Monday, June 8, 2009

The bounds of hermeneutics

Here is a thought re hermeneutics - trying to understand what the Bible is saying, both in general and on particular issues:

We should keep an eye on (what I shall call) the bounds of hermeneutics. By 'bounds' I mean that hermeneutics for Christians is not just about me, the text, and wherever my thinking about the text takes me. Hermeneutics is an intention to read the text responsibly within certain bounds, constraints on what makes for a sensible, if not sensitive reading of Scripture. Breach one of the bounds and it is likely that the interpretative proposal we put forward is unlikely to be received by the church as truth. But the bounds do not themselves tell us what readings are false and which are true.

Four such bounds are Mission, Scripture, Tradition (or History of Interpretation), and Public Truth. That is, on any giving proposal for our understanding of the Bible we should think about the relevance of Mission (how might Mission shape our understanding? Is our proposal going to be good or bad for mission?), consistency with Scripture (if our proposal contradicts another part of Scripture, perhaps we should reconsider), coherency with Tradition (meaning, here, the History of Interpretation: has our proposal been made before? If so, accepted or rejected? Is it completely novel? Does that make a difference?), and plausibility as Public Truth (in the end the Bible is not the secret code of the inner core of the church, it is a document of public truth: is our proposal for its understanding going to make sense to the public? If not, does that matter (e.g. for the communication of the gospel)?)

Sometimes reference to these (and other, see below) bounds may lead to a quick decision about the viability of a proposal. But mostly, I think, it will lead to recognition that some matters will be about holding a view in tension with other views. (I may need to explain that further in another post).

A couple of brief examples:

The creationist reading of Genesis 1 fits within the bounds of Scripture, Tradition, but raises questions about the fit with the bounds of Public Truth and Mission. To contradict the findings of science, for instance, with a reading of an ancient literary document is a pretty big call: it may well be implausible, but, worse, it may impede the preaching of the gospel because it has capacity to lead to perceptions that Christianity is a cuckoo-land philosophy.

The homosexualist reading of the Bible which deems there to be no godly reproof of loving consensual same-sex partnerships raises a number of questions from the perspective of 'bounds': it is not immediately obvious that it is a reading of Scripture consistent with Scripture, nor one that is coherent with Tradition. It could fit with the perspective of Mission (e.g. a useful way to read Scripture when one is seeking to witness to gay and lesbian people) but might also be an impediment to Mission (e.g. if sinful lifestyles can be reevaluated in this way, is there a need for a Saviour?). It is also obviously plausible as a contribution to Public Truth in some parts of the Western world, but also a contentious one, as witness ongoing debate in the United States and a series of decisions being made re 'gay marriage' with some close 50+/50- voting calls.

We could argue that neither of these two readings are universally regarded as breaching any of the bounds (thus we find them supported to one degree or another by Christians within churches). By contrast (say) the Islamic reading of Scripture which deems that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, and which denies that Jesus is the Son of God breaches the bounds of both Scripture and Tradition. With rare exceptions the Islamic reading of the New Testament is not upheld in the churches.

Another set of bounds to think about are those set by the description of the church as the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic' church. What do you think?


  1. The "Bounds" around interpretation is an interesting hermeneutical concept, Peter, but the first thing i want to say is that these are inherently fuzzy boundaries - they each involve a degree of interpretation and judgement. For example, when you say that the creationist reading of Genesis 1 "fits within the bounds of Scripture" what does this mean? That it is clearly a valid exegesis of the text? That it is allowed by a broader view of biblical theology? Something else? And how much of the 2000+ year tradition of reading this text has to support an interpretation before it is approved?
    Likewise, creationists would probably see your reservations about mission and public truth as reliant on contentious definitions of those things.
    A good starting point for discussion...

    I am enjoying your blog - keep up the good work!
    Now let's see if I can get this thing to post, 3rd time lucky.

  2. Hi Howard
    I entirely agree that theses bounds are 'fuzzy boundaries', themselves subject to a fair amount of argument. I am putting up this idea not so much to propose boundaries that of themselves would rule an interpretation in or out, but which might shape the process of interpretation, including reminding interpreters of potential difficulty if a certain interpretation is pushed hard.

    Two quick examples: (a) sometimes those of us proposing the support of Scripture for the ordination of women forget the bound of Tradition; remembering that bound should temper any (triumphalist) sense that support of Scripture for WO is unambiguous; back to (b) creationism: no matter how hard the creationists push, they must reckon with the contribution of science to Public Truth (which they do, by developing a branch of science called creation science), and, in the end, the creationist interpretation will constitute valid exegesis to the extent to which creation science is valid.

    I am glad you are enjoying the blog!

  3. That's good, but I want to pick you up on this clause - "in the end, the creationist interpretation will constitute valid exegesis to the extent to which creation science is valid." The physical sciences can't determine valid exegesis. Imagine for instance that the creationists' dreams came true and geophysicists began to favour a really really short timespan for the earth's prehistory. Would this make it any more probable that the original meaning of Genesis 1 included an assertion about that prehistory? Surely meaning can only be determined by examining the text within its original literary context.
    What I mean is this: if you and I disagree about whether a text asserts proposition X, then an investigation into whether X is in fact true is irrelevant to our argument. We can only be open to the true meaning of a text when we embrace the possibility that it may assert something false/unworthy/or irrelevant to our present concerns.
    Question A = What is the text saying?
    Question B = Is what it says true/important/worthy etc?
    These are two distinct questions, and distinguishing them is the starting point for all literary criticism (Thank you John Barton!).

    Or is this distinction invalid within biblical studies? If not within biblical studies per. se., then maybe within the hermeneutics of faith. I think this is a defining issue for conservatives, and needs to be explored at length.


  4. Help! I am going to have to think about that, Howard. I will come back to it but am now at a point of busyness in extremis and too many deadlines for the next little bit, or even whole week ahead!

  5. The physical sciences can't determine valid exegesis.

    Very true.

    However, even if, "geophysicists began to favour a really really short timespan for the earth's prehistory," that would not tell us whether they are correct or not any more than the fact that they now favour a really really long timespan for the earth's prehistory can tell us whether they are correct or not. Nevertheless the latter opinion is one that has had immense influence on the interpretation of Genesis 1 - 11 and even on the exegesis of all those chapters.

    When Galileo got into trouble with the academics of his day it was because he had no observational proof of what he had asserted, i.e., that the earth orbits the sun. Then along came better telescopes and Kepler. The thing was demonstrated to the academics' satisfaction, the church accepted their view as authoritative (as it had also accepted their earlier, contrary, view) and the church's interpretation of the relevant passages was changed.

    Even now, since the earth is still orbiting the sun, anyone who wishes to can make whatever observations are necessary to demonstrate that it is, indeed, still orbiting the sun. However, no one can observe the age of the earth. This is something that must be inferred using data produced via observations made using whatever scientific method is applicable to the task. It is an exercise in the logical analysis of gathered facts. It is what police do when they are trying to identify the possible perpetrator of a criminal act. It is not 'science' per se.

    Just as it is possible for police to make wrong inferences in their investigative work (think Lindy Chamberlain, or the Guildford Four) it is also possible for those who wish to estimate the age of the earth to make wrong inferences in their work. They will make them for similarly multifarious reasons.

    Question B = Is what it says true/important/worthy etc?

    What we need to remember is that there are some questions that can't be answered using either observation or experiment. The age of the earth and of the universe are two of those questions. Exactly what Paul meant when he wrote 1 Timothy 2:12 is another.

  6. This is just a test comment as some have been having problems ...