Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 1: Two Kinds of Hermeneutic

How are we to go about interpreting Scripture or some particularly troublesome passage of Scripture? Here's one thing we shouldn't do that lots of people seem to think is a good idea: interpret all of Scripture metaphorically, or at least those sections of it the literal meaning of which we don't particularly like (in particular, those which seemingly contradict our theological position). Call that the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical ("hermeneutic", as I'm using it, refers to a method of interpretation). Here's another thing we shouldn't do that lots of other people who oppose the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical seem to think is a good idea: interpret all of Scripture literally, or at least those sections of it which support our particular theological position (those that do not being interpreted metaphorically instead). Call that the Hermeneutic of the Literal.

Notice that these two hermeneutics are of a kind - they are both incarnations of a larger hermeneutic which we can call the Hermeneutic of the Present. Both ignore lots of relevant historical or literary facts or traditions of interpretation in their interpretation of Scripture, basing their readings instead on their own narrow contexts, interests, and theological positions. Both privilege a certain kind of reading (literal or metaphorical) over another (metaphorical or literal) but do so ultimately only arbitrarily and where it suits them (or their theological view) since to interpret everything consistently with the espoused principles of the hermeneutic would be implausible or inconsistent - some passages cannot be taken other than literally and some passages if taken literally would contradict each other. The key, unspoken principle of the Hermeneutic of the Present is that the text means what I (or my fellow countrymen or fellow members of my church or etc.) would have meant by it. Liberalism follows the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical and Classic Dispensationalism follows the Hermeneutic of the Literal. But both are wrong, as the Hermeneutic of the Present is in general a misguided, me-centric way of reading the Scriptures.

Contrast now the Hermeneutic of the Present with the Hermeneutic of Context which tries to place the meaning of a text within its textual, historical, theological, grammatical, semantic, pragmatic, cultural, religious, sociological, anthropological, narrative, symbolic, scriptural and literary context and use that as the determiner for deciphering the original meaning of a given text. In the Hermeneutic of Context, one can go just as wrong in interpreting a passage literally that was meant symbolically as in interpreting a passage symbolically that was meant literally. The key is to look at the evidence of the context.

Principles like "interpret literally unless there is an overriding reason not to do so" or "interpret according to the plain meaning of the text" are overly simplistic and generally unuseful - which is why they are almost always espoused by those who ignore at least parts of the complex of context within which a given text was originally situated. These principles are the watchwords of the Hermeneutic of the Literal - principles not followed to a t but instead too often followed only insofar as it bolsters the theology of the interpreter. The former principle is not helpful since one must have evidence in interpreting a text of literary genre before one knows whether it is to be interpreted literally or otherwise - it is that which in large part decides whether it is to be interpreted literally, not this principle of literalism. The latter is not helpful since plainness differs from person to person and yields contradictory results. What is the plain reading to one person contradicts the plain reading for another. "Plainness" is, after all, a relational concept - it involves a relation between an interpretation and a person and so will differ from person to person. Indeed, sometimes a text has no "plain" interpretation at all and is in fact generally puzzling (one reason why there are so many debates and conflicting interpretations among well-meaning Christians).

So ultimately, the Hermeneutic of Context is preferable to the Hermeneutic of the Present in either of its incarnations. It promises to get at the original meaning of the text with less interference from one's own context, interests, or theological point of view than is found in the other hermeneutic. It is also truer to the way actual interpretation of texts in general proceeds anyway.

Further posts in this series: "Prophetic Literature", "Modern Israel and Biblical Prophecy", "The People of God, Israel and the Church" and "The Tribulation and Rapture"

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