Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing with fellow Christians the convictions upon which various soteriological positions rest and the foundational beliefs believers must share to come to similar theological conclusions. In my experience, most Christians don’t often verbalize these foundational beliefs that shape their thought processes. Consequently, I believe a discussion of pre-hermeneutics, will prove useful. We will define pre-hermeneutics, give an example of a pre-hermeneutic and the hermeneutics that follow, see how Scripture should refine our hermeneutics, and discuss the possibility of a prime pre-hermeneutic.
How then are we to define these pre-hermeneutics to which I refer? Put simply, every Christian has beliefs he holds to be true in and of itself, axiomatic beliefs, that are taken to the reading of Scripture and impact conclusions drawn. I like to call these axiomatic beliefs pre-hermeneutics; as in, these are convictions that precede and impact our utilization of standard hermeneutics.
What is an example of a pre-hermeneutic? For the sake of discussion, let’s get into the mind of a reformed Christian who holds to the “solas” produced in the Protestant Reformation. Before this Christian even opens the pages of Scripture, to interpret it in light of historical, contextual, grammatical, and genre-guided hermeneutics, he already has a foundational belief he is embracing. Namely, he is assuming without question that because Scripture was written as human literature with human language, it can be interpreted with the considerations normally taken to literature. Namely, Scripture can be interpreted using the normal rules of grammar inherit to the language it was written in, and it can be better understood in light of the historical and contextual circumstances surrounding its writing. If a Christian didn’t have this axiomatic conviction, but rather believed Scripture to be written in some divine, unintelligible language, he would have no confidence in trying to understand what he was reading. I hope this makes apparent that despite our admirable attempts to not bring presumptions into reading God’s Word, lest we bias our interpretation, all Christians have a pre-hermeneutic bearing in their minds. Those conclusions stemming from the prior stated pre-hermeneutic sound very similar to our historical, contextual, grammatical, and genre-guided hermeneutics we take to the Bible. Honestly, that’s because those hermeneutics aren’t some mystical principles someone pulled out of thin air, but are rather logical consequences of reading human literature.
After coming to Scripture with our pre-hermeneutic in tow, our hermeneutics often naturally flow from it. We then should verify the rightness of our hermeneutics from Scripture itself. For example, we read in Second Timothy:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
These verses inform our view of Scripture as having one diving author; therefore, his Word has a unified meaning and any potential discrepancies can be resolved in light of the broader context of Scripture. This reinforces our contextual hermeneutic. We read in Matthew:
“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, 'Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.' But he answered them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.'" – Matthew 12:38-40
Here we see Jesus interpret the historical account of Jonah as not being symbolic, but rather historical, as the book of Jonah was a historical narrative. He discussed “days” and “nights” as real, commonly experienced days and nights. This reinforces our historical and genre guided hermeneutics. We read in Second Peter:
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” – 2 Peter 3:15-16
Here, we read Peter encouraging his audience in the reading of the Scripture letters Paul writes. Note how Peter doesn’t say anything to suggest that Paul’s letters be read in a way different from how his audience would normally read letters. When we look at how Scripture references and discusses itself, it very much falls in line with how we would expect standard literature to be read, genre in mind. We can take confidence in the hermeneutics we bring to the reading of God’s Word, as the Bible itself exemplifies such principles in its own discussion of Scripture.
One final question bears consideration. Is there a foundational pre-hermeneutic that bears the most weight and informs all conclusions that follow? Perhaps we can call it the prime pre-hermeneutic. I rhetorically ask because a Christian brother I know appears to be on a quest to find such a prime pre-hermeneutic. Honestly, at this moment, I can’t say I can think of one. There are multiple pre-hermeneutics one can have, though we have just discussed one. However, I don’t think I can pinpoint one as the most important. If you yourself are on a similar quest, let me impart a few thoughts. First, as much as we can, we want our pre-hermeneutics, hermeneutics, convictions, and beliefs to either come from Scripture or be supported by Scripture. Even though we can’t entirely remove the human component from Biblical interpretation, as the Bible was written as literature, we should strive to minimize our influence and maximize the influence of Scripture. Beliefs that account for most or all of Scripture should be embraced over beliefs that minimize or ignore parts of Scripture. Likewise, pre-hermeneutics and hermeneutics that are supported by the Biblical example should be embraced over hermeneutics that just feel right to an individual. Secondly, we must be careful not to make human logic our final determiner of a prime pre-hermeneutic. If a Christian concludes that one pre-hermeneutic in particular is the prime one on the basis of human reasoning and not Biblical support or example, he has just given his mind more weight than God’s Word.
I hope this discussion of pre-hermeneutics has proven insightful. Let us strive to be aware of and refine them in light of Biblical support. Let us always value the testimony of Scripture over the reasoning of human logic in shaping our beliefs.