Why I’m studying theological hermeneutics

Beginnings

As a seventeen year old university student I made a decision to become a Christian. This took place in north American evangelical context. I’m convinced that a very real change occurred in my life at that point. Subsequently, I was involved in an evangelical Church, which in many ways was typical. Our Christian community was quite homogeneous and in the process my belief system became very clearly defined. Yet, even at this stage of my life I would often ponder my interpretations of the Bible and wondered if we were interpreting correctly, what God wanted to tell us. For instance, were things being treated literally which should have been viewed metaphorically or vice versa, or were the meanings of words being dealt with appropriately. Statements like “‘all’ means ‘all’ and thats all all means” are still in my memory. This was an attempt to absolutize for theological purposes certain passages like Collossians 1:6 “… All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing …” However, an absolute understanding of the word “all” runs into theological difficulties when one reads 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Questions such as these accompanied me throughout the first phase of my Christian life. However, I never made the effort to make a serious investigation and in some ways my inquiring spirit became dormant.

Questions reinvigorated

Later, I moved to Europe as part of a church planting effort and in the process was confronted with views of the bible and Christian traditions that differed from my own. I had been fairly sheltered theologically in a homogeneous Christian tradition and was approaching things from a north American cultural viewpoint. This confrontation to my belief system caused me to consider if my belief system was in fact true and it reinvigorated my desire to investigate how we interpret the bible and to discover the idealized “correct” way of doing so.

The quest for truth

A few years later I had the opportunity to begin a theological education and finally settle these questions. My goal was to learn how to interpret the bible properly after which I could return to my Christian community with a strengthened certainty about what we as Christians should be doing. However, in the process of my theological studies it became ever more apparent that this was no easy task. I discovered that the theological convictions of many which I had previously discounted as being incorrect did have a biblical backing and were logical. The root of the differences were to be found not in the bible but in the presuppositions and traditions that one used to interpret the bible. In short hermeneutics the method one employs in interpretation was the key. So my focus went in that direction and my goal then became determining a water tight hermeneutical method which would result in the correct interpretation. I wrote my first thesis on the book “The hermeneutical spiral” by Grant Osborn. asking the question “How certain can we be that we are using the correct hermeneutic?” The results were rather disappointing. It seemed more and more the case that there is no absolute way of knowing on a purely rational basis if one is correct or not. Our starting point and presuppositions we have are things that we simply choose, accept and believe. One can surely narrow things down quite a bit but a water tight hermeneutic which could be used to “prove” a specific theological stance became less and less a realistic possibility (for more on this see Two leaps of Faith).

How should we interpret?

Not giving up I continued my studies at the masters level and wrote a thesis comparing the views of Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? with James K. A. Smith and his book The fall of interpretation. This investigation was a major turning point in my theological outlook concerning hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s book is excellent but more or less went in a similar direction to what I had already done. Certainty and singularity in meaning can be improved if one approaches the bible using the paradigm that Vanhoozer recommends (this is of course debatable Integral and Differential Hermeneutics – A. K. M. Adam). However, Smith’s book provided for me a completely new insight and was especially convincing. In short he asserts that the need for interpretation can never be overcome since it is part and parcel of the way God created us. Thus, we must accept that we as human beings are in essence stuck in a situation where we all interpret differently because we are all embedded in culture, traditions and limitedness that cannot be overcome. For Smith interpretation is a good because it is part of our created nature and existed even in the garden of eden. To try and overcome the need for interpretation is in essence trying to overcome part of nature which God intended to always be there. Smith’s viewpoint was a radical change for me and for a long time took the wind out of my sails. If we cannot achieve certainty in our hermeneutic then why bother? I am still continuing my theological studies at the doctorate level and after my epistemological depression have recently overcome my doldrums and am investigating other avenues and approaches to theological hermeneutics which may not yield a 100% certainty but do hold some promise. The writing of A. K. M. Adam (see photo right and the link above) has reinvigorated me to continue asking questions and to seek some way of knowing more clearly what God wants to tell though the bible.

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Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Andy. I’ve e-mailed that to myself and will add that to my to-read list. Where does one read to learn the Genre of verse, passage or story line?

    It’d to give me a heads up on your reply via Facebook or e-mail, again, too.


  • Andrew Potter says:

    Hans,

    Thanks for the comments. Your response caused me to think about three things that might be helpful.

