Friday, April 27, 2012

The Divergence and Convergence of Biblical Hermeneutics with Biblical Exegesis – Part 1

Hermeneutics Defined
Hermeneutics might seem like a very intimidating word. After all, it is not part of our common jargon. However, few subjects are as significant as hermeneutics when it comes to the Christian worldview. In Introduction to Hermeneutics, Mosés Silva defines hermeneutics as “the discipline that deals with principles of interpretation.” In Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr. state “Hermeneutics provides a strategy that enables us to understand what an author or speaker intended to communicate.” Some take exception to the idea of authorial intention, preferring to see it simply as what the author actually did communicate. Thistelton writes, “Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.” [Hermeneutics: An Introduction] Ramm says, “Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation." [Protestant Biblical Interpretation] Robert Thomas defines hermeneutics as "a philosophical and linguistic mind-set; a set of principles; an interpretive use of these principles; an application of the resulting interpretation to contemporary situations.” [Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New versus the Old] It is clear that hermeneutics is concerned with how one approaches a work of communication in order to understand it. This assumes that someone has communicated something and that there is an interest in understanding it.
A responsible hermeneutic seeks to get at the meaning of the divine-human communication that is Scripture. It is rude and irresponsible, not to mention unethical to misrepresent the communication of others. Most of us know what that is like and can evidence that such an experience can be opprobrious and unpleasant. Above all, it seems to me that the last thing anyone should ever desire to do is place words in God’s mouth by putting them in the mouths of His holy authors. God has something to say to His people and He has said it in Scripture. We have a divine imperative to engage in whatever work is necessary in order to obtain a right understanding of God’s communication and to appropriate that communication in order to ensure that we conduct our life in a manner worthy of the calling by which we have been called into His glorious light. There is one right way to read the bible, to approach the text, and there are countless erroneous ways to read it. The problem is if there is one book that we must understand rightly, it is this book. Misunderstanding this book can have eternal consequences. Just as we have something to convey when we speak, so too does God. Moreover, it is in our eternal best interest to uncover His meaning. However, hermeneutics is inherently dangerous. The road to understanding is wrought with perils. The human condition is such that within human nature remains a seed of hostility toward God. The sin in us seeks to pervert God’s meaning in the text. This is no less true for the scholar and pastor than it is for any other believer. Satan once appeared to man as a serpent, perverting the word of God. Ever since, he mostly appears as clergy, perverting the text of Scripture through the most likeable men we know. In the end, it comes down to our choice between the ultimate authority of God and His word on the one hand, or unaided, autonomous human reason on the other. Our approach to Scripture will reduce, in one way or another, to this choice.
Presuppositional Hermeneutics
There are two extremes in hermeneutical method we should avoid. The first is an uncritical approach to the text that disregards almost any need for education and neglects to ask, not only the right questions, but the right kind of questions. At the other end of the spectrum, we must also avoid any approach to the task that leads to skepticism. The former misses much of the meaning in Scripture by engaging in a heavily anachronistic understanding of the text while the latter denies the possibility of uncovering any authorial meaning whatever by relocating meaning to the reader. One tends to lean heavily on a mystical approach supposing the ability to do an end-around scholarship with a naïve claim on the unction of the Spirit while the latter leans heavily on unaided human reason propped up by rationalism. We seek to find balance in our hermeneutic so that we can engage in an exegetical method that is respectful of and faithful to the text it seeks to understand. We avoid the naïve idea of the “purely objective” as well as the radical notion of liberal rationalism. To this end, we admit that it is not only the case that our hermeneutic informs our theology, but that the converse is just as true. Our theology also informs our hermeneutic. Hence, we see the idea of presuppositional hermeneutics. When I use this phrase, I intend to express the same idea found in theological hermeneutics.

In the preface of his book, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, Jens Zimmermann wrote, “Hermeneutics is all about self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is impossible without knowledge of God.” In other words, without a theological foundation, hermeneutics is impossible. Building a hermeneutic without a theological system is like trying to build a house without a foundation, sort of. It is always a bad idea to press an analogy too far. But you get the picture. The theological task depends on hermeneutical method and hermeneutics depends just as much on theology to get going. Zimmermann adds, “Both theology and philosophy have forgotten that the main goal of interpretation before the Enlightenment was communion with God.” This should remain the chief goal of hermeneutics today. After all, Jesus said “my word will never pass away.” Unfortunately, scholars started treating the Bible like a book full of treasures to be mined, a human product, with a human, temporal purpose: to transfer information, facts, and knowledge. Scholarship lost sight of the fact that the book before them was the “truth that will make you free.” It is this presupposition that we must be recovered if we are to formulate an ethical and biblically faithful method for interpreting the sacred Scripture.
One fundamental presupposition of a biblically faithful hermeneutic is that meaning begins with God, is transferred to the text, and remains to be discovered by the reader. This conviction is in contradistinction to postmodern concepts that seek to relocate meaning to the reader or to encapsulate it in a hopelessly impenetrable vault of skepticism. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Strictly speaking, a sequence of words means nothing in particular until somebody means something by them. It is the author who determines verbal meaning.” [Is There a Meaning in the Text]
Another fundamental presupposition of a biblically faithful hermeneutic is that we are capable, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, to discover the meaning of the text. How irrational to think that God left us with a revelation while at the same time leaving us helpless to understand it. Paul says that Timothy knew the sacred Scripture from a child and admitted that these writings were capable of imparting wisdom. (II Tim. 3:15) Obviously, Paul would have been ridiculed by modern scholarship for such a display of optimism, not to mention blatant arrogance. Jesus Himself believed that we could understand the Scripture. He said to His disciples, “And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Contrary to Derrida’s deconstructionism, hermeneutical realism seems to be the position of the biblical authors as well as our Lord. This is not to say that a naïve realism should be the norm, but that one must admit that human construction of reality, while an obstacle to understanding, is not an insurmountable obstacle. It simply means that understanding Scripture is not always going to be easy and at times is going to involve significant effort.
Finally, presuppositional hermeneutics acknowledges the nature of Scripture. Scripture is the product of dual authorship. It is both a divine and a human project. As a human project, written in a specific culture, in a different language, it affords distinct challenges to all humans living in other times and places. Hence, education in the biblical languages, in literary criticism, in history, and a variety of other areas are necessary to enrich one’s understanding of the text. On the other hand, it is an overstatement of significant importance to imply that only scholars can really understand the Bible’s meaning. After all, Scripture was not restricted to the academy. Scripture was assigned by God to the Christian community, and hence, to every believer within that group. God does not sanctify groups without first sanctifying persons. In addition, the Christian group humbly accepts the Scripture as its sole authority for faith and practice, recognizing that Scripture is trustworthy from top to bottom. From this, the reformed view of sola scriptura naturally emerges. The Bible is the inerrant, fully reliable, authoritative word of God that it claims to be. From this starting point, we now have a foundation in place to begin the undertaking of a biblically faithful exegesis. This will be the subject of my next blog. It is my aim that once you have worked through the posts, a clear distinction will emerge between biblical hermeneutics and biblical exegesis.
Phil John's "No Compromise"

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