Hermeneutics is the art (not science) of interpretation. There are a number of approaches and issues to consider in hermeneutics. These include deductive approaches, inductive approaches, micro-hermeneutics (or what sometime call “mechanical hermeneutics”), macro-hermeneutics, postures in hermeneutics (skepticism, faith, etc).
Today I want to look at some basic principles of inductive mechanical hermeneutics. This approach is sometimes called “the hermeneutical spiral” (there is a great book by that title by Grant Osborne that is worth reading).
This is an inductive approach that I think is a very helpful process for reading a passage.
Here are the steps:
1. Start with the BASIC TEXT
- Start by reading the verse/sentence/phrase/text you are looking at.
- Define words.
- Define the genre. This is really important. How we read a poem (Psalms, for example) will be (and should be) very different than how we read historical narrative or a letter/epistle or law book, etc. Knowing what kind of literature you are reading is pretty essential. Sometimes it is clear (Psalms is all poetry) and sometimes not — for example many Old Testament books narrative, law and poetry are inter-woven.
- Pay attention to grammar or grammatical issues.
- Any particular translation issues/challenges.
- Read the broader context of the paragraph or pericope. A pericope is a set of verses/sentences that form a natural section or argument. These are often (but not always) easy to define by the bold headings in your Bible.
- How does the word/phrase/sentence/text function as part of the paragraph or pericope?
- Look for repeated words, themes, etc.
- Caution: Ancient Koine Greek (the form found in the New Testament) and ancient Hebrew does not include punctuation or paragraph breaks in the original manuscripts. This means that even how we separate sentences and paragraphs in the text is itself an interpretive act, usually made by the translators.
- Example: Looking at Ephesians 5 and what Paul is saying here about men and women, it is vitally important whether one defines the pericope as Eph 5:22-33 or as Eph 5:21-33. This is where grammar and basic understanding of Greek is helpful. Many people separate verse 21 from the rest of the passage — mostly to support a preconceived theological position. In this, they make a big distinction between women “submitting” and men “loving”. But, if vs 21 is part of the passage, it changes the reading significantly. Including vs 21 makes the passage more about parallelism than contrast; if this is the case, Paul is less emphasizing difference than how we “mutually submit to each other.” The kicker is that vs 21 and 22 share the same verb… in other words, there is no independent verb in vs 21 making it grammatically impossible (or at least unlikely) that it stands alone from the previous section.
3. ENTIRE BOOK
- Now read the passage in the context of the full book.
- How does it work as part of the over-arching narrative or argument?
- What questions does this raise
4. AUTHOR’S WRITINGS
- Now place the text/passage in the fuller context of the author’s writings. In other words, if looking at a passage in 2 Timothy, you will want to consider the passage in the context of all of Paul’s writings. More precisely, you may want to first look at it the context of Paul’s pastoral letters and then in the broader context of all his writings. Having a sense for each book/letter and historical chronology/context is very helpful as sometimes you can see a development of thought within the author’s writings.
- Place the text in the full context of the testament it is in — Old Testament or New Testament. As Christians, the “hinge” of the incarnation is a pretty big deal! We even divide time by “before Christ” and after… how we interpret a NT passage will be different than an OT passage.
6. WHOLE BIBLE
- Now (and only now… the order of this process is important) do you place the text in the full context of the whole Bible and its narrative. How does it fit in with the totality of the Biblical witness?
7. EXTERNAL CONTEXT
- After having done the above work, you can then (and only then) start the important work of the external context. Specifically, you should look at GEOGRAPHICAL context/background, HISTORICAL context/background, and then CULTURAL context/background.
That is a relatively simple process for reading a passage.
Now… a couple of notes and observations:
1. As a pastor, when preaching a passage, this is the process (more or less) that I worked through.
2. When reading devotionally, I do not always do this.
3. BUT… when a passage is tricky… I do.
4. I honestly believe that you don’t need to be seminary-trained or a Bible scholar to read the Bible. With the help of the Holy Spirit, anyone and everyone can read it directly. Sometimes when we get into these discussions, it can intimidate your average reader. I think that is bad. Scripture should be and is accessible to all.
5. HOWEVER, some passages are more complicated than others… and when developing theologies from passages, working carefully with the text is important. I think this is especially true with both core theological statements and in theological/ethical issues that effect millions of people — i.e. can women preach and lead in the church? Can gay people follow Jesus? Is it ever acceptable for a Christ-follower to support violence/war (or participate in them)? etc etc. This, of course, this why we are taking the time to really work through these issues.
So there is your hermeneutical spiral… a very helpful tool in terms of micro/mechanical/inductive hermeneutics. Here is a chart that shows it (thanks):
Thoughts? Questions? Discussion?
What is the hardest step for you? Do you naturally do this when you read a passage? What are other approaches?