An intro to Biblical interpretation.

Hermeneutics, a strange word with a lot of rules. This is the science of interpreting a text and like any science there are rules. It is, however, also an art, and like any art the more one does it the better they get at it.

As a reader of a text there are both presuppositions and responsibilities to read the text for all it is worth. As there is a subject:object distinction between the scientist and the object of study in question, or between a historian and their artifacts, so too there is a certain relationship when a reader approaches a text, whether it be poetry, literature or otherwise.

When one approaches an object in order to study it, there are presuppositions one brings to the table even if they are unaware of them.

1. The validity/usefulness of language to convey truth and ideas adequately.

2. That the truth about reality is knowable.

3. That contradictories cannot be true.

If 1 were not true, any objection to this point would be self defeating since it would require language to do so. If 2 did not hold, the same problems as with 1 would arise, except one would have to point to a case in reality that was not, in reality, knowable. Finally, if 3 were not the case, reading this paper, or any attempt to carry out cogent conversation would be impossible.

There are also responsibilities which come into play here. How does the reader reconstruct what an author meant without becoming a part of the text itself? Even the historian’s craft, to reconstruct an ancient or recent history, involves becoming part of the history in question. How does one differentiate between the history in question and the historian? Can we be positivists when it comes to any object of study? Indeed, Hume’s thesis that only self evident truths can be admitted into the query is as self defeating in science as it is in historical inquisition. It is here I think what science offers, as a method of testing, is peer evaluation/multiple attestation, and it is apropos to note that the Bible offers this as a criterion of testability, as well, when it says a testimony must be weighed on the account of two or more witnesses. Taking into consideration both the material evidence, as well as the intellectual witnesses may be as close as we, the inquirer, can get to knowing the thing itself and factoring out the element of the interpreter.

What responsibilities are there? I will borrow from Hank Hanegraaff’s LEGACY acronym.

In this acronym one finds the words, Location, Essence, Genre, Author, Context and Years. All of which are the responsibilities of a reader, wishing to responsibly exegete a text, must take into consideration, lest we do violence to the text.

Location – if this is not taken into consideration, the reader will be unaware of how the writer is using certain words and phrases. Given the equivocal nature of words, the same word may be used differently in a different region.

Essence – in the essence of a text, there is something intrinsic about the nature of a text which determines its character. The author’s personality, language used (many author’s were multi-lingual) and their phraseology is part of the inspiration of a text, and inspiration is a bipartite event. One, the author through whom God has chosen to relay a message through, and the modes of expression chosen by the author, all of which result in a signification. There are personalities which God has utilized, rather than simply carving propositional revelation in a rock for us to simply find.

Genre – there are components of a text which differentiate between a poetic passage, a lamentation and historical prose. The nature of the text in question determines how the reader should approach it. One should not read a worship or prayer passage as wisdom literature, and so on.

Author – as mentioned in Essence, who the author is is part of the inspiration process. One must take into consideration extenuating factors as well as why they were writing a particular passage.

Context – any text taken out of context become a pretext. One may certainly read a text and do quote mining, thus divorcing the text from its immediate context, and make it their own, but this will remove it far from the original author’s intent. With regards to the Bible, one must bear in mind we are the contemporary audience, not the immediate audience. If we read the Bible in our cultural vacuum then we press it into a labyrinth in which it will not cohere with other passages. The biblical authors were, at times, aware of what other authors had written, especially Paul, but the authors were not aware of future generations who would read their text and wrote irrespective of future audiences and we must read it, thus.

Years – the year in which a passage was written also affects the way one should understand certain words and phrases. One, reading an old newspaper, would be very confused if they read a newspaper from the 60’s without an awareness of the issues of that time and read it in context of their time.

If meaning is derived from context, and context determined by the years, and essence of a passage, one might see there are not so many plain things in any document, especially an ancient one like the Bible. Responsible readership and a systematic theology must be developed in order to rightly divide God’s word.

In a world where postmodernity is all the rage and where one may assign their own meaning to a text and impose that, it is no wonder the Bible has become such a difficult document to read and understand and why many militant atheists have managed to obfuscate certain passages. While no interpretation is free of an interpreter, there is still an absolute meaning behind any given text, so long as there is an absolute meaner.

