In a previous post, I mentioned that I am teaching an Intro to the New Testament course this year and that the first lecture is on hermeneutics. There, I mentioned three benefits to thinking about hermeneutics, or how to read the bible. I want to now suggest how we can develop an integrated framework for reading the scriptures.
The Three Worlds of Hermeneutics
The reason I do this in my course is that it is easy to become dazed and confused by all the theories that are out there. These theories can be helpfully grouped together into three categories or “three worlds” (as Paul Ricoeur puts it).
Author-centred approaches: The world behind the text
This is the history that lies behind the text, the world of the author. This world behind the text, perhaps confusingly, also includes the text itself. This is because we come to know the author’s intention (which I believe exists, even if it can be hard to discern) through reading the author’s words within their immediate literary context. So literary context is part of the author’s intention. But this also includes all sorts of things about the world of the author: numismatics, geography, archaeology, literary culture history and so on. My approach to historical-criticism is to say that it is a necessary but insufficient tool for faithful biblical interpretation. As a Christian, I want to say that these texts are no less than historical texts, products of the ancient Near East (in the case of the Hebrew Bible) and the Mediterranean world (in the case of the New Testament). But they are also so much more than this. They are Scripture, God’s word in human words. A commitment to these texts as Scripture entails, among other things, taking seriously the historical context, but also allowing this to enrich a broad array of theological and philosophical questions that face Church and society today.
TEXT-CENTRED APPROACHES: The world within the text
Text-centred approaches highlight the difficulty of discerning an author’s intention given the distance in time or culture between us and the world of the author. Some even go so far as to say that an author’s intention is lost to us. Once the text is in the public domain, the author has no further control over it and we all have left is the text. I don’t subscribe to this view, even though I do think that the challenge of text-centred approaches is to get us to engage with the text itself. It also highlights that the meaning of a text is much more than what an author meant (even if, I would want to add, it is also less than what its author intended to mean). Some prominent text-centred approaches include narrative-criticism and certain forms of canonical-criticism. Sometimes, though not always, these approaches will dispense with the world of the author, which is a big weakness of such approaches.
READER-CENTRED APPROACHES The world of the reader:
The central insight of reader-centred methods is that who we are as readers influences how we interpret the bible. In the last century, there were increasing concerns that biblical scholarship was dominated by a narrow selection of the world’s population—namely, white, Western men. As a reaction, attempts were made to redress this imbalance and so there arose a variety of methods that prioritised the neglected voices of women and those from the global South.
In addition to readings that re-centre global minorities, reader-centred methods have also looked at ancient and pre-modern readers. The explosion of interest in reception-history is a key example here. Reception-history looks at the history of how a text has been received. We listen to the voices of other interpreters and ask questions about their exegesis and the hermeneutic they were using to interpret the bible.
Reader-centred approaches identify the fact that we bring ourselves to the task of exegesis, and that is a gift to the Church. The weakness of these approaches can lie in not allowing our assumptions as readers to be challenged by the worlds of the text and author, and by the Spirit working through both these.
Integrating These Approaches: Centring the Church
There’s much to say about each of these approaches, and I’ve briefly indicated my own thoughts on them. But how does one go about developing a framework for reading the text of scripture? As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s easy to feel slightly dazed and dazzled by the methods out there, which are unfortunately often taught as discrete, non-intersecting areas of study.
In reality, we can, and must, integrate them in fruitful ways. One fruitful and faithful way of doing so, which I think can lead to wise, humble and convinced reading, is to centre the church in the process of interpretation.
Here’s what I mean by this. I think that if we first of all think about the Church—the diverse and yet unified body of Christ—when we come to interpret the New Testament, the various methods we have just discussed fall into place and are ordered rightly.
Here are four benefits of centring the church in biblical interpretation.
We take the Church seriously
That is, we will seek to apply these texts to the issues we face today as a community. There are several elements in this sentence worth drawing out. We apply the text. We are not only interested in what these texts meant, but in what they mean today. We come to see what the text means, partly, through examining what it meant (though good biblical interpretation goes beyond this as well). The second point to highlight is the communal nature of biblical interpretation. Note my use of the 1st person plural above. Centring the church takes seriously the need to appropriate the text of scripture not only as readers but as a community of readers for today. As we do so, we will pay attention and listen to the interpretations, concerns and methods of men and women who have followed Christ throughout the ages. We might not always agree with the interpretations they come up with, or the methods they use, but we engage with them and think about why they might have read the bible the way that they did. Taking the Church seriously means testing out our interpretations against the Creeds and against the interpretations of our forebears in the faith (see Hebrews 11).
We take the Theology of the NT seriously
That is, we recognise that the New Testament is Scripture, and scripture is ultimately about God. This is such a blindingly obvious claim and yet much biblical interpretation takes the form of talking about everything but God. When reading certain commentaries, I often want to misquote James Carville (who coined the phrase, “it’s the economy stupid”) and say about scripture, “it’s about God, stupid!” Recognising that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are scripture further heightens the need to appropriate the text as readers today. We will pay careful attention to the claims that the triune God is making on our lives, individually and corporately. This text is not only history, but living and active today (Hebrews 4).
We take the History of the NT seriously
We must also take seriously what these texts meant to their authors and their first readers/hearers. And centring the Church is a good way to get us to do this. Why? Because it makes what can often seem to many like an abstract exercise into a living and vital activity that engages heart, head and soul. I like to think of studying the history behind the text as studying our family tree. If we belong to the community that stretches back to the first Christians, we will want to do our best to understand their world. Doing so will help us to avoid reading erroneous assumptions from our world, the world of the reader, into into the text and the world of the author. These texts are not less than historical texts, even if they are more than that.
We take the Text seriously
Finally, in taking the text of the scriptures seriously, we are deeply conscious of the fact that these texts were written by those who share the same faith in Christ. We will want to listen to what they have to say, to read their words in context and to think seriously about the techniques an author is using in a given verse or chapter.
So centring the church is one way of integrating the methods that are commonly taught in hermeneutics and exegesis courses. There are to be sure, many others. But I think this approach is a thoroughly Christian and a thoroughly Jewish way of teaching Biblical interpretation, precisely because of its emphasis on community. This emphasis deeply challenges our individualistic assumptions about interpreters as atomised individuals.
Centring the church offers one way of integrating the best of the methods that are out there, chastening and ordering elements of each and putting them to the service of a clear end.
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