This past semester, I took a class where we looked at biblical interpretations from minority cultures (i.e., non-white, Euro-American perspectives). A very interesting class to say the least. But in it, we studied in-depth the process of hermeneutics. One thing that I will take away from the class is the importance of where we start the interpretive process. Because where we start will largely determine not only the course that we will follow, but also our end or final interpretation. An example that my professor often used in class was the topic of immigration. If we begin with Romans 13 (submit to the government), immigration will always be viewed through a legal lens and thus, one can never get beyond the fact that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law by being in America. Hence, the discussion ends right there. But, if we begin instead with the idea of imago dei or if we turn to an immigrant story such as Abraham, Moses and the people of Israel, Ruth, or even Jesus (gasp!) who spent time in Egypt, we will begin to see that we have a responsiblity to care for these very immigrants who are in our midst. Our stance politically and ethically then will naturally be drastically different from those who begin with Romans 13.
Maybe another case study will be helpful. Let’s look at homosexuality. We can begin with a theology of marriage or we can just turn to the passages about homosexuality. Or we can begin with a theology of sin and can explore the passages revolving around love. But once again, where we start largely determines where we end up and the path we take to get there.
When we come to the Bible, we all begin with a certain hermeneutical starting point. And this may be on account of a number of reasons. It could be that we are attracted to the gospels or the Pauline epistles, or that we understand the wisdom literature of the OT better than other parts of the Bible. That’s why it is helpful when thinking hermeneutically, to begin to survey the different start points and paths that one can take. This does lengthen the amount of time one will have to devote to interpretation, but it does force one to take into account the whole Bible and to acknowledge the entire biblical witness rather than just one section.