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How to be a hermeneut

17 April 2012

Lionel Wickham looks at varied approaches to what all readers do

Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory
Stanley E. Porter and Jason C. Robinson

Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight methods of inquiry into the Bible
Dean B. Deppe

Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Christ-centred Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical foundations and principles
Graeme Goldsworthy

IVP £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

“HERMENEUTICS”? Well, some people write books; some people talk about books they have read; some people talk about how to read and understand both books, read­ers, and understanding itself. The first lot are authors; the second are hermeneuts, who might be preach­ers or literary critics or really any­body trying to interpret (or explain) how they understand something that they have read or heard said; and the third are what I shall call hermeneuticians, meaning experts in hermeneutics or the theory of how to be a hermeneut.

Query: do this last lot sit around at their academic conferences, won­dering out loud whether they un­der­stand correctly what they said five minutes before and what they are doing with their out-loud won­dering? “Do I understand what I mean when I ask if I understand what I mean when . . . ?”

The regress is infinite, like the scope of the subject. But you do not have to proceed to infinity: you can read in Porter/Robinson the sub­ject’s finite history from Schleier­macher down to post-structuralist Queer Theory. Here you will find brief biographies of the main theor­eticians and their theories appraised. The theories are important, because Christianity has texts that require interpretation. Do you try to get into the mind of the author of a text and/or of the readers? How much does the reader matter? Does it make a difference that the text is sacred? These questions are worth some thought in a cool hour.

Porter/Robinson write for “ad­vanced undergraduates”, but you do not need to be all that advanced to get the gist, even if nothing so com­monplace as an actually successful interpretation (hermeneusis) of any­thing in the Bible rears its vulgar head.

Not so with Deppe’s excellent book, which is full of examples and test-cases. “All roads lead to the text,” because hermeneutics for Deppe means ascertaining what a text’s first readers understood by it (exegesis), explaining the implica­tions of that understanding for contemporary readers (exposition), and examining the two in the light of the hermeneut’s own presup­positions. The text means what it means as a result of the conversa­tion, as it were, between author, text, and reader. That is his “hermeneutics”.

Indisputably valid, you might think, unless you had read Porter/Robinson and encountered the disputes. Valid, I had better avow, if not indisputably and without some nuancing, for me, too. As for Deppe’s presuppositions, he speaks of himself as “operating from a conservative Reformed perspective”, which he outlines briefly. This acknowledged, the approach is always unaggressive and open-minded. He is reliable: for example, he does not try to persuade you that St Paul believed marriage to be an extremely good thing, though you might want the apostle to have done so. The example occurs in a chapter devoted to the sixth of his eight “roads” to the text: the history of interpretation viewed as yielding valid access to the text. The other seven involve the literary analysis, textual criticism, structural analysis, context determination, theological exegesis, and spiritual exegesis (understood as what in the old days would have been called the habit of a devout heart).

The book as a whole presupposes readers more learned and more diligent than Porter/Robinson’s, but is a great deal easier to read. More learned, because ideally you should have the biblical languages; more diligent, because you should, again ideally, access Logos software and be prepared to work through compli­c­ated searches (I can’t and wasn’t); easier to read because there are plenty of chatty bits and stimulating comment. Besides this, the Bible is very interesting, if you know your way around its contents.

A unified view of them via what he calls “biblical theology” is pro­vided (or I had better say “allegedly” or “by intention” provided) by Goldsworthy. He is a card-carrying Evangelical Anglican priest — now in his 70s, I suppose — from Sydney, formerly on the staff of Moore College, and the author of a number of books, which I have not read, published by Paternoster and InterVarsity Press.

So you know what you are in for: in effect, just the hermeneutics that the other two books show that you cannot practise. Goldsworthy’s road leads only to Goldsworthy. The book is dedicated to Archbishop Donald Robinson, whose teaching has been of deep importance to Goldsworthy, and is largely re­hearsed here: one or two good ideas surface in a book to be safely neglected.

The Revd Dr Lionel Wickham is a former lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge.

MARGARET MITCHELL, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, argues that Paul’s process of trying to clarify the meaning of his message in his letters to the Corinthian church led to a set of hermeneutical principles on which many others based their work. Paul, the Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics is based on Mitchell’s series of Speaker’s Lectures at Oxford University in 2008 (CUP, £50 (£45); 978-0-521-19795-3).

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