Hermeneutics, approaches to Biblical Interpretation

Hermeneutics, approaches to Biblical Interpretation                                      by Jack Kettler

Definition of Hermeneutics:

Biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. *

Hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. Theologically and biblically speaking, it is the means by which a person examines the Bible to determine what it means. There are different kinds of hermeneutical approaches. The Roman Catholic Church maintains a hermeneutical approach that puts the Roman Catholic Church above the Scriptures. The Protestants put the Scriptures above the church. **

In short, hermeneutics is the division of knowledge that is concerned with the interpretation of the Bible.

The Scripture that is most mentioned when approaching the subject is:

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Pulpit Commentary deals with this text from Timothy in a forthright way:

Verse 15. – Give diligence to present for study to show, A.V.; handling aright for rightly dividing, A.V. Give diligence. The A.V. “study,” if we give it its proper force, as in the Latin studeo, studium, studiosus, expresses the sense of σπούδασον exactly. Zeal, earnest desire, effort, and haste, are all implied in it (comp. 2 Timothy 4:9, 21; Titus 3:12; 2 Peter 1:10, 15; 2 Peter 3:14). To present thyself (παραστῆσαι, to present); as in Luke 2:22; Acts 1:3; Acts 9:41. In 1 Corinthians 8:8 it has the sense of “to commend,” nearly the same as δόκιμον παραστῆσαι. The rendering, to show thyself, of the A.V. is a very good one, and is preserved in the R.V. of Acts 1:3. Approved (δόκιμον; Romans 16:10; 1 Corinthians 11:19, etc.); one that has been tried and tested and found to be sterling; properly of metals. This, with the two following qualifications, “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,” and “one that rightly handles the Word of truth,” is the character which Timothy is exhorted to appear in before God. The dative τῷ Θεῷ is governed by παραστῆσαι, not by δόκιμον. A workman (ἐργάτην). How natural is such a figure in the mouth of Paul, who wrought at his trade with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:3), and was working night and day at Thessalonica, that he might earn his own living! That needeth not to be ashamed (ἀνεπαισχυντον); not found anywhere else, either in the New Testament or in the LXX. Or in classical Greek. Bengel hits the right force of the word when he renders it “non pudefactum,” only that by the common use of the passive participial form (compare ἀνεξιχνίαστος ἀνεξερεύνητος ἀναρίβμητος, etc.), it means further “that cannot be put to shame.” The workman whose work is skimped is put to shame when, upon its being tested, it is found to be bad, dishonest work; the workman whose work, like himself, is δόκιμος, honest, conscientious, good work, and moreover sound and skilful work, never has been, and never can be, put to shame. St. Paul shows how to secure its being good work, viz. by its being done for the eye of God. Handling aright the Word of truth (ὀρθοτομοῦντα τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας). The verb ὀρθοτομεῖν occurs only here in the New Testament. In the LXX, in Proverbs 3:6, it stands for “he shall direct [or ‘make straight’] thy paths;” and so in Proverbs 11:5. The idea is the same as that in Hebrews 12:13, “Make straight paths for your feet (τροχιὰς ὀρθὰς ποιήσατε).” But this does not at all suit the context. We must look, therefore, at the etymology of the word. Ὀρθοτόμεω must mean “to cut straight,” and, as the apostle is speaking of a good workman, he must be thinking of some work in which the workman’s skill consists in cutting straight: why not his own trade, in which it was all-important to cut the pieces straight that were afterwards to be joined to each other (see ὀρθότομος and ὀρθοτομία)? Hence, by an easy metaphor, “divide rightly,” or “handle rightly, the Word of truth,” preserving the true measure of the different portions of Divine truth. (1)

Does everyone interpret the Bible the same way?

Without going into detail, there are differing schools of interpretive methodology. Some of them are, the allegorical method, the literalistic method, the naturalistic method, Neo-Orthodox interpretations, the redemptive-historical hermeneutic and the grammatico-historical method. This last listed methodology is the principal interpretive method of conservative Protestants.

