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Andrew Sloane on why you do (/not) need hermeneutics

Andrew Sloane’s At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics is so much more than a book on ethical issues; it’s pretty much a primer on how to use the Old Testament as a Christian.

Sloane is so easy to read, full of spot on anecdotes and illustrations that manifest his interest in seeing ‘the ordinary person’ captivated by the Old Testament. This is particularly relevant to our context where most pastors don’t have a theological degree and there are all sorts of creative interpretations of the Bible.

I loved this passage on hermeneutics:

You might say, surely we can do without hermeneutics [understanding how people communicate and discern meaning]. You’ve been reading your Bible for years and only just heard the word. On the other hand, you might say that looking into hermeneutics means that you’ve been doing it all wrong, that what you’ve been doing with the Bible is naive and illegitimate. Or you might feel that you need to have a university degree to read your Bible correctly. Some writers in the field certainly seem to imply that without a lot of specialised knowledge and access to tools of biblical criticism, our readings of Scripture are questionable at best. I am not one of them….

Let me draw an analogy: the relationship between hermeneutics and interpreting a text is like the relationship between (civil) engineering and building a bridge. Bridges can be built by people who have never studied engineering, and frequently they have been — what’s more, these bridges stay up. People learn what to do by a process of trial and error (if it collapses, clearly you need to try something different) and by being taught by others who knew what they were doing (this one fell, and that one stayed up, so do it that way). The problem is that some designs work only in particular circumstances: a simple arched bridge made of stone make work over a stream; you can even use a series of arches to cross a large river. This method won’t work, however, if you want to cross Sydney Harbor. For that, you need a completely new kind of bridge. Engineering helps you to know not only what design to use and where – experience can do that – but also why a particular design works. This means that if you are faced with a problem that you or your teachers haven’t encountered before, you can go back to first principles and figure our a solution. If can even help you to improve on an old design, eliminating faults and streamlining the design.

So it is with hermeneutics. People can and do read their Bibles and understand them without ever having studied hermeneutics or even known the word. (You are now among the blessed elite who know the term and what it means!) Knowing a little about hermeneutics can help you understand how and why particular interpretations work and give you skills to deal with texts and issues that you have not encountered before and ones that you have not adequately dealt with in the past.

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. I like Sloane’s bridge building analogy, but I wonder if it could be extended somewhat. Along the lines of ‘Hermeneutics helps you to not have your new and untested bridges fall down and injure others.’ I think that it would bring it to a bit more of a salient position as to why good biblical exegesis and hermeneutics matters, in that faulty hermeneutics commonly injures others. Thoughts?

    1. Yes, sure, good thought Chris. :) The immediate application in our context is the prosperity hermeneutic which is horribly damaging to people’s welfare, but another one I can think of that I’ve seen in the last year or so is the minister who was adamant that when you preach, you need to ‘stay in the Bible’ = no moving ‘beyond’ the Bible = little to no application. Makes for sermons which are like reading out a page of a commentary, and definitely removes the Bible from being useful for ‘the ordinary person’.

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