HERMENEUTICS has been one of the big topics of the last 25 years. A seemingly endless series of books has been produced and academic papers written.
However, ‘hermeneutics’ is not only the preserve of academia. The Christian who says “I’m just a simple Bible-believer” can be just as adept at imposing an interpretation on the text as the most sophisticated theologian. Nor is ‘hermeneutics’ an entirely modern question. Christians have always struggled with how to read and apply the Bible, and have adopted various ways of doing so.
In fact, the history of how Christians have read and applied the Bible is most instructive, especially if we take note of what was really happening in the various historical developments. What we find repeatedly is that when people were asking ‘What do we think about the Scriptures?’ they were really asking ‘What do we think about Christ?’. This is because what we think about the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, will run parallel with what we think about the inscripturated Word of God, the Bible.
1. Apostolic hermeneutics
The apostolic answer to the hermeneutical question is the correct one: Jesus Christ is the God-man, saviour and Lord, to whom the apostles and all the Scriptures testify. This means that the objective historical Jesus is in fact the content of the gospel message and the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). The apostle’s answer comes from taking seriously the fact that Jesus claims to be the truth. There is a sense in which the apostles understood the Old Testament as providing the substructure of the gospel – and so the Old Testament helps us understand the New Testament. But the main thrust of the New Testament is on the person of Jesus as the one who makes clear what the Old Testament is all about. So the apostle’s hermeneutical position is that the gospel is the power of God for interpreting the Bible.
2. Early Christian hermeneutics
The early church was characterised by two streams, one from Alexandria and one from Antioch.
Christians at Alexandria followed Hellenistic Jews in adopting Greek ideas. Gnostic influences, which discounted the material world as inherently evil, led to a spirituality which moved God away from his historical acts. The historical events were seen as just allegorical stories and that inevitably led to the gospel being eclipsed as an historical event.
Antioch, on the other hand, emphasised the historical meaning of the Bible and so preserved the gospel as an historical event in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Out of this grew the historical method of typology which saw the Old Testament events as foreshadowing the gospel without dissolving the Old Testament’s natural, historical meaning. The Antioch strand’s weakness was its tendency towards the subtle heresy of Nestorius, which split Jesus’ divine nature from his human nature and declared him to be not only of two natures, but also to be two persons.
A third development in the early church was interpreting the Bible in the light of ecclesiastical authority and dogma. This is a subtle problem because we all do it and, to some degree it’s right that we do. We all interpret the Bible from inside our own adopted tradition and climb on the shoulders of the believers who have gone before us. The problem is when an ecclesiastical creed or confession of faith becomes the external authority by which Scripture is tested and understood. This became a bigger problem in medieval hermeneutics.
3. The struggle for an orthodox hermeneutic
The two big theological questions over which Christians struggled in the first four centuries were about the nature of God and about the person of Christ. How could God become man? And how could a man be both God and man?
By moving away from the apostolic hermeneutic of an historical Jesus, the biblical perspective on the relationship between the divine and the human, and between the eternal and the historical, was lost – both in relation to the Bible and Jesus. Without this perspective, people came up with all sorts of heresies about the nature of God and Christ, fusing or separating Jesus’ divine and human natures. Ebionism (Jesus is only human), Docetism (Jesus is only divine), Apollinarianism (Jesus is divine but not fully human), and Nestorianism (Jesus is two persons, two natures), were all trying to solve the mystery by dissolving one reality to make room for another. The same happened in heresies about God. The unity of God was preserved by reducing the Son and the Spirit to beings who were less than fully God.
Eventually, in 451 AD, the Council of Chalcedon set things straight by formulating a way of speaking about Christ which didn’t try to solve the mystery of how God could become man, but instead preserved it by setting the bounds of true statements. The Council decided that to keep an orthodox view you should believe that: a. Jesus is true God; b. Jesus is true man; c. the two natures are united in one person, but not fused; d. the two natures remain distinct, but are not separated. This structure of unity and distinction characterised the relationships in the Trinity. It also kept the true relationship between the divine and the human, and between the eternal and the historical, both in relation to the Bible (the hermeneutical question) and Jesus (the Christological question).
4. Medieval hermeneutics
Hermeneutics was very complex in the medieval period (500 AD-1500 AD). The influences of Antioch and Alexandria were both struggling for ascendancy and, although the search for the natural and historical significance of the Bible was never abandoned, Alexandria won over Antioch.
This lead to a complex method of interpretation being developed which didn’t ignore the natural meaning, but said that the text could be read in a four-fold way – the literal sense, the moral sense, the allegorical sense and the anagogical sense (which derived heavenly meanings from the earthly text). Allegorical meaning was at the heart of this approach. Allegory comes out of fusing the historical and the eternal, and the divine and the human. They are not kept distinct, and so the basic historical meaning of the text is lost.
