Exegesis and hermeneutics

If I could send one message back in time to my younger self, entering seminary immediately after graduating college, I would advise that new seminary student to cultivate a relationship with one member of the seminary faculty and to be mentored by him. Knowing what I know today, two members of the faculty stand out as men that I wish had guided me during my student days. Both men are (and were then) very intelligent, bold in their theology without contradicting the faith of the Church—very Christian, very Biblical, very Lutheran, and very solid academically.

I was assigned a counselor from the faculty. He was one of the professors about whom my pastor had warned me: having gone straight from student to instructor, he had not spent time in the parish. Now, forty years later, he was continuing to lecture in the classroom, quite probably delivering the same lectures he had developed forty years earlier. They had been safe during the time of controversy and debate, so undoubtedly they remained safe at that time. Outside the classroom, he was sometimes referred to as “Doctor Sominex.” In my own spare time, I developed a different reaction to his teaching manner: I made him spokesman for a brand of beer that was unlike the common beers sold with energetic commercials. His beer was a calm beer, a soothing beer, a settling beer, sold with the motto, “because life is exciting enough already.”

Other members of the seminary faculty also clung to the tried-and-true methods of instruction, those that could not be challenged as liberal or progressive, since they were older than the hills. In Bible translation, these methods consisted of labeling words in the fashion of Aristotle. Words were first identified as nouns or verbs or adjectives, etc. (which is of course proper); then nouns were labeled by case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative (still proper). A third level of labels further framed the word. There were, for example, eighteen types of genitive case, including genitive of possession, genitive of source, genitive of material, and so forth. We were expected to memorize all the different kinds of genitives and datives and accusatives and to apply them to nouns as we translated the Bible into English.

In a similar way, we were expected to recognize figures of speech, or “tropes.” Most passages of the Bible were to be interpreted literally, but we were warned that the Bible sometimes uses tropes, and these also were to be matched to a list of labels: similes, metaphors, synecdoche, hyperbole, irony, and a dozen more. Old Testament prophecies of Christ were assumed to be rectilinear—pointing directly to Christ and having no other meaning—unless a New Testament passage specifically uses a different kind of interpretation for an Old Testament passage. (For example, in Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses “typology” to discuss Hagar and Sarah and their sons as images of God’s people under Law (Hagar and her son) or under Promise (Sarah and her son). Paul, an apostle inspired by the Holy Spirit, was allowed to interpret a passage from Genesis in this way. We, as seminary students, were not.)

We were taught a few principles of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation): the simplest meaning was best, although that simplest meaning might be a trope rather than a literal interpretation. The Bible interprets itself—when we were puzzled by one passage of Scripture, our best resource was to find another passage of Scripture which discusses the same topic. Each passage of Scripture has only one meaning. We are not translating and interpreting God’s Word correctly when our version is open to multiple meanings. This last principle counters a medieval approach to hermeneutics which claims that each Bible passage contains four meanings: literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical. To find all these meanings in each passage, scholars frequently produced creative, tortured, and even bizarre interpretations of Bible passages. I have recently encountered a powerful Lutheran defense of this principle of only one meaning for each passage, written by a current Lutheran seminary professor. His defense follows the “slippery slope” argument, saying that if any passage is affirmed to have two or more meanings, then the entire Bible becomes subjective, with each reader feeling free to invent his or her own meaning to any passage of the Bible.
In one of my first assignments as a seminary student, I was required to translate a passage from the Gospel of John, chapter one, about the light and the darkness. The professor was particularly interested in our approach to one Greek word, “katalambano,” which has a range of meanings, including, “obtain, attain, come upon, overtake, attack, seize, catch, realize, understand, learn.” So John 1:5 reads, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not katelaben it.” Some translators favor, “the darkness has not understood it,” while others say, “the darkness has not overcome it.” I felt that John deliberately chose a word that covered a range of possibilities; if he wanted to be precise about understanding or about overcoming, other words were available to him. So my translation was, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it,” a translation which maintains both meanings. The professor said I was precisely wrong. Each Bible passage has one meaning and one meaning only, and the translator and interpreter must find that one meaning and express it clearly, without allowing any ambiguity or multiple meanings.

A second example, one which I did not have to discuss in seminary, is found in I Corinthians 7:9. Paul expresses his wish that all Christians could remained unmarried, like Paul, and focus their attention on Christian living, service to the Lord and his Church. But Paul acknowledges that not every Christian can keep his or her desire for marital relations unmet, so Paul permits marriage, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn.” Does he mean “to burn with passion” in this lifetime or “to burn in judgment” eternally for breaking a commandment? I would say that Paul skillfully includes both possibilities while addressing this complex topic. But, if every passage has one and only one meaning, then the translator and interpreter must select one or the other.

