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.