Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Role of Hermeneutics In Interpreting Scripture

What are Hermeneutics?
Article Written by Daniel Peckham

Pronounced( "her-men-EW-ticks", :o) this is a fancy word that refers to the way you interpret or understand what you read. There are many different ways to interpret what we read, or even what we hear, even   though you may never have thought about it before.

Basic Ways of Interpreting.

Some people over time have classified a few distinct ways that we might interpret what we read (specifically literature). They have narrowed down three basic parts involved in finding meaning in a text: the author (who wrote it), the text (what you read), and the reader (you, duh). Authors have intentions they want to express in a text - a meaning that they give to it and want readers to get. Readers have presuppositions about a text and a topic when they approach it (like the example of the stop sign below).

In the old days (like, before 1900) the emphasis was on authors in the world of literary criticism. People wanted to know what the author meant to say, and didn't feel they understood the text until they knew. This means they did lots of research into the author's life, times, and other things he/she wrote to try to figure out what he/she meant.

The 20th Century shifted to focus on the text – especially the "New Criticism" of the 1930's - 1960's. They didn't care so much anymore what the author meant originally – they believed the text speaks for itself and by examining all the words around a part of the text, you can find out what it meant. They thought this because they believed we can't really get to the intentions of the author (there's no way we can really know what the author was trying to say), and that the text has "a life of its own."

Today, it is more popular in the literary realm for people to believe that meaning comes from readers. The text is a 'captive' to the reader's expectations, and examining the historical context, author's original intentions, or even the limitations presented by the context within the text itself, are unimportant compared to the thoughts and expectations that the reader brings to the text.

Let me give you an example of this kind of interpretive technique. Imagine you are back in high school. You're sitting in fifth period English, trying not to glance at the clock so often that the teacher notices and calls on you. The unit the past few weeks has been on poetry, and the class just finished reading a Shakespeare sonnet ...

Teacher: "So, I'm sure we have all experienced what Shakespeare is writing about before. Tommy ... what does this mean to you?"

You desperately glance at your neighbor's page to see which poem the class is reading. Shoot! There are four different poems on this page, and your neighbor is giving you NO helpful clues as to which one it might be. One poem is called, "But wherefore do not you a mightier way"; another is called, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"; another, "My glass shall not persuade me I am old"; and another one reads, "Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws".

Oh great. They are all entirely weird and worse yet, they are all entirely different from each other.

You squeeze your eyes shut and pray, "Oh Lord, help me to guess which poem we're discussing and give the right answer so I don't have to stay after school and miss basketball again today ... I know I haven't been paying attention, but if You let me answer this right, I'll even invite John Harper to church this Friday night ...".

You take a deep breath, and randomly choose one of the poems. The one about the lion's paws sounds interesting. But what does it mean?...

You: "Uhh ... sometimes things happen that hurt you. And it ... really hurts. But ... with time ... ahh ... things don't hurt so bad."

The teacher looks at you, intrigued, and nods for you to continue. Wow - well, no "F" yet ...

You: "Ummm ... like one time, I sprained my ankle in basketball. It hurt pretty bad. I even got to go to the emergency room to splint it up and stuff. There was an awesome purple bruise there for a few days. Then it turned reddish, and then greenish, and then yellow ... but it hurt. But then, the next month, I could play basketball again. So that was cool."

You look at her hopefully. Could it possibly have worked?

Teacher: "That's a beautiful example, Tommy. Class, do you see how Tommy has interpreted this poem? Shakespeare talks to his beloved, comparing her to a summer's day ... which, for Tommy, is like a basketball season. Summer and basketball season are both seasons."

Oops!! You picked the wrong poem - the class was reading the one about summer! But ... she doesn't seem to be noticing ...

Teacher: "... And just as Shakespeare wonders if his beautiful lover will grow less beautiful as she grows older ... Tommy wondered if his basketball season would never be as fun as it was before. But then his ankle got better and he was able to play once more. See how wonderful Shakespeare is? He writes about things we all experience! Anyone can understand Shakespeare!! Thank you Tommy, that was brilliant. Sara ... what does this poem mean to you?..."

