Vocabulary for Interpretation - Part 2

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Vocabulary for Interpretation - Part 2


Significance refers to how a reader responds to the meaning of a text. Ok. Now, implications are determined by the author. We discover them and it is a mental kind of discovery. Significance is something we are masters of.  We are masters here.

Meaning and Implications, the author is master. The reader here is the master of significance. And this involves not so much the mental, but the volitional. Not the mind, but the heart. It is our decision as to what to do with the meaning and its implications. It involves yes or no. I will or I won’t. 

Sometimes people use the term, meaningfulness, but I won’t use that for significance, because we are using meaning here again in a different way but the meaningfulness of something, sometimes people refer to that and we would use the word significance because it is a different root altogether. How you and I respond to a meaning of a text. The volitional aspect, the decision of what we need to do. The decision as to what we will do.

You hear a Gospel message, talk about the need of repentance, the specific meaning of repentance for you and what that entails may be different than someone else but the significance is yes or no. Will you or won’t you?  Obedience or disobedience?  Significance, we are the masters of significance.

Subject matter – this refers to the "stuff" talked about in the text. The stuff talked about … and there’s lots of stuff in the text.  The Bible is just a vast world of subject matter.  If you study the Bible for anything but meaning, you are dealing with the subject matter.  You want to study the Bible and learn about marriage in Biblical times the Pharisees, Genesis 1 to 3, Hebrew poetry, the history of the life of Jesus, Paul’s conversion,  the history of Judah in the 6th century, military tactics of war in Joshua, Judges, I mean you can do any of this material. 

That’s subject matter. You are not interested so much in the meaning of the subject matter, but the subject matter itself.  And you can learn about all sorts of things in the Bible that way. And by the way, a lot of people study the Bible for its subject matter. When you want the meaning, all you have to do is put this in front: “I have told you this…” about marriage, about Jesus, etc. because and now you are dealing with the meaning of that subject matter. I, the Biblical author have told you this information because…

You have a paper like that in which you are going to deal with the meaning of an account. Not the information about it, not what happened. You want to learn about the life of Jesus, ok. Its fine.  But if you want to know the meaning you say “Why does the Biblical writer tell me this about Jesus?”  I have told you this because … and then you are dealing with meaning. Lots of subject matter being discussed. And the temptation many times is to study the Bible for its subject matter, especially when we are dealing with historical passages of Scripture.

One of the things you have to remember is, there is a difference between a description and prescription. You may read things in the Bible that describe, but do not prescribe. In other words, you may read about marriage customs - about marriage in the Bible, in the form of marriage. That is descriptive. It doesn’t mean that the Biblical writer is prescribing this kind of a custom.  So we have to be careful between what is the Bible prescribing and teaching us to do and what it is simply describing in some way.

You can read parts of the book, the Old Testament, you can read about Samson. A lot of that is descriptive stuff. It is not prescribing these for us in some ways. So subject matter alright, now understanding. Understanding refers to the correct mental grasp of something. Correct mental grasp of what the author meant. It is mental. The minute it leaves the mind it becomes something else. But a correct mental grasp and next week we are going to talk about whether an unbeliever can have grasp of the author’s meaning or must one have the Spirit to do so.

But understanding as we are defining it is a correct mental grasp. If you and I have a correct understanding of a Biblical text, they are identical. Our understandings. Yours may be more complete than mine. Mine may even be more fragmentary. But they are the same.

A correct mental grasp means you understand what the author intends and if you understand that correctly and I understand it correctly, we have the same understanding. Let me go to the next definition because here is where things change.  

Interpretation is the verbal or written expression of our understanding of the author's meaning. At this point it is most likely that our interpretations will be different.  Our understandings may be correct, but our interpretations can be very different. Listen carefully.

Let me say that in another way.  Alright, now. Is what I am saying now the second time – the interpretation is different – but is it describing the same thing? Sure. Let me give you another example. I am trying to express my understanding, but I am using different examples. But the understanding being explained in both examples are the same. Translations, an author may be working for a thought for thought translation team. He may also be working for a word for word translation team. 

He comes to the same text, he has the same understanding.  But he words the one differently than he does the other. The understanding is the same – the understanding of the author, assuming it is correct.  The wording, the verbalization may be different.  So understanding will be mental and it is – if it is correct – the same.

Interpretation is verbal and will tend to vary and be different among different people. Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is like … Does He have another parable that begins that way? Well it’s the same Kingdom. Did He somehow change His understanding of it?  No, I think he had the same understanding but the interpretation is different so that an interpretation may vary. Different interpretations – they don’t have to be identical can convey the same meaning or understanding. Meaning – the understanding [Hard to Hear] meaning. The understanding in the mind – not verbalized yet. Interpretation, the verbalization of that.

And one of the things that of course interesting is that the minute you express your understanding, it is no longer your understanding. It is your interpretation. The minute it leaves your mind and it forms words or vocal sounds and explanation, it is now an interpretation. But they can vary. So you can interpret a Biblical text and you can interpret the exact ways as someone else – very unlikely.  You could have the same exact understanding, quite possible, but your interpretations tend to be different. Tend to express it differently.

