Interpreting the Bible with N.T. Wright’s Method
In our most recent episode, I answer a listener question about hermeneutics—about how we interpret the Bible. During the course of my response I outline a hermeneutical methodology from N.T. Wright which I want to explain here. And as I explain in the episode, hermeneutics is the theory of interpreting texts in order to understand and discern the discourse contained within them. And as a branch of philosophy, hermeneutics can move beyond a consideration of only texts, and develop ways of interpreting practically any part of life and experience. In this case, hermeneutics is the pursuit of seeking to understand any intentional human action that conveys meaning and invites interpretation. This is critical to understanding Wright’s method, since his hermeneutical method starts at the level of interpreting worldview and then moves to the level of interpreting texts.
THE HERMENEUTIC OF PHILOSOPHICO-HISTORIOGRAPHICAL WORLDVIEW ANALYSIS
Only a title as ridiculous as The Hermeneutic of Philosophico-Historiographical Worldview Analysis could do justice to the enduring genius that is N.T. Wright. This is the title I’ve given to his interpretive method since he hasn’t attached a title to it himself, and though it sounds crazy it’s actually really easy to understand.
It all begins with an analysis of worldview and how this provides for us as readers a glimpse into the world and mind of an author and the meaning of their works. This is important because one’s worldview affects their every action and word, and their every action and word makes sense in relation to their worldview. Wright describes worldviews as being like the foundations of a house: they’re vital but invisible. They’re that through which, not at which, a society or an individual normally looks; they form the grid according to which humans organize reality, but they aren’t bits of reality that offer themselves up for organization.
Now Wright argues that worldviews primarily consist of praxis, stories, symbols, and questions.
Praxis: practices, habits, a way-of-being-in-the-world.
Stories: narratives, histories, values, ways of forming identity.
Symbols: artifacts and events: monuments, festivals, holidays, etc.
Questions: Who are we? Where are we? When are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution?
So praxis, stories, symbols, and questions; those are the ingredients of a worldview. Next, from these four fundamental components an individual develops basic beliefs which are oriented by aims, which further lead to consequent beliefs which are oriented by intentions.
Basic Beliefs: deepest convictions about reality, oneself, and the world
Consequent Beliefs: contextual, day-to-day convictions about life and the world framed by basic beliefs
Aims: central hopes and goals of worldview, embedded in deep-seated trajectories of thinking and living informed by Basic beliefs
Intentions: mannerS of going about one’s aims, expressed in daily activities oriented by one’s beliefs.
Let me give you an example of how basic beliefs and aims along with consequent beliefs and intentions all work together. Say I want to take my wife out to dinner this evening. My intention to take my wife out to dinner this evening is an expression of my aim to love her anew each day. My aim to love her anew each day flows from my basic belief that I should love her with all my heart having promised to do so, which itself leads to the consequent belief that loving her well should give rise to concrete acts of love, which is then materialized in my intentions, like taking her out to dinner. This cycle of interrelated beliefs, aims, and intentions help us make sense of how one’s worldview works and how they give expression to it.
In applying this as a hermeneutical methodology, we begin with the actions and words of an author or of the individuals about whom they’re writing, and work through the whole structure. So actions and words are an instance of praxis, which function as symbols, which tell a story, which answer questions—and this is how you study the formulation of worldviews. Wright has applied this methodology for hundreds upon hundreds of pages at a time, analyzing the worldviews of Jesus or of Paul so as to more richly understand their every word and action. But let’s just take a small example.
APPLYING THE METHOD: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a fresh praxis for the people of God which told a story about Israel and their God, answering basic questions in an unexpected way. The problem was that Israel had forsaken their vocation and forgotten their purpose, and the reigning praxis of the leaders of the time was insular, separatist, and vengeful. Though Israel was supposed to share God with the rest of the world, they were inclined to hoard this to themselves and separate from others. So the solution Jesus presented was to reclaim the vocation of Israel as the salt of the earth and the light of the world—to become the true Israel by materializing the glory of God to the ends of the earth. Jesus’s aim, to faithfully carry out his role as the One in whom the promises of God would find their fulfillment, coincided with his basic belief in Yahweh, in his ways, and in his purposes, which led to certain consequent beliefs such as that Israel needed to turn away from their insular proclivities and follow his example, which further gave rise to specific intentions, such as publicly challenging them in the Sermon on the Mount. So, having gone through the whole structure, we end up right where we began: with the original words and actions, the actual content of the Sermon on the Mount, but now more richly illuminated. Here’s how the method looks when we take the whole cycle into consideration.
The more thoroughly we go through this cycle the more thoroughly we understand what’s going on, and the more we understand Jesus’s worldview, how it challenged the assumptions of his time, and what his statements and actions mean in light of this. So diving into this cycle each time we study a passage of Scripture begins to open us up to the worldview, context, intention, and meaning of the actions and words of an author or figure, so we can simply understand them more deeply. To discover more about how I use this method and how it fits into my overall basic interpretive approach, listen to our episode on how to interpret the Bible.