As you can see, this is an "easy" way to interpret things - there is basically no wrong answer. The problem is that ... you really haven't learned anything new. And it's basically as if you are talking to yourself, since you can make the text say whatever you want it to say. Conversations with yourself usually aren't half as interesting or satisfying as conversations with other people ...

So what is the best way to interpret what we read, you ask? Keep reading (specifically, if you just can't wait, look at the end of the page).

Who Should Know About Hermeneutics?

I believe that if you live in a place where written words are used to communicate even part of the time, you should know at least a little about Hermeneutics (which you obviously do if you are reading this). Don't be fooled by the fact that it's a big fancy word, or that I talked about "literary criticism" in the paragraph above. It's true that Hermeneutics are especially important for scholars (particularly in literature) and teachers, but truly it matters for everyone to have a good way of understanding what they read.

You already have your own hermeneutic actually! For example, when you are driving and see a hexagon-shaped red sign with the letters STOP on it, do you stop talking? do you stop breathing? do you stop looking around? do you decide to never again watch any movie starring Tom Hanks? do you decide to never again eat seafood?

... I hope not. Most sane people simply stop their car from moving forward, taking their foot off the gas pedal and putting on the brakes. You have a certain hermeneutic you are using when you drive - you know that when you read a word on a sign like that, it is referring to the activity of driving alone, and you understand it in that way. You have a belief about what the person who wrote the sign meant, what the sign itself means, and you know not to take that command and apply it to any other general thing you're doing.

Not convinced yet? Let's try another example.

You're in the grocery store, waiting at the checkout counter. You see the "Daily Star" or some other tabloid perched on the rack right in your face, next to the candy and gum. On the cover is a big picture of the face of the President of the US on a female's body, with a headline that reads: "President Gets a Sex Change." Do you grab the newspaper and run screaming out the door to go tell your friends you're moving to China because you're angry at the ethics of your nation's leader? Do you laugh at the nightly NBC news that night when they show the President looking as male as ever, because you know deep down that they must be using old or pirated tapes? Not if you're like most people, you don't. I know I'm taking my chances here, since some people do seem to find great value in reading tabloids, but I think most people agree that when you see the covers of tabloids, you most likely read them looking for a good laugh - not for a factual account of what's going on in the world. Or, if you are someone who reads them for facts, then your hermeneutic in reading tabloids is that you expect to find facts. Either way, do you see how it illustrates what a hermeneutic is? You already approach most things you read with certain expectations.

When and Where Is It Important to Use a Good Hermeneutic?

Okay, we've established that bookish"literature people" should care about hermeneutics when they write essays or critique literature - jobs which most of us don't do. But, we've also established that there are basic kinds of daily uses for a sort of "cultural" hermeneutic that we all use to function in normal life when we drive or open the newspaper or shop at the grocery store. But there is still another area that is not only one of the most important arenas in which to have a good hermeneutic, but is unfortunately one of the arenas in which hermeneutics are most commonly screwed up.

... Have you guessed where I'm headed? Yup: reading the Bible. Literary criticism has previously and is presently crossing over into Biblical Studies and affecting our hermeneutics a whole lot! This means in our Bible studies, our personal devotions, and even in sermons, we are using some kind of hermeneutic (whether we're aware of it or not) to interpret what God says in Scripture - just like literary people use a hermeneutic to interpret what an author is saying in a book. If we're talking about the God of the universe, we'd better be sure to use a good, sound hermeneutic then!

The reason we as Westerners want to pay special attention to our assumptions when we come to Scripture is that, frankly, we are the culture who is furthest from the original culture the stories of the Bible took place in, and we're most likely to misunderstand what the stories meant to the original culture with its unique values and understandings – we're not an honor/shame culture like most of the Biblical societies were; we're not a spirit/power culture.

