A Discussion of the Main Features of the Hermeneutics of Scripture in the Classical Reformed Tradition

In the classical Reformed tradition of the 16th century, the main features of the hermeneutics of Scripture revolve around the following tenets: the Augustinian “sign,” the process of transmission, and the formal principle of “sola scriptura.” I see these three tenets as focused exclusively on the sense of interpreting: issues of “how” (how do we interpret scripture when recognizing that the words of scripture are a chain of “signs”?), “by what means” (by what means do we interpret scripture recognizing the transmission process between intent and meaning?), and “why” (why do we interpret Scripture by recognizing “sola scriptura”?).

In order to suggest that the above are the main features –though certainly not all –of the hermeneutics of the classical Reformed project, any of the following can be used as a point of reference: Augustinian tradition, Patristic exegesis, Renaissance humanism, Luther and “sola scripture –each of these, in their own right, can support my claim. But, I find that the Augustinian tradition is the best starting point. There, more so than the others, the Augustinian tradition provides a kind of manual for what hermeneutics should, and how hermeneutics should be practiced. It is in the Augustinian tradition that the “sign” becomes a very critical component of hermeneutics. To this end, it may be possible, as some have argued, that the concept of the “sign” is the greatest single contribution Augustine made to the development of hermeneutics. I would agree with this. When Augustine connected words to “signs,” he did so through structuring the reading process as an analytical one rather than strictly aesthetic –that is, reading, for Augustine, required a disciplined mind, a careful consideration of the relationships between “signs,” and a very thorough understanding of the roles of language situated in overarching grammatical structures. What undergirds the manner in which reading takes place is the sense that, as Augustine described exposition as a series of “signs,” the reader must take into account that each individual “sign” refers to something both in the literal and in the ideal. Of course, much later, Ferdinand de Saussure famously defined the “sign” as being comprised of a “signifier” and a “signified” –the former being the literal word itself, and the latter being the idea that the literal word corresponds to. In his Course in General Lingustics, Saussure distinguishes a signifier as a sound image (something quantitative) and the signified as a concept (something qualitative).[1] I bring Saussure into this discussion on Augustine because, like Saussure, Augustine is not only concerned with the nature of language ad hoc, but, more importantly, is deeply invested in the theoretical and practical components that inevitably go into what it means to do hermeneutics.

What is undoubtedly inherent in Augustine’s notion of the “sign” is how the “sign” is transmitted, particularly between the text and the reader. This is the intersectionality of the nature of language with the theoretical and practical components of hermeneutics. Like the “sign” comprised of the signifier and the signified as two sides of the same coin, the same can be said of Augustine’s overall hermeneutical project: how a “sign” informs the process of transmission, but also how the process of transmission informs the “sign.” Situated in this, too, is what is meant by “transmitting.” For Augustine and the Augustinian tradition infused into the classical Reformed tradition, “transmitting” involves the words of any given sacred text being divinely inspired as the Word of God. Notice the capitalization of “Word,” rather than “words,” where the quantifiable enumeration of “words” in a sacred text is the qualifiable Words of God. In other words, “biblical interpretation,” especially as it became known in the classical Reformed tradition, is rooted in “transmitting” the words of a given sacred text to a reader. In effect, what is transmitted between the text and the reader is meaning and understanding. I do not mean “meaning” and “understanding” in an arbitrary sense, but in a more specialized sense. To be sure, I am thinking particularly about translation, which is a hot-button issue at the very core of the development of the classical Reformed tradition as noted, for instance, in Martin Luther’s “Address to the Nobility.”

For Luther and the other Reformers, the notion of translation builds upon the Augustinian “sign” and the concept of “transmission” to the extent that “sola scriptura” –that is, scripture alone –becomes a teleological issue, one that is grounded in the understanding of hermeneutics carrying with it a grander notion of biblical interpretation. To differentiate this term from hermeneutics, I find that “biblical interpretation” speaks more specifically to the translation of a sacred text from one language into another. In this case, I am speaking about translating from Latin into the German for Luther and the French for Calvin. In either case, the need for translation, in light of what Luther cites in his “Ninety-Five Theses,” can be seen as one of the indulgences of the Church, the kind of indulgence that made the Bible inaccessible to the general public. In fact, I would call this indulgence a monopoly on the Word of God and the knowledge that can be derived from it. Moreover, through this kind of indulgence, any accessibility to the Bible was one of accessibility through mediation –a combination of all copies of the Bible being in Latin, only the priest having the capability to read Latin, and the Church owning all copies of Bible.

