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I am trying to learn more about Biblical Hermeneutics, including the different philosophies Christians have about how Scripture should be interpreted. So far I have heard a wide variety of different claims about "the right way" to interpret Scripture. There are the major disciplines and methods, such as Historial-Grammatical, Sensus Plenior (etc.) Then there are the minor divisions, such as "each word is a shadow" vs. "words don't have meaning, people have meaning".

Often these differences lead to debates, but in the end I often see both sides coming to an agreement. This makes me wonder, are each of these Christian principles of Biblical Hermeneutics "correct," but "different," like the proverbial elephant which is viewed from different angles? (One says it's like a wispy reed [tail], one says it's like a tree trunk [leg], they are just seeing it from different, equally valid angles.)

So my question is, are all principles employed by Christian hermeneuticians compatible?

  • If the answer is "no", please provide an example or two of hermeneutical principles employed by Christians which are incompatible. (E.g. "Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.)

  • If the answer is "yes", please provide two or three examples which attempt to explain some common, alleged incompatibilities.

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i think that an edit that includes the specific hermeneutical principles that you're seeking to compare and contrast would be helpful. – swasheck Jul 8 '12 at 21:47
@swasheck I am intentionally leaving the list of principles open-ended. I do not know enough about Biblical Hermeneutics to make an exhaustive list for the readers to consider anyway. (I just learned about "Sensus Plenior" this week.) The only knowledge required for a "no" answer would be knowledge of a set of principles which are obviously mutually exclusive, and are in use by Christian hermeneuticians. For a "yes", one would have to have a bit more understanding, and be able to explain some of the alleged 'contradictions' within the set of principles used in BH. – Jas 3.1 Jul 9 '12 at 1:56
up vote 1 down vote accepted

In my first post I was trying to argue from a wider angle of the meaning of hermeneutics. For example an Arminian hermeneutic and a Calvinist hermeneutic may converge on the same truth and compliment one another when both are men of God, but may do the reverse when each is carnally minded. However, the more I think about it is more accurate to restrict the answer to a more technical meaning of hermeneutics and say that different hermeneutical principles are often not compatible. In other words Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.

(Note: I do not plan to delete my other answer as it still argues a point that is not altogether wrong but I place this one an my more thoughtful answer).

There are many examples like this. (Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.)

Case 1: (Sensus Plenior to what degree does it exists)
A – There is a hidden meaning behind every verse in the ‘sensus plenior’.
B – There is not a hidden meaning behind any verse accept those that have been made known by other verses.

B might spend much effort understanding the literal meaning and A may hardly care leading to extravagant and even meaningless imaginative claims that have no bearing to what B is trying to understand. A and B tend to diverge more and more, therefore they are not equal.

Case 2: (Typology – How much did the human author understand)
A – The author of scripture understood nothing about the overall typology that God was designing to be revealed at a later time in history.
B – The author had a spiritual gift to see nearly everything that the typology was predicting.

B will interpret individual verses much differently than A because B will assume so much more understanding to the original author. This will cause A and B to diverge therefore they are not equal.

Case 3: (Context)
A – It is not necessary to account for initial context of prophecies but when they are fulfilled they finally have meaning.
B – One must never twist any verse outside its original meaning, not matter how a new fulfillment has widened its original sense.

A may completely disregard the essential meaning of scripture as understood by B. These methods are not equal.

Case 4: (Can we use Jewish exegetical methods popular at the time of Christ)
A – God used the exegetical methods of the time through humans to reveal truths in the Old Testament, so we can uncover those methods and do the same things.
B – God inspired New Testament authors to see truth in the Old Testament without using some of the ‘wild’ Jewish exegetical methods of the time and only appears to be undisciplined at times but actually never breaks the true literal meaning of scripture as it was written. We cannot try to use ancient methods to give more creative latitude in our exegesis of the Old Testament. We can only use rational reasons with what has been revealed and argue from the historical literal.

A can create whatever meaning of the Old Testament he wants, B will oppose A. They are not equal.

Case 5: (Allegory)
A – Paul used allegory to describe the Law has Hagar therefore we can allegorize anything for its spiritual meaning.
B – Paul used allegory in a very limited sense and even said he was doing so, but as He was inspired by the Holy Ghost his allegory was not like ours would be.

'A' can again say whatever he wants with many verses of the Bible and B will often oppose those results. A and B are not equal.

