Hermeneutics is not a Science

…not the way anybody understand the word today, at any rate.

Of course we defend the notion of hermeneutical science by repairing to some of the older definitions of the word science, chiefly the ones that boil down to “knowledge.”  And there’s nothing wrong with referring to hermeneutical knowledge.

But today, when you hear the word science, you think of experimental science, that endeavor begun by Christians as an investigation of God’s creation, but which has today morphed into a false god in its own right–and one which our society publicly worships.  In our eyes, science gave us rocket ships, birth control, the microwave oven, the vacuum cleaner, cheap produce from Chile, and Christmas vacations with Grandma, even though she lives on the other side of the country.   Religion, on the other hand, gave us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and 9/11.  So we worship science, by which we mean both God-less humanistic empiricism and knowledge about the real, tangible world — as sharply opposed to the fantasy world of religion.

(In truth, science, even done by atheists, continues to survive on the borrowed capital of its Christian roots, but that’s another post.)

The point here is, science today is the name of an idol, and attaching the idol’s name to something gives it a veneer of respectability which is, of course, borrowed from the idol by association.  Hence Brand X Whitening Strips, scientifically proven to make your teeth gleam, Acme Weight Loss Pills, scientifically shown to reduce weight by an average of 10 pounds in 3 months, and so on.  Scientifically in this usage means really, actually, in the real world — again, as distinctly opposed to the fantasy world of religion.  Can you imagine someone advertising Brand X Whitening Strips as religiously proven to make your teeth gleam?   Endorsed by five pastors instead of five scientists?

In this climate, when an American evangelical talks about the science of hermeneutics, he is dressing biblical interpretation in the borrowed robes of godless empiricism in order to make it respectable to our God-hating society.  “No, really,” he whines,  “hermeneutics is an objective science.”  This is just begging for table scraps–and from the table of demons, at that.

There are two sets of problems here.  The first is that too many of us believe our own propaganda.  Many evangelicals today, especially of the more conservative sort, really do think that the study of the Bible is a purely empirical matter, and when they contend vociferously that hermeneutics is a science, they really do mean the word in an idolatrous way.  They mean that when you set up your textual sausage-grinder with the proper set of hermeneutical principles, you can shove a text into the top of the grinder, turn the crank, and the meaning comes out the side in a nice, neat casing–and the same meaning comes out the same way, no matter who turns the crank, as long as the principles are right.

Therefore, so the reasoning goes, a great exegete can be a towering saint, a liberal buffoon or a heresiarch; doesn’t make any difference.  If he’s a scholar and his hermeneutics are sound, then…

The problem here is that God did not write the Scriptures to be studied as a detached academic pursuit, but to be studied diligently in order to be believed and obeyed — every word, every letter, every last i-dot and serif.  To claim that an academic curiosity-seeker can subject the text to his idolatrous sausage-grinder and get the same meaning as an obedient saint is just silly.  If it happens, it is a miracle, and purely God’s kindness to the academic.

To read the Word of God is to encounter God Himself speaking, and this cannot be done in a neutral way.  The reader is always for God or against Him, and this orientation greatly influences the interpretive endeavor.  But that’s only the beginning.

The other bit is that a believer who has believed the propaganda is going to miss much of the Bible too.  The Bible is not a science experiment.  It is not a systematic theology text.  It cannot profitably be read like one.  The Bible is art, and God is the artist.  It is laden with associations, symbols, foreshadowing, jokes, double entendres, and connotations.  Words don’t mean just one thing; metaphors adorn nearly every sentence; symbols abound.  Literal meaning is present — richly present — but in the same way that it’s present in a good painting.  We have no extant photographs, but let us suppose (correctly, I should think) that the Mona Lisa looks like the model who sat for it.  It is a good likeness; the literal meaning is there.  If we look at the Mona Lisa and say, “a photograph would have been better” — that is the literalist’s eye, and it’s true as far as it goes.  Sort of.  It misses a great deal of richness and depth that is present in the painting, and would not be in the photograph.  The Bible is a painting, not a photograph.  It is literally true, just like a painting — and not like a photograph.

So to return to the matter of how we describe the interpretive endeavor: Hermeneutics is not so impoverished and so easy that we could call it a science.  I have a suggestion for a substitute term, one that takes into account that God is an artist and it takes an artist’s eye to read His word skillfully–but which also takes into account that there really are rules and systematic principles involved in interpretation.  Here it is: hermeutics is a discipline — an art and a craft.  The word craft suggests a craftsman, and we all recognize that craftsmanship matters, and varies from one craftsman to the next.  The principles may be timeless, but each person incarnates them a little differently, and those differences matter.