    Sola Scriptura
    During the protestant reformation the phrase “sola scriptura” (scripture alone) became a theological motto. The intention of “sola scriptura” was to say that the scriptures have a higher authority than the church. Church proclamations and councils etc. cannot make declarations that go against biblical teaching. I like to play around with the phrase for a different purpose. Sometimes I say “sola scriptura non suffit”. If my Latin is correct than that means “the scripture alone is not enough”. By saying that I’m alluding to the point you made about background. In theological circles this is referred to as context. I strongly believe that without context the bible cannot be interpreted at all (how much context is another question). For many reasons, to numerous to mention, one needs to know what the people were talking and writing about. You and I and all other non ancient Greek speakers cannot even read the Bible if it were not for context, because it would be impossible to translate it. If you want some examples of how context is important let me know, I’d have to dig them up.

    (BTW there’s a nice little conundrum about “sola scriptura”. Who was it that made the pronouncement sola scriptura, if not the church. How is it that the church can make a pronouncement saying that the church cannot make pronouncements which have more authority than the Bible. Is not the church in this case disqualifying itself or sola scriptura?)

    Genre
    Genre is an important concept. For a long time I’ve wrestled with the idea of literal interpretation. Instead of saying we should interpret the bible literally, I think it’s more appropriate to say we should interpret the various biblical texts in the way that the author intended them to be understood. If the author intended a statement to be taken literally we should take it literally. If the author is using a metaphor we should understand the text metaphorically and if the author is exaggerating to make a point we should understand it that way. This whole topic is referred to by theologians as “genre,” the type of text we have.This is another reason that we need background information because there are some forms of genre which were use back then but our culture does not use. I think you reference to Paul’s “chiefest sinner” remark would fall under this category.

    Normal
    Interpreting things “normally” is fine as long as everyone agrees to what “normal” is. Unfortunately this is not always the case. A baptist considers “normal” to something different than a methodist, and a German see things differently than an American, and a Korean, and a Rich Person and a Poor person etc. This is a puzzling aspect of interpretation that is a hot topic nowadays and I’m hoping to have a say. What is normal?, Is there a normal?, How do we know, we’ve interpreted normally? Aside from the rational linguistic side, I’m learning more and more that the Spirit must play a bigger role.

    ———–

    If you really want to rack your brain about this stuff, there a some good books.

    The one Jeff mentioned is the Hermentuical Spiral. Very good but maybe a bit to much for starters.

    Another one is How to read the Bible for all its worth. This is a bit lighter reading and does a good job of explaining the different issues at hand, like genre.

    Another one which addresses the “Normal” issue but not so much how to interpret is The Blue Parakeet from Scot McKnight. McKnight has a background very similar to ours but he has revised a lot of the ways he interprets things. I’m not sure I agree with everything McKnight says but it’s a very good read.

    Gruß

    Andy


  • Andrew Potter says:

    You wrote:

    “…Somewhere in there fits love of other believers, mutual respect (maybe an example is when a husband and wife both seek the Lord, yet don’t agree, but still must respect each other), and just plain having faith when we don’t understand it all. I mean trusting God and his character when we don’t get what’s going on and what it all means. …”

    This is whre Adam is going with his concept of Differential hermeneutics. H)


  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Andy! Interesting. I actually started reading Spiral in a hermeneutics class last spring. You’re like 18 levels deeper into it all than I am, for sure. I do sometimes think of “all means all” and cringe a little at it – and while as I recall in the context it was used it wasn’t too far off (Mt 28), that phrase isn’t at all the whole truth of the matter. And I’d hope no one uses that method of interpretation to “prove” anything.
    As for a general rule of understanding and living truth, I’ve never found much better than Ps 111:10 (ESV) “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” – Jeff Moore


  • Andrew Potter says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for your comments. The spiral is a very good book. The first half deals primarily with practical methods of doing exegesis of biblical texts. It covers, context, genre and number of other issues. The second half deals more with questions of knowing and interpretation at a more theological and philosophical level. Of course, you probably know this already. I just wanted to give an example of some theological jargon, that I’ve learned in the past few years. The first half of Osborn’s book would usually be placed in the category “biblical hermeneutics,” and the second half “theological hermeneutics.”

    I’m more interested in theological hermeneutics since it provides the theoretical basis for biblical hermeneutics. It involves a lot of thinking about epistemology: e.g. how do we know?, how do we know that our knowledge is correct?, how does language work? and how has God revealed himself to us?

