By: Dustin Walters
hûr-mə-nōōʹtiks: the science of the methods of exegesis
Faithful interpretation is inseparable from good hermeneutics. Expressed another way, one cannot interpret a text faithfully without considering the process involved. We do hermeneutics whether we realize it or not. We engage in the hermeneutic process subconsciously, yet to become better interpreters of any text we must intentionally think about our process of interpretation. In this post, I will attempt to describe the relationship between faithful interpretation and good hermeneutics. I want to begin by considering an illustration on the importance of hermeneutics generally before we narrow the focus toward biblical hermeneutics.
The Constitution of the United States of America
The Constitution of the United States of America is one of many powerful and important guiding documents in this country. A whole movement has recently come front and center known as “living constitutionalism.” Living constitutionalists believe that “the meaning of the constitutional text changes over time, as social attitudes change, even without the formal adoption of a formal constitutional amendment.”  This kind of interpretation reflects a problematic understanding of both the nature and function of the U.S. constitution. Living constitutionalism is contrasted with what has been referred to as “originalism.” Whenever the justices of the Supreme Court take the bench to decide on a case, they must judge whether various actions are constitutional or not (Read Matt’s post about the reversal of Roe v. Wade here). One reason I disagree with living constitutionalism is because I am troubled by the hermeneutic approach adopted by its advocates. Our interpretive approach matters, especially when we are discussing the most sacred book of all, the book that reveals God to us, the Bible.
We must ensure that we do not approach the living and active word of God the way living constitutionalists do. We must approach God’s word through much prayer and consideration. We must also do careful exegesis by ensuring our hermeneutic approach faithfully and skillfully reflects the original author’s intention for writing. Words have meaning and how we interpret the meaning of Scripture impacts all of life.
What is hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics is both an art and a science that can be used to interpret any written text, even though my focus in this post is on the Christian Scriptures. Hermeneutics is a science in that it involves a reproducible process. It is an art in that differing personalities express interpretive findings in ways unique to each person or group of people.
Grant Osborne outlines three critical perspectives that are critical to a proper understanding of the interpretive task (Osborne 21-22):
- Hermeneutics is a science.
- Hermeneutics is an art.
- Hermeneutics when utilized to interpret Scripture is a spiritual act depending on the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Osborne’s articulation of these perspectives in The Hermeneutical Spiral helpfully defines hermeneutics similarly for my purposes here. I appreciate Osborne’s nod to the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture. While the Holy Spirit is actively working in the believer, this does not mean that believers today will come to understand the meaning of a text differently than its original hearers did, though.
There is Meaning in a Text: Postmodernism and Hermeneutics
Kevin Vanhoozer wrote an excellent book , Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. IN this work, Vanhoozer intended to sketch two blueprints in that volume, the first which is a “theological general” hermeneutic and the other which is “special hermeneutics for biblical interpretation in particular” (Vanhoozer, 4). It is my contention that written texts have a meaning and that their meaning must be grounded in the literary genre and the authorial intent. While there are various applications for any written text, the meaning is not merely ascribed by the reader as postmodern hermeneutics contends. A text’s application can differ from person to person even though its meaning does not change. Let’s look at three core components of interpretation that are directly impacted by one’s hermeneutic methodology.
The Interpretive Process
Interpretation or hermeneutics involves observation, interpretation, and application. In the observation stage, the Bible reader must read the text in as many translations as possible. Ideally, one consults the original languages, Bible concordances, and dictionaries at this stage of interpretation. This is an especially important step for preachers of the Word. Familiarize yourself with the text itself before consulting what other commentators have said. Read the text and reread it. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.
The second component of the interpretive process is called interpretation. At this stage, one must seek to understand what the text meant to the original audience. We must devote much energy and attention to understanding what the Biblical text meant for those original recipients. At this stage, one could consult exegetical commentaries and other analytical volumes that are grounded in the text itself. Christians must begin the interpretive step through prayer. Prayerless bible study is beneficial for knowledge but transformation and further sanctification must be the goal.
The third component of the interpretive process is application. Unfortunately, many Christians jump immediately to application as soon as they open their Bibles. This practice often results in a well-intentioned hermeneutic that ultimately produces spiritually anemic and immature believers. Various tools for application are out there. There is another paradigm that guides toward faithful interpretation.
A Christian Paradigm for Faithful Hermeneutics
Christians must engage with their bibles with the paradigm of creation, Fall, and restoration in mind. This paradigm was used by many in the Christian past including but not limited to John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper. In short, we must interpret the parts of the biblical story against the background of the metanarrative of Scripture. Furthermore, we must interpret texts in light of the Gospel. We create interpretive problems when we fail to acknowledge the Gospel-centeredness of every passage.
Faithful Bible interpretation is inseparable from good hermeneutics. While none of us will attain perfection in this life, we must work hard at eliminating illogical and inconsistent hermeneutic practices. God has given us all we need for life and godliness. We must submit to His Holy Spirit and ground our interpretation in the broader Christian tradition. We must work hard at being united with a local church and we must read what Christian interpreters have said for centuries. We are not lone ranger interpreters. Let’s all work together to make our hermeneutic approach more faithful to the Bible!
For Further Reading
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Zondervan. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2014.
Hollingsworth, Andrew. God in the Labyrinth: A Semiotic Approach to Christian Theology. Wipf& Stock, Eugene Oregon, 2019.
Klein, William W, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Third edition. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2017.
Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. InterVarsity Press. Westmont, Illinois, 2006.
Plummer, Robert L. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2021.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2009.