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A Research Paper for Missiological Hermeneutics


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TOWARD MISSIOLOGICAL APPROACH TO HERMENEUTICS

        Hermeneutics is, as James E. Massy defines it, "that science or methodology by which the meaning in a text is sought, discovered, and then related and applied to one’s own cultural context and life-setting" (1993:360).  The focus is first upon seeing and understanding the author's intended meaning.  Once understood, that meaning is to be expressed and applied to teaching or proclamation.  This is especially true with the interpretation of the Bible.  The Scripture verse is interpreted to be communicated or proclaimed to an audience.  In this, we see a missiological implication in the task of hermeneutics.

Issues in Hermeneutics for Proclamation

        In our discussions of hermeneutics for proclamation, one needs to identify the horizons in interpretation.  Another issue is the tension between the scientific theology and church proclamation.

The Three Horizons

        In studying hermeneutics for proclamation, we will first need to note that there are three horizons in Bible interpretation.[1]   Let us note first what Thiselton has to say as a biblical theologian. While traditional hermeneutics began with the recognition that a text was conditioned by a given historical context, Thiselton maintains that historical conditioning is two-sided: the modern interpreter, no less than the text, stands in a given historical context and tradition (1980:11).

        The nature of the hermeneutical problem is shaped by the fact that both the text and the interpreter are conditioned by their given place in history.  For understanding to take place, two sets of variable must be brought into relation with each other.  As he argues, “Understanding takes place when two sets of horizons are brought into relation to each other, namely those of the text and those of the interpreter” (Thiselton 1980:103). Thiselton employs the phrase, ‘The Two Horizons’ to denote this hermeneutical concept.

        But in our consideration of ‘hermeneutics for proclamation,’ there is still the third horizon, namely, the horizon of the audience.  The preacher must study and interpret the biblical text. The preacher, however, also needs to understand the modern audience. Merrill R. Abbey depicts the problem of the modern hearer:

    Preaching encodes its message truly only after it has carefully decoded what has come to us through the Biblical documents.  Here is the problem of the modern hearer.  For the Biblical message was not only encoded in ancient languages that must be translated; its encoding occurred in a culture so unlike ours that, even when its words are accurately translated into the modern vernacular; its customs, worldview, and axiomatic assumptions are after all but impenetrable for modern men.  To decode the message so that across this cultural chasm we comprehend, what the ancient writers were saying, and then to, encode that intended meaning in imagery that can accurately convey it to men immersed in contemporary culture, is the formidable assignment of the preacher (1973:99-100).  

He goes on to remark that the interpreter " is not a reporter of history, repeating what the text said; he is a contemporary messenger, proclaiming in the symbols of his time what the text proclaimed in the image of another day” (1973:100).

The Tensions

        Gerhard Ebeling had raised the issue of tension between theology and proclamation.  For Karl Barth this hermeneutic tension lies between the profundity of gospel message and the simplicity of preaching.[2]  For Ian Pitt-Watson, the problem is the tension between 'the original meaning of the text' and 'the meaning which are possible within our present culture' (1978:51-63).

Ebeling’s Hermeneutics: Word Event

In his work, Gerhard Ebeling attempts to clarify the nature of the problems which interrupts the unity of theology and proclamation.  Theological hermeneutic, he says, should not be separated with the task of proclamation

        For Ebeling, the hermeneutical problem consists in the connection between 'exposition of the text as proclamation that has taken place' and 'the implementation of the text in proclamation in the present.'  He employs the concept of existentialist interpretation to characterize this fundamental hermeneutical problem.  He discusses it:

Now existence is through Word and in Word.  Then existentialist interpretation would mean interpretation of the text with regard to the word event.  There lies the decisive starting point from which to direct historical exposition of its task, and precisely in so doing to gain criteria for the inner connection between text and sermon (1964:109).

        Ebeling characterizes the process from text to sermon as: 'Proclamation that has taken place is to become proclamation that takes place.'  This translation from text to sermon is a transition from Scripture to the spoken word.  This task consists in making what is written into spoken word---in letting the text become God’s word again.  That does not normally happen through recitation.  Here rises a question of interpreting the text as word (:107).

       James M. Robinson depicts ‘word event’ in Ebeling’s hermeneutics:

The text is not there for its own sake, but rather for the sake of the word event that is the origin and hence also the future of the text.  Word event is the event of interpretation taking place through the word.  Hence the text is there for the sake of the event of interpretation, which is the text’s origin and future…. What happens in the word event can thus be called interpretation, since it is the essence of word to clarify what is obscure, to bring light into darkness…(1964:68).

This movement from the text to the sermon is a hermeneutical process.  It comes within the scope of the hermeneutical problem as posed by the text.  The problem of theological hermeneutic would not be grasped without the inclusion of the task of proclamation (Ebeling 1964:107).  

