My Personal Hermeneutical Theory
My Personal Hermeneutical Theory
The twin focus of my hermeneutical method is to (1) establish authorial intent, and then (2) identify a significance that is both appropriate to the original meaning and relevant to my context.
Hermeneutics has relevance to all of life, because it is how we understand and interpret communications. This broad scope is the purview of philosophical hermeneutics. Biblical hermeneutics, on the other hand, is a subset of philosophical hermeneutics, as it is limited to the question of how we should interpret the Bible. Ultimately, my goal is to help those in the church better understand God and his word. Hermeneutics is deeply linked to this. And how we approach hermeneutics directly influences what we think about the Bible and how we defend it to a watching world.
To begin, it’s helpful to define a few terms. Hermeneutics is an overarching set of processes and principles that guides our exegesis and interpretation — ultimately helping us identify the meaning of a text. A Text is not simply written words, but any communication, which could include spoken words. Exegesis is a nuts-and-bolts analysis of the grammar and syntax of a text. While Interpretation is our understanding of the text’s meaning. Meaning, broadly speaking, corresponds to the author’s original intent. Some colloquially confuse meaning with significance. While there is only one meaning (e.g. an author either meant this or he meant that), Significance can vary based on the application of the text. In other words, a text can have many different significances, based on how it’s being used. These last two, meaning and significance, are key.
As this is all a bit abstract, an example is helpful. If I adopt a hermeneutic which believes the author’s original meaning can be discovered, then, for example, when I look at the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:10c, “when I am weak, then I am strong,” my exegesis of the text will lead me to the interpretation that he is speaking of himself. This is the meaning. But as a fellow follower of Jesus, I can find great significance in this. Because even though Paul was not speaking of me, these words can also apply to me. How is this? A few lines before, Paul recounts Jesus’ own words to him: “my grace is sufficient for you.” If we combine this with another quote from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), we can extrapolate that this grace is not a private matter between Jesus and Paul, but Paul is like me, each a member of the body of Christ. This example glosses over a lot. But the main point is to illustrate the use of meaning and significance.
Hermeneutics is about communication. If someone has intended to say something, can we be sure (enough) we understand what they mean? And in the same vein, if God has intended to say something, we can we be sure (enough) we understand what he means?
What is meaning and where can it be found? This question goes beyond simply giving a definition to “meaning.” Rather, this is about understanding how words are used (how a message is encoded) so that what an author transmits is properly understood (or decoded). J.L. Austin’s speech act theory is helpful here. Per Austin, words help us in three primary categories: locution, illocution, and perlocution. To illustrate how this works, consider the brief exchange between two people, John and Sarah, where John tells Sarah, “Hello.” The locution is the written or audible word itself (the “hello”). But in this case, “hello” also represents a greeting, and that is its illocution: the function of the word. Then, finally, the result produced in Sarah, which, depending on the situation could be surprise, comfort, or satisfaction, to name a few, is the perlocution.
So what then does “Hello” mean? Staying within the lens of speech act theory, and keeping to the boundary of author-intended meaning (c.f. E.D. Hirsch), the meaning of “hello” is found within the illocution. John, unknown to Sarah, could be a villain. And his “hello” could perhaps have been intended to intimidate Sarah. But, further complicating the matter, Sarah could have been ignorant of his intentions. She may have thought he was simply being friendly. In such a case, the significance of John’s greeting to Sarah (the perlocution) was not at all in alignment with John’s intent (his illocution). Does Sarah’s ignorance imply that John did not mean something sinister? Of course not, regardless of Sarah’s awareness, John’s meaning is bound up in his intention.
As a brief side-bar, this discussion can quickly get to the definition of “definition.” A word’s (a locution’s) definition is not its meaning—though it often can be—but is rather its common description. For example, when I use the word “hat” to mean a piece of fabric for my head, as in the sentence, “I’m wearing a hat on my head,” my illocution and locution are in alignment. There is no turn of phrase or irony; the apparent meaning is the same as my intended meaning. And so the definition, or common description, is the same as my intent. While these can often be the same, they are certainly not required to be. The earlier example above of John’s “hello” greeting is an example of illocution and locution diverging: To Sarah, it sounded innocent, but John’s intent was not.
But what does this mean for an ancient written text, like the Bible, where only the locution remains? In the John-Sarah illustration above, Sarah in her ignorance completely misunderstood John’s locution. Since the Bible is nothing but locution, could it not also be the case that we are misunderstanding the Bible, as well?
