How to (Not) Read the Bible
Back in the days before the Reformation, there was no “Bible”—66 books, under one cover, easily (or at all) accessible to the average person. Before Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale and dozens of other individuals whose names are not so well known put their lives at risk, the Scriptures were unavailable to the vast majority of the Baptized. Partly this was the result of economics and technology – a hand-copied biblical manuscript was fabulously expensive, and even Gutenberg’s Bible (in Latin, remember) cost about the same as a house in the nice part of town. Even more problematic, people didn’t read the Bible because they couldn’t read at all. There was no public education system, and the church did not have schools for the laity. To hear from God, one had to trust what his representative, be it pope, council, bishop, priest, or friar, said on his behalf. This could be good, or it could be very bad, depending on how faithful all those popes and councils were. By the early 16th century, the teaching far to often did not match up with the Scriptures’ message. There was more preaching of indulgences than of Gospel; in fact, Gutenberg made far more money printing indulgences than he did printing Bibles.
But the great flow of history that came together in the early 16th century led to the rise of technologies that could cheaply produce printed books, a middle-class that could afford Bibles and education, and a desire to make God’s Word available, as Erasmus described it, to every ploughboy and weaver at her loom. So Luther took up his lexica and grammar books, and translated into German; Tyndale, inspired by Luther, produced the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament in English before he was tracked down and murdered. What we take for granted today—the ability to read the Bible for ourselves, individually and privately, sitting at our tables or in our reading chair or in our study—has been a part of the life of the church for only about 20% of the church’s history since the first Pentecost.
So now everyone can read the Bible. Is this good? Our instinctive answer is, of course, yes! Print Bibles by the millions. Put them in hotel rooms. Give them away to visitors to a worship service. Pass them out at county fairs. Get the word out as far and as wide as possible—on brochures, coffee mugs, web pages, billboards, whatever.
Or, maybe not so much. Take a look at this billboard:
You cannot not respond viscerally, revoltingly, automatically to that billboard.
A link was sent to me that tried to explain the problem in this way:
The problem with this is that the sign shows what is lacking in the complaints by village atheists. First, there is something we call “biblical hermeneutics,” which is the art and science of biblical interpretation. Do atheists really want to take the time to understand and learn about how to interpret the Bible? Probably not. If atheists truly care about understanding biblical passages, they should take the time to learn some of the basics of hermeneutics. Otherwise, signs like these make them look like they just want to present a distortion of the Christian faith which is not backed up by proper research. [original link here]
I think I get where this writer is trying to go – learn the “rules,” and you won’t make these kinds of mistakes. There are a couple further problems here, though. First the Bible doesn’t come with any “rules.” There is no book called “Hermeneutics” standing after Malachi or Revelation that you can cite chapter and verse from to give you the “rules” for reading properly. So, all the “rules” are made up. We made them up. Many are helpful, of course, but some are not. And they are all the result of the trial-and-error (mostly error) of thousands upon thousands of readers over thousands of years.
Second, I’d like us to use more care when we use terms like “hermeneutics.” “Hermeneutics” is not learning THE list of rules or steps to get the right interpretation. Hermeneutics is not the equivalent of a great big, bloated, Microsoft Windows-sized program that uses all the rules and all the if-then statements to crunch a biblical text and spit out the right “interpretation” on your screen. Hermeneutics has nothing to do with rules; it has to do with readers. And it is far more important to look at readers and how they create meaning than it is to learn “rules.” Here is a helpful definition from a standard resource in biblical studies:
“Hermeneutics” denotes critical reflection upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures. However, this may include all kinds of communicative processes, from signs and visual art to institutions and literary phenomena. “Hermeneutics” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. J. Vanhoozer (SPCK/Baker Academic, 2005), 283.
Notice that hermeneutics is not concerned with “rules” or “steps,” but how we come to understand something. The focus in hermeneutics is not on the text, but on the reader – why does the reader come up with the interpretation that he or she does?
Let’s return to this billboard and ask some hermeneutical questions—why did WE respond the way that we did when we saw that billboard?
