My friend Bryan Lewis is currently working on a degree from Vanderbilt University. For one of his papers he submitted the article below on the proper hermeneutic for correct understanding of the Scriptures. Clearly, hermeneutics are the key to understanding, and Bryan’s article correctly lays out the right approach. Enjoy!
Don K. Preston
A Plea for the Historical-Narrative Hermeneutic A Critical Examination of Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s, “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life”
In her lengthy chapter, “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life,” Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (March 22, 1943 – May 13, 2012) argues for the “theology of liberation.” This is no surprise, since she is [was] a Hispanic women’s liberation theologian. For her, Psalm 137 is a way to deal with the sorrow that comes with her being a refugee after the Cuban Missile crisis. Her theology, as she admits, is shaped by her experiences; and her biblical hermeneutics, has as its core presupposition, “binomial oppression-liberation.”1 By this, she insists on creating what I regard as a tangible modern relevance for the text by relating Psalm 137 to modern issues of social justice for the oppressed, poor, minority, marginalized, and those who have been taken advantage of through socio-political, economic, and religious tyranny. For her, these are all modern forms of exile.
Dr. Isasi-Diaz’s primary presuppositions that influence her work are easy to locate, because she makes them known in this chapter. In her analysis, scientific exegesis, a form of historical-criticism, is inadequate in answering the questions raised by common laity. Mainly, because it fails to answer the particular question she is seeking, i.e., what does a particular biblical text mean for us today? Thus, she seeks to find a tangible modern relevance for the text through her own experience; thus, making a modern application of ancient Israel’s exile, as a form of oppression.
Moreover, professor Isasi-Diaz postulates that the “meaning of every text is found in the relationship that is created between the reader, the writer, and the text.”2 Thus, she suggest that one’s “hermeneutics will ultimately influence what the text is understood to have meant and to mean today.”3 I am inclined to agree with that point. However, this does not necessarily mean that the hermeneutical relationship that is ultimately created is always the one that has the original writer’s intent in mind. To assume this would allow for multiple meanings of the given text not intended by the original writer. Instead, I would argue that when one’s hermeneutic is used without any regard for the historical context; it severely perverts the original author’s intended meaning. Furthermore, a more crucial point that needs to be made is that when one’s hermeneutic is bent on separating the continuity of meaning from its original context in an effort to find a tangible modern relevance for laity, it likewise, severely perverts the original author’s intended meaning.
Before I set forward what I believe is a better solution to this problem, allow me to begin by setting forth my own hermeneutical presuppositions. They are “historical-narrative”4 in nature. First, I am fully committed to a historical-narrative hermeneutical approach, i.e., an approach that seeks to only uncover the original intentions of the authors by always considering the historical context of a given text. Therefore, my first and foremost presupposition is that no text can be properly understood apart from its historical context. Secondly, I am faithful to this method without the tendency to separate the text’s meaning from the narrative whole. Both theologians and biblical scholars acknowledge the importance of historical context, but many are bent on breaking with the original narrative in an effort to find a tangible modern meaning or application. Unfortunately, this is done in an attempt to fulfill the need to find relevance for today. Likewise, this is done, because since the enlightenment, there has existed an antagonistic battle between theologically-bent hermeneutics and historical-critical approaches, an idea that history and theology are antithetical to each other.
Moreover, another one of my presuppositions is that I see both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as a narrative whole. The Hebrew Bible’s narrative continues into the New Testament. This is evident by the various Hebrew Bible allusions, use of inclusio (a literary device common in the Hebrew Bible), and quotes found in the New Testament. Thus, I see continuity of purpose from Genesis through Revelation.
Finally, I am committed to a reconstruction of the historical Jesus that paints him as an apocalyptic prophet, one whose concern was primarily for the “restoration and redemption of ancient Israel.”5 Therefore, I give prominence to placing Jesus within his Judean culture, within the first-century and second-temple Judaism.
With this in mind, we can discuss further what exactly I see in the historical-narrative hermeneutic. As already mentioned, I view a hermeneutical approach that is fully committed to the historical context of a given text, but is not bent on separating the narrative meaning. It rejects the idea that says, “What a text meant during the writers time may not be what it means for us today.” Instead, it argues for a narrative connection between the past to now, i.e., the meaning for today is found in the meaning of the narrative whole.
As an example, the historical-narrative hermeneutic would argue that what is found in the New Testament is not mainly a message of individualistic or personalized salvation. Instead, found is a continuing story, from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, of a people (ancient Israel) enduring a multitude of distressing historical calamities, events that would ultimately transform the world in the light of Christ’s redemptive work. Thus, the historical-narrative hermeneutic understands that Christians today are descendants of those early Jews. Then afterward, Hellenistic Jews who made up the first-century Jesus movement, who went through the eschatological period leading up to a final redemptive work, which is narrated in the New Testament. We are in fact the inheritors of the outcome of that narrative. It is a story of ancient Israel, God’s chosen people, their struggles, misfortunes, the destruction of their temple in AD70, the end of their old covenant world, and ultimately, the establishment of a new one.6 These first believers, the elect (God’s chosen ones), a remnant of ancient Israel were transformed through Christ’s redemptive work, thus transforming the whole world. Therefore, we now live with the aftermath of a narrative that found its completion in the New Testament.
Therefore, I maintain that the meaning of the scripture for today is found in the narrative. In fact, the significance of any given biblical text is found in the totality of the biblical story. This hermeneutic allows for a more generous cooperation between theological and historical-critical readings. And thus, in my view, this dialectic hermeneutic answers the definitive question of tangible modern significance.
Dr. Isasi-Diaz sought to read Psalm 137 into her own personal life situation with little regard for its historicity. She sought to remove the meaning of exile from its original narrative in an effort to provide a modern significance to the text for herself and laity. Thus, in my opinion, she has projected a modern and misleading meaning into the text, one that thoroughly severs the original writer’s intended meaning from the reader’s heart and mind.
1. Segovia, Fernando F., and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life.” In Reading from this place. Volume 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995. 154.
2. Ibid., 151.
3. Ibid., 151.
4. A term and method used by Andrew Perriman in his book, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Paternoster, 2005. Other scholars such as, N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight have set forth a similar hermeneutic.
5. An argument set forth by E.P. Sanders in his book, Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. Also by N.T. Wright in his book, Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
6. This should not be misconstrued as an anti-Jewish replacement theology.
Ada María Isasi-Díaz. “‘By the Rivers of Babylon’: Exile as a Way of Life.” Pp. 149-163
in Reading from This Place, Vol. 1, Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. Edite
d by Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
Perriman, Andrew. “The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an
Emerging Church.” Milton Keynes, U.K.: Paternoster, 2005.
Sanders, E. P. “Jesus and Judaism.” Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Wright, N. T. “Jesus and the Victory of God.” Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.