For years I was dissatisfied with courses of hermeneutics. The content was okay, but they assumed a neat step by step process. They had to to present the material in a logical way. The problem is that my preparation is never neat or step by step. Ideas go off in all sorts of directions. Sometimes they are fruitful. Sometimes they are not fruitful. Often I’m not sure whether they are fruitful so I park the idea and move off in another direction. I realised the best way to ‘teach’ this was to actually do it with people.
So I started meeting to look at a passage with people without having done an preparation (there are obviously other advantages to this method!). We then worked on it together. It’s been great. I hope people have learnt good hermeneutics. What is for sure is that I have benefited so much because we spark one another off. Time and again I/we gain an understanding of the text I would never have got to on my own. So many people think by talking ideas through with people. It seems crazy that our dominate model is someone sitting alone at a desk with a pile of books!
I have also begun using this model to some extent in our main meeting as a church. It’s a bit harder because people come with very different levels of understanding. I always do plenty of preparation and come with a clear idea of where I want to get to so it’s not quite the same. But I avoid going through a list of questions and instead invite people to interact with the text together.
What kind of questions do I use? I don’t really have a formula and I would welcome people’s thoughts. I usually start with something like: ‘What in the passage do you find striking?’ and ‘What in the passage do you find confusing?’ I’ve tried to come up with a clever way of phrasing those two questions, but I’ve not succeeded. I know some people talk about ‘shockers’ and ‘blockers’. ‘Shockers’ are things that strike you and ‘blockers’ are questions that ‘block’ understanding. But this seems a bit too contrived to me and not at all the kind of language people in our context would use. I often use those questions at the beginning of a study even if I’ve got a series of passage-specific questions. Doing so reveals how people are responding to the passage which means I at least know the starting point from which we need to work. But it can also mean people start us out on the journey to the message of the passage which affirms their ability to handle the text. One aim I always have when reading the Bible with people is to give them the confidence to read the Bible for themselves.
Another important question is ‘why?’ And that’s reflected in my one page guide to hermeneutics. ‘Why does it say this?’ ‘Why here?’ ‘Why does it say it in this way?’ I think people often miss this out. But it is key to getting to the heart of a passage and a key step in understanding its implications for us. It’s also a straightforward question for people to engage with.
In terms of application, one thing I have started doing is asking when we might use the passage or retell the story. For example, I was looking at Thomas in John 20 last night and ended by asking, ‘When might you retell this story of Thomas?’ The two main responses that we played around with were, as you might expect: (1) A sceptical person in the context of evangelism. (The disciples weren’t gullible, some were sceptics like you, but they were persuaded by what they saw …). (2) A Christian who is fearful. (The worst case scenario is death, but death is no longer the last word, so Jesus can say, ‘Peace be with you’). In conversation people identified specific individuals in both categories.
We have often started a Bible study with some fictional (or semi-fictional) cameos of individuals with questions or facing issues. We discuss how we might respond. Then we study the Bible passage. And finally we return to the case studies to see how the passage speaks to those scenarios. Not only does this help application, but it creates at the beginning an expectation that this passage is going to have something relevant to say to real life.
Not sure how helpful this is. It certainly doesn’t add up to a ‘one-size fits all’ formula. I guess the three questions: What? Why? and So What? are the key ones to ask in different ways.
I would welcome other people’s thoughts.