What Is Biblical Hermeneutics?
While Jewish and Christian Biblical hermeneutics have some overlap and dialogue, they have distinctly separate interpretative traditions.
Talmudical hermeneutics (Hebrew: approximately, מידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן) refers to Jewish methods for the investigation and determination of the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, as well as rules by which Jewish law could be established. One well-known summary of these principles appears in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael.
Methods by which the Talmud explores the meaning of scripture:
- grammar and exegesis
- the interpretation of certain words and letters and apparently superfluous and/or missing words or letters, and prefixes and suffixes
- the interpretation of those letters which, in certain words, are provided with points
- the interpretation of the letters in a word according to their numerical value (see Gematria)
- the interpretation of a word by dividing it into two or more words (see Notarikon)
- the interpretation of a word according to its consonantal form or according to its vocalization
- the interpretation of a word by transposing its letters or by changing its vowels
- the logical deduction of a halakah from a Scriptural text or from another law
The rabbis of the Talmud considered themselves to be the receivers and transmitters of an Oral Torah as to the meaning of the scriptures. They considered this oral tradition to set forth the precise, original meanings of the words, revealed at the same time and by the same means as the original scriptures themselves. Interpretive methods listed above such as word play and letter counting were never used as logical proof of the meaning or teaching of a scripture. Instead they were considered to be an asmakhta, a validation of a meaning that was already set by tradition or a homiletic backing for rabbinic rulings.
Until the Enlightenment, biblical hermeneutics was usually seen as a form of special hermeneutics (like legal hermeneutics); the status of scripture was thought to necessitate a particular form of understanding and interpretation.
In the nineteenth century it became increasingly common to read scripture just like any other writing, although the different interpretations were often disputed. Friedrich Schleiermacher argued against a distinction between “general” and “special” hermeneutics, and for a general theory of hermeneutics applicable to all texts, including the Bible. Various methods of higher criticism sought to understand the Bible purely as a human, historical document.
The concept of hermeneutics has acquired at least two different but related meanings which are in use today. Firstly, in the older sense, biblical hermeneutics may be understood as the theological principles of exegesis which is often virtually synonymous with ‘principles of biblical interpretation’ or methodology of biblical exegesis. Secondly, the more recent development is to understand the term ‘biblical hermeneutics’ as the broader philosophy and linguistic underpinnings of interpretation. The question is posed: “How is understanding possible?” The rationale of this approach is that, while Scripture is “more than just an ordinary text,” it is certainly “no less than an ordinary text.” Scripture is in the first analysis “text” which human beings try to understand; in this sense, the principles of understanding any text apply to the Bible as well (regardless of whatever other additional, specifically theological principles are considered).
In this second sense, all aspects of philosophical and linguistic hermeneutics are considered to be applicable to the biblical texts, as well. There are obvious examples of this in the links between 20th-century philosophy and Christian theology. For example, Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutical approach was strongly influenced by existentialism, and in particular by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger; and since the 1970s, the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer have had a wide-ranging influence on biblical hermeneutics as developed by a wide range of Christian theologians. The French-American philosopher René Girard follows a similar trail.
Biblical scholars have noted the diversity of interpretations by Protestants and to a lesser extent by Catholics. In his forward to R. C. Sproul’s Knowing Scripture, J. I. Packer observes that Protestant theologians are in conflict about biblical interpretation. To illustrate the diversity of biblical interpretations, William Yarchin pictures a shelf full of religious books saying different things, but all claiming to be faithful interpretations of the Bible. Bernard Ramm observed that such diverse interpretations underlie the doctrinal variations in Christendom. A mid-19th century book on biblical interpretation observed that even those who believe the Bible to be the word of God hold the most discordant views about fundamental doctrines.