        Thus, Ebeling views sermon as proclamation in the present.  The sermon as a sermon is not exposition of the text as past proclamation, but is itself proclamation in the present.  That means that the sermon is 'execution' (or implementation) of the text.  It carries into execution the aim of the text.  It is proclamation of what the text has proclaimed.  And with that the hermeneutical sense of direction is, so to speak, reversed.  The text by means of the sermon becomes a hermeneutical aid in the understanding of present experience.  Where that happens radically, there true word is uttered, and that means God's word (:109).

       

A Missiological Approach Toward Hermeneutics

        During the last two decades there have been notorious awareness for hermeneutical approach to the missionary tasks in today’s world.

A Review of Recent Hermeneutical Approach

        Grant R. Osborne and David S. Dockery are among those theologians who have shown their missiological awareness in their recent hermeneutic works. 

Relevance to the Contemporary Context

        Dockery suggests that textual inquiry should begin with the questions: “What is the author’s historical situation?” and “What is the cultural context out of which the author wrote?”  He believes that interpretation is the most important step in seeking the textual meaning from an author-oriented perspective.  The question to be asked is, therefore, What did the text mean in its historical setting to the initial readers?  It will help to ask the why question—Why was it written this way (1994:51-52).

        What follows interpretation is to determine the theological significance of the passage by posing the questions: (1) What does the text mean to contemporary readers?  (2) What cultural factors need to be contextualized or retranslated?

        John Stott asserts that the preacher is both a man of biblical and modern world. By this, he indicates that one must take account into the horizon of the contemporary audience in hermeneutic process for preaching. On this ground he makes a point that biblical and theological studies do not by themselves make for good preaching.  He discusses it: "They [Biblical and theological studies] are indispensable.  But unless they are supplemented by contemporary studies, they can keep us disastrously isolated on one side of the cultural chasm.  We need, then, to study on both sides of the divide" (1982:190-191). 

        Recently, Charles Van Engen notes Lesslie Newbigin's observation (1986; 1989) that Western culture's preoccupation with the origin of the created order and human civilization brought with it a degree of blindness to question of purpose, design, and intention.  Identifying the similar pattern in the area of biblical scholarship, Van Engen remarks: "To a large extent, biblical scholars have followed the same path in their examination of the biblical text.  With notable exceptions, their analysis of Scripture has seldom asked the missiological question regarding God's intention and purpose" (1996:35-36).

        Van Engen pointedly expresses his view that missiologists are in need of a hermeneutical method in order to deal with the whole Scripture as a diverse unity.  Affirming that we cannot have mission without the Bible, nor can we understand the Bible apart from God's mission, he discusses:

Yet the missio Dei [God's mission] happens in specific places and times in our contexts.  Its content, validity, and meaning are derived from Scripture, yet its action, significance, and transforming power happen in our midst.  Even when we affirm that we will take the whole of Scripture seriously, we still need a way to link the numerous contexts of the Bible with the here and now of our mission endeavor today (1996:37).

         Van Engen recognizes David Bosch’s “critical hermeneutics” as being a major contribution toward hermeneutical approach to missiology (1996:39).  Bosch’s work was a response to the theory of paradigm construction that Hans Küng and David Tracy (1989) adapted from the philosophy of science.  He maintains that self-definitions are offered in the biblical text as well as in our modern contexts.  Accordingly, his hermeneutic approach is “an interaction between the self-definition of early Christian authors and actors and the self-definition of today’s believers who wish to be inspired and guided by the early witnesses” (1991:23). 

        The strength of Bosch’s hermeneutic approach is its relevancy to contemporary context as Van Engen puts it: “This in turn would move us to reread the biblical text, incorporating the newer sociological analysis, then going beyond to a series of self-definitions of mission for today’s contexts” (1996:40).  The challenge of mission theology for Bosch is to relate “the always-relevant Jesus event of twentieth century ago to the future of God’s promised reign by means of meaningful initiatives for the hear and now…(1991:23-24).

        Although Van Engen recognizes Bosch’s major contribution in his comprehensivedescription of the “missionary paradigm” of Matthew, Luke and Paul, he sees that a further work still needs to be done as to what is the coherence or consistency between paradigms.  In the end of his book Transforming Mission, Bosch suggests a hosts of “elements of an emerging ecumenical mission paradigm.”  But his work still leaves us the need to construct it.  On this background Van Engen suggests his hermeneutical model (1996:40).

