In short, hermeneutics is important because if you are not interpreting the Bible correctly, you will not find the accurate knowledge (Gr. epignosis) of God. Hermeneutics has rules and principles and if they are not followed correctly, you will come away with the wrong interpretation of what the author meant.
Answering the Why First
- The Bible Gives Us Answers to Questions about Life
- The Bible Offers How to Get the Best out of Life Now
- The Bible Offers How to Best Live In an Imperfect World
- The Bible helps us to See What the Future Holds
- The Bible helps us Share the Good News
- The Bible Helps Us Achieve and Maintain Our Spirituality
- The Bible Helps Us Understand the Will and Purposes of the Creator
Hermeneutics comes from the classical Greek, the word hermeneuo, which often means “to explain, to interpret.” Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It is part of the broader field of hermeneutics which involves the study of principles of interpretation for all forms of communication, nonverbal and verbal. There are two main types of biblical interpretation.
The Historical-Critical Method: This is the liberal to the moderate method of interpretation that is very subjective. What does subjective mean? The interpretational rules and principles are based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions, dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.
The Historical-Grammatical Method: This is the conservative method of biblical interpretation that is very subjective. What does subjective mean? The interpretational rules and principles are not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts, not dependent on the mind for existence; but rather they are actual. They are based on facts, actual, real evidence.
In reference to defining hermeneutics, Milton S. Terry wrote,
Hermeneutics, therefore, is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure. (Terry 1883, 28)
Simply put, hermeneutics (to explain, to interpret), is the study of the correct methods of interpretation. In other words, we are going to learn the rules and principles of biblical interpretation, as well as examples. Another important technical term is exegesis (from exēgeisthai to explain, interpret, from ex– + hēgeisthai to lead; ex– “out of” or “from”), which is taking the explanation or interpretation from or out of the text. On the other hand, we also have what is known as eisegesis (Greek eis into (akin to Greek en in; eis- “into” or “in”), which is an interpretation of a text that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, as opposed to what the author meant by the text. In other words, it is the interpreter reading his or her own meaning “into” the text, as opposed to taking the author’s intended meaning “out of” the text. Clearly, the Christian should want to carry out an exegetical analysis of a text, which is applying the interpretation rules and principles of hermeneutics. Therefore, “when one studies principles of interpretation, that is ‘hermeneutics,’ but when one applies those principles and begins actually explaining a biblical text, he or she is doing ‘exegesis.’” (Grudem, Making Sense of the Bible: One of Seven Parts from Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Making Sense of Series) 2011, 92)
Context is the words, phrases, or passages that precede and follow a particular word or passage in the Bible, which will help to explain its meaning. Context also includes the chapter, the book of the Old or New Testament that it is in, up unto the entire Bible. In addition, it is the dispensation in which it was written. As well, it is the historical-cultural environment of the time when it was penned. The immediate context is that which immediately precedes and follows a given word or sentence. What is known as the remote context is that which encompasses an entire paragraph or section. For example, if we turn to Ephesians chapter 6 in our Bible, we will notice indentations between verses 5-9, which covers slaves and their masters.
The Scope of the Bible author is the range covered by his subject or topic. Every writer has an objective for his penning a book, such as Luke, who writes, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order,” for a man named Theophilus. (Lu 1:1-4, NASB) Who did John write his Gospel? He tells his readers, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31, ESV) The plan of an author for a biblical book is the outline of the content. For example, in Luke chapter 1,
- Dedication to Theophilus (1-4)
- Birth of John the Baptist foretold by Gabriel (5-25)
- Birth of Jesus Foretold by Gabriel (26-38)
- Mary visits Elizabeth (39-45)
- Mary’s Song of Praise (46-56)
- The Birth of John the Baptist (57-66)
- Zechariah’s prophecy (67-80)
All three of these areas should be studied together, as they are related to our objective of trying to discover the meaning of a given author’s book. The best approach is, to begin with, the scope, by reading through the entire Bible book in one sitting, 3-5 setting, if we are talking about a book the size of Isaiah. In this, we are looking for the purpose of why the author penned the book, and how he has approached his task. Only then, can we break it down into sections, because we have the big picture of the whole? Each writer has an objective for his book, and he will lay out the book in some sort of outline, to accomplish that plan.
