The Hermeneutical Story

22 Jan

[Part 5 in our series on Hermeneutics]

In our last post on hermeneutics we looked at the hermeneutical circle and the importance of interpreting the text within the overarching “big idea” of the biblical meta-narrative.  This is a deductive approach to interpreting the bible.

This approach is an important balance with the hermeneutical spiral — an inductive approach to the text. In other words, I think you need to work both inside out (inductive spiral) and outside in (deductive circle, big idea, narrative) at the same time.

By focusing on the big idea and the story, we are sure to protect against losing the important over-arching story and teaching of the Bible by getting stuck in the minutia; by honoring each text we respect the process and each specific passage/book/author.  We need both.

I am convinced that the Bible tells a single, cohesive story running from Genesis to Revelation.  N.T. Wright describes the narrative this way:

In the Christian canonical Bible there is a single over-arching narrative. It is a story which runs from creation to new creation. The great bulk of the story focuses quite narrowly on the fortunes of a single family in the Middle East. They are described as the people through whom the creator God will act to rescue the whole world. The choice of this particular family does not imply that the creator has lost interest in other human beings or the cosmos at large; on the contrary, it is because he wishes to address them with his active and rescuing purposes that he has chosen this one family in the first place.

Even if we were to rearrange the Old Testament canon (adopting the normal Jewish order, for example, in which the Prophets precede the Writings, ending with 2 Chronicles instead of Malachi) we would still be reading a story in search of an ending, in which the people chosen to bring the creator’s healing to the world are themselves in need of rescue and restoration.

The New Testament declares with one voice that the over-arching story reached its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the early Christians believed to be the promised Messiah of Israel. The followers of Jesus saw themselves as royal heralds, claiming the whole world for its new king. Although it is rightly said that the first Christians saw themselves as living in the last days, it is even more important to stress that they were living in the first days of a new creation that dawned when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning. In other words, they saw themselves living within a story in which the decisive event had already occurred and now needed to be implemented. That is the implicit narrative which informs and undergirds all the epistles.

The four canonical gospels, in their very different ways, are only comprehensible if we understand them to be telling how the story of God and Israel reached its climax in Jesus. Even if we were to rearrange the New Testament canon, this implicit story-line would emerge at every point.

From this brief sketch it is possible to see how the Bible (Jewish or Christian) does not exist, and does not offer itself to us, as a detached set of writings or as a book-in-a-vacuum. It is our window on a reality which is decidedly extra-textual – a complex community stretching from Abraham to the early apostles. In particular, the Christian Bible is a window on a particular extra-textual reality, the human being Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers came to believe in an astonishingly short space of time that he was the living, human embodiment of the one true God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Wright goes on to describe how the Biblical narrative can be understood as a 5-act play:

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities.  Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.  The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.

This understanding of the Biblical narrative has profound implications for how we read, understand, apply and live out the scriptures as church… living in the fifth act.

While I find Wright’s outline and argument compelling, I don’t think you have to buy into his particular conception in order to get the full story and its importance in hermeneutics.  We must read every text as part of the grand story.  No text stands alone.


*     *     *     *     *


I have a few more hermeneutics posts planned, before we dive into specific texts.  Here is what is left for the hermeneutics discussion:

1. The Importance of Hinges

2. The Centrality of Jesus

3. Critical Interpretive Questions

4. One Last Question: Essential or Non-Essential

I would love to hear your continuing thoughts… or feel free to suggest any hermeneutical issues you think I should address before ending this series…



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