What is Hermeneutics?

Is hermeneutics a way to avoid accepting what the text says? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

There is often a rabid fundamentalism that takes place in America and other Western societies. Because we are so individualistic, we think everything is about us and so when it comes to a text, such as the text of Scripture, well that is about us. Since this is also God’s Word to us supposedly, God would obviously write it in a way that is easy for us to understand. I mean, if we were God, we would do that. Right? Surely we wouldn’t deliver a message that is essential for our eternal salvation and then have it be hard to understand? No. The text must be understood easily and we absolutely then must read it literally. By literally, I do not mean according to the intent of the author, but in a more wooden sense of “The text says what it means and it means what it says.”

The ironic thing is there are Christians and atheists who both agree on this and they are both fundamentalists. The fundamentalist Christian believes everything in the Bible is absolutely true and usually does so on just “faith.” If it says six days, it means six days and keep that science stuff away from me. We’re going to go with what the Word of God says. The atheist meanwhile looks at the text and says “If the text says slavery, it means slavery. I don’t need to hear anything about historical context.” The atheist will tend to disbelieve everything in the Bible. Both approach the text with the same mindset in many ways.

And both of them resist any notion of hermeneutics.

So what is hermeneutics?

In ancient Greece, the gods were way up there and we humans were down here below. Who would be the go-between? Quite often, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. His name is behind the word. Hermes was the one who interpreted the message of the gods for us. The word Hermeneutics comes from that and it means the art of interpretation. Some of you might be tempted to say that that applies only to the Bible. It doesn’t. It applies everywhere. You’re using hermeneutics right now to interpret what I say. You use it to interpret body language or oral communication as well. Let’s go with the example of a newspaper.

When you open the newspaper, you expect most stories you read in there will be at least attempts to write out truthful accounts. Yet even in these accounts, you could expect to read some metaphorical language. For instance, if you go to the Sports team and you read about a game that was played where one team massacred another, you don’t expect that you’ll find that on a page talking about crime. You know it’s metaphorical language. If you turn over to the comics, you’ll suddenly find you’re reading the language differently. If you go to the advice column, you find still something different. If you go to the letters to the editor, you will find different language and perhaps even opinions that disagree with the perspective of the newspaper as a whole.

All of this is hermeneutics.

Keep in mind in all of this, I am assuming the text has a meaning. The words on the page really mean something and some interpretations are right and some are wrong. It’s important to realize also that just because you think a text means something, that does not mean that what it says is true. You could be a Muslim for instance, and interpret the NT to teach that Jesus died by crucifixion. You’d agree that the text is teaching this, but you would just say the text is wrong. You could be a pluralist and say that the text teaches that Jesus is the only way to salvation. You’d disagree with this, but you’d say the text teaches this. You could be an atheist and say the text teaches Jesus did actual miracles. You’d disagree, but this would be what the text is saying.

When saying that the Bible needs to be interpreted, this is because it is from a different time, culture, place, and language. In fact, if you want to go with what the text says, unless you read the original languages, you’re not reading what the text says. You’re already reading an interpretation. Even in the same language, there can be difficulties. Many of us could not read Shakespeare as he wrote it. For an illustration of this, just consider the KJV. It was just fine for the time it was written in, but many words have changed meaning since then and there are figures of speech that we no longer use. It is for this reason that translations have to keep being updated. Languages do not stay static like that.

Now is this an exact science? Can you reach a point where you say it is absolutely definitive that this is what the text means? No, but if we follow those standards then science itself is not an exact science. Any interpretation of the scientific data could be overturned. It is not written in stone. The more we study it, the more likely it looks that a certain viewpoint is correct. For instance, the huge majority of biologists today agree evolution best explains our origins. That means that if this is overturned, there must be some powerful evidence otherwise that evolution did not occur. That does not mean that such is impossible theoretically.

In the same way, there are many interpretations we can be quite sure of. There are also many Biblical passages that will leave us scratching our heads and wondering what the heck is going on in them. It would be a mistake to hang your Christianity on every single issue in the Bible and on every one of your interpretations being correct. It requires work. If you want to say your interpretation is correct, you need to give a reason why you think so and then leave it to others to respond. Unfortunately, with the fundamentalist mindset, we’ve grown lazy and prefer that the text should do all the work for us.

But in interpretation, there is no excuse for laziness.

Hermeneutics is not a dirty word. We all do it everyday without realizing it. The question is not are you going to interpret the text. You will. The question is if you are going to do a good job or not.

And if you take the fundamentalist attitude, you’re already saying you’re not going to do a good job.

And if you’re not willing to study a text, don’t bother debating it. There’s no reason to take anyone seriously who has not studied the issue.

In Christ,
Nick Peters