Who Needs Hermeneutics Anyway?

According to Moises Silva, the very use of the term hermeneutics raises an important question: Why would Bible readers be expected to study principles of interpretation? He said that “the difficulties surface especially when we try to read a book produced in a different culture or time, as some examples from Shakespeare can make clear. In the case of ancient documents written in other languages, we need to make a special effort to take into account their original setting through a method known as grammatico-historical exegesis. Moreover, the divine character of Scripture suggests that we need to adopt some special principles that would not be relevant to the study of other writings.”

Hermeneutics is traditionally defined as the discipline that deals with principles of interpretation. As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, hermeneutics is not only limited to biblical interpretation but to all kinds of interpretation such as law, which lawyers refer to as statutory construction. A good number of Bible readers, especially the laity, criticize the study of biblical hermeneutics for fostering a sort of elitism in church. They would normally point out that since the Bible is God’s Word to His children and that as Christians, each of us have the Holy Spirit’s guidance as our indwelling Teacher, then there is no need for tedious academic methodologies. Although however we believe in the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture, the fact is, we need hermeneutics precisely because in addition to being a divine book, the Bible is likewise a human book. Just like Jesus Christ, the Scriptures also have a dual nature in that God is the author of the Bible but written by and through human knowledge and skill. This is significant because human language, by its very nature, is largely equivocal, that is, capable of being understood in more than one way.

There was in fact a famous book that came out a few decades ago bearing a very peculiar title: How to Read a Book. It was written by Mortimer J. Adler. This book was one of our very first assigned readings during my first year in college for our English class. My classmates and I were even laughing about the title, not knowing that it was actually a classic book on hermeneutics. Adler discussed the various kinds of reading materials such as newspapers, history, science and poetry, and how each of them should be read in a different manner. In the same way, the Bible is not only a single book but actually a library containing books with various literary genres. Therefore, to be able to properly understand its meaning, we need to learn the discipline of hermeneutics.

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