Much of the debate in the media about fundamentalism and radicalisation would be solved if all involved developed a commitment to responsible hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation.
When a solicitor reads a legal deed, words are to be understood literally. When I read the newspaper, I adopt different hermeneutical principles in reading the news items, the comment, the editorial and the comic strip.
All of the Bible is to be taken seriously and that means that not all will be taken literally. The Bible has different types of literature: historic narrative, laws, poems, prophecies, letters, apocalyptic and wisdom literature, and this means that different principles of interpretation are used according to the different literary type.
The Bible reader will ask four questions of the passage being read:
- What kind of literature is this?
A poem, will be interpreted differently to a letter, a narrative section differently to a prophecy.
- What did the Bible passage mean to its first intended readers?
- What is the context of the passage, what comes before and after this passage and how does it fit into the whole flow of the Bible, is it pre-Christ or part of the new covenant? The Bible is non contradictory, so how is this passage to be seen in light of the whole?
- How did the original readers understand the application of the passage to their lives? What was the “so what” factor for them and how do readers consistently apply the passage today?
(Good books to help in this area are John Stott’s “Understanding the Bible” – the chapter on Interpreting the Bible, and Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s “How to read the Bible for all its worth”).
Our goal is to encourage regular, careful and prayerful reading of the Bible.
That brings me to hermeneutics and the Koran. As the Christian believes the Bible to be the Word of God, so the Muslim believes the Koran to be the word of Allah. Just as there are Christian preachers who do not handle the Bible responsibly, there must be Muslim preachers in the same category who misinterpret the Koran. The question is, does the Jihad and the killing of infidels, evidence an irresponsible hermeneutic, a wayward understanding of Islam, or does it reflect a responsible, respectful reading of the text? Muslim scholars need to answer this question.
Our political leaders assert that Islam is a religion of peace. Muslim leaders need to show how a responsible reading of the Koran leads young men to this conclusion and therefore to teach this peaceful emphasis.
In 1983, I preached a series of sermons on reading the Bible responsibly (it had a catchier title than that, though that title is now dated).
Next year we are going to repeat that series at our church, over ten weeks of preaching (not lecturing) will cover how the Christian reads and understands Biblical law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative, letters, parables and miracles. Each service will show the principles for each literary type and the sermon will demonstrate how to interpret the type of literature being covered that day. The preachers will work hard to rightly handle the text (2 Timothy 2:15).
Such series on hermeneutics were more common in the 1980’s than today and yet listening to talk back, I can’t help but see that this is one of the most relevant issues both inside the church and in society at large.
Posted 20 October 2015