Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I find that miscommunication is often about feelings and not words. Ancient writings requires linguistics, history and cultural knowledge to provide accurate English versions that convey the original meaning. This is taken for granted. However, it seems to me most (i.e. at least half) of the Bible does not actually have any linguistic or cultural difficulties and every translation actually conveys the same meaning. Therefore, exegesis often needs to skip original languages, grammar and even history and simply get ported into English as though it were written today. The wheel does not always need to be reinvented when every wheel looks alike from the factory line.

Aside then from the many occasions where language translation does have diverging opinions, or where history and culture should influence us to academically understand scripture, where does basic emotion of a subject fit in? Even when a text is finally translated and contextualized into simple English, then after that, does emotion adjust the final understanding and in a minor or major way?

Hopefully an extreme brings my question to light. For example, if my wife said 'Relationships should be based on trust and intimacy.' Then I say, 'Well, let me trace the root meaning of the word 'relationship' , 'trust', and 'intimacy' from Greek and Latin. Now intimacy from your history signifies attention from me and increased listening, bla, bla, bla. Now I am able to understand that your are really saying, bla bla bla.' Immediately, she would be offended. I would be acting in opposition to what she is trying to say which simply means I did not understand. Is their a parallel to this kind of misunderstanding in an exegeses of Biblical text?

[The above comparison may seem like a ridiculous comparison and that's intentional. As a personal habit of mine is to test my theories by subjecting them to extreme unrealistic stress and then abandon those portion that crumple.]

My question is then , 'To what degree does understanding an author's emotion (i.e. sharing their feeling) play into formal exegesis of an ancient biblical text, once understood in modern context and modern English through more academic exercise?' Some, a lot, none? If none, is their a name for the theory that one can separate intellectual communication from emotional communication. If some, does that mean 'intuition' has a place (big place, small place) in exegesis?

Other related questions that need not be specifically addressed under this one:

  • Can emotion based people understand the Bible in ways more difficult for 'thinking' based persons?
  • Does a detailed oriented (eg., police investigator) type person have advantage over an imagination oriented (eg., poet) type person? Or do they compliment each other in ways that are difficult for each to understand?
  • Does intuition equate to 'experiencing the divine power' within scripture? Is a divine 'experience' of the power in scripture necessary in understanding it (absolutely, moderately, not at all)?
  • Does experiencing the 'reasonableness' of scripture mean 'experience' and 'objective truth' are inseparable (i.e., objective truth is only objective when we are pressured to own its reasonableness from God, something which can be intuited if we will listen to Him)?
share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The Quest for the Author's Meaning

One of my favorite sayings in hermeneutics is:

Words don't have meaning, people have meaning.

The goal in interpreting a text is (i.e. should be) to understand the author's meaning; That is, to grasp the authorial intent. (For thorough support of this, look here and here.)

The author's intent is only going to make sense in context, which is why we put so much effort into learning about the author, the intended audience, the culture, the specific situation, etc.

The author's intent can only reliably be studied via the text, hence the emphasis on language and literary context.

But at the end of the day, background information and lexicons are a means to an end -- not the end in themselves. The goal is to use all of this data to assist us in understanding the author's meaning. If all we are able to say at the end of our studies is what each word or phrase refers to, we have failed.

Emotion is Implied in Meaning

I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. --Psalm 6:6, NIV

Given the standard definitions of each of these words, it seems apparent that David's tear ducts were overactive on this particular evening. In fact, such a large quantity of tears is nothing short of a miracle. Or, perhaps David is attempting to convey his deep despair via the most accurate verbal imagery he can conjure.

Now, someone might argue that such emotion is unique to the Psalms, or even, to poetry in general. Consider the following examples from Romans:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. -Romans 3:31

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law -Romans 7:7

What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! -Romans 9:14

So in the first case, Paul is hoping that we never nullify the Law through faith, in the second case, he is hoping the Law never becomes sin, and in the third case, he is hoping there is never any injustice with God. Right? No, he is expressing his (emotionally) emphatic rejection of all of these ideas -- His point is that they are absolutely not true!

I'll give one more example to drive the point home. Paul spends a great deal of time convincing the Corinthians that there is a resurrection of the dead, and then we read this:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? Why are we also in danger every hour? -1 Corinthians 15:29-30

Apparently Paul is wondering why they baptize people for the dead, and is also wondering why he is in danger. He wants to learn what the reasons are because he doesn't know. Right? No... Paul is doing what I just did: he is asking rhetorical questions. In this case, Paul is attempting to show how ridiculous their doctrines are... on the one hand they claim there is no resurrection for the dead, and on the other hand they are getting baptized for them! How absurd! Paul is also showing how ridiculous their doctrine is, because the resurrection from the dead is precisely the reason he is under attack from his accusers!


