Biblical Interpretation and Biblical Hermeneutics

So, if we begin with discussing hermeneutics as “biblical interpretation,” it becomes possible to ascertain what David Jasper means in A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (2004) by offering the following: hermeneutics… is about ‘interpretation’ or even ‘transmission,’ and especially the interpretation of sacred texts.”[1] As Jasper argues, this sense of “interpreting” is focused on “transmitting” the words of any given sacred text from the sense of it being “divinely inspired or ‘the word of God’ into something quantifiable. In other words, “biblical interpretation” 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: I am thinking particularly about translation. I would argue, then, that, as a way of outlining what hermeneutics means in terms of “biblical interpretation,” we are talking specifically about the translation of a sacred text from one language into another. For example, “biblical interpretation” is 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. This is precisely related to what I would call “Platonic hermeneutics” –the idea that what is seen is not all that is seen, but a limitation of what can be seen, since “seeing” has semantic elasticity. 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.” 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, as Jasper suggests, is the “slippage between intention and meaning, or worse, between the slipperiness of written words and human understanding.”[2] 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 in 325 C.E., Constantinople in 381 C.E. and Chalcedon in 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. Jasper makes my point particularly clear when he discusses Augustine’s “greatest contribution to the development of hermeneutics” and subsequently argues the following “in brief”:

…for Augustine, any reading of Scripture must be disciplined by a careful and thorough analysis of its language and grammatical structures in order to prevent wild and groundless exposition. Words are signs –that is, they refer to something as signifiers and are not to be confused with the thing to which they refer. As we shall see later, this is a remarkably modern insight into the nature of language.[3]

This “modern insight,” as Jasper calls it, is an insight into theoretical and practical components that inevitably go into what it means “to do” hermeneutics. Jasper recognizes that Augustine understands that the “nature of language” is comprised of “signs.” These signs are “signifiers” that, if I may extend Jasper just a bit further, correspond to something “signified” –in other words, the chain of letters that make up a word is a “signifier,” something quantified concretely,  which is represented by an abstract image, or something “signified.”

With Platonic influences in tow, I would argue that Augustine’s notion of the “sign” merely sets the “hermeneutical” stage for the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century which, as Jasper rightly argues, “affected the greatest revolution in hermeneutics… that the church in the West has known.”[4] This becomes particularly significant when we consider that two of the chief leaders of the Reformed movement, Martin Luther (German) and John Calvin (French), both “read into” Scripture something that allowed them to conclude that the Church needed “reform.” With Platonic hermeneutics lurking in the background, 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.

What eventually arises out of the Reformed movement is the necessity to find “meaning” and “understanding” for sake of “meaning and understanding,” rather than being dependent on what Authority 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.” The Lutheran-Calvinistic approaches paved the way for the likes of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher of the Eighteenth Century. First, Jasper delineates Kant’s approach to hermeneutics as one that “questioned the objectivity of the world ‘out there’ [where] he was not suggesting that it does not exist, but rather that it is only possible to perceive and understand it on our own terms, and not absolutely.”[5] Now, as for Schleiermacher, Jasper describes him as having “insisted that reading is an art and that the reader of a text must be as much an artist as its author.”[6] Based on how Jasper outlines Kant’s and Schleiermacher’s approach to hermeneutics, I would contend that Kant and Schleiermacher were not just concerned with the “subjectivization” of the reader’s experience with a given text, but also the objectification of the text itself. I would argue that this is precisely what Plato was also concerned with: the sense that there is a difference between “subjectivization” and objectification” when encountering objects of understanding. In this way, both Kant and Schleiermacher –though they are on opposing sides of German Idealism –are aware that “meaning and understanding” are more than just a subjective enterprise but is, by association, an objective one. It is not strictly about how a reader is doing their subjectivizing, but how they are allowing the text to do its objectifying –this goes back to the notion of “reading into” a text.

[1] David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 7.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid., 56.

[5] Ibid, 78.

[6] Ibid., 84

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