What is Biblical Interpretation?: Part 1
Like any academic discipline, the discipline of biblical hermeneutics is rife with complex debates. But many scholars have recognized for a long time that biblical hermeneutics refers to how one understands and applies the bible. Every reader of the bible is an interpreter, but no reader of the bible interprets the bible from a neutral posture.
Regardless of one’s racial, ethnic, gender, generational, social, or intellectual postures, every bible reader brings baggage to the text. This baggage can either help or hinder one’s ability to arrive at what the biblical authors intended and how the readers/hearers should apply the text in their modern context.
Recognizing that everyone who reads the bible is a biased reader is helpful when writing about biblical interpretation for ethnically and racially marginalized contexts. Though many would have black and brown people believe there are right readings (offered by white majority bible readers) and ethnic readings (incorrect readings offered by people of color), everyone has an ethnic reading influenced by his or her culture. This doesn’t mean that every reading is a right reading, but every reading is effected by one’s culture and identity. Even when one can rightly understand the author’s intent, one hasn’t understood it apart from the influence of their cultural context.
In a series of posts, I’m going to teach biblical interpretation with a specific eye towards contextualizing the principles of hermeneutics for an ethnically and racially marginalized context. In the rest of this piece, I want to define what I mean by hermeneutics and offer a few practical applications for ethnically and racially marginalized bible readers.
A Working Definition of Biblical Hermeneutics
In his monograph The Hermeneutical Spiral, Grant Osborne states, “Hermeneutics is a science, since it provides a logical, orderly classification of the laws of interpretation. Hermeneutics is an art, for it is an acquired skill demanding both imagination and an ability to apply the laws to selected passages or books. . .” (Hermeneutical Spiral, 5).
In their 1993 Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr. assert “Interpretation is neither an art nor a science; it is both a science and an art. We use rules, principles, methods, and tactics; we enter the worlds of the historian, sociologist, psychologists, and linguist—to name a few. Yet, human communication cannot be reduced solely to quantifiable and precise rules. . . This is where the art of interpretation enters in. . .” (Biblical Interpretation, 4-5).
Most recently, in her 2007 introduction to biblical hermeneutics, NT scholar, Jeannine Brown, states hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of texts (Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 12). She asserts “engaging in and interpreting communication is at the heart of what we are doing when we read the bible” and that “scripture is, at heart, communication. The author is the one who communicates; the text is the vehicle or act of communication; and the reader is the one who is addressed and who responds” (Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 13-14).
Brown’s proposal is “scripture’s meaning can be understood as the communicative act of the author that has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement” (Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 14).
With each of the above definitions, one should astutely notice the authors suggest the reader analyzes the text to understand the author’s intent, and responsibly applies the text in the social setting of the reader or readers when interpreting the bible. Biblical interpretation involves both historical analysis and practical application under the authority of the Holy Spirit in the context of the Christian community.
Are Meaning and Application the Same Thing?
One of the many debated questions in the field of hermeneutics is related to meaning and application. Is meaning the same as application? In my view, when the bible was originally written and transmitted to its first readers/hearers, meaning and application were often the same. For example, when Moses commanded Israel in Deuteronomy to obey the law and live because disobedience results in death, the meaning and application are the same.
But, for 21st century readers, this is not necessarily the case. For example, Paul’s problem in Galatia was not Martin Luther’s problem in Germany. Though the following is a landmine in New Testament Studies, in my view Paul was rebuking the Galatians and criticizing Judaism because Jewish teachers entered the Galatian churches and urged Gentile Christians in Galatia to embrace the law of Moses to be justified before God.
Luther, on the other hand, fiercely criticized and critiqued Roman Catholicism. So, when the bible reader uses Luther’s language as he criticized Roman Catholicism in Germany to explain what’s happening in Galatians, one has applied the text, but not rightly communicated Paul’s intent when he originally penned his letter—long before there was a Roman Catholic church.
Sometimes, however, meaning and application are the same for the 21st century reader. For example, “don’t commit adultery” means don’t have sex with another’s person’s spouse. The application is exactly the same: don’t have sex with another person’s spouse. Meaning and application are the same in this example.
At a basic level, meaning is what the interpreter is trying to discern when he or she reads a text. Virtually everyone agrees with this. However, there is no agreement regarding how an interpreter arrives at that meaning. For example, does meaning come to the reader by trying to discover authorial intent? Is meaning a property of texts apart from their authors? How does meaning intersect with readers? Do readers create meaning, or do they simply understand and respond to meaning in the text?
I associate meaning with authorial intent and that authorial intent is what the author inscribed and communicated in the text. Authorial intent is what the author inscribes in the text under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even if he was not fully aware of God’s intention when he wrote the text. In other words, God, the author, and the Spirit determine and inscribe the meaning in the text.
The reader, under the power of the Spirit, relying upon the church, and by using appropriate tools, goes to the text and labors in study and prayer to understand what the author intended to communicate in the text, and responsibly applies and submits to the authority of the text.
Applications for Marginalized Black and Brown Bible Readers
- Black and brown bible readers are not more likely to misinterpret the text than white bible readers. Regardless of race, every bible reader has the potential within him or her to misinterpret and to misapply the text.No race exclusively holds the key to biblical interpretation. Red and yellow, black and white, we are all bible interpreters in his sight when we take up the book and read. Yes, some bible readers have more tools than others. For example, I’m a seminary professor with many biblical studies resources at my fingertips. But the point is that black and brown people are not biologically predisposed to misinterpret texts because of their racial identities.
- Black and brown Christians need to read the bible for themselves. Those of us who read the bible from marginalized postures might see some things missed by brothers and sisters who read the text from racially and socially privileged postures.It’s true different readers from different races can read the same text and agree/ disagree about what the text means, or they might be correct or incorrect about what a text means. Marginalized people who read, for example, Revelation will likely offer some insights about perseverance through political and social suffering that privileged readers, who don’t suffer politically or socially, might not have.
My next post will talk about the importance of reading black and brown authors.