Hermeneutics is the science and practice of interpretation. It can refer more generally to the philosophy of human understanding, or more specifically to the tools and methods used for interpreting communicative acts.
Human communication takes place in a variety of ways: through the use of nonverbal signs, through speech, and through writing. Effective communication requires some degree of shared belief, knowledge, and background between the participants. If the communicators have a significant amount of common ground, they will be able to successfully understand one another with little extra effort. Conversely, individuals with vastly different backgrounds will need to take extra steps to communicate effectively, such as defining special terms, avoiding jargon and colloquialisms, appreciating details about the other’s cultural assumptions, or learning a foreign language.
The Bible is not exempt from this process of communication. The Scriptures are meant to be read, understood, and put into practice (Luke 8:4–15; James 1:18), a task that requires effort and study on the part of its readers (Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 2:15). Everyone who reads the Bible is involved in this interpretative process, though readers will vary in their hermeneutical self-consciousness and skill. Thus, although readers are able to understand and appropriate much of the Bible without any special training in hermeneutical principles, such training is appropriate and helpful, both in attaining self-consciousness in interpretation and in acquiring new skills and insights in the effort to become a better reader.
The Development of Hermeneutics
The church has benefited from a long history of thinking about the nature and purpose of interpreting its Scriptures, and that reflection has resulted in a wide variety of hermeneutical theories and practices. How does one determine the meaning of a text? Is meaning the truth embedded within the passage? Or is it the original author’s intention in writing? Or does the text act independently of its author and history, either because it stands on its own terms or because it only “means” anything in interaction with readers? The answers to these questions will determine how readers approach a text, the questions they expect that text to answer, and the tools they use in interpretation.
From the early church to the Enlightenment. The early church emphasized the ability of the biblical text to convey heavenly truth, whether that truth was conceived as doctrinal teaching or absolute ethical rules. While the “literal meaning” of many texts could often supply simple truths and maxims, such a reading was at other times inadequate and could appear incompatible with what were considered basic and fundamental beliefs. Various allegorical techniques were therefore employed to explain such problematic texts. Interpreters often viewed the literal and historical features of the text as a starting point in the search for fuller meaning, as symbolic pointers to moral principles, absolute truths, or eternal realities. These practices were systematized throughout the Middle Ages and resulted in an extensive development of tradition. Church tradition, in turn, provided a degree of protection from the potential for arbitrariness in allegorical techniques, insisting that interpretation must be guided by the “rule of faith,” the traditional teaching and faith of the church.
Beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, scholarship moved to distance itself from such tradition. The Protestant Reformers, dissatisfied with the rule of church tradition, sought to displace its authority with the direct rule of Scripture. They therefore returned to the original biblical text, engaging in critical study of the text itself and translating the Bible into the vernacular to make it more widely accessible. In the centuries that followed, Enlightenment scholars went a step further in their rejection of the church as the sole repository of knowledge. Instead, they asserted, knowledge was acquired through scientific inquiry and critical study. Such inquiry could be applied to any field: the forces of nature, human anatomy, or the interpretation of texts. The meaning of a text was not some abstract truth or heavenly principle; rather, meaning was determined by the human author’s original intention in writing and was therefore a historical matter. The intention of an author could be better exposed and understood through a more complete study of both the language in which a text was written and the historical circumstances that surrounded it. Many of these same emphases had been championed by the Protestant Reformers; yet the Enlightenment thinkers differed on one key point: the Reformers never questioned that the text was the word of God.
From the Enlightenment to the present. This favorable attitude toward historical research dwindled over the centuries. In its place authors emphasized the primacy of the text as text, apart from any connection to its origin and history. Literature, it is argued, ultimately operates independently from its author’s intention. All that matters is the text, and it is the reader’s job to understand the text on its own terms, apart from the contingencies surrounding its creation. To that end, interpreters should pay careful attention to the text’s literary features, including its plot structure, characterization, themes, and use of imagery. An interesting example of this hermeneutical dynamic is found in John 19:22, where Pilate asserts, “What I have written, I have written.” Pilate’s words quickly take on significance far beyond their author’s intention, primarily because they are juxtaposed with other themes in John, such as testimony and the kingship of Christ.
