In light of recent events, I wanted to take this opportunity to review and go over basic tenets of biblical interpretation; agreed upon practices in the academy, which translates to the pulpit and public sphere, so that God’s holy and authoritative word to us can be responsibly studied and communicated. This branch of study is called hermeneutics. Of course, even with solid, agreed upon hermeneutical standards, scripture can still be used and abused to advocate ideas that, upon responsible hermeneutical study, end being non-biblical and anti-God. We have seen this throughout history. The Bible was used to advocate for the crusades which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslim people. The Bible was used to advocate the Spanish Inquisition which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of non-Catholic people. The Bible was used to advocate slavery and the subjugation of African American persons in the United States, an issue which split our own Presbyterian denomination until our reconciliation in 1983, which resulted in the death of millions of African American people and continues to have multiple deleterious effects upon African American communities that persist to today. The Bible was used to advocate the rounding up and persecution of Jewish persons by Nazi Germany which resulted in the extermination of millions of Jewish people. As God fearing Christians, who love God and love one another, and who respect the authority of the Bible, it is our duty to be responsible in our in-terpretation thereof. We pursue responsible hermeneutics while bearing in mind Jesus’ warning to us; “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6; see also, Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:2) What follows is an overview and summary of key notes I took from my biblical hermeneutics class while attending Fuller Theological Seminary. The class was taught by Dr. Love Sechrest. Dr. Sechrest is a renowned New Testament scholar who is well respected in her field.
Exegesis (hermeneutics/interpretation) is both an art and science. The artistry comes from unpredictable results. The Bible is a living document. Though the canon is closed, because the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the lives of people who read the Bible, the Bible itself is also alive as people engage with it. “One may study the Scriptures to understand them in their literary forms and in their historical and cultural contexts in order to hear and Word of God more clearly and to obey more faithfully.” (W-5.3002b, Book of Order) The Bible itself is fully divinely inspired, God’s word to us, while being communicated by human artistic means including various literary genres. Therefore, we need to include literary methods in our hermeneutical methods such as word studies, intertextuality and narrative criticism. The background of the interpreter/reader also adds to the artistry of exegesis. The science comes from the critical lenses we apply to scripture as informed by other disciplines and resources of the academy. These ensure more predictable results and include such things as taking close looks at grammar, syntax, and historical conditions. Much of this work has been for us already through the vigorous and thorough work of Bible translation committees thereby providing us with the myriad of interpretations available to us today. Further, there are different emphases which allow for a more comprehensive picture of what the Bible is saying to us today. Some emphasize the writer of the text. In this approach, the reader attempts to see behind the text in discerning if there is a single meaning in the text or multiple, nuanced meanings. Further, what might the author’s intent be? And, what is the historical context of the author as he is writing? Some emphasize the text itself. In this approach, the reader attempts to take the text at face value while keeping in mind that the text is literature and therefore utilizing all appropriate literary tools and devices to understand the literary nature of the text. Finally, some others emphasize their own modern day context. In this approach, the reader pays special attention to how modern readers of Scripture encounter the text. We all carry some bias with us into our reading of scripture based on our own situations, cultures, ideologies, etc. While I would love to say that there is one definitive process thereby making things definitively and proverbially “black and white”, there simply isn’t, hence my earlier, and continued, language of responsible hermeneutics/interpretation.
So what does the actual interpretive process look like when done in a responsible manner? First, we want to attend to the history of the text for study. This includes questions like, who wrote it and to whom, if applicable? What is it about? When was it written? Where was it written? The genre of the text would also be included in this portion of study. Next, we want to attend to the details in the text. What world does the text create? What did the implied author(s) intend to communicate (to the best of our understanding)? What did the first hearers hear? After that, we want to attend to the significance of the text for study today. What do our various communities hear (trying to put ourselves in others people’s shoes)? We attempt to identify modern analogies for the ancient situations presented in the text. And then we ask the question, how can the community “perform” the message of the text? Finally, we want to be sure to consider con-text, working outward from the direct text for study, to surrounding text, the entire book in question, other biblical books in the same genre, to the testament in question and finally to the entirety of Scripture. Individual texts do not exist in a bubble separate from the rest of the Bible hence the reason so-called “proof texting” is so dangerous and lends itself some of the abuses mentioned earlier.
Finally friends, for your further edification, some of Dr. Sechrest’s principles of exegesis. Suspend judgment while you gather observations. It is OK and even highly commended to ask questions! Questions about genre, form and structure. Questions about context; literary, historical, cultural. And, as mentioned above always bear in the mind the theological diversity of the canon even as it is one comprehensive message expressed in a myriad of ways and in a myriad of con-texts.
I sincerely hope this has been helpful even if it was a bit dense and academic at times. Please feel free to reach out if you’d like to talk more about these types of issues especially during these trying times. Grace and peace to you all.
In His Service,