What is the Grammatico-Historical-Hermeneutical Method?

This method of interpretation focuses attention not only on literary forms but upon grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. It is solidly in the ‘literal schools’ of interpretation, and is the hermeneutical methodology embraced by virtually all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars.

Exegesis, the interpretive Norm:

Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξήγησις from ἐξηγεῖσθαι’ to lead out’) is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for exegesis of the Bible; however, in contemporary usage, it has broadened to mean a critical explanation of any text, and the term “Biblical exegesis” is used for greater specificity. The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the text which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance.

Exegesis includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other analysis includes classification of the type of literary genres present in the text, and an analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.

Eisegesis, the Interpretive Danger:

Eisegesis (from Greek εἰς “into” and ending from exegesis from ἐξηγεῖσθαι “to lead out”) is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas, reading into the text. This is best understood when contrasted with exegesis. While exegesis draws out the meaning of the text, eisegesis occurs when a reader reads his/her interpretation into the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective. An individual who practices eisegesis is known as an eisegete, as someone who practices exegesis is known as an exegete.

Next we will consider an entry from a theological dictionary to get an even better understanding of our topic at hand.

HERMENEUTICS

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.

Presuppositions

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).

Principles of Interpretation

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, and 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. (2)

In closing:

How do we approach the biblical literature? And are there interpretive difficulties?

For example, there are differing views regarding the interpretation of the book of Revelation. Four common views are the historicist (a method of interpretation which associates biblical prophecies with actual historical events), preterist (past fulfillment), futurist (future fulfillment), and the idealist (called the spiritual, allegorical, or non-literal approach) views. The book of Revelation belongs to a class of literature called “apocalyptic.” The Bible uses many literary forms. For instance, the Bible uses genera’s such as; law, historical narrative, wisdom, poetical, gospel, didactic letters, or epistles, predictive, and apocalyptic literature.

What portions of Scripture would be best for binding doctrinal teaching? 

For purposes of this study and using the book or Revelation an example it should be noted that we are dealing with a special genera of biblical literature, namely, “apocalyptic,” and there are a least four major schools of interpretation that involve rather substantial differences, it is probably best not to use these passages from Revelation to build an iron clad case of binding moral doctrine. Instead, we should look to the didactic portions of Scripture. What we know with certainty from the book or Revelation is that Christ is coming again physically at the end of history and the wicked will be judged eternally, and the righteous will inherit eternal life in the presence of the Lamb who is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic:

  1. Confessions delimit church power.

In an age when words, especially words that make truth claims, are always suspected of being part of some manipulative power game, it is perhaps counterintuitive to think of confessions as delimiting the power of the church. Yet a moment of reflection makes it clear that this is exactly what they do. An elder in the church has authority only relative to those matters that the confession defines. Thus, if someone in church declares the Trinity to be nonsense or commits adultery, the elders have both a right and a duty to intervene. Both issues are covered in the Westminster Standards. But if someone wishes to turn up at church wearing a bright yellow suit or decides to become a vegetarian, the elders have no right to intervene. They might have personal reservations about the person’s sense of appropriate dress or wonder how anyone could live without the occasional burger, but it is not the church’s business to address either matter. Indeed, this is what stops churches from becoming cults: clear and open statements about where church authority begins and ends, connected to transparent processes of exercising that authority. (3)

As a primary interpretive rule, Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture!

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Notes:

  1. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Proverbs, Vol. 9, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), pp. 498-499.
  2. lan Cairns, the Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International 2002), pp. 207–210.
  3. Carl Trueman, Why Christians Need Confessions, (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, New Horizons), http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=771

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For more study:

* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/

** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics

https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/ctd.html

  1. I. Packer: Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology

Greg Bahnsen: A Reformed Confession Regarding Hermeneutics

Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic by Edward A. Dowey Jr.

The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997- )

Vol. 79, No. 1, Presbyterians, Polity, and Confessional Identity (SPRING 2001), pp. 53-58

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