I’m looking forward to leading an Introduction to the New Testament Course this year for lay folk in the Church of England. The first lecture is on hermeneutics, or how we read the bible*. Hermeneutics is a bewildering subject and yet one that has rich pay-off both for growing as readers but also as disciples and followers of Christ.
Here are three benefits that I have identified as I have engaged with hermeneutics. No doubt there are others, but these seem to be the most pertinent to discipleship.
First, wisdom: thinking about how we interpret the bible will help us to grow in wisdom as Christians. As think about how to handle the scriptures wisely, through the help of God’s spirit, we will become aware of where we might be in error, or where others might be leading us astray. Conversely, if we fail to consider what it is that we are doing when we interpret the New Testament, or scripture, more generally, we might be in danger of doing what we have always done—in other words, we might be stunting our growth in wisdom as disciples of Christ.
Second, humility. Thinking about how we interpret the scriptures will also help us to grow in humility. We come to see that we are part of a larger body of Christ and that we depend on others—as we have reflected on when we thought about who we first learned about the New Testament from. So…we can gain insight into other people’s ways of reading the Bible. This can help us both not to assume that someone else’s understanding of the Bible is wrong when it’s different from ours, and to see the richness and value in their understanding. Conversely, if we fail to understand the hermeneutic of our brother and sister in Christ, or even worse to mock it, we are in danger of tearing apart the body of Christ. This not to say that we disagree and debate—we absolutely do. But it is to remember that we are part of a family and we represent Christ to the world, as we do so.
3. Third, conviction. Doing hermeneutics will help us to become more convinced disciples of Christ. This might seem to run against the previous point. How can we be both convinced and humble? Christ, as always, is our pattern here—he was the most convinced human that ever lived and yet was also the most humble, being very God and yet taking the form of a slave. We of course remain humble as we interpret and come to an exegesis of the text. But that does not mean that we never come to a conclusion about how to interpret the New Testament. When we do hermeneutics, we’re not saying that we’ll never arrive at conclusions; rather, to do hermeneutics is to grow in conviction and confidence about those conclusions, precisely by thinking through how we have come to those conclusions. All the while, we remember that those conclusions are only ever provisional. We remember that we are human, all too human, and that the nature of our conclusions is only ever provisional. We see, as St Paul puts it, through a glass dimly, not into a clear mirror. One day, we will see in full…but now, in part. But in the meantime, we can still come to conclusions about how best we might read the scriptures both individually and corporately.
*I find Jens Zimmerman’s definition helpful: “Hermeneutics is the effort to understand verbal or written communication and establish rules for their interpretation”. I tend to distinguish between exegesis as the act of interpreting and hermeneutics which is the process of stepping back and reflecting on what I and others are doing when they interpret.
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