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.