Interpretation and the “Agonizing Struggle:” The Necessity for “Tentatio” in Hermeneutics

In recent decades, evangelical interpreters have pushed back against a tendency to reduce hermeneutics to a purely objective application of tried-and-true methods that promise, if properly applied, to render the correct meaning, implications, and significance of a given text. There have been concerted, even successful, efforts to reverse an interpretive perspective that places (albeit inadvertently) interpreters over Scripture as “sovereign subjects” who “determine the boundaries of its meaning and significance” (Dryden, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom, 5). This new or, better, renewed emphasis does not promote the end of authorial intention, or give up on objective “meaning,” much less the dismissal of sound methods for interpretation. Other laudable examples that emphasize the role of the interpreter standing before, rather than over, Scripture are David I. Starling (Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship) and Jeannine K. Brown (Scripture as Communication). Another trend in recent decades is the burgeoning number of works that present “big pictures,” of the Bible as frameworks for hermeneutics. On a popular level, connecting the “story” of the Bible to hermeneutics can be traced loosely back to the popularity of Goldsworthy’s According to Plan. Whether such works constitute hermeneutics proper is debatable, but they are nevertheless now commonly associated hermeneutics. There is, however, a crucial, missing piece in the various modern approaches to evangelical hermeneutics.
It is not enough for interpreters to acknowledge the rightful place and priority of the Bible and position themselves before it—though apart from that, hermeneutics ceases to be biblical. Nor is it sufficient to reconstruct the Bible along thematic lines, eras of salvation, or persons. Rightly interpreting the scripture comes by undergoing what Luther called, tentatio (Anfechtung), the “agonizing struggle” (Ozwalt Bayer’s translation), that follows from being exposed by Scripture. For Luther, tentatio came with prayerful (oratio) and meditative (meditatio) study of Scripture. Both the flesh and the devil, stirred up by the Scripture, will seek to drive the reader away from the Bible. The agonizing struggle is the challenge to come back to Scripture in the midst of suffering and attack (Stephen Preus, “Tentatio”). Among evangelicals, there has been no real attempt to locate tentatio in hermeneutics. At best, it is given a place in devotional and contemplative reading. In this paper, I will argue that being conformed by Scripture, hearing God speak in Scripture, even grasping God’s work in salvation-history, comes though agonizing struggle. Secondly, I will argue that the self-referential nature of “big picture” frameworks, if relied on alone, has no organic place for tentatio. Finally, I will suggest that the necessary distinction between Law and Gospel, specifically in hermeneutics, provides for tentatio. In the exposing and condemning power of the Word, and the ensuing struggle, the interpreter is pointed back to Scripture and the promise of Christ, and so rightly guided to interpret the text.

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