Models and hermeneutics

So, I recently wrote an essay (“On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth“) about modelling and its relationship to reality, and also how modelling helps to illustrate how scientific theories work. My main point was that models (and other theories) are limited by their assumptions, and it is generally disastrous to apply a model out of its original context and objectives, because we almost invariably end up inheriting inappropriate assumptions.

At the same time, I’m reading Fee & Stuart’s How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, and thus I’m thinking a lot about appropriate exegesis and hermeneutics in a Biblical context. I see many parallels between the ideas presented in the modelling essay and the approach described by Fee and Stuart. Thinking about this more, I’m wondering if there isn’t something to be said for a similar approach to scriptural interpretation as we use for scientific theories.

Let me try and explain what I mean.

With science, we believe that there is an underlying truth that is the natural order, and we build and test theories (and models) to try and understand that natural order better. Our theories are not the fullness of nature, but they represent (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) certain aspects of nature.

Similarly, we believe that the Bible contains God’s truth, and remains relevant to all of us at all times. But to understand a given passage, we must first understand the context and literary style of the writing (the exegesis part), and then interpret the text within that framework (the hermeneutical part). But our interpretation of the scripture remains a representation of the Truth, rather than being the fullness of the Truth.

In the same way that we cannot take a scientific theory which describes the interaction of sub-atomic particles at a quantum scale and apply it to larger scales, we cannot take a hermeneutic which is appropriate for one book and apply it to the whole Bible. Our hermeneutic for a particular passage incorporates assumptions that are specific to that book, and we risk inheriting inappropriate assumptions in using the same hermeneutic for another passage.

It is equally inappropriate to use a literal historical hermeneutic from (for instance) 1 Samuel and apply it to the Psalms as it is to use a theory from the field of genetics and apply it to psychology.

This is still very much at the idea stage, so I’d appreciate your thoughts!



Related posts:

On reading both books

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Matters of interpretation



7 thoughts on “Models and hermeneutics

  1. While I would not be able to speak to a scientific hermeneutic, I am in full support of the genre-based hermeneutic taught by Fee and Stuart. I highly recommend that book often and have taught it myself numerous times and use its principles many times as I help people on how to study and understand the Scripture. Great book. Thanks for bringing it up. As a side note–if you are interested, Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in the NICNT series is just about the best out there.

  2. It is exceedingly important to note these issues when reading and interpreting Scripture. I would highly, highly recommend reading “Revelation” by Richard Swinburne (I reviewed it on my site: It’s a fantastic book that challenged some of my core beliefs, and even had me rethink and reprocess some of them. I’m a firm believer in inerrancy (not sure of your own view) of Scripture, but Swinburne’s argumentation forced me to rethink exactly what inerrancy means, etc.

  3. Avery Dulles’ book “Models of Revelation” is a must read. Drawing on paradigms and modeling Dulles builds several “models of revelation,” making explicit a number of assumptions around the subject of “revelation.” It’ll provide an example of modeling as used in the context of faith/religion, and may even do some of the legwork for you in your research.

  4. One of the key problems in religion is the lack of clarity or precision in terminology. Science, programming, math, etc. are fairly exact languages. Theology and philosophy are, however, fairly imprecise in popular usage while being precise in professional usage, albeit specific to traditions.

    The one problem with hermeneutics and Scripture is the weaving together of various things – genre, corpus, testament, authorship, date, historical background, testaments as a whole, bible as a whole – and this includes our traditions and worldview.

    There’s a strong divergence between terminology as understood and used popularly and professionally and also between traditions. So, at one level, the process of “revelation” is understood differently between different traditions, e.g. to atheists revelation is “bogus” to others its clearly “contained in the Bible alone” and for yet others “current experience in the form of dreams, words, images, inner direction is primary”. At another level, the process and meaning of “revelation” is understood differently between its professional and popular usage.

    It may be fun delving into this 😉

  5. Sentinel said, “… we cannot take a scientific theory [that] describes the interaction of sub-atomic particles at a quantum scale and apply it to larger scales”. This statement promulgates a radical misunderstanding of the concept “scientific theory.” Theories are not “applied” to situations that do not meet their hypotheses; theories are falsifiable paradigms for explaining groups of observations. Applying a theory to a hypothetical situation that satisfies its hypotheses makes sense; “applying” a theory to an observable experiment that does not satisfy its hypotheses makes no sense. The hypotheses of physics at “larger scales” conceal the averaging of immensely many quantum-scale interactions and so do not satisfy the hypotheses of quantum-level theories. So it’s not that we cannot apply a theory about quantum-scale interaction to situations at larger scales and expect it to work or to fail; it’s that it doesn’t even makes sense to _talk_ about applying it in that siuation.

    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks for the comments. My intent with that statement was in fact to highlight rather than promulgate that exact issue. I agree that it makes no sense to apply a theory to a situation which does not satisfy its hypotheses: unfortunately, I also observe just such irresponsible application being made in the public sphere, by scientists and non-scientists alike. It doesn’t crop up too often in the peer-reviewed literature, but in publication for popular audience it’s all too common.

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