Musings on Hermeneutics

Posted On October 13, 2017

I get to teach Biblical Hermeneutics (i.e., how to study the Bible) here at RBC. I enjoy teaching all of my classes, but Hermeneutics is certainly one of my favorites. I especially enjoy the first couple of class sessions. We spend a lot of time thinking about what constitutes a good and faithful hermeneutical method. But to set the context for that discussion, I read a quote to the class that comes from Augustine’s On Christian Teaching:

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”

This quote challenges every interpreter of Scripture—professor and student alike—not only to know the text but also (and especially) to live out the text. A person successfully attains knowledge of God when he or she embodies the life of Christ to others. What impresses me most as a professor is not when a student knows the right interpretation of a text, but when a student lives rightly in response to the right interpretation of a text. It is far more impressive when a student, by his understanding of Scriptures, can “build up this double love of God and neighbor.”

Augustine’s quote is also convicting. We may find ourselves treasuring theology in the text rather than Christ Himself (see John 5:39), craving theological debate rather than intimate fellowship (see 1 Tim. 1:3–4, 6–7), and challenging the honor of others rather than outdoing one another in showing honor (see Rom. 12:10b). If we’re honest, our hearts are inclined toward this sinful, even paradoxical, disposition—to know but not know truly. Professors can teach and relate to students in a way that reeks of cold orthodoxy. Christians, strangely enough, can love the Bible but not the God of the Bible or His people.

What does all this have to do with hermeneutics? Everything. Too often we read and interpret Scripture like we fill up our gas tanks. We pull up, put our card in, fill up our tanks with gasoline, and drive away. There is neither relationship with the owner of the gas station nor those around us filling up their individual tanks. Our interpretation of Scripture can’t be that way. We can’t go to the Bible solely desiring to top off our theological knowledge tanks. We shouldn’t simply want to be good interpreters of a text. We should want to be faithful disciples who submissively come under the God of the text. As Luther argued, Scripture knows no “masters, judges, or arbiters.” It knows “only witnesses, disciples, and confessors” (LW 26:58). We don’t merely want a good hermeneutic. We should want to be faithful disciples who know God, love God, know our neighbors, love our neighbors. We shouldn’t see the study of Scripture as an opportunity to acquire information in order to impress our professors, pastors, or other believers in the church. We should want to see the study of Scripture as the means of enjoying deeper communion with our triune Lord. And after having come under the cascade of God’s love in Christ, we then overflow with love, grace, and encouragement toward those around us, and vice versa.

Hermeneutics is simultaneously an act of interpretation and an act of relating—relating to our Lord by the Spirit as our hearts and minds are illumined, relating to those beside us in the pew as we share with one another what we have received from our Lord, and relating to those who came before us to help guide our reading and living. Understanding hermeneutics any other way will only harm the church. May God give us the grace to be challenged and convicted, asking ourselves with Augustine if we have succeeded in understanding the Scriptures.

Dr. David Briones is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.