A Starting Point for Hermeneutics

August 1, 2018 · 1499 words · 8 minute read Thought   Interpretation   Hermeneutics   Philosophy of Language   Glory to God   Acts   Bereans   Galatians  

Abstract

Hermeneutics are important. A starting point for a common-sense, God-glorifying hermeneutic can be developed by considering the nature of language, the responsibility of the individual and local communities, and the role of the intellect in interpreting scripture.

Definitions and Objectives

Before jumping into the post, let me first define a couple of the phrases in the abstract.

“common-sense starting point”

To clarify the objective of this blog post, I am not seeking to establish a complete and robust foundation for a hermeneutic. This is why I’m calling it a “common-sense starting point”; this blog post takes for granted many philosophical assumptions. While I do not deny defending my presuppositions would be a useful endeavor, I am not going to undertake it here. I’m going to jump into the argument at a point where I think most Christians would be in agreement.

“God-glorifying hermeneutic”

There are wrong hermeneutics. A wrong hermeneutic does not handle God’s revelation properly and will likely arrive at conclusions which are not supported by scripture.1 Thus, it is possible for hermeneutic to not glorify God. I intend to write more about this in the future, but for now I want to be clear that my goal is to establish a hermeneutic which handles God’s words properly and glorifies Him. A hermeneutic is a very powerful thing.

Foundational Principles

To create a starting point for a hermeneutic, I propose the following principles.

The Nature of Language

I assert that human language:

  1. Has meaning
  2. Can communicate meaning in a comprehensible manner

In other words, language is trying to communicate something and it is possible, at least theoretically, to understand that meaning through human language.

Again, I hope to establish this argument more deeply and philosophically in the future, but for now let me make two points regarding meaning in language and its comprehensibility.

Language has Meaning

I assert that language has meaning. To broadly deny this assertion would pose a problem because the denial of this assertion would imply that you have read my blog post so far, have understood it, and disagree (which would not even be possible if language did not have meaning). Again, this is not a philosophically robust definition and defense of the assertion that there is meaning in language, but I consider this self-evident enough to anyone reading this blog post to accept it as a safe, common-sense starting point.

Meaning in Language is Comprehensible

When I speak about the comprehensibility of meaning in language, I would like to qualify what I am asserting. As I said earlier, I assert it is “possible, at least theoretically, to understand meaning through human language”. I say “theoretically” because there may be practical concerns which interfere with our ability to derive meaning from language. For example, if I am talking with someone at a train station, I will not be able to understand that person if his/her voice is too quiet and I can’t hear him/her (unless his/her body language is very clear, of course). If someone writes me a note but the note gets left in a pocket and sent through the washer and dryer, I will probably not be able to understand the meaning of the note because it will likely be crumpled and wadded beyond readability. Thus, there can be practical limitations which prevent the comprehensibility of language.2 On the whole, however, I assert that the meaning of language is understandable.

The Responsibility of the Individual and Local Communities

Let’s assume the previous point, that language has comprehensible meaning. Given that assertion, let’s consider a couple of passages in the Bible which give individuals and local communities the opportunity and responsibility of reading and understanding scripture.

Acts 17:10-12 ~ The Bereans

The Bereans (in Acts 17:10-12) are called “noble-minded” because they were “examining the Scriptures daily” to make sure Paul’s teaching was accurate. The fact that they are commended for ‘fact-checking’ Paul affirms that it is not only acceptable, but also good for individuals and communities to examine and study scripture for themselves. By validating this behavior, Paul demonstrates that even teachers and leaders in the Church are only correct in as much as they correspond to the truth of scripture. The next passage takes it a step further by showing that we have a responsibility to understand and hold fast to scripture for the sake of the gospel.

Galatians 1:6-9 ~ The Galatians

I’m going to reference this passage in the next section as well, but nonetheless, consider Galatians 1:8-9:

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”

Notice that Paul does not establish himself, another man, or even an angel as the authority. Authority is the objective truth of the gospel and it is our responsibility, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to hold to this truth. The responsibility for understanding and defending the gospel belongs to every believer and community of believers. Based on Paul’s logic that objective truth is the authority, I would argue that this principle also applies to the rest of scripture and not just the gospel.

The Role of the Intellect

When trying to develop a hermeneutic, what is the role of the intellect? I will add some caveats and guidance to this point later, but for now I would like to prove that the intellect must be foundational for any hermeneutic. I will furnish two proofs for this claim. The first proof that the intellect is central to any hermeneutic is that we cannot escape our own minds. Everything we do, say, and think starts with our minds. We cannot think outside of ourselves. This means that all hermeneutics are, at their root, held because they make sense to the one who holds to them.

The second proof I will give that the intellect must be foundational to any hermeneutic is based on scripture. Regarding the intellect, I would like to make two points from scripture. First, there are multiple passages throughout scripture like Ephesians 4:20-24, Colossians 3:9-11, and Romans 12:1-2 affirm that being a Christian involves a transformation of the mind. These passages say nothing about hermeneutics, but they make it clear that the mind has a very important role in the Christian’s life. It is something that should be renewed and intentionally used to glorify God. As such, the Bible seems clear that the mind ought to be used. Certainly, we are fallible and need to be humble and open to correction, but this does not exclude the mind from having a role in a hermeneutic (which, as we have seen in the first proof, is not possible). The second point I would like to make from scripture to prove that the mind must be central to a hermeneutic is that the Biblical authors affirm the objective truth of their message. Consider passages like Galatians 1:6-9 and Acts 17:10-12. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul says:

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”

Paul is making an appeal to objective, transcendent truth. Notice that Paul goes so far as to say that the Galatians should ignore even “an angel from heaven” or even Paul himself and his fellow missionaries if they are not preaching the true gospel. Not that I think Paul was actually worried about ever preaching a false gospel, but he clearly believes that everyone talking about salvation is to be believed only as far as they correspond to the Bible and the apostle’s teaching. The truth of scripture is the measure by which all claims are measured. The question then becomes “What does the Bible and the apostle’s teaching say?”. This is a great question… for another time. For now, notice that by appealing to objective, transcendent truth, Paul validates the use of the mind in understanding this truth. This view is also supported by the wonderful example of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12.

Conclusion

Understanding the nature of language (specifically that language contains meaning and that its meaning is comprehensible), the responsibility we have as individuals and local communities to understand scripture, and the necessity of using our intellect to understand the objective truths of the gospel provides us with a starting point on which we can build a hermeneutic. I believe that any valid hermeneutic must be grounded in these three principles.