Herman Who? An Introduction to Hermeneutics
Updated: Nov 16
Hermeneutics is a ten-dollar word that describes how we derive meaning from texts. Rendering thoughts into language, recording and sending it off to elicit similar thoughts in the minds of receivers at various distances from its origin is not a simple process. Hermeneutics mainly focuses on the receiving end where understanding and interpretation take place.
Our English term comes from the Greek word hermēneuō, which in colloquial etymology recalls the Greek messenger god, Hermes. Hermes not only acted as a go-between among gods and humans, he was assigned the task of leading souls to Hades. The reader may find herself being so led after this encounter with the complexities of hermeneutics as applied to biblical documents!
In earliest usage, one needed a hermeneutic when receiving a message from the gods through an oracle or otherwise. It referred to a rational method of determining whether the message was true or false. A related term which may be a bit more familiar to those who engage in the study of the Bible is exegesis, or "to lead out, or show the way," letting the text set the agenda for meaning, instead of the audience reading her own ideas into the text (eisegesis). Exegesis aims to let the author or authors convey meaning on their own terms, without speculation or inventiveness from the interpreter.
One might talk about an exegetical hermeneutic which means an analytical approach to sacred writings that avoids any effort to add or subtract from the meaning the original author intended. Defining different hermeneutics results in a spectrum rather than a discrete list. Each one depends on the interpreter's personal background, interests, motivations or agendas for reading, group membership, family, cultural status and other unique personal social and intellectual constructs.
One reader may look at the Bible as a special divine product with a personal message from God unique to each individual who reads it. Another's assumptions-while-reading puts them on a different region of the spectrum, where the Bible is known as a mainly a human product that was written to specific cultural and historical-political situations with far less ready application to the personal life of the modern reader.
Most of the time we don't give much thought to our hermeneutic. Even those who engage Christians with biblical material in teaching environments (especially on Sunday mornings) don't usually publicly stake out their own interpretive guiding principles. Richard Rohr in an essay on his Jesus Hermeneutic says,
"You deserve to know my science for interpreting sacred texts. It is called a 'hermeneutic.' Without an honest and declared hermeneutic, we have no consistency or authority in our interpretation of the Bible."*
He goes on to describe a methodology that tries to identify and use Jesus's own assumptions about scripture to inform his own. For example, he observes that Jesus is less literal than many modern interpreters, more open to spiritual and transformative readings, and choosy about emphasizing passages that promote inclusion and ethical sincerity while ignoring material that pointed to exclusion, punishment and triumphalism.
In the interest of helping us do what Rohr suggests, what follows are points on a hermeneutical spectrum that might prove helpful in figuring out your favorite spot.
None are absolutely correct or incorrect, right or wrong (although you might have some opinions about that). The other advantage of understanding the spectrum of approaches is that it opens a door to inclusive conversation. We are more likely to hold our own certainty more loosely when we accept that there are other ways of seeing that are just as coherent, logical and sensible as our own. Once we start talking about our own bit of the elephant, we have a chance at imagining the whole animal more clearly. **
Points on the hermeneutical spectrum
In times past, before widespread literacy and mass publishing, before expanded intellectual horizons brought on by the enlightenment and modern scientism, the spectrum of hermeneutical positions was much narrower. The church or synagogue determined orthodoxy for the rank and file and though different versions of Christianity battled for supremacy until the fourth century CE, there wasn't the array of interpretive options as today. We'll start with two that are the oldest and most durable (but not necessarily the best).
Marcus Borg in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time*** divides literalism into two varieties: natural and conscious literalism. Both see the Bible as a fully divine creation that can be read in any language (as long as it is translated correctly) and taken at face value in that language. This view holds that the Bible is unique in its authority over the reader as a divine instrument of truth. This authority is in effect when the Bible speaks on both physical or metaphysical domains, for example, if it describes a worldwide flood, that cataclysm really happened as recorded in Genesis. If it describes heaven, we can expect to see what the author of Revelation tells us we'll see. The exception of course is obvious metaphorical or symbolic language like Psalm ninety-six's "…let all the trees of the forest sing for joy." or John's "Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep."
Natural literalism, in contrast to conscious literalism, requires no "leaps of faith" or suspension of disbelief because there is no other story in competition with the plain sense of the Bible. You might hear a natural literalist say, "if the Bible says it, I believe it." There's no struggle to solve difficult readings or supposed contradictions because there aren't any. There might be some mysterious or hard-to-understand passages, but the priority is obeying what is clearly in the text. For centuries, ancient interpreters generally stood in a natural literalist camp or the next one below, an allegorical approach.
