Biblical interpretation can be hard work, with all manner of pitfalls the interpreter of Scripture must avoid. Two issues in particular represent serious challenges to the hermeneutical task. The first is the danger of so focusing on interpreting individual texts that the establishment and interpretative value of any overarching narrative of the Bible as an essential hermeneutical tool is lost. Synchronic interpretation at the expense of a diachronic approach represents a serious loss to the interpretative process, particularly for the Evangelical interpreter for whom the canon of Scripture exhibits internal unity and purpose as the revealed word of God.
In short, it's all very well (and an essential aspect of exegesis) to study individual short texts in depth, historically, linguistically and of course theologically. However, unless these texts are related back to and interpreted in light of the wider narrative running through the Bible, the hermeneutical process is incomplete. This focus on a theological and canonical interpretation is known as biblical theology, which seeks to establish overarching themes and narratives throughout the whole Bible. (Incidentally, the term "biblical theology" has had several meanings in the history of the academy, so my definition above should not be confused with these.)
A second issue, representing a major difficulty the interpreter faces, is imposing his or her worldview, values and experiences upon the world and age of the ancient text. The inability to get beyond this presuppositional spare baggage is known as the hermeneutical circle. Thus the exegete sets about interpreting the text but in doing so imposes current values and experiences upon the text, rendering the meaning of the text something quite different from what the original author intended. Hence, the process begins all over again, but once more the interpreter fails to ditch his/her presuppositions. Some observers (usually postmodern cynics) argue this cycle is unbreakable, hence the phrase "hermeneutical circle", so that establishing true authorial intent is impossible. Instead the interpretative focus shifts away from authorial intent to reader responses ("what does the text mean for/to you?"). Naturally, the twin foci of relativism and subjectivism fit nicely within this postmodern emphasis upon what the text means to the reader rather than what it meant to the author.
Evangelicals, of course, believe the hermeneutical circle can be broken, that God intends us to read, understand and indeed be shaped by His word. Thus while cultural and historical spare baggage indeed has a bearing on how we understand a Bible text, nevertheless exegetes are capable of ditching their presuppositions and getting ever closer back to the original meaning of the text. Hence, we speak of a hermeneutical spiral rather than a hermeneutical circle, that is, we continuously seek to ditch our presuppositional spare baggage and in doing so manage to get ever closer to authorial intent and the true meaning of the text.
Yet for Evangelicals both issues - establishing an overarching biblical narrative and combatting presuppositionalism - remain distinct challenges. For example, an important problem facing proponents of biblical theology is determining which themes and overarching narrative best fit Scripture in a manner that does not arbitrarily impose an internal structure upon the Bible which is simply not there. Thus within Evangelical Christianity there are several theological metanarratives (or overarching theological systems) which are quite contradictory towards each other. The obvious candidates at two opposite ends of the spectrum are, of course, covenant theology and dispensationalism, where proponents of both have produced quite disparate metanarratives and sometimes accuse the other of arbitrarily imposing a theological system upon the Bible which simply isn't there. Some scholars hold aspects of both these theological systems in tension, taking a middle route between the two. Others have sought to challenge and modify these two major theological systems. Thus in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of progressive dispensationalism, while the rise of New Covenant Theology represents a "bottom up" corrective of covenant theology.
A focus on the central metanarrative, overarching themes, internal coherence and structure of the Bible are essential to understanding and studying the Scriptures, which is why at King's Evangelical Divinity School biblical theology plays an important role in our B.Th. programme and also features in our M.A. course. I think the challenge is not to become overly dogmatic about the internal theological system one imposes upon the text, which system of theology one endorses, but rather let students work this out for themselves over time.
Some schools do it the other way round: teach the systematics first and outline the central tenets of a doctrinal position (so as to make good Calvinists, dispensationalists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans, etc) before moving on to the tasks of hermeneutics and biblical theology. But the obvious danger here is to become prey to that second pitfall, presuppositionalism, which usually leads to analysing the text through the particular systematic theology spectacles we've been given (whether covenant theology, dispensational, NCT, or whatever). In short, if you are a dispensationalist and study a text, the chances are you will invariably interpret that text via your theological lens. Equally, if you espouse covenant theology a text will always be read through your covenant theology spectacles. Thus, systematic theology actually begins to shape our hermeneutics ("this text doesn't fit in with the theological system I believe in, so it must need interpreting in another manner"), when in fact it should be the other way around: our hermeneutics should determine our theological system.
That's why at King's we don't espouse any particular theological system or metanarrative, with the exception of a broad Evangelicalism which holds to the essentials of Evangelical theology and practice (aptly summarised in David Bebbington's quadrilateral: crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism). Tutors and students come from a range of Evangelical backgrounds and no particular theological viewpoint is imposed upon them. That's why our statement of faith is so brief! Our aim is not to espouse a particular theology (other than Evangelicalism), but rather equip students to engage in rigorous exegesis and hermeneutics to reach solid theological conclusions. That is not to say, like other Evangelical scholars, our students and tutors don't struggle with their own presuppositions having a bearing on how they view and interpret the text, which is all part of the hermeneutical spiral. But the focus at King's is definitely hermeneutics and biblical theology first, systematics second, rather than the other way around. Indeed, this focus on hermeneutics and biblical theology as a first port of call is quite liberating. It frees up an individual from defending a theological system at all costs, thereby permitting a fresh look at a text or issue without having to toe a party line, and as such is ideally suited for the free-thinking exegete.
For more information about King's distance learning courses in hermeneutics and theology, please visit www.kingsdivinity.org. The school offers a Bachelor of Theology, Graduate Diploma in Theology (for those with a degree in another subject), and a Master of Arts (Theology).