This is a longish exploration of my hermeneutics. Aimed at the intermediate (academic) reader.
1. Personal Introduction
I am an ethnically mixed Indian (South and North India) who was schooled in two boarding schools, the last being an international school called Woodstock. I did my BA in English literature and subsequently worked in Mumbai as a film-journalist for a few years. I have also taught Journalism and religion at Woodstock.
I like to think of myself as comfortable with diversity which to me reflects the fact that I have never found that I belong solely to one region, nor have I found it too difficult to adapt to other cultural settings.
My Church tradition has been similarly diverse and difficult to place; multiple influences range from charismatic, ecumenical (Church of North India), methodist and baptist churches. My formal theological training has been in the evangelical framework (I have done my MA and am completing my MTh in an evangelical college). I find that I am not so dogmatic about doctrines and see hermeneutics as a key to discussions within diverging views. My hermeneutics has been largely text-centred.
I have been accused of allowing too many postmodern assumptions about the plurality of meaning and the subjectivity of knowledge. I have been urged by a few to adopt a more conservative line holding on to an objective and universal truth. I find that it is possible to question our claims to objective and universal knowledge through Karl Barth’s thought that God’s revelation and His objectivity is the challenge to our created objectivities (hence subjectivity) and experiences. Only because God is outside our control, and only because God is interested in making Himself known, that we can legitimately believe that it is possible to know God adequately.
This paper is an effort to reflect upon my hermeneutics, especially in view of the Hermeneutics course that I have been attending. I will first deal with my hermeneutical presuppositions by explaining what I consider my theological and philosophical framework. I will then briefly identify my interpretative approaches. I end this paper with a critical reflection on my hermeneutics, attempting to see where I lack and how I think I can improve.
2. Hermeneutical presuppositions
2.1. Theological paradigm
2.1.1. What is the Bible?
I believe that the Bible is not divine. It does not have power in itself nor of itself. It is a creation of God through man. Hence I tend to view the Bible as a witness to God. Certainly the biblical witness has the highest priority for knowledge of God in the Church and the life of the individual believer. Yet I say this because I believe that the motivation for Christian hermeneutics is not know the Bible better but rather to know God more.
The Bible has multiple genres and hence I am inclined to believe that God was involved through the intentional human contextual shaping of various biblical texts. The multiple styles of texts are not simply an embellishment to make the story more attractive, but rather they are significant for meaning. For instance, the narrative genre has specific truth that in God’s wisdom has been best contained as narrative. Furthermore, my view of Revelation is that it is apocalyptic literature, primarily written for the encouragement of the suffering church. I do not attempt to seek in it actual future events but rather see it as a message of warning and hope; that God will prevail.
2.1.2. Role of the Holy Spirit
While I strongly assert that God is involved in the process of understanding, I am not saying that there is no need for hermeneutics. I agree with Thiselton that the Holy Spirit works “through human understanding” and does not usually bypass the hermeneutical processes. I believe God is involved in the process not only of writing scriptures, but also of helping us understand. At the same time, while I do allow that God created us with the potential for understanding Him (hence unlike animals), still that understanding of Him is not in our capacity but in our dependence on Him to make Himself known.
Hence, I have an open view about the doctrinal differences in interpretations over history and even today. I see God’s sovereign involvement in the history of understanding, where we as Christians have learned to understand God better through a journey of various interpretations, even extremes. I assert that it is possible to arrive at a better understanding of the God of the Bible by an understanding of the history of interpretation, and also in view of neither in isolation of views that differ from our own.
2.1.3. Christocentric priority
I also believe that we must interpret the Old and New Testament through Jesus. Which is to say, in our search to know God, we know Him not through isolated texts, but from the perspective of Jesus. We may say that it is a cyclical argument; meaning ‘how are we to know Jesus’ without hermeneutics? But that is not point. Within a theological frame of reference, an understand of Jesus helps us put things into perspective. Meaning of the Bible is not simply determined of individual passages, but meaning is made more meaningful when seen in and through the context of the crucified and risen saviour.
2.2. Philosophical paradigm (how do I understand meaning)
There are two main philosophical paradigms that affect my reading. Firstly is in the need to identify were ‘right’ meaning lies, and I argue that it lies in the process when the reader gives up power over the text and gives the power to the text and the author’s world. The issue here is not that there is a single meaning, but within the scope for adequate meaning, some meanings are better than others. The second philosophical paradigm is determined through contextual influences, for instance from our Church traditions and also the paradigms of our resident culture.