        One illustration of Van Engen’s hermeneutical method is “a tapestry of God’s action in the world”—viz. “a tapestry of missional motifs in context.”  His method approaches Scripture from the perspective of a number of themes and subthemes (or motifs) of God’s action in the world.  For instance, the themes (such as Kinhsip, refugees, peasant, industrial, displaced, and conquered) can be viewed from the perspective of missionary motifs (such as God’s universal love of all peoples, dispersion of refugees, and light to the Gentiles).  This method provides the interaction of both perspective “from above” and “from below.”  The themes are from above because they are the action of God in history.  They are also from below because they occur in the midst of human history in the context of the lives of men and women (1996:40-41).

The Task of Hermeneutics for Proclamation

        Haddon W. Robinson delineates the place of hermeneutics for proclamation.  Homiletics deals with the construction and communication of sermons.  It involves the question: “How do I get the message across?”  Hence, the preacher as a communicator may borrow from rhetoric, the social science, and communication theories. Yet for the content of preaching, he must also ask the hermeneutic question: “How do I get the message?” (1982)

        On the other hand, René Padilla makes it clear that the main task of hermeneutics is to address the issue, “How do I get the message across?”   What Padilla has to say, however, does not contradict with Robinson’s view.   They are simply speaking of different realms of hermeneutic tasks.  One is speaking of hermeneutics for Bible interpretation, while the other of hermeneutics for cross-cultural communication of the gospel.[3]

        For Padilla, cross-cultural hermeneutics is is highly required when preaching across cultures.  He admonishes against the attempt to evangelize without seriously facing the hermeneutical task.  He comments, “Western missionaries have often assumed that their task is simply to extract the message directly from the biblical text and transmit it to their hearers in the “mission field” with no consideration of the role of the historical context in the whole interpretive process” (1981:23).

Padilla’s Contextual Hermeneutics

        Combining the strengths of the intuitive and scientific methods, the contextual approach recognizes both the role of the ancient world in shaping the original text and the role of today’s world in conditioning the way contemporary readers are likely to “hear” and understand the text (Padilla 1981:18).  This approach seeks the answer for the question: “How can the chasm between the past and the present be bridged?”  It, therefore, seeks to interpret both the context of the ancient text and the context of the modern reader (19).  Padilla expresses this concept in diagram 1.

Padilla's Contextual Approach to Bible Interpretation

Diagram 1.  Padilla's Contextual Approach to Bible Interpretation.
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        The interpretive process is not a simple one-way process.  For whenever interpreters approach a particular biblical text they can do so only from their own perspective.  This gives rise to a complex, dynamic two-way interpretive process depicted as a “hermeneutical circle,” in which interpreters and text are mutually engaged (Padilla 1981:20).

        The aim of the interpretative process is the transformation of the people of God within their concrete situation.  Now a change in the situation of the interpreters (including their culture) brings about a change in their comprehension of Scripture, while a change in their comprehension of Scripture in turn reverberates in their situation.  Thus, the contextual approach to the interpretation of Scripture involves a dialogue between the historical situation and Scripture, a dialogue in which the interpreters approach Scripture with a particular perspective (their world-and-life view) and approach their situation with a particular comprehension of the Word of God (their theology). Padilla indicates this dialogue as hermeneutical circle in the diagram below (1981:22).

Padilla's Hermeneutical Circle.
Diagram 2.  Padilla's Hermeneutical Circle.
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Multi-faced Exegetical Method

        The work of Leonora Tubbs Tisdale (1997) reflects the recent awareness of missiological understaning of preaching by a homiletician.  Her cross-cultural ministry experiences in Korea, and in rural and Urban areas in America, has helped her to understand preaching as a cross-cultural communication.  A preacher needs to be sensitive to the peculiar subculture of his or her audience.  She believes that theology needs to be contextualized for local congregation.  She then boldly states preaching as folk art.  What she suggests by that is that preaching may needs different modes depends on the subcultures of the audience.  While one group of the audience can be reached by the good logic of preaching, the other group will be more responsive to the relevant stories that touch their heart and emotion.  In order to address these communication issues she presents to us the ‘holistic preaching’ model.  This idea, in turn, leads to her discussion for a multi-faced exegetical method.  She discusses it: "Holistic preaching requires a multi-facet exegetical method.  Just as no single approach is adequate for interpreting biblical texts, so no single method is sufficient when it comes to interpreting living bodies as complex, dynamic, and multidimensional as local congregations" (1997:57).

         Tisdale takes a step further and even describes the pastor as ethnographer.  She believes that if preachers are to achieve the theological contextualization and effect in our sermons a fresh hearing of the gospel for a particular people, then, it is essential that we engage in interpretive activities that not only give access to the worlds revealed in biblical texts, but also give access to the subcultural worlds in which our congregations live (59-60).