We must therefore work the hardest to bridge that gap. We should try to learn something about what those cultures were like, so we can understand the Biblical message the way God meant for it to be understood by its original recipients. Just like a story to an American or European might use the symbol of a stop sign in order to communicate some deeper meaning, God used some symbols and analogies that would have been easy for those original cultures to understand (like the parable about the prodigal son), so that they would more easily understand His deeper message.

So since many of us in the West today are unfamiliar with the early Near Eastern cultural symbols, we stand a good chance of misunderstanding the message God intended through those symbols. Once we understand those symbols, and therefore understand the real meaning of the message, then of course we can make contemporary applications into our own lives for what it means. But it's important not to skip that first step.

Why Does This Matter?

Like we discussed above, everyone already has their own style of understanding what they read … but can it stand a "reality-test" and will it lead them to true conclusions about what God is saying in Scripture? America as a culture has poor interpretive habits based on bad interpretive theories – we're relativistic. In E.D Hirsch's article, "Validity in Interpretation," he points out that meaning must be public and shareable, able to be understood and accessed by all (49). It is stable and determinant, while significance is various and infinite (8). Meaning is similar to what the author originally intended to say to his/her original audience, while significance is the application that any person may be able to draw from that meaning. Once you understand the "meaning" of the passage, you can apply it to many, many different areas of life, but you must not collapse meaning and significance into one, or else you're making it mean something it doesn't really mean.

It's important to first understand the meaning of a passage, before making an application to today. The meaning will likely shut off some avenues for application, because the passage simply doesn't have anything to do with that thing. Yet this will also sharpen our ability to truly apply meaning, and to apply it in a true way that was originally intended. We shut off even more avenues for application when we simply take the meaning based on our own personal experience or need, because it means that no other person on earth can share that same meaning, so the message is worthless to them. This is ironic, since most people seem to think the other way around. Like the Shakespeare teacher above, many people think that for meaning to be understood by all people, it should be able to fit whatever each individual thinks it should (like the basketball example). But frankly, Shakespeare probably wouldn't have understood that whole basketball thing at all, and wouldn't be able to apply it at all in his own life. Someone could argue that that interpretation is "prejudiced" or "unfair" to him, since it excludes him. With the Bible, this is especially important in trying to understand what God is saying to us.

To assume we don't need hermeneutics at all is to think too lowly of God's people. The "rigors of God's revelation" (the diversity of genres used in Scripture) call for a good hermeneutic (see Hebrews 1:1). For example, if someone understands the proverb, "Train a child up in the way he should go and when he is old he will never stray from it," as a promise, rather than a proverb, he will be left very angry or disappointed with God if things don't turn out that way. Instead, we must assume that God intended to speak His Word in various, unique genres. The context of those genres is intended to help make it easier for us to interpret His message ... unless we become unfamiliar with what those genres are and how to interpret them (like most of us have). Then we'll get confused and miss what He was trying to say. This is why we need to learn about those genres and the expectations we should bring to them.

Also, God's Word is written TO us THROUGH another people, language, culture and historical context. We have to be careful of thinking that it was written directly (and only) to us, and that that is all that matters - that's ethnocentric. We have to understand the original audience first before we can apply it. In writing it TO us, it has eternal relevance (God did have all of us in mind with each thing he wrote); yet in writing it THROUGH a particular people, it also has historical particularity that must be understood.

Perspicuity of Scripture. Some people refer back to the Protestant Reformers' doctrine of the "perspicuity of Scripture." (Perspicuity means "understandability.") This doctrine states that the Bible was meant to be understood by all God's people, not just a select few. This is entirely true! However, it is not meant to apply in the "radically individualistic sense" that many Westerners have today (as Walt Russell calls it), where we seem to believe underneath it all that 1 Christian + Bible + Holy Spirit = total understanding.

