Monday, November 2, 2009

The range of the hermeneutical task

Sometimes I think I want hermeneutics to be like searching for oil. There are a range of means of extracting oil from the earth, from the extreme of processing coal-to-oil, through oil from oil sands, to the simplest means of all ... drill a hole in the right place and out it gushes. In other words, I want a method of understanding the Bible, so far elusive, in which any and every part of the Bible yields its meaning upon application of the method, which, naturally, I want to be a simple formula!

But the reality - brought home to me by reading in the second half of Daniel this morning - is that there is no such method for some parts of the Bible are simply opaque!

Fortunately those parts are few, and, relative to understanding salvation, irrelevant.


  1. Ah yes, our shared passion! To extend the metaphor, a little, perhaps our problem is sometimes that we are only looking for oil/coal/diamonds/insert your company's product...

    What about this then. Can we believe that every part of scripture contains something of value to someone, and sometimes that has to be someone else?

    Problems can arise when tired oil prospectors return to the office with tendentious reports of promising new oilfields, because their company is only interested in oil, not diamonds deep underground or timber on the surface or the interesting local inhabitants for that matter.

    What we discover on our hermeneutic journeys cannot be disconnected from what we set out to find, and who is waiting for our reports.

    So who might we imagine might find something they are looking for in the second half of Daniel? And can we be sure that something would not be salvific for them?

  2. Is hermeneutics about yielding a meaning - is that the good oil? What happens to Job after all the meanings he is offered - the hermeneutic of his experience is not just a meaning - rather he 'gets a life' in relation with God. And it's not that the life comes after the meaning is revealed, but just as the meaning is encountered in relation to God the author of life. Wouldn't we want the reading of scripture to have some of these characteristics some of the time.
    One of the key hermeneutical questions is, what kind of thing am I reading. The trouble is, that this question is pitched at such a level of generality as to be almost completely useless as 'a key'. How do you know what kind of thing anything is until you know all the kinds of thing it might be.
    And what if this is a thing you have never encountered before; or if centures of interpreters have disagreed about what sort of thing it is. The only safe way to proceed here is to have read an awful lot of other things with great intelligence and sensitivity, and to have read an awful lot of books about hermeneutics, and still to be ready to go to an entirely new formulation of what kind of thing this really is.
    And an extremely wide life experience is of course a sine qua non, let alone a well formed faith.
    Luther somewhere said of the prophets, that they write like madmen. That's quite agood hermeneutical key.

  3. Howard: true that all sorts of possibilities lurk all over Scripture for (so to speak) one person's 'obscurity' I mean to be another person's 'treasure'. But my observation is that some parts of Scripture are opaque to everyone. E.g. does anyone really know what was going on with the longevity of the ancient patriarchs; what the bowls etc in Revelation actually refer to; and why Matthew and Luke have different genealogies for Jesus?

    Rhys: agreed, hermeneutics does not have to yield a meaning ... and, in the end, do we indeed understand the meaning of Job?