Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Use of Hermeneutics in Christian Scholarly Work

Roger Ebertz, a Christian Philosopher at the University of Dubuque recently published an inspiring and erudite article in the Christian Scholar’s Review[1] on the call for Christian scholarship to be Biblically grounded and engaged. Ebertz suggests that Christian scholars should extend the traditional worldview analysis methodology of research, an approach that has mostly become normative amongst Christian scholars, to include a central Biblical hermeneutical component.

Ebertz’s proposal is rooted in the conviction that Christian scholars, and for that matter any other scholars, operate within three defining contexts: (a) a specific social and cultural situation, (b) an academic field governed by specific research agendas and methodologies and finally, and (c) a particular faith tradition. His proposal consists of an integrated research approach where these three contexts work together in the pursuit of truth: “The Christian scholar, then, seeks both to interpret her subject matter and to understand the Bible as it speaks to her and to her work as a scholar in the light of historical situation, her community of scholarship and her community faith. Thus the Christian scholar’s hermeneutical task is complex. And yet she aims at the unity of understanding that affirms the sovereignty of one Lord.”

Christian scholars therefore carry a double duty in that they should not only be competent in the particular demands of their academic disciplines but also in appropriate methods of Biblical hermeneutics that fits their field of enquiry.

Casual readers of ancient texts, like the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that make up the Bible, often make interpreting mistakes in that they do not consider the historical and cultural distance between themselves and the first authors and audiences of these texts. Biblical Hermeneutical methodology assist the serious interpreter of the Bible in reading these texts in an integrative, reflective, analytical and yet devotional manner. These models of interpretation are drawn from the conviction that what is needed is a multi-disciplinary approach to reading the Scriptures that keeps in mind at minimum the literary, social, cultural, historical and theological dimensions of the text and its people.

It might helpful here to define three of the terms that are often used to describe the process of Bible interpretation: exegesis, exposition and hermeneutics. Exegesis is the process of interpretation in which we pursue the original meaning of the text. It is the process to uncover the meaning of the message that was heard by the original recipients. Exposition is the application of the Scriptures to modern times. It is the quest to find the application or relevance of these texts to our world. It is the process that should follow exegesis. Hermeneutics is the completed process of interpreting the Scriptures. It includes all the models, rules, principles, theories, and methods of Biblical interpretation. It covers the process from trying to understand the original meaning of the text to what it means to our world.

The relationship of the terms with each other in the context of Christian scholarship can be described in the following way. To understand the Scriptures properly Christian scholars practice hermeneutics by first applying exegesis because they hope to uncover the original meaning of the text. Secondly, an exposition of the text is done where the meaning of the text uncovered in exegesis engages with the embedded tradition of the scholar as well as the subject matter of the academic field in which she works. The South African scholar Ferdinand Deist[2] succinctly describes this interpretative process in the following definition: “Bible interpretation (Hermeneutics) is therefore the circular process of understanding sacred Biblical literature, namely interpreting the component parts of the sacred text in the light of the whole and the whole in the light of the its parts. It is the ongoing dialogue between one’s initial understanding of the sacred text and the impressions of the Holy Spirit gathered from subsequent readings and reflections on it. It is the dialogues between one’s own frame of reference (one’s own sphere of existence) and the context of the text. “

As Christian scholars, may we once again discover the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in the Bible as central to our quest for [T]ruth as we humbly, honestly and yet faithfully engage with the world we live in.

[1] Ebertz, R. P 2006. Beyond Worldview Analysis: Insights from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Christian Scholarship. Christian Scholars Review, Fall 2006; 36,1.
[2] Deist, F. 1992. A Concise Dictionary of Theological and Related Terms. Pretoria: J. L. Van Schaik.
[3] Grønvik, K. 2005. Letting Scripture read you. Conversations 3:1 (Spring 2005).