2.2.1. Where does ‘right’ meaning lie?
126.96.36.199. When the controlling reader gives up control
Reading is a reader oriented reality. Hence it is legitimate to assert that the primary authority is with the reader. I have displayed this heavily reader-oriented world in Appendix A to show that even when we attempt to discover the authors world, we do it as readers and have power over how much we choose. Thus I not only feel that the reader has ‘power’ over the text, but I believe that there is no moral obligation on the reader so that she can create any meanings that she wants. The only power the text exerts over the reader, is if the reader gives it that power to the text. Let me add at this point that I use the word reader to talk about both an individual reader and a reading community. In effect, a reader within a reading community may not have the amount of independence as she supposes. She would be working with the constraints of the reading community, yet the same principle applies, where the reading community exerts power over the text.
I am not arguing that the meaning of the text lies solely with the reader, because I believe that God, as being outside our world is an objective referent for meaning, often in opposition to our subjectivity. We can create meanings, but we can also be wrong.
Thus, if we want to discover ‘right’ meaning, we can, in view of God, choose ‘ethical’ hermeneutics, where we seek to give up our power over the text and let the text gain priority to determine meaning. The resulting interpretation would seek to find meaning outside the reader in the text. Of course, Feuerbach’s makes a strong case about how our religions are our own construct and cannot be escaped. Yet I believe (and here’s a faith-based assumption) that in the effort to give up power to text (and hence follow certain interpretative approaches that help us do that), God helps us draw closer to an adequately correct meaning of the text that is not our own creation.
188.8.131.52. When the text gains primacy
As the reader seeks to give the text power, the text begins to assert power over the reader (the act of power is the work of the Spirit, and not the text itself). The text is the first and foremost authority to help determine ‘right’ meaning, and the text throws up certain rules and guidelines to read it. As we give up our power as readers, we aim to see the meaning of the text from the text. In fact, a lot of the meaning of the text lies within the text, where we can gain a sense of who the author is (implied author) and who the readers are (implied reader).
At the same time, the meaning in the text is not limited to textual concerns and is dependent on the text’s historical situation.
184.108.40.206. When the author’s point of view helps determine meaning
As the reader gives power to the text, she finds that the text’s authority is rooted in historicity. This works out in three ways. First, large portions of the biblical texts are designed as ‘fair representations’ of actual happenings and derive their significance by their truthfulness. Second, meaning of the text lies within the context of the original historical context, where for instance we can understand a particular word only because it was understood in a certain way at that time; this being a process of becoming conversant with the historical presupposition pool. Third, while in some cases the historical distance between today and the author’s world is not so pronounced, then an understanding of history can still help us appreciate the nuances of the text with greater depth, especially in relation to paradigmatic relationships.
2.2.2. The Influence of context for interpretation
220.127.116.11. The Church
I have already said that I have grown up in an eclectic church environment, and hence I remain open to various positions. The point here is that the Church has an important influence over our hermeneutical assumptions. I know that the Bible-question remains significant to me because of my baptist roots, while at the same time I see worship (outside the biblical text) as significant because of latent charismaticism.
In the same way, I believe that an adequate understanding of objective reality, namely knowledge of God, is possible as a collective effort, especially within the context of the Church. Hence, I want to build my interpretative approaches within a community perspective. Even if for instance I want to look at textual meaning, I would want to seek how others see the text, even traditional and extreme readings.
18.104.22.168. The World (India)
Our influences are not only from the Church but also from our national and ethnic contexts. Many ‘specific’ cultural tradition influence us, and for me in particular I need to understand what ‘Indian’ assumptions do I bring in my understanding of scripture.
I am not too keen on essentialist understandings of being an Indian, where there is something unique in an Indian understand for epistemology. Meaning there is nothing ontologically different in me to make my readings different from an African or European. Instead I see cultural influences as traditions that we adopt, knowingly or unknowingly, as well as questions that we seek to determine.
On example for the Indian context is that there is a tendency to highlight the importance of spiritual and mystical readings of the text. A popular approach among a few Hindu scholars would be take a holistic view of their multiple scriptures and seek to unite them under one spiritual head, namely the Brahman. Similarly there is a tendency to treat books are respect, and all the more a ‘holy’ books. Hence, in the Indian church, and especially in me, I find myself reacting against this cultural predisposition more strongly.
While there is not enough space to discuss this point, I mean to say here that seeking to determine cultural/ethnic hermeneutical approaches, is part of the community tradition that I find myself in. I not only need to learn from my own cultural paradigms, but I need also to see what influences have already impacted me.
3. Interpretative approaches
The philosophical presuppositions play out in various ways, and this section I list a few of the strategies I use to help me give the text more authority so that I can determine ‘right’ meaning. This listing is in no particular order.