Mental acts - the experiences that a writer goes through, when writing. The mental acts are those experiences that a person has that they are going through when they write. You know it is at this point that I would like us to turn attention to the C.S. Lewis article, “Fernseed and Elephants".

I had you read this because of its relevance to mental acts. He has a lot of great things to say. He writes so well. I think it is kind of fun to read somebody that is enjoyable. He has a number of things to say to a critics, when people for instance talk about the Bible being full of myths, he said, “I spent all my life as a professor at Oxford, teaching studying myths, how many have you read?” because the Gospels are not like this.

And we will later on talk about the difference of the word myth being understood as a genre and the Gospels and the Bible are not myths.  It’s a genre. I mean where do you come across in Jesus’ life, a one eyed monster, a unicorn or something like that. You don’t. Myths are like that. Some people mean by myths, not historically true. But that’s no longer a genre, that’s a historical judgment. 

And you have perfectly the right to say that “the Gospels are not historically true”. I think you are totally wrong in this, but you might say that. But you can’t say they are myths, because now you are using a term of genre – a literary form – and they don’t have that literary form. A good distinction here, [Hard to Hear] later goes on and talks about to the sheep of which he is – the shepherds rather of which he is one of the sheep and he ends the book in a very humble way.

Such are the reactions of one believing laymen to modern theology. It is right you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly.  Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar. He now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priest of one’s own church is an embarrassing role though I have a hard feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken, the future history of the church of England is likely to be short.

And if you see what’s happening to the Church of England especially in the English speaking world of America, Canada, Australia, England, he is quite right. If there is any hope it comes from the Anglican Church in Africa which is still very – for the most part faithful to the Word of God and coming back to “you taught us the Bible, let us tell you what you have been teaching us,” and see what happens.

And what’s really important as far as I am concerned is on page 114 and 15. This changed my life. When I read this, I put this book down and I said, “Well. That simply means that 75% of all doctoral dissertations are rubbish.” It was kind of scary. But I think he is right. Listen to him. The 2nd full paragraph,


“Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense; by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as 'spontaneous' and censure another as 'labored'; …

What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don't mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author's mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why - and when - he did everything.

Now I must record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as the miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong. “

Now think if trying to reconstruct what was going through an author’s mind – the mental acts of an author – if you are a contemporary of the author, raised in the same culture, had the same language, the same education, maybe even know the author and when you try to reconstruct the mental experiences of that author, you are almost always wrong.

What is the likelihood that you will be able to reconstruct the mind of the Biblical author, 2,000 years ago whose language was very different, Greek, whose culture was different, whose way of thinking was different and say you can reconstruct what was going through their minds. Or going back 3,000 years to a culture which was a different language, Hebrew and perhaps even more distinct differences from ours.  What is the likelihood that you can reconstruct what was going through Isaiah’s mind or Matthew’s mind when they wrote?

Let it sink in. Remember he is dealing with contemporaries who knew him and his friends and tried to reconstruct what was going through their minds and what led them to write these things. You find people today writing about what was going through the Biblical author’s mind and what the struggles, the community was going through.

Now sometimes, a biblical text will tell you, I am writing this because or he says what is happening in the church community.  He doesn’t mean that.  That’s no longer a mental act. That’s part of understanding the text itself. But when the text is silent about these things and trying to reconstruct what was going on, if C.S. Lewis is right, there is no way. There is no way. Do you know what was going through my mind when I wrote, A Basic Guide To Interpreting The Bible?

Who cares? Alright. Leave that aside right? You say well, how would I know? Ok. How would you know that? We can understand what the Biblical author is trying to convey because we have his text. Can we know their experiences? Not unless they tell it and then it is part of the text itself.  Much of the Biblical interpretation involves, trying to reconstruct what was going through the author’s mind. I had come to the place where I had simply said, it is not possible.

I don’t know how to shake what C.S. Lewis [Hard to Hear] in that article. When I put that down I began to think and it sank in. I realize that the job we have as interpreter are not trying to reconstruct what was going through Paul’s mind when he wrote, but we are to try to understand what Paul meant by the words that he gave to us. And so I simply think [Hard to Hear] mental axe, yeah wonderful to know what was going Paul’s mind when he wrote. But we don’t have any access to it.

The C.S. Lewis article bears re-reading and I think any student who goes into doctoral work in Biblical study needs to take very seriously that article. It’s a very popular article, but we should not let its popularity - the level of its popularity – and also the simplicity of what he is saying pass us by without seriously absorbing what he is says here. It has great great implications in that regard.

Alright couple more, norms of language. The norms of language are the range of meanings allowed by the words or the verbal symbols of a text. The best tools for the norms of language would be a dictionary that helps us understand the meanings of words and the like and try to understand.

