Understanding Biblical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics can be described simply, if somewhat insufficiently, as the art of understanding[1].  More fully it is the identification, analysis and removal of obstacles to understanding the historical presuppositions of a text[2].  Alexander Jensen argues that if a culture does not reflect on its presuppositions then it can too easily take for granted theories that were discredited long before the contiguous generation came about[3].  In its theological sense hermeneutics is the field of study which deals with the theoretical interpretation of scripture[4]: practical application of scripture is left to the work of exegesis[5].  Hermeneutics is about communication, meaning, and understanding, all of which require varying degrees of adaptation to the culture of the reader[6].

One of the key understandings of hermeneutics as it has been practiced in the last two centuries is that different people will see different things in the one text.  It is worth acknowledging from the outset of any examination of what Biblical Hermeneutics might be that what is seen (acknowledged) and understood (interpreted) by any reader depends upon his or her social location.  In my case I am an English-Australian man, first generation and fifth, of the Reformed Evangelical tradition within the Uniting Church.  I am of Generation-X and have an Arts degree in Sociolinguistics, a post-graduate diploma in Primary Education, and a VET diploma in Youth Work.  I live on Kangaroo Island.  I read as a tertiary educated, Bible-based, Christ-focussed, mission-minded, forty-something Aussie from the bush.  I have experienced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Generalised Anxiety Disorder in the past so I also read toward compassion and justice for those participants in society who are marginalised on account of their health.

The hermeneutical journey began in antiquity when the authoritative myths of ancient Greece were reinterpreted in centuries later than those in which they were composed.  Questions were asked as to how an authoritative text might remain authoritative when the worldview of its recipients had changed[7].  They asked what old texts, upon which their culture was established, could continue to say to them when their culture had progressed through the centuries to new forms of understanding the world around them.  Later the trail of previous interpretations began to be examined as each new age, (century, generation), reinterpreted not only the original text but the series of intervening reinterpretations.  One of the key forms favoured by Jewish and Christian writers and interpreters in the first four centuries of the Common Era was the use of allegory and typology or “prefiguring”[8].  The old story foreshadowed the new; for example the stories of the Exodus and the passing through the sea were used by Paul as a typology of baptism, connecting a particular story of Jesus to the whole story of the Hebrew people.

In the ongoing Jewish tradition the midrash method of interpretation was used when a particular text was chosen as the basis for telling a new story: the text was interpreted in such a way as to make it apply to the current situation, giving the new story the added weight of the old.  As the Jewish-Christian story moved out of Israel and into the Greco-Roman world in Asia and then Europe the story was reshaped by its retelling in the new context.  The imagery and metaphors of the story’s own worldview were no longer those of the receiving culture.  The Christian story also began to divide between the Platonic school of Antioch and the Aristotelian school of Alexandria.

The Alexandrines were readers in allegory and questioned the literal historicity of text.  Where chronological inconsistencies arose these could be left behind when the text was interpreted symbolically.  There was an attempt to explain away the exclusiveness of Israel and the apparent anthropomorphism of Hebrew understanding; Philo saw the revelation of God to the Greeks as not different to the revelation to Israel[9].   In contrast the Antiochenes were readers in rhetorical analysis: they were text-grounded and the intention of the author and editor was considered vital.  Original meanings were important, as were literary contexts, historical references, chronology and principles of translation.  Their taking a literal-historical approach meant that the scholars of Antioch had to try to explain discrepancies in the text.

Historical biblical criticism tends to focus on the world behind the text and its author.  Who composed this text, who later edited it, why and when?  It is diachronic and looks at the history of the text itself and how it has been edited and changed across time.  The authors’ and redactors’ intention is vital, what matters is how the text was used initially and at discrete moments in the history of its readers. Literary biblical criticism tends to focus on the world of the text and its readers. What does this say about the writer and readers?  What is the text’s meaning for us in its final form? The authors’ intention is irredeemable and irrelevant, what matters is how the text is used today. Everyone interprets the Bible in her or his own way, yet there is a great deal of common ground in how people go about the processes of interpreting the Bible[10].  Oftentimes a combination of historical and literary means are used in a reader’s interpretation; sometimes traditional (historical) critical forms are used in non-traditional ways.