Conscious literalism is a more recent twist on this approach. While staying committed to the core ideas of a literal stance, these readers are aware of the problems caused by face-value interpretations. Even though insisting that the Bible doesn't contradict itself or contain errors or inconsistencies, there's a recognition that textual problems exist and need solving. The result is a ready market for books like The Hard Sayings of Paul, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, and the entire field of Christian apologetics. The creation versus evolution debate arises from conscious literalists' acknowledgement that insisting on the Bible's unmediated accuracy on all topics leads to conflict with reasonable science-based explanations.
A conscious literalist might read the synoptic gospels and notice the inconsistencies with both the nativity and post-resurrection stories. Faced with an array of choices in how to understand these difficulties, he or she must look for ways to reconcile Matthew's version of the birth of Jesus with Luke's very different narrative, and the fact that Mark probably didn't include a resurrection at all. A natural literalist might not notice the differences, and simply amalgamate the different versions into one authoritative narrative.
John's gospel records the Temple table-turning episode at the beginning of Jesus's ministry while the other three place it near the end. For the literalist, the only valid interpretive move is to assume that there were two of these episodes, an early one neglected by Matthew, Mark and Luke and a late one ignored by John.
Allegorical / Typological / Anagogical
More ancient than what we call a literal hermeneutic, this three-faced mindset can be traced back to the beginnings of written literature. According to James Kugel in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now:
"Modern readers generally take these things [the strange story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac] at face value and then either wrestle with their implications or else just shrug their shoulders: “Well, I guess that’s just the way things were back then.” But ancient interpreters instead set out to give the text the most favorable reading they could and, in some cases, to try to get it to say what they thought it really meant to say, or at least ought to say. They did this by combining an extremely meticulous examination of its words with an interpretive freedom that sometimes bordered on the wildly inventive." ****
Allegory is reading cryptic symbolic meaning in otherwise plain prose or poetry. In allegory, literal story elements and characters always stand for something else, expanding conceptual dimensions. Examples abound: the aforementioned story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, complete with a substitute animal ready for sacrifice in place of the boy, is commonly interpreted to refer to the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. The trek through the Red Sea and the forty years of wandering by Moses and the Israelites calls up the rite of baptism and the following journey of faith. In Galatians Paul uses the figures of Hagar and Sarai to represent the two opposing sides of his argument in favor of allowing gentiles to ignore Jewish Torah obedience.
The old Jewish rabbinic practice of Midrash, a creative and detailed allegorical interpretation of scripture, uses a thoroughly allegorical approach. These ancient interpreters saw no problem with discovering all manner of hidden meanings in the texts they deciphered; it was the state-of-the-art hermeneutic. Eventually many of these interpretations became unquestioned orthodox doctrine.
Typology is the more specific practice of finding New Testament concepts prefigured in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The architecture of the Temple, with it's emphasis on blood sacrifice is one fruitful place for speculation. Biblical stories referring to Egypt and the evil cities of Sodom and Babylon equate with the New Testament emergencies of separation and sin that call for a savior.
Anagogical readings refer to the spiritualization of a text, especially in reference to the heaven or the end times. Jesus's reference to the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, means much more than a mention of the ravine just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus is actually talking about a place of eternal torment, the destiny of the unbeliever. If you read the Bible with questions about the future and your place in it, you might adopt an anagogical hermeneutic, saying, "I believe the Bible is mainly about the eternal significance of its propositions and narratives." In Ephesians chapters five and six Paul employs an anagogical hermeneutic to his version of the traditional Greco-Roman household codes, investing the "proper" operation of a household with eternal meaning.
Stay tuned for more points on the hermeneutical spectrum in the next installment, positions like Moral / Tropological, Grammatico-Historical, Social Science Anthropological, Text Critical and more!
To Think About…
Respond to this statement: Most if not all of our Bible is the result of long centuries of debated interpretations and theological processing, minus our modern values of precision or objectivity.
Listen to a radio preacher, or your church's Sunday sermon How would you characterize the speaker's hermeneutic?
** The parable of the blind men and the elephant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
*** Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
****Kugel, James L.. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (p. 12). Free Press. Kindle Edition.