Interpretation of the Bible
The OCR RS AS DCT specification says that you need to know about different methods of exegesis and eisegesis and understand the debates about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. You should consider whether you think there is a 'right' way to interpret the Bible (and is so, what is it) and to what extent you personally think that it should be treated as authoritative.
In order to answer questions in this section well you do need to be able to illustrate your answers with examples of Biblical passages and explore different methods of interpreting them. This does leave you quite a lot of scope for using background knowledge that you already have to add depth and detail to your work.
Word of God
We are used to using the word 'inspired' to mean 'influenced' or 'moved' 'e.g. Wordsworth was inspired by the beauty of the landscape'. However, when applied to the Bible inspired is a technical term meaning 'breathed'. Thus, to say that the Bible is inspired means that it is breathed (spoken) by God into the human authors of the Bible. So, when Luke took up his pen to write his Gospel he was merely a tool of God, God's scribe if you like. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is literally inspired by God and breathed in to the writers.
They would justify their views by arguing that
- Texts from the Bible say that it is inspired.
- Things in the Old Testament point towards Jesus - this would be impossible if they were just written by human authors.
'...you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired [God-breathed] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.'
2 Timothy 3:15-16
Word of God and word of man
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it...But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.
Other Christians (traditionalists/conservatives) don't believe that God literally dictated the Bible but they do believe that the authors were people who had genuine experiences of God. For example, many Christians have traditionally believed that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses (perhaps even the disciples) who experienced the teaching of God. Similarly, early Christian letters like the letter to the Romans are attributed to Paul who had himself had a powerful conversion experience and became an apostle. Paul said that his message was not invented by him, but was merely 'passed on' [see quotation in the box on the right]. He says that the message has a divine origin.
To an extent the Bible is the Word of God because it originates with him. But it must also be recognised that it is written down by human authors who interpret the message in the light of their own culture and time. This means that the Bible contains both the timeless word of God alongside human error.
Traditionalists or conservatives would argue against the fundamentalist position by saying that
- God's word cannot be fully encompassed in human language, therefore the Bible cannot be literally God's Word. This is what Barth argued (see below).
They would also argue against the liberal position and stress that
- The Bible is not word for word true, but the general themes are reliable. Thus we cannot say every story about Jesus happened but we can trust the general impression of him provided in the gospels.
- Traditionalists believe that there is good grounds for believing that the material in the Bible is generally reliable. The writers themselves were interested in accuracy. Luke begins his gospel by stating that he has researched the story and is trying to provide a coherent account.
- Furthermore, some of the content of the Bible is independently corroborated. The Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus both refer to Jesus.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.
Tacitus (a Roman historian) writing around 116 CE
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Josephus (a Jewish historian) writing at the end of the first century CE. However, many scholars believe that this passage is not completely authentic. Many of the phrases such as 'if it be lawful to call him a man' and 'he was the Christ' seem to be later additions. (The bits in bold above are least contentious parts of the passage).
Word of man
Parts of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament are the oldest material in the Bible, written c1000 BCE.
New Testment books are believed to have been written at the following times (for reference, the crucifixion of Jesus occurred c33 CE).
49 CE 1 Thessalonians (written by Paul)
52-4 CE Galatians and 1 Corinthians (Paul)
55-6 CE 2 Corinthians and Romans (Paul)
60-62 CE Philemon and Philippians (Paul)
68-70 CE Mark
75-90 CE Matthew, Luke Acts
90s CE John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude.
95-6 CE Revelations
Dates as quoted in John Riches book The Bible; A Very Short Introduction
Liberal Christians are the most skeptical about the authorship of the Bible. They do not entirely reject the idea that the Biblical authors had genuine religions experiences but they see the Bible as primarily a human document.
They would argue that:
- The Bible clearly reflects the world view of the writers. This makes sense if it is a human document, but not if it is the revealed and timeless world of God. E.g. attitudes towards women, acceptance of slavery, stories about creation.
- Aspects of the Bible contradict each other (two creation stories with different orders of creation, differences in the last words of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke). This means it cannot all be true.
- Close attention to the detail of the text reveals that Matthew and Luke copied aspects of Mark. It does not make sense to maintain that they are independent eyewitness accounts.
