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I sometimes hear (particularly on this site) of hermeneutical "methods", such as the grammatico-historal approach, or literal-historical approach, or sensus plenior. These all seem to be tools or approaches that one can employ in the work of interpreting a text.

But in the past, I've been more familiar with hermeneutics as a study of how we interpret the text, and what we are doing when we do so. This is more of a philosophical endeavor, and more tightly linked with fields like epistemology and semiotics, yielding "approaches" to hermeneutics like the hermeneutical circle, horizons of understanding, the new hermeneutic, etc.

Are these both valid uses of the term? Is one more directly in the field hermeneutics, and the other an extension? Or is one a misuse of the term? In other words, are we primarily dealing with methodology or philosophy?

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Hermeneutics as an academic discipline is descriptive up to the point at which "rules for good interpretation" are applied.

We can, for example, speak of speech-act-theory, and discuss how one arrives at his or her own interpretation. That would be descriptive hermeneutics.

There are certainly basic rules that make some interpretations "better" i.e. - more in line with original intent or common acceptance - than others. At that point, insofar as an exegete is being taught to use these "better interpretations," hermeneutics becomes prescriptive.

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As I understand it, there are two phases to the interpretation of Scripture:

1) Knowing the text

This is where you learn the literal interpretation via a study of the language, cultural references, etc.

This phase is completely descriptive

2) Understanding the purpose behind God's decision to include this in Scripture

This is where you "get it" and finally understand what God is "trying to tell us" through a particular passage. God's ultimate purpose is always to incite a particular response. Therefore...

This phase is completely prescriptive


The term "hermeneutics" has different meaning to different groups:

  • There is a group which defines "hermeneutics" as "the rules of exegesis", and equates "exegesis" to Step 1. This group often diminishes the value of Step 2, and would tend to say "hermeneutics is descriptive".

  • There is another group which recognizes Step 2, and has redefined the terms to equate "exegesis" to Step 1, and "hermeneutics" to Step 2. (See, for instance, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth) This group would tend to say "hermeneutics is prescriptive".

  • Most of us simply use the term to describe the entire process of interpretation, including Step 1 and Step 2. If we are going to use this definition, we need to understand that it involves both a descriptive element, and a prescriptive element.

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