The Catholic Church asserts the capital importance of biblical interpretation and Catholic scholars recognize some diversity in the Bible. This allows for an openness of interpretation as long as it stays within the Catholic Church’s theological Tradition. So it is that theological factors set the parameters for interpreting the Scripture that Catholics believe to be the word of God. Such parameters disallow the widely differing interpretations that make it possible for Protestants to prove almost anything by the Bible.
Theological hermeneutics as traditional Christian Biblical exegesis
This form of theological hermeneutics in the mainstream Protestant tradition considers Christian Biblical hermeneutics in the tradition of explication of the text, or exegesis, to deal with various principles that can be applied to the study of Scripture. If the canon of Scripture is considered as an organic whole, rather than an accumulation of disparate individual texts written and edited in the course of history, then any interpretation that contradicts any other part of scripture is not considered to be sound. Biblical hermeneutics differs from hermeneutics and within traditional Protestant theology, there are a variety of interpretive formulae. Such formulae are generally not mutually exclusive, and interpreters may adhere to several of these approaches at once. These formulae include:
Theological Group of Principles:
- The Historical-grammatical principle based on historical, socio-political, geographical, cultural and linguistic / grammatical context
- Alternate, mutually-exclusive, models of history:
- The Dispensational model or The Chronometrical Principle: “During different periods of time, God has chosen to deal in a particular way with man in respect to sin and man’s responsibility.”
- The Covenantal model: “We differentiate between the various contracts that God has made with his people; specifically their provisions, their parties and their purposes.”
- The New-Covenantal model: The Old Testament Laws have been fulfilled and abrogated or cancelled with Christ’s death, and replaced with the Law of Christ of the New Covenant, although many of the Old Covenant laws are reinstituted under the New Covenant.
- The Ethnic Division Principle: “The word of truth is rightly divided in relation to the three classes which it treats, i.e. Jews, Gentiles and the Church.”
- The Breach Principle: Interpretation of a certain verse or passage in Scripture is aided by a consideration of certain breaches, either breaches of promise or breaches of time.
- The Christo-Centric Principle: “The mind of deity is eternally centered in Christ. All angelic thought and ministry are centered in Christ. All Satanic hatred and subtlety are centered at Christ. All human hopes are, and human occupations should be, centered in Christ. The whole material universe in creation is centered in Christ. The entire written word is centered in Christ.”
- The Moral Principle
- The Discriminational Principle: “We should divide the word of truth so as to make a distinction where God makes a difference.”
- The Predictive Principle
- The Application Principle: “An application of truth may be made only after the correct interpretation has been made”
- The Principle of Human Willingness in Illumination
- The Context Principle: “God gives light upon a subject through either near or remote passages bearing upon the same subject.”
Sub-divided Context/Mention Principles:
- The First Mention Principle: “God indicates in the first mention of a subject the truth with which that subject stands connected in the mind of God.”
- The Progressive Mention Principle: “God makes the revelation of any given truth increasingly clear as the word proceeds to its consummation.”
- The Comparative Mention Principle
- The Full Mention Principle or The Complete Mention Principle: “God declares his full mind upon any subject vital to our spiritual life.”
- The Agreement Principle: “The truthfulness and faithfulness of God become the guarantee that he will not set forth any passage in his word that contradicts any other passage.”
- The Direct Statement Principle: “God says what he means and means what he says.”
- The Gap Principle: “God, in the Jewish Scriptures, ignores certain periods of time, leaping over them without comment.”
- The Threefold Principle: “The word of God sets forth the truths of salvation in a three-fold way: past – justification; present – sanctification/transformation; future – glorification/consummation.”
- The Repetition Principle: “God repeats some truth or subject already given, generally with the addition of details not before given.”
- The Synthetic Principle
- The Principle of Illustrative Mention
- The Double Reference Principle
Figures of Speech Group of Principles:
- The Numerical Principle
- The Symbolic Principle
- The Typical Principle: “Certain people, events, objects and rituals found in the Old Testament may serve as object lessons and pictures by which God teaches us of his grace and saving power.”
