Ethical Hermeneutics





APRIL 27, 2011

Bible schools and seminaries routinely require students to take courses on Biblical hermeneutics in order to learn the basic exegetical skills of historical grammatical analysis, literary criticism, and contemporary application.  In evangelical schools, textbooks commonly assert that texts mean only what their authors intended them to.[1]  The task of the exegete is to identify that encoded meaning and then apply it to their current situation.  During this training, the role of ethics is rarely addressed, if ever.  This paper will assert that readers have an ethical responsibility in the hermeneutical process.  After describing the neglect of ethical concerns in various introductions to biblical exegesis, we will introduce the relevance of speech-act theory for identifying the ethical obligation of readers and then identify honesty, humility, and empathy as three primary virtues that must be developed in readers within the context of the moral obligation to love God and love our neighbors.  The reader must love God in order to properly interpret any text.[2]

For the purposes of this study, “exegesis” and “hermeneutics” will be used distinctly.  While the distinction is not necessary in all contexts, here “exegesis” will refer to the disciplines of historical/grammatical analysis and related fields which focus on the locution and illocution of a text when those facets are obscured by linguistic, cultural, and historical distance.  “Hermeneutics” will refer to the broader discipline of evaluating the active response of a reader to a text[3] (a perlocutionary consideration).[4]  Hermeneutics is necessary even among contemporary interlocutors, though detailed exegesis may not be.

This distinction is often blurred by introductory texts which may neglect properly hermeneutical concerns due to their philosophical nature.  The goal of hermeneutics is attributed to the pragmatic exegetical task.  Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard assert, “The author-encoded historical meaning of these texts remains the central objective of hermeneutics.[5] That is, the “right” interpretation is the accurate identification of the authorial intention of a text.  Briggs observes that “The moral formation of the reader, on such accounts, is left as an optional extra to be considered, if at all, after the hard work of critical analysis has been done.”[6]

The collusion of exegetical and hermeneutical activity is closely related to the ignorance of ethical concerns.  By regarding comprehension of the original, authorial intent as the ultimate goal of hermeneutics, these interpretive guides detach response from understanding.  Once the original content is apprehended, the reader is only expected to apply due to its status as Divine communication (since, as handbooks for ministry students, these interpretive guides rightly focus primarily on the Bible itself).  But if meaning is a communicative act of the author, hermeneutics requires the reader to ethically consider her response to any text.

The development of speech-act theory provides concept of meaning as a communicative act. While Briggs cautions against harvesting speech-act theory for exegetical insights,[7] our study depends on a basic recognition of the theory’s validity.  Vanhoozer explains that texts do not simply contain a message, but are in fact an action by the author.[8] He writes, “meaning is a three-dimensional communicative action, with form and matter (propositional content), energy and trajectory (illocutionary force), and teleology or final purpose (perlocutionary effect).”[9]  Therefore, all texts are acts by authors which effect a reaction in their readers.  Hermeneutics is not simply a cognitive apprehension of a text’s locutions (or the intended “meaning” therein), but is a process of recognizing that an other (author) has spoken and, as an image bearer of God, her voice must be heard. “Hermeneutics is not merely a matter of knowing things about texts, but of being affected by them.”[10]  In contrast to models in which a text only requires application if it is God’s word, Vanhoozer suggests “that in reading we encounter an other that calls us to respond.”[11] Because texts are speech-acts of human (or divine) authors, readers must read and react in a manner consistent with the ethical imperatives of the Christian faith.  Thiselton, who perhaps has explored speech-act theory more thoroughly than any other biblical scholar, reflects that his earlier material should “have placed a stronger and more explicit emphasis…upon the cultivation of habits of respect for the otherness of “the other” as the heart of all hermeneutical endeavours.”[12]

The reader must then explore what are the ethical responsibilities salient to this task.  Briggs has helpfully noted that there is no master list of interpretive virtues.[13]  Therefore the virtues discussed here (honesty, humility, and empathy) are not exhaustive and may not even be the most relevant to our project.  Yet they do represent a cluster of commonly identified characteristics of virtuous readers.[14] Ultimately, we will agree with Vanhoozer that love is the “prime hermeneutical virtue”,[15] but we must look more closely at the specific attitudes and behaviors required by love in the act of reading.

