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EXEGESIS > Thoughts on Interpretation > Information or Transformation  


Two basic positions of interpretation have characterized the Church. Romanism anchors interpretation in the institution (the papacy), thus usurping the individual believer’s freedom in interpretation. By asserting that the teaching of the Church is the true teaching of the Bible the Roman institution thereby defines heresy as the rejection of the Church’s pronouncements. Submitting to Rome, therefore, is the only option for the believer, and in obedience to Rome the follower is submitting to Christ. Unity is projected by the Roman Church.

Protestantism, revolting against the professed infallibility of Roman Catholicism, magnifies the right of individual interpretation, with the result being a proliferation of denominations which undercuts the visible unity of the body of Christ and creates variant theological positions that vie for acceptance among believers seeking a normative word. Diversity characterizes Protestantism.

On the one hand, the autonomy of the individual interpreter is sacrificed by Romanism; and on the other hand, the historic witness of the Church is not, perhaps, sufficiently appreciated by most Protestants. In the latter, each believer is free to interpret Scripture according to the conscience; but the believer must not use this freedom to concoct interpretations that are at variance with historic beliefs. New teachings, therefore, are automatically suspect. Freedom of interpretation is both a blessing and a curse, and is to be practiced by the believer; but the affirmations of the Church throughout history are to be esteemed and not easily and quickly replaced.

In both of these approaches, there is a basic understanding; the interpreter, whether the Church (papacy) or the individual, is seeking to know the meaning of the text. Truth, or a normative word from God, is located in the text and, therefore, the text must be explained so the individual believer will know what to believe and how to behave; that is, the text is the basis for theology and ethics.           

In the modern era many think that this traditional view is too truncated in its definition and understanding of the term. For some, hermeneutics has been expanded to include understanding, even pre-understanding, communication, the nature of language, the subjective rule of the interpreter, and the inter-relationship of reader and text in the existential event of hermeneutics, where the reader does not so much read the text as the text reads the reader. This expansion of hermeneutics began with Schleiermacher and was developed in various forms by those who followed him whose desires were to go beyond the text into the minds of the authors, with the ultimate focus on the present and not the past.

In this new thinking the method of interpretation is not as important as the experience that comes through interpretation. In the words of Gerhard Ebeling: “The primary phenomenon in the realm of understanding is not understanding of language, but understanding through language” (Word and Faith, 318). According to this view the Word becomes more that which transforms rather than that which informs. The content is not of major significance; it is incidental, for the major key is what takes place in the reader’s life. In this new hermeneutics, priority is placed upon the reader not the text.

This recent development undercuts the historic view that equates the words of Scripture with the words of God. Historically, hermeneutics has given to the believer the guidelines needed so that the interpreter would be able to explain what the words of Scripture mean. Importance was attached to the words because of what they were perceived to be—the words of God. And in the words resides the message. But in the modern view the words themselves are of little significance; it is not thought that they contain Truth, propositional Truth, but are merely the vehicle for one's experience of God. Therefore, the focus has shifted from the words to the reader, from verbal revelation to experiential revelation.

For the Biblical theologian seeking faithfully to expound the Truth of the Self-Revealing God in Scripture, there is the need for guidelines (see: Truth). He needs to know those principles which will insure as much as possible that his interpretation of the Truth is accurate. Exercises in hermeneutical fancies are of little practical value to the student who is convinced that the words of Scripture are the very words of God and who feels the burden of explaining those words to hearers or readers that may be interested. Let others speak of semiotics and language-event. The Biblical theologian will be concerned with the words and the meaning of the words, for it is the words that are used by God’s sovereign grace to engender faith in the mind. And in all things the text is normative.

Information and transformation are both vital, and they should not be pitted against each other (see: Personal or Propositional). The choice is not between historic revelation and current experience. The proper integration of the two is essential:

The information leads to the transformation.

Truth precedes life, spiritual life.

“Faith comes by hearing,
and hearing by the word of God.”
Rom. 10:17

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