First, we live in the 21st century and most of us are Americans. We have had, collectively, horrific experiences with the word “slave.” When we hear the word “slave” we think of the American experience, the war fought 150 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, whips, abuse, chains. Slavery is a blight on our national history. The billboard, of course, primes us to think of exactly that when it places a troubling image of this conception of “slave” next to the passage. So when the average American drives by this billboard and sees “Slaves, obey your masters,” we cannot help but read the passage as antiquated at best and at worst as an agent of oppression and even evil. Of course, this is exactly what the purchasers of the billboard want you to think. But the problem is not the text; it is the reader, who has been shaped and formed to react in this visceral, automatic way to that image and that word. In other words, slapping four words and that image on a billboard—which is viewed at highway speed, no less—does not allow for the kind of reflection that would lead to the obvious conclusion that 19th century American chattel slavery cannot be the same thing as slavery in a first-century, Greco-Roman context.
The same goes for “obey.” If you were told by a police officer to “obey the speed limit,” or by your parents that you had to obey their curfew rules, you probably would not react in revulsion or horror (granted, teenagers might). But put the word “obey” next to our American notion of “slave” and, again, next to that image, and our automatic reaction will be negative. It becomes an intolerable word.
And again, “master.” “Master” as a noun has pretty much fallen out of common American usage. Probably because of its connection to slavery. So our immediate reaction to that word, as with “slaves” and “obey,” is to think of the American form of slavery, and again we respond negatively to the passage on the billboard.
Notice, I have not yet discussed what the text “means,” but only how most Americans will read the text. This is hermeneutics, and this is where the entire problem lies. The problem is that you and I are reading the text, and you and I have been shaped and formed to read it in a certain way because of our education, our cultural environment, the kinds of books we read, the kinds of movies and TV shows we watch, our political leanings, our friends, our experiences, etc. etc. All of which makes us very poor readers of the biblical text. And which makes billboards like this very effective.
I’ve gone on long enough here, and I won’t (as should be obvious by now) give “the meaning” of this passage. What we need to work on is you and me. How do we not read this solely from our 21st century American perspective? How do we read this as the people to whom it was written (Greco-Romans who spoke Greek, living in the first-century, cosmopolitan, who interacted with all kinds of “slaves” and “masters” every day – some of whom were in fact “slaves” and didn’t think that this instruction was horrific)? How do we read this in a way that is consistent with the text’s own goals and agendas, and not our own goals and agendas? And, if we insist on our own goals and agendas, as quite clearly the people who paid for this billboard will, should we be allowed to read the Bible at all? For ironically, when we read a passage like this we are not free to read it and decide what it means. We are, perhaps ironically, in fact “slaves” who have no choice as to how we read it. Our minds have been made up for us even before we see it. We are not autonomous, rational creatures. Who will rescue us from this body of death?
Thanks to Rev. Al Collver for forwarding the link to the page cited above.
Damian Snyder March 13, 2012
Excellent exposition of the task of hermaneutics. The trouble with this task is that it takes so long! I have found that when many people ask the question of the pastor, “what does this mean?”, they desire a simple, concise answer that takes less than 2 minutes.
Perhaps part of the discipleship process is the Holy Spirit leading us to be more accepting of time required to fully address issues of meaning, etc.
Jeff Kloha March 13, 2012
And patience is not an American virtue, unfortunately. Of course, not every passage will be this controversial, but there are times when moving carefully, deliberately, and self-critically are necessary. The first things that jump into our minds will probably not be the right things.
This is why Dr. Voelz’s Sunday Bible study is in its second year and still in the first half of Mark 3.
Daniel Eggold March 13, 2012
As I read your post, I couldn’t help but think of Stanley Hauerwas’ “Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from the Captivity to America” where he states: “No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.” Like you, Hauerwas sees that we are often trained to think that “common sense” is sufficient for understanding Scripture.
His answer to the problem, however, had less to do with reading Scripture “as the people to whom it was written” (that is, Greco-Romans who spoke Greek, living in the first-century), and more to do with standing under the authority of the Church and her preaching. In his view, of course, he rejects the notion of objective “goals and agendas” of a text. And some critique this view as a downward spiral of subjectivism and relativism (which, by the way, I do not believe has to be the case… completely). But, I think raises a good point that reading Scripture is not a matter of having (or not having) “our minds… made up for us even before we see it.” We all have our minds made up. The proper reader is the one whose mind is made up by the teaching office of the Church. Is that a master we are willing to accept?
Jeff Kloha March 14, 2012
Right, Dan, your focus on removing the individuality of the act of reading is key, and where the first couple paragraphs started. I’m not so happy with the answer being a “teaching magisterium” — who is that? The church tried that with a papacy, it didn’t work out too well.