        According to Charles Fabor,  what we have discussed above involves a two-directional task of hermeneutical translation.  The human mediator of the message must understand the Scripture itself and translate it into appropriate terms in the receptor culture and also understand the culture (a hermeneutical task) and translate it back into categories which he can compare with Scripture (1978:7-8).

        When Lesslie Newbigin presents ‘the New Testament model of gospel communication,’ he implies the need to read and interpret the Biblical text from the perspective of the receptor’s culture.  He believes that “the movement of the gospel from its origin in the cultural world of Judaism to its articulation in the language and practice of Greek-speaking Gentile communities” in the New Testament provides us with the model of gospel communication across a cultural frontier.  Expounding the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts, he declares, “The communication has to be in the language of the receptor culture.  It has to be such that it accepts, at least provisionally, the way of understanding things that is embodied in that language” (1986:4-6). 

Respecting the Particularity of the Text

        Anthony Thiselton introduces the observation of James Barr to demonstrate the need to respect the particularity of the text, who points out that many of the standard reference works in biblical studies tend to encourage the method of arriving at conclusions about meaning on the basis of etymology.  The very arrangement of the Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs adds fuel to the fire, and some of the articles in Kittels’ Theological Dictionary of the New Testament comes for criticism on the basis.  What Barr insists is that “The etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning, but about its history.” [4]

The English word “nice” is a typical example.  Etymologically, it comes from nercius, ignortant.  But no one would claims that “a nice doctor” literally meant “ an ignorant doctor” (1979:125-128).

        Eugine A. Nida demonstrates the particularity of meaning, for example, as in “green house.”  Green may denote a color, a lack of experience (he is green at the job), and unripe (green fruits) and house may indicate a dwelling, a lineage (the house of David), and a legislation body.  But in combination green house the meaning of both green and house are restricted to only one of each of these meanings.  Nida concludes, “Words do not carry with them all the meanings which they may have in other sets of co-occurrences” (1972:86).

        Thiselton asserts, “The interpreter of the New Testament must respect distinctive particularity of meaning conveyed by individual passage, and resist the temptation to interpret them wholly in the light of pre-understanding already decisively shaped by the interpretation of other passages" (1979:128).
 

Conclusion

        Among the recent missiological contribution to hermeneutics this study highlights Charles Van Engen's “a tapestry of God’s action in the world”—viz. “a tapestry of missional motifs in context.”  His method approaches Scripture from the perspective of a number of themes and subthemes (or motifs) of God’s action in the world.  For instance, the themes (such as Kinhsip, refugees, peasant, industrial, displaced, and conquered) can be viewed from the perspective of missionary motifs (such as God’s universal love of all peoples, dispersion of refugees, and light to the Gentiles).

        The interpreter of the New Testament must respect distinctive particularity of meaning conveyed by individual passage, and resist the temptation to interpret them wholly in the light of pre-understanding already decisively shaped by the interpretation of other passages.

        Missiological approach to hermeneutics seeks for the relevance of the biblical message to contemporary context.  Even when we affirm that we will take the whole of Scripture seriously, we still need a way to link the numerous contexts of the Bible with the here and now of our mission endeavor today.  For this, we need an interaction between the self-definition of early Christian authors and actors and the self-definition of today’s believers who wish to be inspired and guided by the early witnesses.  Applying this to preaching, if preachers are to achieve the theological contextualization and effect in our sermons a fresh hearing of the gospel for a particular people, then, it is essential that we engage in interpretive activities that not only give access to the worlds revealed in biblical texts, but also give access to the subcultural worlds in which our congregations live.  

        In summary, there are three key principles of Bible interpretation from the missiological approach to hermeneutics.  They are:  (1) Contextual principle of the Bible interpretation.  Read the biblical text from the perspective of the whole context and find a tapestry of missional motifs in context.  (2) Respecting the particularity of the text.  Respect distinctive particularity of meaning conveyed by individual passage.  (3) The relevance of the biblical message to contemporary context.  Seek to link the numerous contexts of the Bible with the here and now of our mission endeavor today.

[1] By the term, "two horizons," Anthony C. Thiselton indicates the horizon of the original writer who formulated what he had to say out of a particular historical and intellectual context, and that of the contemporary interpreters, who also have a field of vision in which they respond to what they read.  But it is probable that there are “two horizons” if we understand the goal of Bible interpretation as missionary proclamation. Although Thiselton does not address the issue, the Bible interpreter as a missionary preacher would need to penetrate the worldview of his or her audience.

[2] For illustration of this tension, see Barth 1957:100-101.

[3] In this case, mission theologians are using the term ‘hermeneutics’ in a broader sense than biblical theologians do.

 [4] See James Barr, The Semantic of Biblical Language. (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1961), p. 109.

  © This article is originally an excerpt from Dae Ryeong Kim's paper, "Hermeneutics for Missionary Preaching."

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