An Introduction to Hermeneutics - Part 1

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Introduction to Hermeneutics - Part 1


We want to begin today with an introduction to Hermeneutics proper.  We looked last week at the translation of the Bible into the English language and that’s kind of a survey of how we got our English Bible but also introduces various hermeneutical issues.

Hermeneutics is a word that frightens a lot of people. That’s unfortunate. Its unnecessary and it actually is the transliteration of a Greek verb, hermeneu, which means to interpret, to explain.  A form of the verb is found in Luke 24:27 where the RSV says,

“27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He - that is Jesus - interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

The NIV reads,

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He – Jesus - explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Interpreted, explains is the way of translating that Greek word. Now in Acts 14:12, there is an interesting passage where Paul and Barnabas come to the city of Lystra and he heals a crippled man – Paul does – and the people go absolutely bonkers, “The gods have visited us!” And we read in Acts 14:12,

“12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.”

Now I kind of wondered about that because Paul was the preacher, he did the miracle. And yet they called Barnabas, the chief God Zeus and they called Paul, Hermes.  But Hermes was the interpreter of the gods.  He was the one who interpreted – hermeneu – the message of the gods to humanity so Paul is therefore assumed to be interpreter and is attributed the name, Hermes.

For a lot of people, Hermeneutics is very very complicated. Texts are very difficult to explain and read. I don’t think Hermeneutics should be a difficult subject. People have understood what people have been reading and have been saying for thousands of years. Communication has gone on long before anybody took a course in Hermeneutics. There must be something that is pretty down to earth about Hermeneutics.  And we will try to be very simplistic in some ways. We may err on that side but let us get basic and then as complications arise we will worry about those but let us try to deal with Hermeneutics in a basic manner.

Now in all communication there must be present three basic components. In all communication, oral or written, anyway like that. There has to be three components. There has to be an author, a text and a reader. All three have to be present if there is communication that takes place.

Now linguists use the same root and they talk about an encoder, the code and the decoder. Alright, the encoder, the one who puts the code in, the author.  The code or the text that they are writing.  And the decoder, the reader who is trying to understand.

In radio, we can talk about a sender - the speaker - , the message and we talk about the receiver as other alternatives. Now I was born and raised in New Joisey and we like to use the alliteration to help. And so in New Jersey we talk about the whiter, the whiting and the weeder and we have nice alliteration that way.

Now various people, since there are three components have argued that each of these components is what determines the meaning. Some argue for the author being the determiner of meaning, others for the text, others, the reader.

Now let us look at who or what it is that determines the meaning of a text. Some argue that it is the text that determines the meaning.  For instance you all have heard Billy Graham says, “The Bible says” or “Pastor says” – “Our text says” … What they are saying however is not what this argument is for because Billy Graham could be saying just as readily if he is preaching from Romans, he could say “The Bible says.”  He could say “Our text says,” or he could say “Paul tells us in our text” and he means the same by all of this.

That’s not what is going on in this particular viewpoint. The viewpoint here is rather that the text in and of itself conveys meaning.  Its autonomous. It is as if there was never an author. It is as if a text comes to you dropped from heaven without any relationship in time and space to anything without any person being involved in it.  It just comes to you in this way. It is an autonomous text to ask about what Paul was thinking. It is totally irrelevant.

The text is an end in itself. It is as if it magically appeared without author, without circumstances, without any particular time and place.  In the 1930s through the 1960s and into the 70s, there was a movement that was called, the New Criticism.

This view argued for the autonomy of the text. When one read text, one didn’t ask about authors. One says, what does the text in front of you mean? In and of itself it has its own meaning. An author by the name of Young writes, concerning this period, “the New Critics” of the New Criticism almost all insist that the proper end of literary study is the work itself conceived as an independent object.

These premises assume that a literary work exist independently of the interests and purposes, whether conscious or unconscious of the author or of the responses to our experiences of the work on the part of any particular reader or collection of readers in any given time and space.