And, I didn’t mention it explicitly, though you are right that I should have, the “to whom it was written” was a baptized member of the church of God. That is always, to use “Biblical Hermeneutics” terminology, the “ideal reader” of the text. But, too often I see the two pitted again each either: Either we read it as the orginal addressees would have heard it, or we read it as “believers” — it should never be an either/or, but a both and.
Marc Engelhardt March 13, 2012
This is good stuff. Another thing I would like to add is that “study” Bibles are not the answer either. They can be very helpful tools, but when read by an the individual the individual often only sees the “concise answer” that Damian mentions. Then he continues to interpret scripture in his own fashion.
I’ve noticed this because I try to preach and teach interactively with my people and what I have found is that I constantly need to affirm or gently correct their personalized American interpretations while reminding them that we are trying to hear scripture the way the authors intended their original audience to hear it. It’s a delicate dance and it has been very eye opening to me.
Jeff Kloha March 14, 2012
There are a bunch of comments on this post on Todd Wilken’s Facebook page, if you want to meander over there. I can’t get involved since I don’t use Facebook. Lot’s of good conversation (which is only a good thing), but please keep in mind what I’m trying to do here: This is not a post about “How to Read the Bible” but, as the title says, “How to (Not) Read the Bible” — Why is the billboard wrong — after all, they’re just reading the “plain sense of the text,” aren’t they? We must take into account our prejudices and weaknesses when we read (hear) the Scriptures, and to the extent possible minimize them. The point is not “anything goes” or “what does this mean to me,” but in fact the opposite: “what this means to me” is most likely wrong. So it throws me back on the mercy of God, who in Christ works through that Word in spite of me.
And — “Hermeneutics” is not the same thing as “exegesis.”
Rev. Greg Robertson March 14, 2012
Note to Dr. Kloha: It is very easy to join Facebook and being a member helps understand where the American people are at in their thinking so that you can do proper hermeneutics. (This shall also be uploaded where Kloha wrote his controversial piece.)
Jeff Kloha March 14, 2012
Thanks, Greg. I had a Facebook account back in the olden days, but I “committed Facebook suicide.” It just became another endless stream of data demanding attention and I didn’t find it very constructive; it was pretty much a time waster (not that it is for anyone else, of course). I know quite a few actual, real live “American people” face-to-face (believe it or not), especially through riding my actual, physical bicycle with actual, physical people.
I was thinking about getting back into Facebook, but recent events are causing me to think otherwise (insert smiley face here).
I actually have a hard time understanding what is “controversial” in this piece — non-Christians are really bad at reading the Bible. That’s controversial?
Mark Squire March 14, 2012
For all those commenting on the facebook thread, the following phrases from the article and following comments should clear some things up (unless you’ve already made up your mind…)
“For ironically, when we read a passage like this we are not free to read it and decide what it means. We are, perhaps ironically, in fact “slaves” who have no choice as to how we read it. Our minds have been made up for us even before we see it. We are not autonomous, rational creatures.”
“‘Hermeneutics’ is not the same thing as ‘exegesis.'”
Thank you, Dr. Kloha, for your helpful article and faithful distinctions.
Matt Jamison March 14, 2012
Why not give the meaning of this passage? Seems to me like that would be a useful thing for a teacher in the church to do. Understanding a few things might help Christians not to be discouraged or to doubt the goodness of God’s word when confronted with a slur like this.
Long story short: slavery in the late Roman empire is a very different phenomenon than slavery in the antebellum United States. Educated people (including, presumably, Dr. Kloha), know this. When Christians are brought up to speed on the historical facts of the matter, they tend (I think) to better understand the point that Paul is making.
I have not studied theology in college. I understand this due to the efforts of things like Issues, Etc. and the Lutheran Study Bible; and I have read about and confirmed it from non-Lutheran and non-Christian historians writing about slavery in the Roman Empire.
So if you know the truthful response to the lie implied on this billboard, why aren’t you writing about THAT on your blog? If the majority of Americans are wrong about what Paul means in this passage, then the problem is with the majority of Americans, not the scripture. If “hermaneutics” means doubting the Bible over easily-corrected misunderstandings like this one, then to hell with hermaneutics.
Jeff Kloha March 14, 2012
Thanks, Matt. Even though your message does not engage the actual argument of the piece, I’ll reply anyway.