Circular reasoning, that is viciously circular reasoning, is bad logic. For instance, when no new data is added to the equation, yet new conclusions are found, then that is a good sign that something may be wrong. There is an implicit “says who?” that is never answered. But taken to the opposite extreme, the insistence that everything needs to be proven in order to be valid, is equality problematic. Alvin Plantinga writes that some beliefs are “properly basic,” which is to say, it is reasonable to believe them without proof. They are self evident enough. Both of these concepts (everything must be proven and some things cannot be proven) represent the extreme ends of interpretation. Most of life, however, is not lived in the extremes. And the same is true of hermeneutics. And so what does it look like to “do” hermeneutics?
The hermeneutical spiral is a tool that helps navigate this middle ground: When we know some things, but not all things. It begins with a hypothesis (in some cases, just a plain guess) and as one collects more data, all new information is compared against the hypothesis (this is also circular, but it’s virtuously circular). Much like the scientific method of the empirical sciences, a similar question is asked: Does this new data confirm or contradict the existing hypothesis? The more corroborating evidence, the stronger the hypothesis becomes. E.D. Hirsch provides a little more structure with the introduction of genre. Genre is a grouping of similar styles. In literature, fiction is one genre, while journalism is a different genre. Within the genre of fiction, science-fiction and historical-fiction each represent their own separate genres (or sub-genres). Genres also help to test a hypothesis, because each genre has a set of conventions, or rules. Fiction often breaks the rules of journalism (reporting the truth, for example), and so it is unreasonable to understand fiction as journalism. Both are writing. And both can be valid expressions of whatever their respective authors are attempting to convey. But it is the genre that provides the context clues to help the reader (interpreter) understand the author’s meaning.
Consider again Sarah and John. How can Sarah expect to understand John’s intended meaning, especially if he is being duplicitous? She can look to other related details. She can watch his behavior. She can talk to other people who know him. She can, in other words, investigate to get a fuller understanding and answer the question: Is his locution consistent with his behavior or even his other locutions? This process helps an interpreter understand the illocution of an author’s locution.
In short, how confident can an interpreter expect to be when it comes to understanding the author’s original meaning? Absolute, one hundred percent certainty, in any real-world scenario, will almost never happen. But absolute certainty, often tantamount to perfectly predicting the future, is almost never necessary. Based on the relationship I have with my wife and our past history, I can (quite reasonably) trust that she will be faithful to me without me actually knowing absolutely that she will be faithful to me. In other words, I have a substantial amount more data pointing me toward the “faithful” conclusion than the data I have pointing me away from it (which is none in this case). Similarly, when an interpreter searches for the author’s original meaning, it is a matter of collecting and assessing relevant data.
But what of competing interpretations? For instance: Interpreter A, with a limited pool of relevant data, concludes a meaning (M), while Interpreter B, with a greater pool of relevant data, concludes a different, even contradictory, meaning (M’)? Which interpretation is correct? All else being equal, Interpreter B’s process is more likely to be valid due to having more relevant data. What I’ve not discussed is what makes data relevant or not. While data-relevance is important to the hermeneutical process, hermeneutics itself does not define what is relevant or not. Rather, the specific question or discipline (and the rules, or genre, that accompany it) is what determines data-relevance. In this way, hermeneutics is a bit like algebra, though not as visually tidy. If you input the wrong variables into an equation, you will have “worked” the problem correctly, while still getting the wrong answer.
But what if Interpreter A and Interpreter B share an equivalent (or close enough) pool of data, yet each still comes to a different, non-compatible conclusion? If our goal is to understand the author’s original intent, then an interpreter has several options at their disposal. Following Hirsch, one can continue to narrow the genre. Using our literary example above, this genre-narrowing helps us to know whether a novel (fiction) would belong in steampunk or space opera. The two are both science fiction (they share the larger genre). Yet, they have very different audiences, because their sub-genres are different. Another option is quantitative. Truth isn’t determined by vote. But the majority of relevant experts on a matter does tell us something. And another option still is to see which conclusion fits best into a larger theory, and then which of those larger theories are strongest.
A similar question to the above is: How do we account for bias? This is difficult, especially when it is one’s own bias. Genre can help with this, as can other relevant experts. Both can help one see their bias. Helping another person see their bias can be difficult for various reasons, because that other person may have other beliefs or worldview commitments that cause them to weigh evidence differently. Hermeneutics is not a magic wand that neutralizes a person’s worldview. Nor is it a tightly defined set of rules. But a good hermeneutical method can expose weaknesses in a person’s worldview, if one is willing to see them.