So if you talk about reader, text, author, it is the text that gives it meaning.  It is the text that means something.  Totally apart from author – irrelevant.  You don’t talk about authors. It is irrelevant who wrote it. You don’t talk about authors. Its irrelevant who wrote it. It is just there a text in front of us.

Another one writes – not the intention of the author – not the author, which is supposed to be hidden behind the text.  Not the historical situation common to the author and his original readers.  Not the expectational feelings of these original readers. Not even their understanding of themselves as historical and cultural phenomena. What must be appropriated is the meaning of the text itself considered in a dynamic way as the directional thought opened by the text.
Now as I said, when Billy Graham says, “The Bible says,” he means, John the author means the following.  This view looks at texts as art isolated from their author.  If you came to a chess game and you wanted to understand what is going on, you just look at the chessboard. It is irrelevant what the author was doing – what the players were doing before – it is irrelevant how the moves got to this point. What you have there is now the chessboard with the men at various places on the chessboard now try to understand it this way. Texts are to be seen this way.

If you are in a Bible study and you are studying the book of Galatians and you are come to a passage that is very difficult, if by some miracle the apostle Paul entered in the door and said to you “What I meant by Galatians 3 here is …” – this approach would say, “That is very interesting but it is irrelevant. Long ago you lost control of this text. It is a work of art now. It is isolated. It has nothing to do with what you said at the time.”

If the text isolated as an independent entity.  It is a work of art. It has nothing to do with what people meant in the past.  Now the biggest problem I have in this is trying to understand what meaning is and what a text is. Meaning is a construction of thought.  In the three – threesome – of communication, authors can think, readers can think. They construct. They can construct a meaning.

But texts are inanimate objects. Ink, paper can’t think. A piece of stone and engravings on that stone. They can’t think. Because texts are inanimate, they simply can’t mean anything. To mean something you must have the ability to think and reason and since they can’t think and reason, they cannot mean.

Now can they convey meaning? Yes. But they can’t mean. They are simply inanimate.

So to treat them and say, what does this text mean, you have to say, “If there is any construction of meaning here or meaning, it doesn’t come from the ink. It doesn’t come from the papyrus. It doesn’t come from the steel with its letters in it. It comes from someone who is either reading it. They can construct some meaning. Or it comes from the person who did the engraving.”

But the stone, the paper, the papyrus, the ink, grooves can’t think. They are inanimate. It seems fairly simplistic this way to me but I don’t understand how so many people can say, “The text means this.” The text can’t mean anything.

If you have attended the universities in the 60s, 70s and 80s, this would have been a dominant way of understanding and interpreting literature.  This was the way in academic circles. Since then a new approach has come on the scene and this concentrates on the reader and assumes that it is the reader that gives meaning to a text.

Now sometimes they talk about implied readers, competent readers, intended readers, tentative readers, ideal readers, real readers – we are just talking about a reader.  The guy, the gal who reads the text. That’s the person we are talking about.

Now the argument here is that person as they read the text give meaning to it until the reader comes and looks at the text, it is dead – can’t do anything. Now the reader gives it meaning. That doesn’t mean they learn the meaning. Doesn’t mean they decipher the meaning. It doesn’t mean they discover the meaning. It doesn’t mean they ascertain the meaning. They give the meaning. They supply the meaning to the text.

Now according to this view if people come up with different meanings, what it means for me is different from what it means for you, no problem.  Because since you give the meaning to the text, the text can have multiple meanings.  And they may have contrary meanings.

If you hear an expression like - not so popular as it was before 1990 – a Marxist reading of the text or a feminist reading of a text, a Complementarian reading of a text, an Arminian reading of a text, a Calvinist reading of a text, what frequently is meant by this is that these people with their theological viewpoints give this meaning to the text in front of them.

Now a lot of people who maybe Calvinists and so forth, [Hard to Hear] will read it and say, “No. The meaning is already there. I am just interpreting it. But this particular usage - its irrelevant if it is there. I am giving it that meaning.”  And they are the ones who are giving the meaning to the text. 

A man by the name of Ziesler in Expository Times, 1994 says, and he gives a grading analogy that you will want to remember, “To put it crudely there is a question of whether the text, any text is a window or a mirror.” 