, in this context, primarily refers to becoming aware of one’s own biases.  The interpreter must not presume to be a blank slate objectively evaluating the meaning of a text.  Olthius writes, “Proponents of objectivity forget, however, that an interpreter can exist only in terms of a specific tradition with all its trappings and prejudices.”[16][TS1]   This contradicts Fokkelman’s suggestion that, “The good reader goes to meet the text with an open and unbiased mind.  He has emptied himself so that the text may fill him.  He is aware of how perilous it is to be filled with one’s own learnedness at the very outset.”[17]  While Fokkelman is right to note the dangers a reader’s biases pose in the interpretive process, Adler and Van Doren are more realistic in their instruction for readers to make their “assumptions explicit…Otherwise you are not likely to admit that your opponent may be equally entitled to different assumptions.”[18]

Readers that critically and honestly explicated their own biases must humbly realize that their present understanding—of a text or an issue addressed by a text—may be flawed.  Humility requires the reader not only to acknowledge her presuppositions but also recognize they may be flawed.  Vanhoozer argues “humility is the virtue that constantly reminds interpreters that we can get it wrong.[19] He notes that in the reception of meaning, humility acknowledges that the reader is being acted upon.  The reader must adopt a teachable posture, listening before speaking.  Adler and Van Doren note that this does not mean total passivity, “We are discussing here the virtue of teachability…teachability is an extremely active virtue.  No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment.”[20]  Humility is closely associated with the honesty, in that the reader has actively evaluated her presuppositions (honesty) and then recognizes where her tradition fails to be effective (humility).[21]

Having humbly admitted one’s finitude and fallibility, the reader must begin to follow the text empathically admitting the possibility that its meaningful act will affect the reader.  Empathy is used broadly to refer to the willingness of a reader to share the concerns of the text and author.  This is closely related to openness and patience as well as exegetical diligence.  The text must be allowed to set its terms for the communicative act.  Vanhoozer writes, “The first response of a responsible reader should be respect: acknowledge the text for what it is.”[22]  This can also be stated in negative terms. Fokkelmen warns “It is expedient to establish for yourself a priori that the text is different from what you yourself believe and to see whether you can accept this. Those who call the Bible the norm and source of their faith will even be obliged to do so.”[23]  To assume commensurability between reader and text can deprive a text of the freedom to speak for itself.  Thiselton observes a similar position by Luther who argued that scripture may be most effective when read as if it were our adversary.[24]  MacIntyre more positively notes that translation “requires a rare gift of empathy as well as of intellectual insight for the protagonists of such a tradition to be able to understand the theses, arguments, and concepts of their rival…and to recharacterize their own beliefs in an appropriate manner from the alien perspective of the rival traditions.”[25]

We should note, however, that an empathetic reader will not necessarily arrive at an agreeable conclusion.  Vanhoozer suggests, “Simply to engage in dialogue need not imply approval.  Recognizing an illocutionary act or imaginative vision for what it is, is only the first step in appropriating its meaning.”[26]  The reader may conclude that the direction of the text, the act being performed upon the reader, or the desired response does not warrant her adherence.  The point of empathy is that the reader will duly consider the texts on its own terms prior to passing an evaluative judgment.[27]  Adler and Van Doren caution, “Do not begin to talk back until you have listened carefully and are sure you understand,”[28] however, having diligently considered the considered the text on its terms, honestly admitting her own biases, the reader can and must decide whether or not to follow the text.

As in the rest of life, the chief imperative for the reader is to love God and love her neighbor.  While Augustine’s articulation of textual meaning may not satisfy evangelical preference for authorial intent,[29] he passionately argues that charity must characterize the hermeneutical process.  Vanhoozer observes, “With regard to the morality of literary understanding, Augustine advocates what is for him the prime hermeneutical virtue, namely, charity….The first hermeneutic reflex, therefore, should be charity towards the author.”[30]  Briggs explains Augustine was dually concerned to ultimately understand a text on its terms and to immediately embody love, suggesting there is a variety of ways love may be immediately present in hermeneutics.[31]  Augustine contended that those who debate over pedantic exegetical nuances have failed to love their fellow interpreters.[32]  Briggs concludes his discussion on hermeneutical love claiming it “is the virtue that will enable interpreters of Scripture to navigate wisely the different ways in which it is possible to bless those to whom Scripture is read or interpreted.”[33]  However, in our account of meaning we have noted Vanhoozer’s emphasis of texts as communicative acts.  The reader does not only bear a responsibility to love other interpreters, but “in reading, we encounter an other that calls us to respond.”[34]  Therefore, to fail to read honestly, humbly, and empathetically is to refuse to love our neighbor—the author.