- The Parabolic Principle
- The Allegorical Principle
In the interpretation of a text, hermeneutics considers the original medium as well as what language says, supposes, doesn’t say, and implies. The process consists of several steps for best attaining the Scriptural author’s intended meaning(s). One such process is taught by Henry A Virkler, in Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (1981):
- Lexical-syntactical analysis: This step looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.
- Historical/cultural analysis: The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of the Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.
- Contextual analysis: A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.
- Theological analysis: It is often said that a single verse usually doesn’t make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poor interpretation.
- Special literary analysis: There are several special literary aspects to look at, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry have more figurative and allegorical language than does the narrative or historical writing. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.
Howard Hendricks, longtime professor of hermeneutics at Dallas Theological Seminary, set out the method of observing the text, interpreting the text, applying the text in his book, Living By the Book. Other major Christian teachers, such as Charles R. (Chuck) Swindoll, who wrote the foreword, Kay Arthur and David Jeremiah have based their hermeneutics on the principles Hendricks teaches.
In his book God Centered Biblical Interpretation (1999), Vern Poythress, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, presented a hermeneutical technique based on the pattern of “speaker, discourse, and hearer”. According to Poythress, the study of the Bible must acknowledge all three aspects: God as the speaker, the Bible as His speech, and the people to whom He speaks. Thus, context plays a primary role in Poythress’s study of Biblical teachings. He lists three general concepts to understand about any passage of Scripture:
- Original time and context: This includes the personal perspective of the writer, the normative perspective of the text itself, and the situational perspective of the original audience.
- Transmission and its context: Understanding the transmission of Scripture includes contemplating the message being sent through the text, taking into account the concerns of individual writers/translators as well as its broader role in the unraveling narrative of history.
- Modern context: Poythress calls interpreters to understand Scripture as “what God is saying now” to the individual as well as to the modern church.
David L. Barr states there are three obstacles that stand in the way of correctly interpreting the biblical writings: We speak a different language, we live approximately two millennia later, and we bring different expectations to the text. Additionally, Barr suggests that we approach the reading of the Bible with significantly different literary expectations than those in reading other forms of literature and writing.
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists a number of principles guiding Roman Catholic hermeneutics in the article on Exegesis (note: the Catholic Encyclopedia was written in 1917 and does not reflect the changes set forth by the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu published by Pius XII in 1943, which opened modern Catholic Biblical scholarship) :
- Historico-grammatical interpretation – The meaning of the literary expression of the Bible is best learned by a thorough knowledge of the languages in which the original text of Scripture was written, and by acquaintance with the Scriptural way of speaking, including the various customs, laws, habits and national prejudices which influenced the inspired writers as they composed their respective books. John Paul II said that: “A second conclusion is that the very nature of biblical texts means that interpreting them will require continued use of the historical-critical method, at least in its principal procedures. The Bible, in effect, does not present itself as a direct revelation of timeless truths but as the written testimony to a series of interventions in which God reveals himself in human history. In a way that differs from tenets of other religions [such as Islam, for instance], the message of the Bible is solidly grounded in history.
- Catholic interpretation – Because the Catholic Church is, according to Catholics, the official custodian and interpreter of the Bible, Catholicism’s teaching concerning the Sacred Scriptures and their genuine sense must be the supreme guide of the commentator. The Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church has defined either expressly or implicitly.
- Reverence – Since the Bible is God’s own book, its study must be begun and prosecuted with a spirit of reverence and prayer.
- Inerrancy – Since God is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, it can be claimed to contain no error, no self-contradiction, nothing contrary to scientific or historical truth (when the original authors intended historical or scientific truth to be portrayed). Minor contradictions are due to copyist errors in the codex or the translation. Catholics believe the Scripture is God’s message put in words by men, with the imperfections this very fact necessarily implies. Catholic hermeneutics strongly supports inerrancy when it comes to principles but not, for example, when dealing with Evangelists’ orthographic mistakes. According to Pope John Paul II, “Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning.
