Hermeneutics for Preaching – It Can’t All Be We, part 2

Following the post on Saturday, “It Can’t All Be We,” Steve submitted an important comment.  I hope he doesn’t mind the extra exposure for the comment by including it here, but I think this is a very important issue for us to wrestle with as preachers.

Steve wrote: The problem with saying there is only one meaning to a text is that our own interpretations of it depend on our own particular social locations. A white Anglo westerner reads the parable of the lost sons one way while a native west African reads it another. What most of us (in the west) mean by “meaning of the text” is arrived at through the use of historical-critical tools that were developed by 19th century white German scholars. Certainly, there’s much to the New Hermeneutic that evangelicals will find unacceptable, but there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

My response: Thanks for the comment Steve. Over the past two centuries there has been a shift in focus in determining meaning. The 19th century was focused primarily on the author. The first part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the text itself. The later part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the reader. I’m excited to see the resurgence of the author in our generation, especially a more rounded approach that recognizes our presuppositions as readers and the nature and form of the text too. However, if the author is left out, then there is no hope of any objective standard of measure when it comes to the meaning of a text.

So it is important to be aware of our own cultural presuppositions when we read a story like Luke 15. But I also think we have the capability to study the text using a plain, grammatical, contextual and historical hermeneutic. We can study the historical cultural setting of the text to help determine the meaning of the text. Our concern should not be seeking a “white westerner” or a “native west African” understanding, but a “first century middle eastern” understanding. While accepting that our own “lenses” will influence our study, we have the responsibility to pursue that study to the best of our ability so that we can present the meaning of the text. As I wrote in the post, this should lead to a “humble but authoritative” presentation of the meaning. Authoritative because we have employed good hermeneutical skill in the process, and humble because we recognize our own limitations and biases more than others do.

As you’ll notice in my earlier review of Lowry’s book, I am in no way throwing the baby out with the bath water when it comes to the New Homiletic or the New Hermeneutic. I recognize a lot of value in these streams of thought, but I would suggest that a purely subjective interpretational approach to the text is the bath water that can be helpfully drained away.

I’d be interested to read other comments on this.

4 thoughts on “Hermeneutics for Preaching – It Can’t All Be We, part 2

  1. Good response.

    The reader-focused hermenuetic puts all the authority with the reader and strips all authority from the text (which, of course, gets it’s authority from God). It leads to somewhat of an “evolutionary theology” (I can’t remember what the actual term is for it)–a theology that says, “Well, the author wrote this, but we’re more ‘enlightened’ now and we can understand the subject better than the author did.” Such a hermenuetic is damaging and dangerous.

    Our job, no matter what our geography or cultural setting, is to discover the original author’s intent, find the timeless principle, and apply it to our own setting–as you said, a grammatical/contextual/historical hermenuetic.

  2. I appreciate your post today. It reminds me of when my children were in school and the battle that I waged with the teachers regarding how they taught my kids to read a book. It took me many hours of reading and discussion to get my children to see that the true meaning of anything they read was what the author wrote. If we divorce the meaning of text from the author then you end up with having the mess that we have in the church today. Everyone having their own interpretation without any of them being right or wrong; since the final authority in interpretation is the reader.

    By taking this kind of hermeneutic, man becomes the final arbitrator of the words of God. It therefore becomes easier to make Scripture say anything; yet making it say nothing of eternal import at the same time. God becomes subordinate to the whims of human emotion and intellectual gymnastics and postmodernism marches to the beat of “Yea hath God said?”

    Without looking for and studying the content of the Biblical message we open up the floodgates for the doctrines of demons to charge in and overwhelm the citadel of truth. We leave people looking for a better way, to drown in the shallow end of the pool because we are not teaching them to swim into the depths of God’s mercy and grace.

    In the end it is the age old battle between the eternal God, the adversary of our souls and our frail self-esteems. We do not wish to answer to an absolute that we can not control, but then again mankind only has the illusion of being control, when it is God’s Word that has the definitive and absolute, final answer.

  3. Thanks Peter!

    I’m teaching this Sunday and likely addressing some of these issues, and have listened to a panel [Cultural diversity & Hermeneutics panel, Southeaster seminary, September 20, 2019 (which was responded to by Tom Buck in a lecture titled Woke Hermeneutics)] in which one of the speakers uses Luke 15 in the exact same manner (almost word for word!) as Steve. I appreciate the tone and the truth in this post; it’s oftly cheering to look back on, especially in the light of the hermeneutical errors today. Just thought I’d leave this because we are now a decade on from the posting of this and here I am reading and learning from it. Hope it’s an encouragement!

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