The question of how much authority the Bible has relates to the question of where it comes from. Obviously if you believe it is the inspired word of God then it would have complete authority whereas if you believe that it was written by human authors then the amount of authority it has relates to how much authority you would give those humans.
Traditionally, Christianity has looked to the Bible as a source of great authority but it has not been treated as though it were infalible. Roman Catholic Christians in particular have also taught that the established Church and the individual's conscience also have authority. This is because both Church and conscience are also said to have come from God. This left some room for questioning or rejecting traditional church teaching.
Protestant theologians during the Reformation called for a return to Biblical values and they used the Bible as a standard against which to judge the behaviour of the Church. They were much more likely to present the Bible as the revealed Word of God and are the theological ancestors of modern fundamentalism (most fundamentalists are protestant evangelical Christians). Theologians like Luther thought that the Church had betrayed the Biblical teachings and become corrupt. They challenged Catholic doctrines like purgatory as being unbiblical.
Modern traditionalists look to the past as a guide for how to interpret the Bible today. Useful ideas drawn from tradition include:
- Allegorical readings of scripture
- The two level view. According to this approach the reader should approach the text assuming it to be literally true. However, if this assumption proved problematic (i.e. it resulted in contradictions) then the reader could deduce that the passage should be read in an allegorical way instead.
- The Bible as both Word of God and word of man.
Traditionalist believe that the way the Bible was interpreted in the past is a useful guide to how it should be interpreted today because:
- Theologians like Aquinas spent their lives studying the Bible. Consequently, they were experts in their field. Furthermore, they were guided by God.
- The traditional interpretations of the text have been useful and meaningful to Christians for centuries.
- It provides a continuity with Christian history. It ensures that there is no radical discontinuity between what modern Christians believe and what early Christians believed.
- The Church is Christ's body on earth. Part of the role of the Church is to provide an authentic interpretation of the Bible.
Karl Barth is an example of a Protestant theologian whose ideas may be described as 'tradionalist'. He is part of the neo-Orthodox movement that rejected liberal theology in favour of a return to traditional values. He valued the insights of Reformation theologians like Luther. He thought that the Bible could not be literally God's Word because God's Word goes beyond what can be encapsualted by mere human language. He thought of God's Word as an event that happens to you, i.e. a life-changing experience. However, he did think that the Bible was a 'witness to the Word'. He said that it was written by people who had experienced God's self-revelation in action. He also thought that God could choose to speak through the Bible so that reading the Bible could bring about a genuine experience of God. Consequently, he did not think that the Bible was infalible, but he did believe that it had considerable authority. In practice, Barth often referred to the Bible to justify his views, so he treated it as though it did have absolute authority.
Most Roman Catholic theology would be described as 'traditional' in character. Roman Catholics use Biblical teachings to justify their doctrines (e.g. opposition to women priests) and they continue to respect the views of Augustine and Aquinas.
By rejecting traditional beliefs about the authorship of the Bible liberal theogians rejected the traditional basis for its authority. Most liberal theologians rejected the idea that the gospels were written by the disciples.
However, liberal Christians are still regard themselves as Christian (although fundamentalists would disagree!) and as such they still believe that the Bible has some authority.
They would argue that:
- Even if the Bible was written by humans it can still have something important to say. The Bible contains ideas about issues that are central to human life. For example, the book of Job deals with the existence of suffering. The writers thought deeply about these issues and therefore their views can still be compelling.
- Even if Jesus was not God incarnate he could still have been a prophet with an ethical message. The authority his teaching has comes from its content, not its supposed divine origin. For example, the high moral standards set in the Sermon on the Mount (angry thoughts are as bad as murder, lustful thoughts are as bad as adulterly) might still be thought to have value.
- The teachings in the Bible have been found meaningful for centuries. Even if stories are not true they can still reflect the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, the story of the Fall need not be 'true' to be authoritative. The message (sinning leads to bad consequences and we cause harm by selfish behaviour) can still be valuable. In this way the Bible might contain spiritual or symbolic truth.
Liberal Christians tend to focus on the ethical message of the Bible as the part that has the authority rather than the supernatural elements.
In addition to the Bible, liberal Christians believe that the individual's conscience and powers of deductive reason also have authority. Liberals submit traditional Christian doctrines to the test of reason and tend to reject things that they find irrational. Liberals also consider to what extent the Biblical message fits with the current world view and tends to challenge ideas which are incompatible with modern life. Therefore, one could also argue that society or the mood of the age also have authority for Liberals.
Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is literally God's word and therefore it has absolute authority.
- If it comes from an omniscient and omnibenevolent God then it will be both correct and good for us. Thus we should follow it!
- If God is omniscient and eternal then it follows that the Biblical message must also be timeless. God would not include temporal commands in the Bible.
- If the Biblical message conflicts with the values of society then it is society that is wrong, not the Bible. Most fundamentalists are opposed to homosexuality and would say that the liberal values of society are in opposition to the clear instructions of the Bible.
- The same applies if the Biblical message conflicts with science. Science can be wrong, God cannot. Most fundamentalists are creationalists and reject evolution.
- If the Biblical message conflicts with common sense then our reason is at fault. We should pray to ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us.
For fundamentalists, anything which comes into conflict with the Bible has less authority that the Word of God and so must be rejected. They would place great value on the Biblical instruction to have faith. Anything that tests that faith must be overcome.
Many fundamentalists consider liberals to be nominal Christians (i.e. Christian in name only).
Exegesis is the art of explanation and comes from the Greek words meaning 'to lead out'. The aim of exegesis is to draw the meaning out of a text by explaining what is actually means. A person who does exegesis is an exegete.
Fundamentalist, traditionalists and liberals would have different views on how exegesis should be done.
Fundamentalists hold that the Bible is the revealed Word of God and contains exactly what he intended it to. Therefore, the task of the exegete is to faithfully explain the text as God intended and the primary tool for doing this is pious prayer in the hope that the Holy Spirit will guide the reader and help them to understand the text in the right way. This approach to the Bible which stresses the devotional aspect of Biblical studies is sometimes called Pietism.
Fundamentalists do not usually think it is useful to try to identify who wrote which books of the Bible. This is because the biblical authors are only scribes for God and what they record is God's eternal word. Consequently, they usually use synchronic exegesis which looks at the text as it is currently rather than as it develops across time.
As liberal Christians believe that the Bible is a human document they are very interested in how the text develops over time. Therefore, they use diachronic exegesis to try to identify what was written when and how the text changes.
Liberal Christians believe that the Bible contains both divine truth and human error. They hope that by using reason and biblical scholarship they can identify which is which. For example, they might try to identify which of the teachings attributed to Jesus are actually likely to go back to him and which were added later.
There are many different methods of Biblical criticism. Two of the main methods are source criticism and redaction criticism.
This approach tries to identify the sources that predate the current books of the Bible. The sources would obviously be older than the current books and therefore may reflect a more authentic tradition.
The relationship between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is one that has particularly interested source critics. They are called the synoptic (meaning 'seeing together') gospels because of the similarities between them. In places the text is word for word the same. Consequently, liberal Christians believe that it is reasonable to assume that the gospel writers were really editors who used the same sources when putting together their gospels.
One commonly held view is that Mark was written first, Matthew and Luke both used Mark as their main source. They also both used a common source which has since been lost. This common source is called 'Q' (for 'quelle' the German word for source). In addition to this, they also both used some independent material each. This is known as the 'four source theory'.
It is interesting to look at the differences in the ways that Matthew and Luke make use of the same material. For example, the 'Sermon on the Mount' found in Matthew is comprised of material that is dispersed throughout Luke's gospel. Many biblical scholars believe that Matthew deliberately grouped this material together thematically, possibly to make it more accessible to the readers. This leads us to the next type of biblical criticism - redaction criticism.
This approach considers the way that the 'redactors' (editors) shaped their sources.
For example, by looking at the differences between the gospels it might be possible to identify the way the material has been shaped, changed or added to. It may also be possible to identify differences between the theological interests of the different writers. We might be able to work out something about the communities that the redactors were composing their work for.
- Matthew seems to have been writing for a Jewish audience and Luke for a non-Jewish one. Matthew makes more use of the Jewish scriptures. Luke explains Jewish customs. Luke refers to 'the Kingdom of God' whilst Matthew speaks of 'the Kingdom of Heaven' (pious Jews would not say or write the word 'God').
- John has a 'higher Christology' (more exaulted views about Jesus) than the other gospel writers. Mark begins his gospel with an account of Jesus' baptism and Matthew and Luke with a story of Jesus' birth. John begins his gospel with a prologue in which he describes Jesus' pre-existence with God and his involvement in Creation stressing the eternal aspect of Jesus. John consistently calls miracles 'signs' (presumably of his divinity).