Conclusion – Although I do not deny that there is meaning in scripture beyond the knowledge of the human author, I personally lean heavily (keep primary) the literal historical and feel alarmed by any hermeneutic that would ignore that focus, or worse, even oppose its actual meaning. There are, therefore, such a thing as 'incompatible hermeneutical approaches' especially those extremes that confront or virtually ignore the focus of the literal meaning.

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Excellent. Thanks!! – Jas 3.1 Aug 1 '12 at 18:07

How should the Scripture be interpreted and when using different rules can you arrive at the same or different answers?

Simple answer: The scripture should be interpreted as outlined here. When using different hermeneutics both propositions are true, you can arrive at the same answers, or different answers. The answers might very much complement each other, or they might absolutely conflict.

A biblical hermeneutic is simply a tool, like a hammer, it can be used to build a house of knowledge, or can be used to destroy the same house down, all depending on whose hands the hammer is in. The hermeneutic itself will not make two people converge to the same answer, or diverge from the same answer.

The one thing that is clear is that the answers never absolutely converge. There are no two Christians who absolutely believe the same things even when using the same tools for exegesis. On the other hand there are many under the name Christian who disagree about virtually everything, even while using the same hermeneutic tools.

Long Answer:

To make our way to the suggested rules of exegesis listed in the link above, let’s first see what biblical hermeneutics we have discarded to get there.

  1. We have discarded the belief that Scripture is just like any other writing so that an unbeliever can fully understand it using the same hermeneutic principles that one might use for understanding any text. We have discarded this because the scripture itself says this is not true.

  2. We have discarded the biblical hermeneutic assertion that says the truth within the scripture is only that truth that the person writing fully understood. Instead, for example, we have assumed that at least part of the types in the Old Testament foreshadowing Christ were not fully understood by the author, but God planted them in advance to be understood more fully later, after the great Anti-Type arrived. (I imagine many Jewish hermeneutic philosophies would not agree to this). We have also assumed that God gives light to our eyes to understand His word that we cannot explain in a scholastic hermeneutic because it is spiritual and not human.

  3. We have discarded an inordinate fixation on textual criticism that would question the validity of everything we are reading in the Bible, although not fully ignoring a concern with the identification and removal of transcription errors that may have occurred in some minor cases, depending on what manuscripts you are reviewing. As Christians we largely leave this to those publishing Bibles, but even on this site some have identified textual errors.

  4. Christians have always valued some historical criticism in their exegesis and have tried to ascertain the text's primitive or original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense. However, we reject the notion that the whole Bible can be explained upon this basis alone, for we hold that the scripture did not come from man, and can’t be derived from that historical context only. The historical context only helps understand how God spoke through a particular time, place and person. We even admit that personality itself affects the timbre of the tune that God plays through revelation - the timbre being the human the tone his voice. The four gospels, though saying the same thing, and though addressed to slightly different audiences, are clear examples of personality having an imprint on the envelope of God’s word. We reject that history or personality produced God’s word, but we deny revelation overrides the persons and events involved.

Once we have discarded anything that would deny that God’s word was infallible as originally written, or deny that the manuscripts we have in our possession are unreliable, we have basically narrowed down into a proper Christian form of Biblical Exegesis. This is the very every-day Bible believing exegesis that regular church folk apply, regardless of whether they have ever heard of the words ‘exegesis’ or ‘hermeneutics’. For instance, my wife almost understands the Bible as much as I do, but she has no clue what these two words mean.

The real hermeneutic quest:

When I approach the Bible what I am often are more concerned about: ‘What is really inside the Bible itself, strictly speaking? (Even after I have accept the rules of interpretation, including prayer and revelation) How has God communicated His mind in the literal text, so that I can take critical analysis and test what 'I think' God has revealed to me, from what may be my foolish imagination, or what my sinful nature, or even the Devil has revealed to me. Call it a fear of being deceived, or deceiving myself.

Or on a more technical note, we also often try to understand how someone in the New Testament could quote the Old Testament and apply it in the way they did. What rules of exegesis did they consider acceptable to reapply a certain verse in the way that they did?

To answer these two questions it is good to set of definitions for ease of explanation:

The ‘Symbol’ - something used for or regarded as representing something else.

The ‘Metaphor’ - a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not directly applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance.

The ‘Human literal sense’ – What a human author directly intended by his words, either literally or metaphorically, and was ‘fully aware of’ at the time of writing them.

The ‘Divine literal sense’ – What God directly intended, either literally or metaphorically, in the text itself, to the readers at that time in history or to us.

