Sunday, December 13, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks

I have decided not to review the final two sections of 'The Art of Reading Scripture' as they are primarily examples of how to work out methods discussed in the earlier chapters. In lieu of that discussion, I would prefer to lay out a discussion of an important set of practical questions in hermeneutics. When we approach Scripture, what questions should we consider and what are the acceptable outcomes of our inquiry? What presuppositions should we bring to the text about the nature of Scripture? How much should we let our presuppositions drive our exegesis? Is the historical critical method a valid interpretive tool? What if our exegesis drives us in a direction incompatible with our presuppositions? Can what we observe about the nature of Scripture cause us to change our presuppositions?

I think that there are four basic ways or frameworks within which a Christian can operate (other frameworks that I am aware of are incompatible with Christianity in my opinion):
  1. Whatever the Bible says must be taken literally. Historical criticism is a misguided attempt to undermine the authority of Scripture. This view is most commonly held by many Fundamentalists.
  2. The traditional position of inerrancy, i.e., after accounting for things like genre, the Bible never affirms anything that is contrary to fact. This is the position of most Evangelicals and some Fundamentalists.
  3. Scripture should be interpreted within the rule of faith. The central truths of the Christian faith cannot be undermined (the contents of the creeds of the early church), but outside of that, freedom is given to the interpreter to follow their exegesis wherever it leads. Here you will find most Catholic scholars, many mainline Protestants, and a growing number of Evangelicals.
  4. A fourth position which tries to avoid talk of limits to our exegesis because it finds externally imposed limits to be counterproductive. This group is rather small but it is populated by at least some Evangelicals.
This week we'll do a series of posts discussing these positions (each except the first which I will briefly discuss below will get one post) in relation to the questions we brought up earlier and to inerrancy.

The first position to me is the least satisfactory, so I'll only briefly discuss it. While I don't think that the historical critical method is the answer to all of our questions, all hermeneutical methods need to be able to at least attempt to reconstruct the original purpose of the book or section of Scripture. While the text can have more meaning apart from its 'original' meaning (I still find the notion of an original meaning of the text to be helpful and honestly unavoidable), whatever meaning we give the text now cannot be in conflict with the original meaning. Without historical research, this literalist approach has no external controls beyond the interpreters theological grid.

It also ignores and flattens out difficulties. What the Bible says must be taken at face value an must be true. Denying something like young earth creationism becomes tantamount to denying the faith in the opinion of some literalists (but not all). I appreciate that literalists want to take the Bible seriously, but I think it fails to account for the fact that the Bible is a product of the culture it was written in.

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