The New Oxford American Dictionary defines hermeneutics as “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.”
This interpretation may be thought to be an objective process, but in reality no one is capable of producing a completely objective analysis because of every person’s ingrained, personal experiences, which have forever altered the way in which he/she sees and interacts with the world. Indeed, hermeneutics is about life, and to earnestly engage in this process, one must recognize, first, how his/her own life will inextricably alter his/her own hermeneutical process and, second, that no matter how intellectually gifted he/she is, no human being will ever have full comprehension of the full truth—in other words, one must embrace humility. When using hermeneutics in relation to Biblical interpretation, the second point becomes all the more important for the simple fact that any suggestion that the human mind can “master” the divine Word is an assertion built upon pride.
Since life is always changing and always evolving, so does one’s hermeneutics. This process is often catalyzed by change, crisis, scrutiny of beliefs, and continually challenging one’s own assertions. If this process does not take place, stale hermeneutics seeks its own reinforcements and, in a religious sense, leads to an incestuous theology.
Here’s a way to illustrate my idea: Would you say, generally speaking, that Judaism and Christianity are diametrically opposed? That one is mutually exclusive of the other? That to subscribe to one faith means you invariably reject the other?
Well, let’s think about this. Judaism and Christianity both share the same scriptural foundation, and the Christian Old Testament is roughly the same as the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), with a few naming and organizational differences. So with so much in common, why does there seem to be such a big rift?
I would argue that a lot of it has nothing to do with the scriptures themselves but with hermeneutics. The same text viewed with a different lens gives a completely different picture of reality.
For example, consider this passage from Luke 4:14–29 (NASB):
14And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
19To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
20And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.
The fact that Jesus was teaching in their synagogues and was given a scroll to read on the Sabbath meant that He was a well-respected member of the Jewish community at the time. On top of that, Jesus then reads a scroll from Isaiah 61, and He makes it explicitly clear that the scroll (speaking of the coming Messiah) refers directly to Him. And because of that exact fact, what was the crowd’s response? Look at verse 11: “And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips.” So then, what did He say that made the Jews in the audience upset? Well, in verses 25–27, Christ speaks of two Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who both healed the non-Jewish and non-Israelites. They performed these healings at the expense of Jewish Israelites. The response of the crowd to this assertion, that God will heal the lives of “unclean” Gentiles, is what stirs them to anger. This filled them with rage, persuading them to attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff. Why? Because His interpretation of the Scriptures challenged the status quo at the time, which segregated Jews and non-Jews into two very separate and unequal cohorts. To accept Christ’s interpretation meant those living in Judea had to completely dismantle and invert their entire political, social, spiritual, and economic realities and embrace groups of people that previously had been cast away as degenerates and detestable. To even suggest that a Gentile was worthy of God’s favor was heresy, but that’s exactly what the Hebrew Scriptures said. To deny this reality, then, wasn’t a rejection of the doctrine; it was a rejection of how that doctrine was interpreted and applied.
Unfortunately, this paradigm is not unique to antiquity, and in our contemporary world there seems to have been a shift toward orthodoxy (if you believe the right thing) and away from orthopraxis (if you’re doing the right thing). In some instances, a person’s doctrine may be wrong, and in others, their behavior may be deviant. Either of these instances aren’t necessarily the real problem; the aversion to change and the lack of continual hermeneutical self-analysis are. Consequently, it is this aversion that feeds the inertia keeping one’s hermeneutics static and unresponsive to the outside world. Failing to recognize that at the core of hermeneutics is life and to reject hermeneutical change is to tacitly affirm that life is inert. Believing and doing go hand in hand, and the gap between these two ideologies can be bridged with proper hermeneutics.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal