Several terms and concepts are used in Hermeneutics that help the reader can gain a good understanding of the text they wish to interpret. I shall look at just three of these in the following paragraphs.
This refers to the relationship between the text and the reader and the need to recognise that the biblical text was written in one context and that the modern reader lives in a totally different context, this means that work needs to be done to bring the past and the present together in a meaningful relationship. When a reader approaches a biblical text for the first time they come with their own pre-understanding which can lead to them interpret it in a certain way, so a wise reader needs to be willing to have their perception changed, otherwise their interpretation will only confirm their existing views.
We can to try to determine the author's intention by asking questions about the words used, the cotext, structure and historical context, also what the genre of the writing is, as these all can influence the way we interpret the text. The safest way for a reader to have their pre-understanding changed, is in the context of a church community where trusted leaders can guide them as they grapple with the meaning of a text. It is also wise not to stray too far away from the recognised scholarship of those who have gone before us in the faith.
We should always be aware that there will be a distance between ourselves and the text which needs to be taken into account and the ultimate goal is to fuse the two horizons, understanding can then take place, which can lead to us being touched by the meaning of the text.
This involves looking at the Bible passage in its original historical, geographical, political and cultural setting. We need to ask questions about the original context of a situation that has been described, as it is possible to draw a completely different meaning from that intended by the author of the piece. Sometimes the writer is assuming that the reader will know about the situation, because they live in a particular place and know what goes on there.
The Epistles are a good example of this, where a leader of a church has written to Paul asking for advice and the reply in the form of a letter, assumes the writer and reader share the same background information and are both aware of the situation that is being addressed. Osborne cautions Christian leaders to check that their current situation is the same as that of those a particular scripture addresses, as 'extended application can occur when one applies a biblical text to a modern situation that is not genuinely comparable to the original meaning of the text.' E.g. Whether women should always cover their heads in church or not.
This just shows how essential background information can be for a good understanding of what a writer wished to convey, as the same text can mean completely different things once one knows the situation in which it occurred. Some knowledge of the background would be part of what is called a presupposition pool, because we live in a different time and place there will be different historical and cultural things that will need to be explained if those listening to an exposition of a text are going to be able to access its true meaning.
Pinnock reminds us that when Jesus and the disciples referred to OT writings 'they accorded utmost respect to the smallest detail, but they also read the text in relation to the present context and sought for the will of God in the interaction between the text and their own situation.'
Bible v Culture
Scripture can be seen as both absolute, as it is the word of God and relative in that it is located in a particular culture. When writing about the authority of the Bible Pinnock noted that 'God used forms of expression that were culturally authentic and meaningful to the time they are given.' We can trust that the Bible is God's word, but need to remember that the meaning of words can change over time, as Osborne points out, the Bible itself in 1 Sam 9:9 says 'the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.'
We have to recognise that if God's word to us in the Bible was written by people of a particular culture, we might not have the same problems or questions to ask from our own culture. Coming back from a visit to Israel I was struck by the difference between Roman Catholic statues of Jesus with a sacred heart, as compared to the people of 'Nazareth Village' who wore the type of clothing that 1st Century village dweller might have worn. The differences in culture had never struck me so much before.
When we read a text we ask questions of it that are shaped by the concerns of our own place in life, our own theological background which will often have been influenced by the people who taught us and their own particular viewpoints. Of course the opposite danger would be to think that everything is so affected by the culture of the time it was written, that nothing useful can be learned from it in our own time. The secret is to use the Hermeneutic spiral, where one comes ever closer to the truth with each turn around the spiral and that moves us nearer and nearer towards the central truth. 306 words
Many other hermeneutical concepts can help us in our quest for the true meaning of scripture, but the Holy Spirit will also be involved in opening our hearts to receive God's message for us today.
- Osborne, Grant R., The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2006
- Pinnock, Clark H., The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006
- http://www.nazarethvillage.com/ accessed 7th February 2010 at 16.45
- Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p320
- Pinnock, Clark. H., The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, p82
- Pinnock, Clark. H., The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, p119
- Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p136