More Colors on the Hermeneutical Spectrum
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Here we finish off our series on some of the different flavors of hermeneutics with a brief survey of three more major schools of thought, followed by some examples of statements personal interpretive viewpoints. Perhaps you'll find resonance with one or more of these approaches and settle in (for now) somewhere on the spectrum. Redemptive-Historical Emerging from an early twentieth century conflict with an enlightenment-fueled historical-critical approach, the redemptive-historical viewpoint attempts to bridge the chasm between its own orthodox position supporting the Bible's authority deriving from its divine authorship and the historical-critical hermeneutic's rejection of that view flowing from a more rational approach, emphasizing a commitment to historical data-driven interpretation. Recognizing a need to acknowledge that the history of special revelation has a progressively unfolding storyline, Geerhardus Vos of Princeton Seminary in the early decades of the twentieth century in his inaugural address in 1894 said, "It is certainly not without significance that God has embodied the contents of revelation, not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history, the parallel to which in dramatic interest and simple eloquence is nowhere to be found."* The elements of this hermeneutic are: God self-reveals both in a general sense (creation) and a special or specific historical-written sense. One cannot be understood without the other; both God's deeds and words are necessary to intelligently comprehend anything about God. God's revelation happens as a process in real time, with each revelation event building on the past and moving the story forward. Taken together, these remembered events make up the history of God's manifestation of himself from Adam to Christ. The events of Jesus, his life, teachings, death and resurrection is the culmination of God's self-revelation. It is at this point that redemption is accomplished after so much foreshadowing throughout the entire story. In fact, the entire theme of written revelation is God's redemption of fallen humankind. What has come to us in written form is an interpretation of God's redemptive acts as creator and redeemer. We ought to be able to find a connection between every text and this concept of God's work to reverse the brokenness of his creation. That said, scripture is not secondary to God's acts in history, but just as important as the witness of creation. It is indeed a record of those redemptive acts and as such, they provide the only record we have of them. In addition, they come to us an authoritative God-inspired witness to those events. Since revelation is unfolding and progressive, one must use the New Testament to interpret the Old, since it comes later with more complete information. The text of Luke 24 affirms this as it has Jesus informing the Emmaus-bound disciples that the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms were written to point toward Himself. His resurrected presence means that the scripture is complete; it all spoke about him! When interpreting scripture from this viewpoint, the interpreter asks questions about the predicted or just completed redemption acts of Jesus. The Old Testament book of Leviticus is about God's holiness and our need for a way of redemption, provided by a system of animal sacrifice. Judges is about the chaos of abandoning the course of God's plan and going off on your own direction. Ruth and Esther are wonderful stories of God's fidelity to his people, and motivation to stick with the redemptive plan. The Canonical Hermeneutic Rather than starting with the text or context, a canonical hermeneutic begins with the reality of the church as it has been formed over the centuries. The reasoning goes like this: The church is both a actual reality and an abstraction in that its origin and continuance is divine. The overall purpose of the Bible is to give life to the church that is built on its propositions. What you might expect from a Canonicalist are interpretations that are more linguistic than grammatical-historical, and the application of her findings find their expression in the church. That's not to say the canonical starting point ignores the human origins of Bible texts, but instead of working to narrow down the possible meanings of a passage to the one or two which are most likely what the original writers and hearers understood it to say, the canonical approach looks for consensus among the modern community of readers. Robert Wall, in Biblical Hermeneutics, says, "…the variety of canonical approaches is guided by a common commitment to a theological conception of the Bible’s final (or “canonical”) shape and to those Bible practices performed by a community of faithful readers. By using the term canon (a “straight rod” used for measuring) the church envisions the Bible as essential for building an accurate and consistent faith. Its instruction regulates theological understanding for accuracy and consistency in forming the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."** Seeing the Bible as a whole is an essential next step after we've identified and learned its many parts. God has superintended the entire volume to inform readers in the present day. The sustained presence and faith in the sacred text is important when understanding what it means. Canonicalists are serious about the story of how the church has used the scripture to guide and direct Christianity through the centuries, learning from the wisdom of the past. One reason we have a canon, they might insist, is that what we have has been filtered through the practical criterion of what works for the church, excluding texts that didn’t benefit the body of Christ. One last feature of a canonical hermeneutic is that the Bible is shaped on purpose as it if were a work of art. This has been referred to as "the aesthetic principle" of scripture. Wall says, "The church formed the Bible by observing the good effects of using particular texts to teach and train, reprove and correct ever-changing Christian congregations, especially in combination with other canonical texts. One could describe this appreciation by the church as “the aesthetic principle” of the canonical process."