Interpreting the Bible: Why Hermeneutics Isn’t a Science

jesushealing The other night, I was surfing the Internet to learn more of what others think about Biblical hermeneutics. I was astonished to learn how many people from many different faith traditions refer to hermeneutics as a “science.”

You see, to me, hermeneutics is as much about poetry and art as it is about science. After all, hermeneutics is the process of understanding God’s written word. And understanding anyone is far from scientific–at least, as we tend to use the word.

For example, when your wife tells you she wants nothing for her birthday, a scientific analysis easily enough tells you the literal meaning of her words — and you’d scientifically conclude that she wants nothing for her birthday — and you’d be horribly wrong!

To understand her true meaning, you must know her. Indeed, knowing her is far more important than understanding the words!

Just so, the Bible is chock full of poetry and figurative language. Interpreting anyone’s figures of speech is, again, a difficult and partly subjective process. If I tell you, “It’s as cold as ice” where I am, you might scientifically conclude that I’ve used simile. However, that gets you nowhere.

Am I in a meat locker where it really is cold as ice? In an over-cooled office where the temperature is 65 degrees but feels freezing? Or in the doghouse with my wife — so that she’s acting “cold” although it’s a balmy 90 degrees?

Context helps and is often sufficient. But figures of speech often require that you give up your Enlightenment science and instead have a little soul!

For example, when David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he didn’t expect us to make a definitive list of the 25 ways in which God is like a shepherd and declare this the scientific meaning of the Psalm.

You see, the reason poets write poetry, and the reason everyone uses metaphors and other figures of speech, is that prose sometimes just won’t do the job! Therefore, if you take a figure and convert into sterile prose, you will lose something ineffable and essential in the original message.

There’s nothing wrong with studying the figure and making lists and such — but take the time to use the right part of the brain God gave you first. Ask: what feeling is this passage intended to evoke? What is the picture that’s being painted?

Allow yourself to be drawn into the world the poet is painting rather than studying the colors, the lines, and the composition. Get away from the technical and savor the experience! After all, this is why the writer chose to write as he did!

Poetry is not code. Poetry, rather, is a way of expressing thoughts and emotions that wants to bypass the science and get to the heart.

He makes me lie down in green pastures/
He restores my soul.

You can spend months deciphering what on earth “restores my soul” literally means, but we immediately seize the feeling David is trying to convey. And often we get the most accurate sense of a phrase by accepting our first impression as the truth the poet means to convey — not by vivisecting God’s word like a laboratory rat. (It is alive, you know!)

Now, don’t take me as denying the importance of detailed study. Obviously enough, I’m a detail kind of guy! It’s just that, as extremely left-brained as I am, even I know that much of the Bible is about emotions, impressions, and even mystical truths that speak to the heart and spirit more than the mind.

If we fail to understand the sheer beauty and mystery of such things, we’ve entirely missed the point. There’s nothing wrong with science — but if we stop at science, we become inept interpreters. I mean, beauty just doesn’t fit in a testtube.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Why Hermeneutics Isn’t a Science

  1. rbenhase says:

    Interesting post.

    I would say, however, that the goal of hermeneutics (at least good hermeneutics) would be to find the author's meaning or reason for saying what he says, and not necessarily a literal, word-for-word interpretation.

    In other words, good hermeneutics involves reading poetry like poetry, history like history, and epistles like espistles. Even if we're not dealing with literal material, exegesis can very much be like a "science" in that we still seek to enter the thought process of the writer.

    However, I must say that I agree with you, that there is much beauty to be missed if one goes overboard with strict hermeneutical studies.

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