The Interpreter

According to Dr. M.W. Klein, in biblical hermeneutics, the interpreter himself has is a huge factor in determining the direction of interpretative process. In his book, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, he provides certain qualifications an interpreter of Sacred Scripture must possess, namely, faith, obedience, illumination, membership in the church, and appropriate methods: (a) Faith, because as St. Paul makes it clear, the ability to apprehend God’s truth in the fullest sense belongs only to the “spiritual person” (1 Cor. 2:14); (b) obedience, because the interpreter must be willing to put himself “under” the text, to submit one’s will to hear the text and obey its Author; (c) illumination, because as W. Swartley says, “In the co-creative moment, text and interpreter experience life by the power of the divine Spirit. Without this experience, interpretation falls short of its ultimate potential and purpose”; (d) membership in the church, because we do not work in a vacuum as we are not the first ones to puzzle over the meaning of the Bile. As Bible interpreters, we must be wary of the trap of individualism by recognizing our membership in the Body of Christ, the Church; and (e) appropriate methods, because we need methods that are appropriate to the task of interpretation, which requires diligence, commitment, hard work and discipline.

In addition to the above, we must likewise recognize the presuppositions that the interpreter brings into the text. An acronym popularized by the computer industry makes the point well, i.e. GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). For Bible interpreters, there are good presuppositions and bad presuppositions. Among the good and necessary ones regarding Scripture are that it is: (a) inspired revelation; (b) authoritative and true; (c) a spiritual document; (d) characterized by both unity and diversity; and (e) an understandable document. Other presuppositions include the nature of the interpreter, methodology, and the goal of hermeneutics.

Finally, Klein discussed about the nature of preunderstanding. D.S. Ferguson defines preunderstanding as “a body of assumptions and attitudes which a person brings to the perception and interpretation of reality or any aspect of it.” A good contemporary example of this is the way homosexual marriage advocates such as Rev. Ceejay Agbayani interpret Scripture. Being a homosexual himself, his preunderstanding of Scripture is filtered by his prior experience, training, and thinking. That is why Thiselton argues that “the goal of biblical hermeneutics is to bring about an active and meaningful engagement between the interpreter and the text in such a way that the interpreter’s own horizon is re-shaped and enlarged.”

The above considerations are just but a few things we should keep in mind when approaching Sacred Scripture as its interpreters. The apostle Paul stressed to the Philippian church that they, including all Christians, must continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in them (and us) to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose (2:12-13). Simply put, we must approach the Word of God with reverence and awe and not just like any other ordinary book. We should let the Scriptures shape us and not the other way around. May God help us!

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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.

Studying the Old Testament

Dillard

Boadt

I have read pages 13-37 (Introduction) of An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard as well as pages 89-108 (The Pentateuch) of Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament. Longman and Dillard discussed the purposes of writing such an introduction. According to both books, such an introductory work would greatly aid students and readers of the Bible in understanding the historical, geographic, archaeological and literary background of the Old Testament. Longman and Dillard divide their work into three major topics, to wit: historical background, literary analysis, and theological message. Each of these topics is covered in the analysis of each of the Old Testament books under consideration following this introductory chapter beginning with Genesis.

It is worth noting that Longman and Dillard write from an Evangelical perspective while Boadt writes from a Catholic perspective. What this means is that the biblical text is treated as the church has received it, while not denying the possibility of sources and the history of development of individual biblical books. More specifically, the focus of their work will be squarely on the finished form of the canonical text. On the other hand, while many Catholic scholars were attracted to the possibilities of critical methods, they did little with them until the 1940’s because of the crisis of modernism. Finally, in 1943, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu that gave Catholic biblical scholars encouragement to examine the ancient sources and literary forms in order to deepen the understanding of the sacred texts. From that time on, Catholic scholars such as Boadt have pursued a sober use of source and form criticism as seriously as do most Protestant and Jewish scholars.

Hermeneutical Spiral

Grant Osborne, in his book Hermeneutical Spiral, gives us, his readers, a good introduction to the art and science of hermeneutics. According to Osborne, hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word meaning “to interpret”. Although other biblical scholars, such as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart distinguishes, at least for their purposes, between “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” in that the former refers to the study of the text’s original meaning while the latter refers to its significance in the present, Osborne opposes such practice because technically, hermeneutics is the overall term, while exegesis and contextualization are two aspects of that larger task. In this regard, I would tend to agree more with Osborne.

