Let’s talk hermeneutics! Hermeneutics is a big scary word that basically just means biblical interpretation. I want to talk about one particular implication of hermeneutical theory, and that’s going to require a little bit of explanation. Bear with me because it’s worth the wait. Prior to Martin Luther people didn’t have access to the Bible and the only things that they knew about Christianity were what was told to them by the clergy. The Reformationists in conjunction with the invention of the printing press made the Bible freely accessible to all. That is to say the words of the Bible; I wish to distinguish between two important differences, the words and the meaning. While any person today can get hold of the Bible in an abundance of languages and gain access to the words, gaining access to the meaning of the words is an entirely different proposition.
In undertaking my theological studies I indulged in an in-depth study of hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. When I engaged in this study I learned a number of surprising things. Firstly, the foundations of the Bible are not as rock solid as most Christians would like to think. This is a topic that I will discuss at a different time. Secondly, the methods of enquiry used to investigate the meanings behind Scripture are complex and involve the necessity of using a variety of different tools and agents. It is the implications of this fact that I wish to explore here.
The first question worth asking is “is it really necessary to interpret the Bible?” Well, according to the behaviour of the vast majority of the Christian world the answer to that question would be no. In theory they might answer yes to that question but in practice they answer a resounding no. I say this because the art of biblical interpretation is a topic which is virtually never taught in any church. Christians are encouraged to read their Bible, but are rarely ever taught how to, and particularly how to avoid the pitfalls. Resultantly, most Christians believe that if they read the Bible they will as a matter of course understand it. Furthermore, it is common practice in much of the church to believe that the Holy Spirit is actually aiding the Christian to interpret the Bible as they read it. Of course this has never resulted in any problems whatsoever (he said with a sly grin and an incredibly sarcastic tone!). No one has ever misinterpreted Scripture in such a way as to benefit themselves or to reinforce specific ideologies which they hold. What biblical experts generally agree upon, depending upon their denominational orientation and personal motivations, is that interpretation is necessary. If we are to understand what the original authors intended, which is by the way the only thing that matters in interpretation, we must engage in a rigorous process of interpretation. The amount of bad interpretation practised in the Christian community is unfathomable. I have attended a variety of different churches, heard thousands of sermons and been taught by dozens of different biblical scholars and I can tell you without hesitation that the vast majority of the Evangelical Christian community engages in terrible interpretive practices. The result of this is what I might call “wappy doctrine,” a term that would make my father-in-law proud. Poor interpretation leads to poor understanding, and poor understanding mixed with the fanatical use of emotive, self-aggrandising rationalisation leads to credulous doctrines and beliefs.
History is replete with examples of groups that have used poor interpretation to justify a variety of crazy beliefs. The fact is that even if you practice perfect interpretation, the Bible itself is full of crazy themes and ideas that will inevitably lead to a misaligned world view. But that is a topic for another time. Poor interpretation has led to the development of hundreds of Christian cults that have entertained all sorts of weird beliefs and practices, including suicide pacts and ritualised killings. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages also used unusual interpretations of the Scriptures as an excuse to launch a variety of assaults on apostates and unbelievers. The bottom line here is that in order to avoid some incredibly unorthodox interpretations of Scripture biblical interpretation is required. So our starting point is an absolute necessity for correct biblical interpretation but a total ignorance from the majority of the church towards this necessity.
In order to accept that biblical interpretation is necessary we must first accept that there is only one correct interpretation of any given Scripture. In the absence of extremely liberal, reader-response style understandings of interpretation, it is fairly universally accepted that the biblical scriptures have only one correct interpretation which is the meaning intended by the author. So the aim of biblical interpretation is to determine what was meant by the original author of the Scripture. As an aside, this is something which I found to raise alarm bells in myself and other people. This is not because of the fact that there is one correct interpretation of Scripture, but rather the fact that the author is the one who had an intended meaning, not God. This fact suggests that the scriptures are the writings of human beings and not a divine being. We won’t get side-tracked by that however, let’s get back on track.