Suggested further reading:

Biblical Hermeneutics, Five Views.

Biblical Interpretation, Blomberg Craig.

Biblical Interpretation, an integrated approach. Tate, Randolf.

23 thoughts on “An intro to Biblical interpretation.

  1. A good intro to hermeneutics. I’ve never heard of the LEGACY acronym but I like it.

    I think many of my fellow atheists critique the Bible without understanding context first. Or, worse, take at face value what an English translation says without considering the underlying texts.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Chris,

      In light of everything that is going on in surrounding passages, what do you think is going on here? I would suggest to ignore the numbers in the verses, since they are not part of the text, and to look for commonalities in surrounding passages.

      1. Colin, what I was hoping for was a practical example of your hermeneutics in order that readers can understand how to use it. The number is just the usual way of identifying a particular passage; I chose it because it is one of the passages in the Bible that presents me with a barrier to belief.

      2. Ok. I will try to help you out here, as much as I can. So you find it problematic that the punishment for attacking one’s parents was death, am I correct?

        I would say that the type of striking, or assault, this passage is talking about is a harsh one which causes bodily harm against one’s parent, given other passages which discuss severe crimes with intent to cause harm. The command to honour one’s parents is being underscored here, in bold, and when one not only rebels against their parents but attacks with with intent to kill then they are openly defying this commandment.

  2. But the problem I have is that this is written as God speaking directly and in the context of giving very precise and detailed laws. I don’t know what word is used in the original but it is mostly translated as ‘strike’ or ‘curse’ or ‘harm’, it doesn’t seem to extend to any intent to kill and is presented separately from any law against murder or intent to murder. Now, like most people, I’m both a parent and a product of parents and I’m quite sure that the parent/child relationship can never be perfectly free of harm so it would seem irrational to have a law that could potentially wipe out the entire human race. The only people I’m aware of who follow this sort of law are some Muslim and Hindu communities with their ‘honour killings’ when children are murdered for disrespecting their parents.

    1. Regarding the intent to kill, we find the precedent for this in the preceding verse, 14, where killing the person deliberately is the issue. Consider this passage in light of where Elisha called out bears to kill the “children” who were mocking him. 1. These were not small children, but the word used is to denote children of fighting age. And 2. They just weren’t mocking him, but it was a gang of late adolescents taunting him. If we understand this to be taken as a child of fighting age, who is physically developed, striking someone older and weaker with intent to harm, then the text in question is not merely a small child playfully or frustatingly striking a parent.

  3. If I may, I’ll add a footnote while you are considering this problem. I notice that in your reply above you say, “…the punishment for attacking one’s parents was death…” rather than ‘is death’. This suggests that you would regard this law as a relativist one, only applying to that community at that particular time. Could you, perhaps, show how hermeneutics has supported your coming to that conclusion if, indeed, that is your view and do you think that Dilthey’s differentiation of the ‘productive’ nexus of history from the ‘causal’ nexus of nature with which he completes the hermeneutical circle means that this sort of relativism is inevitable?

  4. I have to say, Colin, that your response leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. The phrase ‘children of fighting age’ is rather worrying, I think and in what circumstances would you find it acceptable to kill a gang of adolescents who you perceive to be a threat? But these questions are still tangential to the actual law that God is specifying here. Would the majority of Christians support the death penalty for someone attacking their parent, even with murderous intent, at the moment?

  5. “…irrespective of age or relationship.” Just so that we’re clear about this, if you count yourself among those many Christians, you would have your child executed for an aggressive attack on you. Presumably you would hold that view to be above your country’s law, that is, it doesn’t just apply to desert tribes in the Middle East 2500 years ago. Thinking hermeneutically about this, I can see that the law fits the context of the other laws in that passage and probably fits the context of the harsh tribal culture of the time but I can also see that it doesn’t fit the context of our present culture and I suspect that many other Christians would be very uneasy about the rigid authoritarianism implied by this interpretation of honouring parents.