While some Bible authors offer insight into the objective of their book, i.e., the purpose of his writing, such as Luke and John mentioned earlier, some are not that simple. For example, the book of Genesis is laid out in ten sections, which is only discovered by a reading of the entire book. The reader will note these sections by similar phrases. For example, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (2:4) “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” (5:1) “These are the generations of Noah.” (6:9) “These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (10:1) The ten “generations” or “histories” are preceded by the creation of the heavens and the earth, as well as man. Thus, it would seem, God had Moses give us the creation account and then the history of humanity. Truly, the account in Genesis is beneficial in building up faith, “to give the nation Israel an explanation of its existence on the threshold of the conquest of Canaan.” (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, 122)
Author, Text, and Reader
One must have the author, the text and the reader to accomplish communication. If we remove any one of these three, communication is impossible. However, modern liberal scholarship has caused a bit of confusion as to which one of these three are responsible for the meaning.
The approach that has been with us from the beginning and is by far the most logical of all is that the author is responsible for the meaning. This approach holds that what Moses, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, Paul, John or any of the other 34 Bible authors penned, the meaning is what they intended to convey, as they were moved along by Holy Spirit, is found in the words that they used. There are several arguments against this approach, which will be discussed below.
The first objection is that the reader cannot possibly get into the mind of the author, not being able to know what he was thinking as he penned his words. The reader is not capable of sharing the experiences that contributed to the author’s penning of his words. Therefore, they claim that the reader is blocked from accessing what the author meant by his words. This reasoning makes no sense based on how humans come to understand any book. The goal of the reader is not to share in Paul’s experiences or have access to the thoughts passing through his mind at the time he penned his words. The goal is to determine what Paul meant to communicate by the words that he chose to use, and should have been understood by his intended audience.
The second objection is that Paul, like the rest of imperfect humanity, may have fallen short of conveying the message, by choosing the wrong words. First, the irony is that those who write such comments do not believe that there is any chance that they may fail to communicate their message. Even this writer has certainly written a paper or an email that has miscommunicated what I meant to say. However, we must consider two things. (1) Authors, with few exceptions, succeed in conveying their intended message; (2) and we do not have the “Holy Spirit” to move us along (2 Pet 1:21), as was the case with the biblical authors. The process of publishing a work goes through multiple stages. The biblical author would have had a scribe that would have copied down what he was inspired to say. The scribe’s work would have been considered a rough draft. At that point, both the scribe and the author would have gone over the text, making corrections, if necessary. From there the scribe would have produced the authorized text for publishing, which the author would read again and sign.
The third objection is at least more grounded in reality. Here these objectors suggest that we are just too far removed from the author in time (thousands of years), language, custom, and culture, among many other barriers. This argument suggests that these obstacles make our understanding of the author’s meaning impossible. While there is some merit to what they suggest, and it may be a difficult task at times, it is hardly impossible.
The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, were written some 3,500 years ago, in a different time, to a different culture, and in a different language. Even the people of that day found them hard to understand, so at times, they asked Moses and the seventy elders to clarify. The same is true in the first century C.E., Matthew through Revelation, 2,000 years ago, represents many, many different cultures, three different languages, and so on. And here is what Peter said about Paul’s letters: “in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3:16, ESV) Nevertheless, know this; they understood almost immediately, what was meant because it was their time, their language, their circumstances, their idioms, their metaphors, their way of talking and doing. It is not ours, so we must compensate.
If meaning is what Paul meant by the words he used in the letter to the Ephesians, as it should have been understood by those who had read it; then, we have to have the same mindset as those Ephesians. We have to know who wrote the letter, who is the recipient, their historical setting, Bible backgrounds of the time, who are involved, what are the circumstances, what do the technical and religious terms mean in the original language, the idioms, the hyperbole, the metaphors, and far more than one may realize. We have study tools like a good study Bible, word dictionaries, Bible dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias, Bible background books, as well as others so we can arrive at the meaning that was intended by the author.