Liberal Christians would say that understanding the editor's contributions to the story would help the reader to decide which bits were authentic.
To decide which parts of the gospels are most authentic various different criteria have been suggested.
- Rudolph Bultmann proposed the test of difference. Anything that Jesus is said to have said which seems different to Judaism and different to what later Christianity said must be authentic to him. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Jesus was entirely different to the Jewish world that he was born into and the Christian movement that followed him.
- Other early liberal scholars like Perrin suggested that the test of coherence would be more useful. According to this criteria, the general impression of Jesus given in the gospels could be considered reliable and therefore any teachings that fitted with that general impression could be accepted as authentic. The problem with this approach is that the gospels were written by Christians and we cannot be sure how much they adapted the view of Jesus.
- T.W. Manson used the test of multiple attestation is the idea that things in more than one gospel must be authentic. The problem with this criteria is that as we have seen the gospel writers used each other so they are not independent accounts.
So far, we have focused specifically on the gospels, but liberal Christians would apply the same type of methods to the rest of the Bible. A lot of the New Testament comprises of letters written by Paul. Liberal Christians would be very interested in the following areas of study.
- The context that the letters were written in. Paul wrote to deal with specific issues in specific communities. Often he was answering questions that had been sent to him. Liberal Christians would say that this affects how the text should be understood.
- The way Paul's theology develops over time (for example, when he wrote 1 Thessalonians he seemed to have expected the imminent return of Jesus and promises that none of the community will die before Jesus returns. By the time he wrote 2 Thessalonians he had adapted his views and realised that the return of Jesus may not be in his lifetime.
- Comparing Paul's letters and what he says about the early church with what is said in the Acts of the Apostles (written/edited by the same person who wrote/edited the Gospel of Luke). Many of the same events are described so liberal Christians would compare and contrast these accounts.
One key idea associate with modern liberal scholarship is Paul Ricoeur's idea of the hermeneutic of suspicion. We will look at this in more depth when we consider eisegesis, but in essence, Ricoeur says that the reader of a text should try to consciously try to question previous interpretations of a text and read it afresh for themselves.
Traditionalists believe that the Bible is both the Word of God and the Word of Man so they do not totally reject the methods of Biblical criticism used by liberals (although they would tend to reject the more extreme of the skeptical conclusions of that type approach). They are prepared to use diachronic exegesis but they tend to be more interested in the final result and find synchronic exegesis more fulfilling.
To fully understand why the Church has authority for Roman Catholics you must understand the doctrine of apostolic succession.
Jesus chose his disciples, taught them what they should believe and finally commissioned them to 'go make disciples of all nations'. They had the authority to pass on what he had taught.
The disciples then taught others and passed on Jesus' teaching to them. They chose their successors, ordained them to follow them and passed on the authority.
Roman Catholics believe that in this way the current priests in the Roman Catholic Church can trace their authority all the way back to Jesus.
In addition, Jesus is supposed to have said to Peter that he will use him as the foundation of his Church. He gave him the 'keys to heaven'. Paul described the Church as the body of Christ on earth with Christ at the head.
All this means that the Church's interpretation would be viewed as the authentic one.
The key aspect of the traditional approach to exegesis is that they look to tradition to guide their exegesis and they usually assume that the historical exegetes like Augustine were themselves authoritative. Thus the traditional interpretation of the Bible has authority just as the Biblical text has authority. Roman Catholics would argue that the Church was instituted by Jesus and given authority by him. Therefore, the official Church interpretation of a text is the authoritative 'correct' one.
- The two level view: With this approach the reader begins with the assumption that the text is literally true. However, if this approach is problematic (e.g. results in a contradiction or a moral problem) then the text may be interpreted in an allegorical way. (Many of the Protestant reformers felt that this left too much room for complex analogies that missed the point!)
- The approved OCR text book by Michael Wilcockson suggests that John Bright's approach to the Bible can be viewed as conservative/traditional. John Bright took the standard 'Word of God and word of man' approach to argue that the human writers interpreted God's revelation authentically, but did so in the language of the day. Thus some biblical scholarship (especially historical research and archaeological inquiry) is appropriate to help bridge the hermeneutic gap between the readers' world view and the writers' world view. The difference between Bright and liberal theologians is that Bright tended to use historical research to try and confirm or add to our biblical knowledge whereas liberal theologians are willing to use academic methods critically to assess the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible.
