Continuing the Hermeneutical Discussion

I did not anticipate continuing to discuss hermeneutics, but I appreciate the opportunity to make some further comments. Throughout my academic career, I have been interested in the field of hermeneutics, beginning with when I was studying English literature, philosophy, and especially linguistics, and continuing to the present.

Students, however, are not always well served by various books that purport to be about hermeneutics. There are too many books that are more about interpretation—which usually means hermeneutics as technique or how to do it—than about what it means to understand as a human being. Many books that are used in seminary courses, even if they use the word hermeneutics, are often more about how to do interpretation—exegesis, if you will—than they are about what it means to understand. Some of these are books written by individual authors, and others are collections of essays with a little bit (often too little) on a wide range of topics. I won’t name names here, but such volumes are easily identifiable. They may be good for what they are, but they rarely address the major hermeneutical issues.

I would encourage students (and scholars, but that is another story) to gain a firm grasp of basic hermeneutical theory. I think that they will soon come to realize that there is no such thing as what is sometimes called the “plain sense” of a text, if by that one means a presuppositionless and contextless meaning of the text. Instead, interpretation encompasses a complex interplay involving at least the author, text, and reader, meanings mediated through language, socially and culturally influenced factors, and the relationship of past and present, among others. This is not to say that there is not meaning to be found in texts, but that the process of determining meaning is far more complex than many realize, and has been widely discussed and debated through the ages.

For those wanting guidance in hermeneutical matters, there are a couple of good, recent books I would recommend. I would begin with my former professor, Anthony Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). This can be followed up with any one of Thiselton’s other major works, although be prepared for some serious reading. These include The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), and The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). An excellent collection of his individual essays is found in Thiselton on Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). I do not get any kickback on recommendations of these books—only the satisfaction that readers are coming to grips with complex ideas in thorough and enlightening discussions.

I would, of course, be remiss if I did not mention a couple of my own works in the area of hermeneutics. These works differ from Thiselton’s in that they are less attempts to be synthetically encompassing , but more focused upon particular people and hermeneutical stances. I wrote with Jason Robinson, Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) and co-edited with Beth Stovell, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012), where five ways that the Bible is approached hermeneutically are presented and analyzed. Along with Matthew Malcolm (also a former student of Professor Thiselton), I will also be editing (and contributing to) a volume that comes from the recent Thiselton conference, entitled The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, forthcoming 2013). For some of these books I do receive a kickback, I must admit. Nevertheless, I think that these books do some things that other volumes do not, in making clear not only the distinction between hermeneutics and interpretation, but also how they relate to and influence each other.

About these ads

3 Comments

Filed under Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Studies

3 responses to “Continuing the Hermeneutical Discussion

  1. You list of references is very helpful. Thank you. I attended the conference in Nottingham and listened closely to you and the other scholars hoping to glean a better understanding of the subject. I’m a retired pastor. In my fellowship (Church of Christ), hermeneutics has always been approached as a means of determining authority. What is the meaning of Scripture that tells us what we can and can’t do? But one gentleman at the conference (can’t remember his name) stated a different perspective on the goal of hermeneutics. He said the goal of hermeneutics is the formation of Jesus within the heart of every believer in the church. This definition really hit home with me. I’d be interested hearing your thoughts on the purpose/goal of hermeneutics.

  2. Sid

    Hi Professor Porter,

    Weirdly enough, as I was reading this blog post, I was struck most by this statement:

    “Instead, interpretation encompasses a complex interplay involving at least the author, text, and reader, meanings mediated through language, socially and culturally influenced factors, and the relationship of past and present, among others.”

    I think what struck me the most about this statement (the weird part) was how being a second culture (Filipino living in a Canadian context) or sometimes third culture individual (Filipino who lived in a Canadian context living in a North African Muslim context) allows me to understand that issue in such a real way. There are some situations that the single cultured individual never have to worry about that I would because of my own history and experience. In some ways, I can self-identify with both the conquerors and the conquered and how easily things can look like on the other side.

    I truly wish that more books would explore this complex interplay because it is so important (and maybe I’m a bit biassed since I did study Psychology so it would fascinate me and my undergrad thesis was creating a theory on how people believe in what they believe in). I read an article which stated that the real battle in Christianity right now is not about social justice, homosexuality, abortion, divorce, or any other issue but that the real battle is on how we read the Bible. In some ways, I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Raymond

    What will be the title of the Festschrift for Professor Thiselton and who will be publishing it in North America? Thanks for your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s