Fundamentalist Hermeutic

Sabio in this comment, points out that it is easy to be sloppy about hermeneutics (the method or criteria one uses to interpret the bible). I disagreed a little with his categorization, so this post is intended to clarify a little bit.

Here are the three[1] hermeneutics in question:

1. Authorial intent – the original authors were inspired by God, and therefore the meaning they were intending to communicate is the correct meaning of the text.

2. Plain sense – God intended the bible to be understandable for all time, without a history or theology degree, and so truths are not hidden behind historical nuance, or obscure symbolism. If the bible seems to say something clearly, then it does.

3. Literal – The text of the bible is not symbolic, or metaphoric in any sense. When it makes declarative statements, those statements are true. (This is where Sabio puts most fundies).

So a quick observation: these overlap hugely (particularly 2 and 3). In perhaps 99% of cases the latter two should give the same interpretation of a passage. So if we want to figure out whether someone is using a literal or a plain-sense hermeneutic, we need to look at the 1%.

Fundies are often accused of treating the bible literally, and often claim to be doing so themselves. But the fundamentalist hermeneutic is not really literal, but plain-sense.

The use of ‘literal’ in The Fundamentals (a key early statement of fundamentalism) was merely in regard to historic claims, not in general. When fundies talk about the bible being ‘literally true’, they are referring to the idea that historical claims should not be taken as symbolic. Fundamentalist theology does acknowledge that there are parts of the bible that are symbolic. Jesus’s parables, for example, should not be seen as Jesus telling us about real people (The bible says: ‘Jesus said “A certain man was travelling…”‘, therefore if there was no such man, Jesus was a liar!).

Fundamentalist theology holds that one can arrive at a correct understanding of God through an unsophisticated reading of his word without requiring any specialized knowledge or fancy degrees.

So if we want ‘literal’ to really mean literal, then I’d suggest fundamentalism as a movement, does not have a literal hermeneutic. But maybe you think that kind of literal hermeneutic is contrived: pushing the word too far. I’d agree, I don’t think it is very useful, and I’d suggest that categories 2 and 3 be merged.

These hermeneutics get confused because they often point to the same interpretation. Genesis is historical under all three criteria, I’d suggest (I don’t buy the idea that the authors of Genesis were not writing what they thought of as history [not in the modern sense of history, of course, but in the quotidian sense of something that happened in the past]). So it can be a bit tricky to avoid assuming things about one’s discussion partner if one doesn’t clarify.

[1] There are tens of named hermeneutics that aren’t in the slightest bit exclusive. You may approach the bible with a “First Mention” hermeneutic (where the first mention in the bible of a topic should be seen as containing its most fundamental truth), at the same time as a “Continental” hermeneutic (where one frames God’s interaction with humanity in terms of the most recent covenant or contract God has made). So this list is merely one particular set of ideas, it isn’t intended to suggest everything fits in these boxes.


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2 responses to “Fundamentalist Hermeutic

  1. To me, a plain reading of Genesis 2-3, is that the Adam and Eve story is a “Just So” story (or a kind of fable). Remembering back to around age 12, where I was attending a conservative church and was reading the bible for myself (as encouraged by my pastor), as I read that part I said to myself “surely they cannot expect me to take that as history, when it is so obviously a fable.” I went with that plain reading as a fable, and did not consult my pastor on whether that was appropriate.

    But that is not how fundamentalists approach it.

  2. Ian

    Thanks. Yes, this is true.

    The ‘plain meaning’ camp is broader than those who are historical literalists with regard to any specific story. They all agree that the correct hermeneutic is ‘plain sense’, but disagree with what the plain sense must be. IIRC, the initial statements on fundamentalism enumerated some specific passages they took to be literal, e.g. the Genesis creation account, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection.

    So ‘plain sense hermeneutic’ is necessary but not sufficient in reality. While fundamentalism rationalises its hermeneutic this way, in reality, as in all faith communities, you interpret the text based on the way your community tells you to.

    It is a separate issue, but an important one, how much any hermeneutical stance (or any theology really) is a post-hoc rationalisation. I suspect quite a lot.

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