Saturday, 22 November 2008

Biblical Hermeneutics: A brief comment

This brief post is written in response to a request from a friend for an outline of the basics of my position on biblical hermeneutics - which is to say, the interpretative strategy/ies I adopt when I engage with the Bible. My sole intention here is to sketch out a few fundamentals which I regard to be pretty basic to my view of Biblical interpretation. It's not an attempt to be 'systematic' or 'scientific', nor is it an attempt to be uncontroversial. But it addresses what, for many people in the contemporary church, has seemed a particularly important set of issues - and, I suppose, here, if I am honest I am no exception.

The most basic thing I can say is that I do not adopt any kind of position which insists upon the use of the words 'inerrant', 'infallible', and 'without error' in relation to the Biblical text. To me, the use of these words in respect of the Bible is both naive and unhelpful. The Biblical text is not God and it is not appropriate to use these words in respect of it. (The same, by the way, goes for the church and the pope...more on that, perhaps, in another post). But if the text is not these things, it is still held (at least by me) in high regard, for a number of reasons.

a. As historical evidence/testimony, both of physical events and of theological outlooks.

b. As evidence of multivalence and variety in Jewish and Christian tradition, when it comes to talking about, thinking about and experiencing God...a variety which demands humility from modern day interpreters.

c. As evidence of unity in a number of essentials, such as the focus on the Mosaic covenant, the foundation stories of Israel and the important position of the Temple.

d. As a vital source of inspiration for the devotional lives of subsequent people, both in private and public contexts.

e. As an adaptable vessel through which life in God can be communicated, in conjunction with the activity of the spirit through the church.

The Biblical text admits of different interpretations by different believers. That this is so is well demonstrated by the differences which have characterised outlooks on passages and themes within it down the centuries. Certainly, there is a need to recognise that certain outlooks and passages in the Bible stand in marked opposition to ways of thinking we hold dear today. But does the Bible demand that we align ourselves more directly with all its ideological outlooks, rather than those it seems to us to have right at the heart of its tradition - a tradition which continues in the form of the church today? No one, surely, would argue this. We are all pickers and choosers when we come to the Bible and its interpretation, whether we are fundamentalists or not. And this is the odd thing about the Richard Dawkins criticism that 'fundamentalists' are being 'truer' to the Bible than non-fundamentalists.

The 'rules' of interpretation, insofar as these can be formulated, are in actual fact indecipherable from 'rules' about the integrity of a Christian life, lived as a whole - in dialogue with the Bible, certainly, but also in dialogue with subsequent written tradition and church life, and with fellow believers and non-believers and in prayer. All of these serve to shape the religious life - and Biblical interpretation has to take on a valid form in reference to each. This may mean that we interpret differently in different contexts. But why not aim for a more catholicising style of interpretation, which attempts to draw all people into the question of the textual interpretation of the Bible, and the question of living with integrity. This, as I see it, is the function of the truly lived and truly loving human life - rather than the narrowly sectarian one which refuses to shift beyond the realms of its own self encoded comfort zone.

Biblical interpretation is not a 'science', at least not in any popularly understood sense of the word which has been left untouched by the recent assaults of the philosophers of science of the late twentieth century: the biblical interpreter has no recourse to a reliable empirical vacuum in which he can conduct his research. His is rather a contextual task, which admits of different appropriations of the same truth in different circumstances: as the community, in totum, moves forward through time, it is certainly to be hoped that agreement will be more fully felt about how to read the Bible and about what the Bible is, both within and without the church. But the attempt to present the Biblical texts as self evidently revelatory of higher truths, in particular and already established ways to people, is to miss profoundly the point that the text only attests to the life of God insofar as it possesses the power to illuminate and lead in NEW ways we had not previously thought to be possible precisely through those people. And it is through service to people that the text can become alive to us in new ways too.

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