The author had an intended meaning when he wrote his text, and that meaning is for all time, as long as that text is in existence. However, we need to understand that there are implications that belong to those words as well. What is an implication? Implications are principles that a reader can draw from the text, to apply it in his or her life. They fall within the pattern of the author’s intended meaning. Let us look at a few examples from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. First, Paul’s letter to the Galatians will set the stage.
Galatians 5:19-21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Look again at the very last expression in that list, “things like these.” The Bible is not going to provide us with exhaustive lists of everything that we should understand as an example, a lesson, or implication, as this would mean a Bible with tens of thousands of additional pages. How long of a list would it be, if Paul had given the reader an exhaustive list of the works of the flesh? Do we believe that any Galatians who had this letter written to them, thought, ‘wow, that was close; he didn’t list the one I do.’ By closing the list with the words “things like these,” Paul was making his readers aware that they should perceive or discern other things fit the pattern of “these things.”
Matthew 5:21-22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever says to his brother, ‘You fool,’ will be brought before the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of Gehenna.
We should take note in each of these that Jesus is giving an implication of what sin leads to, that is an act of heinous sinning. Furious anger is a sin, and in some cases does lead to murder. Let us put it another way; all murder is the result of furious anger.
Matthew 5:27-28 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
We will notice the phrase “lustful intent,” keying in on the word “intent.” This is not a man walking along who catches sight of a beautiful woman and has an indecent thought, which he then dismisses. It is not even a man in the same situation that has an indecent thought, who goes on to entertain and cultivate that thought. No, this is a man that is staring, gazing at a woman with the intent of lusting, and is looking at the woman, with the intention of peaking her interest and desire, to get her to lust.
Therefore, the author determines the meaning of a text by the words he chose to use, as should have been understood by his intended audience. Within the one intended meaning are implications that must conform to the pattern of the author’s intended meaning. All readers are to discover the intended meaning, as well as any implications. Implications are principles that a reader can draw from the text, to apply it in his or her life. They fall within the pattern of the author’s intended meaning. The Apostle Paul’s command at Ephesians 5:18 is a good example. There Paul writes, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” Are we to believe that Paul would be fine if the Ephesian congregation members were to get drunk with beer instead? No. What about whiskey, since it was not invented until centuries later? No, the Christian would avoid this as an instrument for getting drunk as well. The principle of what Paul meant was that a Christian does not take in a substance that can affect his or her abilities to make good decisions, in excess. Therefore, this principle would apply to whiskey, wine, beer, bourbon, marijuana, and other things like these of which Paul would not be aware.
Please see the chart below for the pattern of meaning, implications that fit, and the implications that do not.
|Pattern of Meaning
The text does not determine the meaning; it is simply a tool that is used to convey the authors intended meaning. Whether it is the Hebrew language of Isaiah, or the Greek of the Apostle Paul, the letters, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, grammar, and syntax are used as tools to convey that which the author intends. As scholars have grown in their understanding of Biblical Hebrew and Greek over the centuries, the better tool has been our understanding of what was meant by the original Hebrew and Greek.
The objective of any writer is that he or she wishes to be understood. Therefore, the writers will write in a standard pattern of their language. Those wishing to understand what has been penned must learn the grammar and syntax of that language, as well as knowledge of the writer, the setting and the customs and culture of that time. The only other option is to have a translation in our language that is reflective of the original. In other words, if there is to be an immediate understanding, such as would have been the case for an original reader, one would need an interpretive translation.