Eisegesis is the interpretation of the text and involves applying the text or reading it is a personal way. The aim of eisegesis it to make the text relevant to a specific situation in a personal way. Ideological interpretations of the Bible like feminist readings or liberation readings are types of eisegesis.
The idea of eisegesis and 'reading into' a text is often viewed with suspicion and associated with misinterpreting the text. However, as you will see below, various theologians argue that the Bible has no fixed meaning and therefore, some level of interpretation is unavoidable. Furthermore, if the ultimate purpose of the Bible is that it is a source of knowledge of God and his will for humans (as many Christians believe it to be) then surely it must be vital that the process of interpretation includes considering not just what the passage says, but how it is relevant.
However, just as different types of Christians disagree on the best way to do exegesis, they also differ on how to do eisegesis.
For fundamentalists, the task of eisegesis is fairly straightforward. Once you have identified what the meaning of the passage is your task is then to implement it your life.
There is not really a lot of scope for considering whether or not it is relevant to you as they believe that all of the Bible is timeless and all is (as the quotation from Timothy puts it) 'useful for teaching.'
Fundamentalists having trouble seeing how the text could be relevant for them or struggling with the task of actually following it would be advised to pray about it and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. The same would go for fundamentalists confused by teachings that apparently contradict each other. When faced with apparently different teachings fundamentalists would consider the following:
Jesus replaced the principle of justice based on 'an eye for an eye' (called the law of revenge or lex talionis) with the principle that you should 'turn the other cheek'. Peter was told he did not have to stick to the kosher rules and Paul said that new Christian converts did not need to be circumcised.
- Some of the Old Testament teachings were explicitly revoked in the New Testament. Fundamentalists would say that the New Testament 'trumps' the Old. They might argue that in the Old Testament God gave people laws appropriate for their time but Jesus brought a new age in which some of these principles no longer applied. In other words, the Old Testament laws were true and correct, but temporary.
For example, the Christmas stories are different in Matthew and Luke. In Luke Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem to be registered for a census, Jesus is born in a stable and visited by Shepherds. In Matthew Jesus is visited by magi who visit the house. There is no mention of a stable or a census. Fundamentalists would say that neither account is wrong, but that each gospel writer recorded different things. They would say that by the time the magi appeared Mary and Joseph were living in a house.
Similarly, in Matthew and Luke the last word's spoken by Jesus on the cross are different. In Matthew he cries out 'my God my God why have you forsaken me?'. In Luke he forgives the penitent thief, tells him he is going to paradise and then says 'it is finished'. Fundamentalists would say that Jesus said both these things. They might elaborate and say that Matthew deliberatedly stressed Jesus' disparing human side and Luke his divine side. Thus together they affirm the doctrine of the incarnation.
- Sometimes apparently different accounts could be harmonised (fitted together). Two key examples are found in the stories about Jesus' birth and his crucifixion [see explanation in the box to the right]. Neither account is wrong, they refer to the same issue from different sides and the truth is found by combining the insights of each. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inerrant (without mistakes) thus apparent contradictions cannot really be saying different things.
Harmonising some stories is easier than others. Fundamentalists often say that the Genesis 2-3 creation stories adds detail to the Genesis 1 account but this seems to ignore the fact that the order of creation is different. Furthermore, if the Bible is literally God's word it seems surprising that God would choose to have the different authors 'forget' to include certain details of the story.
As we have seen, liberal Christians believe that the Bible is predominantly a human document, therefore it contains both truth and error. Consequently, some parts are relevant and some parts are not. It is the task of the exegete to use scholarly methods and reason to sort the fact from the fiction, the edifying from the outdated.
Friedrich Schleiermacher is often described as the 'father of liberal theology' or 'the father or hermeneutics'. He devised the hermeneutic circle as a way of doing both exegesis and eisegesis.
The hermeneutic circle:
The hermeneutic circle is about understanding and interpreting a text and Schleiermacher's main point is that the task of interpretation is never-ending (like a circle), hence the name.
- Firstly, to understand the meaning of any text we need to understand the individual words and be able to see how they function in the overall passage. (Grammatical approach).
