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The Role of Context in Biblical Hermeneutics - Essay Example

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This paper is an attempt to demonstrate how this is so, and why this is so. It begins with a brief examination of the role of context in communication in general, which will then be applied to the activity of textual interpretation using the concept of the hermeneutic circle…
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The Role of Context in Biblical Hermeneutics
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The Role of Context in Biblical Hermeneutics

Download file to see previous pages... Context plays a central role in the act of biblical interpretation. This paper is an attempt to demonstrate how this is so, and why this is so. It begins with a brief examination of the role of context in communication in general, which will then be applied to the activity of textual interpretation using the concept of the hermeneutic circle as developed by Frederich Schliermacher and Hans Georg Gadamer. Consider the following statement: “The Monkees are the greatest band ever.” On the face of it, the meaning seems obvious. It is a statement of the relative worth of The Monkees by comparison to all other musical acts throughout history. It implies that when compared with, say, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Metropolitan Opera Company, and all of the Homeric bards, that the Monkees come out on top. However, this is not necessarily the meaning the statement is intended to convey. If it is said in a grave voice, it may mean just this. If it is said in an excited voice while at a concert, we may take it as earnest hyperbole. However, if it is said in a hipster infested coffeehouse, we may take it to mean precisely the opposite. The meaning of any statement is subject to the same sort of factors. Their sense cannot be determined by the examination of the mere words used, rather they must be understood with reference to the total situation in which they are spoken. As this is with spoken communication, so it is with written texts. To return this to Biblical matters, we may examine the following Biblical quotation: “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.”1 If this statement is truly taken without context, it makes a most surprising assertion. Namely, that God is a rock. Further, we find, with some surprise, that God, unlike other, more common examples of rocks, is the sort of rock that judges, and is just. One might wonder how to distinguish between just and unjust rocks, and indeed whether God is igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary. However, when this passages is juxtaposed with other descriptions of God found throughout the Bible, what is at first nonsensical transparently reveals itself to be metaphor. Of course, the above example is not entirely serious. No one has ever thought to read this passage as literally suggesting that God is a rock. However, this alone reveals something. Namely that everyone, instinctively, takes into account the surrounding passages, and the whole of their knowledge of the Bible when interpreting single verses. Further it sharply shows the dangers of taking biblical quotations out of context. One may ask how this works, and just how much of a role that context plays in this process. One approach would be to argue that context completely determines the meaning of individual statements, however, this seems as absurd as maintaining that context plays no role at all. It must be the case that context and statement both bear some weight in understanding a text. The German biblical and classical scholar Frederich Schliermacher proposed an interesting way to understand this relationship.2 When interpreting any text, he maintained, the part is always understood through the whole. Conversely, the whole is always understood by means of the individual parts. The relation is reciprocal. This reciprocal relation is usually referred to as “the hermeneutic circle.” An example may help to make clear how this works. One may find oneself reading through a political blog post and find oneself agreeing with it. Two-thirds of the way through, the author makes a blatantly bigoted statement. This, should, of course, give the reader pause, and the work of ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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