If this is the case, what would we expect to see?  We should expect that different interpreters interpret differently.  And as they grow in the image of Christ, their craft increases and their art expands–and they converge on one another, because they are growing closer to the same Triune God.

This, I submit, is what we actually see in the world.  Academics can be, and often are, bitter enemies–as are academically-oriented pastors (you know who you are, boys).  Men who walk with God find ways to be friends with one another.  The more they walk with God, the more they recognize one another as fellow godly men–even though they may differ deeply on academic theological matters.  Moreover, in matters of worship and practice, they converge on one another.  They may ‘do the theological math’ differently, but they increasingly come up with the same answers, however framed in the language of their respective traditions.


I would love to hear some feedback on this.  Fire away — what do you think?  What have I missed?


7 Responses to Hermeneutics is not a Science

  1. Joe says:

    Great stuff, Tim. It brings to mind an analogy I think I heard from Duane Garner. There are two ways to study a frog, you can do it like a scientist: cut it up, separate the parts and analyze them, or you can do it like a child: watch it bounce, eat, play and swim. I bet I can tell you which one the frog prefers.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    But can you scientifically prove which one the frog prefers?

    I didn’t think so…

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Tim,

    I agree, we need to read the Bible relationally, not rationistically. The Evangelical tradition is all to rooted in the rationalist approach, albeit tempered by a pietism (which in the end can be rationalist, just think of Schleiermacher). I do believe there are principles of interpretation, that we can inductively arrive at (i.e. provided by the Holy Spirit, found in and shaped by the text itself); but that unless these are ultimately driven by a love relationship with Jesus Christ we will only be doing “science” (as you define it). The heart and its motives are what bib interp is all about; this is what Jesus was getting at when he chastised the Pharisees for knowing the scriptures, but not knowing Him through the scriptures (cf. Jn 5:39).

    We definitely need more artists and craftsman out there.

  4. Aaron says:

    Good stuff. I had a Bible teacher describe hermeneutics as the “art and science of Biblical interpretation”, where by “science” I think he meant to refer to having a guiding approach or method (context, etc.). I like your idea of it being an art and a craft. I have a friend who (on another topic) recently made a distinction between tinkering and crafting. Approaching hermeneutics like an empiricist is tinkering with words, and missing larger things (to your own peril).

  5. Jim Reitman says:

    Well this is interesting. I just met with my boss who will be going on sabbatical next fall, leaving me to fend for myself as professor of the main hermeneutics section. But first, Jim, “you need to come in and review the anonymous student evaluations from last semester’s course” (for which I was the grader).

    Interesting exercise in “scientific objectivity”….(O Lord, preserve us):

    “Get a new TA. James Reitman is rude, his critiques are unhelpful, and his grading is very arbitrary.”

    “With all do [sic] respect, we are not paying as students to here [sic] James Reitman’s thoughts nor hear him speak. He is not an expert on what he is saying neither [sic].”

    “To me the strength of this course was the grading of Dr. Reitman. His consistency, great quantity of comments, and help was extremely valuable in understanding the material and growing in Biblical Interpretation.”

    “I really appreciated Dr. Reitman who did an excellent job of feedback and grading. I learned a lot from his critiques.”

    “I found James Reitman to be surprisingly condescending and inappropriate, particularly in his conduct toward women (i.e. hugging female students…). I found his grading to be arbitrary and random. I would hesitate to take another class with which he was associated.”

    “Jim Reitman…pulled it all together and made sense for me in a way that the labs hadn’t been able to.”


    I could go on and on. One student wrote that for me to publicly recognize outstanding (A) hermeneutics students in class was inappropriate and probably an illegal breech of confidentiality. (!!)

    Wow…I am so looking forward to yet another such melange of postmodern “poster children.”

  6. Bobby Grow says:

    I graded hundreds of papers as a TA (actually I was a “Teaching Fellow,” take that, Jim 😉 ) as well; never received any feedback though, maybe I’m glad I didn’t 😉 .

  7. Tim Nichols says:

    My chemistry teacher’s feedback always seemed pretty random to me. Did I mention I got a C in chemistry? Always thought it was me

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