Hermeneutics – The Science of Interpreting the Bible.
Bible illiteracy in the 20th and 21st centuries:
- The Bible still outsells all other books, but most Christians today have little understanding of Scripture.
- There is a religious fervor in the modern Church, but a lack of Bible literacy.
Two reasons are given for Bible illiteracy:
- “The Bible is no longer relevant to our times.”
- “The Bible is too difficult and boring.”
But, the basic message of the Bible is clear.
- The message of redemption can be understood even by a child.
It is our DUTY to study the Bible.
- God commands His people in Deuteronomy 6:4–9.
- God requires diligent and careful study (2 Timothy 2:15).
It is our PRIVILEGE to study the Bible.
- Since the invention of the printing press, the Bible has been available to the common man.
- In the Scriptures we find unbelievable treasures of wisdom.
- By reading the Scriptures, we learn to live as God intended us to.
- It is necessary to distinguish between EXEGESIS and EISEGESIS.
- “Eisegesis” means reading into the passage something that is not there.
- “Exegesis” is drawing out from a passage what is contained within.
- No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.
- A) It is common to hear this statement made in any theological debate: “Well, that’s your interpretation!”
- 2 Peter 1:19-21 says, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
- The right of private interpretation carries with it the responsibility of correct interpretation.
- There is only one correct meaning of any biblical text.
- However, there may be many applications.
- Truth is not contradictory.
- Relativism takes the position that truth can be contradictory.
- Some people believe that a contradiction can exist in the Bible.
- Satan used the “principle of contradiction” in the Garden.
- Our interpretation must always be monitored and compared to the collective wisdom of others.
II. The science of interpretation.
- “Biblical vandalism” can be described as interpreting the Scriptures in a way that leads to fanciful conclusions. Unsound principles of interpretation produce false doctrine and a false “theology”.
- Interpreting the Bible properly is both an art and a science. There are sound principles of Hermeneutics which we must follow. A Bible study that goes astray must be brought back in line with questions that challenge and encourage “literal” interpretation.
A) God does not speak to us in “riddles” and “mysteries” but plainly, as a man would speak with his friend. The Bible should be interpreted as you would any other form of literature.
B) Biblical hermeneutics is summarized by 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
- Interpreting the Bible is both an art and a science.
- HERMENEUTICS is the science of biblical interpretation in which we seek to understand the message of the Scriptures.
- As in other sciences, interpreting Scripture is governed by rules.
- Biblical hermeneutics is the science of properly interpreting the various types of literature found in the Bible. (For example, a psalm should often be interpreted differently from a prophecy. A proverb should be understood and applied differently from a law.)
- The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to help us to know how to interpret, understand, and apply the Bible.
C) True interpretation must be objective since there is only one true meaning.
- Liberal theology challenged traditional methods of interpreting the Bible.
- Although Liberal theologians wanted to omit everything supernatural from the Bible, the Church was seen as an institution worth preserving for the betterment of the human race.
- The traditional Church erroneously took the position that the Gospel should be made relevant to today’s problems as though it was not already.
- This led to new, weak and sometimes erroneous translation methods which produced some modern versions of the Bible.
D) There are three major methods of interpretation used today.
(1) The GRAMMATICO -HISTORICAL method is the classical approach.
- Grammatico-historical strives to discover the original meaning of the texts.
- Grammatico-historical seeks to bridge the gap between the time Scripture was written and the 20th century when it is being interpreted.
(2) The RELIGIOUS-HISTORICAL method takes the view that religion along with everything else is evolving from the simple to the complex.
- The “documentary hypothesis” claimed that the first five books of the Bible were authored by many men.
- The modern computer utilizing all available data has conclusively proven that only one man wrote these books.
(3) The EXISTENTIAL method maintains that God speaks through the bible to each person directly from above.
- The authors wrote but we interpret in the present according to our own existential situation.
- We have bought into a view of relativism that says there are no absolutes or abiding principles.
III. Literal Interpretation.
- Why should we interpret the Bible literally?
- The most important law of biblical hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted literally. Literal Bible interpretation means we understand the Bible in its normal/plain meaning. The Bible says what it means and means what it says.
- Many make the mistake of trying to read between the lines and come up with meanings for Scriptures that are not truly in the text. There is no hidden or mysterious meaning in the text.
