Biblical Hermeneutics ? Part 2

Should we be tempted to believe that our system of interpretation is the only system that has ever existed, Ramm makes it very clear in his discussion of the "historical schools" that this is not so. The "Battle for the Bible" may have, in fact, been born as the second century Christian exegetes, who were influenced by Jewish Biblical scholarship, espoused a literal reading of Scripture which assumed its historical accuracy and included a healthy respect for questions of context. Around the same time these interpreters (referred to by Ramm as the School of Antioch) were not exclusively concerned with the Bible's literal sense; they were equally concerned to interpret Scripture at a level that transcended its historical-literal dimension. This school of thought judged Scripture to be reliable and true on the basis of its conformity to orthodox Christian doctrine. In essence, Scripture judged the church, but it was the church who judged what was scriptural; and at this point the church was still involved in the process of assessing the value and authority of many Christian documents, only some of which made it into the canon.

Elsewhere, scholars trained as philosophers and rhetoricians, rejected as non-historical large portions of Scripture while simultaneously conferring total authority and reliability on all Scripture. The truth of Scripture, according to this school of thought, rested in its profound spiritual or symbolic significance. This allegorical method of exegesis is associated historically with those such as Origin, Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome.

Centuries later, the church was forced, more or less, to focus its attention of Scripture in a different way as the Reformers sought to alter its relationship to the church. Placing the church completely under the judgment of Scripture, they nevertheless developed their own system for evaluating the authority of Scripture in general and scriptures in particular. Martin Luther for example, considered those portions of Scripture which "preached Christ" superior to those that did not. In practice this meant that Luther granted more weight to Paul's words than to James'. It seems Calvin postulated a more objective authority for Scripture.

Even a diminutive exposure to the history of the church's involvement with Scripture gives us reason to pause and re-evaluate our too simple and long cherished assumptions about the nature of scriptural revelation. Before serious study, I was totally unaware of the extent to which disagreements about the nature of biblical inspiration and authority have permeated the church's history. The discovery, however, that some of the difficulties I encounter and must wrestle with are not unique and that some of the greatest minds the Church has ever known had similar problems to contend with is, at the very least, consoling and reassuring. An understanding of and appreciation for the presuppositions of other methods does, indeed, provide a more balanced perspective and a capacity for more meaningful dialogue with those who believe differently.

Although our goal is always to understand the meaning of biblical texts we make egregious mistakes if we fail to interpret a passage before gaining a clear and objective sense of what a given passage actually "says" and whether or not it actually "means" what it says. Because the Bible text may not mean what it seems to say due to the ambiguity of language, it is important that we resist the impulse to conjecture about the text's meaning until after careful study. The exegete must first discover the language conventions, syntactical meanings, and dennotative and connotative implications. This requires a study of word definitions and their relationship to one another which facilitates the possibility of accurately coming to the original meaning the author intended to convey.

And examination of the historical-cultural conditions is also important for it provides us with information about the text's authorship, dating, place of origin, occasion and purpose for writing, and the milieu in which the author wrote. Clearly, this type of information would greatly enhance our understanding and respect of the text's significance.

Any periscope chosen for study is also part of a larger collection of material, and the position it occupies in that collection provides us with a broader framework for comprehending what the passage may have meant originally both to its author and the community for which the writer wrote. Therefore, it is vital that we consider the relationship of the given text to the whole body of the writer's work in general and study the material that immediately precedes and follows the passage in particular. The literary context of a passage helps to focus the text for us and may provide us with significant clues for its interpretation.

I'm certain that the problems we encounter in Scripture are directly related to our lack of understanding of the words, ideas and concepts presented in it. Even when the words themselves are clear, the ideas they are attempting to express may seem remote or confusing.

Through access to standard reference tools we are supplied valuable information which first-century Christians would have considered common knowledge. Once we have possession of this information, the original meaning of words, statements, the text in general takes on a new significance and regains its power to excite and amaze us and to those to whose we preach or teach as they did the people to whom they were first addressed.

An abundance of resources are available to us which facilitates good exegesis. They include: the Bible in a variety of translations; lexicons, commentaries in a variety of languages, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, study manuals and concordances to name a few. Of course, these tools range from the highly critical variety ? which often assumes a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew ? to the purely devotional and over simplified.

(continued in Part 3)

Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. http://www.clergyservices4u.org. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, will be available soon.

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