Further thoughts on interpretive methodology

Thinking about reactions to the term ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ caused me to reflect on how someone whose faith was formed in a relatively conservative evangelical group came to be researching a non-canonical gospel in the way that I am. When I started my theological training, although we had done lots of bible study, the majority of my colleagues and I found the whole biblical criticism thing very new and strange, because ministers don’t tend to share this kind of thing in their preaching. Some responded by saying “if this is what I have to do to be ordained, I’ll do it, but I don’t believe it”, while others found it exciting and liberating. Very few, however, were prepared to embrace it with the enthusiasm of our teaching staff.

I remember commenting to one of my friends that I had found myself agreeing with Bultmann on some issue or another and that this was scarey. Agreeing with Bultmann wasn’t quite like agreeing with Hitler, but he wasn’t high on our list of reliable interpreters of Scripture, either. Most of us had come to theological study with the idea that the gospels were more or less minutes of Jesus’ ministry – history rather than theology.

One of the people I did like and trust, however, was Ernst Käsemann. The English title of his book Jesus Means Freedom (Der Ruf der Freiheit) stayed with me as the basis of a hermeneutical principle. This has been combined with something that one of my practicum supervisors taught me to ask: “Where is the good news for this person in this situation?” If a traditional interpretation of a piece of Scripture results in imprisonment rather than freedom and is not good news to whole classes of people (like women, people of colour etc) I ask “Is this what the text really says? Is this what Jesus/God really intended?”

A further principle was given to me by David M Scholer when I audited a course that he taught on ‘Women and Leadership in the New Testament’ in Melbourne (Australia) shortly after my ordination. He talked about the fact that how we interpret Scripture depends significantly on which verse or verses we use as the lens through which to view it ie which verse or verses we think of as normative. Those who use “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28) are generally in favour of women in leadership in the church. Those who use “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Tim 2:12) generally are not. How we choose our normative texts is, of course, influenced by many things, but again, I tend to choose perspectives that bring freedom and good news for people who have no control over the circumstances in which they find themselves (eg minority groups in society).

Perhaps these are of no direct relevance to a study of the Gospel of Thomas as an academic discipline, in that I am not trying to develop principles for living from my analysis of the text. Nevertheless, the practice of holding pieces of text up against the whole and asking “is that what it really says, or am I carrying over ideas from traditional interpretation?” and “does that interpretation make sense when you look at in context?” is, I think, essential for good textual analysis.

2 thoughts on “Further thoughts on interpretive methodology

  1. I can recall when I felt the same concerns when finding myself agreeing with Bultmann! 🙂 But I now feel that, even though I am not persuaded by many of his specific interpretations of texts (and particularly source-critical analyses), I feel he asked the most important hermeneutical/theological question: does one have to accept the pre-scientific worldview and first century culture of the NT authors in order to be a Christian? If not, then the issue becomes not the authority of the text so much as how one finds the meaning communicated in and through the first century language and culture of these texts.

    I often turn to the issue of slavery when thinking about the matters you highlight in your post. Those seeking to maintain slavery had excellent exegetical studies of relevant passages in their favor. Those opposed to it realized that, whatever this or that passage might say, more basic principles like “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” pretty much make enslaving others impossible. Seeking the underlying principles, and being willing to admit that Biblical authors did not always follow these principles consistently themselves, are important in seeking “the meaning of the Bible for today”.


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