Hermeneutics: Part 2

The Goal of Hermeneutics

The primary goal of a biblical hermeneutic is to discover meaning, and more specifically the original meaning intended by the authors and their desired response by the original readers[1] Then, the next goal is to apply the discovered original meaning and desired response to the present contextual moment.  Fee and Stuart write, “the task of interpreting involves the student/reader at two levels. First, one has to hear the Word they heard; he or she must try to understand what was said to them back then and there. Second, one must learn to hear that same Word in the here and now.”[2]

As mentioned earlier, there are gaps between the ancient world and the modern world that need to be bridged, which is fundamentally a historical task.  Therefore, historical methods are needed in order to study the historical context, setting and circumstances of the text.  This involves exploring the background information of each writing (i.e. author, date, place of writing, recipients, purpose, occasion) and the cultural setting each writing is located.[3]

Another method of great importance is literary study. The biblical writers used of all types of genres (i.e. narratives, genealogies, biographies, prophecy, poetry, proverbs, gospels, letters, sermons, and apocalypse); therefore, literary methods focus on interpreting these various types of genres and how they flow together to create the overall thought pattern, structure and outline.[4] Closely related to literary methods is grammatical analysis, which involves studying sentence structure, the definition of words and the syntactical meaning of word connections.[5] 

When interpreters follow these methods, they take an author and text centered approach in order to arrive at the original meaning of the text as intended by the original author, and this is the the meaning that should be applied to people’s lives in the present. Biblical interpreters should always begin to determine meaning by the plain reading of the text and then further investigate by using the historical, literary and grammatical hermeneutical principles in order to arrive at the most accurate meaning of the text.

Validating Meaning

Once interpreters have completed the hermeneutical process, it is important to validate their interpreted meaning. However, if the correct hermeneutical steps have been followed and preunderstandings and presuppositions have been addressed, then most of the needed validation would have already been accomplished through the the process. In some specific cases where a passage presents interpretive challenges that would require a more creative interpretation, Klein et al. propose four criteria for testing the validity of an interpretation: 1) the interpretation should express or conform to the tenants of the orthodox Judeo-Christian faith. 2) the interpretation should align with God’s truth and activity as presented in the clear and historically interpreted sections of the Bible 3) the interpretation should attest to the the practical experiential outcomes of the Judeo-Christian faith 4) the interpretation should have confirmation from a wide range of believers from differing contexts within the orthodox faith.[6]

Even with this criteria, there may be moments where interpretive meaning may be difficult to validate due to difference within the faith community.  At this point, for the unity of God’s people, interpreters should agree to disagree while acknowledging that biblical hermeneutics can only take them so far in understanding God’s written communication.  Finite humans will always face challenges in understanding an infinite God. Nevertheless, faithful interpreters should continual strive to understand God’s message to humanity. The Bible is much more that a just an interesting piece of literature.  It is God’s love letter to humanity.  

[1] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and Updated ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2004), 169.[2] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 19. [3] Ibid., 22. [4] Ibid., 23. [5] Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1983), 30-32. [6] Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard Jr., Introduction, 206.


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