More recent approaches have emphasized the role of the reader in the construction of meaning. Interpretation, it is argued, is determined by the interaction between reader and text; readers bring their own presuppositions to the task of interpretation, and such assumptions determine meaning. The author and the historical context of the text will exert some influence, but the primary determinant of meaning is the present reader in his or her present environment. This is not to say that the text “means” whatever a reader wants it to mean; rather, it makes meaning contingent upon the contemporary environment and not subject to anything external to individual readers. On the one hand, readers must“actualize” the text by applying and appropriating it within an environment alien to the original. On the other, readers have the right, and in some cases the responsibility, of undermining the text, particularly if that text assists in the oppression of others.
Elements of an Effective Hermeneutic
An effective hermeneutic requires keeping each of these elements in constant balance with one another. God’s word is truthful and fully trustworthy, yet it is given to his people through individual human authors, authors who wrote in a particular context to a particular audience at a particular time. Understanding the Bible therefore requires knowledge of the purposes of these authors in their specific historical contexts. Nevertheless, our primary access to authorial intention is through the biblical text itself. Finally, understanding always requires personal interaction with, and application of, the text of Scripture to each person’s own life and circumstances. Thus, hermeneutics involves the simultaneous interaction of a variety of perspectives—truth, author, text, and reader—each of which cannot function properly without the others. What follows here is an outline of the most important hermeneutical tools required for such a weighty endeavor.
An appreciation of the nature, structure, and function of language is fundamental to any interpretative endeavor. Obviously, this applies first of all to the specific languages in which the books of the Bible were originally composed. Each language has its own unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, and structures available to a writer in one language often are absent in another. Thus, while it is often necessary and acceptable to rely on translations (Neh. 7:73–8:12), readers should be aware that translation itself involves a degree of unavoidable interpretation.
A more general analysis of language is also useful. Understanding the typical patterns by which authors will string sentences together is necessary for following a writing’s train of thought. This tool, called “discourse analysis,” operates above the sentence level, attempting to understand and explain how sentences function in conjunction with one another in order to produce meaningful paragraphs, and how those paragraphs in turn operate within the overarching purpose of the discourse. These patterns of discourse can vary on the basis of book, author, language, culture, and literary genre, but there are also features of effective discourse common to all communication. Thus, while the principles and rules of communication are often intuitively grasped, understanding language, both generally and specifically, is foundational to the task of interpretation.
Literature and Literary Theory
The biblical writers are concerned not only with the informational content of their writing, but also with the manner in which that content is communicated. The words, patterns of speech, style, and imagery of any text provide significant insight into its purpose and message, apart from that text’s specific propositional content. The diversity of language used in the Gospels provides an example of this. Each of the four Gospel authors has a slightly different concern in his writing. John’s purpose, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31), explains his frequent use of courtroom language, such as “testimony” and “witness” (e.g., John 21:24). Mark, by contrast, sweeps the reader along a fast-paced and intensely personal exposition of Jesus’ life and death through the terseness and immediacy of his narration. Attention to these literary details allows the reader to more fully participate in the world of the text.
Such decisions will often depend upon a thorough analysis of genre. A reader naturally interprets historical narrative differently from poetry and didactic material. Furthermore, the conventions of different genres change over time. The book of Acts, for example, despite its essentially historical character, does not appear concerned with recording an exact dictation of the many speeches it reports, despite modern expectations that historical writing should be as precise as possible. The classification of ancient genres and the description of their respective conventions therefore require a good deal of analysis and sensitivity, but often such insights are provided by a careful and open reading of the text.
As the product of a particular author at a particular time, each book of the Bible is situated within its own unique historical context. Paul, for example, while perhaps conscious of the importance of his letters for posterity, wrote to specific churches or individuals with a singular purpose. This particularity of author, audience, and circumstance can often cause interpretative problems. Thus, while background studies are not always necessary to get the general idea of the author’s message, they can be invaluable in protecting readers from anachronism and enabling them to better appreciate the author’s purpose and perspective.
Historical study is assisted by specialized disciplines. Archaeology, for example, focuses on the beliefs, habits, practices, and history of ancient cultures, harnessing a wealth of evidence to that end. Similarly, anthropology and other social sciences are able to explore facets of modern cultures in order to better assess cross-cultural presuppositions and behaviors, many of which provide insight into ancient civilizations that shared similar attitudes. These methods provide the reader with the information necessary to understand a text in terms consistent with its cultural backdrop, highlighting both the similarities and the differences between the Bible and its environment. Recent discoveries of ancient Hittite treaties, for example, shed light on the “cutting ceremony” recorded in Gen. 15. These treaties detail similar ceremonies in which the vassal of a king would walk between hewed animal carcasses as a symbol of allegiance; if disobedience occurred, the vassal would share the fate of the animals. A similar ceremony occurs in Genesis, but with an interesting twist at the end: God, not Abram, passes through the pieces (15:17).
