Presuppositional Hermeneutics

Porter and Robinson define hermeneutics generally as “the many ways in which we may theorize about the nature of human interpretation, whether that means understanding books, works of art, architecture, verbal communication, or even nonverbal bodily gestures.”[1] Even in the deep waters of post-modernity, it is safe to say that everyone operates from within a worldview that more or less makes sense to them. This worldview is constructed through a series of interpretative decisions about the world that together contribute to create a web of meaning. The task of hermeneutics is to study how these interpretations are being made. Therefore, hermeneutics is to be differentiated from interpretation.

Every person is an accomplished phenomenological interpreter but not every person is an able practitioner of hermeneutics. That is, for good or for ill, everyone is interpreting the world around them all of the time. If we intentionally withhold judgment about the value of any given interpretation, then we must conclude that we are all “accomplished” interpreters. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, requires a person to intentionally stand outside of the act interpretation in order to observe and analyse the act of interpretation itself. It therefore requires an awareness that is able to stand back from the common experience of interpretation in order to study how the interpretation is being performed. Not everyone is able or willing separate themselves from the act of interpretation in order to practice hermeneutics.

Just as every person is an interpreter in the most general sense, so also every person who reads the Bible is a biblical interpreter. Likewise, just as not everyone is aware of the hermeneutical framework behind the interpretive construction of a worldview, so also not every person is aware of the hermeneutical paradigm that informs biblical interpretation. The task of this blog post is to present a hermeneutical framework for biblical interpretation. To accomplish this task we will explore seven “orienting questions and issues in biblical hermeneutics” as given by Porter and Stovell in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views.[2]

 One: Where does meaning happen?[3]

All communication has a sender, a message, and a receiver. All three have a role to play in the exchange of meaning. By communicating intelligently, the sender intends to mean something. The message communicated carries data that contains meaning. And, the receiver is required to interpret the data that is being carried by the message in order to try to comprehend the meaning of the sender. Within this exchange, where does the meaning happen? It happens in all three. The sender means something. The message carries meaning from the sender. The receiver interprets meaning from the message. When all three align so as to agree, we can say that “perfect” communication has occurred and meaning has happened in all three. But what when the receiver interprets meaning not intended by the sender? Still, meaning of some form happens in all three, though the original meaning has been lost or morphed into something not intended by the sender. In this case the three loci of meaning do not align and therefore miscommunication has occurred. Nevertheless, some kind of meaning has happened in all three.

 

Two: What is the basis or foundation of meaning?[4]

Does the answer to our first question suggest that the sender occupies a privileged place with regard to the basis or foundation of meaning? In a strict sense, yes it does. A message is only as good as its ability to communicate the sender’s intended meaning. Likewise, a receiver’s interpretation is only as good as his or her ability to comprehend the sender’s intended meaning via the message communicated. Therefore, the pristine meaning originates in the mind of the sender. Though meaning happens in the message and in the interpretation by the receiver, any deviation by either constitutes a loss of the pristine meaning and can be called a deviant meaning.

 

Three: Is meaning limited to the author’s original intent?[5]

Although we have suggested that the pristine meaning is limited to the sender’s original intent, meaning itself is not limited to the sender’s original intent. A deviation from the sender’s pristine meaning creates a new meaning not intended by the sender but one that is nevertheless real. As many communicative experiences demonstrate, these deviant meanings are potent and consequential. Though the pristine meaning may be the preferred meaning, deviant meaning is a real phenomenon that cannot be ignored.  Indeed, it might be argued that history turns more on deviant meaning than on pristine meaning. Many wars have been fought, many Beatles songs adored, and many biblical commentaries written on the basis of deviant meaning. Therefore, meaning itself, as a neutral commodity, cannot be restricted to a sender’s original intent.

 

Four: Who or what arbitrates a “correct” reading or at the very least a “helpful” or “harmful” reading?[6]

If the mere concept of deviant meaning is a reality then it must be said that deviant meanings, plural, are sure to exist. This being so, in addition to a pristine meaning we have the potential for unlimited deviant meanings. Are, then, all meanings equal? Are deviant meanings equal to the pristine meaning? For that matter, are all deviant meanings equal? To this series of inquiries it may be said that the pristine meaning constitutes the “correct” reading and that deviant meanings can be “helpful” or “harmful” to infinitely different degrees. The problem, of course, is that the receiver can never be absolutely sure if he or she has attained the pristine meaning unless the sender is available to confirm or deny his or her interpretation. Even then, a wedge of doubt is impossible to overcome, for in confirming or denying the receiver’s interpretation one cannot be sure that the sender-turned-receiver is able to properly ascertain the pristine meaning of the interpretation of the receiver-turned-sender. At this point, therefore, a proper interpretive humility is in order and a relative closeness in meaning replaces the pristine meaning as the goal of communication. In other words, the sender and receiver need not be sure that the pristine meaning has been communicated so long as a close meaning can be agreed upon. The meaning may not be pristine, but it is close.

