Hermeneutics is not a Science

24 February 2010

…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?

Who Can Understand the Bible?

2 June 2008

There are two basic myths about understanding the Bible, and most of the evangelical community believes one or the other.

The first is that only a select few can understand the Bible. This myth comes in various flavors, all of them with a seed of truth, and all of them deeply flawed nonetheless. Some insist that one must be a scholar, conversant with the culture, languages, and history of the Bible in order to understand it at all. Some even insist that one must be conversant with some particular set of theological categories in order to understand the Bible (the Roman Catholic Catechism, the Westminster Standards, somebody’s Basics series, whatever). Of course, this raises not only the question of which set of categories, but the much more important question of where the categories come from in the first place, that they are able to exercise hermeneutical authority over the Bible.

Other believers move in a less academic direction, preferring to focus on spiritual qualifications: one must be a Christian, or a Christian walking by the Spirit, or a mature Christian, in order to understand the Bible. Some — the real elitists — insist on all of the above.

Despite the great disagreements about the identity of the select few — or should I call them the elect few? — there’s a lot of tactical continuity in these types of arguments. When person A insists that only a select few understand the Bible, his version of the select few generally includes himself, or at least his sources, and does not include you, and yours. Convenient, that…

Biblically speaking, this first myth (in whatever form) forces the conclusion that Scripture is not profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness — at least not for most of the people, most of the time. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 for a comment on this point.)

On the other side of the line is a second myth, the idea that really, the text means many different things to different people, and even many different things to the same person over time. At its root, this myth is based on the idea that the meaning of the text is my experience of the text. The author’s intent has nothing to do with it, nor do societal conventions about the meaning of words. This is simple selfishness, an “It’s all about me!” attitude applied to interpreting the Bible. Moreover, in biblical terms, it is the notion that Scripture is of a private interpretation — a position roundly condemned in Scripture itself (1 Peter 1:16-21).

The Bible itself not only opposes both these myths, it systematically sets up a totally different picture of language, meaning, and God’s communication to us. To read more, see Who Can Understand the Bible?