You are going to carry through with the analogy, it is a good analogy.  “Does it – the text – in some way facilitate our own illumination, like a mirror – you look at it and we are illumined by it. Or does it give us access to another world - do we see through it like a window to different world? It is far more fruitful to accept their mirror-like nature and concentrate on how we read them. The text are a language through which we generate meaning. There is therefore no such thing as a single meaning of a text which simply has to be uncovered. The role of the reader is more active than that. Furthermore any reader has a perfect right to say of any text, ‘This speaks to me in the following way regardless whether that way agrees or disagrees with the way scholars or other scholars receive the text.’ The text in other words functions much like an inkblot. You look the inkblot and you see meaning.  Someone else might look at that inkblot, they see different meaning. But it is the reader who gives meaning to it.”

Go out sometime when there are clouds in the sky, you and look up and say, “Well. This is what I see” and someone says “Well, this is what I see,” and you are both right. You give meaning to the cloud.  That cloud means according to how you view it. In this particular view, you are the determiner of meaning.  And since you determined it, there is no absolute to compare it to, so others read it and find a different meaning, fine. Isn’t it wonderful?

Like in the Bible study where, you have a Bible study and a passage and four different say, “Well. What it means to me is this.”

Another says “Well it means this is something else.”

“Well. What it means to me is the following.”
And you are the Bible study leader and you say the following, “Isn’t it wonderful how rich the Bible is that it can have all these meanings?”

“Of course if the Bible has all these meanings it doesn’t have any of them.”

Now this is the approach that is dominant today. I don’t know if any of you took literature recently in the universities. This is not foreign. This is very much a dominant approach. It is a dominant approach in Biblical studies today.  And a lot of evangelicals have been buying into this far more than I would then to see. I am very nervous about this.

Now the traditional approach is that it is the author who is the determiner of meaning.  It is what the author consciously willed to say in the text that they are seeking after.  Thus the meaning of Romans is what Paul intended by these words when he wrote Romans.  And that if Paul were alive and told us what it meant, that would settle it for us.  We know what the meaning is, now let us see what the implications for that are today.

The text means what Paul says it means.  Now this is the common approach we have in studying the Bible and in studying any book. For instance why if you are studying Galatians and having problems do you go to Romans instead of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Now you say that is absurd. Well. Wait a minute. Why? Because Paul also wrote Romans. That’s right isn’t it? In other words, the author or Romans thinks more like the author of Galatians because He is dealing with the same issues in the same time, in the same place, and you say Amen.

As a result of that if you want to know what Galatians means, Romans will help you.  But that’s assuming you want to know what the author of Galatians means.  If you are dealing with the book of Acts and you are confused about something where do you go?  You go to Plato’s Republic? Where do you go to the Gospel of Luke, which was written by the same man, who no doubt at the same time was thinking very much like the other were.

So that common sense approach that we have, when you are reading Acts you go to Luke, when you are reading Paul, you go to another letter of Paul. If you are reading John, you may go to First John. The common sense approach is all based on the idea that you want to know what the Biblical author meant by this and you go as closely as you can elsewhere to that Biblical author and if the Biblical author wrote something else, you go to them.

That’s a pretty common sense approach.  The Bible then is not in all literature is not to be treated as some isolated form of Art, but it is a form of communication. And in Communication we want to know what an author meant.  All this time so far this evening, you have been trying to understand what Robert Stein means by the words he is saying. And when the exam comes, you want to explain what Robert Stein means. You might say, “Well. Dr. Stein this is the meaning I just gave to what you said.”

:Well. Creative thinking, great imagination - F.”

In communication we want to understand what the other person is referring to. Now to say that something is no longer communication but a work of art, that takes some thought in doing. How do you judge for instance a good translation of the Bible.

Do you like this translation because these translators gave a good meaning that you like to the text. [Hard to Hear] people say that “I like what this Bible says.” Well. Is it true? Is it correct?

As soon as you raise that question you say, “Does the translation accurately reflect what the author meant in this passage and explain that well for you.” That is the way you have to judge a Bible translation. All that assumes that you want to deal with what the author meant by the text.