But there are a lot of expressions even that - can mean several things.  The love of my wife. Is that my love for Joan or Joan’s love for me? The love of my wife. The norms of language permit either. “The love of Christ controls me” (2 Cor. 5:14).  Paul’s love for Christ or Christ’s love for Paul? I think here he means Christ’s love for him. 

Now there is a great debate in Biblical studies when it talks about the faith of Christ. Is it Christ’s personal faith or the faith of which Christ is the object?

My wife and I, we were driving one rainy night on a road that we had never been on before and we came to a sign that warned us that all vehicles over 12 feet must leave at the next exit.  I said “Oh. Nuts. Joan we have to get off at the next exit.” She said why? I said “All cars over 12 feet have to get off.” And she said, “Every car is over 12 feet.”

I thought, yeah, that’s right. So if I’d have realized that it didn’t mean that our car, because it was over 12 feet had to get off, but if we had a car that was 12 feet high, we would have to get off because there is probably a bridge coming. You see the norms of language permit either. And as we drove the road got narrow and narrower. And they didn’t meet higher, they meant wide.

The norms of language permitted either. Unfortunately if you were a 12 foot or more wide truck, it was kind of late to learn it when that road got narrow because there was no way of getting out. All they had to put was 12 feet wide, but they didn’t. The norms of language though [Hard to Hear] 12 feet wide, high are wrong. The norms of language [Hard to Hear]

The context, “narrowing of the road” made it very clear later on what the sign intended, so the norms of language, the possibilities. Words have all sorts of possible meanings. And here is where a dictionary is helpful. If you want to know the possibilities in language, the word has to fit. One of those that’s found in the dictionary. If you want to use a word in a way that has never been used before that’s not a dictionary definition. If you want to be understood then you have to have an explanation and the Bible does that at times. 

When it refers to Jesus saying, “destroy this temple in three days, and I will raise it up.” John says to his readers because the word temple is being used very unusually here, “This he spoke about His body.” So … He is talking about His body as a temple. But that’s not within the norms of language.  So John explains that to the readers so they will be able to understand that. The possibilities.

And here as I say a dictionary is be very very helpful.  Now, the norms of utterance becomes the specific meaning that the author meant. What does he mean? Does he mean Christ’s love for us or our love for Christ? Now how do authors help us to go from the norms of language to the norms of an utterance? What do they provide?

A context. Sure. So the language allows us to narrow it down. If you want to look at the word love, and somebody uses the word love in a statement, you know that can’t mean hamburgers unless they define it, because that’s not one of the possible meanings of love.  The only possibilities of love would be … the 12, 14, I don’t know how mnay –would be listed in a dictionary.  Those are the possibilities. It has to be one of those, because people using the word love want to be understood.

And if they want to be understood it has to fit the norms of language. Always know that. But if there are 12 or 14 possible meanings, how do you get from the 12, 14 to the one? Well, now you have a context in which is provided - the rest of the sentence is the most helpful. Then the paragraph in which that sentence is found and the chapter and so forth and so on. So we have here then the norms of language, the possibilities. Here is where have a dictionary most helpful to the norms of utterance.

When I try to find out the specific meaning of a word, I start with the norms of language, I look up a dictionary or the lexicon if we want. Then if I want to go to the norms of utterance, the most useful tool for me here is a concordance.  Where I can find where that same author uses that word elsewhere. Because most probably, the way he uses the word elsewhere will help me understand the word here, especially if it is used in the next sentence or the previous sentence or something like that. So a concordance is very helpful for the norms of an utterance.

Alright our last two definitions.

Literary genre - The literary form used by the author and the rules that govern that form. Literary genre – okay. The various rules governing that genre. Very important. We will look at that not so much next week. We will allude to it next week, but the following week after next, we will start dealing with various genres and we will be spending a lot of time on different literary genres. How to approach and understand these genres, the rules governing that.

Then finally the context. Now the context is defined here differently that most of us think of a context. Usually we would say the context of the words preceding and following the text. But wait a minute, words in a text have no meaning. Authors have meaning. So the context is defined here as the willed meaning an author gives to the literary material surrounding the text.

Because [Hard to Hear] the context is the willed context of the author and the meaning that the author gives and attributes to that context. Now here is the totality of a hermeneutical vocabulary. You need to know these meanings and in the long run the most valuable part of the course will be a mastery of this vocabulary and you are having a conceptual basis of that when you talk about hermeneutics, you can refer to what people are saying in this vocabulary.

Now one thing to be careful about – the world has not yet accepted our vocabulary definitions. They are back-wood illiterate people. The whole world. {laughter} We are the elite. We only have this definition right? So if somebody says understanding, they may be referring to an interpretation or meaning or something.

What you have to do is to say now I know they are using this word, but what they are really referring to – and then put it in your conceptual framework so that you can understand what they are talking about. Please remember, our definitions are precise. Others have different kinds of definitions. That’s fine, but what we have to do now is to use our understandings so that we can translate what they are saying into our vocabulary.