What is hermeneutics?
Depends who you ask. But generally, it involves interpreting written communication.
I’m not seeking to get philosophical or to provide a history of hermeneutics. Rather, I simply want to talk briefly about how I – as someone who does not hold to the doctrine of inerrancy (is errantist a word?) - go about interpreting the Bible.
For starters, I’m not that different from you. (If “you” are the imaginary innerantist in my head)
Let’s call this imaginary person Ghad Craham
Of the hermeneutical methods I’m familiar with, the historical-grammatical method with a healthy dose of speech-act theory and a dash of ethnolinguistics thrown in seems to me to mix into a good interpretive gumbo. And like all gumbo, each person’s is a bit different.
Allow me to share with you three points which I use when hermeneuting (if that isn’t a verb it should be).
A) Be Original: Original Context that is
My focus is on understanding the texts as closely as possible to how they would have originally been understood in the culture in which they were recorded. This gets especially difficult in the OT when we deal with stories which have a long history of oral transmission before being written, then have a post-exilic redaction as they make their way into the final form in the text, and then have a complicated transmission history after that.
I’m big on original language and literary study. Anyone who wants to seriously understand the Old Testament had better be prepared to spend some time reading Mesopotamian creation myths, and Babylonian law codes, and Egyptian wisdom literature. If you can read them in the original languages, all the better. You see, I think without this cultural and literary background, you are apt to completely miss the point of a given biblical text. I equate it to watching TV. If the only TV you had ever seen was documentaries or “reality” tv, you might end up pretty confused when watching a sitcom, or a commercial. You can only make sense of these programs by understanding which context they fall into.
People misunderstanding context can have hilarious consequences, like when a Chinese news agency ran the story from the satire site The Onion naming Kim Jon Un the sexiest man alive for 2012. Because of language and cultural barriers, they did not catch the clues that this was satire. Might we make the same mistakes with stories like Job, Jonah, or even Adam? I think it is very possible.
The difference is, when you mistakenly think Kim Jong Un is the epitome of sexiness
Every woman loves a nice smile when the death penalty is the other option
nothing bad happens.
But when people are misled into literally applying proverbial wisdom like “Whoever spares the rod hates their children” Pro 13:24, then really bad things can happen.
2) Unity can be a bad thing
It can be hard work to identify things like genre and original context. Don’t un-do all that work by then trying to fit the viewpoint of an individual story or author into the Bible as a whole. Song of Songs isn’t about Jesus. The author of Ecclesiastes is not asking questions sarcastically. Chronicles is not telling the exact same story as Samuel-Kings. There is a place for a canonical evaluation of a story. In fact, I think we can gain some fascinating insight into how the Judeo-Christian faith tradition interpreted its own stories by the sorts of individual things we see included. But let each work stand on its own first. There are ways in which some biblical books produce a great harmony, but there are also some wicked solos we can lose sight of.
D) I can’t have all the answers: and neither can anyone.
Quid est veritas Mulder?
Hermeneutics is directly related to epistemology. I think that the best we can hope for is a reliable certainty about anything. That includes interpreting the Bible. Many issues require some creative thinking on grammatical, historical, or text critical issues. So we should be generous and understanding of others who disagree with us when it comes to interpretive decisions.
Where is the heresy we have come to expect from you…?
Everything I have affirmed above could be agreed with by someone who was an innerantist. The great divide is in how we view the Bible and apply it.
The idea of application is tied into hermeneutics, but really an ethical or theological decision we make based upon the Bible is a separate issue from figuring out what the text says. When it comes to questions of what the text says (especially in the NT), I often side with more conservative scholars. However, when it comes to the way in which I see the text as being authoritative, I have a decidedly more liberal bent.
So it is not my hermeneutic which is different as someone with a “low view” of scripture. It is my theology and ethics. I want to understand the text like an ancient hearer, and then process it as a modern thinker.
Like Christian Smith, I have become convinced that the great differences in approach to the Bible, even within Christianity, indicates that whatever the Bible is, it is not an inerrant, infallible, self-sufficient, and an exclusively authoritative thing.
But that doesn’t mean it is worthless. Especially in light of Christ! The Christ event becomes the single hermeneutical rallying point for all scripture. Not in a way in which Christ is said to be spoken of in every scripture passage, but in a way which says that I as a Christ follower will read the Bible through the lens of a resurrected savior.
Might I be mistaken? Absolutely.
Is my approach subjective? Definitely.
But those two questions are really just a subset of another question: am I human?
Yes. I am human, fallible, and sometimes just confused. Sometimes the Bible adds to that confusion. Sometimes it makes it better. I’m ok with it doing both. In fact, there is a pretty ancient pedigree of people who struggled to understand God and how He reveals Himself. I don’t mind counting myself in that group.
Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?
The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?
Where may human beings learn the ways of God?
Ludlul Bel Nemeqi :36-38
I have examined all this by wisdom;
I said, “I am determined to comprehend this”
—but it was beyond my grasp.
Whatever has happened is beyond human understanding;
it is far deeper than anyone can fathom.
Ecclesiastes 7:23–24 (NET)