Hermeneutics pt. I – Observation

04 May

As I mentioned at the end of last post, I want to explain why I went to the lengthy detail I did regarding Genesis 1-3. It seems like a lot of work, especially considering that I (purposefully) didn’t say anything that the Bible doesn’t already say. But that’s actually the point. It’s the necessary starting ground for good hermeneutics.

Simply defined, a hermeneutic is the system that governs how one interprets and understands the Bible. Everyone who reads the Bible — serious scholar or no — operates under some kind of hermeneutic. If you approach the Bible believing that it is the Word of God, that it means what it says, and that it contains accurate prophecy, that’s a hermeneutic. That means you will come to a much different conclusion of the text from someone who approaches it thinking it’s an interesting historical book, composed mostly of vague poetic imagery, with no ability to accurately foretell future events.

The benefit of knowing what hermeneutics are, as well as recognizing which one is the best approach, is that it enables us to study the Word in a thoughtful, prayerful, and consistent way. It helps keep our theology grounded in biblical truth. It equips us to confidently study the Bible on our own and weigh scholarly opinion against what we actually see in Scripture.

Nearly all, if not all conservative Christian scholars subscribe to what’s called the “historical-grammatical” hermeneutic. The basic goal of this method is to try and understand the passage exactly as the biblical author intended. It holds that there is one objective real meaning of the passage, even if there are several valid applications (more on that later). People who hold to this hermeneutic almost always also believe that the text is divinely inspired, unchanging, and relevant to our lives today.

This may sound kind of obvious. But the alternatives are not good, although they do exist out there. For instance, the “Reader Response” method of hermeneutics is focused entirely on what the text means to you. This may be totally different than what it means to your neighbor, and according to this school of thought, that’s okay. As another example, the “Proof Text” method means you go hunting through the Bible for a particular topic, and basically end up finding what you want to find, not caring whether that was the original intent of the author or not. This is the kind of error that we want to stay away from by adhering to a historical-grammatical approach.

So since we believe that we need to find out what the author’s original meaning was, we need to determine how we’re going to go about that. There are three basic steps in this process:

  1. Observation
  2. Interpretation
  3. Application

Or in other words, 1) What it says, 2) What it means, and 3) How it impacts me.

What I focused on in the previous post was step 1, observation. In short, before we decide what meaning is in a passage, we need to actually read it and see what it says. This is an obvious step. So obvious, in fact, that it often gets skipped over entirely — which can actually lead to incorrect interpretation.

I think of it kind of like doing geometry problems in high school that required us to “show your work”. Oh, how those questions annoyed me. It always seemed like nothing more than a tedious pain in the neck, especially if I had already arrived at the correct answer, and extra especially if my proof wound up with a brilliant statement such as, “A = A”. Why can’t we just let self-evident things be self-evident?

To answer that question quite simply, we view the world (and particularly the Bible) through all kinds of filters and paradigms we have accumulated over our lifetimes. So sometimes things that we see as perfectly “self-evident”… um… aren’t. Just like we can’t eyeball a triangle and say, “Well those angles all look equal to me,” and necessarily be right without doing some calculations, we can’t glance at a Bible verse, be immediately sure of its meaning, and necessarily be right without sitting down and doing some critical thinking (and a lot of prayer!). While the conclusions may actually be right in either case, if the method of getting there was lousy, we then have no grounding to support our convictions. And if we’re skipping steps along the way, our conclusions are substantially less apt to be right. Pure observation may sometimes feel like writing “A = A” , but it is critical to a right understanding of the Word.

For example, let’s return to Genesis 1-3. If we’re getting impatient with the study process, it can be tempting to skip step one and read the passage like this:

Genesis 2:18-22

  • Adam was lonely without a helper.
  • God brought all the animals to Adam so he could name them and take dominion over them.
  • Adam named all the animals, but none of them would work for his helper.
  • God made Adam sleep, took one of his ribs, and made a wife for him out of it.
  • God gave Eve to Adam as a wife so she could help him like he needed.

This is the default for how most of us read the Bible — but it’s not actually observation.

For instance, “Adam was lonely without a helper” is how most of us heard the story taught to us in Sunday School. But that’s not what the Bible says. The Bible says that God said it was not good for man to be alone.

But doesn’t that mean the same thing? Not necessarily, but regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, we don’t even start thinking about that until step 2. Right now we’re still just observing. God said that it was not good for man to be alone. What does that mean? We’ll determine that later. Right now we just observe what’s there.

So observation of Genesis 2:18-22 looks like this:

  • God said it was not good that man should be alone.
  • God said He would make the man a helper comparable to him.
  • God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would call them.
  • Adam named every living creature.
  • There was no helper comparable to Adam found among the animals.
  • God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep.
  • God took a rib from Adam’s side and closed up the wound.
  • God took the rib He had taken, and made it into a woman.
  • God brought the woman to the man.

Our impatience might protest, “But… that’s just what the Bible already says!”

Exactly. That’s the point.

It’s only when we see what the Bible actually says that we can rightly determine what it means. It’s only when we see what the Bible actually says that we will be able to have our unperceived biases rooted out and challenged. It’s only then that we can stop standing over the Word to judge it, and instead let it stand over us and change the way we think and believe.

Keep watching this space for pt II – Interpretation. Coming soon to a computer screen near you.


Posted by on May 4, 2010 in Bible, Theology


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Hermeneutics pt. I – Observation

  1. hannah

    May 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

    hey amanda, just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying your blogs and am being challenged by them. thanks!

  2. Dorean Beattie

    May 4, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I can’t wait for Step 2! Who knew hermeneutics could be interesting?

  3. Timmy V.

    May 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    You need to write a book. 😉

  4. Deborah

    May 4, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Good job, Amanda.


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