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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 3–13 

Biblical Interpretation: The State of the Discipline

V. George Shillington

The most that can be claimed for this essay is that it cites representative theories that mark current practice in the science and art of biblical hermeneutics. 1

What questions—history, rhetoric, culture, opposition—do texts themselves raise?

Like any science, or art, biblical hermeneutics follows certain rules (or methods) that its practitioners deem best suited to the data. While the aim of hermeneutics is singular—the recovery and appropriation of meaning encoded in texts--the data is multifaceted: ancient texts related to the cultural situation of their time; texts written in classical Hebrew (OT) and koine Greek (NT); texts belonging to the Jewish and Christian communities; and sacred texts whose religious/ theological meaning is authoritative for the communities to which they belong. With such a complex configuration of data inviting interpretation in every new generation, it is not surprising to see new methods emerging, each one building more or less on earlier methods.

Yet the very idea of “multiple methods” bespeaks an inherent problem in hermeneutics. If there is a Protestant and a Roman Catholic hermeneutics, a Conservative and a Liberal hermeneutics, a Jewish and a Christian hermeneutics, or any other polarized paradigms each yielding results according to its own mindset, where does that leave the “true meaning” of the sacred texts? Is there such a true meaning? Is the meaning recoverable at all? And if so, how? {4} These kinds of questions have haunted biblical interpreters in this century, and have driven some biblical scholars and theologians to search for a method that underlies all particular approaches to the text.

Hence the ensuing survey is divided into two parts. The first part cites three major contributors to the quest for a universal method in hermeneutics, and the second sketches several particular approaches currently in use.


Rudolf Bultmann

Modern biblical hermeneutics owes an immense debt to the existentialist hermeneutics of the Lutheran German scholar of New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann did not write a major treatise on hermeneutics as such, but his essays and monographs manifest his quest for a universal method for understanding the texts of the New Testament. Committed to the philosophy of his teacher, Martin Heidegger, Bultmann believed that the essential of “person” lives in potential-to-become, never in fulfillment. Consequently, “reality” was not for him a fixed entity for human beings. The human person encounters reality in dialogue with the world and history. For Bultmann the world, whether nature or culture, is not the real home of humanity. 2 The human person is always in decision and action towards becoming authentically human. On this foundation Bultmann built his hermeneutical program of de-mythologizing. He believed that the ancient texts of the New Testament carry the belief system of their time and culture, e.g., the three-tiered universe of Philippians 2:11, and not that of the present time. Authentic interpretation frees the meaning of the texts from those elements that impede modern understanding. Modern readers should encounter the truth of God in Christ that transforms human existence and human relations.

“De-mythologizing is an hermeneutic method,” 3 he writes. Not only is the text subject to rigorous decoding, but the interpreter is also subject to self-analysis to expose pre-understanding that interferes with the recovery of the “truth” of the text. “Every interpreter brings with him (sic) certain conceptions, perhaps idealistic or psychological, as presuppositions of his exegesis, in most cases unconsciously.” 4 The question Bultmann raised illustrates his search for a universal method of interpretation: “Which are the adequate presuppositions, if they are available to all?” 5 His existentialist answer, that the human self is always in search of ultimate meaning, led him to the hermeneutical method of interrogating the text, entering into dialogue with the text and thus subjecting the interpretive self to the transforming truth of the text. 6 “Your own relation {5} to the subject-matter prompts the question you bring to the text and elicits the answers you obtain from the text.” 7 The interpreter’s interest in studying the texts is to discover the meaning of human existence in relation to God. For Bultmann, “the question of God and the question of myself are identical.” 8 In short, Bultmann’s quest for a universal method of interpretation led him to adapt existentialist philosophy to his program of biblical exegesis and theology.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

The stamp of Bultmann’s biblical hermeneutics appears, to a greater or lesser degree, on the work of numerous scholars in the second half of the present century. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method is an apt example. This volume focuses more sharply “the universal aspect of hermeneutics.” 9 For Gadamer a significant problem for hermeneutics relates to the “horizon” of human being and knowing. His point is worth quoting at length.