In the article I did mention the fact that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was very different from American slavery in the 19th century. That is easy enough. But it did not stop the billboard people from putting up the billboard, nor people from misreading it. If you would like read further regarding “slavery,” I’d highly commend the discussion in John Nordling’s commentary on Philemon in the Concordia Commentary series.
“Hermeneutics” does not create doubt, it simply helps us understand why some people read the way do (in this case, incorrectly) and helps sharpen our own reading so that we can read (hear) faithfully. So, in the “Biblical Hermeneutics” course taught at Concordia Seminary, among many other things we help students to read (hear) the Scriptures as baptized members of the Body of Christ, who have been shaped by the creeds and Lutheran Confessions. If I may quote Jim Voelz’s book, “What Does This Mean” (which is a text for this course):
“We may affirm, therefore, the church’s ancient viewpoint, confirmed, as it were, by post-modern literary theory, that valid interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures can be done only by a believing Christian within a Christian community in accordance with the the creedal understanding of those Scriptures by the historic Christian church.” (pp. 228-29)
Now, of course, this alone will not settle all the grammatical and historical questions that exist in the biblical text. But without this hermeneutical viewpoint, we don’t stand a chance of reading (doing exegesis) properly.
William Carr March 15, 2012
If there were something to which one could appeal as “the meaning,” today we would have only one English translation of the Bible, not many–and we would not have, even within the relatively small interpretive community of the LCMS, the often rancorous debates about, e.g., the KJV, the NIV (the liturgical translation in the LW era), the ESV (the version adopted for the LSB), and, of course, the Beck version (AAT).
Can we admit to ourselves, first, that no one holds the absolutely original texts of the Bible–and, in my view, we wouldn’t know it if we did–which leads to the task of trying to ascertain, by reading, which available text is most likely to be original? Then perhaps we can also begin to admit to ourselves that the existence of an assortment of English versions is a consequence of the task of trying to ascertain, by reading, what the texts mean. The “problem of meaning” is a problem of how to read texts, whether the text is the Bible or “Runny Babbit” (by Shel Silverstein).
At some point, one must give thanks for hermeneutics. After all, if the Bible were so immediately understandable–and may I stress that immediate “means” unmediated–we would have no need for seminaries, CTCRs, Lutheran Study Bibles; even “Issues, Etc.” would have no reason to exist.
The Holy Spirit has been poured out to “lead us into all truth,” and such leading includes helping us grow in understanding the Scriptures. I believe he is doing so. If there is a mismatch of meanings, the problem isn’t with the Spirit, but with the reader(s). Jesus’ question to the guy in Luke 10:26 becomes crucial: “How do you read?”
How do you read? There are other terms for “how people read (and interpret, since reading entails interpretation at some level),” but for quite a while now, people have been calling it “hermeneutics.”
Damian Snyder March 15, 2012
Jeff-Thank you for your article. It is well written and quite right IMHO. I just reviewed Jeff Gibbs’ article from the 1987 CJ (Vol 51:1) entitled “Parables of Assurance: Matthew 13:44-46” with my staff. As Dr. Gibbs asserts (and so well supports), the interpretation of these parables was virtually universal and unanimous for the first 1900 plus or minus years of the Church, yet they were being misinterpreted!
It seems to me that unless we are willing to say that we have already solved all issues and there is no room for growth or further learning on the part of the Church (a problem, I would suggest, that is quite similar to that which kept many of the religious elite at Jesus’ time from recognizing Him, then we must be willing to engage topics with the primary points of your post in mind.
I simply cannot see why it is a problem to want to understand the Word of God as clearly as possible.
Josh Miller March 15, 2012
I really appreciated the piece. Your historical analysis that until recent history, it was impossible for the vast majority of Christians to have individual access to the scriptures, is a reality I’ve been wrestling with. Yet, praise God, Christ’s narrative was still proclaimed and the sacred moments in the sacraments were still delivered, reigning faith upon the people of God. I also believe we have been given an excellent gift with literacy, but I also see how American individualism distorts our view of the purpose of scripture.
Case in point, how most Christian’s translate the word “you,” in the bible. We see verses like Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” and we insert our own names in there. “For I know the plans I have for you, Josh Miller.” Putting aside the historical Israelite promise for a moment, the ‘you’ is directed to God’s entire community, not a specific individual. (You can do the same things with Lutheran favorites, Eph. 2:8-10, etc…) Yet we like placing ourselves at the center of God’s story; placing the individual at the center of story is what brought sin into the world in the first place.
Now to be sure, Christ will leave the 99 to save the one, but the shepherd doesn’t just then decide to hang out with the one. No, he brings him back to the flock. Or maybe a better analogy, Christians find their place in the body of Christ, the church. We become a part of the story, without being the center of it. In this worldview, we don’t read God’s narrative isolated in our own bubble, but are shaped by a corporate interpretation of the total body of Christ. Does this mean God will not speak to us through individual study of the scripture, certainly not, but without the surrounding community to help norm our understanding of the story, we will inevitably fall back into individualistic thinking.
Again, thanks for beginning this crucial conversation.
Jeff Kloha March 15, 2012
Y’all need to speak Texan! That is a classic example of both the problem of translation and the problem of “reading what is obvious” and being wrong. An example I use a lot is “given for you” — in Cor 11: τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν. But saying “given for y’all” doesn’t have the appropriate liturgical gravitas, now does it?
Matt Jamison March 15, 2012
So your argument is that the traditional Christian understanding of hermaneutics as the study of theological principles of exegesis is inadequate or incomplete.
You prefer a more modern understanding of hermaneutics as the study of how people arrive at the interpretations of a text that they do.
So you present the example of the billboard to demonstrate how the majority of Americans will react with shock and horror to this billboard because they conflate the meaning of “slaves” used in the text with their understanding of slavery as a brutal, dehumanizing and racist institution in the United States. The atheists are deliberately exploiting this misunderstanding in advance their agenda.
So your question is how is it possible to read this text in light of the culture in which it was written, and not through the lens of our own 21st century culture. The hermaneutics that you propose seeks to understand the modern reader’s cultural understanding, with the goal of presenting the text in an accurate way to the modern reader. And “accurate” here would refer to the intentions of the author.
Did I get that straight?
Jeff Kloha March 15, 2012
Thanks, Matt. Sorry for the delay, I do actually teach classes…
I think I agree with what you’re saying here. A couple points, though. A “traditional Christian understanding of hermeneutics” is not limited to “theological principles of exegesis” (though I admit that I don’t know precisely what you mean by that). For example, both Origen and especially St. Augustine raised many of the same issues regarding the role of the interpreter, the problem of “filtered” meaning, and the need for self-understanding. You can google Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching” (De doctrina christiana) as a helpful example of how people long before us (and long before the word “hermeneutics” –an Enlightenment term — comes into use) wrestled with these questions.
Second, “more modern” is not accurate. Again, the ancient church had to deal with the same sorts of questions and “modern” can be too easily confused with modernism, which is in fact an enemy of Christian faith. Sorry to be pedantic, but since you ask if you are understanding me correctly, those would be my clarifications.
Your third and fourth paragraphs are actually what I was arguing in the piece, so I’m glad that I got that across. Thanks for reading, and I hope you find it helpful.
Matt Jamison March 15, 2012
Thanks for your response! I’m not arguing anything in my above comment, I’m merely trying to restate your argument to ensure that I understand it correctly. You accuse me above of not engaging the actual argument of the piece, so I’m trying to understand what the actual argument of the piece is.
I’m using “theological principles of exegesis” to mean “rules” in the sense that you argue “there are no rules.” More precisely, you argue that “we made the rules up.” This is in response to your quote from Eric Chabot who is claiming that if the American Atheists took the time to understand the art and science of hermaneutics, they would not post a billboard like the one pictured. You argue that Chabot misunderstands the nature and goals of the field of hermaneutics in the sense that he implies that there is one correct method of understanding the meaning of scripture.
Is this fair?
You claim that the basic hermaneutical question is “why did we respond the way we did to that billboard?” The straightforward response to this is the general opinion among 21st Century Christians is that the institution of slavery is sinful and abhorrent. The image of the African person with some grotesque instrument of torture around his neck very much helps to drive this negative reaction in the viewer.
So how does this weigh on how we (21st Century Christians)are to understand and evaluate Colossians 3:22?
If I see a billboard that bears a horrific image from a concentration camp with the caption “John Doe is a Nazi,” We can ask the question “why did we respond the way we did to that billboard?” My key point: our reaction tells us nothing about the truth or falseness of the claim about John Doe. Doe may or may not be a Nazi, and reading the writings of John Doe may help us to develop an accurate belief about whether he was or was not a Nazi.
And I would acknowledge that our response is driven by our cultural consensus on the evils of Naziism. The billboard would make no sense to a person in the 19th Century and would probably arouse no emotional reaction.
Am I being silly or pedantic? Am I missing the point? Again: our reaction is irrelevant to the truth or falseness of the underlying claim.
Furthermore, what is the subject of the passage in question? It seems to me that it is obedience and authority in the Christian home. The rightness or wrongness of slavery is not something that Paul is attempting to address in this passage. Therefore, people who quote this verse in defense of the institution of slavery are reading it out of context and imposing their own cultural values upon the text.
Evidence of this is this verse’s inclusion in Luther’s Small Catechism under the “Table of Duties.” I do think it is interesting how the interpretation of this verse has evolved through various editions of the Catechism over the years; but I think this reflects our changing cultural rules (define “mistress!”) more than it reflects any change in the Lutheran understanding of the underlying text.
A fair and interesting hermaneutical question in my opinion would be: is Martin Luther interpreting this passage in a way consistent with Paul’s intentions?
Greg Robertson March 16, 2012
I think, therefore I try to understand.
Greg Robertson March 16, 2012
If I understand correctly what Dr. Kloha is trying to say, we should be much more ecumenical because the Christian denominations of the world are all doing their best, according to the rules they have made for understanding the text, to understand what the text means. But this seems to lead to the idea that there are not solid principles of interpretation which are better than others for understanding the text. Besides, there are some strong hints, if not rules, for sound principles of interpretation. For example: “In the volume of the book it is written of Me,” Jesus said. This would qualify as the primary rule of biblical interpretation for Lutherans. I believe is we thought about it, we could also find other rules that the Scriptures themselves have set forth for us.
Mark Huntemann March 17, 2012
There is a raging argument over on Facebook about your article and after reading your article as well as the face book comments I think it is funny that a Pastor would do the same thing as the village atheists. He posted the billboard: ” “The focus in hermeneutics is not on the text, but on the reader.”” and invited comment. He got plenty ! This is funny only because he goes about proving your point in spades! The Pastor was guilty of all the symptoms you pointed out in your article. The text can be anything, it does not have to be a Bible text to demonstrate “Hermeneutics”. He reproduced the billboard.
The “text” was all about what the Pastor “brought to the text”! I would take your “ripped out of context” sentence further and say “The text is irrelevant. It is all about the reader!”
think Bill Clinton.
Jeff Kloha March 17, 2012
Hey everybody — sorry, I’m not avoiding you. There is a lot of fruitful discussion that may yet come out of this (and some things to fix). But I was out all day with the sem cycling club and have a big day tomorrow. I’ll try to get to this tomorrow night.
In the meantime, please remember the words of a mutual friend: “Let all things be for the upbuilding.”
Jeff Kloha March 19, 2012
Okay, let’s take a run at some of this.
1) Definition of “Hermeneutics” — this seems to be a sticking point for many. I apparently wrongly assumed that giving a published definition in the post would make clear how I was using the term. Let me repeat the definition, given above: “‘Hermeneutics’ denotes critical reflection upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures.” If I may phrase this in a simpler way: hermeneutics is the *study* of how interpretation happens and helps determine what is appropriate and not appropriate, etc. But it is not the act of interpretation. One does not “do hermeneutics,” one “studies hermeneutics.”
A parallel term is “homiletics” (notice the “-ics”). “homiletics” is the study of preaching, including method, structure, delivery, etc, etc. But one does not “do homiletics”; rather, one “preaches.”
To repeat: “Hermeneutics” is not “interpretation,” nor is it “the rules of interpretation.” Rather, it is “critical reflection on the processes of interpretation.” The “processes of interpretation” of course include “rules,” but “hermeneutics” is “critical reflection” upon those “rules.”
This is not a new definition. A book that I was assigned as a text for the course “Biblical Hermeneutics” at Concordia Seminary in 1988 was A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the BIble (original copyright 1963). This is a standard, and still helpful, text. Here is how Mickelsen describes “hermeneutics”, in the first two paragraphs of his preface (p. vii):
“Since the close of World War II there has been a rapidly growing interest in the theological science of hermeneutics. This revival of interest in the methodology of interpreting the Scriptures is found among diverse groups of Christians. . . This serious interest in hermeneutics has helped to show why Christians differ with each other. Different principles and procedures yield different results, and even the same basic principles may be applied differently. Such an understanding of differences, however, is necessary to helping others and the being helped by them in one’s own interpretive endeavors. The most impelling motive for learning to interpret the Scriptures correctly is the necessity to understand clearly for ourselves exactly what we are trying to communicate to others.”
