What is Hermeneutics?
Ever get to a Bible verse and just sort of sit there and scratch your head wondering what on earth could this possibly mean? This is a perfect situation for hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics? Is that the name of some hiphop band? Unfortunately it’s not a band of any sort, but it would certainly make for an interesting name I’m sure.
Not a bad definition if I do say so myself (More in a bit). It is derived from the Greek verb hermeneuein, meaning to explain, interpret, or translate. It is used in Luke 24:27 when Jesus “explains…..what the Scriptures said about him.” Hermeneutics is used to describe principles that are used in understanding somethings meaning or comprehend the message that someone is attempting to communicate with. In correctly understanding Scripture one undertakes an arduous and sometimes puzzling task. Consider some of the tensions one might wrestle with in dealing with the Bible:
- The Bible has to come to us through human means, but it is set in a historical context that is very diverse, making it understandable how the text can be universally normative.
- At times the Bible contains messages that seem very ambiguous or cryptic, yet many Christians believe that the divine message from God must be clear.
- The Holy Spirit is an important figure in Bible reading, but the role of scholarship is surely needed in understanding what the Spirit has inspired.
- The Bible presents us with a message from God, but that message is conveyed to us in a complex literary landscape with varied genres and over a large span of time. (More on this particular point in a while)
- Many of us are also well acquainted with the aspect of a personal free will, yet with that freedom, we often come to biblical text, newspapers, radio shows, etc with a considerable means of bias and distortion. This leads us to ask “Is there some role for an external, corporate authority?”
- The role of objectivity is also something that many believe comes with the biblical message, but ew often come to it with presuppositions that interject a degree of subjectivity into the interpretative process. Our “post-modern” culture often calls the very idea of objectivity into stark question.
(List borrowed and adapted from Introduction to Biblical Interpretation)
I’m certain that some of us could add to this list, but let’s keep moving on before we totally write this thing off. As stated previously, the word “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein and the noun hermeneia. The former meaning to explain, interpret or to translate and the latter to mean interpretation or translation.
Why do we need hermeneutics?
Whenever I or someone having a background like mine endeavors to discuss the subject it usually is met with a comment or question such as “You don’t have to interpret the Bible, just read it and do what it says.” Such a comment generally marks a lay person’s protest and rebuttal against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school teacher whereby “interpreting” somehow seems to take the Bible away from the “common” human being. It is a way of arguing that the Bible is not some obscure book that needs a decoding machine from Alan Turing or the CIA. Fair enough, and I tend to agree along with my many colleague that specialize in this area of study. The Bible need not be some sort of obscure book and we agree that the Bible should be read, believed, and obeyed; however, one needs to read and study the Bible properly.
It can also be agreed that another reason for this common objection is that the preacher, teacher, scholar, etc is often prone to dig first and read later and thereby cover up the meaning of a text or try to be unique to promote a belief that is contradicted by the biblical text. The aim of interpretation is to have good interpretation, and not uniqueness, or to try and discover what no one has discovered before. It is a good rule of thumb to say that anyone aiming for unique interpretations could be guilty of pride and a false understanding of spirituality. Additionally, unique interpretations are often wrong! This does not mean however that when one has a correct understanding and reading of a biblical text that they won’t result in realizing something that comes across as unique, especially if they’ve only come across it for the first time. The aim of good interpretation is quite simple, “to get at the plain meaning of the text.”
If “plain meaning” is what we are after, then why interpret? Why not just read? Does the plain meaning not merely come from simple reading? In one sense yes, but in another sense this argument is both naive and unrealistic given the nature of the reader and the nature of Scripture. What does hermeneutics have to do with reading and understanding the Bible then? Haven’t God’s people throughout time merely read and understood the Scriptures without recourse to biblical hermeneutics? The surprising answer is “No.” In fact, without an organized approach or means to understanding we would not be able to comprehend or understand anything. So, Why not just read the text and allow God to explain it? Ever seen or wrote a Tweet or Facebook post that you or a friend got upset about, only to find out that the person who posted it meant something completely different? I know I have. What about a legal terms such as habeas corpus? While the idea to simply read the text and allow God to explain it to you might be commendable to one’s confidence in God, as stated, it reveals a simplistic (and potentially dangerous) understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in illuminating the clarity of Scripture.
It is the task of the Holy Spirit to convince, convict, and enable us to live consistently with the truth of the biblical message within the Bible. The Spirit does not however inform us of Scripture’s meaning, that is to say, the Spirit’s help does not replace the need to interpret biblical passages according to the principles of language communication. If people over the centuries did indeed understand things, it wasn’t necessarily because of the Spirit, but because they employed proper principles and methods of interpretation. It also does not mean that they all had “formal” Bible training.