    One direction I’m considering for my dissertation fits with your mentioning of Psalm 110:10. I think many of the problems that are raised surrounding biblical interpretation are a result of a focus on rational linguistic interpretations of the text which undervalues other avenues of “knowledge” like the “fear of the LORD.” Another verse is John 17:7 “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.” Both of these passages point to something beyond mere rational linguistic acquisition.

    But this is all a very complex issue. A. K. M. Adam makes the point that interpreters who in all respects seem to be pious and fit the criteria of Psalm 110:10 and John 7:17 still come up with different interpretations.

    Another difficulty is that before Psalm 110:10 and John 7:17 can be put into practice they must be interpreted. See my other post for more on this, if you havn’t already: http://andypotter.org/node/158

    Regarding the ‘all means all’ topic. Yes, I would agree that in Matt 28 it is being used in an absolute sense. I remember my questions popping up more in an interpretation of Collossians 1:6 trying to show that the whole world was reached in the first century. The point I’m trying to make is that as incoherent as this may sound “all” does not always mean “all.” This is to say, sometimes “all” is indeed used in an absolute sense and other times in a qualified sense. It’s up to the interpreter to decide based on the context and other factors. In my example of 1 Cor 15:22 I think a correct interpretation would be that the first “all” (in Adam all die) is absolute whereas the second “all” (in Christ all will be made alive) is qualified. Of course, if one posits a theology where everyone eventually gets saved then the second “all” is also absolute.

    just a few thoughts.


  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for expanding on your thoughts. I can’t claim to know much about most of this stuff. I have trouble remembering who won the world series last year. And how do I know that, anyway? I remember having thoughts like that about Col 1, also. Haven’t heard anyone say that in a long time, though. Good.
    Good distinction of rational interpretation undervaluing other avenues of knowledge. If you can explain all that clearly, you’d be doing well.
    Yes, many godly people do have differing interpretations. And that can be an interesting quandry. Somewhere in there fits love of other believers, mutual respect (maybe an example is when a husband and wife both seek the Lord, yet don’t agree, but still must respect each other), and just plain having faith when we don’t understand it all. I mean trusting God and his character when we don’t get what’s going on and what it all means. Which is most of the time. (sort of Ps 119:105 – light for the next step, not the whole journey). A very complex issue, as you say. One I’ve not thought real deeply about.
    I’ve always encouraged people to obey what is clear to them and let the Lord reveal the unclear in his own time. Rather than getting stuck on something unclear and neglecting to obey what we know. Like, it’s clear we should love others, so if we aren’t doing that as wholeheartedly as we know how, why would we expect the Lord to show us something else to do? (of course that does not even approach the questions of how do we know something clearly, what is love, etc.)
    Lately i’ve been trying to impress on people (on sunday mornings) that words don’t have a static meaning and you have to think about how they are used, as in ” the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews” in Jn 20. “Jews” obviously not meaning here all Jewish people. Seems like I’ve run into a confused person or two lately who needs to hear stuff like that.
    I’ll take a look at the post you referenced later on when I have some time. I know I am hungry now, but how do I know for sure? Guess I’ll see if I feel less hungry after some scrambled eggs.


  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry I’m so late to the party, Andy. I’m always so wrapped around a tree in my efforts trying to live what I do understand, that it’s hard for me to get to those deeper questions of interpretation. Not that you shouldn’t yourself. It’s a great nad profitable exercise, but one I imagine one can never get to the bedrock of, though this doesn’t mean you should stop seeking it.

    It seems like in the last 3 to 5 years, I hear more and more messages that go beyond the text into “Jewish way of thinking” or background on how a vinedresser works, etc. and I wonder. How do we know that? How do I know that is indeed the interpretation? (I probably have some of those questions from my exposure to your thought process and your journey.) Most of us end up taking someone’s word for it. Granted, it’s good godly men’s word, but still it’s interpretation and background that are not presented to us in the text, and that most don’t have the time or interest to do their due diligence on.

    Noel likes to talk about interpreting things “normally”, and that is helpful to some passages, especially where Paul is using sarcasm. A recent example passage where “normal” interpretation might apply could be Paul calling himself the chiefest of sinners. I’ve recently begun to wonder if a statement of absolute truth, or merely Paul taking as most any believer who knows his true state before God feels.

    That’s enough for now. Once I get done with loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, neighbor as myself, and my wife like Christ loved the church, I’ll get back to you on this. ;)

    Hans C.


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