The Christian Faith, Lesson 3

Hermeneutics and Exegesis

Introduction

An objective approach to analyzing any text is to decide before reading it what the rules should be for analysis, and to consistenly apply those rules regardless of what objections the analyst might have to the resulting meaning. Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods of textual analysis and interpretation, and Exegesis is when a given hermeneutic is applied to a text.

The importance of this cannot be overemphasized: People with differing hermeneutics will never agree on the meaning of a text. So if one person believes a text to be all allegory before even beginning to read it, and another person believes one must read the text to see what it claims for itself, those two people will be unable to discuss its meaning. The debate over which hermeneutic is better is never going to be solved by us; all any of us has is our personal conviction, and no one opinion is superior to another.

Every topic in the Bible will depend on this, since the Bible is literature and should be analyzed as such, using one hermeneutic consistenly. So every lesson from this point on will be derived from one, and only one hermeneutic, that being the Literal, Historical, Grammatical method. If you, the listener, prefer or insist upon another, you won't find much value in any of the remaining lessons. My rationale for choosing this method will be explained in the next section.

The Literal, Historical, Grammatical Hermeneutic

This method is the antithesis of cherry-picking. To put it another way, a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.1 By definition, the allegory hermeneutic disregards context because it's founded on the principle that the words on the page don't mean what they say. One source says this:2

An allegory is a symbolic story. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery defines a symbol as an image that stands for something in addition to its literal meaning. It further observes that it is more laden with meaning than simply the connotations of the straight image. An allegory, seen as a symbolic story, uses human characters and animals or other concepts as images that refers [sic] to something other than what they are. They have secondary meaning or reference beyond their natural sense or meaning. (emp. mine)

To clarify, I'm not saying that the Bible contains no allegories. But some insist that the Bible is all allegory. Rather than secondary meanings, the allegorists claim there is no literal meaning at all. An example of an allegorical book would be Orwell's Animal Farm, a story about rebellious farm animals that's really about the Bolshevik Revolution. But to say the Bible is never to be taken literally but rather always about some spiritual principle, is to reduce the Bible to fiction, whether there's a real meaning behind it or not.

Now let's look at what the LHG hermenutic actually is, since there are many misconceptions about it.3 The LHG hermenutic, then, is simply what we call reading comprehension, as explained very formally at another source.4 In fact, every instance of competent translation applies this method. So if someone agrees that translation must consider context, then to abandon context in interpretation of the translated result is inconsistent at best. It would be like reading Animal Farm and only guessing at the meaning behind it, since we ignore the context in history that influenced its writing.


Section Footnotes

  1.  quote from D.A. Carson
  2.  Allegorical Interpretation, para. 2 under 3. Allegory, Allegorization, Allegorical Interpretation & Biblical Antecedents
  3.  Bible Study Basics, the LHG hermenutic
  4.  About Hermeneutics

Figures of Speech and Genre

Some may say that the LHG method simply picks and chooses when to take things literally, but we could more easily say that the allegory method does the same, for example when it takes Jesus' resurrection literally while making everything he said an allegory. But as explained earlier, the LHG method takes figures of speech into consideration. Let's look at some examples.1

It should also be pointed out that many figures of speech have been mistaken for doctrine or narrative. There are some examples at Truth or Tradition.2 We use idioms all the time, such as cough up the money to mean pay grudgingly, and the ancients were no exception. Another misunderstood figure of speech is the idiom of permission.3

The LHG method also recognizes genre.4 It seems self-evident that if we're looking for historical narrative, we wouldn't go to wisdom literature or poetry. Or if we're reading poetry we wouldn't interpret it as doctrine. Genre is a vital part of context, and to ignore or dismiss it is to misinterpret the writing. While a historical narrative might have a section of poetry, or poetry might contain some prophecy, this hardly means that the interpretation of the entire writing is determined by its exceptions.


Section Footnotes

  1.  Figures of Speech in the Bible
  2.  Figures of Speech — Idiom
  3.  Idiom of permission
  4.  Bible genres

Context, Context, Context

That expression is obviously a twist on the real estate adage, Location, location, location. Context is everything; it's where we get the semantic range of words and how we interpret the words in relation to other words in sentences. A classic illustration of cherry-picking is in the combination of snippets from Mat. 27:5 and Luke 10:37. And though this example is very clearly wrong, many make the same error by porting statements from one context to another and then building a theology from it.

On a larger scale, and of critical importance, is the issue of whether or not the Bible draws a clear distinction between Israel and the Body of Christ. Yet even among those using the LHG hermeneutic, debate rages over whether any such distinction exists. But we'll have to save that one for a future lesson, because so much else depends on it. Context has many layers, and we need to be careful to consider them all, if we have any hope of resolving that particular point of debate.

Context also is the foundational issue on topics such as free will (Calvinism), prophecy, and salvation itself. We should know from our own inability to communicate clearly with people in our own culture, speaking the same language, to see why this is such a big deal in Bible interpretation. Figures of speech are especially problematic, particularly when someone is joking. Communication is complex, so we need every possible element of context to be sure we understand accurately. And since we can't port ourselves back into the times of Biblical writings, we have to work even harder to find as much of the context as possible.

Conclusion

Do Christians typically do the work needed for accurate Bible interpretation? Sadly, no. And now you know why there are so many denominations, translations, variations in theology, and bitter feuds. Sincere, studied, dedicated people can disagree strongly, because we're all flawed, and the day we all humble ourselves enough to admit that, is the day communication can improve. Even so, there will always be strong differences in Bible interpretation, until God Himself returns to set us all straight. It may well be that God's purpose in allowing us to disagree is not to see who gets it right, but to see who behaves with grace and humility with those we believe to be wrong.

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