If we accept that correct biblical interpretation is necessary we can move on to ask how does that happen and what are the results of it? There are different methods of interpreting text, the primary method that I was taught to use for the interpretation of Scripture is the Grammatical-Historical method. This is a method which attempts to interpret Scripture plainly without the overuse of allegory and metaphor. A key importance to note here is the fact that this type of interpretive method falls within the realm of the arts and not the sciences. This means that interpreting Scripture is a subjective art form rather than an objective scientific method. This means that there is no absolute answer, instead it is a process of attempting to use subjective reasoning in order to determine the meaning intended by the author who wrote some 2000 years ago. Anyone who has been through university and has an understanding of the differences between the methodologies used in the arts and the sciences will understand the implications of this. To put some context around this, attempting to understand what the Bible “means” in any given passage is akin to understanding what Shakespeare may have been implying by the use of certain terminology in one of his plays. This is highly subjective and generally devolves into a discussion, or argument about particular pet ideas, rather than a distinguishable result which tells us an absolute truth. This type of enquiry is perfectly fine when engaging in a discussion of secular literature because usually people are not going to base the way that they live their entire lives on what they interpret that literature to say. But Christianity, at its heart is the use of subjective literature in order to determine absolute truth. At the end of the day people are going to live their lives by these interpretations, regardless of the quality of the interpretations, or how they were acquired.
The True Meaning of Biblical Interpretation
I learned to perform biblical interpretation from A to Z and had to utilise it when studying particular passages of Scripture or writing essays on particular theological topics. The methodology requires the use of a number of different books which enable the theologian to determine the meanings of words and phrases. This may at first sound simple, but we are talking about the interpretation of sentences that were written between two thousand and three and a half thousand years ago in languages which are now defunct and in cultures which were extremely different to our own. These languages contain words which cannot be accurately translated into many modern languages including English. There are frequently no English words to satisfactorily represent a word used in ancient Hebrew or “Koine” Greek. So the first issue arises even before any interpretation can take place. The scriptures must first be translated from the ancient language into the modern language which contains pitfalls of its own. Translators are forced to choose between more literal and resultantly wooden translations that often don’t sound very good in the target language, and more loose translations which will sound much better in the target language, but may be less accurate. All types of translation have their flaws, but the latter type especially requires the translator to take some liberties with the original text. But once translation has been made the problems don’t stop there. Interpretation is not straightforward. While many passages may be fairly easy to directly interpret, there are others which pose hazardous problems. In these instances interpreters are forced to use theories to determine what they believe the author may have meant. This type of study involves an enormous amount of time and effort. In fact to attempt to get to the bottom of what certain words or passages of Scripture actually mean may require an investigation involving decades of time and an enormous amount of money and study. In most of these instances no solid answer can really be found and it is purely a matter of speculation. But the type of commitment required is out of the hands of the vast majority of readers, and even professionals within the theological community. At the end of the day only a tiny handful of people who are experts in ancient languages, customs and interpretive methodologies will actually be able to do this. And this is what I discovered: After all is said and done the interpretation of Scripture, even by so-called experts, actually involves looking at the commentaries written by this elite handful of interpreters and accepting what they have to say. If we unfold this to its inevitable conclusion we can see that the result is this: the “true” meaning of Scripture lies in the hands of a small group of people. These people have usually invested their entire lives into the study of the Scriptures, but they all have denominational preferences and subjective tendencies that will colour the way that they interpret Scripture. Using interpretive method we are left where we began prior to the Reformation. A small group of elect men will ultimately determine what the “meaning” of Scripture is and pass it down to the rest of us.
Is this the way that God really planned it? If God values his word so highly why would he constantly place its “true meaning” in the hands of a small group of people? Surely, a good God who wanted to communicate his message to all people, of all cultures and time periods would construct a work that was universally translatable and simple enough for the simplest mind to understand. The Bible that we have requires enormous work to translate and interpret because it was constructed merely by human beings, not by a divine agent.