Does our translation reflect accurately what Paul meant by this? Would Paul for instance say this accurately reflects what I am saying. Then you say “Well, we are looking for author meaning here.” Or are we saying “It is totally irrelevant if Paul would like this translation.” Then you have kind of reader approach. But when you get down to common sense, that doesn’t make sense in a translation in a Bible. So sometimes you have to say, “Well, you get to another level called art and now you are just interested in looking at the art. So you should not judge texts as the communication but as art. Like you go in a museum and you look at paintings and is it really matter what the author meant by the painting or do you just look at it and you read into it your meaning. You should do the same with the Bible.” – Reader approach.

Now in the 1980s and 90s, this was a major issue and it is still a major issue, and its still a major issue. In the nomination of supreme court judges, whatever the hoopla was about Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas’s nomination, there was a basic issue and what was at stake was the issue of who determines the meaning of this text we call the Constitution.

Do the judges give it meaning? And that was Blackmun, the former justice Blackmun’s attitude toward it. He said that “It is arrogance to think that we could find out what the original authors and framers of the Constitution meant.”  Or is that the responsibility of the Supreme Court judges – not to say what they want to read into the text, but what the original framers of the Constitution and those who approved it meant by these words.

Big struggle today and it is not a very simple issue for – at stake here. I think it is a simple issue but it is a very controversial one. Long ago James Madison said if the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a faithful exercise of its power.  How would you like to be a Jew and appear before 9 Nazi Supreme Court judges who gave meaning to the text.  Its kind of scary.

Furthermore what does a supreme court nominee swear to uphold to be supreme court judge? Does he swear, “I swear to uphold the meaning I give to this Constitution.” Now practically I think there would be a lot of Americans who would be very upset with that and we would never get through.  But this is the approach if you think the author(?) or the judges give it meaning, then you have a reader approach  view to the Constitution.

On the other hand, Bork and Thomas all argue “No. What we do is to interpret what the Founders of the Constitution meant and we can know that. We can know what they had in mind and then we could try to see the implications that flow out of this for the particular situation at hand.  It is not just the Bible. It is not just the law. But that’s struggling with this issue. A few years ago, maybe five or six now, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Vatican - Sistine were redone. I think there was a large grant from an organization in Japan for the redoing of that.

Michelangelo did these in the 1500s.  For how many centuries didn’t they have electric lights in that place and how did they light them up? With candles. You know after several hundred years that can affect the ceilings. And there were various earthquakes - pieces breaking. There was moisture coming in. So they re-did the whole Sistine Chapel. Do any of you remember what happened when they opened it up?

There was a huge outcry. An uproar in the Art community. They said, “You have changed it. The colors are too bright.” Michelangelo had much more somber colors.  Now the question was whether 400 years of candles burning made brighter colors more somber or whether they were that way and the new re-doing of it used brighter colors.  But so what? Is it an issue? Who cares? Well you say, “Wait a minute. This is Michelangelo’s art.”  “Well. This is the way I as the restorer want to reinterpret or to interpret this art.” And all of us say, “No. I didn’t come here to see your reinterpretation. I wanted to see Michelangelo.” Comes up in Art.

There is a composer by the name of Gilbert Kaplan who concentrates on the directing of Gustav Mahler’s work. In a particular work of Mahler, in the original manuscript, there comes a place where there is an E-flat that every conductor changes to an F because an E-flat does not harmonize with it. They all think what he really wanted to do is have an F here, not an E-flat. So they change it. When he conducts it, there is a dissonantal E-flat.

[Hard to Hear] This is in his manuscript. This is what he intended. We are doing Mahler’s work and we aint have to play it that way. He also surprised everyone because there was a particular work of Mahler that was usually a work that took about 12 or 13 minutes and it was kind of a funeral dirge.  When he conducts it, it only takes 8 minutes.  Now its kind of a polka that they are doing in some ways. 

Does it matter? If Mahler were present and you asked him, “Is it a dirge or a polka? Does that really matter how you direct it?” If you say “Yes” then you are dealing with an author controlled meaning.