- Patristics – The Holy Fathers are of supreme authority whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith.
Pope Benedict XVI has indicated in Verbum Domini, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Word of God, that “Christianity…perceives in the words the Word himself, the Logos who displays his mystery through this complexity and the reality of human history”. He encourages a “faith-filled interpretation of Sacred Scripture”. He emphasizes that this manner of interpretation, “practiced from antiquity within the Church’s Tradition…recognizes the historical value of the biblical tradition”. It “seeks to discover the living meaning of the Sacred Scriptures for the lives of believers today while not ignoring the human mediation of the inspired text and its literary genres”. Verbum Domini #44.
- God is real and is incarnated in our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything pertaining to the Scriptures must be understood Christologically. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the center of all that we as Christians do, and being Himself the very Truth, He is the only gate through which we may enter into understanding of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments (though not all that is contained in the Old Testament is directly relevant for Christians). The Bible ultimately is about Christ and assists us in our union with Him.
- Only the pure in heart “shall see God.” That is, our spiritual state has a direct bearing on our interpretation of the Scriptures. As St. Athanasius said, “One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life.” Because the Scripture is a book inspired by the Holy Spirit and given through holy men, one’s own holiness is directly relevant to the ability to interpret the book correctly. Unlike any other book, the Bible’s words are “spirit and life,” and so we must live spiritually in order to drink from this spiritual well. Clearly, prayer and spiritual discipline are necessary in order to understand Scripture properly.
- Understanding of the Scripture comes with living its contents. As the quote from St. Athanasius illustrates, one must both have a pure mind and be trying to imitate the saints’ lives in order to understand their teaching, a dual principle which applies most of all to the teaching of the saints in the Bible. This life is particularly expressed in terms of living out the commandments and attempting to imitate Christ’s life of the Gospel.
- The primary end of Scriptural hermeneutics is that of the whole Christian life, theosis (deification/divinization). That is, our purpose in attempting to understand the Bible must not be merely for academic inquiry but rather must be in order to become fully divinized human beings, soaked with the life of God, participating in His divine energies, growing to the fullness of the stature of Christ. We interpret Scripture in order to become by grace what Christ is by nature, to “become god.”
- Only within the community of the Church can the Bible be understood. It was written by the Church, in the Church and for the Church. Thus, it is a “family document” which is the highest point of Holy Tradition, taken with faith alongside the writings of the Fathers, the Liturgy, the Icons, the Lives of the Saints, and so on.
- The Scripture is a witness to the truth, not an exhaustive tome on Christian living. Nowhere in the words of Scripture itself can we find the teaching that it is all-sufficient for Christian life. What we as Orthodox Christians do must always be consonant with the Scriptures, but explicit mention of a practice or teaching in the Scripture is not a requirement for its inclusion in the life of the Church. The Apostle Paul himself mentions the reality of unwritten sources of Church Tradition being equally in force for the believer in II Thessalonians 2:15, that these traditions to which we must “stand fast and hold” may be “by word or by our epistle.” Examples of practices not explicit in Scripture are making the Sign of the Cross, triple immersion for baptism, and having monasticism. St. Basil the Great even says that without maintaining the unwritten traditions of the Church, we “mutilate the Gospel” (On the Spirit 66).
- We must respect the integrity of the canon of the Bible as given to us in the Church’s Tradition. Searches for other texts written by apostles or prophets may be interesting and of scholarly merit, but they are not part of the hermeneutical project within the Church. Or conversely, attempts to debunk the authorship or authenticity of the books in the canon are also outside the Church’s life. If we were to find a verifiable “new” work by St. Paul or to discover that Moses did not in fact write Genesis, neither finding would have any bearing on the canon. It is what it is.
- We must use every resource at our disposal in interpreting the Scripture to bring ourselves and others to the knowledge of the truth. Certainly, there must be spiritual discernment in knowing how to use those resources, but at least theoretically, anything can be used to come to know the truth better as it is revealed in Holy Writ.
