Note: This article was re-written and posted at Out of the Ordinary on 9-6-2016. The original article was posted here in 2013 and I have kept those comments here.
“what is one small hermeneutical step in the wrong direction turns out to be one giant step toward the wrong theology” 1 - Norman L. Geisler
If you've followed this blog for a while you know that we love the subject of hermeneutics. Proper interpretation of the Bible is essential to have a right understanding of God's Word and to protect us against false doctrine. I don't pretend to be a scholar but I have been around long enough to be able to spot the insidious new wave of liberalism resurfacing in conservative evangelical churches in recent years.
One reason for this is the ongoing attack on the inerrancy of Scripture and a departure from traditional principles of interpretation. The emergence of the “new” hermeneutic has been investigated by Robert L. Thomas in his book Evangelical Hermeneutics; The New Versus the Old :
“Changes in hermeneutics have coincided with changes in evangelicalism. … Recent hermeneutical trends have forced evangelical interpreters to choose between two hermeneutical systems that oppose each other in dramatic ways. ….There is utter confusion because they share no commonly accepted hermeneutical procedures among themselves.” 2"the most notable difference between new hermeneutics and traditional principles is the overwhelmingly subjective nature of the new approaches versus the objectivism of the old. ... The new hermeneutics provide no stopping points to limit the extremes to which individual personal inclination may go in fostering new teachings allegedly derived from Scripture."3
Many of these changes in hermeneutics are affecting the church’s thinking regarding feminism, missiology, ecumenism, Gnosticism, and homosexuality, just to name a few. So, here's a reminder of some of the fundamental rules for engaging in a God honoring study of the Bible.
Inerrancy: Believing in the inerrancy of Scripture is an absolute prerequisite. We must come to the Bible believing that it is entirely true and without error in the original writings. It can be fully trusted in every sense, including all matters pertaining to science, history, geology, and spiritual enlightenment.
We believe in the grammatical-historical method of interpreting Scripture based on a specific set of hermeneutical principles. When we talk about grammatical we’re referring to the words, their meanings, the sentence structure, the interaction with the original language, ect. By historical we’re speaking of things like: Who wrote it? Why did they write it? When did they write it? Who did they write it to? What was the cultural context? Was it written to Israel or the Church?
Changes have brought about much confusion over definitions therefore a good traditional definition of Hermeneutics could be defined as “a set of principles” while exegesis “is an implementation of valid interpretive principles" 4. Simply stated, hermeneutics would be equivalent to the “rule book” for playing the game and exegesis would be like “playing the game”.
“As a theological discipline hermeneutics is the science of the correct interpretation of the Bible….It stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game. …The rules are not the game, and the game is meaningless without the rules. Hermeneutics proper is not exegesis, but exegesis is applied to hermeneutics” 5- Bernard Ramm
PLAYING BY THE RULES
Scripture Must Be Interpreted Literally
We’ve always abided by the principle, “If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” The authors of Scripture wrote to their audiences with a specific purpose (authorial intent) and just as we wouldn't look for mystical meanings in an email from a friend, we also don't want to tamper with the plain intentions the author of Scripture had in mind. Ramm points out that to interpret Scripture literally is to “understand a document the best one can in the context of the normal, usual, and customary, tradition” 6
The Principle of Single Meaning
Traditional hermeneutics have always held that Scripture has but one meaning although there may be many applications.
“A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.”7– Milton S. Terry
The principle of single meaning has especially fallen on hard times in the world of hermeneutics. Robert Thomas sounds the alarm in his rebuttal to a number of modern authors in his article The Principle of Single Meaning:
“A mass evangelical exodus from this time-honored principle of interpreting Scripture is jeopardizing the church’s access to the truths that are taught therein. Whether interpreters have forsaken the principle intentionally or have subconsciously ignored it, the damage is the same. The only hope of escape from the pit into which so many have fallen is to reaffirm the principle of single meaning along with the other hermeneutical principles that have served the believing community so well through the centuries.” 8
This principle protects us from false doctrine. When we come to difficult passages we go with the whole teaching of Scripture on the subject. For instance, verses like Philippians 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” are used by cults to teach a works based salvation. But the principle of Doctrinal (or Theological) Unity takes into consideration the fact that the entire body of Scripture combined overwhelmingly teaches otherwise, therefore there must be another explanation of this verse because we know the Bible does not contradict itself.
Scripture Is Its Own Authority
The authority of interpretation does not come from ourselves. The popular trend of asking "What does this passage mean to you?" is a sure prescription for doctrinal disaster. Equally dangerous is the belief that religious institutions have the final authority in interpreting Scripture. Rather, it is from within the Scriptures themselves that we have the means to interpret them.
“obscure passages in Scripture must give way to clear passages….The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it possessed the mind of Christ and the mind of the Spirit in its teaching magisterium so that it could render obscure doctrines clear. The Reformers rejected the claim of the [RCC] that it had the gift of grace and illumination to know what the Holy Scripture taught. In place of an appeal to the teaching magisterium of the Church, the Reformers proclaimed that Scripture interprets Scripture” 9
That is, the words and sentences must be properly understood. Of course knowing the original language would be preferable but for the rest of us the use of various Greek and Hebrew word study books will come in handy.
A. What are the verses before and after it saying?Just as location, location, location is to real estate, context is king in Scripture. It is easy to assume popular evangelical interpretations. For example, I Corinthians 6:19 states: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” and is often taken out of context to present a case for healthy living when it is actually referring to fleeing sexual immorality. Other questions include - What is the book and its theme? Is it Old or New Testament? How does the word relate to the verse, the paragraph, the chapter, and the entire book?B. Cross referencing“grammatical interpretation takes into consideration parallel passages or cross references…what is said in one part of Scripture may illuminate what is said in another part of Scripture.” 10The The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is an excellent tool for this.C. Historical and culturalWhen was it written? Where did this take place? What were the issues being addressed? What was the cultural setting of the time? etc. Reference tools that are helpful would be Bible maps and encyclopedias and the works of early historians such Eusebius and Josephus.
It is so important to keep reaffirming these time honored principles for interpretation when we study our Bibles so that we might prove to be “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” 2 Tim. 2:15
- One Small Step for Hermeneutics, One Giant Leap for Theology by Norman L. Geisler
- Evangelical Hermeneutics; The New Versus the Old by Robert Thomas: Kregel; 2002Thomas: ibid pg. 17, 19
- Thomas ibid. pg 508
- Thomas ibid; pg 27
- Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics by Bernard Ramm; Baker Book House; 1970; pg 27
- Ramm: ibid: pg 121
- Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton S. Terry 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) pg. 2
- The Principle of Single Meaning; Robert L. Thomas, The Masters Seminary Journal; Spring 2001; pg. 33-47
- Ramm: ibid: pg 104-105
- Ramm; ibid. pg.14