Related to this was the idea of the rule of faith – the accumulation of biblical doctrine – which developed into the idea that only the clergy could interpret the Bible correctly. This was really fusing the Christ of history with the body of Christ, the church, so that there was no distinction between Jesus’ authority and the on-going authority of the church through its clergy. It eventually led to the doctrine of papal infallibility.
The other great hermeneutical problem is best seen in the work of Thomas Aquinas. A theological trend that had begun in the second century with Irenaeus, led to the separation of the natural and supernatural on the one hand and the fusion of the historical and the divine on the other. Catholicism, as it developed from this through to the late medieval period, came to fuse the ‘Christ who is without’ (the Jesus of history) with the ‘Christ who is within’ (that is, by the presence of his Spirit). The gospel event was redefined more and more in terms of what God does in us rather than as what God has done for us in the historic Jesus. Justification and sanctification were reversed so that a changed life became the basis of acceptance with God. Grace was redefined. It ceased to be God’s attitude which makes for the justification of the ungodly, and became the spiritual influence which flows (mainly through sacraments) into the soul making it good and, eventually, acceptable to God.
5. The hermeneutics of the Reformation
Luther, and then Calvin along with the other Reformers, abandoned allegorical interpretation and went back to looking for the natural historical meaning of the Old Testament. As they did so they also recovered the historical gospel, restored justification as the basis of sanctification, and moved grace from the heart of the believer back into the heart of God.
The Reformation’s hermeneutical principles came out of what the Bible said, and so the gospel returned to being the key to proper interpretation. The unity and distinction of the Old and New Testaments were clearly recognised. Exegesis became a matter of understanding the divine word as it comes to us in human dress. The Christological question “What do you think of Christ?” once more dominated in the interpretation of the Bible. If Jesus was the divine-human word incarnate, the Bible was seen as the divine-human word inscripturate. So, once again, there is unity and distinction. Even though the Bible and Jesus are distinct, they are also the same – they’re both manifestations of the one Word of God.
6. Enlightenment hermeneutics
The Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began more as a tendency to the Ebionite heresy in down-playing God’s influence on humanity. Eventually it rejected God altogether. Instead of the divine and human being both united and distinct in both writing the Bible and reading the text, they were separated. So, even if the Holy Spirit existed, he had no part in writing the texts and the inspiration of Scripture became a meaningless concept. Nor could the Bible-reading believer count on the Spirit to help them understand what they were reading.
The Enlightenment led to various developments in the business of interpreting the Bible. Once the theory of interpretation was divorced from divine revelation in the Bible, working out what the Bible said came to be thought of as a matter of human scientific advances. Different philosophical perspectives, which had always dogged the question of hermeneutics, took over from biblical views of reality and knowledge (metaphysics and epistemology). Theological hermeneutics gave way to philosophical hermeneutics. Revelation by God was replaced by natural processes and independent human thought declared God to be irrelevant.
Even though the structure of unity and distinction was held in theory, in practice it was constantly attacked by a tendency to turn distinction into separation. In biblical criticism, the Enlightenment led firstly to a concentration on the history of religious thought and the history of the biblical texts. These are both legitimate dimensions of the Bible to study, but concentrating on them separated them from the Bible’s theological and literary dimensions. When the new hermeneutic turned to consider the nature of the Bible texts, their theology was down-played and the author’s intention ignored.
7. An evangelical approach
As evangelicals we believe in the Bible as God’s word to us, but what does this mean?
a. Unlike the Alexandrian strand, we recognise the Bible as both divine and human. The great diversity of texts in the Bible find unity in their common role of testifying to Christ. We reject all tendencies to a docetic or Gnostic Bible which ignores the human context of the divine word.
b.Like the apostles, we recognise that the Old Testament finds its fullest significance in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The relationship of the two Testaments is unity and distinction.
c. Unlike the medievalists, we avoid fusing the historic Christ with the Church as the body of Christ. So we recognise that the Church, far from being the Lord of Scripture, is created by the word and must submit to its authority.
d. While welcoming many of the insights of the Enlightenment, we reject its separation of the divine and human. We see Jesus’ incarnation to be the theological reason for all proper critical study of the text and its background. Much modern literary and historical criticism assumes God has nothing to do with the text, but evangelicals refuse to separate the historical and literary dimensions of the Bible from its theological dimension. All critical procedures must be tested by the authority of Christ in his gospel.
This is only the beginning of the story, but at least we can recognize that we can’t think about hermeneutics without thinking about Christ.