But God never intended for us to isolate ourselves from the larger Body called the Church in the way modern Western culture enables us to do today. The Reformers (and others before them in the early Church) formed creeds (like Heidelberg Catechism, etc.) to form boundaries around our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture was "understandable to all" within the bounds of these creeds. God has granted His Church on earth the ability to understand Scripture since the Holy Spirit indwells all of us - we can check each other and spot the weaknesses in each other's understandings. This is where the ideas of the early church councils and creeds come into place. But if - as some people argue - the "real action" of God speaking to us happens apart from the Bible and Church, but rather in that "God told me" this is what it means ... then do we really even need the Bible or the Church? If we don't, why on earth did He give them to us in the first place? There is a large degree to which we can't know God, but He is not entirely ineffable and unapproachable. There are a lot of things we can know about Him - He is a personal God and wants relationship with us very much! And that is why He gave us His Word.

How Do I Acquire or Build A Better Hermeneutic?

I'm glad you asked!

1. The first step in building a better hermeneutic is to understand what my hermeneutics prof calls your own interpretive "glasses" - the perspective through which you read everything that you read. It's important to be aware that you may not understand everything the way it was intended by the author (or by God) to be understood. (See above.)

2. Next, you should gain a solid understanding of where meaning comes from (see next paragraph).

3. Finally: jump in! It can seem scary to try to start reading the Bible this way (I was put off by the big "H" word for many years), but honestly the best way is just to start trying. Begin by reading the context around whatever passage you are trying to understand - get a Bible that indicates the original paragraph marking (not just the verse markings, or the sections into which the translator has divided it under topics - the original paragraphs were generally longer than these). This will allow you to read the verse in its original thought-chunk. Often there are verses right next to each other that help to interpret each other when understood in light of each other, but we overlook it because off-hand they don't seem to have anything to do with each other; so we say they are "two different topics, just randomly next to each other." But this is too low a view of Scripture - God is very very smart! The authors were very careful in how they presented things, so it's worth noticing.

Where Meaning Comes From. (from Walt Russell, "A Summary of the Issue of Meaning.")

This is a continuation from the first section, where we discussed the three elements involved in meaning: author, text, and reader. Here is what each element should contribute to our understanding of what we read:

1. Author. When you read, look for the author's intention as it is expressed in the text - try to figure out what he was trying to say and to whom. Supplement this with insights from the author's historical setting to further help you try to understand what his/her intention was. Finally, summarize the author's intention by forming an "intrinsic genre statement" - a statement about the general concept that is the author's overall argument.

2. Text. Try to give the literary structure and forms of the text itself more notice than you may naturally tend to, since culturally most of us have been trained not to pay much attention to this. This is called "genre" - the structure of form the literature is taking. We will discuss specific genres of Scripture later. Allow your knowledge of what form the message is taking to shape how you understand the meaning. Also, it is very important to get the big picture of the message, and let the meaning of small parts flow down from your understanding of the big idea (the intrinsic genre statement). That means you should put more emphasis on larger linguistic units (like sentences, paragraphs, episodes, discourses, etc.) than on smaller units (like words, phrases, clauses, etc.). This may be the opposite of how you tend to read!

3. Reader. Especially since Western culture is so different from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was originally set (Israel), it is extra important for people raised in Western culture to be aware of our own culture in addition to being aware of the text. This means we should be aware of our cultural biases, personal needs and concerns, present emotional state, etc. It also means expanding our cultural horizons, especially regarding Ancient Near East and Mediterranean cultures (as a minor example, an understanding of Hebrew culture in 1st century Bethlehem can impact our understanding of the Christmas story by knowing how a typical house in town was structured to include mangers inside the house for animals brought into an indoor 'stable' from the cold). Being aware of our own culture also means learning to think in terms of how various sub-cultures and age groups within the church will ask very different questions of the text. Secondly, we must tone our perspective with humility because of the complexity of the interpretation process and the cultural/temporal gap between the Bible and us. Finally, we absolutely need to rely on the Holy Spirit in the whole interpretation process, which includes being open to growth in our understanding of the Bible.

*Stay tuned for part two!

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