Friday, February 15, 2008

On Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics: "The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text." (American Heritage Dictionary)

How do we properly understand what the Scriptures Mean?
I find the fact that the Word of God can speak to me on so many levels throughout so many years of my life one of the most wonderful things about study of the Bible. Though the foolish things confound the wise and the wise things are made simple through the Spirit, certain texts require a great deal of discipline. How do we go about determining what the Bible meant when it makes a certain statement in a particular way? I believe that it is the great challenge of the Christian to rightly discern the truth about what the Word actually says. If we use sound methods to investigate the truth, we are more likely to arrive at a sound doctrine and sound meaning.

Just to put some of this into perspective, let me offer two examples of why a good hermeneutic bears importance to accurate meaning of a text. One of the more telling examples in literature came to me while attending a Catholic college as a born-again Christian. I took a literature class called “The Theological Quest” wherein we read a great deal of the existentialist writers as well as the Russian moralists. We read a book called “The Fall” by Albert Camus, an atheist who hated God, but I found in that book more references to Scripture than I find in most Christian books today. The class was taught by a former Baptist minister turned philosophy professor, so it was an interesting experience.

In reading Camus, the protagonist is named Jacques le Baptiste, though I doubt if I’ve spelled it correctly here, wherein the he laments the fact that he is subject to sin and subject to the Scriptural standard of righteousness. Any Evangelical Christian could pick up the symbolism: that of John the Baptist, but one without a savior to for whom to prepare the way—a man without purpose in life. Each page of the small paperback had at least three direct references to a Scripture, indicating the deeper meaning of the text. My previous knowledge and study of the Bible set me apart in that class because of my understanding, so the literature was easier to interpret and held deeper meaning. Most of my classmates lacked understanding of the Word and did not comprehend the meaning of the text without additional instruction from the professor and without considering informed commentaries on the book.

Fast forward a couple of years to a missions trip I took to Russia. On the plane ride home, I spoke with a Russian with whom I discussed the Karamazov. I loved the book, and I still refer to it as one of the best pieces of literature ever written, so complex and concerned with the deeper meaning of life. I barely started talking about the book, and this Russian gentleman explained to me how my limited understanding of Russian life made my deeper understanding of the text very difficult. The names of the characters were well chosen, and he spent a great deal of time with me, discussing why a particular name was used and the specific meaning it conveyed. I felt rather like those other students in my class where I first read Camus and Dostoevski! I lacked the cultural understandings that conveyed deeper meanings to the characters. (For very obvious example, if I wrote literature and I named a character Clinton or Lewinski, it would take on deeper meaning and would convey and connote meaning beyond my actual words.)

Such is true when we study the Bible. When I studied Greek in seminary, I had the wonderful advantage of learning the language from a believer who grew up as an orthodox Jew. In addition to learning the language, I also learned how the Jews of the day used the Greek language from a unique and broad perspective. I developed a great appreciation for the perspective that this understanding brought to the text. I found that aspects of this study were much like my experience in medical research, following a logical and well-informed process of investigation so that one can have the broadest perspective and understand the most accurate information about my life’s greatest passion: the study of the Word.

Stay tuned for a review of the principles of the grammatico-historical method of hermeneutics!