There are somethings that should be just obvious when it comes to studying the Bible. One of them is context. In Dr Keener’s manual on hermeneutics he mentions that interpreting things in context is quite new to a lot of people. Sadly, that is true. The fact that we still need to point it out is to me quite embarrassing. There is nothing that makes sense on its own. Words make sense in relation to other words. Lines make sense in the paragraph or section it appears. They in turn make sense in the larger body of speech. Things are said based on particular situations. Without knowing the circumstance within which something is said, you will miss its meaning. These are things that we apply every day in making sense of things people say. We expect people to apply them to us in understanding what we say. For the most part hermeneutical principles are things we normally use and are not that difficult to grasp. Knowing who said something, why they said it and whom they were saying it to, are also known as authorship, authorial intent and audience respectively. These are key exegetical principles and things we intuitively recognise as important for any communication.
Two or three weeks ago I heard someone actually say that if you follow hermeneutical principles you will miss certain things the Bible is saying. These so called “deeper” things can only be accessed by “revelation”, which is another contentious term that needs to be rescued from wanton subjectivism. If hermeneutics is really about the glaringly obvious, simple, everyday realities of meaningful communication, why should we forgo it when we want to understand the Bible? Or does somehow the English or whatever language you read in the Bible, magically acquire new, exotic meaning because it appears in the Bible? I’m fairly certain that a full stop in the Bible does the same thing as full stop in a speech bubble in a comic book. If the meaning of words, grammar, punctuation, syntax and language in general all remain the same, then there is no reason not to apply those same principles to stuff written in the Bible.
Part of the problem is how we conceive the Holy Spirit. We think of him as spontaneous gust of wind. Phrases like “where ever the Spirit leads”, which is used humorously among non-Christians I might add, denotes this randomness. I have explored in other posts the nature of the Spirit. The reason why God’s constant active presence in the world is metaphorically described as such, is because of the raw elemental nature of wind, a pervasive life-giving force that is not under human control. The fundamental idea behind it is not craziness or weirdness but the sovereign authority of the creator.
I do understand that people do not want to tame God or his word subjecting it to finite human reasoning. Unless we all suddenly become eternal, omniscient, omnipotent gods, then there will always be a gap between creature and creator. His wisdom will always far excel ours so he will always use means that we can comprehend as windows into the incomprehensible. When you are explaining something to a small child, you use language he or she will understand. God does the same thing with us, he makes accommodation for our limitations. The incarnation is the ultimate example. It is the divine logos being “contextualised” in flesh. God explained himself to us in our language by “speaking human.” Theologically speaking it’s consistent with God’s character to use human means to his glory. Why should we look down on what the Spirit is willing to use?
When we look at hermeneutics we must acknowledge what it is: a set of principles. It is quite curious that when Christians hear rules they think of stifling, unnecessary restrictions. The Bible is full of rules, God’s law actually, which gives us true life and freedom. Rules set up boundaries, spaces within which things can be accomplished. We use hermeneutical principles to set up meaningful limits so when we speak we can all understand. Without these interpretive presuppositions things could mean anything and once they mean anything, they really mean nothing since they are of no value in conveying the message a person wishes to get across. Imagine a pianist attempting to play sheet music, decides to disregard the conventions of musical notation. What will come out will certainly be noise. If he correctly interprets it however, we will hear true music and melody. That is what hermeneutical principles do for all communication.
Another great thing with boundaries is that they protect us from going of the deep end. There are bad and even dangerous interpretations of scripture. History is littered with examples of tyrants and corrupt people using scripture to justify evil and horrific things. One thing that particularly got me interested in hermeneutics was the desire to avoid misinterpretation. If the Bible is God’s word I certainly do not want to misunderstand him or worse, misrepresent him. I do not want to be found out as a liar before my maker. At the very least, interpretative principles act as safeguards against the misunderstanding, misconstrual and general abuse of what is said. Hermeneutics is important to the person who wishes to responsibly study and use scripture. At this point it is no longer a question of preference but of duty to correctly handle scripture. We should not have the freedom to interpret scripture anyway we see fit.
There is the fear that abiding by hermeneutical principles will unduly limit the meaning of scripture. The Bible means this case closed, there’s no need to return to it so let’s all go home. As we have already seen the alternative to these rules, unlimited meaning, like absolute freedom is a meaningless and perilous contradiction. When it comes down to it our personal views, no matter how wonderful we think they are, they have to be sacrificed at the altar of truth. God’s word is truth. We employ interpretative methods to ensure reliable results as it is done in other disciplines with the scientific method or the historical method for example. Methodology, however, does not ultimately decide what the actual results will be. To think hermeneutics shackles scripture is as absurd as believing the application of principles of musical composition and arrangement destroys creativity. Hermeneutics establishes the rules of the game so we can get down to the real business of play. With a complex, sophisticated text like the Bible, meaning is always going to be layered and multidimensional which leaves much to do. If it were true hermeneutics exhausts the meaning of scripture, seminaries and colleges have not got the memo. Hermeneutics is not only a science, it is an art.
The person whom I referenced earlier for his disdain of hermeneutics is very charismatic, a leader among his circle. When people like him, leaders who are passionate for God’s word, treat scripture irresponsibly it really bothers me because of the influence they have on others. If you are a Christian leader in whatever capacity, formal or informal, you have a solemn responsibility to set a good example by handling scripture with care and respect. Heeding simple principles of interpretation consistently is not a burden my brothers and sisters. In following them is great joy. For the most part they are just common sense principles everyone can understand. They are there so that the Bible can speak for itself so we can hear God clearly for ourselves.