A Map of a Hermeneutical Landscape
Our latest issue of Adventist Today magazine has gone out, to much praise and appreciation from our readers. The topic of the latest issue is hermeneutics: the methodologies by which we interpret the Bible. Some in the church today are saying that we must read the Bible literally, without interpretation—what they call “the plain reading”. Yet human understanding is such that it is impossible to read without interpreting, and even with the best of intentions we will differ in our interpretations. We’ve asked Dr. Herold Weiss, one of our denomination’s leading Biblical scholars, to introduce the topic of hermeneutics to AT website readers. I hope his introduction will inspire you to subscribe to Adventist Today magazine, and support us with your contributions.
By Dr. Herold Weiss
Reading the above title literally requires some sophistication, because reading literally means recognizing that words may function differently when used metaphorically (to expand the intellectual horizon), ironically (to expose an inconvenient truth), exaggeratingly (to provide emphasis), or technically (to facilitate specialized communication), etc. A literal reading would mean being aware of the type of writing that you’re reading. A title, a poem, an autobiography, a novel must be read with awareness of the literary genre to which it belongs.
In other words, to read literally is not an innocent activity.
The title above seems quite simple and clear. If it is to provide a message, however, the reader must do some work. The words “map” and “landscape” are used metaphorically, and “hermeneutical” is a technical word. Reading literally means taking into account how words are used.
No communication of meaning is accomplished by just the setting out of words. That is why we have hermeneutics. The word come from the name of the Greek god charged with transmitting the messages of the gods to human beings. Hermes was the agent of meaning. Hermeneutics is the way to convert the words of a text into a meaningful message.
Clear and Simple?
There are those who think that all written texts are simple and clear, and that there is no need to interpret them. A text says what it says, they say, and any effort to extract its meaning is to put a “spin” on it.
When I leave a note in my office door stating that I will be back at 3 PM, the words are being used in a straightforward sense. Anyone reading them today would know exactly when I plan to be back at my office. On the other hand, if the person reading them were living in a different timezone I should have written 3 PM EST in order to be clear. If I left the sign up until tomorrow, that would also lead to confusion.
The Gospel According to John records that Jesus said that he had “overcome the world.” Different readers may well give to the words “overcome” and “world” quite different meanings because, obviously, they are not being used in their simple sense.
Barriers to Understanding
Those reading the Bible today find themselves separated from the written text in three important ways: they have a language barrier, a cultural barrier and a time barrier. The Bible does not provide extra clarifications to help those coming to it from a different time, culture and language zone. This means that the biblical text is not always immediately clear to those reading it. Everyone reading the Bible today finds passages that do not make immediate sense. For a message to come out of a text it is not only necessary to have a text: it is also necessary to have intelligent readers. That is why two people reading the same text may assign to it two different meanings. Readers come to a text from the perspective of their own life experiences, and a person’s experiences in life bring different questions, different needs and different agendas.
Even if all the words of the Bible had been meant to be understood in their simplest sense, its readers would not agree as to what its message is. Different Bible readers get different messages from the same words. And not only different readers, but also the same readers at different times may interpret the same text differently because of the situation in which they find themselves.This has been true throughout the history of Christianity. The identity of the reader cannot be bypassed when one claims to be proclaiming the message of the Bible.
Already at the time of Christ it was recognized that the text of the Old Testament could be read plainly, typologically and allegorically. The apostle Paul, for example, read plainly the story of the conversation between God and Abraham in which God made him a three-prong promise. Its outcome, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness,” became Paul’s core idea. However, Paul used the story of Adam as typological of Christ, and he interpreted the story of the two women who gave sons to Abraham as an allegory of two covenants. This shows that as a reader Paul understood that by using different methods texts could convey more than one meaning.
By reading a text typologically or allegorically Paul was not negating its plain meaning. Surely, he was quite aware of what he was doing. His selection of a method depended on what he intended to do with a text.
It is impossible to read a text without presuppositions. Those claiming not to have presuppositions may be unaware of them, but they have them. There was a time not too long ago when it was thought that each text of the Bible had only one correct interpretation and the task of the reader was to arrive at the one “true” meaning of the text. That was the case when I was a seminary student. Today it is recognized that no one has a tabula rasa on which to place the text.
This does not mean that the different meanings people get from a text are equally “true.” That would be a crass relativism, and would render the Bible meaningless. Interpretations can be evaluated as to their validity according to the appropriateness of the method used and the faithfulness to it by which conclusions are drawn.
What is required from readers is to be aware of their presuppositions. The Bible is open to interpretation by anyone, but if those reading it are going to have a fruitful conversation about its message they must put on the table their presuppositions. Presuppositions are unavoidable in terms of the nature of the text to be read and the best method with which to interpret it.