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to respond to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Bible as a whole shows that we cannot earn eternal life. It comes only as a gift from God, not a reward for anything we do. The very word “inherit” suggests that theme. But the usual Lutheran interpretation of this parable, in the context of its conversation, suggests that Jesus was revealing the strictness of God’s Law, forcing the man asking the question to learn that he could not inherit eternal life, because he could never reach God’s standards of perfection. The lesson concerns Law, not Promise. But one might notice that the Good Samaritan resembles Jesus. We are like mugging victims, lying helpless on the road, unable to rescue ourselves; Jesus comes and rescues us from our sins and from all evil, paying to grant us life. I have heard seminary professors say that, as hermeneutics, we must say that the parable is about Law, about God’s high standards which we cannot meet. They then say that, as preachers, we can indicate that the Good Samaritan reminds us of Jesus, and then we can proclaim the Gospel. This preserves the principle of one and only one meaning, but at the cost of making the Gospel seem like an afterthought, something the preacher adds to Jesus’ parable even though Jesus never intended that lesson and that application. To me, the responsible interpretation and application of this parable is both—Jesus shows the sternness of God’s Law, which we can never achieve, but he also shows how he fulfills the Law for us and rescues us by grace. In my opinion, this reading is faithful to Jesus’ explanation of why he told parables, found in Matthew 13:10-12 and parallel verses in Mark and in Luke.

As a professional theologian, I would acknowledge that most passages of the Bible have one and only one meaning. I would add that God can use language as skillfully as any human writer and that sometimes he has a double message in a single passage, whether a short verse like “it is better to marry than to burn” or a longer passage like the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a translator and interpreter usually treats the message of the Bible literally but also acknowledges and deals with tropes, so the translator and interpreter usually handles each passage of the Bible as containing a single message but also sees a few passages where the best interpretation contains more than one message.

Isaiah 7:14 is a controversial example. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son”: who is this virgin? Matthew 1:22-23 says that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus. By the principles I was taught at the seminary, this is a rectilinear prophecy with one and only one meaning. Isaiah was talking about Mary, and that is all that can be said about his prophecy. Whether King Ahaz and others who heard the prophet speak this promise understood the doctrine of the virgin birth is immaterial. Mary was a virgin; she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Isaiah foretold that miracle seven hundred years before it happened. But what if Christian hermeneutics allowed this passage to have a second meaning, also centered upon Christ and his rescue mission? The promise of Isaiah was fulfilled in Mary’s pregnancy and delivery, yet something bigger was happening at the same time in the same event. Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are the people of God. In a frequent trope, the people of God are treated as a bride, with God (or Jesus) as husband. The wedding and marriage have not yet happened; that comes on the Day of the Lord at the dawn of the new creation. Old Testament Israel and the Church, taken together, are the virgin bride awaiting the coming of the bridegroom for the wedding. But, when the time was right, God sent his Son, born of a woman within the chosen people of God. He was born, not to any virgin, but to a virgin of Israel, making the Son a descendant and heir of Abraham and of David. Does any passage in Scripture endorse this reading of Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1? Look at Revelation 12, where a woman gives birth to a Son who is the promised Savior. This woman, the queen of heaven (clothed with the sun and with a crown of twelve stars) is protected in the wilderness. Is this woman, the mother of the Savior, the queen of heaven, to be seen only as Mary, or does this woman represent all the people of God, Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church? I answer that she is, and that this picture from the last book of the Bible completes our understanding of the promise in Isaiah 7:14 as well as other Old Testament promises, including Genesis 3:15.

But, then, I never became a seminary professor. J.

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11 thoughts on “Exegesis and hermeneutics

    • Exactly my point! Mary is not the queen of heaven; however, the people of God (OT Israel and NT Church) could rightly be called “queen of heaven” since the people of God are the Bride of Christ, the King. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well said, Salvageable. I enjoyed reading that! I fear I would only make it about 18 minutes in seminary, and only if I managed to bite my tongue that long.

    I also think it is both/either at the same time. Yes, “most passages of the Bible have one and only one meaning,” however we must receive and process them subjectively. Also, they must be applied and that creates a lot of variable! A bit like math, it is wonderful if your technique is flawless and have memorized all the formulas, but a good chunk of the population has no idea what algebra is even for.

    Also, it seems like the more we insist on one and only one meaning, and the more we proclaim the Bible is totally inerrant, the more wishy washy we get as a culture. If the reason why we wanted one and only one definition was to prevent people from assigning whatever meaning they wanted, it has been an epic fail. So while it may be technically true, it has simply not delivered the desired results.

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    • Well, IB, there are exegesis (or translation, if you prefer) and hermeneutics (or interpretation) and application. All three require certain procedures to be sure that we are receiving messages from God and not twisting his Word to meet our thoughts and wishes. Proper application is unlikely if we have made a mistake in translating or in interpreting the text. My point is not that every Christian should be free to translate and interpret and apply each text according to his or her own personal approach and bias; instead, we should be careful to listen to God, hear what he says in his Word, and handle it properly. Making our reason the judge of his Word puts our minds upon his throne; making our feelings the judge of his Word puts our hearts upon his throne. That said, every rule of translation and of interpretation is a man-made rule. These should be reviewed on occasion to make sure that we are not replacing God on his throne with some idol of our own creation.
      You are right in pointing out that, particularly in the United States, we have replaced a churchly approach to Scripture with an individual approach which leads to dissonance, chaos, and strife among Christians. Our best answer is not to anoint some American pope to tell us all what the Bible really means; our best answer is to look at the Bible honestly, apart from our individual reason and feelings, to discover what the Bible says. J.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well said, Salvageable. I think that sometimes we forget that God is God and that He also plays a role in helping us to understanding scripture. So it is not entirely dependent on us getting the precise translation right or following all the rules. Those are all good things, but I mean we need to trust in the Lord much more and lean less on our own understanding.

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