FAQs: What Are Some Good Books on Biblical Hermenuetics?

This two part article has been contributed by Dr. Chris Spinks.  I’ve broken up the question and post into two portions.

I’ve been asked to contribute to the “ask a theologian” series. Here’s the question as it was asked to Wess and now to me: “What are some good books (and why) that can help me get started in biblical hermeneutics?”  I will try to answer the question as it was posed, but I think I must first speak to the term “biblical hermeneutics.”  To do this, I think it is important for us to distinguish “hermeneutics” from “interpretation” and “exegesis.”  These three terms work in concert and one cannot, to my mind at least, speak to one without referring to the others.  Then, we have to deal with what is meant by “biblical” hermeneutics.

But first, hermeneutics/interpretation/exegesis…

Hermeneutics is the guiding philosophy for one’s approach to reading and understanding.  So, for many Christians, their hermeneutic is, broadly speaking, one that guides them to believe we read the biblical texts in order to hear a word from God or something like that.  Another hermeneutic might be one that guides people to read the biblical texts strictly for historical or literary or sociological value.

[Quick aside: reading the texts to hear a word from God can, and usually does, involve reading them for historical/literary/sociological/etc. reasons, but the opposite is not necessarily true.]

In short, hermeneutics is the “why” question.  Why do we read these texts?  There are a lot of reasons people read the Bible.  Hermeneutics is the discussion around that.  It is also a discussion about the nature of texts and meaning and readers and a whole lot more.  We don’t have the time and space to mention everything that goes on in conversations about hermeneutics; please understand this is a “nutshell” description.

Interpretation has more to do with the “how” questions.  Of course strictly speaking interpretation means “the act of explaining the meaning of something.”  But, when people talk about one’s interpretive method they are talking about HOW one explains the meaning of something.  What approach is one using to get at and then communicate the meaning?

[Another quick aside: the very interesting debate about just what is “meaning” is a part of the hermeneutics conversation.]

So we might ask, What sort of approach is best suited for hearing a word from God?  How should one read for sociological information?  There are a lot of different approaches.  The interesting thing for those Christian interpreters who read to hear a word from God is the debate about which interpretive approach helps us best hear that word.  Should we dig beneath the  historical and cultural layers?  Should we explore the literary aspects?  Should we come at it from a narrative perspective?  HOW do we hear a word from God when we read and interpret the texts?

To arrive at an answer that we should read the texts to hear a word from God is a matter of hermeneutics; the decision about what approach one will take to hear the word from God is a matter of interpretation.

Finally, exegesis is more like the “what” questions.  Again, please keep in mind that I am painting with very broad strokes.  Questions about hermeneutics, interpretation and exegesis bleed into one another quite easily.  Anyway, exegesis (‘the leading out’ of meaning presumably) is very much like interpretation.  In fact many thesauruses will list them as synonyms.  But, in biblical studies I find the conversations about exegesis have more to do with the finer points or the more specific activities performed with/on the texts.

So, depending on what hermeneutic has shaped their interpretive strategy, which in turn shapes their decisions about which exegetical methods to employ, authors of books on exegesis will usually lay out a step-by-step list of exegetical exercises that will help one better hear God’s word.  For instance one might find in an exegesis book instructions for performing structural analysis, lexical analysis, grammatical analysis, etc.  Of course other exegetical methods will be listed if one does not have an interpretive strategy that involves these sorts of exegetical practices.

The inquirer asked about books to get him/her started in biblical hermeneutics.  I would venture to say that the inquirer is already involved in hermeneutics.  We all are, if we are reading things and finding/creating/participating in meaning.

I am not completely sure if the inquirer was asking about hermeneutics but was really more interested in interpretation (the how; discussions about approaches) or exegesis (the what; discussions about specific exercises).  I am also not sure what to make of the “biblical” modifier.  We can make that out to be at least two different (but related?) things: 1) hermeneutics that derives from biblical principles (hermeneutics FROM the reading of the Bible); or 2) hermeneutics that are at play in our reading of the Bible (hermeneutics FOR the reading of the Bible).

These two ways of understanding “biblical” hermeneutics are not mutually exclusive.  They relate to each other in a sort of circular way: hermeneutic guides how we read the text and how we read the text helps us to derive principles, and these principles shape our hermeneutic…you get the idea.

Catch the second part, where Chris discusses the books, tomorrow.