Of course, presuppositions about the “true” meaning of the text, that is, going to it to find the results one has already decided you will find, render any hermeneutical exercise superfluous.
Dictated from Heaven?
Even those who say they read the Bible literally may have contrasting presuppositions. Some may presuppose that the Bible was dictated from heaven, and the men writing it were mere amanuenses. Read from this perspective, every word of the Bible is of divine origin and human beings must just take them as divine information that supersedes all human knowledge. As such, the text is not subject to human reason. Those who hold this view claim that verbal inspiration is beyond empirical disproof.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who read the Bible as a human document because they see that it has points of view that are no longer held to be factual, and that there are repetitions and contradictions that need to be explained intelligently. Consequently, they deny that it is a divinely-inspired text and study it as literature that has had an important role in Western culture. State universities offer courses in “The Bible as Literature” in order to provide students with valuable knowledge that any educated person must possess to interpret the cultural heritage of the West.
Among those who believe that the Bible’s authors were merely taking dictation are some who insist that because of its divine origin, the Bible does not contain any error of any kind. Everything found in it is factually true. This, of course, is not a claim made anywhere in the Bible, but a presupposition that some readers hold. Some of them restrict their claim of inerrancy to the original manuscripts written in Hebrew and Greek. Since we do not possess a single original manuscript of a Biblical book, this is an admission of the weakness of the assertion that verbal inspiration and inerrancy are beyond empirical disproof.
If the Bible is dictated from heaven, that means that the Bible has only one author. Consequently some interpret it by placing texts side-by-side from any of its many books without taking into account the time or the circumstances in which individual texts were written. This is usually described as the “proof-text method.” It operates with presuppositions as to results: that is, the coupling of texts is done to arrive at already-accepted doctrines, and so provides support for the dogmatic edifice of the church.
There are readers of the Bible who believe that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but do not presuppose that means the human writers were secretaries taking dictation. Rather, they say, inspiration works at the level of the authors who wrote the books of the Bible. Under inspiration each author employed his own words, wrote them according to his personal style of expression and within the symbolic universe that framed his understanding of reality. These readers are interested in exploring the richness of the language an author uses, the levels of meaning in which words functioned within her or his culture, the historical events that characterized the time when a text was written. For the reconstruction of the historical past, literary documents and archaeological artifacts provide the necessary source materials.
Such readers may be divided between those who limit the literary exploration of the culture to a better understanding of the grammar of the biblical text, and those who place the biblical texts within the broad cultural setting within which it made sense to its original audience. Each method yields different results. For example, the second would consider the similarities and differences of the creation stories in Genesis with other ancient creation stories in order to determine their meaning, rather than limiting itself to establishing definitions and syntactical connections within the biblical stories. A hermeneutic that recognizes that it is working with the text of inspired authors who were communicating the divine will while fully involved in the human drama of their own times brings out from the text a message different from one which considers that inspiration works at the level of words.
Canonical Reading and Its Correctives
Those working within the notion that inspired authors were free to be conduits of the will of God for their contemporaries may still have presuppositions. Some Bible students read the the Bible canonically. This means that it is read within the context of the history of its interpretation within the church that established the biblical canon. While still admitting the importance of exploring the ancient context of the biblical books, a canonical hermeneutic emphasizes what previous Christian interpreters understood the Bible to say to the church.
Canonical interpretation has taken place within the confines of Western Culture, where Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic philosophical presuppositions have been dominant. Recognizing this has led to new hermeneutical methods that adjust for these historical perspectives, and put on the table corrective agendas vis-à-vis the traditional hermeneutics. Deconstructive, feminist, postcolonial and other methods aim to expose the structures of power that have informed traditional interpretations, interpretations that disenfranchised people on biblical grounds. These methods want to bring out what the Bible has to say about the “other”: ethnic minorities, women, the indigenous populations of Africa, America and the Far East who were Christianized by European colonial rulers much to their loss, etc.
Finally, there are those who read the text without taking into account what the authors may have been saying to their contemporaries, or what different theories of inspiration do to the hermeneutical task. These only want to know what the text says to them in reference to their current physical, emotional or spiritual needs. Their hermeneutic presupposes that the text was written for them. For these, the Bible’s ability to satisfy their immediate need gives it auctoritas. This method enriches the hermeneutical rainbow; it suffers, however, from its inability to be applied consistently to the whole Bible.
This brief overview of the biblical hermeneutical landscape opens up a window that reveals the many roles the Bible continues to play in our times. The wise reader is the one who can evaluate the various interpretations and attend to what they contribute to one’s understanding of the Bible. The variety of hermeneutical approaches is a testimony to the riches the Bible prodigally provides from the multiple levels of meaning it stores.
Dr. Herold Weiss is a scholar and author, most lately of Meditations on the Letters of Paul. He writes from Michigan.