Art, music, law – major issue. Its the issue you have to face because lots of people will start saying this is the way I read it and I don’t read it the way you read it. Is there something out there that is an absolute that we must submit to? I am jumping ahead to something but let me make a comment.

Much of this movement gained strength and impetus in the 70s. It was the rebellion against authority that manifested it in its marches – a rebellion against governmental authority and in other areas it’s a rebellion against any kind of authority.  “I’m not going to have Paul sit over me when I read a text. I am going to do what I want.” And it is a rebellion against authority here too. It is maybe not as clear as what was going on in the marches in Washington and so forth, but it is a generation that does not like authority to which they have to submit to in some way. And I am not a theologian to get into this argument now – whether this is a reflection of sin of likewise. It is there. 

Now let us talk a little bit about the whole idea that writings are works of art. That is very debatable.  How do you define a work like Romans? When does it become art? Now it is clear, when the Romans got that letter and read it, it was communication and you were trying to find out what does Paul mean here? Paul would not have said, “Well. Whatever meaning you gave is fine with me.” He intended it as communication.

Now somehow something magical is supposed to happen and the Bible now becomes art. Well how does this take place? Well supposing you have something that lasted for 2,000, 3,000 years. People still read it. Then it becomes art after its been around along time. What do you do in a class in 20th century English literature? Don’t treat that as art? Don’t treat it as literature as such? You treat it as communication.

And also ok, let us forget about having to be old. If it is something that lots of people read that is no longer communication, it is literature or art. Well. In my generation the greatest literary artist in the world is Mickey Spillane. In yours it maybe John Grisham. [Hard to Hear] Shakespeare [Hard to Hear] even past. Very subjective. Very subjective.

I would suggest again that the idea that the author is the controller of meaning is the natural way of communication. In fact, supposing someone here wanted to argue the other side. That person, he or she could not argue with me, except on the basis that our argument is dominated by what the author means as the determiner of the meaning.  You can’t communicate otherwise. Communication requires that what the two communicators are speaking, that is what you want to know and that’s what determines the meaning. So there is a sense in which to even discuss the issue, you have to first basically agree that at least in communication of – in conversation – what the author means is what we are getting at. And we have to say no, but when we get to art or literature, it is a different rule.  You can’t communicate, you can’t debate apart from this presupposition.

A man by the name of E.D. Hirsh spoke heavily on this issue. He was asked to review a work – a book written by somebody in which the thesis was that the author was the determiner of text meaning. He reviewed the book and he got a letter from the author complaining terribly. “You completely misunderstood me.” And E.D. Hirsch wrote back. “Thank You. E.D. Hirsch.”

In other words he wanted his work to be understood by what he meant. He didn’t allow for an author to determine the meaning. Now there are some objections to the idea that the author is the determiner of meaning and a very famous one is called the Intentional Fallacy.

Any of you take literature at the university? Come across the intentional fallacy. That expression ring a bell?

This was an expression coined by William K. Winsatt Jr. and Monroe Beardsley in 1954 and what they argued was this.  You cannot know what the experiences the author was when they were writing these texts.  You cannot relive their experiences.  They are beyond us.  We cannot go through what the author was going through when they wrote. And that’s absolutely right. You cannot relive the experiences that Paul was going through when he wrote. That’s why you need to read the C.S. Lewis article for next week. Very important article. Delightful article. You must read it for next week.

We cannot relive the innermost feelings, the motives and so forth.  They are not accessible to us. But the question is when you read a text, are you trying to relive the experiences of the author or are you trying to understand what the author meant by the text he gave to you and that you have in front of you. That is different. We are not trying to relive how the text came into being. We are trying rather to understand what the author meant by the words he has given to us or she has given to us – a Biblical author would be a “he” of course.

If you went to a theatre and all of a sudden, the movie was cut off and there was a sign on the theatre which says, “Please move immediately to the nearest exit and leave. There is a fire in the theatre.” How many of you are trying to experience what the author meant as they were writing that sign.  What - [Hard to Hear] was just interested in what they were conveying.