- We must have humility when approaching Scripture. Even some of the Church’s greatest and most philosophically sophisticated saints stated that some passages were difficult for them. We must therefore be prepared to admit that our interpretations may be wrong, submitting them to the judgment of the Church.
- We may make use in a secondary fashion of the resources of academic scholarship, whether logic, archaeology, linguistics, et cetera. These resources can be helpful in terms of illuminating our understanding of Scripture, but they must always be given only secondary prominence in the project and always only in conjunction with all these other hermeneutic principles. Primary must always be our life in the Church, living, studying and knowing the Bible within that vivified and salvific Holy Tradition.
Trajectory hermeneutics or redemptive-movement hermeneutics (RMH) is a hermeneutical approach that seeks to locate varying ‘voices’ in the text and to view these voices as a progressive trajectory through history (or at least through the Biblical witness); often a trajectory that progresses through to the present day. The contemporary reader of Scripture is in some way envisaged by the Biblical text as standing in continuity with a developing theme therein. The reader, then, is left to discern this trajectory and appropriate it accordingly.
William J. Webb employed such a hermeneutic, in his Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Webb shows how the moral commands of the Old and New Testament were a significant improvement over the surrounding cultural values and practices. Webb identified 18 different ways in which God dealt with his people moving against the current of popular cultural values. While for Webb the use of this hermeneutic moves to highlight the progressive liberation of women and slaves from oppressive male/bourgeois dominance, the prohibition of homosexual acts consistently moves in a more conservative manner than that of the surrounding Ancient Near East or Graeco-Roman societies. While Paul does not explicitly state that slavery should be abolished, the trajectory seen in Scripture is a progressive liberation of slaves. When this is extended to modern times, it implies that the Biblical witness supports the abolition of slavery. The progressive liberation of women from oppressive patriarchalism, traced from Genesis and Exodus through to Paul’s own acknowledgement of women as ‘co-workers’ (Rom. 16:3), sets a precedent that when applied to modern times suggests that women ought to have the same rights and roles afforded to men. Historically, the Biblical witness has become progressively more stringent in its views of homosexual practice and the implications of this are not commented upon by Webb.
- Ferguson, Sinclair B; David F Wright; J. I. Packer (1988). New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. ISBN0-8308-1400-0.
- Perry, Simon (2005). Resurrecting Interpretation. Bristol Baptist College: University of Bristol.
- R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Rev. ed., InterVarsity Press, 2009), 10.
- William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: a Reader (Hendrickson, 2004), xi.
- Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation:A Textbook of Hermeneutics, 3rd rev ed (Baker Academic, 1980), 3.
- The Interpretation of the Bible (Boston; Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1844), 15-16.
- Peter Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”(Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 2001), 23, 121, 254.
- David M. Williams, Receiving the Bible in Faith: Historical and Theological Exegesis (CUA Press, 2004), 6-7.
- Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (David C. Cook, 1991), 7.
- This list of “principles” in conservative evangelical hermeneutics appears to derive from: Hartill, J E 1960. Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Perry, Peter. “Biblical Performance Criticism”. www.biblicalperformancecriticism.org.
- Poythress, Vern S. (1999). God Centered Biblical Interpretation, p. 109. P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
- Ibid., p. 121 -122
- New Testament Story, Wadsworth Publishing, 1995, pg. 15
- Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993-04-23). “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. Retrieved 2007-05-21.
- Archpriest Michael Dahulich. “OrthodoxWiki article on Hermeneutics”.
- Douglas Brown (July–September 2010). “Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic”. Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. Archived from the originalon 2010-12-31.
- W. W. Klein; C. L. Blomberg; R. L. Hubbard, Jr. (2004). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. pp. 497–498. ISBN0785252258, ISBN978-0-7852-5225-2.
- H. A. Virkler; K. Gerber Ayayo (2007). Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group. pp. 202–204. ISBN978-0-8010-3138-0.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia