Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Approach to Biblical Hermeneutics

This week my friend and I are giving a presentation in class which touches on the issue of biblical interpretation and in preparation I was rereading a former paper of mine on the topic. In it I had to articulate my current approach to hermeneutics. Of course it could (and likely should) evolve, but as it stands today, this exerpt pretty much represents the way I approach the issue . . .

As one approaches the ancient text of Scripture "meaning results from a conversation between the world of the text and the world of the reader, a conversation informed by the world of the author."1 . . . Although one can not arrive at meaning with abject certainty (see my most recent post to understand just how much I mean that), good hermeneutics helps us hear the message. The ultimate goal of Christian hermeneutics is not certainty, but faithfulness (cf. 2 Tim 3:14-4:5).

That is not to say that interpretive accuracy is not important. In fact, if this is indeed God’s Word then the stakes for such a thing are quite high! Thankfully, to such an end, the process of interpretation has several things going for it. For all its diversity, humankind has enough commonality to recognize some truths as universal. At the same time, human diversity serves to make dialogue a substantial stepping stone to fuller understanding.

Beyond these hopeful features, when the Bible is taken on its own terms as the Word of God the advantages are multiplied. Since God provided these Scriptures through human authors, good stewardship necessitates diligent use of human resources, but none will be as important as the Spirit of God and the Scriptures themselves. This understanding is greatly enhanced through dialogue with culture and community, and is furthered more faithfully in dialogue with the church local and global; current and ancient. But because there is always a perlocutionary act of the Spirit going on (illumination) the Word can be interpreted faithfully, even as interpretations are perpetually being refined.

The Spirit ultimately seeks to use the Scriptures as both the anchor and the catalyst for the continuance of the redemption story. Therefore hermeneutics is letting the Spirit who spoke then to continue telling the same story to us and through us now. God is at work redeeming the world, not through mere assent but through lives transformed by and caught up in the redemption story.

Postmodernism . . . . has exposed the illusion of individual objectivity, confronted the power games of language and emphasized the value of humble dialogue. To completely oppose this stream of thought would not be prudent for either interpretation or evangelism. Christians are rightly remembering again that—for all the assurance they may have due to the tradition of the church, the power of the Spirit and the accessability of the Bible—theirs is still a faith and not a provable science.

This is an exciting (and daunting) time to be an interpreter (and applier) of the Word of God and the way is forward, not back. But the way forward will be consistent with and propelled by the ancient Scriptures in the trajectory laid down by the Spirit in the tradition that has gone before.

In this endeavor it is foolhardy for postmodern interpreters to discard all of modernism and premodernism without utilizing the advantages gained. The premodern focus on God as author and sensitivity to the multiple meanings (or applications) of a text over time are especially poignant and have continued to ring true. Their community centered approach to reading is also a lost art that needs to be regained in this age of excess individualism brought on by modernism.

Likewise the modern pursuit of meaning brought a bounty of insights and critical methods to the task of hermeneutics. Every jot and tittle has been scoured with a metal brush, sometimes by people who intended to do harm to the coherence of the biblical canon and sometimes by those hoping to arrive at one fundamental systematic theology. The fact that neither succeeded does not diminish the importance of the interpretive lessons that have been learned. Our interpretive tradition is rich.

When it comes to the task of interpretation, then, there are many critical methods that can be employed and many voices to be considered. A commitment to historical and grammatical studies is a must for getting into the world of the author and the message of the text. Awareness of developments in the world at large bring new questions to the text and allow the interpreter to plumb its depths for fresh perspectives and applications.

Attention must be paid to the specific context, genre, and language of the canonical passage on one hand and the situations, questions and perspectives of the reader’s culture on the other. Difficult issues call for even deeper study. In this way it is advantageous to stay atop scholarly developments and to seek to learn from and utilize new strategies appropriately.

The interpreter who takes up new tools and uses them within the constraints offered by Scripture and tradition gains a richer understanding of God’s Word and continues to advance the hermeneutical dialogue. . . .

The way forward for biblical interpretation is good stewardship of resources and faithful submission to God. Good stewardship requires the wise utilization of critical methods and interpretive sources. Faith in God means a life soaked in the Scriptures and submitted to the Spirit. This submission that is aided by admitting that as communal beings we interpret God’s Word best in honest and careful dialogue with the church and culture past and present; distant and near.

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