Art & Science of Biblical Interpretation – Hermeneutics & Challenges

hermeneutics

Leo Percer explains, “Hermeneutics is the art and science of understanding Scripture, [which then helps] provide historical and literary background, allowing for modern-day understanding and application.”[1] As believers, it is vital to be able to interpret God’s Word, so the original author’s intended purpose is revealed. Through this process, the role of the author is supreme and deciphering the context is critical to uncovering the honest meaning of the text. William Klein et al. demonstrate, “Hermeneutics describes the principles people use to understand what something means, to comprehend what a message – written, oral, or visual – is endeavoring to communicate.”[2] The art and science of interpretation is especially important when looking at the roles of the author of the text, how the original audience responded, and the role of the interpreter. In regards to the role of the interpreter, Klein et al. demonstrate, “while hermeneutics must give attention to the ancient text and the conditions that produced it, responsible interpretation cannot ignore the modern context and the circumstances of those who attempt to explain the Scripture today.”[3] Regardless of what role is being played, it is impossible to interpret any passage of Scripture without some prior knowledge of contextual data.

When looking at the role of the author, Klein et al. illustrate, “When general living conditions and specific life circumstances are known, [it] can provide helpful information for interpretation. Knowing all the conditions that surround the recipients of the original message provides further insight into how they most likely understood the message at the time of writing.”[4] It is important to note a passage of Scripture cannot mean something today, that was it was never intended to mean for the original audience. Klein et al. also warn against seeking to understand the meaning of a given text through a lens based upon a later revelation. Thus, the ultimate goal of hermeneutics will always be to understand the original author’s intent and how the original audience or first time readers would have responded. While it is often difficult to remain completely objective, Klein et al. cite any valid approach to interpretation must concern itself with two crucial dimensions, “(1) An appropriate methodology for deciphering what the text is about, and (2) a means of assessing and accounting for the readers’ present situation as we engage in the interpretative process.”[5]

Another important piece to proper interpretation comes from understanding while the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, God still chose man to write it. It is then by combining the science and art of interpretation, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to aid in a person’s understanding of the text, the reader is best positioned to decipher the author’s true message. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays caution against an over-emphasis of the Spirit’s role in the process of interpretation. Duvall and Hays explain, “Having the Holy Spirit does not mean the Spirit is all you need, [because] the Spirit does not make valid interpretations automatic; the Spirit does expect us to use our minds, proper interpretative methods, and good study helps to interpret the Bible accurately; and the Spirit does not create new meaning or provide new information.”[6] In the end, the role and purpose of the author provides the most valuable information in deciphering the meaning of the text and without this knowledge, it would be very difficult to apply the message in a modern-day application. Klein et al. further demonstrate hermeneutics is, “Essential for a valid interpretation of the Bible, [in order to] discern God’s message, to avoid or dispel misconceptions or erroneous perspectives and conclusions about what the Bible teaches, and to be able to apply the Bible’s message to our lives.”[7]

Distance is the ultimate adversary for biblical interpretation. The distance of time proves difficult since over 1900 years stand between when the last ancient texts were written and today. William Klein et al. explain, “We may be at a loss to understand what a text means because it involves subjects beyond our time span. [Additionally,] another time span that must be considered in interpreting the Bible involves the gaps that existed – more or less in various places – between the time the Bible events occurred and the time when those events were actually written down in today’s text.”[8] There is little question both Jewish and Christian traditions were held in high regard and were preserved as accurately as possible. Many of the stories were eyewitness accounts and written by the author who witnessed the events. However, some used additional sources and others edited preexisting material, so it is vital to understand the motivations behind such actions. Klein et al. demonstrate, “The authors’ unique perspectives and their goals for writing would influence what they felt was important, what deserved emphasis, or what might be omitted. In this process, the writers would consider their readers and the effects they hoped to produce in them.”[9]

