By Paul Koch –
The other afternoon my wife and I were down at our favorite little coffee shop discussing, as we often do, all things pertaining to our currents struggles, joys, dreams, and concerns. After we solved all issues of parenting in our current cultural milieu and established the perfect plan for evangelism and stewardship in our church, the conversation took an unexpected turn as Cindy began to bring up questions of hermeneutics. A hermeneutic is a principle or principles used in the task of interpretation. My wife was pondering the danger of operating with an unexamined hermeneutic. Everyone, whether one knows it or not, has some principle by which he interprets or reads texts. We were discussing how a different hermeneutic can drastically change one’s interpretation. That is when we began to speak again of a delightful little book collecting dust on our bookshelf.
The book “What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World” by Dr. James Voelz is an incredible help in this discussion. I remember first encountering it at the seminary as Dr. Schuchard taught our hermeneutics class. At the time it seemed to be the most pointless class leading to pastoral formation. My head was swimming with trying to understand the difference and relationships between “Signifiers”, “Referents”, and the “Conceptual Signified.” How would all of this would matter when I, as a pastor, would be sitting next to man holding the hand of his dying wife? It was impossible for me to see. It seemed to be just a bunch of pointy-headed nonsense that made things more difficult than they really are.
But then, something quite surprising happened. On vicarage, as I dealt with the task of preaching and teaching the Word of God in a setting far removed from the classrooms of the seminary, in the midst of the lives of people who were not theoretical but real and tangible, I found that it was this strange little book that I kept pulling off the shelf. Now I am fully aware that many are not fans of this book. Dr. Voelz has a nonchalant attitude and even an outright embrace of post-modernism that causes people to close it before they really begin reading. But it is hard to ignore the questions he raises. The discipline he offers to examine and challenge our hermeneutic is at least worth a try.
In fact, his chapter on pragmatics (12) continues to be foundational to every sermon that I preach. Before I write my manuscript, before I outline the points and think through the flow of the sermon, I begin with hermeneutical questions of speech acts and the practical purposes of the Word.
So what is the point of all this?
Well, while examining my own hermeneutic may not make me a better preacher, I think it might very well make me a more honest one. To be able to see how the principles we use relate to those of who have gone before us, those who have handed the faith down to us, is more than just an academic exercise. It can act as a buffer against faulty starting points and misguided conclusions. In fact it makes the Creeds and the confession of the church come to life in far more important ways than historical markers. Rather they serve as roadmaps to a faithful handling of the text. Examining our hermeneutic causes us to bring into clear light the traditions we stand in.
So, as a Lutheran pastor I actually believe that the 1580 Book of Concord does far more than just keep me from wandering outside of the fold. It actually helps shape the principles of interpretation that I carry to the text. I embrace it because I believe that it makes me a better reader of the Bible and therefore a better pastor and teacher and preacher.
While at the seminary, Dr. Nagel used to say that a hermeneutic and the text of the Scripture is like two hands pressed together in prayer. A good hermeneutic will line up well with the text. But there will always be one part, one finger, that pokes out a little too far or an imperfection that is unaccounted for in the other. And that is okay; for our hermeneutic will never be perfect. In fact, if it covers absolutely everything, you might not be operating with a hermeneutic at all but a clever idol which hides the text completely.
We all have a hermeneutic. Yours may be shaped by other works than mine or they may be found in institutions and hierarchical authority. But let’s not pretend that we don’t have them. In fact, let’s examine the principles by which we read the Word. Let’s listen to those who champion them and face the challenges of those who disagree.
As my wife says, an unexamined hermeneutic isn’t helping anyone.