II Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to
present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed
and who correctly handles the word of truth."
"Hermeneutics" can simply
be defined as the method by which we interpret texts. It concerns itself with many of the
issues we have raised in this course: How can we know what an author means? How do I
respond to a work? What is the social context of the material I am reading?
As a field of knowledge,
hermeneutics arose out of Jewish and Christian concern with rightly interpreting the Word
of God. Yet today, in addition to religion, hermeneutical issues are researched in fields
as diverse as law, literature, history, philosophy, art, and medicine. Wherever people
have to understand texts, questions of interpretation come up. Of late, this field of
inquiry has been divided between those who suggest that interpretation is simply a set of
rules, free from our contexts, that once perfected offer an air-tight, guaranteed right
interpretation, and those who believe that interpretation is completely relative, that no
common ground of understanding can be found because interpretation is too subjective and
individualistic to ever offer definitive meanings. What is often overlooked in this debate
is the role that mutual interpretation plays: namely, the sense that we depend on
working together to understand a text.
The authors of a recent work
on the subject argue:
"[I]nterpretation is an
activity that Christians engage in within the context of the promises of God. More
important than the question of human certainty is that of divine fidelity. For the sake of
human understanding and the future of the Christian church, it is more important for
God to be seen as the maker and keeper of promises than it is for us to
perfect the procedures we employ as we interpret texts and the world about us"
(xii The Promise of Hermeneutics)
When we understand God as a
keeper of promises, we learn to put our hope in communication. God has
promised us understanding within the context of relationships. We learn and grow and argue
inseparably tied to those around us. The issues we raise, the questions we ask, even
the words we use arise out of a specified time and place in history. Christ the Word
offers us a world where community is possible because communication is possible, and
paradoxically because community is possible, communication is.
The way we interpret a text
is deeply a part of our communities and traditions. This is something to be proud of.
We aren't required to make sense of everything on our own. We have a heritage
of response that shapes our own questions. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has noted, "To
think is to thank." In a very real sense, we are dependent on all who have gone
before us for understanding.
* * * * *
Central Insight: Interpretation is
carried out in the context of community. We are designed by God to understand
together with others.
Suggestions for Application: Relate
how the insights of a fellow student or perhaps a scholar from a work of secondary
criticism increased your understanding of a text.