As a lawyer, we also had a similar subject in law school entitled Statutory Construction. That subject was also called legal hermeneutics. As students of the law, we were required to learn the skills necessary to properly understand and interpret the laws of the land. If this skill is required in studying human law, more so when it comes to studying God’s Law! In the study of both civil or State laws and Scripture, we are dealing with words. Albeit that ultimately, God is the author of the Bible, God used human beings and their skill in the usage of conventional words to record and communicate His message. That is exactly why as reader, students and especially, teachers of the Bible, we should possess the skills to correctly interpret what it says.  Preachers and teachers of the Word, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are accurately transmitting the heart and message of God to His flock. For we are Christ’s ambassadors, it is as if God is making His appeal through us. We must be faithful to the calling God has given us so as to be trustworthy mediators of God’s message.

I liked the way Dr. Osborne explained the three levels of the hermeneutical enterprise, namely, the third-person approach, asking ”what it meant” (exegesis), then passing to a first-person approach, querying “what it meant for me” (devotional) and finally, taking a second-person approach, seeking “how to share with you what it means to me” (sermonic/homiletic). He further stated that “Hermeneutics is important because it enables one to move from text to context, to allow the God-inspired meaning of the Word to speak today with as fresh and dynamic a relevance as it had in its original setting. Moreover, preachers or teachers must proclaim the Word of God rather than their own subjective religious opinions. Only a carefully defined hermeneutic can keep one wedded to the text.”

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

I first read the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in its entirety back in 2008. I read it just because I wanted to know how to properly understand the Bible and thereby maximize my learning. A few months thereafter, I was invited by my friend and co-faculty member at the University of Makati to speak at their church during their Lenten seminars. It was a Catholic parish in Makati and the topic was Scripture. So, I quickly grabbed the opportunity and reviewed the above-mentioned book in preparation for my talk! I felt so privileged that in spite of my being a “Protestant”, I was still invited to speak and teach about no less than the Bible.

Of course, as an Evangelical Christian, I hold to the five solas trumpeted by the Protestant Reformers, the most hotly contested of which was sola scriptura or scripture alone. This was relevant because unlike Protestants and Evangelicals, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s infallible Word is not only found in Sacred Scripture but also in Sacred Tradition as handed down by the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. Nonetheless, when it was my turn to speak (there were three of us, the others were Catholic seminary graduates), I only focused on Scripture and its primacy.

I started my talk by stressing the importance and significance of the Bible in our daily lives; that as God’s immutable Word, it should be the basis of all our beliefs about how to live our lives on earth and hereafter. Most of all, it is by reading the Bible that we get to know God better. However, it is not enough for us to just read the Bible but to read it with understanding. And that’s how I got into discussing hermeneutics, which I learned primarily from reading Drs. Fee and Stuart’s book and secondarily Knowing Scripture by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

I told the congregation that just like Jesus, Scripture has a dual nature, that of the human and divine. As a work of human hands and skill, it has historic particularity, meaning, that every book in the Bible is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written. But because the Bible is also the Word of God, it then has eternal relevance in that it speaks to all mankind, in every age and in every culture. Interpretation of the Bible is thereby demanded by the tension that exists between its historical particularity and eternal relevance. It is incumbent for teachers of the Word to stress this because while we adhere to the “plain meaning” of Scripture, there are still certain things that we need to consider, otherwise, we might fall into the common trap of “prooftexting” without context. Albeit Catholics usually just depend on the “official” interpretation given by the Magisterium, i.e. the Pope speaking “ex cathedra” together with the College of Cardinals, I nonetheless stressed the indispensability of hearing or reading God’s words to us directly from the Scriptures. To be able to do this effectively, one must at least have an idea of the basic principles of sound exegesis and contextualization. It was really good to have re-read the introduction portion of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It reminded me of the important things to consider while reading the Bible. All in all, it should be a recommended reading not only to seminary or Bible school students but to each and every Christian who considers the Bible to be the infallible written Word of God.