Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Importance of Hermeneutics

So many people nowadays get themselves into a false interpretation of the Bible because of the hermeneutics they use. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and uses specific principles to interpret a text.

These general principles have historically been understood by the Church as the historical – grammatical interpretation of the bible. That is, we understand the text by its grammatical construction and take notice first up of its historical setting so that we can get the clear meaning of words used. The historical setting for example tells us what the writer understood by the word he used. Some of course have ridiculed the clear or literal interpretation but have done so because of a poor or an incorrect understanding of what it’s about. Indeed S. Lewis Johnson over at Believers Chapel in Dallas in his eschatology series points out it may be best to avoid using the term “literal” interpretation because it’s like a red flag to a bull. He prefers maybe we should speak just of the plain meaning of the words or text. I however consider that we’d do better to correct the poor thinking associated with those that disdain the word literal when it comes to hermeneutics. They confuse literalism with understanding words in their literal sense[1]. There is an enormous difference between the two.

You don’t have to read far before you come across this confused notion that taking words literally is the same thing as literalism. However for words to mean anything, they have a limited range of application, a dog is not a cat nor a frog and must be distinguished in the hope of getting at the meaning of the author. The old rhyme which includes the line “the cow jumped over the moon” is funny because the word cow signifies that animal, and moon is that astronomical body which orbits around the earth. What we see is that words are taken literally, but the context, firstly the sentence and then the verse or paragraph, indicate if we are reading a poem or rhyme or hearing a metaphor.
What is properly understood as literalism is to take everything literally even when it is clear from the context, either grammatically or historically, that what we have before us is a form of language such as rhyme or a metaphor or simile or figure of speech and so on. This can easily lead into absurdity.

Take for example where we find the Scripture that says “Herod is a fox”. Now no person who takes the literal interpretation of Scripture, that is, taking it in its clear sense would take this to mean that Herod had a snout and a bushy tail. However we do take each word literally, Herod is a name of a person which the immediate context makes clear is a person, and fox is the name of an animal with a snout, and bushy tail. What is meant here is that Herod has the character of a fox in that he is cunning, perhaps sneaky and dangerous as well.

To see how to come to grips with this whole process lets look at an example of a known interpretation problem with one of our own cultural icons. Billy Joel in one of his songs has the lines
“Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife”

Debate a number of years ago arose over just what is a real estate novelist?
Is it a person acting in the role of a real estate agent who really wants to be a novelist? Or is he a person who writes the scripts for selling real estate? The point here is that context will help you see the point being made by the song writer, but more importantly, you can understand meaning even without knowing the specific meaning of the phrase here. The following lines make it clear that his preoccupation with work and the amount of time spent at work, prevented him from finding time to get a wife! Meaning then isn’t obscured, but rather is still available for the reader or hearer.

Remarkably I think this is often the case with Scripture. Apart from the mighty work of God’s Spirit in our lives to bring His Word to bear upon our lives, still much of the Scripture are straight forward and clear, though admittedly, submitting to that Word of God isn’t an option for the unbelieve because of his moral rebellion against the Lord, unless of course the Lord God acts upon his life.

However the point is that in most cases the meaning can be ascertained by giving attention to the historical grammatical context. Indeed we do this at times without even having to see the context as the written text but the situation.

If I were to say that my wife is hot, then the context matters greatly as to my intended meaning. If I was with a group of friends discussing the Song of Songs, they would take it to mean that I am saying my wife is the delight of my eyes and passions. Whereas if I were at the doctors then we’d take it that she had a temperature which was in need of quick medical attention! The context can make all the difference can’t it? I remember hearing Dr Edwin Orr many years ago talking about Science and the Bible and saying that different explanations are evoked by different contexts. So that if you were at his house and asked him “Dr. Orr why is the kettle boiling?”, he might reply “because of the heat due to the flame under the kettle causing the water molecule to agitate and bump against each other with kinetic energy etc etc”, or he might merely reply “because my wife is making me a cup of tea!” Both are valid explanations, and both can be true, but the required explanation depends on the context.

Often times you will read people talking about hermeneutics, who suggest that the main principle of interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. You might like to read jollyblogger over at his blog on ‘Is Reformed Eschatology hard to understand?’ The point to remember however is that the primary principle of interpretation has to be the grammatical – historical method, taking the words in context which then include all of Scripture and using Scripture to interpret Scripture, the clear and plain meaning to inform the unclear. Language and communication require that you take that approach, but some in the Reformed camp seem to ignore the primary step and rather just state the Scripture interprets Scripture principle.

Next time we will look at a Biblical example and just how important hermeneutics is in understanding the text. Until then, peace be with you.

[1] There is a whole area of study concerned with this called semiotics which talks about the sign and the signified and so on, but that need not concern us here.

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