The need for hermeneutics and exegesis is important because the Bible, like the legal and medical fields, have certain terms, expressions, and concepts that at times need extra help for one to understand what is being said or taking place. One such example is the word “theory” in science and it’s meaning to the scientist and the common person. In science a “theory” is a provable fact that can be tested over-and-over again and get the same result. For the rest of us though, this means something that is possible, but lacks credibility and is not much more than a guess. In many ways the Bible, Christian theology, and related fields are a lot like this. There are some terms, expressions, and concepts that can seem strange and perhaps incomprehensible that require the help of outside resources such as specialized dictionaries. All of a sudden, something that is thought of as straightforward communication is no longer that straightforward. Biblical hermeneutics is nothing more than agreed upon principles and methods that best guarantee an interpretation will be accurate and guard against misunderstandings from the reader/interpreter.
The Reader as Interpreter
The reader, regardless if we like it or not, is at the same instance an interpreter. Again, I’ll recall you back to the example of a Facebook or Twitter post. We must use the things we know about modern language and the person to properly try and understand what they are saying, sometimes we fail and get ourselves in trouble. It is for this very reason that anyone who endeavors to read, and therefore interpret the biblical text, must also learn how to interpret properly. For most of us we assume that we understand what we read in the Bible, but we also tend to think and believe that our understanding is the same thing as the Spirit’s and/or the human author’s original intent. However, just as in our daily life, we bring to this message, this biblical text, all that we are. This includes or experiences, our culture, our ideas, and our prior understandings of words; expressions, and/or concepts. What we unintentionally bring to a biblical text can lead us down a dangerous path and also render a number of different and foreign ideas that get read into and placed upon a biblical text.
Such examples of this are when a person from our culture hears a word such as “cross” and we often picture something that looks like this (myself included):
This of course is not likely the shape of the cross that Christ was on, which was more likely to have been that of a capital “T” or an “X” according to some scholars. This idea we’ve gained has been through centuries of art and symbolism. The matter of worship is also a possible point that we misunderstand, both Protestant and Catholic groups alike might imagine a room full of pews facing forward to a stage, though many early worship centers often lacked seating and people would have no option other than to sit on the floor or stand, while others may have utilized a lecture style setting in a classroom or spare room such as depicted in this scene from Agora:
The need to interpret is also found around us in the Church in which the plain meaning is not always that plain or obvious to everybody. Some churches believe that believers baptism by full immersion is taught on the basis of Scripture, while other groups can make an argument for infant baptism. At the same time, groups believe and teach (not by the same person) in “eternal security” and that believers can lose their salvation.
With all these nuances it is perfectly understandable as to why some just argue for no interpretation, but as has been clearly shown that is a false option. The goal of this post and those in the future will be to help you understand why not everyone agrees even if they are getting at the “plain meaning.” The goal will be to help you get at the “why” these understandings exist and how to make commonsense choices that help one to exercise good interpretation and know the difference from bad interpretation. Again the goal isn’t no interpretation, but good interpretation of a biblical text.
The Nature of Scripture
Please watch this before moving forward. It should begin around 5:52, you’re welcome to view it in its entirety, but the marked portion will be especially helpful for further discussing what is hermeneutics.
The Bible being as such a work with eternal significance is not a book of propositions and rules, but of different literary genres such as narrative, law, genealogy, apocalypse, etc. The fact that these things were written to us from God by humans in real history gives us hope that God chose to speak to us in the context of real human history and in ways that appeal to every person’s style and learning ability. Take this further to modern day, we now have access to our personal copy of the Bible, we have the Bible in recorded audio form, and even in digital/electronic formats that fit right in our pockets. The fact that there is a human side though is both our encouragement and our challenge and the reason we need to interpret. The fact that the Bible came to us in various genres, only a few are listed above, also means that special rules exist for understanding each book. Much like we would read poetry apart from news, a similar situation is present in Scripture. In order for us to gain the here and now, will mean we approach different text in different ways with a few common guidelines in that approach.
As has already been stated over and over again, the main nature of Scripture is that as a historical piece the times and circumstances and culture have also changed, that is to say that, “God’s Word to us was first of all his Word to them.” And, as my preaching professor liked to say “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.”
They were the original recipients and God was only going to communicate to them through events and language they could understand. Our problem is that we are so far removed from them in time, and sometimes thought, that it requires that we learn to interpret the Bible. This then requires to task of the student/reader (1) exegesis, the then and there; and (2) hermeneutics, the here and now.
To Be Continued….
Ok, I know it was getting into good stuff, but I wanted to break it up since the post is getting close to 3000 words. Needless to say, the goal here was to mainly answer “What is hermeneutics?” and give a brief overview of it. Here towards the end I also introduced a new word “exegesis” that means “to read out of.” Any proper study of engagement in hermeneutics will involve both, and at times this is the only word you will here some refer to in discussing this topic since it is usually a given, but they are two different things and your pastor likely is (or at least should be) engaged in this task on a regular basis in preparing sermons and other lessons. I’ll get to the difference in future post, then I’ll actually do some how-to’s and show you how simple this process can actually be. Until then, have a great week.
Grace & Peace,
A special thanks to the authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth & Introduction to Biblical Interpretation your works and guidance have been helpful in performing this task and communicating it to others. Additional thanks to my college and seminary professors that instilled in me the importance of understanding the Bible properly and its profound impact on how we live and breath and have our being as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.