What Is Hermeneutics?

What Is Hermeneutics?
Bible

The word ‘hermeneutics’ is derived from the Greek word hermeneia, which means ‘interpretation’ or ‘translation’. In Greek mythology the god Hermes mediated divine messages to human beings. Implicit in myths about his ‘messenger’ role are two things: firstly, that the gods are remote, and secondly, that men and women require assistance in understanding divine communications. In so far as hermeneutics relates to the scriptures it has been defined as the science or art of biblical interpretation. As a ‘science’ or ‘art’ hermeneutics involves the careful and creative use of various reading strategies geared at bridging the gulf between ancient scriptural texts and the modern reader. This is required because the bible is thousands of years old, is written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, is the product of cultural, political and religious milieu remote from those of our own day, and is steeped in literary genres and conceptual worlds which are alien to most readers.

As its ultimate objective biblical interpretation has the goal of making it possible for God’s people to hear God’s word afresh, in idioms which contemporary men and women understand, but which are also faithful to the biblical witness. To this extent there is an overlap between hermeneutics and the more familiar practice of ‘exegesis’, with the latter’s emphasis on scriptural exposition.

However, there is a crucial difference between the two. Whereas exegesis is almost entirely ‘text’ centred, hermeneutics goes a stage further by focusing attention on the role of the reader in the process of bible interpretation. In this instance critical reflection is brought to bear on the nature and impact of ‘presuppositions’ and ‘context’ on bible reading. Christians, it is argued, do not read the word of God with beatific vision nor in a vacuum. Rather, each individual or faith community comes to scripture laden with all kinds of personal or denominational ‘baggage’, which in turn is shaped by the various social, cultural-political and economic backgrounds of the readers. Opinions, biases and presuppositions deriving from these multifaceted influences determine, often subtly, the ways in which scripture is read and interpreted.

An urgent task confronting the Church, therefore, is the need to reflect on ‘methodology’ in bible reading. This will mean, amongst other things, identifying and evaluating the various sources, influences and models, which inform its understanding of God’s Word. It will mean asking probing questions such as: what kind of things take place as we move from ‘text’ to ‘understanding’? A simple answer might be ‘reading’. But this is not all that takes place. Nobody comes to the bible with a blank mind, nor absorbs its contents like a sponge. We bring ideas, notions and beliefs of various kinds to the scriptures, which in turn shape and mould what we get out of bible reading. As one writer says, ”The questions we ask about a text are rarely if ever generated by the text itself; indeed, before we read the first page, we are enmeshed in a web of preconceptions and preconditions from which our questions emerge.”

The expectations and presuppositions which we bring to scripture, therefore, need to be examined carefully. We read God’s word neither ‘plainly’ nor ‘simply’. Moreover, if as Christians we acknowledge that sin has tainted every facet of our being we should not assume that the way in which we read the bible will somehow be immune from the baneful influence of our fallen nature.

Not all the presuppositions or expectations that control our reading will be bad, of course. Nor is the suggestion that our ‘presuppositions’ and ‘biases’ are so pervasive and distortive that we can never accurately perceive or grasp what a text was originally about, or how it ought to be applied today. Nevertheless, the possibilities of misreading and misapplying scripture are real and need to be guarded against. We do not simply see things ‘as they are’ when we read the bible. Often we see things as we would wish them to be, in order to reflect or bolster our personal, denominational or even sectarian interests. A ‘hermeneutically aware’ Christian, however, will want to bring his or her presuppositions out into the open for prayerful and critical consideration. Accountability in this instance will be seen as the touchstone of faithful bible interpretation, but also the context in which the Spirit of God can renew his work among the people of God.

A key function, then, of being hermeneutically aware is to be alert to some of the more ‘invisible’ factors at work in bible interpretation. At times this will entail raising uncomfortable questions about the way we or even our local church read scripture.

Might there be, for example, a ‘middle class’ way of reading the bible that we need to guard against? In this instance our doctrinal or denominational biases could reflect our social and economic as much as our spiritual situation and therefore distort the gospel. ‘Docetic’ ways of reading the bible might also need to be challenged. Docetism was the heresy which taught that Jesus only appeared to be, but wasn’t really, human (dokein, is a Greek word which means ‘to seem’ or ‘to appear’). To read the bible ‘docetically’ therefore is to read it with an eye on the ‘divine’ and ‘supernatural’ at the expense of the human. Thus the charge of ‘docetism’ could be levelled against all types of spiritual emphases which deny the reality of suffering in Christian experience or which elevate ‘signs and wonders’ above the daily, on-going miracle of creation itself. Fundamentalist readings of scripture should also be brought to bar, especially if they make belief in a literal seven day creation or the infallibility of the King James Bible criteria of theological orthodoxy. Likewise churches which support liberal approaches to reading scripture need to explain how the bible can be revelatory, authoritative or normative for faith if merely the product of human thought or religious imagination. So also attempts to redefine words like ‘God,’ ‘marriage’ or ‘atonement’ should be called into question if they undermine or do not cohere with canonical definitions or trajectories.

These are the kind of questions that hermeneutically aware Christians might raise, depending on the context or situation in which they find themselves.

Bible reading, then, is not as simple and straightforward as we sometimes make it out to be. Our various personal or denominational agendas may darken counsel in some instances. At other times, however, it can simply be difficult texts, or familiar ones which we are struggling to ‘actualise’ in an ever changing world, which can create problems for us. But we are in illustrious company. Daniel owned up to the complexities involved in trying to understand prophecies in Jeremiah (Dan 9:2 ), the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 confessed to problems he had with Isaiah 53, and Peter credited aspects of Paul’s letters with being ‘hard to understand’ ( 2 Pet 3:16 ).