    One of the things I’m trying to show here is that hermeneutics is inescapably ontological rather than simply being an epistemological technique – if it works, it can only be because of the way we build our social structure.

    1. Regarding your point on desert tribe law as opposed to our own countries law, you raise a good point: there seems to be a tendency to judge these laws from the basis of our ideal standards, when there was less than an ideal situation at the time of these ancient laws being written. Could even God impose ideal standards on such people who had a wildly different mindset than ours? What are your thoughts on progressive revelation?

  6. Asking for my view of progressive revelation is much like asking whether I think centaurs are better than unicorns so, in order not to lead the conversation too far away from the original purpose of looking at what hermeneutics is and how it works, I think I’ll have to pass on that one if you don’t mind. However, the question of whether even God could impose ideal standards is central to this conversation; there seem to be three main ways of interpreting Exodus: one is that the tribe has formulated laws that are beneficial to their survival and invented the story of a god giving them the laws in order to make them more binding, two is that God has chosen a set of laws that are beneficial for that particular tribe’s survival but doesn’t intend them to apply to anyone else and, three, that these are God’s ideal standards and they apply to everyone, everywhere for all time.

    My view would be that, as I said at the beginning, ‘three’ seems irrational; despite your attempts at introducing qualifying clauses, I still believe that it would result in more harm than good. ‘Two’ would seem to suggest that this particular god is not the Supreme Being portrayed in other parts of the Bible. ‘One’, however, seems a strong possibility to me.

    1. Asking an unbeliever about progressive revelation is not at all wrongheaded, as it could be discussed theoretically.

      However, whether theory 1 or 2 be correct, is not really the issue, how we treat the text is the issue, regardless of the author. If the text is divine or human in origin still requires that we read this with said principles in mind.

  7. Your right to say there’s nothing wrong with asking the question but I’m an incurably practical person and I find that purely theoretical discussions tend to go round in circles and never get anywhere so I didn’t want to derail the conversation.

    However, theory is an important part of structuring a practical discussion so that it’s possible to see how the different ideas relate to each other and, as you point out in your article, the theoretical underpinnings of hermeneutics suggest that who or what the author is plays a part in judging what the text means. Thus, according to hermeneutics, how we treat the text very much depends on whether we feel theories 1, 2 or 3 are strong or weak possibilities given the evidence available.

    Hermeneutics is essentially a practical process in that it endeavours to come to a useful conclusion about the text and I would say that one of the conclusions we would be hoping to reach with regard to this particular text is whether it is inspired divinely or humanly.

  8. Thanks, Colin.

    In the light of this agreement, would you like to say what conclusions you would come to from your hermeneutics investigation of that passage?

    1. Probably the same as before, Chris. Given our different positions, regarding theism and non-theism, you and I approach the text with different presuppositions. If one approaches that text with the assumption God does not exist, or that the God of the Bible is fictional, one will treat that text accordingly.

  9. Well, I’m not actually approaching this with the assumption that God does not exist, just that that particular representation seems dubious. However, it’s still not entirely clear what your ‘same as before’ indicates; is it that God has given a universal law that children who attack their parents are to be executed regardless of local culture or laws or is that just a law that applied to that particular tribe at that particular time?

    1. There is no universal law here; in the OT there are civil and ceremonial laws which are abrogated by more complete laws. In these passages God was setting up a theocracy, but we no longer live in a theocracy and God is now operating through His universal church and no longer through a particular nation. These were contingent laws set up to get people through their less than ideal circumstances and into the ideal, much like the commands regarding slavery. No slavery is the ideal, but in the absence of the ideal where abolishing slavery altogether would have resulted in an economic collapse, rules had to be set up around to work towards the ideal, of no slavery.

      In this case, I keep moral realism in mind: moral realism can be defined as there is an absolute moral standard and although the circumstances do not allow for the standard go be achieved fully we can make decisions in lieu of, but act toward said ideal.

    1. Chris,

      The article echoes my own thoughts on similar matters. I, myself, am against forcing students to pray in school and such. I would find a theocracy problematic because so many would be claiming to speak for God, we would be up against Sharia theocracy and so forth. The church was never meant to be the state, rather it could function as the conscience of the state as a subculture.

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