Hermeneutics (from the Greek Hermes, the interpreter and messenger of the Gods) explores how we read, handle and understand texts, especially those written at another time or in another language through the application of axioms, ways of thinking, horizons of understanding or any other consistent forms of logic or grammar to expound the meaning of the text. Biblical hermeneutics applies these same techniques to the Bible but many Christians believe that a genuine Christian hermeneutic requires that the expounder must bring Christian faith to his/her understanding of the text, i.e. that it is God's word inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, the Jews developed a hermeneutic for understanding their texts (our Old Testament) but Christianity's methodology, though often parallel, was not symbiotic. The early Christian church was primarily concerned in the first instance with how far the Bible was to be taken literally and how far allegorically, the former approach being championed in Antioch (geographically close to Galilee) and the latter by Alexandria  where Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215) made the Bible an a massive and complex set of secret code but this trend was strongly resisted by John Chrysostom (c. 349–407). Jerome (c. 347–420) always started with the literal before moving to any spiritual understanding. Jerome, aware of many literary traditions, began the study of text origin and authenticity and Theodore of Mpsuestia 'discovered' that some Psalms were written in the Maccabean era.

The Medieval framework of Origen (184/5–253/4), Saint Augustine (354–430) and Pope Gregory the Great propounded four axioms:

or, respectively:

The Middle Ages respected the literal and the allegorical but the rise of universities, the invention of printing and the influence of Renaissance scholarship began to tilt towards the literal and raised such issues as discrepancy, the relevance of Scripture to doctrine and pastoral practice.

Strangely, for a movement which largely believed in Sola scriptura - everything necessary for faith is contained in Scripture - the Reformation is weak on hermeneutical analysis but it veered heavily towards the literal.

The first great turning point came with Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who defined hermeneutics not as "rules of interpretation" but as "The art of understanding". Romanticism gave him a notion of the "male comparative" and  the female "divinatory". He sought to marry Protestant theology with the 'enlightenment' by saying that hermeneutics exists to create not support understanding: we must understand the author's way of thinking and acknowledge what a text does to us; hermeneutics is the reverse of composition, so interpretation is what is common between author and reader. Dilthey (1833-1911) extended hermeneutics to law, sociology and other sciences.

The second great development in hermeneutics came with Gadamer (1900-2002) who reacted against the Cartesian notion of value neutral which was good for empirical science but not for understanding which is always historical, temporal and provisional; it is not schematic but frequently deals with "matters arising"; life is not value neutral. Like Wittgenstein (1889–1951), he says: "... it is not that man cannot abstract, but this is not the way to reach the heart of meaning and truth; ... being and truth cannot be approached in terms of objectification and generalisation." Unlike Descartes who saw the objectified world "out there", he says that the world is constructed by humanity in time. Calling on Vico's (1668-1744) idea that language changes its meaning through time, he saw that language statements had different, often multiple and complex purposes. Hermeneutics begins with art and history; encounter with art is encounter with an unfinished event as the encounter is part  of the history. Science is prejudiced against time: "... history does not belong to us, we belong to it. ... the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of being". We must find the right questions to ask of a text; the horizons of the past and present are diachronic; application is the key issue.

The third great development came with Paul Ricoeur (1913 –2005). Hermeneutics is: "... is animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience." He rejects the Aristotelian dichotomy between history and poetry; he rejects finding ultimate meaning in dissection; Gadamer is not sensitive enough to the notion of text creation and text reading; the core of the Bible is its narrative because that is where the "trace of God's act" is to be found; what matters is what the "text sets going".

In our own time there have been three major hermeneutical  movements:

In considering a text, then,  we might take the following steps:

There is a clear:


Partly taken from...

Thiselton, Anthony: Hermeneutics: An Introduction, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2009 ISBN 978 0 8028 6410 9 (Review)

KC VI/11