*** An example of Canonical thinking shows up in a theory about why the four gospels were arranged in their final order- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We don't know which gospel is oldest. Many scholars suppose that it's Mark, since both Matthew and Luke contain material that appears to be sourced from both Mark and a phantom collection of stories about Jesus called "Q." However, since it has served the church so well and has come down to us in this form, the canonicalist sees a practicality in the sequence. Matthew can function as a sort of link between the old and the new in terms of Matthew's "Jewishness," providing a natural introduction to the Messiah as an Israelite par excellence. A canonical hermeneutic asserts that a rich history has handed down the scriptures and their tried and true interpretations to us. What informs the church's faith and practice is the consensus of older and wiser Christian communities and God himself in the form of a written work. We must respect the integrity of the entire book and find it's truth not only in isolated pericopes (episodes) but in how the parts and the whole work together to inform our way of seeing the world. Narrative Criticism Hermeneutic A narrative critical hermeneutic falls under the auspices of Literary criticism in general, which applies to the study of any written literature. Narrowly applied to the study of the Bible, a literary / narrative critical hermeneutic, like the canonical hermeneutic above, emphasizes approaching each biblical book as a whole. Even if the writer brought together a variety of sources, the product is still a unique account with the same integrity as any other authored work.*** Using traditional categories of analysis, this hermeneutic looks at narrative structures typical to the genre being studied. For example in a work of fiction, the important major elements might be setting, plot, characterization, the narrator's perspective, elements like themes, motifs, symbolism and so on. The types of questions this hermeneutic asks of the text are obviously literary ones, like evidence for a climax or focal point of the text, the function of repetition, where foreshadowing shows up, the meaning of gaps in the narrative, the significance of juxtaposed contrasts, and the presence of irony or sarcasm. Symbolism is common in many genres, and especially the narratives we have in our Bibles. The narrative critical hermeneutic traces not only the obvious or explained symbolism, but also how ancient interpreters saw certain story elements as symbols even if it wasn't obvious. Genre is vital to interpretation, however, the documents we have in our Old and New Testaments aren't always forthcoming about their category. It's fairly straightforward to classify the Psalms as poetry or lyrics, but the gospels are an unusual type of literature that resembles more than one genre from the first century. Reading a text as a historical account will render very different interpretations than reading it as folklore or myth. Our Bibles contain fascinating mixtures of chronicled history with the names of kings and the lengths of their reigns alongside remembered tales of heroism and legendary exploits of certain mighty men and women. The interaction between the supernatural and humankind would normally place a story in the category of myth, or etiological stories (one that provides an explanation of causality, such as why a certain place is called "Peniel" or "God's Face"). Seeing the Bible as a work of literature assumes that deriving meaning from it requires the reader to pay attention to the literature as such, much like we do with a modern novel. Such literature can inspire and inform, especially if we can zero in on the way it was crafted by it's authors. Personal Hermeneutic Summaries Want to define your own hermeneutic? Here are some examples to help you start. The following are summaries of "personal hermeneutics" from a website created by and for LGBTQIA+ students at Princeton Seminary*****:
Our life experiences and unique identities enable us to notice truth that others might overlook. One should intentionally bring her entire self to the interpretation of scripture. This includes one's personal history in or out of a particular Christian tradition, life experiences, and deeply held beliefs that shape one's conclusions from biblical texts, for example, drawing conclusions to support a presupposed theme of liberation of the oppressed. The Bible is a debate partner. Since it doesn't agree with itself, why not engage it on its own terms and engage in a discussion with it? It's not infallible, it has been used to justify evil actions, its divergent in its viewpoints, so approach it with equal parts suspicion and openness. The Bible is a didactic text for other people in other times and places, instructing them in their efforts to live well and relate to God in their unique historical context. We can learn wisdom from it, but its not meant to explain everything with precision. God has an infallible message for us in the Bible, but we have to push through a lot of human error to grasp it. God's voice is latent in the Bible's narratives but it's hard to find because of all the intervening human factors like translation errors, literary structures and cultural differences God's message of love is in the stories of the Bible, but they are misremembered, incomplete and biased to one particular people group. The Bible should be approached with the expectation that understanding it will take education, research and imagination. One can detect an array of different understandings of God, but the power of the Holy Spirit enables people to interact with the text and by so doing engage with God in a divine activity. I think the Bible is a collection of books written by those who tried to figure out God and God's intentions. These people may have accidentally misheard, misunderstood and even misused their interpreted experiences in harmful ways. I go by a hermeneutic of love. What does it contribute to my understanding of how to love God, myself and my neighbor? After asking all my questions like Why was this written? Who wrote it? Has it been edited and why? What makes sense or not? After getting or not getting answers I always come back to what it teaches me about love. The Bible is like art, something that attempts to capture truth and beauty but filtered through human limitations. Eternal truths must suffer being obscured under the messiness and limitations of human communication. My understanding of the Bible is dynamic, changing along with my shifting immediate contexts and growth as a person. I see the Bible as a model or an opportunity to learn to see the human experience through a theological lens. It’s a resource that our imaginations can use to include God's self-revelation in our attempts to make sense of the human condition. It tells one (not the only) story of how God can relate to people, especially in the form of Jesus. The story has been imperfectly mediated to us, but it is important as source material. Biblical interpretation is an act of devotion and faith in God. My wrestling with a text is a commitment I make to deepen my relationship with God and obey the call to love people and work for justice. I think that this process transforms and empowers me to do God's work and draws me closer to God's love. To Think About… Is interpreting the Bible an Art or a Science?
Which region on the hermeneutical spectrum seems best to you?
Is it possible to function as a community with different hermeneutic approaches at the table? Notes: *Biblical Hermeneutics The Redemptive-Historical View. InterVarsity Press. **Biblical Hermeneutics, The Canonical View; InterVarsity Press. ***Biblical Hermeneutics, The Canonical View; InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition. **** https://webpages.scu.edu/ftp/cmurphy/courses/all/bible/exegesis/index.html *****https://www.wordmadequeer.com/stories/personal-hermeneutic-snapshots