The distance of culture is the next challenge that must be addressed, as Klein et al. illustrate: “On the pages of the Bible we encounter customs, beliefs, and practices that make little sense to us, [so] our understanding of ancient customs might be so colored by what we think they mean that we miss their significance.”[10] A person’s individual customs, values, and traditions play a significant role when reading Scripture and without a clear understanding of cultural conditions which existed at the time of the writing, one may inadvertently misinterpret the text. For this reason, this writer believes the cultural distance and by default, the distance of language are the most difficult distances to traverse. Historical criticism is a great tool to use when analyzing written works because it takes into account: its time, its place, the place of composition, when it was written; in order to comprehend who wrote it, when it was written, to whom it was written, and why it was written. By employing this method, the interpreter is then able to decipher what the author said, why he said it, and hopefully the reaction or response of the intended audience or first-time readers.

The geographical distance is the third challenge, which must be addressed. Having had the opportunity to visit Israel, this author has a much deeper appreciation for many of the stories found in the Bible. In many cases, the text now jumps off the page as images, tastes, smells, and feelings come to mind. Despite having visited Israel, as Klein et al. illustrate, “Even if we could visit all the accessible sites (and many Christians have), few of them retain the look (and none, the culture) they had in biblical times.”[11] Klein et al. use a great example of traveling up to Jerusalem. This journey was called the Ascent of Adummim and was considered a day’s journey from Jericho, but the elevation change was 3,500 feet. Traveling up this road the temperature dropped by fifteen degrees; so only by traveling to the places recorded in the Bible can one truly grasp the underlying themes behind the text. However, as previously mentioned, despite walking where Jesus, the disciples, and patriarchs did, the culture is no longer the same. For this reason, this writer believes the geographical distance is the easiest distance to overcome. Even if one is unable to travel to the Holy Land, with the Internet and technology that is available, there is much that can be vicariously learned, regardless of where someone lives. That being said, traveling to Israel is a life-changing experience every believer should embark on, given the opportunity.

The distance of language is the final challenge presented to those engaged in biblical interpretation and E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien believe, “Language is perhaps the most obvious difference between cultures.”[12] Because the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, this final challenge has many obstacles to overcome and despite having scholars who have dedicated their life and work to this task, there are still areas that are debated over. Fortunately, as Leo Percer explains, “Where differences exist, none of them are theological issues and ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the Greek New Testament is valid.”[13] One of the major hurdles of the language difference is the fact no known manuscripts have survived. However, there are over 5,500 copies of the New Testament, and within these copies, textual criticism allows scholars to come as close to the original text as possible. In the end, the distance of culture and language seem to be intertwined and prove the most difficult, especially for those in the Western world. As Richards and O’Brien further explain, “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. Ironically, this is as true of language as of any other aspect of culture – and perhaps more so. Behind the words that make up language is a complex system of values, assumptions, and habits of mind that reveal themselves in the words we use and leave unsaid.”[14] This can lead to profound misunderstanding, and for this reason, Richards and O’Brien both believe language is the most obvious cultural difference that separates us from the Bible and this author ascribes to this view as well. On this premise, there are significant misinterpretations and ultimately misunderstandings that occur when there is a failure to recognize cultural context and all that goes without being said. Only by reading multiple translations and by understanding the culture and intended audience can a reader fully comprehend how a specific passage can speak in a modern-day application.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004.

Percer, Leo. “Introduction to Hermeneutics.” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 02:22. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 26, 2016).

______. “Modern Approaches to Hermeneutics.” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 09:45. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 27, 2016).

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.


[1] Leo Percer, “Introduction to Hermeneutics,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 02:22. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 26, 2016).

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 4.

[3] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 7.

[4] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 10-11.

[5] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 13.

[6] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 229.

[7] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 19-20.

[8] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 13.

[9] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 14.

[10] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 15.

[11] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 16.

[12] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 25-26.

[13] Leo Percer, “Modern Approaches to Hermeneutics,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 09:45. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 27, 2016).

[14] Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, 70-71.

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