Anyway, hopefully it is clear that the goal of hermeneutics (interpretation) is to understand the author's meaning, and grasping the tone (i.e. emotion) of a passage is a crucial part of this endeavor.

share|improve this answer
Some good lines of thought. Wonder how it plays out when God is considered the author? –  Mike Apr 7 '13 at 1:48
@Mike I have finished my research on the humanness of Scripture, and am working on the Divine aspect at the moment. Where I am currently at with it is that it appears that Scripture is best understood as inspired (purposefully by God) human literature; It is 100% human and 100% Divine. Thus, the human author accomplished everything he set out to do (with perfect motives, articulation, etc.) and God simultaneously got what He wanted out of it. Interestingly, God's purposes do not so much seem to be distinct, but rather, the same as -- but greater in magnitude than -- the human author's. –  Jas 3.1 Apr 7 '13 at 4:35
@Mike In other words, when Paul is frustrated, God is also frustrated. (The Spirit is in perfect partnership with the human author.) –  Jas 3.1 Apr 7 '13 at 4:37
I thought that's what you implied ++1. Cheers –  Mike Apr 7 '13 at 5:35
add comment

The growth of the Interpreter

A hermenuetics text from the late 1800's (in two vols - sorry I can't place the name right now) placed much stress on the skill of the interpreter. This seems strange at first, but our skills as "interpreters" grow - we come to know the text better, like we come to know our spouses better. Someone else calls this "the painstaking sanctification of due dilligence" (paraphrasing Gerhard Maier).

Therefore, we may say that understanding the meaning of a person, in a text, is something of an ongoing relationship. This is one aspect of the general ideas presented in "The Hermeneutical Spiral" (by Grant Osbourne). It is silent fact within this question, that we, as a person grow in understanding the "sitz im leben" (life situation) of the human authors.

Setting, Author, Readers

We also balance our overall understanding of the historical setting within the triad of the larger historical-cultural context, the author, and those to whom he is writing. Our interpretation then, is brought forward based upon what we share in common with those to whom or for whom the original text was written.

An over-emphasis on the History, the Author, or the original reader can be shown to distort matters of interpretation. Just like we have to read words within sentences, within pericope, etc; we we travel the path from setting to reader.

Over-emphasis of Author

F. Schliermacher is synonymous with the rise of romanticist hermeneutics. His desire was to really get to know the mind and emotions of the authors of scripture. This led to psychologically analyzing the persons, and contributed to the modern "*-critical" methods. I don't think we can turn the clock back in history and no longer evaluate the insights that have arisen from such enterprises, but we can look at its effects on doctrine. Thereby, I think we are balanced against too much emotional emphasis - except in so far as the discourse of the literature depicts and clarifies the setting.

What's true is not just what is true for an author. Nor is it only a truth that we ourselves emotionally experience with the text. Therefore, we are left to pray and read - and to be cautious of interpretations that depend too much on the turn of a phrase.

share|improve this answer
I like your balance emphasis and also the growth emphasis. The romanticist is an interesting term. I am actually thinking more along the lines that the author is God. Maybe there is a term like spiritualist hermeneutics? In this sense reverence, peace, joy, etc. would be necessary to have a mind capable of understanding the author. Proper emotion can create sudden realizations. That is often when we understand, as our emotions fill out our thoughts into panoramic views. This of course also captures our will, for our whole person recognizes what is being said in concurrence. –  Mike Apr 7 '13 at 1:57
I believe God used human authors, and when human emotions are applied to God I understand it as "anthropopathism". If the question is about learning how much God's emotions should be weighed in exegesis, then that would involve the the attributes of God; and in the protestant reformed confessions (that's what I'm most familiar with), the statement comes up "God is without passions" (i.e., Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1). However, if you are looking for the hermeneutical term, my favorite is a "Biblical-Historical" method leading to a communicative hermeneutic of encounter -knowing God. –  Qoheleth-Tech Apr 7 '13 at 3:36
Think you misunderstand the confession. Definition from reformed dictionary: 'Passion implies desire for what one does not have. But God, as an absolutely perfect Being, lacks nothing. ... Therefore, God is completely and infinitely satisfied in his own perfection. However, to say that God is impassable in the sense that he has no passions or cravings for fulfillment is not to say that he has no feelings. God feels anger at sin and rejoices in righteousness. But God’s feelings are unchanging. ... Thus, God has no changing passions, but he does have unchanging feelings. –  Mike Apr 7 '13 at 5:30
@Mike. Clarification. There's no misunderstanding of the WCF in my comment: I stated that "If the question is about...God's emotions...in exegesis, then that would involve the the attributes of God; and...'God is without passions'." Thereby, I simply indicate that if the degree of God's emotions is in the question, the doctrine of impassibiliy pertains to the answer - as does anthropopathism. Your quote proves that relevance. Additionally, how we should attribute emotions to God, has been raised in some notable Presbyterian debates (as the ordination exam of Dr. Gordon Clark). –  Qoheleth-Tech Apr 8 '13 at 5:43
Ok - thanks for the clarification that does clarify. Cheers. –  Mike Apr 8 '13 at 9:16
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.