A horizon is not a rigid frontier, but something that moves with one and invites one to advance further. Thus horizon intentionality, which constitutes the unity of the flow of experience, is paralleled by an equally comprehensive horizon intentionality on the objective side. For everything that is given as existent is given in terms of the world and hence brings the world horizon with it. 10

Following Schleirmacher’s dictum, “everything presupposed in hermeneutics is but language,” Gadamer developed his vision of a universal method of interpretation around a philosophy of human language. Language, said Gadamer, is the medium for understanding world, and as such is the central operative structure of the hermeneutical experience. 11 Where language underlies the interactive process in conversation so it does in the process of interpreting texts. Translation from a foreign language into the language of the translator leaves a “gap between the spirit of the original words and that of their reproduction.” 12 Conversation, on the other hand, forms a bridge between the two horizons. “A conversation is a process of two people understanding each other-and gets inside the other to such an extent that he understands not a particular individual, but what he says.” 13 Human language is thus normative for hermeneutics, and constitutes the power in human beings for understanding the world in all its forms. 14 “Language is not just one of [humanity’s] possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that [human beings have] a world at all. For the human being the world exists as world in a way that no other being in the world experiences.” 15

The roots of some of the recent literary and social scientific approaches can be traced to Gadamer’s hermeneutical theory of horizon and language. {6}

Bernard J. F. Lonergan

Bernard Lonergan developed his hermeneutical theory as much in distinction from Bultmann as in congruence with him. Lonergan located his universal method, or as he called it, “transcendental method,” in the dynamic structure of human consciousness. His transcendental method applied to every human intention and act in the world, not only to the interpretation of sacred texts. His definition of method deserves serious consideration. “A method is a normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results.” 16 His definition corresponds precisely to his theory of human cognition. The process of coming to know and to act moves dynamically through four stages from experiencing sensory data (text form), through understanding the data, through judging the viability and value of what is understood, to deciding to act on the judgment. This operation in the human subject is dynamic, but can be identified and objectified.

Lonergan argued that this “normative pattern” of human operations is incontestable. If anyone should attempt to revise the theory they would be obliged to use the operation to do so. In hermeneutics likewise, the pattern is essential for verifying the results of exegesis, for revising previous conclusions, for advancing a new insight. Lonergan’s transcendental method calls for reasonableness and responsibility in all human intentionality, not least in biblical interpretation. How else can the community of interpreters hold each other accountable?

This transcendental method Lonergan calls a rock on which biblical interpretation and theology rest. “There is a rock on which one can build,” he writes. “The rock is the subject in his conscious, unobjectified attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility.” 17 Lonergan’s transcendental method “supplies the basic anthropological component” 18 within which the spiritual, or theological component of hermeneutics is worked out. One component cannot be divorced from the other.

What remains to be identified now are the various functional paradigms, or approaches, that recent interpreters of Scripture have employed to arrive at a clearer understanding of the meaning and significance of biblical texts.


Beyond the basic principles of biblical exegesis—the primacy of the original language, grammar and syntax of sentences, context of statements within the document—, the following paradigms, or typologies, have guided interpreters of biblical literature at various points throughout this century. {7}

Historical Critical Approach

Founded on the work of Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Bernard Spinoza (1670), 19 the historical critical approach to Scripture was well under way by the end of the nineteenth century. Its development and refinement in the first half of the twentieth century became part and parcel of the work of professional biblical scholars in university departments of religion and in seminaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

The basic assumption of the historical critical approach is that documents have a history and should be interpreted in accordance with the historical setting in which they were written. Hence the kinds of questions historical critics raised: When was this document written? What kind of person wrote this document? Where was the author living? What was the author’s intention in writing such a document? Who were his readers? What traces of religious and cultural background does the document exhibit? By pursuing these kinds of questions interpreters hoped to arrive at the inherent meaning of Scripture texts. Some of the refinements in this century include source analysis by which the interpreter seeks to identify documents underlying the extant form (as in the Pentateuch and Acts), form analysis by which various units (pericopae) of a larger text are investigated for their historical situation-in-life (as in Psalms and Gospels), and redaction analysis, which seeks to identify the interests and intentions of the compiler of the materials in the final from of the document.