A) Spiritualistic interpretation turns the Bible into a book of magic.
- There are some spiritual truths behind the plain meanings of Scripture. But that does not mean that every Scripture has a hidden spiritual truth, or that it should be our goal to find all such spiritual truths.
- “Lucky-dipping” is a popular method of interpretation – Ask god a question, close your eyes, open the Bible and put your finger on any passage and read. (God did not inspire passages of Scripture many years ago to tell us answers totally unrelated to the literal meaning originally intended.)
B) God does use Scripture to speak to us, but the message is always consistent with the literal interpretation.
- Biblical hermeneutics keeps us faithful to the intended meaning of Scripture and away from allegorizing and symbolizing Bible verses and passages that should be understood literally.
- Some mistakenly view Biblical hermeneutics as limiting our ability to learn new truths from God’s Word or stifling the Holy Spirit’s ability to reveal to us the meaning of God’s Word. This is not the case.
- The goal of Biblical hermeneutics is to point us to the correct interpretation which the Holy Spirit has already inspired into the text.
- The purpose of Biblical hermeneutics is to protect us from improperly applying a Scripture to a particular situation.
- Unbelief of the traditional meaning is not to be a reason for reinterpreting a passage to fit our beliefs. Some have read prophecy into passages never meant to predict future events. This can also be a serious mistake.
- A second crucial law of biblical hermeneutics is that a verse or passage must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually. We must be able to recognize the literary form in which the Bible comes to us.
- Historical interpretation refers to understanding the culture, background, and situation which prompted the text.
- Grammatical interpretation is recognizing the rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages and applying those principles to the understanding of a passage.
- Contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine the meaning.
- Biblical hermeneutics points us to the true meaning and application of Scripture. Hebrews 4:12 declares, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
IV. Principles of exegesis.
- Exegesis means “exposition or explanation.” Biblical exegesis involves the examination of a particular text of scripture in order to properly interpret it.
- Exegesis is a part of the process of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. A person who practices exegesis is called an exegete.
- Good biblical exegesis is actually commanded in scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). According to this verse, we must handle the Word of God properly, through diligent study. If we don’t, we have reason to be ashamed.
- There are some basic principles of good exegesis which serious students of the Bible should follow:
A) The Grammatical Principle.
- The Bible was written in human language, and language has a certain structure and follows certain rules. Therefore, we must interpret the Bible in a manner consistent with the basic rules of language.
- Usually, the exegete starts his examination of a passage by defining the words in it. Definitions are basic to understanding the passage as a whole, and it is important that the words be defined according to their original intent and not according to modern usage. To ensure accuracy, the exegete uses a precise English translation and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries.
- Next, the exegete examines the syntax, or the grammatical relationships of the words in the passage. He finds parallels, he determines which ideas are primary and which are subordinate, and he discovers actions, subjects, and their modifiers. He may even diagram a verse or two.
B) The Literal Principle.
- We assume that each word in a passage has a normal, literal meaning, unless there is good reason to view it as a figure of speech. The exegete does not go out of his way to spiritualize or allegorize. Words mean what words mean.
- So, if the Bible mentions a “horse,” it means “a horse.” When the Bible speaks of the Promised Land, it means a literal land given to Israel and should not be interpreted as a reference to heaven.
C) The Historical Principle.
- As time passes, culture changes, points of view change, language changes. We must guard against interpreting scripture according to how our culture views things; we must always place scripture in its historical context.
- The diligent Bible student will consider the geography, the customs, the current events, and even the politics of the time when a passage was written. An understanding of ancient Jewish culture can greatly aid an understanding of scripture. To do his research, the exegete will use Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and books on history.
D) The Synthesis Principle.
- The best interpreter of scripture is scripture itself. We must examine a passage in relation to its immediate context (the verses surrounding it), its wider context (the book it’s found in), and its complete context (the Bible as a whole). The Bible does not contradict itself. Any theological statement in one verse can and should be harmonized with theological statements in other parts of scripture. Good Bible interpretation relates any one passage to the total content of scripture.
E) The Practical Principle.