Abstractly, therefore, we might suggest that the closer the meaning is between sender and receiver, the more “helpful” it is, and the more apart the meaning is between sender and receiver, the more “harmful” it is. If the sender is not available to help ascertain the likelihood of a close meaning, however, who is qualified to decide? This segues beautifully into our fifth question.

 

Five: What is the role of theology in biblical interpretation?[7]

In the case of biblical interpretation, the sender is an author(s)/editor(s), the message is the biblical text, and the receiver is the one interpreting, which includes both the intended and multiple unintended audiences. The role that theology undertakes in biblical interpretation depends upon the interpreter’s confessional position. If we assume a Christian confessional hermeneutical position by the interpreter, then theology is the essential arbitrator of meaning. In order for theology to play this distinguished role, however, it is required that the interpreter choose necessary a priori presuppositions.[8] These presuppositions are then endowed with interpretive authority giving the theological framework the right to arbitrate between “helpful” meaning and “harmful” meaning.

Since these presuppositions will largely determine the interpretation of any given biblical passage it is important to choose them wisely. There are certain presuppositions that ought to be common among all Protestant Christians. They are:

(1) God exists. Belief in God is a necessary starting point for Christian hermeneutics. If the interpreter does not believe in God then he or she is not participating in Christian interpretation.

(2) God has revealed Himself to humanity by nature, history, and Scripture.[9] Nature and history constitute general revelation, by which God has made Himself known to all people (Rom 1:20). Scripture is special revelation given by God to and through humanity for the sake of coming to know who He is.

(3) God illuminates His self-revelation by the active work of the Holy Spirit.[10] Unless humanity is able to perceive God’s self-revelation, it is of no value.[11] Therefore, it is essential that God both reveals and illuminates his self-revelation. Erickson defines illumination this way: “As traditionally understood, this doctrine teaches that the Holy Spirit of God does a supernatural work of grace in the believer’s mind and life, making possible understanding of the Scripture that He has inspired.”[12]

(4) Jesus Christ is the goal and climax of God’s self-revelation.[13] Binding Christian hermeneutics together is the central and supreme role of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the hermeneutical key for fully understanding the deep meaning of any given biblical text or theological idea (Matthew 5:17, John 5:39-40, and Luke 24:25-27, 44).[14] All of redemptive history orbits around the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and all of redemptive history will find its final consummation in the eschatological eternal reign Jesus. As Goldsworthy simply and boldly asserts: “The person and work of Christ are at the heart of our hermeneutics.”[15]

To this list of four I would add the following four presuppositions that may not be held by all Protestant Christians:

(A) Scripture is of human and divine authorship/editorship.[16] The implication of this presupposition is that Scripture is an entirely human and entirely divine creation. The position of Christian hermeneutics is to hold the human and divine natures in tension, just as the human and divine natures of Jesus are held in tension. It is required that the Christian interpreter not err to the left or to the right. In seeking the close meaning, therefore, the Christian interpreter must be mindful of both the human-sender and the divine-sender. In other words, a full interpretation will balance the intention of the human author(s)/editor(s) with the intention of the divine Author/Editor. The idea that the Bible is the fruit of mere human imagination and creativity is an insufficient hermeneutical supposition for Christian theology. Furthermore, reducing the absolute meaning of a biblical text to the intent of the human author fails to consider the possibility that the divine author had more in mind than the human author was aware (e.g. 1 Pet 1:10-12).[17]

(B) Scripture is an authoritative record of God’s plan of redemptive history.[18] The historical-critical approach to biblical interpretation has done much to reconstruct the world behind the text. Within this reconstruction there are both minimalist and maximalist views regarding the history of Israel. I hold to a maximalist perspective. Moreover, it is the biblical text itself that is accessible to people and communities of faith. If we hold to assertion-A, that the Bible is of divine and human origin, then it must follow that the Bible is the authoritative record that preserves the meaning of redemptive history.

(C) Though originating from many human sources, the final form of the canon is to be interpreted as a single text.[19] Since God is a co-creator of the final form of the canon, it follows that this final form is to be interpreted as a single text so that Scripture might interpret Scripture.

(D) God’s self-revelation before the Incarnation (i.e. Old Testament Scripture) is to be understood from a post-Incarnation vantage point. Brevard Childs insisted that the Old and New Testaments each have a discrete voice that bears witness to the Person and Mission of Jesus Christ:

At the heart of the Christian faith lies an apparent paradox in relation to its Scriptures. On the one hand, its canonical form which consists of two Testaments provides a warrant for respecting two discrete voices according to the literal/plain sense of the texts. On the other hand, the Christian Church affirms that its Christian Bible is a unified witness bearing testimony to one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the divine reality underlying the entire biblical canon.[20]

I agree with this perspective and maintain that we interpret the Old Testament from a privileged perspective. We are now able to perceive that which had been veiled in the Old Testament before the first coming of Christ. To refasten the veil is to make a serious hermeneutical blunder for the Christian interpreter (2 Cor 3:14-18).