The ‘Divine typical sense’ – What God intended to foreshadow as a 'future meaning' of the original literal sense. It is actually another thing altogether, not just a metaphor. This sense may have been only vaguely understood by the human author. Note: The sensus plenior or "a fuller sense of", as far as I can tell, seems to be just a phrase for identifying aspects of the divine literal sense and divine typical sense under a Latin term. This fuller sense implies any meaning that was not fully within the grasp of the human author.

The ‘Literary genres’ - Literary technique, tone, content, specifically related to a certain kind of text, like prophecy, poetry, proverbs, history, etc. These genres may be related to cultural styles within Hebrew history and the original languages of the manuscripts.

The ‘Explicative sense‘ – This is that truth of scripture that can be directly 'argued through reason' based on absolute scripture itself, almost like just saying something the same way. This is entirely 'within' the scripture. For example, the word Trinity is not used in scripture, but it seems entirely within the scripture itself.

The ‘Consequential sense’ – This is 'potential truth' of scripture that is not fully contained within scripture but convincingly pulled out of scripture, or is a clear application of scripture, that is based on reason which seems highly convincing. Strictly speaking this may be very true, or very false, based on who is performing the reasoning.

The reason I have listed these definitions is they indicate by themselves the types of arguments different biblical hermeneutic approaches might emphasize, more than others, to try and figure out how a New Testament writer could interpret and apply the Old Testament scripture in the way it was done. For example, how did the author of the Hebrews know that Moses, when describing Melchizedek so briefly, that this the lack of attention to the literal mother and father of Melchizedek, actually 'set up the text' to represent a type of an Eternal Priest? Another thing that might be tackled is how one can identify ‘hyperbole’ in a prophecy to indicate something that could never take place without a more spiritual future sense of Messianic proportions. Once one has identified such a text, how can one ensure that the ideas drawn out of it, is not in conflict with all the literal ideas of the rest of the scriptures. My feeling is that is some ways there is no need to define such rules. Rather with these definitions anyone can argue for, or against any Hermeneutic they fancy in a manner that scholastic thinkers do.

A better method to properly learn good hermeneutic is not necessarily at university but simply by engorging ourselves in the Bible and observe how other solid teachers and Biblical commentators have done it. However, this leads to the final subject of 'a piori' because once you put yourself under a teacher you are accepting their a piori knowledge of the subject because you trust them..

A priori knowledge:

The fact is we come to the scripture with a huge bias. This is a necessary part of any learning we must form a bias in some sense of the word. Once we have some knowledge we come to the scripture to get more knowledge, but our current knowledge naturally biases how we interpret the scripture on our return. As we understand more and more we are more biased by our understanding, which is a good thing for one man and a bad thing for another. I think this reality is implicit in the words of our Lord: 'Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him'. (Math 13:12)

If a man walked up to a person and was punched in the face, the next time he comes to talk to the person, he will have his fists up. This is the way knowledge works. We have a constant feedback mechanism into whatever subject we study. There is no way of escaping this ‘knowledge building’ or ‘ignorance building’ depending on the state of our heart before God.

God's word is a sword, or in modern day language a Smith and Wesson Revolver. When it fires a few bullets into your heart, you do not come back to it in full objective impassionate study?! If we do we know nothing about the Bible. Yes, it is very wise to be as objective and critical in looking at every Bible verse as possible, before allowing our dogma, or systematic theology, to wrest the literal meaning out of its context, but eventually when our knowledge is solid we will find that it helps us remove our confusion, more than it does increase it. What may appear to be an unwarranted bias to one man, is actually just comparing scripture with scripture with God’s illumination and the knowledge that He has given to another man.

From 'a piori' we have all the kinds of systematic theologies that one could ever hope for, each representing a different Hermeneutic principle in its tendency to bias for good, or evil. I tend to favor Covenant Theology, but do not ascribe, lock stock and barrel. I recommend it to help a person's Hermeneutics. I basically equate Covenant Theology with the frame work that will arise when one begins to form and understanding of the Bible. This naturally biases how I interpret everything in the Bible.

Conclusion: Faith is a form of knowledge so without faith, even a professor of hermeneutic studies can at best only argue that it is possible to understand spiritual things but never actually know what that means. I have encounter academic books like this.

In reality a biblical hermeneutic is simply a tool, like a hammer, it can be used to build a house of knowledge, or can be used to destroy the same house down, all depending on whose hands the hammer is in. The hermeneutic itself will not make two people converge to the same answer, or diverge from the same answer. These tools should be used ‘by faith ‘to build a house according to the rules outlined here.

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@Jas3.1 - Lol - I had to theologically twist my brain into a pretzel just to form an opinion on the answer. – Mike Jul 10 '12 at 5:49

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