21 December 2011

On Interpretation

     The word interpretation derives from the Latin root interpretari (naturally), meaning to decide, translate, regard, or construe. The second definition “to translate,” implies an objective meaning to the word. For instance, the translation that was just used with respect to the Latin interpretari is by no means subjective. That is, the meaning of the word is not subject to ones feelings or personal biases on the matter. There is, however, a sense in which this word can certainly convey subjectivity (e.g. decide and construe; see above), but even in the meaning of the word there is something that is overlooked.
Context is something given very little thought in modernity. That is, even the word interpretation itself must be used in context with respect to its subject. One cannot simply take the meaning of a word (or any word for that matter) and apply one meaning to all contexts. For example, when the word interpretation is used with respect to, say, the interpretation of a musical piece there is certainly subjective meaning. One artist may hear a piece in his mind much differently than another, or he may experience a certain feeling in the piece that others do not. Nevertheless, there is still a context, even for something as subjective as music. The author of that piece of music had an intent in writing the piece whether it was something as noble as love or as conceited as merely to show his musical prowess, there was a context in which the piece was written and a meaning to be conveyed. Therefore, if the musician interpreting the piece misses the context in which the composer wrote it, the musician has wandered off on a merry adventure in missing the point.
Here then is crux of the matter: hermeneutics. This word is one that is prevalent in some theological circles but is virtually unknown to most. This word derives from the Greek hermeneutikos meaning to make clear. The English word hermeneutics is defined as a principle or method of interpretation. Contextually this word is used in theology with regards to the interpretation of the Bible, but this word, and principle for that matter, can be applied to many things. For instance, if one were in a mathematics class and said to the professor “rules for these sums are all very well, but I feel differently, and therefore I will do these problems how I think they should be done,” that person would fail without question. Indeed, in something such as mathematics, there is objective interpretation that is required of the student; otherwise the student has no understanding of the subject. Furthermore, the same truth applies to academics such as philosophy or history. One cannot read an historical narrative and inject there own meaning into it, attempting to make it relevant to themselves. No, whether or not anyone cares to admit it, interpretation is objective and is not subject to personal relevance.
The text of sacred Scripture (i.e. the Bible) is in no way different. Yet, it has become the practice of many in evangelical American churches to ask “what does this text mean to you,” or “how do you feel about this passage?” The simple truth is this: the Bible isn't about any one person and however one may feel about a text or interpret it outside of its historical-grammatical context does not change its objective truths one wit. Therefore, the only way a person can truly interpret the text of the Bible is by using the historical-grammatical method and allowing the text and its author to speak in its historical context. One's feelings or subjective interpretation don't enter into it and do not change the objective purpose of the Scriptures. Questions when reading a text (any text) must be asked such as:
Who is the author?
Who is the author writing to or for?
What was the original intent of the author?
What is the author trying to say?
As can be seen there is no room here for one's interpretation, and these aforementioned are not all the criteria for properly viewing any text (the Bible first and foremost). The author must be allowed to speak and the text must be taken “at its word,” so to speak. To wit, one's theology or philosophy does not dictate Scripture, Scripture dictates one's philosophy and theology. 

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