To say, as Walter Wink did in 1973, that “historical biblical criticism is bankrupt” 20 in the present time is to overstate the case, regardless of Wink’s attempt to nuance the term “bankrupt.” Despite recent moves toward a post-critical stance, the historical critical paradigm is not likely to shift off the hermeneutical horizon altogether. Were that to happen, the result for hermeneutics could be even more confusing than it is at present.

Liberationist and Feminist Approaches

Liberationist and feminist approaches to Scripture belong together in so far as their functional paradigm is essentially the same. The initiative for liberation theology came from Latin America 21 and moved quite quickly from that locale to other areas of the two-thirds world. Feminist theology and practice in the one-third world followed suit.

The starting point for liberationist hermeneutics is the social context of the interpreter. To what extent is the situation of the reader/interpreter one of oppression? Is there a condition of injustice? Liberationist hermeneutics follows the dictates of praxis. If the results of exegesis do nothing to free the oppressed, then the method has to be called into question. The Word of God sets people free and executes justice among {8} marginalized people. Sacred texts should therefore be read through the eyes of an oppressed people, which will mean that much of the traditional interpretation will be subject to reconstruction and re-application.

Women in the church and society have found themselves in an inferior position to men by virtue of their gender, and have discovered in liberation theology a hermeneutical paradigm by which to re-interpret the texts that had traditionally been used to perpetuate the inferior status of women. 22

Of the several positive contributions to hermeneutics made by this functional paradigm, perhaps the most important is in calling attention to the vital role the interpreter plays in the interpretive process.

Social Scientific Approach

If the social sciences facilitate the understanding of modern human existence, why would the tools and insights of those disciplines not apply also to the understanding of biblical texts that reflect the life and thought of ancient communities as well? An increasing number of biblical scholars over the last quarter-century have posed the question in one form or another. And the answer has come in the appearance of numerous books whose titles reflect the application of the social sciences to the interpretation of biblical texts, e.g., An Agrarian Bible in an Industrial Age. 23

One of the principal assumptions of the social scientific approach is that all human thought has a social location and comes to expression in terms of the social, cultural, and psychological factors that constitute the world of writer and reader. To read texts apart from their social conditioning is to read them according to one’s own social location, and thus to truncate the full impact of the meaning of the text.

Among the least likely biblical documents to evoke a social scientific approach is the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John has traditionally been described as the “spiritual gospel,” and understandably so. But now the work of scholars like David Rensberger aims to enrich “our understanding of John’s purpose and theology by paying attention to the social circumstances surrounding the community for whom the gospel was written.” 24 More recently, B. J. Malina and R. L. Rohrbaugh have written a commentary on the Synoptic Gospels using the social scientific method with illuminating results. 25

Literary Approaches

Literary critics have long regarded the Bible as a classic among the great literary masterpieces of the world. 26 Biblical scholars of every theological orientation acknowledge the presence of a variety in the Bible of literary conventions, such as metaphor, simile, poetry, symbol, parallelism. {9} Beyond these obvious conventions, more and more interpreters see the need to pay attention to literary types, or genres, in their analysis of biblical texts, in the conviction that literary form cannot be divorced from literary function. A prophetic oracle, for example, does not carry the same meaning as a wisdom proverb. Nor does a parable of Jesus function in the same way as a Pauline argument.

Besides paying attention to the presence of a variety of literary conventions in the Bible, increasingly interpreters of Scripture have effectively sharpened the literary instruments of interpretation for specific application to the different kinds of biblical texts. These “instruments,” also called “criticisms,” judge the inherent character of the literary form and thereby hope to discover the specific function of particular texts. The following represents the literary criticisms currently in use in biblical analysis and interpretation.