For Mickelsen, hermeneutics is the “methodology of interpreting the Scriptures,” especially in light of the fact that different groups of Christians come up with different interpretations. Why do interpretations differ? Which rules have they created, and how do they apply them? Why do they not use other rules? All this is part of “hermeneutics.” Notice how Mickelsen describes the need for “helping others and the being helped by them in one’s own interpretive endeavors” and “the necessity to understand clearly for ourselves.” This, I must point out, is a “focus on the reader.” In 1963. If you want an ancient example, read St. Augustine. But I’ll save that for a full post.
2) “Focus on the reader.” Again, this seems to be an issue for some. Hermeneutics focuses on the reader because the reader is the active agent in interpretation. As we are all aware, “meaning” happens through written/oral texts (such as the Scriptures) as the result of a three-fold interaction between:
Author — Text — Reader
In the case of the Scriptures, we do not have access to the “human authors” (quite obviously, they are awaiting the resurrection; the divine author and his role in interpretation is a hermeneutical issue that we must sort out, but that is a huge matter beyond this reply. See, e.g, Voelz, WDTM, chapter 11). The “text” is a given (although, of course, there are complications like canonical issues and textual variants). So, to put it this way, the “author” and the “text” are passive in the process of interpretation. The active agent in interpretation is us, the reader. We decide everything, from what to read, how much to read, what we believe about inspiration and authority, which rules to use, and which rules to reject., etc., etc. So “Hermeneutics” must “focus” on the reader because the reader is the weak link in the flow of communication. The author seeks to communicate through a text, but the distance of time, culture, language, and our own biases (both good and bad ones) prevent perfect communication — the problem is not the text or the author, the problem is us.
So, Hermeneutics helps us to figure out why we read the way that we do, how others read the way that they do (like the billboard in the original post), and decide which methods are appropriate, consistent with the texts themselves, appropriate to faithful use, etc. Yes, the rules are “made up” — that doesn’t mean that they are wrong, it means that we must critically reflect upon our own process of interpretation so that we read faithfully.
If someone thinks that they do not need to reflect upon their own process of interpretation, the very real danger is that they simply read themselves into the text. Ironically, the very thing that many commenters on Facebook want to avoid (and, in fact, did to my post). Proper theological hermeneutical reflection focuses on the reader, so that the reader can have their own biases reshaped (removed if necessary) so that faithful reading/hearing can occur.
Just a note — “Hermeneutics” is not “Reader-Response Criticism,” nor is it saying that we are free to “make up meaning” and that the biblical text is a waxen nose. Some forms (not all forms, by a mile) of Reader-Response Criticism will head in that direction, but solid hermeneutical study and reflection will warn creedal Christians away from those extremes, above all because of our view of the authority of the text (“who spoke by the prophets”).
3) If someone has a concern about where this hermeneutical framework leads, or what exegesis within this kind of hermeneutical framework would like like when dealing with specific texts, I’ll simply point you to two items already on this site:
An article on “koinonia” in the New Testament, published in the Winter, 2012 Concordia Journal and available here:
And, if Greek is not to your taste, some videos that Jeff Gibbs and I did for a Bible Study on Matthew 18:
[another set on 1 Cor 15 should be out this week!]
Or, for that matter, a couple sections of notes for the recent Lutheran Study Bible. Here is a podcast about that:
This is all worth the conversation — when I get time I’ll work this up into a full post.
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Matt Staneck March 29, 2012
Perhaps this article over at CNN Religion is “Exhibit A (or is it B?)” to Dr. Kloha’s point?
Jeff Kloha March 29, 2012
Hey Matt (I almost said Mike!) — yes, this starts off with the jarring question” “Which revered religious figure – Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad – spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?” but then goes on, somewhat helpfully, to point out that slavery in the time of Jesus and Moses was quite different from what we know of as slavery. It doesn’t help, though, that the link stuck in the text near the top is “Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania.” Apparently the keyword link generator doesn’t pick up on the argument, only a word or two.
It is strange that the end paragraph suggests that “religious practices” come and go, and that later generations will view some of our practices as harsh and outmoded. Odd way to end, when the argument of the article is, at least partly, that we should cut Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed a break because what we call slavery is not what they had in their context. But, why not take a gratuitous swipe at “religion” anyway?
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