Reasoning From the Scriptures

By Kieran Beville

Let’s just remind ourselves of the meaning of hermeneutics. The word “hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō) which means to translate or interpret. It is derived from Greek mythology which gives an account of Hermes, the Greek god who brought the messages of the gods to humans, which he also interpreted. Thus, the word hermeneuō came to refer to bringing someone to an understanding of something. Biblical hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. By means of various principles, it seeks to discover the precise meaning of the original authors of Scripture.

The Bible contains several passages that suggest the importance of proper interpretation in order to arrive at a true understanding. In a passage where Ezra read the Law from a wooden platform constructed for that purpose, it is stated, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”―Nehemiah 8:8.

On the road to Emmaus Jesus said:

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.―Luke 24:25-27.

When Paul and Silas were in Berea they encountered some curious unbelievers: It is recorded of these Bereans, “…they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”―Acts 17:11.

Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading Isaiah 53, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). The eunuch answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (v.31). The eunuch did not understand the messianic significance of this passage until Philip explained the gospel from this text.―Acts 8:27-35.

Peter says, “Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet. 3:16) Interestingly Peter is referring to the writings of Paul as “Scripture.”

As a theological discipline, hermeneutics seeks a correct interpretation of the Bible. To this end, it seeks to formulate principles of interpretation. These principles or rules are like a rulebook for a game. The game is meaningless without the rules, “Hermeneutics…is like a cookbook and exegesis is the preparing and baking of the cake and exposition is serving the cake”[1] How important is hermeneutics compared to other theological disciplines? Its importance is immense since a proper understanding of Scripture is the basis of a sound theology. A trustworthy interpretation of Scripture, therefore, is critical for a proper understanding of the Christian faith.

A sound and trustworthy interpretation of the Scripture…is the root and basis of all revealed theology. Without it, Systematic Theology, or Dogmatics, could not be legitimately constructed, and would, in fact, be essentially impossible. For the doctrines of revelation can only be learned from a correct understanding of the oracles of God.[2]

The study of hermeneutics is an important and relevant subject for every Christian. The world of the Bible is widely separated in its culture and customs from our world today. Therefore, there is the need to bridge that gap. There is a wide range of literary genres found in the Bible (e.g., poetry, prophecy, parables and so on) and there are ancient figures of speech, and this makes hermeneutics necessary for biblical interpretation. We all bring our own theological baggage to the task of interpretation, but hermeneutics is meant to be impartial and objective not biased and subjective. This is the problem with some approaches to interpretation, which are agenda-driven ~ such as, Liberation, Feminist, and Black theologies. These approaches are not independent, and many of its scholars are propagandists. Therefore, hermeneutics is important for constructing theological understandings. One author puts it like this:

Exegesis is prior to any system of theology…We can only know the truth of God by a correct exegesis of Scripture…Great mischief has been done in the church when the system of theology or its framework has been derived extra-biblically…If the grounds of Christian theology is the revelation of God, then theology must be grounded in revelation and not in philosophy. The historic Protestant position is to ground theology in biblical exegesis. A theological system is to be built up exegetically brick by brick. Hence, the theology is no better than the exegesis that underlies it. The task of the systematic theologian is to commence with these bricks ascertained through exegesis, and build the temple of his theological system.[3]

Careful hermeneutics will keep people from drifting into heresy or falling prey to a religious cult. As James Sire has noted:

If traditional Christianity affirms the Bible as its sole authority, Sola Scriptura, as the Reformers said, how can these very different religious movements [i.e., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science] claim Scripture for their own? The obvious answer is the right one, I believe. They can only do so by violating the principles of sound literary interpretation.[4]

Therefore, a sound hermeneutic is critical, especially a clear understanding of the differences which exist between the Old and New Covenants. This will help us to avoid making wrong deductions. Making wrong deductions from the Old Testament is a common mistake. Throughout church history, it has led to all sorts of abuses and atrocities:

Because Scripture has not been properly interpreted the following has been urged as the voice of God: in that the patriarchs practiced polygamy we may practice it; in that the Old Testament sanctioned the divine right of the king of Israel, we may sanction the divine right of kings everywhere; because the Old Testament sanctioned the death of witches, we too may put them to death; because the Old Testament declared that some plagues were from God, we may not use methods of sanitation, for that would be thwarting the purposes of God; because the Old Testament forbade usury in the agrarian commonwealth of Israel we may not employ it in our economic system; because the Scriptures make certain remarks about the suffering of women in childbirth we may not approve any method of easing the pain; because tithing was a law (de jure) in Israel, it is a law to the Church…A sound hermeneutics would have prevented all of this. It would prevent an uncritical and unrealistic application of the Old Testament to Christian morality. It would prevent an expositor from using some mere phrase as an eternal principle of morality. It would prevent the effort of trying to force some binding principle upon contemporary life from an obscure Old Testament incident. It would prevent the justification of ritualism and priestcraft from an improper extension of the Tabernacle worship and sacrificial system. The result of an erratic hermeneutics is that the Bible has been made the source of confusion rather than light.[5]

See Appendix 4: Tithing ~ A Case Study

Three Categories of Law

The Mosaic Law falls into three categories, moral, ceremonial and judicial. These distinctions are important ~ especially when it comes to issues like capital punishment. The prohibition against murder comes under the absolute moral law. However, the death penalty was prescribed under the judicial aspect of the law and need not necessarily be the only punishment for murder. Because the penalty is a judicial matter, it is up to the state to decide. Therefore, Christians who say the Bible requires the death penalty for murderers are wrong. Likewise, Christians who say it is wrong for the state to impose the death penalty because killing is prohibited in Scripture are also wrong. It comes down to proper hermeneutics.

The ceremonial law, with its many offerings and sacrifices, was fulfilled in Christ. Jesus was the fulfillment of all that was typified by those ordinances. Therefore, they are no longer necessary or relevant. The judicial law set out the manner in which Israel’s society was to be governed and regulated. This also passed away in A. D. 70 when the Jewish nation was scattered and therefore ceased to exist. The moral law (the Ten Commandments) is the abiding law of God for all time and did not pass with the coming of Christ.[6] Usually, a reference to the law of God in the New Testament refers to the Ten Commandments. There is never a hint given that this has been repealed. These commands are the transcript of holiness and as such, they are the divine standard. They were written first upon the heart of Adam before they were inscribed on tablets of stone at Sinai. This moral law is binding upon all men for all time. Man is responsible and accountable to the standard. It is impossible to keep. Jesus is the only person who has ever kept the law in its entirety. It is a serious matter for any person to dismiss the law of God as irrelevant. This applies to people both inside and outside the church. The believer is no longer under the law in terms of justification ~ that is to say nobody can be justified by keeping the law. The absolute moral law of God has never been revoked. We are expected to conform to its requirements for holy living.


Contemporary Issues

Proper hermeneutics is important for interpreting Scripture in relation to contemporary social and spiritual issues. It would prevent an expositor from using some mere phrase as an eternal principle of morality ~ for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses attitude to blood transfusions. It would prevent some binding principle being forced upon contemporary life from an obscure Old Testament incident. The result of bad hermeneutics is that the Bible has been made the source of confusion rather than light. The goal of hermeneutics is that we might be better interpreters of Scripture and thereby, kept from doctrinal error and many other cases of abuse that arise from a mishandling of Scripture. Hermeneutics is important for spiritual development because correct application of biblical truth depends on correct interpretation. It is relevant in determining what the Christian believes and how the Christian lives.

[1] Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, (David C. Cook, 1991), 22.

[2] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: a Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1974), 21-22.

[3] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, (Baker Academic, 1980), 168-169.

[4] James Sire, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, (IVP, 1980), 12.

[5] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 2-3.

[6] Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The law convicts of sin and is a signpost to Christ, who paid the penalty for the sins