To summarize, the goal of biblical interpretation is to exegete a close meaning to the original intent of the human and divine author(s)/editor(s). The only way to do this is to work within acknowledged a priori presuppositions. These presuppositions ought to reflect the rule of faith of a community of faith, ideally matching the main trajectory of the history of the Christian Church.

 

Six: What role do events occurring after the original composition play in interpretation?[21]

This question was answered above. To reiterate, all biblical texts must find their ultimate signification in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Incarnation ought to radically change the way we interpret the Old Testament.

 

Seven: What other disciplines should be used to help provide greater clarity to biblical studies?[22]

Other disciplines should be used to assist in biblical interpretation. However, any methodological approach that requires the interpreter to abandon one of the proclaimed presuppositions must be discarded and not used. For example, a method that rejects the existence of God or the reality of the supernatural cannot properly assist the Christian to interpret the Bible. Likewise, a method that rejects the centrality of Jesus for biblical interpretation threatens to conceal more than it reveals. Therefore, the presuppositions acknowledged by the interpreter will determine which other disciplines will be helpful or harmful for the task at hand.

 

Conclusion

Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the world. Biblical hermeneutics examines the framework employed in the gleaning of meaning from the Bible. The interpretive ideal is to uncover a pristine meaning, which is the exact meaning of the original sender. This being impossible, the next best hope is to find a close meaning. In the case of biblical interpretation, the only way to arbitrate between “helpful” and “harmful” deviant meanings is to select necessary theological presuppositions. These presuppositions ought to be shared in general with the Christian Church (both local and universal), though differences of opinion on this front are unavoidable. In light of the precarious nature of interpretation a proper humility ought to come natural to biblical interpreters. In the absence of humility beware of harmful deviancies in interpretation.

As we look to the future of Christian hermeneutics I recommend that we in the Church and the Academy strike up a rigorous debate about which presuppositions ought to dominate our interpretation. For, it is the opinion of this short reflection that it is in the presuppositions that meaning truly resides.

[1] Porter and Robinson, Hermeneutics, 1.

               [2] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20-21.

               [3] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20.

               [4] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20.

               [5] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20.

               [6] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20.

               [7] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20.

               [8] Regarding the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers, Reventlow (Biblical Interpretation, 205) writes: “Methodologically speaking, the New Testament interpretation of the Old testament has much in common with Jewish exegesis… The uniqueness of the Christian understanding of the Bible as contrasted to the Jewish view… resided in the exclusivity of relating the entire Old Testament to Jesus Christ. Such an exegesis is not without presuppositions. That must be stressed over against the theories that wish to speak of an exegetical ideal unconstricted by presuppositions. The one who shares this ideal… will disapprove of this Christian preunderstanding by considering it tendentious and logically alien to our own methodology of New Testament exegesis.”

               [9] Throughout this paper by “scripture” and “canon” I mean the Protestant Bible.

               [10] Bayer, “Hermeneutical Theology”; Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 33-54.

               [11] Goldsworthy, Gospel Centred, 48-49.

               [12] Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 33.

               [13] See Griffen (“Redemptive-Historical View,” 92): “Jesus Christ in his person and work, centered in his death and resurrection (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-4), is the culmination of the history of redemption (revelation).” Also Goldsworthy, Whole Bible, 46-62, 81-96.

               [14] Clowney, All of Scripture, 32; Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 234-278; Goldsworthy, Gospel Centred, 47-48, 296-313.

               [15] Goldsworthy, Gospel Centered, 58.

               [16] See Bowland, Rendering the Word (especially 1-41, 163-184); Boda, “Biblical Theology,” 131-133.

               [17] See Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 11-32.

               [18] See Griffen (“Redemptive-Historical View,” 91-92): “Redemption/revelation is historical.”

               [19] I have combined two assertions made by Wall (“Canonical View,” 116-21): “Scripture is approached as a single text,” and “Scripture is approached as a shaped text.”

               [20] Childs, “Recovering Theological Exegesis,” 125.

               [21] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 21.

               [22] Porter and Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics, 21.

Bibliography

Bayer, Oswald. “Hermeneutical Theology.” In Philosophical Hermeneutics and Biblical Exegesis, edited by Petr Pokorny and Jan Roskovec, 103-20. Translated by Gwen Griffith-Dickson. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Boda, Mark J. “Biblical Theology and Old Testament Interpretation.” In Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, 122-53. Edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Bowald, Mark Alan. Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.

Childs, Brevard S. “Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis.” Ex Auditu 16 (January 1, 2000): 121-29.

Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching Christ in all of Scripture. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.

Erickson, Millard J. Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.

———-. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Griffen, Richard B. Jr. “The Redemptive-Historical View.” In Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, 89-110. Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Beth Stovell. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

Porter, Stanley E. and Beth Stovell. Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

Porter, Stanley E. and Jason C. Robinson. Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. History of Biblical Interpretation. Volume 1: From the Old Testament to Origin. Translated by Leo G. Perdue. Atlanta: SBL, 2009.

Wall, Robert W. “The Canonical View.” In Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, 111-32. Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Beth Stovell. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

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