What follows are comments on the nature of this entry, and some observations about the theories of interpretation (formally called hermeneutics). This is followed by some very general points about using the Bible in the context of Christian ethics. Attached at the end of this entry is a paper defending the nature of revelation in light of some philosophical objections, and another paper on the recent criticism by “new atheists” of the character of God in the Bible.
The purpose of this site and these observations on Christian ethics is to stimulate further reflection for students. The goal is especially to highlight some aspects of Christian tradition that may not be well known to non-Christians. It is also intended to address persons who had a Sunday School introduction to Christianity that may have been too one-sided (only presenting Christianity as one, monolithic tradition rather than being a tradition that contains much diversity). Nothing that follows should be seen as unquestionable or dogmatic. What follows is intended to be maximally helpful and minimally controversial – while still having some provocative suggestions!
Despite the awesome diversity of positions within Christianity, there is some reason to accept that the following statement is agreed upon by all or most scholars: all forms of what may be called ‘Christian Ethics’ are united in some fashion by their claims to inspiration by, and commitments to reflection on, the influence of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
The study of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ takes different forms. There is the general field of Biblical Studies that is often linked with, but is not exactly the same as Biblical Theology. Biblical Studies may approach scriptures solely in terms of historical inquiry without seeking to derive theological or philosophical conclusions about whether the texts reveal something about God. In Biblical Studies, a historian may ask: what is the most plausible order of development of the different books in the Bible? What archaeological evidence is there that the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua are accurate? In theology, one may use historical inquiry, but a theological reading of some part of scripture may understand its meaning in light of its use in the history of Christianity, and not fixed by the conditions and intentions of the original authors. So, for example, most historians considering Isaiah 9:6 will not posit that the author(s) intended this to be a prophecy about Jesus:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
But does that mean that the verse is not or cannot be a messianic prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ? In the context of a theology or philosophy of divine revelation, scripture can play a dynamic role in the course of the Christian community. On this view, the verse may truly speak to a Christian about the coming of Jesus, whereas it would have a different meaning under a devout Jewish reading. The study of how to understand the meaning of texts is traditionally called hermeneutics.
What is known as hermeneutics is the broad philosophical task of interpretation, and is not limited to texts. So, in the medieval European world, all of nature was thought by many Christians to be what they called “God’s first book of nature”. They believed that many elements in the natural world contained meaning; “reading” them can tell one how to live or how to understand God’s wisdom. A rainbow may be read as a sign of God’s mercy; a peacock may be interpreted as a warning about vanity (it was believed that the feathers of a peacock were so grand, that it stumbled); it was believed that a pelican feeds its young with its own blood and thus was a type of Christ. There was a time in India when Christ was thought of as a little elephant – it was believed that when elephants grew old and blind, they would be led by a little elephant.
One may undertake a hermeneutic of contemporary verbal and nonverbal communication on a college campus or, as in our present task, a hermeneutic of Biblical texts.
So, to begin, according to an (ideally) strictly construed historical inquiry, the hermeneutic (theory of meaning and interpretation) of choice is to discover the original use and understanding of a text at the time of its composition or, going back further, its oral tradition.
According to a hermeneutic that seeks meaning in terms of the history of a text and its multiple uses over time, the original meaning has sometimes been compared to a seed or, more specifically by one theologian, an acorn. Is the acorn (or oak nut) the essence of a tree, the true meaning of being an Oak? Well, you are not going to get an Oak tree without the seed, but to understand what it is to be an Oak, you must not isolate the seed or fix the life of an Oak at that stage. Rather, one needs to see its growth into a tree or shrub in light of the surrounding elements, including sun and soil. And actually, even that would be insufficient, for acorns or the seeds of oak trees in many forest ecological systems are most often destined not to grow into trees, but to become the food for squirrels, jays, ducks, mice, pigeons, pigs, bears, deer, and so on. So maybe searching for the original meaning of a text, or the intent of its author, is too narrow in scope; perhaps a hermeneutic with a broader interpretive framework is needed to truly understand the meaning of a text.