Narrative Criticism analyzes a narrative text for such factors as plot, characterization, narrator, implied reader, implied author, point of view, theme, repetition, and foreshadowing. Narrative analysis works effectively with texts where a narrative structure is self-evident, as in numerous instances in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels and Acts of the New Testament. In 1983, for example, R. Alan Culpepper published a thoroughgoing narrative analysis of the Fourth Gospel, which effectively set the stage for other analyses of that Gospel along similar lines. 27

Structure Analysis of biblical literature builds on the insights of other disciplines, particularly anthropology and sociology. Structuralists believe that language, including literary language, has a “deep” structure underlying the surface design of plot, characterization, and the like. A. J. Greimas, a French linguist, drew attention to “actants” within the narrative structure of texts in which oppositions are mediated or resolved. All narrative texts contain six actants, according to Greimas: Sender>Object>Receiver / Helper>Subject < > Opponent. This perceived structure of opposition in narrative language led French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to view the element of opposition as “paradigmatic.” Biblical scholars have since applied both “actantial” and “paradigmatic” analyses to the narrative texts of the Bible, particularly to the parables of the Synoptic Gospels. 28 One of the principal proponents of structural analysis in biblical interpretation is Daniel Patte, whose application of the approach to the whole Gospel of Matthew is exemplary. 29

Reader-Response Analysis, as the term implies, focuses on the kinds of responses a text evokes in different communities of readers at different times. The meaning of a text is not bound to its first readers, but is ever open to new responses in new communities. Reader-response theory, at the {10} extreme, disregards the need for historical background of a text ot the recovery of the author’s intention. The text presents its own world of meaning to the minds of a reading community, affecting its readers through the shape of the text-world in dynamic interaction with the readers’ own world. Proponents of this literary school make no apology for the inevitable multiplicity of meanings a given text can present. Such multiplicity of meaning, so it is said, fills in gaps left by rigid historical interpretations 30 and expands the limited paradigm of structuralism. In this respect, moreover, reader-response theories are justly called poststructuralist.

Speech-Act Analysis, closely aligned with the reader-response approach, builds on the analytical thought of J. L. Austin. 31 Austin considered linguistic utterance to have a performative force beyond its assertive function. Speech is not something other than act; it is act and can be defined as act. That is, a speech-form accomplishes some outcome, affects the mind and life of the hearer/reader. Biblical scholars developed and refined Austin’s theory in relation to texts of Scripture. 32 Speech-act analysis of biblical texts emphasizes the performative power of the text, but only as the text acts upon the thought world of the reader or hearer. The moment of action (reading/hearing) is also the moment of meaning. Texts as texts have no single inherent meaning apart from the act of reading the text-form. The result, as in other reader-response approaches, is an openness to multiple meanings.

One of the sharpest critiques of recent literary approaches to the interpretation of Scripture comes from New Testament scholar Ben F. Meyer in his chapter on “the primacy of the intended sense of texts.” In that chapter he decries the “flight from interpretation on the part of literary critics” as indicative of “cultural crisis and confusion.” Meyer then holds out a challenge to biblical scholars and theologians “to articulate a critically grounded hermeneutics open and committed on the one hand to history and the intended sense of the text, and on the other to the transcendent intelligibility and unity of the mystery of salvation.” 33

Rhetorical Criticism, clearly within the field of literary analysis, is nevertheless distinct from the subdisciplines outlined above, insofar as it seeks to discover how the rhetorical structure of texts relates to the rhetorical schools at the time of writing. In this respect, rhetorical criticism employs the canons of historical criticism to carry out the literary analysis. G. A. Kennedy discusses the appropriateness of using the Greco-Roman theories of rhetoric to understand the persuasive impact of texts on their readers. 34 Rhetorical criticism applies particularly (not exclusively) to arguments such as those in the letters of Paul, in that arguments seek to win the confidence of the readers and persuade them according to the rules {11} of rhetoric to think and act in line with the message of the text. And nowhere is the approach better illustrated than in the commentaries of Hans Dieter Betz on Galatians and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. 35

An Integrated Approach?

W. Randolph Tate proposes “an integrated approach to meaning,” 36 by which he hopes to merge author-centered, text-centered, and reader-centered approaches for the effective recovery and appropriation of meaning from Scripture. “Meaning results from conversation between the world of the text and the world of the reader,” writes Tate, “a conversation informed by the world of the author.” 37 While the intent of the so-called integrated approach is worthy, the theoretical result appears to be more eclectic than integrated, and thus is not as comprehensively useful as Tate assumes.

Texts, ancient or modern, carry meaning commensurate with their form. When people read an advertisement in a newspaper, they do not expect to experience the thought and emotion carried in the editorial column. So it is with the Bible. A reading of Proverbs cannot evoke the same sense as a reading of Paul’s argument about Adam and Christ in Romans 5. Neither can a reading of Psalm 23 evoke the same response as a reading of Revelation 20. A reader’s investigation of a text is governed by the language and form of the text. The text raises its own questions in the mind of its reader: in one text, questions of history, in another questions of rhetoric, in another questions of culture, in another questions of opposition. Attentive reading raises interpretive questions, which in turn point to meaningful answers. Texts carry a meaningful sense by virtue of their linguistic structure. Readers incarnate meaning in their beings, in their reading and re-reading, in their question and answer, in their apprehension and self-correction. Biblical interpretation is meaning meeting meaning, life meeting life, in a spiral of never-ending experiment in human transformation.


  1. For a fuller introduction to the subject of contemporary biblical hermeneutics, see William E. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993); Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991); and Robert Morgan with John Barton, Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: University Press, 1988). On the history of Christian interpretation, see R. M. Grant and D. Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
  2. Rudolf Bultmann, Essays Philosophical and Theological (SCM Press, 1955): 153. Translated from Glauben and Verstehen vol. II by James C. G. Greig. {12}
  3. Ibid., “Modern Biblical Interpretation and Existential Philosophy,” Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958): 45.
  4. Ibid., p. 48.
  5. Ibid., p. 49.
  6. Ibid., p. 50.
  7. Ibid., p. 51.
  8. Ibid., p. 53.
  9. Hans-Georg Gadmer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1979): 431. Translated from Wahrheit and Methode (1965) by William Glen-Doepel.
  10. Ibid., p. 217.
  11. Ibid., p. 414-431.
  12. Ibid., p. 346.
  13. Ibid., p. 347.
  14. Ibid., p. 398.
  15. Ibid., p. 401.
  16. Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972): 4-5.
  17. Ibid., p. 19-20.
  18. Ibid., p. 25.
  19. See William W. Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993): 43.
  20. Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973): 1, 1-5.
  21. Gustavo Gutierrez, considered one of the principal architects of Liberation Theology, has written a benchmark volume on the subject, A Theology of Liberation, second edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988).
  22. One of the foremost representatives of feminist interpretation is Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, represented in her work of the early 1980s, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983).
  23. Richard L. Rohrbaugh (1978); Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World, Norman R. Peterson (1985); Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, Gerd Theissen (1977/1978); Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology, Gerd Theissen (1987); The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce J. Malina (1981).
  24. David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1988): 30.
  25. B. J. Malina and R. L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
  26. For example, noted critic of English literature Northrop Frye wrote a volume on the literary structure of the Christian Bible under the title, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press, 1982). {13}
  27. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983). See also Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985).
  28. Using the actantial/paradigmatic methodology of anthropological structuralism, Robert W. Funk analyzed the principal narrative parables of the Synoptic Gospels in Parables and Presence: Forms of the New Testament Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982): 35-65.
  29. Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). See also Patte’s, Structural Exegesis for New Testament Critics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
  30. The work of R. M. Fowler illustrates how the approach applies to Scripture, “Who is the ‘Reader’ in Reader-Response Criticism?”, Semeia 31 (1985): 5-23.
  31. J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).
  32. Roger Lundin, Anthony C. Thistleton and Clarence Walhout, The Responsibility of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).
  33. Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and The New Testament (Allison Park: Pickwick Publications, 1989): 34. A self-confessed “crucial realist,” Meyer is a foremost interpreter of Lonergan’s philosophical hermeneutics.
  34. G. A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
  35. Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979); 2 Corinthians 8 and 9: Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).
  36. W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991): xix.
  37. Ibid., p. xx.
Dr. George Shillington is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies/Theology at Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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