Hermeneutics and Me

Still more about how we read the Bible:

I have been fascinated with hermeneutics since I read Fee & Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth during my MA work at Lubbock Christian University.

I LOVED that book.  I taught a Sunday School class on it at DeSoto Christian Church.  I required it in all my Bible classes at Kentucky Christian University: I probably sold 2,000 copies of that book over the years.  Gordon Fee owes me, man. (Ha!)

I came out of that book with a strong commitment to the historical meaning of the text.  In other words, in every passage, the Bible means what the original author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wanted to communicate to his or her audience.  Over and over, I impressed Fee’s maxim on my students, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.”  (I even said I wanted that line carved on my tombstone.)

During my doctorate, I correctly came to the conclusion that the hermeneutical approach in Fee & Stuart is not perfect and universal.

  • If the only meaning a text can have is what the original author meant to communicate to the original audience, then what do we do with texts where we cannot know the author’s intent?
  • Perhaps we cannot be sure what historical period an author is writing from, or we cannot reconstruct with any certainty (or even likelihood) the problem the author was facing.  That complicates the pursuit of meaning.

At the same time, I always thought that Stanley Fish’s position (that there ARE no texts, only readers; i.e., that the only meaning a text has is what we project on it) was ridiculous and unworthy of consideration by any Bible student worthy of the pursuit.  So the original, historical meaning was and remains a priority.

But I also came to appreciate Brevard Childs’s emphasis on canon.  The canonization process, the authority of the church (or the Jewish religious community, in the case of the OT) as it considered and accepted or rejected texts must be considered in our ruminations on the text.

Perhaps the biggest complication for me is the way the Bible writers use previous texts, whether its the prophets using the work of earlier prophets or the NT writers adapting OT texts.

None of them–not the councils that formed the canon, not Jeremiah, not Matthew, not Paul–had ever read Fee & Stuart!  And none of them prized the original historical meaning of the text above the religious purpose the Holy Spirit was guiding them toward as they reinterpreted, changed the meaning of, even contradicted, the “plain historical meaning” of the text that they were using.

Which brings me to where I am today.  Here’s what I think:

  • We always need to seek and consider the original, historical meaning of the text.  It’s worth pursuing; the Holy Spirit’s inspiration rests first on the original authors.  Fee’s maxim remains in effect, even if I add more caveats to it than I once did.  Don’t give up on the historical meaning, authorial intent, etc.  Don’t say, “It’s outdated!”  That’s God’s word! Wrestle with it until it blesses you.
    • (For those who say that the sobriquet “God’s word” cannot be applied to the scriptures and can only be applied to Jesus, 1. get a life, and 2. read Psalm 119.)
  • We always need to be sensitive to how the Holy Spirit moves in the life of the community of the faithful.  And we always need to be sensitive to how the Spirit moves in the inspired imaginations of the Bible writers.  God is able to take his word and apply it to new situations, new problems and issues, in ways that subvert, ignore, or even contradict the historical meaning of the original text.
  • We always need to be open to the Holy Spirit showing us things we don’t expectWe always need to be open to the Holy Spirit changing the way we read and apply the scripture.  The scriptures are inspired by God.  Our interpretations of scripture are not inspired by the Spirit.  Hopefully they are GUIDED by the Spirit.  But they do not have the same authority.
    • I believe this is part of what is happening today with the issues surrounding women in ministry.  The Spirit is telling the church to start reading texts in a way different from the way the church has always read them.  The Spirit is changing our interpretations.
  • I need to study how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament.  Is there a study of New Testament hermeneutics out there, something like the Michael F. Bird piece I linked to yesterday?

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