The term "hermeneutics" intimidates people. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary. The word comes from the Greek word hermeneuein, which means to explain or interpret. In the Bible it is used in John 1:42; 9:7; and Hebrews 7:2. In the ESV, Luke 24:27 reads, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (italics added). The NIV reads, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (italics added). The word translated "interpreted" and "explained" in these two versions of the Bible is the word di[h]ermēneuein. A noun formed from this verb, Hermes, was the name given to the Greek god who was the spokesman or interpreter for the other gods. This is why in Acts 14:12 we read that after Paul healed a cripple at Lystra, the people thought that the gods had come to visit them. "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker" (cf. Acts 9:36; 1 Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:5, 13, 26, 27, 28). The term "hermeneutics," which comes from these Greek words, simply describes the practice or discipline of interpretation and the rules involved. In interpreting the Bible, what are the rules governing this discipline?
In all communication three distinct components are necessary. If any one of these is lacking, communication is impossible. These three components are the author, the text, and the reader; or, as linguists prefer to say, the encoder, the code, and the decoder. And there are other ways of describing this: the sender, the message, the receiver; the speaker, the speech, the listener; and the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text. If we carry this over to the analogy of playing a game, we have the creator of the game, the game parts (pieces, cards, dice, board, etc.), and the players. Without these three elements, communication (the game) is impossible.
The main goal, or at least one of the main goals, of interpreting the Bible is to discover the meaning of the text being studied. We want to know what this text means (see the definition of "meaning" on pp. 31-33). Yet where does this meaning originate? Where does it come from? This is not self-evident. Some interpreters argue that it comes from one component, whereas others argue that it comes from another.
Some have suggested that meaning is a property of the text. It is the text that determines what a writing means. We all have probably heard a pastor say in a sermon, "Our text tells us ..." or "The Bible says ..." Yet those who argue that meaning is a property of the text mean something very different from what the pastor meant by this. They claim that a literary text is autonomous and free standing. It possesses semantic autonomy in the sense that its meaning is independent of what its author meant when he or she wrote it. After a text is written, its author loses personal control of it. What the biblical author was thinking about and sought to convey by the text is essentially irrelevant with respect to the meaning of the text. Possessing autonomy, a text has a life of its own apart from its author or its reader. As a result, reading a related work such as Galatians in order to help us understand what Paul meant when he wrote Romans is of little value, for it is the present text that is the focus of attention. Furthermore, what Paul actually intended when he wrote Romans is of little value in determining the actual meaning of the present text of Romans, because Paul's thoughts are now inaccessible apart from the text (see below, pp. 15-18). According to text-centered critics, a text should be read independently of its real or hypothetical author. It has a life of its own and possesses its own meaning(s). T. S. Eliot has argued this strongly in his article "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He insists that the focus of the interpreter's attention should be the poetry itself and not the poet and his or her experience, the present writing and not the hypothetical author.
For most pastors preaching from a book like Romans, "The Bible says ..." and "Paul means ..." are synonymous. For those who argue that the text possesses its own meaning, however, these two things are not the same. Every text is perceived as an autonomous work of art that is to be interpreted independently of its author. It is as if it never had an author and simply materialized. According to this view, when a written work becomes literature, the normal rules of communication, in which hearers seek to understand what the speaker means by his or her words and readers seek to understand what the writer of a letter meant, no longer apply. What was once a piece of communication has been transformed into a work of art. Because it is art, the original composer no longer possesses control of it; the art possesses its own meaning completely apart from its creator. If in some way Paul could appear before those who argue for the semantic autonomy of the text and say, "What I meant when I wrote this was ...," the response of many new critics would essentially be, "What you say, Paul, is interesting but quite irrelevant. Your willed meaning of the text, what you intended to communicate in your writing, and what you actually communicated are not the same. Thus your intended meaning is no more authoritative than any other person's interpretation. Furthermore, after you wrote this text you lost all claim and control over it. It has since then become common property and a work of art rather than communication." Consequently, it is illegitimate to grant any serious authorial control over the meaning of the present text. This view was very popular among the "New Critics" and dominated academic circles from the 1930s to the 1960s.
This view is also popular within the US judicial system from the Supreme Court down to the lower courts. There is less concern today to seek what the authors of the Constitution and the nation that voted for it meant by the words found in it and its subsequent amendments. Instead, the Constitution and its amendments are seen as a "living," "growing," and "changing" document. Thus what the Constitution meant only fifteen years ago can change. This does not mean that an earlier ruling of the court was wrong and that the new ruling is the correct one. Rather, it is claimed that the Constitution has changed. (See the dissent written by Justice Scalia in Roper v. Simmons 543 U.S. , p. 1.) The use of such terms as "living," "growing," and "changing" to describe the Constitution is unfortunate. The fact is that everything known to science is done to make sure that the original copies of the Constitution do not "live," "grow," and "change." These terms obviously are being used metaphorically, but exactly what they are intended to mean is unfortunately unclear. We should also note that these terms are not necessarily positive and need not imply improvement for the better. In certain contexts "growth" can serve as a synonym for cancer, and "living" and "changing" can describe something decaying and rotting. Traditionally at least, the Constitution has not been understood as "changing" by itself, but rather by the addition of amendments such as the repeal of slavery (thirteenth amendment), Prohibition (eighteenth), the right of women to vote (nineteenth), and the repeal of Prohibition (twenty-first). Thomas Jefferson argued strongly that it should not be by judicial decree that the Constitution was to "keep pace with the advance of the age of science and experience" but rather "by amendments."
