The Hermeneutical Spiral

William Arnold III

Communication is a process by which one person (called the sender) attempts to convey a message to another person (called the receiver). He does this by encoding a message into symbols that the receiver will understand and then giving the message to the receiver. Now in normal communication the sender and receiver will alternate, both responding to the message and in turn sending another message thereby taking on the role of each other.

But here we are discussing the interpretation of text where there is no feedback of the receiver back to the text. (The text does not hear the receiver and learn from him.) But the text only speaks his message to the receiver. The receiver in turn decodes the message and attempts to exegete (interpret) its meaning.

Now when the receiver approaches the message, he brings along with him his own presuppositions. This is both inevitable and necessary. In order to understand anything, a certain amount of presupposition (or preunderstanding) is needed. Without this, how would one make sense of the symbols? What meaning would he ascribe to the words that he is reading or hearing? In order to even begin interpretation he must have some understanding of the basics of communication already.

But as the receiver (interpreter) uses his preunderstanding to exegete the meaning of the message his understanding deepens or even changes. In his mind the meaning unfolds and this new meaning becomes his new preunderstanding for further interpretation. He will now use his new insights and his present point of view when he looks back at the message. As the receiver continues to learn he builds on his previous knowledge and grows in understanding as he progresses.

Now the receiver must keep the authorís intended meaning as his goal at all times. He must seek to discover what was meant by the one who put it there. If he does anything less, he is creating and not interpreting. His attempts should be to exegete or "draw out" meaning from text and not to force meaning upon it.

One might assume, since he comes to the text with preunderstanding, that this is impossible. However, his preunderstanding is only there to help him understand what the author meant, not to influence him away from that. He must use his prior knowledge of the author and the background of the text as well as his knowledge of language and rules of grammar. In other words, his preunderstandings are not his own opinion and beliefs, but are the basic elements of knowledge that are required if he is to accumulate any more knowledge. They are there to help him understand the text.

As he understands the text, this knowledge is added to his preunderstanding and he can learn more from the text. The second time around he can take a closer look at what it is saying. However, it is vital that he start with the "big picture." He needs to first stand back and get an overview of what the text is saying before he attempts to zero in on a specific part. From his position here, he can get the main idea and get a feel for the general tone of the text. This is the movement from macro-exegesis to micro-exegesis.

Starting with micro-exegesis would be like looking at a painting with a microscope without ever having stood back and admired the painting as a whole. You loose the beauty of what it is all about. When you "stand back" you can see the picture better. Even so, the interpreter needs to look at the whole of a text before he attempts dissecting its parts. He must ask himself how each part fits into the rest of the text.

To apply this to exegeting scripture, this would be to first look at the Bible as a whole, then to observe which testament the passage is in. From here he would look at all the books written by this particular author, then to the specific book. After this he should look for divisions within the book. Now this may correlate to chapter division, but most probably will not. From here, he would look to paragraph divisions, then to sentences and finally to studying specific words.

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