- His prediction was based entirely on the Bible: “This date is not the product of the mind of one man or a group of men. It is the culmination of study of the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Every word written in the original Biblical ‘autographs’ were dictated by God, therefore all words, numbers and sentences in these original writings are to be trusted as coming from God.”
- The biblical evidence was so overwhelming it could not be doubted: “The fact that this date is the result of the synthesis of all of Scripture causes May 21st, 2011 to take on very sobering factuality. It is no longer opinion, but a matter of fact. May 21, 2011 is God’s date. All other predictions are man’s attempt to predict the end.”
So if someone’s earnest and rigorous reading of the Bible could land so far off the mark despite great confidence, what went wrong?
It should be said that hermeneutics is a complex issue – indeed I’m currently involved in preparing an international conference and book on the topic of biblical hermeneutics, and there is so much to be carefully explored. But this doesn’t mean that without sophisticated expertise, the average Bible reader is completely lost. I think a useful starting point is what I call the COMA method. I came up with this a few years ago as a simple pathway for believers to use when they approach the Bible, that helps us to consider what it meant for them then before we jump to what it means for us now:
C = Context (Where does it fit? – in the book and the Bible and the culture)
O = Observation (How is it communicated? – genre/style/flow/literary devices)
M = Meaning (What did it mean in its first situation or for its first hearers?)
A = Application (Why does it matter for us now?)
Let me stress again that this is not the be all and end all of biblical interpretation – but I think it can be a useful starting place. And I think that if Harold Camping had done a bit better justice to the contexts of the passages he was pulling out and pasting together (e.g. “a thousand years is like a day”), he might not have ended up where he did.