So when are we to adopt which hermeneutic? There is some reason to think that both are important. So, a strict form of hermeneutics has displaced some reckless, racist views of some Biblical texts. Take Genesis 9:25-27 for example, in which the sin of one of Noah’s sons, Ham, leads to a curse on Ham’s son Canaan – a curse leading to enslavement. This passage was used to justify the enslavement of Africans. A strict reading of the historical nature of the text reveals this reading to be preposterous (despite the fact that it still leaves standing the apparent acceptability of slavery). But take another story in Genesis, the story of Joseph. His brothers see him coming and call him a dreamer. They then intend to kill him and see what will happen with his dreams. Genesis 27:19-20 was surely not written or orally transmitted with any idea that thousands of years later there would arise Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the verses would be used to honor his witness to justice and his dream of racial integration. And yet, the verses were applied in that way:
Was this a mistake, an example reckless interpretation of the meaning of an ancient text? Or were people deeply moved (by God?) to apply this verse to our own modern day “dreamer”? This is put as a question to you, and not one that will be answered here. It seems that on the one hand, Joseph’s dream was very different from MLK’s; it was a dream in which his older brothers would honor him. And yet, just as the story in Genesis seems to illustrate, what the brothers did was meant for one thing (destroying the younger brother) and yet what actually happened (Joseph goes to Egypt and eventually rescues his family from starvation) was something else. Likewise, the death of MLK was intended to damage the Civil Rights movement, but ended up making it stronger.
An interesting case study of the importance of hermeneutics is the Song of Solomon (or ‘Song of Songs’), which contains some strong erotic themes. Some maintain that reading the Song of Songs strictly as an allegory (which is practiced by both Jews and Christians – see especially Philo of Alexandria) somehow denigrates its erotic content. Yet, as John Le Clerk has argued, if there was not an appreciation for the literature’s sexual / erotic content, the allegory would make no sense.
The question of which hermeneutic to adopt comes up in many areas besides those of Biblical Studies and Theology. For those of us who live in the United States, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence has both a narrow and broad meaning that have been used historically. It seems evident that the Declaration was passed and ratified in a way that made it (in the minds of its authors and those endorsing it) compatible with slavery. Is that what the Declaration means, however? On the one hand, all agree that the Declaration stated that “all men are created equal” and yet there were many men, women, and children in the British Colonies at the time who suffered gross inequalities. But note that while the Southern States maintained during the Civil War that they were being true to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln argued strenuously and profoundly that the “meaning” of the Declaration was aimed at the abolition of slavery. Lincoln made this dramatic case on August 17, 1858. It is a stunning speech; CLICK HERE to read it in full.
A study of hermeneutics can be rewarding in the investigation of any number of objects and events. The meaning of the play “Hamlet” is fascinating if you also include its history: the play was performed in London during the Blitz (sustained strategic bombing of the United Kingdom by Germany during the Second World War) as a way to shore up British hope and pride during World War II. The meaning of paintings such the one from the National Gallery depicting St. Margaret is equally interesting, given that we have reason to believe that it was originally used devotionally, especially by pregnant women (as St. Margaret was the patron saint of women in childbirth). During the Blitz only one painting was exhibited at a time, and we have reason to believe that this painting was a favorite; the image of St. Margaret came to be “read” as a symbol of Great Britain.
The study of the Bible, and of the different disciplines that bear on Christianity and all world religions, is of central concern in what is called the American Academy of Religion. Many St. Olaf professors in the religion department and some in the philosophy department belong to the AAR. CLICK HERE to find out more.
Click here to read: Chapter 5, “Is God Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know?” from The Golden Cord by Charles Taliaferro
Also well worth checking out are Stanley Hauerwas’ (Theologian at Duke University’s divinity school) books, Christians Among the Virtues, The Peaceable Kingdom, and Suffering Presence:
As well as Max Scheler’s book, On Feeling, Knowing, and Valuing, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, The Nature of Sympathy: