The hermeneutical spiral

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One of the things we’ve been exploring is the challenge that comes when reading Scripture. The problem is that although God’s Word is objectively true, infallible, inerrant and clearly revealed, we are finite, affected by The Fall, conditioned by our own culture and experience. The result is that we bring all of those things into our reading of Scripture so that we cannot be sure that we’ve heard God right rather than imposing our own meaning on his Word.

There are I think three possible responses to the problem.  The Fundamentalist one is to deny its existence to assume that something magical happens so that we hear God’s Word as it is without bias.  The postmodern liberal approach is to decide that truth is relative and provisional. All that we can read is our own stories.  Evangelicalism stands between both approaches and argues that it is possible to read God’s Word clearly but we cannot ignore our own hermeneutical bias. To deal with that we use something called “The hermeneutical spiral.”

The idea behind this is that we in effect spiral in and out from the text. It’s based on a belief that I, the exegete do need to be exegeted too, that my heart, my assumptions, my motives, my misunderstandings need to be drawn out if I’m to be able to see and hear clearly and correctly. I’m reminded at this point of Jesus warning that before we seek to remove the speck in another’s eye we need to remove the log in our own. It’s unwise for sight impaired people to attempt surgery on other sight impaired people.  Indeed better still than trying to remove my own impairment is to let God do that. Christ is the master healer of blind eyes.

And our presupposition is that this is what happens when we approach Scripture rightly. The Holy Spirit exegetes us through Scripture.  I read the text at a first sitting and I bring all of my preconceptions and baggage with me but as I do so, I find that God’s Word challenges me and disagrees with me. My first reading is imperfect but it starts to work.  With that work having been done, I am ready to read again and to read on. This might take several cycles.

So, here’s a suggestion for an approach to God’s Word.

  1. Read the text several times. Space out the readings so you have time to reflect, think, pray. 
  2. Read the text slowly. There are methods you can use to slow down your reading, such a using other translations, reading in the Biblical languages, highlighting, sentence flow diagrams etc.
  3. Read the text with others including those in your church, with books/commentaries and with people from history.

On each reading I would ask the following questions:

  1. What does the text actually say?
  2. Is that the same as what I assumed/remembered?
  3. What do I think the text means?
  4. Does my interpretation confirm assumptions that I already held to? If so are there any other sources of those assumptions apart from scripture (culture/experience/tradition)
  5. Does my interpretation of what God is saying/what the text means challenge me? Do I find that God disagrees with me.

Whilst this side of glory our understanding will be neither perfect nor exhaustive I believe this will help us to get closer to a right understanding and enable us to hear God speak to us through his Word.

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