Okay, I promise this is the last one of these. But, it was the only way to do such a meaty subject any justice. I put this last entry off till today so I could leisurely consider how to proceed. As usual, I spent maybe 5 minutes the entire weekend thinking about it. A few days ago, I halfway jokingly described my writing process as wasting as much time as I possibly could before breaking out in a flop sweat and nervously throwing some words up here at the last possible minute. Evidently, there’s a lot less joking in that description than I thought. See, I’m doing it right now. Enough of this.
Last week, I talked about inerrancy and why I don’t think it’s a viable hermeneutic. Today, I’ll talk about what I think is viable. Let me begin by defining that word I just used. Merriam-Webster says that hermeneutic is “the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)” and “a method or principle of interpretation”. There are several different hermeneutical systems. We’ve already discussed the literalistic method, but there are plenty of other ways of interpreting the Bible. The one I like and use comes from Dr. James M. Efird and is three-fold. First, consider what the writer was trying to say. Second, consider how the original audience would have heard it. And, third, consider what it means to us today. Now, let’s break that down.
- What was the author trying to say? This part of the method entails both historical context and language. It requires a basic understanding of what was going on when the text in question was written and that you take into consideration the vagaries of the language it was written in. Fortunately, there is ample historical information available. Even better, the language work has been done for you, all you have to do is pick the best translation. According to Dr. Efird, the most accurate translation of the Bible today is the Revised Standard Version (the New Revised Standard eliminated archaisms and changed some gender language). Personally, I prefer the Common English Bible which has language that is at “a comfortable level for over half of all English readers” (from their website). Now, you don’t have worry about those vowels.
- How would the original audience have heard it? Again, we deal with the historical context. I actually began to broach this subject Friday when I mentioned the political climate of the era and area where the texts that became the Bible were written and the fact that Jews of the time didn’t really believe in the whole heaven/hell idea. Those references were most likely added by Greeks and Romans who most definitely did believe in them. And, understanding that these texts were written by a people either in exile or under military occupation can change their perspective drastically. Taking all this into account is key to understanding the Bible.
- What does the text mean to us today? This is perhaps the most important part of this method of interpretation. It’s also the hardest because it’s so subjective. My interpretation the phrase “No one comes to the father except by me” could be entirely different from yours. It doesn’t mean my is right and yours is wrong, it just means we see things differently. These differences come from the fact that a person’s interpretation of a passage of scripture depends on so many things: what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned, their life experiences. Being a white, southern American male, I come at the Bible from an entirely different perspective than, say, an African-American woman in New York. But, as Rob Bell says “Whether we are reading the Bible for the first time or standing in a field in Israel next to a historian and an archaeologist and a scholar, the Bible meets us where we are.”
In Part I of this short series, I said I was addressing this because I felt many of the problems people have with Christianity come from “at best, a misunderstanding of Bible (and at worst, a willful misreading)”. I hope I’ve made some headway in clearing up these issues. And, if you don’t think you interpret the Bible because you read it “literally”, I’ll leave you with some further words from Brother Rob:
““[The Bible] has to be interpreted. And if it isn’t interpreted, then it can’t be put into action. So if we are serious about following God, then we have to interpret the Bible. It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people.”