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Bernard Ramm's Protestant Biblical Hermeneutics, published in 1956, attracted a broad spectrum of Bible readers and set the tone of biblical interpretation for a whole generation of evangelical students. An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics could have a similar role for this generation at the end of the twentieth century. Almost every assumption that Ramm made has been challenged and tested by the winds of modernity and post-modernity. The severity of the changes from earlier patterns of thinking is reflected in the subtitle to this book, The Search for Meaning. This book is distinctive from others on hermeneutics in that the authors, rather than writing from a single viewpoint, hold differing opinions on many issues. There are more areas where they agree than disagree, including the authority of Scripture and the primacy of authorial meaning; but where they disagree is precisely where the issues are most crucial for the future. So the readers are invited , in effect, to eavesdrop on a vibrant dialogue between two scholars and to reach their own conclusions. Despite the convivial tone, the readers must not mistake how great the stakes are. In a culture that prizes individuality and personal freedom, the primary question is no longer 'Is it true?' but rather 'Does it matter?' hence the question of relevancy has taken precedence over the questions 'What does the text mean?' This book therefore confronts the question of meaning and shows how evangelicals may still clearly hear the Word from God amid the cacophony of the age.
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Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (PhD, Brandeis University) is distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Dr. Kaiser has written over 40 books, including Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching; The Messiah in the Old Testament; and The Promise-Plan of God; and coauthored An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Dr. Kaiser and his wife, Marge, currently reside at Kerith Farm in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Dr. Kaiser's website is www.walterckaiserjr.com. SPANISH BIO: Walter C. Kaiser, (hijo) (Ph.D., Brandeis University) es profesor distinguido de Antiguo Testamento en el Seminario Teologico de Gordon-Conwell.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PART 1 The Search for Meaning: Initial Directions The very use of the term hermeneutics raises an important question: Why should Bible readers be expected to study principles of interpretation? In spite of what our day-to-day experience may suggest, the process involved in understanding a text is quite complicated. The difficulties surface especially when we try to read a book produced in a different culture or time, as some examples from Shakespeare can make clear. In the case of ancient documents written in other languages, we need to make a special effort to take into account their original setting through a method known as grammatico-historical exegesis. As a whole, the Bible is a fairly clear book to read, and it is helpful to specify in what areas the difficulties arise: language? literary style? application? Moreover, the divine character of Scripture suggests that we need to adopt some special principles that would not be relevant to the study of other writings. CHAPTER 1 Who Needs Hermeneutics Anyway? The term hermeneutics (as well as its more ambiguous and even mysterious cousin, hermeneutic) has become increasingly popular in recent decades. As a result, it has been pulled and stretched every which way. With so many writers using the word, it seems to behave as a moving target, and some readers have been known to suffer attacks of anxiety as they seek, in vain, to pin it down and figure out what it means. Its traditional meaning is relatively simple: the discipline that deals with principles of interpretation. Some writers like to call it the science of interpretation; others prefer to speak of the art of interpretation (perhaps with the implication, 'Either you've got it or you don't!'). Apart from such differences of perspective, the basic concern of hermeneutics is plain enough. It remains to be added, however, that when writers use the word, most frequently what they have in mind is biblical interpretation. Even when some other text is being discussed, the Bible likely lurks in the background. This last observation raises an interesting question. Why should such a discipline be needed at all? We never had to take a class on 'How to Interpret the Newspaper.' No high school offers a course on 'The Hermeneutics of Conversation.' For that matter, even with regard to courses on Shakespeare or Homer, which certainly deal with the interpretation of literature, no hermeneutics prerequisite is ever listed. Why then are we told, all of a sudden in our academic training, that we need to become proficient in an exotic-sounding science if we want to understand the Bible? One possible answer that may occur to us is that the Bible is a divine book, and so we require special training to understand it. But this solution simply will not work. As a Roman Catholic scholar has expressed it: 'If anyone is able to speak in an absolutely unambiguous fashion and to make himself understood with irresistible efficacy, such a one is God; therefore, if there is any word that might not require a hermeneutics, it would be the divine word.' Protestants, for that matter, have always emphasized the doctrine of the perspicuity or clarity of the Scriptures. The Bible itself tells us that the essential prerequisite for understanding the things of God is having the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11), and that the Christian, having received the anointing of the Spirit, does not even need a teacher (1 John 2:27). It turns out, in fact, that we need hermeneutics not precisely because the Bible is a divine book but because, in addition to being divine, it is a human book. Strange though that may sound, such a way of looking at our problem can put us on the right track. Human language, by its very nature, is largely equivocal, that is, capable of being understood in more than one way. If it were not so, we would never doubt what people mean when they speak; if utterances could signify only one thing, we would hardly ever hear disputes about whether Johnny said this or that. In practice, to be sure, the number of words or sentences that create misunderstandings is a very small proportion of the total utterances by a given individual in a given day. What we need to appreciate, however, is that the potential for misinterpretation is almost always there. To put it differently, we do need hermeneutics for texts other than the Bible. Indeed, we need principles of interpretation to understand trivial conversations and even nonlinguistic events---after all, the failure to understand someone's wink of the eye could spell disaster in certain circumstances. But then we are back to our original question. Why were we not required to take hermeneutics in second grade? Why is it that, in spite of that gap in our education, we almost always understand what our neighbor tells us? The simple answer is that we have been taught hermeneutics all our lives, even from the day we were born. It may well be that the most important things we learn are those that we learn unconsciously. In short, as you begin a course in hermeneutics, you may be assured that you already know quite well the most basic principles of interpretation. Every time you read the newspaper or hear a story or analyze an event, you prove yourself to be a master in the art of hermeneutics! That is perhaps a dangerous thing to say. You may be tempted to close this 'useless' book immediately and return it to the bookstore, hoping to get your money back. Yet the point needs to be made and emphasized. Other than enjoying a right relationship with God, the most fundamental principle of biblical interpretation consists in putting into practice what we do unconsciously every day of our lives. Hermeneutics is not primarily a question of learning difficult techniques. Specialized training has its place, but it is really quite secondary. What matters, we might say, is learning to 'transpose' our customary interpretive routines to our reading of the Bible. Yet there precisely is where our problems begin. For one thing, we must not think that what we do every day is all that simple. Before you could read a magazine, for example, you had to learn English. Do you think that's easy? Ask any foreigner who tried to learn English after adolescence. Remarkably, you went through that difficult and complicated process with outstanding success in the first few years of your life. By the time you were four or five, you---and every other human being not physically impaired---had already mastered hundreds and hundreds of phonological and grammatical rules. True, your vocabulary was rather limited, but learning vocabulary is the easiest part of language acquisition.
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