If you heard somebody drowning in the lake and saying, “Help me! Help me!” Are you saying “I would love to go through those experiences.” Or you can just say, “He needs help. I am going out there to help him.” Most of the times we are not interested in going through feelings that gave rise to this. Are you really concerned over the fact that one of the reason Paul was so upset when he wrote Galatians was that he had a terrible problem with athletes foot? No.

We are not interested in reliving the experiences of the authors. Well you know maybe we are. Maybe we would like to, but we have no access to and we might as well simply accept that’s not available to us.  That is very different thought because what is not available in that is available with regard to what they mean. We have their words and what their words are doing will reveal to us what they are trying to express.

Now a second objection here in the intentional fallacy is that the author may have been incompetent to express what they intended. What teacher has not had some student get a paper and come back and say “What I really meant was …” Yeah. But you didn’t say it. You may, like I did that one time, try to correspond to my wife, with my wife, said that I would meet her at a certain restaurant in one town and I went to another town with the same kind of restaurant. I was incompetent in trying to express what I was thinking.

So is it possible that Biblical authors may have had some thoughts in their mind, but in the expression of that they were incompetent? Yeah. Ok. Sure – hypothetically sure – what is intriguing to me is so many of the authors that raise that point, never think that they are incompetent in expressing the problem. They simply assume that they are fairly competent.

On most times you try to express something, write something, say something, you are fairly competent in expressing what you have on your mind.  There may be exceptions to that but those are by far the exceptions, not the rule. So most writers seem to be quite competent. Now you think about someone like the apostle Paul, he is a fairly intelligent person. So is Luke.
My general impression would be they would be quite competent in expressing what they have on their minds. But now I have a bias that comes in at that point and that is that I am a Christian – an evangelical Christian who believes that they are inspired by God in what they are writing. And if inspiration comes in at any point, my assumption would be, it would be coming right in at this point – that what they want to express, God through His spirit enables them to well inadequately at least, so that what they mean can be conveyed adequately to their readers. So for me that objection that a person can be incompetent – it is not a big point for me because, I think most people can and if you believe in inspiration there is something here that goes over that problem to say the least.

Now another objection that some people raise is kind of radical historicism, and saying well, how can you really understand what somebody in the Old Testament, living in a period of sandals, animal sacrifices is saying? We are in the world of jet engines, intercontinental flights, computers, atomic weapons and the like – How can they – help me understand the way they think. 

Well it’s a real problem. I think it is. I think many people read the Bible as if it were written yesterday to someone. And we lose sight of the fact that we have to go back into time and culture and try to understand what they are talking about. A number of years ago, I watched a television program on public television and it involved an anthropologist who had just come after five years in New Guinea. 

He had gone into a remote place in New Guinea and lived those years with a stone age people. Stone age – no metal tools, lived like stone age people – and he began the program by saying “You just can’t understand the way they think. It is just impossible for us to understand how they think.” 

And then for the next 55 minutes, he explained to us how they think. Well, what he meant was, there is a difficulty in understanding of the cultures. And that is true. And we should not lose sight of them. But to say it is impossible, well, the anthropologist understood it is not impossible because he spent 55 minutes explaining it.  If you really believed it, he would say, “And the result is that there is no sense in my trying to explain it to you.” Short program.

There are some other things that I think draw us together in understanding other people writing at other times. And that is our common humanity. The fact is they are human beings made in the image of God just like we and the basic needs that exist are really not different. Technology may change but we still have a need for hope. 

The assurance of life everlasting – of love. Of something that allays the fear of death. Of food, clothing and warmth and fellowship. That basic humanity, I think allows us to understand people who lived in other cultures, times and places. After all we are not trying to understand how frogs think but of others who are made in the image of God this way.

So these - I think – these objections should not be minimized. Having said that however we shouldn’t make them insurmountable. They are objections, yes to be sure, but they are not insurmountable objections.
Text has meaning in and of itself – semantic autonomy. 
The reader determines the meaning, gives the text its meaning.
The author gives the meaning – we want to know what the author meant. 

Those are the three components. I will argue for author oriented meaning in class.