The text will not only convey what the author meant, but will pass on cultural, historical, geographical, scientific, and other information as well. Of course, we the reader shall enjoy the subject matter as we try to ascertain what the author wishes to convey, but we do not want to be overly sidetracked by the subject matter. The fact that Paul traveled more than 40,000 miles, the places he sees, the experiences he has are all important, in that these details convey the lengths that Paul would go to in order to fulfill his commission of spreading the Good News. In addition, the subject matter at times may shed some light on the meaning, but for the most part, the geography of some place, the size of the ship on which Paul traveled, will not be the primary concern. Therefore, the author conveys the meaning by the words, as well as the grammar and syntax.
The idea that the reader is the one who determines the meaning is known as the “reader response.” Each of us must determine if an interpretation is correct. However, this is based on the rules and principles of interpretation, as well as a sound knowledge of these rules and principles, which is applied in a balanced manner.
The “reader response” is not of that nature, though. For those who hold to this position, all meaning is equal to another, and all are correct. We can have a set of verses, and 20 people may give different interpretations, and many may seem the opposite of others. Those believing in the “reader “response” will say that all are correct. Under this position, for them, the text allows each reader the right to derive his or her own meaning from the text. This is where we hear “I think this means,” “I believe this means,” “this means to me,” and “I feel this means to me.” The problem with this is that the text loses its authority; God and His author lose their authority over the intended meaning of the text. When God inspired the writer, to express His will and purposes, there was the intention of one meaning, what the author under inspiration meant by the words he used. If anyone can come along and give it whatever meaning pleases them, then God’s authority over the meaning is lost, and there is no real meaning at all.
The reader does have a responsibility for the discovery of the meaning. He must seek out the intended meaning of the author. He goes about this by grammatical-historical interpretation. Of course, this requires each of us to have good tools. First, and foremost we should have at least one or two good books on the correct methods of biblical interpretation. We should have several good literal translations of the Bible (ASV, ESV, NASB, UASV), to make comparisons. We should have a couple word study dictionaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, Bible background commentaries, a book on customs and cultures of Bible times, a Bible commentary set, among other tools. This may seem like a lot to invest in; however, we are dealing with
- an opportunity at a relatively joyous and happy life in this wicked world that we now live in,
- by the correct application of the Bible, as we understand it from our hermeneutical and exegetical studies,
- affording us an opportunity to draw close to God,
- becoming his friend,
- and an opportunity at eternal life.
Biblical Interpretation Explained
Step 1: What is the historical setting and background for the author of the book and his audience? Who wrote the book? When and under what circumstances was the book written? Where was the book written? Who were the recipients of the book? Was there anything noteworthy about the place of the recipients? What is the theme of the book? What was the purpose of writing the book?
Step 2a: What would this text mean to the original audience? (The meaning of a text is what the author meant by the words that he used, as should have been understood by his readers.)
Step 2b: If there are any words in this section that one does not understand, or that stand out as interesting words that may shed some insight on the meaning, look them up in a word dictionary, such as Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.
Step 2c: After reading our section from the three Bible translations, doing a word study, write down what we think the author meant. Then, pick up a trustworthy commentary, like Holman Old or New Testament commentary volume, and see if we have it correct.
Step 3: Explain the original meaning in one or two sentences, preferably one. Then, take the sentence or two and place it in a short phrase.
Step 4: Now, consider their circumstances, the reason for it being written, what it meant to them, and consider examples from our day that would be similar to theirs, which would fit the pattern of meaning. What implications can be drawn from the original meaning?
Step 5: Find the pattern of meaning, the “thing like these,” and consider how it could apply in our modern day life. How should individual Christians today live out the implications and principles?
Biblical Interpretation Explained In Greater Detail
Step 1: What is the historical setting and background for the author of the book and his audience? Who wrote the book? When and under what circumstances was the book written? Where was the book written? Who were the recipients of the book? Was there anything noteworthy about the place of the recipients? What is the theme of the book? What was the purpose of writing the book? The first step is observation, to get as close to the original text as possible. If one does not read Hebrew or Greek; then, two or three literal translations are preferred (ESV, NASB, and HCSB). The above Bible background information may seem daunting, but it can all be found in the Holman Bible Handbook or the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
Step 2a: What would this text mean to its original audience? (The meaning of a text is what the author meant by the words that he used, as should have been understood by his readers.) Once we have an understanding of step 1, read and reread our text in its context. In most Bibles, there are indentations (breaks) where the subject matter changes. Look for the indentations that are before and after our text, and read and reread that whole section from three literal translations. If there are no indentations, read the whole chapter, and get a sense of where the breaks should be, that is, where the subject matter changes.