Humility and the Attitude of the Reader
Careful attention in interpretation requires a great deal of humility. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the attitude of the reader for an effective hermeneutic. Being a good reader requires willingness to share and participate in the world of the author and the text, a willingness that postpones judgment and expects personal change. This, in turn, requires a spirit of self-criticism, a commitment to defer one’s own presuppositions in favor of those of the text. Although readers are never able to fully distance themselves from their cultural situation and assumptions, the study of hermeneutics, among other things, can provide tools and skills for self-criticism and self-awareness, skills that enable the reader to better understand, appreciate, and appropriate the meaning of a text. Even a peripheral understanding of the complexities of interpretation can help readers develop an attitude of humility, imagination, and expectation as they approach the Scriptures.
Such humility is a prerequisite for application. The depth of meaning embedded in any text, and especially within the Bible, provides the humble reader with a rich and powerful tool for personal growth. Having better understood the world of the text on its own terms, readers are able to “project” that world onto themselves and their environment, to appropriate its meaning in a new and possibly foreign context. Thus, Jesus promises that those who hear, understand, and put his word into practice will yield a crop “some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown” (Mark 4:20).
Unique Features of Biblical Interpretation
Certain unique features of the biblical text can create special opportunities and challenges for the Christian interpreter. These challenges are at work in the Bible’s own interpretation of itself. The Bible was written by many different authors over the course of a long period of history; it is therefore not surprising to find later authors reflecting on earlier periods. This innerbiblical interpretation offers the Christian insights into the unique nature of biblical hermeneutics and therefore provides a foundational model in approaching the Bible as the word of God.
The common and preeminent assumption that grounds innerbiblical interpretation is the commitment to ultimate divine authorship. Thus, the writer of Hebrews, though affirming the diversity of human authorship in the Bible (1:1), regularly introduces OT quotations with statements such as “God says” (1:5), “he spoke through David” (4:7), and “the Holy Spirit says” (3:7). Other writers tend to prefer the formula “it is written,” but each of these reflects a common presupposition that the Scriptures are ultimately delivered by God (2 Pet. 1:21).
Divine authorship means, at the very least, that there is a depth of meaning and purpose to the text, a depth often hidden even from the human author (1 Pet. 1:10–12). Psalm 2, for example, probably originally served as a coronation hymn used to celebrate the appointment of a new king in Israel. Yet the NT understands this psalm as a prophecy fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 13:33; Heb. 5:5). The intention of the original speaker can even be at odds with God’s intention, such as when Caiaphas claims, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50; cf. Acts 5:35–39). In this case, the irony of Caiaphas’s statement creates a powerful testimony, contrary to his intent, and is used by John to promote confidence in Jesus.
Furthermore, because the Scriptures are from God, they have a consistent and central focus. The NT unhesitatingly views all of Scripture, in all its diversity, as focused, by virtue of divine inspiration, on the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is seen in, for example, Luke 24:13–35, where the resurrected Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” explains to his disciples “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (cf. John 5:39; 12:41). This central focus on Christ requires the Christian interpreter to understand any individual verse in light of its context within the canon, to operate with the same assumption as the NT apostles, that all the Scriptures are concerned with testifying to Jesus the Christ.
Additionally, Paul views both Testaments as the special possession and once-for-all foundation of God’s church (Eph. 2:19–20; cf. Acts 2:42). The church, from a NT perspective, is the primary audience of the entirety of Scripture (1 Pet. 1:12) and is therefore uniquely entrusted with understanding and proclaiming its message (Matt. 28:18–20). While the Scriptures themselves are the only infallible guide for interpretation, believers should not forsake the teaching and tradition of the church (2 Thess. 2:15).
Finally, full understanding of the Bible requires the work of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the faith of the reader. Belief and understanding go together (John 10:38), and both are the result of the unique work of the Holy Spirit (16:13). The proof that such understanding has taken place is the godly life of the believer (Rom. 2:13; James 1:22–25). The reverse is also true: disobedience works against understanding the riches of God’s Word (James 1:21). Such considerations underline the importance of the hermeneutical task. The tools and principles of hermeneutics are valuable only insofar as they enable the reader to better understand and appropriate the biblical message, to hear the word of God and respond appropriately.