3.1. Reading the Bible as a whole
I believe that we need to have a sense of what the Bible is saying as a whole, and especially that the larger biblical context helps interpret individual biblical passages. Hence, by reading a passage in its context is a process where we seek better meaning. Sometimes defined as concentric circles, this is a principle of arrive at meaning by starting with the small and reading around the larger context. Eventually, the whole helps understand the part and the part helps understand the whole.
Rather than see this as a spiritualist cliche, I believe prayer is integral for hermeneutics as it is one of the first steps to understand the text. Prayer is not a supernatural tool but rather a God-ordained expression of our dependence on God for help in understanding something that we would not understand without Him. It represents our need for someone greater to help us reach outside our own limitations. This can also be related to Vanhoozer’s call for humility and conviction during hermeneutics.
3.3. Priority for texts in their original language
I am limited in my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, yet I affirm that the Bible is better understood in those languages. Hence I need to seek to use tools to help me approach the original languages, as well as depend on those who work with original languages to correct my interpretation.
3.4. Literary analysis
Here I mean looking the process of looking for the directions the text is taking in terms of narrative, rhetorics and poetics. This is a flow of the text, and the effort is to identify the meaning within the flow. There is need here to identify the genre of the text and work within the paradigms stipulated by the text to understand itself.
3.5. Need to employ linguistic and textual tool
The above is supplemented in particular by the techniques of sentence diagramming, drawing out grammatical and semantical relationships. I find that these compliment literary readings quite well, because they provide a different point of view of looking at the text.
3.6. Importance of historical context
I am not entirely sure about the priority of historical context because of the possibility of using history with an agendas to prove points. This is evident when people use background to challenge tradition readings about women, divorce and remarriage and homosexuality. The point is not to reject background studies, but I sense the danger especially when there is limited knowledge. Personally I give background study for hermeneutics less importance to genre study and literary interpretation.
4. Critical reflection; in light of the Hermeneutics course
While the true effect of the Hermeneutics course is yet to be seen, immediately I can sense an important corrective from my older hermeneutic which is in a greater sense of clarity about practical interpretative procedure. While I knew that finding meaning was not simply an intuitive task, I tended to be intuitive in my reading through my literary background. The limits of literary hermeneutics are exposed by the need for a historical referencing. That is one area that I find strengthened, though practice will take a longer time.
I feel that my philosophical paradigm is a little weak, especially in its negative belief in actual knowledge. By listing everything as ‘text’ (Appendix A), I find myself falling into the trap of seeing things within postmodern perspectives without attempting to be critical of this paradigm. Sadly, at present I am not able to see another point of view that seems more convincing, but I know that the way I see things can and must be open for revision.
Methodologically, I have already admitted that I learned to see the grammatical and semantic connections. I think I need to balance my literary tools with actual historical genres. The danger of transferring current literary notions of genre and applying it anachronistically to biblically passages remains a danger and historical study helps in controlling that to some extent.
The above analysis of my hermeneutics is also a statement of what I believe should be my hermeneutics. The difference between my practised hermeneutics and real hermeneutics is seen especially when I reserve‘full’ hermeneutics for difficult or event (like ‘preaching a sermon’) hermeneutics; while I do a limited ‘first impression’ reading for devotions. Of course in devotional reading I rely on reading passages in their context and seeing their connections, but still I know that there I employ mainly literary tools to understand the meaning.
I do not want to justify this dichotomy. I know that I need to slow down my reading and work harder in looking for what the text means. I am reminded of Long’s assertion that almost all biblical texts have theological, literary and historical elements and need interpretative tools to draw out and balance all three. I know therefore that I cannot rely only on one tool to understand what the text means.
My hermeneutics is also weak in terms of meaning for today; and I know that all interpretation is only part of the story until I see what the passage means for today’s context. I see the need to develop an application impetus further and especially I need to be aware of what procedures I use (unknowingly) to make the meaning of text, significant for me (and my community) today.
This assignment has been more difficult to write than I initially anticipated. This is partly because this hermeneutics course reminded me how technical the hermeneutics discipline is and the amount of work it demands. This technicality and challenge works against my natural grain, but that does not change the fact that I feel it is imperative to adopt more strict procedures to control reading. As the final seminar of the course re-emphasised, sometimes regardless of how convinced I may be about the shape of a certain text I need to be more intentional on restricting my readings and ask questions that I would not usually do.
In that sense I find something right about my hermeneutical paradigm and approach, that I remain committed to the belief that hermeneutics is a collective discipline and we continue to need each other to help us understand God and His word.