Our response, then, should be one of humility when we come to read and study God’s word. The possibilities of misinterpreting, or at least of inadequately understanding sacred scripture, are real.

Moreover, these dangers are not mitigated by the fact that a Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and full of good intent, however paradoxical this may sound. Some of the crassest travesties of the gospel of Christ have been born in the hearts of humble, ‘Spirit-filled’, bible believers. The petrol pump attendant in Alabama, for instance, who denies that black people have souls, the bestselling author who proclaims that God’s wrath will be unleashed on the Muslim world, or the suave teacher who travels the globe assuring huge audiences that God’s desire for them is that they be well off and free from ill-health, are all individuals who bow reverently before the opened word each day, diligently seeking the Spirit’s guidance and illumination.

Yet if all of this sounds negative, or like an obsessive type of navel-gazing, we also need to be reminded that under the Spirit’s guidance hermeneutical reflection can become an instrument or a means both of personal and communal transformation. For whatever limitations we bring to our reading and understanding of scripture, the word of God is still active and living. Even when we have fossilised or become overly familiar with the contents of scripture and are quite sure that we have perfectly understood and applied its message over the years, prophetic re-readings of scripture can rattle our security. This is what happened in the first century. The early church’s experience of God in Christ sparked off the most traumatic hermeneutical revolution in world history. Hard thinking, careful listening, assiduous spiritual reflection, an openness to change, the adoption of new reading strategies, renewed critical dialogue with scripture, and a willingness to own up to where they may have got it wrong in the past, are all hallmarks of the earliest Christian re-readings of the Hebrew scriptures. The Spirit led hermeneutical revolution thus became the source of their transformed understanding of what God was all about.

The message for us is simple: can we afford to be any less open to how God might wish to transform our understanding of himself through his word? I do not mean of course that we can ever go back to the scriptures and initiate the kind of theological revolution that the first Christians, or an Isaiah or Jeremiah, set in motion. The ‘big bang’ has already happened, so to speak. I am speaking rather of the way in which the first Christians approached and engaged scripture. I am particularly thinking of their willingness to accept that even traditional and cherished ways of reading God’s word could become obsolete, outlive their usefulness, or even be just plain wrong.

Are we prepared to accept that the unfettered word of God is even capable of subverting our grasp and understanding of it?

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as ‘stable meaning’ or ‘enduring truth.’ It is to suggest, however, that for the early church (and for Jesus and the prophets) the interpretation of scripture, the hermeneutical discipline if you will, was an on-going process of spiritual and theological engagement – of listening, of dialoguing, of critical reflection and re-application of the living, vital, word of God.

It is telling in this connection that the most implacable opposition that Jesus, the prophets and the early church encountered was from the spiritual guardians and ‘interpreters’ of divine revelation in Jerusalem. The hermeneutical road is a costly one to go down, for it will always bring into uncomfortable relief the multiplicity of ways in which self-interest (personal, denominational, cultural-political) has been woven into the very fabric of our spiritual lives. It would scarcely be an exaggeration or irreverent to say that Jesus was crucified by the religious authorities for hermeneutical reasons (his Messianic claims, his commensality with gentiles and sinners, his flaunting of purity regulations, his redefined notion of who ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ were in God’s eyes, in short, for his dangerously unconventional way of reading sacred scripture).

Cutting-edge Christianity, therefore, cannot mature or blossom if critical self-reflection on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of Bible interpretation is deemed unnecessary. All of us are engaged in hermeneutical activity of some kind or other. The question is whether it is good or bad hermeneutics, fruitful or sterile, Spirit-led or self motivated. The hermeneutical discipline is, however, a sacred and holy task to which the church is called, and one for which it must ultimately give account, for it dares to speak in the name and on behalf of Christ.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.

2 Comments

  1. Albane 3 years ago

    Thanks for this great article, Brendan.

    What are your thoughts on the effect of hermeneutics, with its associated biases, on biblical translations?

    One example I find amusing and revealing is Proverb 31: is this woman noble, valiant, competent or virtuous? Much as these qualities are all equally valuable, they are certainly not conjuring up the same image.

    Another example is the translation of YHWH by LORD.
    Although a common, agreed translation of the Tetragrammaton is useful to scholars, in everyday reading, how many people make the distinction between the personal name of God (capital L followed by small capital letters) and the reference to him as lord and master (capital L, followed by lower case)?

    A.

    • Author
      Brendan 3 years ago

      Hi Albane,

      Thanks for your comments.

      You raise a number of good points here.

      With regard to Proverbs 31 it is always important to keep in mind that there is no ‘English’ translation behind the Hebrew text.

      This will mean in many cases that several possible English words or idioms rather than just one ‘may’ reflect the Hebrew thought or idea behind a particular word.

      Words of course will mean different things in different contexts, so in the case of Proverbs 31 translators are within their right to suggest the type of sense which they feel a particular word has in a given situation. But as you say this can result in different shades of meaning. I think this unavoidable in the last analysis.

      If however one wants to be in a position to be able to critically evaluate translations studying Hebrew or Greek is the best option.

      As regards the Tetragrammaton – I totally agree with you. Most bible readers do not discriminate between capitals and lower case use of the ‘Lord.’

      This is perhaps something that needs to be pointed out from the pulpit because the distinctions are very important and can really illuminate a text or passage.

      Thanks again for the good observations.

      Brendan

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