Greek hermeneuo, "to explain, interpret"; the science of Bible interpretation. Paul stated the aim of all true hermeneutics in 2 Tim. 2:15 as "rightly dividing the word of truth." That means correctly or accurately teaching the word of truth. The apostle boasted that he did not corrupt, or adulterate, the Scriptures (2 Cor. 2:17). A proper hermeneutical approach will enable us to say the same.
Bible interpretation proceeds upon certain presuppositions that yield certain clear principles by which we must explain the word of God.
The Inspiration of Scripture. Behind the human writers of the Bible books is the true author of each, God Himself (2 Tim. 3:15, 16; 1 Pet. 1:16–21).
The Uniqueness of Scripture. As the word of God, the Bible stands entirely apart from all other literature, sacred or secular. For this reason we cannot approach it in the same way we would approach any other book. It is its own interpreter. The principles by which we seek to learn its meaning are those the Bible itself demands or proposes.
The Unity of Scripture. Though composed of 66 parts, the Bible is one book with one divine author. It does not contradict itself. Where we imagine it does, we simply display our lack of understanding of its meaning. Thus we must never interpret any text of Scripture in such a way as to make it contradict another.
The unity of Scripture has other implications. The most obvious feature of the Bible is its division into two Testaments. Any system of interpretation must come to grips with their differences, similarities, and relationship. These matters raise some far-reaching questions, the answers to which will have a strong bearing on our hermeneutics.
The key to answering those questions must be that all Scripture is God's special redemptive revelation, with the person and work of Christ as its focal point. The progressive nature of this revelation must never be forgotten. Thus, while each Testament throws light on the other, the movement is always irreversibly from the Old to the New. "He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second" (Heb. 10:9). The importance of this one-way movement should be clear. There can be no going back to OT shadows that have found their substance in Christ. Those premillennialists who insist that there will be a return to animal sacrifices in the millennium, a view based largely on their interpretation of Ezek. 40–48, fail to hold on to this fundamental principle. A return to animal sacrifices clearly controverts the central message of the book of Hebrews. Any interpretation of an OT prophecy that produces such a conclusion is wrong and must be abandoned. There can be no return to Jewish sacrifices. The religion of the millennium cannot regress from Christianity to OT Judaism.
Not only must the progressive nature of revelation never be forgotten, it must never be abused. That is, it must not become an excuse to deny the plain meaning of OT prophecy, or to replace what the Bible states in the most literal fashion with idealist or spiritualized interpretations. Those who make over to the church all the blessings predicted for Israel while retaining all the curses for the nation (and sometimes both are in the same verse) are abusing the principle of progressive revelation. Those who refuse to see any reference to literal Israel and her future in places such as Zech. 12–14 do the same. This is all the more unreasonable when the language of the prophet plainly aims at describing literal Israel: "Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place, even in Jerusalem" (Zech. 12:6).
The Protestant Reformation called the church back to the Bible and demanded that it pay attention to the plain sense of Scripture. For centuries the fourfold sense of Scripture had all but closed up the meaning and message of the Bible (see Allegory). The Reformers reinstated the literal, or clearly intended, meaning of Scripture as the only legitimate interpretation. This approach depends heavily on a grammatical study of the text and has the invaluable advantage of heeding what is actually written—a procedure which modern schools of hermeneutics have all but given up.
Context. The context of a passage is both immediate and remote. That is, it is in the surrounding verses and chapters of the text being studied, but it is also in related passages in other books, especially by the same writer. The proper understanding of a text is always obtained by seeing it in its context.
Scope. The scope of a passage sets the boundaries of what the writer intends to say or teach in it. This will often be the key to understanding a difficult expression or text. Taking note of the writer's aim in writing the passage, and setting the text under consideration in its proper place in accomplishing that aim, will help the interpreter grasp its meaning.
Language. Morphology (the form of words), lexicology (the meaning of words), and syntax (the relationship of words in a sentence or clause) are vital to the understanding of any text. The rules of grammar and the Scripture's usage of language are indispensable to the interpretation of the word.
Figures of Speech. Figures of speech are too often neglected in Bible study. Failure to identify them and give them their natural force often leads to error. E. W. Bullinger's great work on the subject should be on every Bible interpreter's bookshelf. It should be noted that figurative language often occurs in passages that demand a literal interpretation. If I say, "Jim ran off like a frightened deer," I mean that he literally ran off. The presence of the figure simile does not alter the literalness of his running off.
Typology. The Bible identifies certain things, people, and events as typical. That is, beyond their place in OT history they foreshadow the realities of the gospel. The ceremonial rites and laws of Israel portrayed the gospel and have been fulfilled by it. They have therefore a unique place in Bible interpretation, but they must never be used to establish a doctrine that cannot be established by the plain statements of Scripture.
Symbolism. Symbols, especially in prophetic passages, must be interpreted as the Bible itself indicates (e.g., Jer. 1:11–16; 24:1–10; Ezek. 37). And it should be noted that the interpretation of a symbol is literal, not symbolic. For example, when Rev. 17:9 tells us that the seven heads of the beast are seven mountains, the mountains are actual mountains, not a further symbol whose meaning we are left to discover (yet even the acute prophetic scholar B. W. Newton fails to observe this in his treatment of the passage).
Poetry. Poetry has its own peculiarities. Insisting on treating poetry as plain prose will not lead to the Scripture's meaning but will obscure it. Learning the features of Hebrew poetry will open the word of God in a wonderful way to the careful student.
Historical Interpretation. Scripture is historically and culturally mediated. That is, God dipped His pen in actual history to give us the Bible. He did not drop it complete out of heaven. The historical background of the writer and those whom he addresses will be of real help in establishing his meaning. Here the study of introduction* is important.
However, we must not carry this emphasis on historical setting too far. The Bible is historically and culturally mediated but it is not historically and culturally conditioned, as most modern interpreters insist. By conditioned they mean that it is locked in its own time and place in history, that it is a product of its time, that its meaning for us depends on our ability to translate its ancient forms (and myths) into a modern equivalent. This has been the general procedure of modern hermeneutical methods.
Rationalist critics employed a grammatical-historical method allied to literary criticism. Their evolutionary view of the history of the religion of the Bible governed their approach.
Liberal critics, following Friedrich Schleiermacher and his consciousness theology,* adopted romanticist hermeneutics to discover, not what the written words of the Bible actually mean, but what they mean for me. In other words, the reader's response took the place of the writer's intent.
Martin Heidegger's early writings led to a school of interpretation that tried to get inside the mind of the writer to discover what he meant. Heidegger's later writings produced what is called The New Hermeneutic.* This does not try to get inside the writer's mind but inside his world. The idea is that it is only by understanding the world projected by a Bible book that we can understand it. This is the adaptation of Form Criticism* to hermeneutics.
All these methods do two things. First, they fasten on to something that is in itself a legitimate idea—historical background, the writer's purpose, the need to apply the message personally—and blow it out of all proportion so as to pervert it. Second, they fail to come to grips with what is actually written.
Dealing with what is actually written is the great task of all true interpretation. That is how the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles dealt with the Scriptures. Any hermeneutical approach that fails here cannot do justice to Scripture.
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 207–210). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
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