The origin of biblical texts was in the life-experiences of communities, a situation that asks questions of whether experience has meaning before thought and word are constructed around it.  The Bible is of central importance to the faith community of Christians[11]; it is not one “word” but an intelligible divine discourse; yet Schneiders observed that this discourse is figurative since God cannot be said to have vocal organs to make sounds[12].  Language is limited in its capacity to express the ineffable being and the thoughts of God.  All words fall short even as they express the logos in graphemes. “The Word of God” is a root metaphor where speech fills the place of divine self-revelation[13]: inspiration and infallibility are faith affirmations, not objective statements, of the way in which God interacted with the various writers of scripture through the agency of Holy Spirit and human talents in writing and editing[14].  Authority vested in God is conferred on the Bible, but the words hold no intrinsic value without them being the revelation of an active God.  With particular regard to a hermeneutic of the Bible it must be remembered that scripture is God’s self-revelation carried by language: the words tell of ways beyond themselves of communication, for example prayer, sacrifice, fellowship, and a life of obedience.  The scriptures are a living metaphor, moving with the development of language through reinterpretation, re-presentation, and recognition of the movement of God’s Holy Spirit upon writers, redactors, and readers.

In the Middle Ages authority was vested in the Roman Church and the rule of faith and exegesis was subordinated to doctrine[15].  The scriptures could mean only what the Roman bishops said they could mean, yet mediaeval scholars had a thousand years of Christian historical and traditional interpretations.  The text began to be used for teaching and therefore interpretation had a purpose; the message of the scriptures was used as a basis for teaching rather than interpretation.  By the time of Thomas (Aquinas) interpretation was being moved aside in favour of theology, and the Bible began to be read as a proof text for philosophical ideas rather than being the defining reality itself.

During the Enlightenment it was discovered that the Bible could be read as an historical document distinct from its theology and that a hermeneutic for historical criticism might be employed[16].  Enlightenment scholars placed more authority on Reason than on tradition and their interpretative methods sought scientific bases for their authority.  It was at that time that the historical critical methods emerged and the search for the Jesus of history began.  Each of the historical critical methods seek to reconstruct the historical context in which individual Biblical texts had their origin.  The methods set out to reconstruct the historical meaning of the text, the meaning the text had for the audience, for which it was intended, placing central importance upon source material and reconstructing, where possible, the initial form of the text.  The key outcome of reading with an eye to hermeneutics is that the way in which a text is structured determines the way in which its meaning is perceived.  If a text is seen as myth it will be read very differently to if the same text were perceived as being a “true history”.  Scholarship is never value free and the claim of the historical critical forms of hermeneutics value-neutrality is unfounded.

What then can be done then to make meaning clear, or indeed to simply make meaning mean something?  The Hermeneutic Cycle offers three elements in response to this question: consider each of sender, receiver, and text.  The reader must reflect upon the world where the sender or writer is situated, the text may or may not give him or her clues to this world so this would be looked for in wider study.  Text itself creates a world; but what world is created?  Certain codes or symbols are found in texts which point toward the intention of the text; this is one way of reading for meaning.  Receivers or readers belong to a world which has an effect on the meaning of the messages received; invariably there is interaction between the reader’s worldview and his or her circumstance, his or her ideology leads the reader to receive texts in a particular way.  Christians see the Bible as “Word of God” and bring that level of appreciation to it; others see the Bible without this faith stance and read it as literature or cultural artefact.  With regard to understanding Biblical Hermeneutics it must be remembered that for Jewish and Christian believers in God interpretation of the Bible is essentially a work of discerning the will of God[17], whereas for literary or cultural seekers it is not the understanding of God which is sought but that of the people who inhabit the book and faith communities it informs.  What is come to be understood after the hermeneutic process is engaged with depends upon the questions asked of the text in the first place.

Bibliography:

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. London: SCM Press, 1984

Holladay, Carl R. “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, 415. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996.

Jensen, Alexander S. Theological Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2007

Lategan, Bernard C. “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

McKenzie, Steven L. And Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Thiselton, A.C. “Hermeneutics.” in New Dictionary of Theology. edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson et al., 293-297. Leicester: IVP, 1988.


[1] Bernard C. Lategan, “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 149.

[2] Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, (London: SCM, 2007), 2.

[3] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 1.

[4] Carl R. Holladay, “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996), 415.

[5] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 149.

[6] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 24, 26.

[7] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 9.

[8] ibid 11, 24.

[9] Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. (London: SCM Press, 1984), .54.

[10] Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   (Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 5.

[11] Sandra M. Schneiders. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), 27.

[12] ibid, 27-28.

[13] ibid, 32.

[14] Ibid, 53.

[15] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 150.

[16] Ibid, 150.

[17] Ibid, 150.

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