Hermeneutics: Part 1

The Fall season and Fall semester on college campuses is underway and many students attending public institutions are taking a “Bible as Literature” course. Such a course may be their first introduction to and reading of the Bible with all its uniqueness, frankness, intricacies and perplexities. For the most part, they will study the pages of this ancient body of texts with a focus on its literary dimensions while employing literary critical theories and methods. There is much that can be gleaned about the Bible in such a course and by subjecting it to literary investigative techniques, but there is more to the process that the biblical text requires of its readers. There is a need for interpretation or in biblical studies terminology there is a need for a hermeneutic─the art and science of explaining the meaning and application of a communicated message. [1] 

The Necessity of Hermeneutics

Throughout the following discussion there is an acknowledgement that the contents of the Bible are viewed as religious writings by Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Both traditions historically have believed that these writings are inspired by God and are authoritative in all matters of faith, life and conduct. Thus, it behooves these faith communities to interpret the texts in order derive meaning from them and then to worship and to live accordingly. This is the primary necessity of hermeneutics.  In other words, God has communicated to humanity through human language in written form, and so the task of faithful interpreters is to use biblical hermeneutical principles in order to hear and understand God’s message and apply this message to their lives and faith communities.

Moreover, hermeneutics is needed because there are challenges that confront readers as they pursue understanding. The Bible is an ancient body of texts written by numerous authors across the timespan of hundreds of years with a time gap of over 1,900 years from the last writing to the present day. These writings were written in ancient languages throughout the ancient world, and so they are contextually situated culturally and socially. Authors used various literary genres and rhetorical techniques that were commonly used in antiquity. This all leads to understanding gaps between the ancient and modern worlds.  Biblical hermeneutics aims to bridge these gaps through historical, literary and grammatical methods.[2] More about the specifics of these methods will be discussed in later sections because before delving into biblical study, the concept of preunderstandings of interpreters needs to be explained.

Preunderstandings and Presuppositions

The process of hermeneutics does not exist in a vacuum because as readers approach any given text, they do so within a specific context (i.e. historical, cultural, social, political, religious, environmental), and this shapes their views, emotions, attitudes and methods. Prior experiences influence how people view their present reality and how they approach various tasks or endeavors.[3] Therefore, when interpreters undertake the reading of a text, they read with developed preunderstandings. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write, “We invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas.  Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.”[4] This is the crux of the matter of preunderstandings in relation to biblical hermeneutics. Preunderstandings are ever present and are a fact of life for all who interpret any form of written communication, and they have the ability to color or determine what readers see in a passage, which may aid or enable but also may prohibit or hamper. Thus, it is vital that interpreters engage with the fact of preunderstandings by acknowledging, identifying and evaluating their own preunderstandings, and then they should embrace those that may be deemed valid and discard those that are invalid.[5]

Klein et al. further suggest that specific to biblical hermeneutic there are valid presuppositions about the nature of the Bible that interpreters should adopt before engaging in the hermeneutical process. They explain that the biblical interpreter should presuppose that the Bible originates from God, who revealed his message through the writings of humans, and so these writings are recognized as authoritative and true concerning all matters of faith, life and conduct.[6] The Bible should be viewed as a spiritual book that “manifests unparalleled spiritual worth and a capacity to change lives.”[7]

Furthermore, interpreters should affirm the unity and diversity of the Bible while at the same time affirming that it is understandable. In order to presuppose that there is understanding of a book that has both unity and diversity, there should be a proper balance of the two. While unity delineates the foundations of faith and practice, diversity legitimizes different expressions of faith and practice. Lastly, the traditional Judeo-Christian canon consisting of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings should be presupposed as inspired scripture due to their divine, authoritative and revelatory nature as recognized by ancient Jewish communities and the early Christian church.[8] 

[1] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and Updated ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2004),4-5.

[2] Ibid., 13-16.

[3] Ibid., 154-155.

[4] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 14.

[5] Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard Jr., Introduction, 155-158.

[6] Ibid., 143-146.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] Ibid., 147-150.


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