- Secondly, we need to see how the ideas in the passage function in the wider scheme of the author's thought. (Psychological approach).
- Finally, we need to see how the text applies to our own situation.
Take the somewhat cryptic passage from Matthew 8:19. Jesus says 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'
- In order to interpret that sentence we must begin by defining the words of the sentence. We need to know what the terms mean. We need, for instance, to define 'Son of Man'. Does it mean 'human' or does it mean something else? We might look at the reference to the 'Son of Man' in the book of Daniel or look at other writing contemporary to Matthew's gospel to try and work out what the phrase meant. What does the phrase 'lay his head' mean? Do we recognise this idiom to imply 'sleep' or 'rest' or something else?
- Next we need to look at the wider context of the passage. What is Matthew talking about here? What is the whole chapter about? We might look further and see where else Matthew mentions 'Son of Man' to help us to understand what Matthew understood by the phrase.
- Finally, we might consider how this passage has relevance to us. The way it has been applied in the past may no longer be relevant or meaningful to us in our context so we might have to consider applying it in a different way.
The Exodus story has a very particular resonance for Jews as being a confirmation of God's concern for them.
It has a message of hope for liberation theologians as confirmation that God will intervene to help prevent injustice.
An Anglican in Britain may interpret it in a less political way and see it as a promise that God will help at times of personal trouble.
As we have already said, the key thing about the hermeneutic circle is that it is never-ending. We can always improve our understanding of the language and this will shape how we read the passage. Historical study may help us develop our understanding of specific concepts like 'Messiah'. We constantly gain new insights into the author's intention which will shed light on what they mean in a particular passage. Our own historic situation changes so the way the text applies to use will be different in different circumstances [see example in the box to the right].
Schleiermacher makes it clear that a text does not have one fixed meaning and therefore some degree of eisegesis is essential. Interpreting the Bible is like a conversation between the reader and the text.
Paul Ricoeur also believed that eisegesis is an essential aspect of interpretation. He stressed the importance of questioning prior interpretations of a text before interpreting it afresh for your own situation.
The hermeneutic of suspicion:
Think back to the human nature module. How did Augustine interpret Genesis? Why did he interpret it in this way? What other possible ways of interpreting it are there? Why do you interpret it in a certain way?
Ricoeur thought that the reader should consider why the text has been interpreted in a certain way. This enables the reader to consider the validity of that interpretation.
The reader should also consider their own motives for interpreting the text in a certain way. What leads us to reject one interpretation in favour of another?
Ricoeur thought that this approach would help the reader to understand their own approach to scripture. He thought the process should be one by which the reader interrogates the text by questioning it in different ways.
For ricoeur, the original author's intention was both unobtainable and irrelevant. What the text means to the reader now was, for him, much more interesting and important than what it might have meant over a thousand years ago.
Ricoeur's approach contributed to the development of ideological readings of the Bible which often begin by using a hermeneutic of suspicion to reject the traditional interpretations of scripture because they see them as reflecting the self-interest of the historic interpreters.
Arguably any reading of the Bible will involve some conscious or subconscious eisegesis. However, sometimes Christians go out of their way to deliberately look for a certain type of meaning in the Bible.
The strength of such ideological readings is that they clearly help to keep the Bible relevant and useful today.
The difficulty with them is that many more traditionally minded Christians would say that ideological readings misinterpret the passages.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church has argued that the liberation theologians reading of the Exodus story separates and highlights the political social message from the deeper spiritual meaning.
- The DCT RS AS includes a study of Liberation Theology. Liberation Theologians approach the Biblical text with a conscious desire to emphasis the social message of the Bible. They believe that this message has often been neglected. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff emphasised that Liberation Theologians do not claim that their way of interpreting the Bible is the only legitimate approach. However, he thinks that it is the most relevant way to interpret it given the context in which liberation theology arose.
- As part of the A2 DCT course you will encounter feminist theologies. Feminist theologians consciously try to rediscover and reclaim the stories of the Bible that relate to women. They reject traditional interpretations of Genesis. Phylis Trible investigated what she called the 'texts of terror', stories in which women are exploited, neglected or harmed and used these to emphasis the suffering of women in certain parts of society today. Elisabeth Schusslier Fiorenza encourages the reader to try to read between the lines and engage in what she calls 'creative actualisation' to try and work out what has not been said and so discover the forgotten women of the Bible.