- Once we’ve properly examined the passage to understand its meaning, we have the responsibility to apply it to our own lives. To “rightly divide the word of truth” is more than an intellectual exercise; it is a life-changing event.
V. Literary Forms:
- Phenomenological Language (language of appearances).
- Words that describe events as they appear to the naked eye.
- Example: “The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.” (Galileo’s discovery that the earth was not the center of the universe embarrassed the Church.)
- Round numbers.
- Crowd estimates are probably used as with Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 people.
- An INTENTIONAL exaggeration of the truth in order to make apoint.
- Example: “All Capernaum turned out,” certainly did not mean that every man, woman, and child was there.
- Jesus talked about the mustard seed being the smallest of the seeds. It illustrated a comparison made but is not a scientific fact.
- The metaphor.
- Used to illustrate points by comparison to objects in nature or everyday experience.
- “I am the vine.” John 15:5.
- “This is my body” Luke 22:19, has been interpreted differently by the Church fathers.
- Anthropomorphic language.
- Communicates in human terms, example: the Incarnation of Christ.
- Attributes personal, human characteristics to inanimate objects.
- “…the trees of the field shall clap their hands” Isaiah 55:12, is an obvious example.
- Personification appears normally in poems.
- The historical narrative.
- Describes actual events that occurred.
- It is the historical aspect that is under attack today.
- The passage about Balaam’s ass is in question.
- The serpent in the Garden of Eden raises questions in the minds of skeptics concerning the entire issue of the fall of man.
- The Tree of Life sounds like a symbol, but it appears in the context of historical prose.
- The Bible is redemptive History.
- Our faith is dependent upon these events having actually occurred: a real
- Jesus, a real cross, a real risen Lord.
Characteristics of historical narrative are:
- A setting in time or real historical place.
- A prose style.
- The presence of genealogies.
- No obvious moral teaching.
VI. Read the Bible Existentially.
- We should read the Bible as people who are intimately, personally, and passionately involved with what we are reading.
- Read the Bible stories as though they were written to you personally.
- Read between the lines and live the life situations of the biblical characters.
- Look for the drama contained throughout Scripture.
- The Bible is not simply communicating information. The full range of human emotions is present.
- Reading even the ceremonial laws has value in understanding other stories in the Bible.
- There is great human emotion behind the Levitical passages concerning the process of recognizing leprosy.
- The dietary laws of the Old Testament created the background leading to the fiery furnace.
VII. Interpreting the historical narrative.
- The historical narrative must be interpreted by the didactic.
- Do not set one portion of Scripture against another.
- Didactic passages were inspired to teach and give interpretation of narrative passages.
- The gospels were designed to relate what happened while the epistles that later explains which view is to be taken.
- Christ’s passions are told in narrative form and several viewpoints could be taken of Christ’s death. It is the epistle that later explains which view is to be taken.
- Do not draw conclusions from narratives only.
- The angel’s words stopping Abraham from slaying Isaac can be misinterpreted. (Abraham’s faith in God was being tested and not God’s faith in Abraham.)
- Mormons have erroneously taken the position that God has a physical body from the Genesis account of man being made in the image of God.
- We should not necessarily model our behavior after Jesus’ behavior. (Example: When Jesus drove the money changers from the Temple, it was because He was the Lord of the Temple. You are not.)
- We should not imitate Bible heroes in all things.
- Imitate only that which God praised in them.
- Avoid that which God calls sinful in their lives in those and other passages.
- Be careful of conclusions drawn from activities and practices of the early, first century Church.
- While the Church was pure in one sense, it was also immature in many ways. (Example: The principle of property held in common practiced by the early Church has been mistaken as a mandate for communism.)
- Remember that:
- Scripture interprets Scripture.
- The Holy Spirit is His own interpreter.
VIII. The Explicit and the Implicit.
- The implicit is to be interpreted in light of the explicit.
- The explicit statement is made forthrightly, directly, and clearly—what the Scriptures actually say.
- The implicit requires rational powers of deduction to draw inferences from the text.
- Inferences drawn from implicit passages are often passed off as clear, unambiguous teaching.
- John 20:26 is often used to argue that Jesus’ resurrected body could pass through solid objects.
- 1 Corinthians 11:10 is cited as proof that angels are attracted to women with long hair.
