The Hermeneutical Challenge

08 Jan


[Part 1 in our series on Hermeneutics]

“God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”

“I don’t interpret the Bible… I just read it and believe it.”

These kinds of statements are relatively common — and complete hogwash (to borrow a characterization from Scot McNight).  While they sound good, it just simply is not true.

The truth is that TO READ IS TO INTERPRET.

This is why hermeneutics — the study and discussion of how we interpret — is so critical.  We all interpret all the time — the question is how are we interpreting and what influences are reading of a text.

This is why there is almost always a spectrum of faithful interpretations when it comes to theology, specific passages, etc.  That spectrum is the result of how we interpret.

Often, how we interpret is based directly on two things: (1) what questions we ask, and (2) what pre-conceived beliefs/ideas we bring to the table. Understanding #1 is essential; admitting that #2 is true for all of us is equally critical.

Hermeneutics is not specifically a religious or Biblical endeavor.  While the stakes are higher when dealing with sacred texts, hermeneutics applies to reading any text.  Plato understood the challenge and limitations of the task.  In his dialogue Phaedrus, he puts these words in Socrates mouth:

“Once a thing is committed to writing it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers.”

This is even more so with sacred scripture — that which faithful Jews and Christians have affirmed to be God’s revealed word.  We must handle the text with respect.

And here we run into our first serious challenge.  One cannot rightfully even talk about “the text” as much as “texts” when it comes to the Bible.  The Bible is less a book than a library of books.  The (Christian) Bible as we have it today has a total of 66 different books (Protestant) or 73 books (Catholic & Orthodox). It is written by dozens of authors over multiple centuries in multiple different ancient languages (none of which exist today in the same form as they did then… modern Greek and modern Hebrew are not the same as the ancient version of both; ancient Hebrew is not even consistently the same throughout the stretch of Biblical writing). The most recent books are almost 2000 years old!

While all of this certainly creates a serious hermeneutical challenge, it is also what makes the text(s) so rich and beautiful.  Sometimes people try to reduce the Bible to merely a “rule book” or “user’s manual” or “direct directive from God”.  These reductionist views rob the text of its beauty, depth, complexity — and therefore also its power and authority.

So the hermeneutical challenge is not small.  But it is important — and that is why I am taking the time to really work through the hermeneutical issues BEFORE diving into the exegesis of specific passages.

I said earlier that two keys to the project are (1) asking the right questions; and (2) recognizing our own assumptions.  These are critical.

For example, many people say that the Bible contradicts Science on issues of creation.  I contend that this is impossible.  The Bible asks (and answers) different questions than science.  In fact, the questions that science is asking are questions the Bible simply cannot answer — and frankly, is not that interested in.

Science, by definition, answers the question HOW.  How does something work?  It does this by making observations about repeatable/measurable events/experiments.  This is the heart of the scientific method and the scientific endeavor.  Science answers the question HOW.

The Bible answers the questions WHY and WHO.  It is generally uninterested in the question of HOW — and therefore is pretty silent on the issue.  Religious folks get in trouble when they try and answer HOW questions with a text that is answering WHY and WHO questions.  The Bible is not a science text book.  Likewise, when science tries to answer the WHY and WHO questions, it is no longer science — it is now the arena of philosophy and theology and something science is unable to address.  I have no problem with scientists dabbling in philosophy and theology, but they should understand what it is they are doing; likewise I don’t mind Bible scholars dabbling with science… just leave the Bible out of it.

If you think that the Bible is answering the HOW question, you will read Genesis 1 & 2 differently than if you think it is answering the question of WHO and WHY.  The questions you ask are important.  And step one in macro-hermeneutics is to know what the questions the text at hand can answer.

We will explore more of this in future posts, but getting the basic principle is critical.

In terms of assumptions, we all have them!  And the goal is less to pretend that we don’t than to acknowledge and understand them.  While I am not a big “reader-response criticism” guy, I do understand that the relationship between written word and reader is dynamic.  I know many fundamentalists get nervous about that… but it is simply true.

We will also be exploring assumptions as we go along.

Here are some last thoughts for this post — somewhat random, all important, in no particular order: 

My goal here is not to develop a new hermeneutic, post-modern hermeneutic, progressive hermeneutic, etc.  I am interested in a faithful and actionable hermeneutic… and one that is consistent with the Hebraic & Graeco worlds that the text in question comes from.  Jesus read the scripture as a rabbi, understood the Old Testament as an ancient Jew, and spoke of the scriptures and God’s Word in this context.  I think that is important and should inform how we read the text(s) today.

– Hermeneutics is not exegesis and is not ethics.  Exegesis is really hermeneutics applied and ethics (in the Biblical sense) is really exegesis applied.  We are starting with the hermeneutical issues… we will get to he exegetical and ethical ones soon enough.  One of the things we must do in the pursuit of a good hermeneutic approach is to bracket off our exegetical assumptions and ethical agendas.  To do that, we must (a) recognize them; and (b) have the trust, faith and discipline to suspend our assumptions and agendas for the time being.

– Finally, you should know my bias up front… I PASSIONATELY LOVE THE BIBLE.  I devour it, chew on it, am constantly amazed by it.  I trust it, listen to it, and try to live by it.  By faith I consider it God’s Word and therefore authoritative in my life.  I think it is complex, deep, nuanced, powerful and remarkably relevant.  While I do not think of it as a word-for-word dictation from God to human writers, I think it is inspired and God-breathed.  

Questions to consider and comment on:

1. What is your view of the Bible?

2. Wha
t assumptions are you bringing to the table?

3. What assumptions and agendas do you need to “bracket off”?



One response to “The Hermeneutical Challenge

  1. Ben D.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    <p>Great stuff Minh… and glad to have you part of the discussion. I am looking forward to your thoughts and perspective.</p><p>BD</p>



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