Hermeneutics is the academic discipline that seeks to understand what goes on when a text is read and interpreted. Anthony Thiselton gives the following basic definition:
Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.1
At the simplest level, therefore, hermeneutics examines the process of interpretation that goes on when a text is read; it explores what happens between text and reader.
When we read contemporary texts—newspapers, novels, works of systematic theology, for example—the world of the text, which includes the author, overlaps to a large degree with the world of the reader, which includes the reader’s relatives and friends, the books on her bookshelf, her favourite movies, and so on. This makes interpretation a relatively straightforward process, though by no means a fool-proof one.
In the case of a text such as the Bible, however, which has its origins in a historical context far removed from that of the modern reader, interpretation also has to take into account a significant hermeneutical distance between the world or horizon of the text and the world or horizon of the reader. The reader may understand the translated words on the page, but much of what is implied in or presupposed by the text remains invisible. Much contemporary reading of scripture works on the assumption that neither the world of the text nor the world of the reader nor the distance between the two has any great bearing on interpretation.
We will then find that postmodernism confirms what in any case should be obvious, not least to church-based readers of the Bible—that generally speaking the ancient biblical text has been read and interpreted by diverse communities of readers, which embody diverse interpretive traditions.
Unfortunately the space between the reader and the text is never transparent or unimpeded. Interpretation is always hindered, to a lesser or greater degree, by tradition, prejudice, presuppositions, ignorance, and the laziness of the reading community. Hermeneutics tries to find ways to overcome these obstacles to good interpretation.
As a general field of study hermeneutics naturally overlaps with a broad spectrum of other disciplines, because each part of the interpretive process may be subjected to different types of analysis. We need to understand the literary character of the text and the context in which it was produced; we need to understand the complex process of interpretation; and we need to understand the various pressures that reading communities are under to bully the text into saying things it doesn’t really want to say.
The inescapable polarity of text and reader or of text and reading community has a bearing on the question of where authority in interpretation is perceived to lie. Traditionally the assumption has been that the author and the author’s context determine the meaning of the text. Beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), however, biblical hermeneutics has increasingly had to take account of the argument that it is the reader who determines the meaning of the text. Hermeneutics has to work out how to balance these competing claims to authority.
Finally, hermeneutics may be interested in how reading communities such as churches, home groups, mission organizations, and even academic fellowships respond to the interpretation of the text, if they do so at all. Action is itself a form of interpretation.
- 1A.C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 2009), 1.