In the context of Scripture, the obligation to love God directs the reader to follow the His Word as far as it goes.  The call to “Follow Me” requires readers to listen, humble ourselves before Scripture, and always obey God rather than humans.  Other texts can be evaluated and must be disavowed with humility and love if the reader is expected to disobey God.[35]  But Scripture always expects and requires a submissive response. Yet, the command to love our neighbors requires that every conversation—with any text—be characterized by the fruit of the Spirit.  This is more than a pragmatic concern for acquiring meaning—though it follows that readers who are willing to patiently listen to a text will better understand it—the reader must not kill, silence, or bear false witness against the image of God, the author, who has acted by communicating in text.[36]  “The ethical response of the response of the reader is the one that attend, lovingly and justly, to what is there.”[37]

This survey has admittedly been an oversimplification of the views and arguments of many others. Undoubtedly the present author is not the ideal or most virtuous reader and regrets if he failed to love his neighbors who have contributed to this discussion.  Within the academic community, scholars significantly disagree over the relevance and implications of speech-act theory for textual hermeneutics.[38]  However, the observations of Vanhoozer, Briggs, MacIntyre, Thiselton, and even Fokkelman indicate the reader does bear an ethical burden.[39]  If the Church is going to expect “good” (ethical) exegesis and hermeneutics from preachers and scholars, they must be taught the ethical requirements of the interpretive process.  The reader must not simply apprehend the embedded content of a text, but must lovingly react to any text with honesty, humility, and empathy.


Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine: The Classic Autobiography of the Man who Journeyed from Sin to Sainthood. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Signet Classics, 2001.

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 1972.

Briggs, Richard S. “The Uses of Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Interpretation.” Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 9, 229-276. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

______. The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue. Studies in Theological Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

Fokkelman, J. P. Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: A Full Interpretation Based on Stylistic and Structural Analyses. Vol 1.  Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1981.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

MacIntyre, Alasdair C. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Cambridge: B. Blackwell, 1991.

Olthius, James H. “Proposal for a Hermeneutics of Ultimacy.” Pages 11-52 in A Hermeneutics of Ultimacy: Peril or Promise? Edited by James H. Olthius. New York: University Press of America, 1987.

Silva, Moises. “The Role of the Spirit in Biblical Interpretation.” ETS Eastern Region Meeting, 1995.

Thiselton, Anthony C. Hermeneutics: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

______. The Hermeneutics of Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

______. Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works and New Essays. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

[1] E.g., Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 26; J. Scott Duvalls and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 178f; William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 135.  This assertion of authorial intent will not be critiqued in this paper.  However, these approach share a template of understanding the original meaning of a Biblical text which then must be applied for no other reason than its Divine origin.

[2] This paper is concerned with the ethical responsibility of readers of any text, not only Divine discourse.  “Properly” is a moral adverb here.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 214 writes, “Hermeneutics is not merely a matter of knowing things about texts, but of being affected by them.

[4] This is similar to Thiselton’s distinction in Hermeneutics: An Introduction. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009),  4, “Whereas exegesis and interpretation denote the actual processes of interpreting texts, hermeneutics also includes the second-order discipline of asking critically what exactly we are doing when we read, understand, or apply texts.  Hermeneutics explores the conditions and criteria that operate to try to ensure, responsible, valid, fruitful, or appropriate interpretation.”  Fee and Stuart, 26, map a similar two stage interpretive process of exegesis and hermeneutics.  However, exegesis and hermeneutics are stages in the interpretive process, the goal of which remains “the plain meaning of the text”, 14.

[5] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, 185.  Italics original.  They also “are convinced that the goal of hermeneutics is to enable interpreters to arrive at the meaning of the text that the biblical writers or editors intended their readers to understand,” 153.  Notice how they isolate hermeneutics to the handling of biblical material.  As noted above, our distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics is not necessary in all contexts.  Therefore it is possible that they are using the term “hermeneutics” to mean what we are describing as “exegesis”.  However, this means that properly hermeneutical concerns (as we have described them) are entirely ignored in their 500 page introduction which concludes with “five crucial elements for proper interpretation and application”: salvation, spiritual maturity, diligent study, commons sense and logic, and humble dependence on the Spirit for discernment.  While there are correlations between these elements and the virtues to be discussed below they are primarily concerned with pragmatically understanding the meaning of the text and do not appear to address the ethical behaviors and attitudes of their readers.
[6] Richard S. Briggs, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 194-5.  While Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard note the ethical concerns of Vanhoozer, they nowhere address them in the body of their textbook, 135 n.1.  Instead, they “assume” these virtues throughout, never pressing their reader to consider ethical implications.