Hermeneutics does not directly address the question of truth. If, for example, one believes that God’s word is full of truth, hermeneutics can help one interpret or understand that word/truth. But (ontologically) it cannot directly gauge if God is actually providing truth in his word. On the other hand, hermeneutics can help get us closer to truth (epistemically), if truth can be ascertained through probability. For example, the correspondence theory of truth is the belief that truth corresponds to fact. When consistent (and relevant) facts are discovered in both Scripture and the real world, and when these facts have a direct relation to what is being said (say, a historical account), then one’s hermeneutical method can help corroborate the truth.
In any field as broad as hermeneutics, it’s tempting to look for the rules: The guide-rails that help to “cut through the mustard,” as it were. Ultimately, while the rules are helpful, they are not the end. A reader must always be discerning, and always open to sharpening their understanding. That said, there are some helpful guidelines when interpreting Scripture. First, establish the genre. What kind of literature is it? Poetry, history, a letter, or something else? Next, can the genre can be further narrowed? A New Testament example of this would be differentiating between one of Paul’s letters and one of Peter’s or John’s. Third, assess the original content to understand what the original author would have meant. This can be an investigative work of comparing other biblical texts with ancient non-biblical texts of a similar time/place, and then weighing the opinion of relevant scholars. Only once one has understood the original meaning (or, at least, has a pretty good take on it) can a direct significance be drawn. This is the application of Scripture to one’s own life.
Consider a brief example from 1 John 5:15: “And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” To begin, it’s clear the genre of 1 John is letter, based on the form and style. The letter-genre is meant to convey a specific message to a specific recipient. So the interpreter must do the historian’s work of understanding, at least in a basic way, the context with which the author wrote. Further narrowing, we can compare this to John’s other letters. Second John and 3 John are good help in this. And while it is not a letter, the Gospel of John is helpful, too, since it came from the same author. These give us context clues that help build a picture who John was, what kinds of things did he write, and who else did he write to. Third, to understand John’s original context, we can begin by who he is writing to. A few verses before, he notes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,” so while the exact audience may not be clear, we know they would have been both Christians and his contemporaries. Likewise, in 3 John he refers to his audience as “my children” (3 John 1:4), indicating a close relationship with his audience. It may or may not be the same exact group he’s writing to in 1 John.
Additionally, history can help us fill out this picture, by asking a few critical questions: What was life like for late-first/early-second century Christians? Were there any known heresies or theological controversies he may have been addressing? Finally, what is the significance of this verse (1 John 5:15)? Interpreting a portion of a thought must be consistent with the whole. For instance, one could pull this verse out of context and conclude that God is more akin to a genie, ready to grant whatever we can think up. But the immediately preceding verse adds the qualifier: “according to his will.” That is, anything we ask according to his will he will answer. What does that mean for my life, personally? Several significances can be drawn. First, I am a child of God, so even though John did not write this to me, I can rightly apply this principle to my life. Second, I can take confidence that the God I serve is not aloof, incapable, or uninvolved in my life. Third, unlike human relationships which come and go, God is always there with me. And fourth, pastorally, these same encouragements apply to those in my local body.
The question Where is meaning located? is central to hermeneutics. While a reader can certainly find unique or multiple significances, the meaning is found in the author. The text (written or otherwise) is a medium, representing the author’s meaning. But the text without the author — while it may have some significance — cannot have meaning.
 And within a sub-genre, there are further divisions. For example, within science-fiction, there is techno-thriller, space opera, and steampunk, to name a few. This kind of niching becomes relevant when one needs to further narrow the genre to better understand what is and what is not an appropriate convention.
 This is, of course, hypothetical for the purpose of this thought experiment, because it is often very difficult to quantify some kinds of data. Take the “New Perspective(s) on Paul,” as an example. It can be argued that most scholars are dealing with a similar data pool, and many of these evangelical scholars would agree that the author’s original intent is paramount, yet there is still disagreement on the conclusions. One difficulty comes when different interpreters cannot agree on what the right data set is. Continuing again with the New Perspectives conversation, some, like N.T. Wright, may put greater emphasis on first century historical factors, while others may put a stronger emphasis on church tradition. In some ways, however, this steps beyond the bounds of hermeneutical methods. The issue is not in the hermeneutical method employed, but in the assumptions one “plugs in” to the equation.
 As opposed to a poem, which could be written for anyone to read and will often speak of larger universal (or even abstract) truths.