Some Hermeneutical Issues for Exegetical Theology
“Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”
“So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:3,8)
Hermeneutics is such a broad topic that for a short presentation it is necessary to focus on particular issues. In focusing on issues it is important that those issues be relevant to our current situation. An unfortunate consequence of this focus is that much of what will be presented is a negative critique on a limited selection of pitfalls into which Confessional Lutheranism has blundered. The danger here is that one may come away from this paper with the notion that the author despairs of all current efforts at interpreting the Scriptures within the confines of Confessional Lutheranism. He does not. And the author does not wish to lead the reader into such despair. But pointing out problems is an exercise in the interpretation and application of the Law, not the Gospel.
It is the author's sense that Confessional Lutheran interpreters fall into traps when they fail to take into consideration the Confessional, Dogmatic, Historic, and Liturgical schools of Theology when engaging in the hermeneutical task. Historical Theology shows us that the Church has made many mistakes interpreting the Scriptures in times past. Confessional Theology shows us how the Church has made its stand on the clear words of Scripture on particular interpretations of Scripture. Dogmatic Theology shows us how the Church has refuted the errors of the heterodox and heretical teachers of the past in a systematic presentation of Scriptural interpretation. Liturgical Theology shows us how the text of Scripture has been systematically and beneficially applied to the lives of the saints throughout time and in our present.
Neglect of any of these schools of theology in the exegetical task in an effort to “get back to the Bible” will leave the exegete blindly falling into the traps of Donatism, Papism, Enthusiasm, and any of the other “isms” that the Church has already learned to deal with on the basis of Scripture.
This paper is organized into two main sections. The first section deals with issues that are more material or process based in nature—issues affecting: training in exegesis, tools used in exegesis, textual issues, translational issues, and the nature of tradition.
The second section deals with issues that are problematic on specific points of interpretation: moving from a text's meaning to the establishing of doctrine; determining how Modernism has affected the process of interpretation; and some considerations on prooftexting and anecdotes as interpretive acts.
None of these topics is covered definitively. This paper is meant to be a type of introduction to how these problems may have affected interpretation in Confessional Lutheran hermeneutics.
Preparing the Exegete for the Hermeneutical Task.
For Confessional Lutherans hermeneutics is a discipline that does not occur in a vacuum. The specific goal of the hermeneutical task is the proper application of Law and Gospel to sinners. This goal encompasses the need for specialized linguistic and philosophical terminology which allows interpreters to be able to critique and discuss the process of interpretation and its implications. The purpose for such a specialized and possibly technical discussion is still the proper application of Law and Gospel to sinners. This specialized and technical discussion is necessary both for the sake of training new men as interpreters and for the sake of providing a critical self-evaluation of the process as it is being practiced by the pastors and teachers of the Church. Where interpreters are unable to engage in this specialized and technical discussion they become dependent upon traditions of interpretation, whether they will admit it or not. Sometimes the traditions save the interpreter from gross error. Knowledge that Luther taught a certain way on a topic and that Lutherans hold that view as truth can curb some interpreters from going in a bad direction. But often enough interpreters who depend on tradition adopt traditions of interpretation from influential voices and written works which are contrary to Scripture.
For example, let us consider the tradition that αγαπαω is somehow superior to φιλεω. This was a very strong tradition in the wake of Swedish Lutheran theologian, Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros, as well as Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Familiarity with the Greek text of the Scripture demolishes the popular misconceptions which place too much theological baggage in these words. Berkhof (1950:72f) falls into this error.1 His textbook was used in the E.L.S. seminary for many years. But consider 2 Samuel 13:
4 And he said unto him,
Why art thou, being the king's son, lean
from day to day?
wilt thou not tell me?
And Amnon said unto him,
Tamar, the sister of Absolom—
4 και ειπεν αυτω
τι σοι οτι συ ουτως ασθενης υιε του βασιλεως
το πρωι πρωι
ουκ απαγγελεις μοι
και ειπεν αυτω αμνων
θημαρ την αδελφην αβεσσαλωμ
του αδελφου μου
15 Then Amnon hated her exceedingly;
so that the hatred wherewith he hated her
was greater than the love
wherewith he had loved her.
And Amnon said unto her,
Arise, be gone.
15 και εμισησεν αυτην αμνων μισος μεγα σφοδρα
οτι μεγα το μισος ο εμισησεν αυτην
υπερ την αγαπην
ην ηγαπησεν αυτην
και ειπεν αυτη αμνων
αναστηθι και πορευου
This particular lexical issue has been treated at length already by many others.2 Important here is to note that the tradition of interpretation around these two words became so entrenched in the 20th century that many preachers based their edification of the flock on this tradition rather than on the texts in which these words were used.
One such text using these words is John 21:15-17. If the interpreter has a solid grounding in the Lutheran Confessions and the history of the Reformation he might avoid relying on mere traditions and so:
not be as likely to waste time speaking about the degrees or kinds of love between Jesus and Peter;
but be able to speak about the equality of authority and position among the ministers of the New Covenant;
not be as likely to be ignorant of where the term “Pastor” comes from with regard to the Pastoral office;3 and
not be as likely to create the false distinction between “lambs” as youth and “sheep” as adults in “areas of ministry.”
More will be stated on traditions later in this paper. At this point it is enough to realize that traditions—both good and bad, both ancient and contemporary—can become a short-cut to actually reading and interpreting the text of Scripture in its own context.
1As does Kuske 1995:79 following exactly the same reasoning as Berkhof. Both seem to be merely rewording or summarizing Terry work from the previous century, see Terry 1974:200f.
2See for example: Barr 1961:211, 216f; Carson 1984:30f; Silva 1983:96f.
3I cannot count the number of times that I've heard pastors of Confessional Lutheran synods make the ignorant and audacious claim that the Office of Pastor is not instituted in Scripture.