[7] Richard S. Briggs, “The Uses of Speech-Act Theory in Biblical Interpretation.” Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 9 (2001): 230, 237-238.

[8] Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 219.
[9] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? 218.
[10] Vanhoozer, 214.
[11] Vanhoozer, 368.

[12] Thiselton, “Resituating Hermeneutics,” 45.

[13] Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, 26. Vanhoozer defines interpretive virtues as, “a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation for understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text. An interpretive virtue, in other words, is one that is conducive to literary knowledge.” 376-377, italics original.
[14] Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, lists Humility, Wisdom, Trust, Love and Receptivity, 43; Vanhoozer provides two lists, first: Honesty, Openness, Attention, and Obedience, 377—second: Justice, Understanding, and Vitality, 420-421; J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: A Full Interpretation Based on Stylistic and Structural Analyses. Vol 1.  (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1981), 2 identifies total commitment, positive attitudes, and openness and emptiness, as key features of a reader; Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard list Faith, Obedience, Illumination, Membership in the Church, and Appropriate methods, 138, but these are mostly not ethical behaviors or attitudes of readers.

[15] Vanhoozer, 32.

[16] Olthius, 27.

[17] Fokkelman, 2
[18] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 155.
[19] Vanhoozer, 464.  Olthius similarly writes, “Practicing what Paul Ricoeur has called a hermeneutics of suspicion on our own view, we will be able to resist the temptation to canonize our views about the canon and will be able to honor and learn from other traditions.  The avenues of communication will remain open, and as brothers and sisters in Christ we will struggle with each other humbly and respectfully in the communion of love,” 12.
[20] Adler, Van Doren, 140.

21 This is similar to Alasdair MacIntyre’s suggestion for cross traditional translation in Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 166-167.

[22] Vanhoozer, 402.
[23] Fokkelman, 5
[24] Thiselton, “Resituating Hermeneutics,” 45.
[25] MacIntyre, 167.

[26] Vanhoozer, 375. Appropriation follows apprehension.

[27] The nature and extent of this due consideration will not be identical for every text.
[28] Adler, Van Doren, 142.
[29] Augustine, Confessions (trans. Rex Warner [New York: Signet Classics, 2001]) XII.25, 305, writes, “Can you not see now how foolish it is out of all that abundance of perfectly true meanings which can be extracted from those words rashly to assert that one particular meaning was the one which Moses had chiefly in mind…”
[30] Vanhoozer, 32.
[31] Briggs, Virtuous Reader, 141-142, 161-162.

[32] Augustine Confessions XII.23, 302; XII.25, 303, 305; XII.30, 310-311.

[33] Briggs, Virtuous Reader, 166.
[34] Vanhoozer, 22-23.
[35] Consider the implications of Acts 4:19 on this point.
[36] This statement should be tempered by Psalms 1.
[37] Vanhoozer, 277 n. 227.

[38] Briggs, Virtuous Reader, 20, suggests that even Vanhoozer has failed to transcend an essentially pragmatic ethic in his description of virtues which are conducive to literary knowledge

[39] Readers of this text may question why I have not used more Biblical proof-texts to support this claim.  I have assumed that honesty, humility, empathy, and love need no defense as Christian virtues.  Our task here has been to apply these virtues to hermeneutics.  Briggs’s Virtuous Reader, has explored the Bible’s treatment of hermeneutics, is an argument that the Old Testament does provide support for several of the virtues we have treated in this paper.



2 comments on “Ethical Hermeneutics

  1. michael says:


    Acts 8:30-35 – 30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

    31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.

    32 This was the scripture passage he was reading: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

    33 In (his) humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth.”

    34 Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?”

    35 Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.

    2 Peter 1:20 – Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,

    2 Peter 3:16 – Speaking of these things 12 as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.

  2. Seth Horton says:

    An other reader of this paper has noted the omission of the role of the community in reading.

    In the case of Scripture, the Church is obviously the interpretive community. Those who assume the ability to read Scripture alone do not embody either humility or honesty as described in this paper.

    Also, this paper is not solely concerned with reading scripture. So private communications, I would suggest, do not require a community beyond the author and the reader.

    This paper was not intended to address every hermeneutical issue. I merely wanted to demonstrate that reading is an ethical task. One virtue others address that I did not is obedience/submission. Such a case surely can be made, especially in the context of the Church.

    Unfortunately, this is a blog. As such it allows a low grade level of community interaction. Finally, unless you are wrong about what you suggest in your post’s title (that proper interpretation always requires a authoritative community), the Scripture you quoted can’t mean anything to me as isolated proof-texts.

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