Step 2b: If there are any words in our section that we do not understand, or that stand out as interesting words that may shed some insight on the meaning, look them up in a word dictionary, such as Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. For example, if the text was Ephesians 5:14, one might ask what did Paul mean by “sleeper” in verse 14. If it was Ephesians 5:18, what does Paul mean by his use of the word “debauchery” in relation to “getting drunk with wine.” I would recommend Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by William D. Mounce (Sept. 19, 2006) Do not buy the Amazon Kindle edition until they work out the minor difficulty. If we have Logos Bible Software, it would be good to add this book, if it did not come with our package.
Step 2c: After reading the section from the three Bible translations, doing a word study, write down what we think the author meant. Then, find a trustworthy commentary, like Holman Old or New Testament commentary volume, and see if we have it correct. It can be more affordable to buy one volume each time we are assigned a project so that it is spread out over time. If we cannot afford each volume of these commentary sets, Holman has a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. Check with the minister or pastor because he may allow one to take a volume home for his assignment.
Step 3: Explain the original meaning in one or two sentences, preferably one. Then, take the sentence or two and place it in a short phrase. If we look in the Bible for Ephesians chapter five, one will find verses 1-5 or 6 are marked off as a section, and the phrase that captures the sense of the meaning is, “imitators of God.” Then, verses 6-16 of that same chapter can be broken down to “light versus darkness” or “walk like children of light.”
Step 4: Now, consider their circumstances, the reason for it being written, what it meant to them, and consider examples from today that would be similar to that time, which would fit the pattern of meaning. What implications can be drawn from the original meaning? Part of this fourth step is making sure that one stays within the pattern of the original meaning when we determine any implications for us.
An example would be the admonition that Paul gave the Ephesian congregation at 5:18, “do not get drunk with wine.” Was Paul talking about beer that existed then too? Surely, he was not explicitly referring to whiskey that was not invented until the 1800s. Yes, he refers to these others because they are implications that can be derived from the original meaning because of their likeness to that original meaning.
Step 5: Find the pattern of meaning, the “thing like these,” and consider how it could apply in our modern-day life. How should individual Christians today live out the implications and principles?
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 Context is the verses that come before and after the text that we are considering.
 Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.―Wikipedia.
 This rough draft needed to be checked because, while the author was inspired, the scribe was not.
 Gr Raca to, an Aramaic term of contempt
 The Jewish supreme court, which held life and death over the people in ancient Jerusalem before 70 C.E.
 geenna 12x pr. the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, once celebrated for the horrid worship of Moloch, and afterwards polluted with every species of filth, as well as the carcasses of animals, and dead bodies of malefactors; to consume which, in order to avert the pestilence which such a mass of corruption would occasion, constant fires were kept burning–MCEDONTW
 Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:17
 ἐπιθυμία [Epithumia] to strongly desire to have what belongs to someone else and/or to engage in an activity which is morally wrong–‘to covet, to lust, evil desires, lust, desire.’– GELNTBSD
 However, dynamic equivalent Bibles (interpretive translations, such as the TEV, CEV, TNIV, NLY, etc.) are not the Word of God, they are mini commentaries, as they take liberties with the text, imposing their own interpretations. Literal translations (ASV, ESV, NASB, etc.), should be preferred, even if more is required of the reader, to get at what the author intended.
 By “historical” is a reference to the setting in which the Bible books were written and the circumstances involved in the writing. By “grammatical,” we mean determining the meaning of the Bible by studying the words and sentences of Scripture in their normal, plain sense. Roy B. Zuck.
 Another aside from A Basic Guide to Biblical Interpretation is Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth by Roy B. Zuck.