The New Criticism brought several helpful insights and emphases to the study of texts. Its focus on the text itself avoided the previous preoccupation with psychoanalytical investigation of the mental experiences of the alleged author, the search for his or her sources, and the historical investigation of the text's subject matter. Instead, it focused on the close reading of the present text and the text as a whole. It helped point out the artistry and literary qualities of texts and focused on the final form of the text—a known entity that the reader possessed—rather than on such things as the hypothetical sources and stages of development that the text experienced. In the New Criticism formalistic critics discussed the real and actual texts, not the hypothetical and imaginary stages that led up to these texts.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this view, that the text itself is the determiner of meaning, involves what a "text" is and what "meaning" is. A written text is simply a collection of letters or symbols. Those symbols can vary. They can be English or Hebrew letters, Chinese symbols, or Egyptian hieroglyphics. They may proceed right to left, left to right, up or down. They can be written on papyrus, animal skins, paper, stone, or metal. Yet both the letters and the material upon which they are written are inanimate objects. Meaning, on the other hand, is a product of reasoning and thought. It is something only people can produce. Whereas a text can convey meaning and emotions, it cannot "mean" or "emote," because it is an inanimate object. Only the authors and readers of texts can think. Thus, whereas a text can convey meaning, the production of meaning can only come from either the author in the writing of the text or the reader in the reading of the text.
Some interpreters claim that the meaning of a text is determined by the reader. (In literary analysis this reader is sometimes called the "implied reader," the "competent reader," the "intended reader," the "ideal reader," the "real reader," etc.) The person who reads the text is seen as giving it its meaning and "actualizing" it. This should not be confused with thinking that the reader learns/deciphers/discovers/ascertains the meaning the text possesses in and of itself (the view described above). Nor should it be confused with the view that the meaning is determined by what the author meant when he or she wrote the text (the view described below). On the contrary, this view maintains that all written texts are essentially dead, or at least in hibernation. It is only through the reader that a text is actualized and comes to life as he or she breathes meaning into it. Each individual that reads the text creates the meaning. Reading a text does not involve the decoding of the original author's creative intention but rather a rewriting of the text, in which the reader now becomes the author and possesses authority over the text. Consequently, the meaning given to the text is a manifestation of the interpreter's own beliefs and desires. It is interesting to note that this view became very popular during the Vietnam War years, when there was a widespread revolt against authority in general. This new approach permitted the rejection of any authority over the reader in the area of interpretation. Readers did not have to submit to the authority of the text or its author as the determiner of meaning but rather claimed personal authority over both. Associated with this was a new worldview. Whereas the Ptolemaic, earth-centered understanding of the universe had been replaced by Copernicus's heliocentric understanding, now Copernicus's heliocentric understanding was replaced by an egocentric one. Now the individual saw himself or herself as the center of the universe and the determiner of its meaning. Thus it was not the Creator/Author of the universe who determined its meaning but the observer/reader.
According to this view (sometimes called "reception theory," "reception aesthetics," "reader-response or reader-centered criticism," "affective criticism," etc.), if different readers arrive at different meanings, this is because different readers respond to a text in different ways. Often these reader-centered meanings reflect to a great extent the readers' own values, likes, and dislikes. Readers in fact are encouraged to interpret texts in such a manner, for in so doing, more vibrant and relevant meanings are given to the text. Thus, for example, we come across Marxist, liberationist, postcolonial, feminist, egalitarian, complimentarian, green or ecological, homosexual, social-scientific, Calvinist, and Arminian "readings" or interpretations of a text. This does not necessarily mean that the reader has actually found in the particular text something that favors a Marxist, liberationist, feminist, or complimentarian interpretation. Rather, it means that the reader has chosen to read the words of the text in a particular way, apart from or even contrary to what the author may have meant. This view assumes that there are many legitimate meanings of a text, for each interpreter contributes his or her meaning to the text and in so doing actualizes it. The text functions somewhat like an inkblot onto which the reader projects his or her own meaning. Sometimes, in popular usage, we hear people say something like "What this biblical text means to me is ..." or "This passage may mean something different to you but for me it means ..." As we shall see later, in some instances such statements may describe different implications that readers see flowing out of the author's intended meaning. For those who hold to a reader-centered hermeneutic, however, this usually describes the meaning they choose to give to the text quite apart from and possibly even contradicting what the original author may have intended.
Reader-centered interpretation has contributed a number of insights into the study of texts. For one, it has emphasized the reader's contribution to the interpretive process. It has pointed out powerfully that readers do not approach texts with a mental tabula rasa. On the contrary, each reader brings to the reading of a text a preunderstanding consisting of their own interests and biases. This may bring distortion, a misreading of the text, and even a reading against the text, but it often brings passion and excitement to the investigation as well. In contrast to some author- and text-centered approaches, in which the reader appears to be a disinterested bystander, reader-centered interpretations are often practiced by people who have causes.
For many moderate reader-centered interpreters the presence of different and contradictory readings of a text is a serious concern. Unwilling to accept interpretative anarchy, they have sought certain restraints for the interpretation of texts. Thus they have raised the questions of how one can determine what kind of a reading is "richer," more "valuable" or "plausible." Perhaps the best known criterion is that of Stanley Fish, who appeals to the limitations that exist over readers by their "constraining community." Through the consensus of this community, various reader-oriented interpretations can be judged to be more valuable than others. Wolfgang Iser has suggested that the implied reader assumed by the text enables the present reader to arrive at the more plausible reading. In general, however, reader-centered interpretations oppose the pursuit of a single determinative meaning for a text and warn against any slavery to the text.