The Exegete Engaged in the Hermeneutical Task
Hermeneutics: Meaning and Doctrine
How does the interpreter go from the meaning of words and phrases to the declaration of doctrine by which souls are judged? There are many short cuts. And from a basic study of logic, these short-cuts end up being the all too familiar fallacies: appeal to force, ad hominem (abusive and circumstantial), argument from ignorance, appeal to pity, appeal “to the people,” accident, relevance, converse accident, begging the question, the complex question, etc.
The use of a fallacy in act of interpretation does not determine the actual truth of the proposition set forth. It affects communication, teaching, learning, and understanding of that proposition. A fallacy is not a falsehood but a false argument, a false method of reason. But there are many truths, both revealed and experienced that cannot be justified merely by clear reason itself and, in the end, rely upon what logicians would term fallacy.
The fact that Christianity is based on an appeal to authority does not make it false. Whether one describes the Christian faith with respect to objective cause (appeal to authority) or subjective experience (tautology) the veracity of the objective cause and the subjective experience are not invalidated. This fact demonstrates the absolute limits to the use of reason. This is why Lutheranism has used terminology to distinguish between the ministerial use of reason and the magisterial use of reason.
But drawing clear arguments from Scripture with only the ministerial use of reason requires a very thorough knowledge both of Scripture and of the ways God's Word has been challenged through time. When the issue under discussion has a great deal of personal emotional investment and debate is hot, it is often a lot less work to take the short-cuts in hope that the rhetorical power those arguments have can win the day. It is often simply easier to make these appeals than to do all the work to make a good, sound, and clear line of argument that relies only on the ministerial use of reason subject only to the appeal to the clear statements of God's Word.
The following is a short list of examples of these short-cuts. The list is incomplete. But the issues were selected because the author has found these some of the most commonly abused lines of hermeneutical reasoning.
“This is what we've always thought.” Sometimes this is true, sometimes it is not. Sometimes this claim is made for the sake of imposing a new tradition that competes against the clear interpretation of Scripture. Both sides of the interpretive debate begin digging in the writings of the synodical fathers for scraps of evidence to present.
The problem is the assumption that the traditional interpretation is correct and therefore no more exegetical work from Scripture is necessary. The issue here is not the veracity of the traditional interpretation. The issue is the ability of each interpreter to be able to show from Scripture how the interpretation is derived and why he can say without doubt that this is God's doctrine.
If, as stated above, the specific goal of the hermeneutical task is the proper application of Law and Gospel to sinners, then it is the duty of the interpreter to show where and how such teachings are found in God's Word. Simply stating that “such and such is the doctrine of our synod” is to shirk responsibility and place the authority for faith and doctrine into the hands of a synod.
The research into the synodical fathers can be a valuable tool for showing consistent testimony to what the synod has believed and taught. Such research can bring to light some very valuable interpretive material that has been lost to the current generation. And for these reasons that research should be done and presented. Through such research it may be shown that “what we've always thought” is in fact not what was always thought. This kind of research might also show that a particular issue has always been a difficult issue with wide opinions on various sides.
The duty of the interpreter is to show how God's Word teaches something. Demonstrating historical consistency in doctrine is good and useful. Demonstrating gradual change in a position, though potentially unsettling, is also useful and beneficial. But in the end the interpreter's task is to enable others to see what God says in His Word.