For example, “biblical interpretation” occurs in the translation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament from their respective original Hebrew and Greek languages into the language of the reader. For a reader –not necessarily an English-language reader, but any reader that wishes to translate a sacred text from a foreign language into their native language –“biblical interpretation” is utilized by simply finding out what a sacred text says. It is a simple consideration of the words as those words they are, where the reader does not add or delete anything from what is there. In this sense, the “meaning” and “understanding” that a reader wishes to establish from their encounter with a sacred text is grounded in literally parsing the words of that text into something more meaningful and understandable  –finding a foreign language’s equivalents in a native language. At this rather basal level, “biblical interpretation” is involved mainly with “meaning” and “understanding” at its lowest possible denominator. It simply does not go any further than the words on the page, their interrelationships with one another in any given sentence, and the fundamental semantic value in the accumulative proliferation of those words.

Obviously, when we talk about “biblical interpretation,” a reader’s encounter with a text is never limited to the lowest possible denominator. Essentially, what a reader discovers is that a text contains much more semantic elasticity to it, which ventures further than what can be called “literal.” When we consider the “fundamental semantic value” of the words as an accumulation of a collection of signs, the reader must be aware that a text has multiple layers of “meaning” and “understanding” –the Reformers were certainly aware of this, especially when following in Augustine’s hermeneutical footsteps. This multiplicity is relegated to and regulated by whatever degree of “meaning” and “understanding” that a reader teases from a text.

What the reader experiences, then, is an ongoing dialectic between intention and meaning or, perhaps worse, between the slipperiness of written words and human understanding. This “slipperiness” becomes particularly important for the Early Christian Church, specifically during the first three to five centuries of the development of Christianity following Jesus. During this time, “intention” and “meaning” are critical issues that move hermeneutics from simple “biblical interpretation” to complex “biblical hermeneutics” –it becomes a vital concern to do more than simply quantify what a sacred text says verbatim, but to peel back the many semantic layers seething beneath what is literally there. This movement is especially prevalent in the hermeneutical practices that Church Fathers applied to the formulation of Early Church doctrine. One important example can be found in the formulation of creed statements during the Councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.), Constantinople (381 C.E.) and Chalcedon (451 C.E.). Each of these Councils was dedicated to weighing “intention” and “meaning” in the sacred texts that developed within the Christian tradition –the overarching issue debated in these Councils revolved around an immensely important, yet elusive question: what does the text say in relation to what the text probably means and, in turn, in relation to what the text most certainly does not mean? This is an issue of “biblical hermeneutics”: a concern with conceptualizing “meaning” and “understanding” from a text that goes beyond and deeper than the simple quantification of the words.

By the time we move into “biblical hermeneutics,” it is safe to say that we are dealing with more than just the words on the page –we are doing more than just engaging the text in terms of, as I have mentioned, “what is literally there.” I call this, of course, the “quantification of the words.” When we embark on “biblical hermeneutics,” we, as readers, are injecting our subjectivity into our reading experience. In this regard, we are merging “what is literally there” with our own preconceived notions, prior knowledge, opinions, assumptions, embedded theologies, and so on. Our lived experience before we come in contact with the text engulfs our reading experience. This “subjectivization” of the reading experience is one that, perhaps, makes it possible for a reader to “read into” a sacred text and extract from that “reading” anything conceivable. In effect, that means making the sacred text mean whatever a reader chooses it to “mean” and, likewise, understanding whatever they want to “understand” from it.

Essentially, I would argue that Augustine’s Platonic notion of the “sign” sets the “hermeneutical” stage for the classical Reformed tradition. This becomes particularly significant when we consider that two of the chief leaders of the Reformed movement, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both “read into” Scripture something that allowed them to conclude that the Church needed “reform.” Lutheran and Calvinistic hermeneutics –if I may refer to them as such –carefully weighed “intention” and “meaning” in the Scripture to the theological extent that they realized that, in short, there were unnecessary excesses and inappropriate dogma in the Church. For example, in Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther “read into” Scripture that the Pope and the Church hierarchy were engaged in extra-Scripture indulgences of office and a corrupted understanding of penitence.

What eventually arises out of the Reformed movement is the necessity to find “meaning” and “understanding” as separate endeavors for sake of “meaning and understanding” as a collective endeavor, rather than being dependent on what Church dictates “meaning and understanding” are. Luther’s and Calvin’s approaches to hermeneutics involved elevating the reader’s individualized experience with a given text with the intended purpose of performing what I would like to call “subjective meaning-making.”


[1] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Translated by Wade Baskin, Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1969), 66.


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