- Acts 2:4 is often sited to teach that all Christians should speak in “tongues”.
- A more serious problem is drawing inferences from the implicit that violate explicit teaching elsewhere in Scripture. Examples:
- Does fallen man have the moral ability to choose Jesus Christ for himself? (John 3:16 says nothing explicitly about man’s moral ability to choose Christ but is often used to teach that man has the ability to do so. Yet, John 6:44 explicitly teaches that NO man has the moral ability to choose Christ unless God enables him to do so.
- Words in English can have more than one meaning. (The word “salvation” is used three ways in Scripture. The word “lord” can refer to Christ’s kingly position or be a form of polite address.)
- Every passage of Scripture must be measured and interpreted against the whole of Scripture.
- What is a parallelism?
- Synonymous parallelisms present the same idea, but in a slightly different way. (Examples: Proverbs 19:5 “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who speaks lies will not escape.” The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:13, “. . . do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”)
- Antithetic or contrasting parallelism presents an idea contrasting or comparing two lines. (Example: Proverbs 13:10, “By pride comes nothing but strife, but with the well-advised is wisdom.”)
- Synthetic parallelisms build to a crescendo. (Examples: Psalms 92:9, “For behold, Your enemies, O Lord, for behold, Your enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.” Matthew 7:7, “Ask . . . seek . . . knock.”)
- All three forms are clearly poetic.
Isaiah 45:7 in the King James Version presents a problem:
- “I form the light, and I create the darkness.” KJV.
- “I make peace, and I create evil.” KJV. (“ I bring prosperity, and I bring calamity.” Modern versions.)
- Much confusion results from awkward or inaccurate translations.
- Scripture interpreting Scripture prevents many errors and misinterpretations.
- The Bible presents principles in a number of ways.
- Casuistic law presents a principle and is characterized by “If . . . then . . .” phrasing.
- Apodictic law is characterized by “You shall” or “You shall not.”
- Proverbs presents precepts by way of illustrations of practical wisdom and are not intended to be moral absolutes. (Example: Proverbs 26:4-5, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”)
X. Scripture and Culture.
- What is the problem of transcultural communication?
- Other cultures and languages do not necessarily adequately express difficult concepts foreign to them. (The native may not have a word in his language for the concept of God’s love.)
- A child in a city ghetto may not be acquainted with sheep—an object of much discussion and example in the Bible.
- Jesus’ curse on the fig tree (Matt. 21:18-21) is often not understood, but Jesus was using the tree as an object lesson.
- Are the principles in Scripture able in every case to be applied to the life of the Christian and Church today?
- The role of women in the home and the church is a point of controversy today. The Bible does teach the subordination of women in the home. (Allowing women certain tasks in the Church that are prohibited in Scripture does cause some Christians to go against their conscience.)
- The question is one of rejecting what may be only a local custom or violating an enduring principle.
- A principle is a teaching, admonition, or precept that is transcultural; it applies to all people in all cultures and in all ages.
- A custom is a principle governing people at particular time and in a particular locality.
- It would be a serious offense against God to dismiss a principle as simply a local custom having no authority over us today.
XI. Principle versus Custom.
- How can we know whether Scripture is teaching a principle or simply communicating a custom? Example:
- It used to be the custom for women to wear hats in church to cover their heads.
- First Corinthians 11 states that covering the head is a sign of subordination to the man.
- There are four ways to interpret this passage: 1) As pure custom where both the head covering and subordination to the man are for that particular time and place only. 2) As pure principle where we are to implement all aspects everywhere and at all times. 3) As partly principle showing subordination in SOME way. 4) As partly principle showing subordination and submission by covering the head, but partly custom in allowing for differences in how the head is covered.
- Practical guidelines to help in determining what is principle and what is custom.
- Examine the Bible for apparent areas of custom. (Language, styles of dress, monetary systems, etc.)
- Allow for Christian distinctives in the first century.
- Never assume that everything the Bible says merely reflects the cultural situation of the day. (First Corinthians 11 is often misinterpreted as Paul telling women to cover their heads so as to not appear as the Corinthian prostitutes. But, Paul gives a reason for covering the head which is based upon submission appealing to the creation Be aware of creation principles.)
- When in doubt, do not violate what may be a principle. This is the principle of humility.