I don’t remember when I first heard the word hermeneutics, but it may have been sometime in middle school or high school when a friend’s father told us that hermeneutics was the most important thing we could ever study, because if you don’t have the right hermeneutic, your thinking will not be correct. A pretty weighty statement said in a context in which it was understand that there was only a very, very narrow understanding of “correct thinking.”
At some point during my undergrad years, I was asking one of my Hebrew professors for advice on how I should go about pursuing my interest in theology, and I raised some of my questions about understanding and interpreting the Scriptures. In his response, he asked me a few questions about the meaning of meaning. I was slightly confused. He talked some more, giving me an introduction to the concepts of reader-response theory, new criticism, and authorial intent and how they might shape, have shaped, and are shaping biblical studies in particular. I was still confused, but I tucked away some of the ideas for later study and consideration.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve heard and read a lot more about the above topics, but still want to have a better grasp on issues of hermeneutics, linguistics, etc. and how they might apply to the process of interpretation of Scripture.
Enter Anthony Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction. Thiselton is professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham, and I picked up his book as part of my desire to have a more articulated understanding of theology (wrote about that here), and hope to throw out a few of the thoughts that strike me as I read (slowly) through the book.
A couple of initial thoughts from the first chapter (which I might read again and post on in the next few days):
– Thiselton acknowledges the multi-disciplinary nature of hermeneutics. It is not just about “what the Bible says,” but involves philosophical, literary, social, linguistic questions as much as it does questions rooted in biblical and theological concerns.
– A distinction is drawn between the understanding of hermeneutics as “rules” and an understanding of hermeneutics as an “art.” Thiselton notes “hermeneutics as rules” tends to be seen in the church fathers, reformers, much of the rabbinic tradition, and those who hold to particular conservative understandings of the inspiration of the Scriptures and suggests that the “rules” of hermeneutics apply to ‘first-order’ tasks of interpretation and exegesis. Beyond this ‘first-order’ is the “second-order discipline of asking critically what exactly we are doing when we read, understand, or apply texts” (4). This leads to the sense in which hermeneutics is an “art” (an idea furthered by the works of folks like Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and Ricoeur), analyzing and calling into question not just the actual interpretation, but the entire procession of writing, transmitting information, receiving or reading ideas, assembling meaning, etc.
For any of you who are better read in this area, feel free to correct, question, or strengthen any areas that I may be missing or misrepresenting the point!