Saturday, December 03, 2022

Introduction to Hermeneutics

: the study of interpretation, in my context, the study of Biblical interpretation, encompassing the theories and methodologies of Biblical interpretation

Interpretation: what we understand a text to mean. 

Hermeneutic: how we establish what we say a text means; a method or principle of interpretation. Your hermeneutic includes how you evaluate if an interpretation is good or bad.

Why do we need to care about hermeneutics? Because textual meaning is not fixed: "Meaning is not something contained within the text, as if it were waiting to be unlocked and released from literary confinement. Meaning, rather, emerges from one’s encounter with the text. It is evoked within the interactive space between reader and text" (Brown 3). 

As Dale B. Martin says, “Texts don’t mean. People mean with texts” (38). In other words, texts are not self-interpreting; they have to be interpreted by people. When a biblical literalist says they are accepting the “plain meaning of the text” they are still picking and choosing what applies to their lives today. No one in the U.S. in 2022 is stoning their child for being disobedient, for example (Deut. 21:18-21)! 

Even the early Christian writers talked about different ways of interpreting Scripture:

  • Literal: looking for the facts
  • Allegorical: the symbolic or typological meaning that you could believe
  • Moral (Tropological): what one should do as a result of reading the text 
  • Eschatological (Anagogical): how the text discloses something about the end times

Another word that comes up when talking about biblical interpretations is "exegesis." The Greek word comes from the verb exÄ“geisthai, which means “to lead out.” So you can say that exegesis is about drawing meaning out from the text. But in practice, it is more complex. As William P. Brown describes it, exegesis is not solely a science or an art, though it requires tools of analysis and the imagination and creativity of the interpreter: 

"[Exegesis] is a craft, a learned discipline cultivated over time through practice and gained from considering the practice of others. Exegesis is a lifelong venture that carries the reader from the details of translation and analysis to the creative work of communication. Decisions—both judicious and speculative, careful and creative—must be made at every step along the way. Even the tedious work of translation requires imaginative effort as much as the creative work of communication requires focus and precision" (Brown 4).

Did you catch that? Interpretation happens at the translation level.
     (Here's a 5-minute video of two of my Bible professors talking a little bit about this.)

So how can we be responsible interpreters of the Bible?

Paul Ricoeur was a French philosopher who wrote a lot about hermeneutics, and the "Three Worlds" approach to biblical interpretation builds off of his work:

1. The world behind the text (Historical)
2. The world within the text (Literary)
3. The world in front of the text (Theological)

The world behind the text refers to the historical context of the text’s origin. What led to the existence of this text? This is where one might employ Text Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Source Criticism, Tradition Criticism, Historical Analysis, Archeology, and studying the broader culture, history, and literature of neighboring peoples in order to get a better picture of the ancient context. For a little more on some of those types of criticism you can read this short article: How Do Biblical Scholars Read the Hebrew Bible? by Sarah Shectman

The world within the text refers to the imaginary world created within the text (the world created by the text) and what we learn as we do close readings of the text. What is the genre of this text? What details does the text tell us about the characters, plot, and setting? Is there a narrator? Is the narrator reliable? What other literary elements do you see? Repetition? Recurring themes? Poetics vs. Rhetoric? 

The world in front of the text includes the contexts where the text is interpreted, its history of interpretation (or the consequences of interpretation), including the world of the reader (Brown 7).

The meanings we construct have consequences. The hermeneutic we use in order to interpret the Biblical text has consequences. If you don't believe me, read The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll. 

“For over thirty years Americans battled each other exegetically on the issue, with the more orthodox and the ones who took most seriously the authority of Scripture being also the ones most likely to conclude that the Bible sanctioned slavery.” (Noll, 115)

The Americans who defended slavery, arguing that the Bible fully supported it, they had the same hermeneutical lenses that the people trying to defend Christian Nationalism have. The slavery apologists had the same hermeneutical lens as those who hold to harmful "non-affirming" theology towards LGTBQ+ people. 

So it is when talking about the world in front of the text that we often find different ideological criticism groups asking questions about who has the power and who is on the margins? Who is the oppressor and who is being oppressed? How have certain interpretations harmed different groups? Is there a better way of interpreting these texts that does not perpetuate harm but brings life and liberation?  

My core hermeneutical value starts with “do no harm” and is guided by a hermeneutic of love and liberation. This means I begin with the non-negotiable affirmation of the full humanity of all people, therefore I will not interpret the text in a way that brings harm by diminishing the humanity and dignity of any person or group of people.

Questions I ask of interpretations and theologies are: is this ethical? responsible? helpful or harmful? Is it liberating or oppressive for those who have traditionally been marginalized? Is it life-giving or life-limiting or even deadly? Therefore I am inspired by womanist Bible scholars and theologians like Dr. Renita Weems, who asks her students to look at the stories of rape and violence in the Bible and asks them “what kind of world would our world be if stories like these were normative, if we duplicated, reproduced, or transmitted them to the next generation without warning and comment?” (56). I am informed by Rev. Dr. Mitzi J Smith who emphasizes our need to “talk back” to the text and reminds us that Biblical interpretation is "a political act" and it can be one of social justice or injustice (3).

Next up: What is Liberation Theology?

Works Cited and Recommended Resources

  • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
  • Brown, William P. A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis. Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
  • Davis, Ellen F., and Richard B. Hayes, eds. 2003. The Art of Reading Scripture. Eerdmans.
  • De La Torre, Miguel A. Reading the Bible From the Margins, 2002
  • Martin, Dale. 2008. Pedagogy of the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Mayfield, Tyler D. A Guide to Bible Basics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2018.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. 1976.
  • Smith, Mitzi J. Insights from African American Interpretation. Reading the Bible in the 21st Century. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
  • Smith, Mitzi J. Womanist Sass and Talk Back (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 3.
  • Weems, Renita, “Re-reading for liberation: African American women and the Bible,” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith (Cascade Books. 2015), 56.
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