Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hermeneutics - Playing By The Rules

By Diane Bucknell

“All Scripture is breathed out by God  and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”  
2 Timothy 3:16-17
   William Tyndale (1494-1536), the first man to ever print the New Testament in the English language  taunted   a papist contemporary saying,    “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do”.  

   Today the average person can  adequately  study the Bible  without  knowing Greek and Hebrew or  having a seminary education.    God's word   is sufficient for all of our spiritual needs  but there are a few essential prerequisites we need in order  to  fully benefit from it.  
  • First, we must know the Author.    That is, we must have a genuine relationship with  Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.   Understanding the deep truths presented in Scripture  can’t be accomplished by mere intellectual muscle.    If you're not sure that your sins have been forgiven  and you have been born again, please click HERE.   
  •  It is essential to believe that the Bible was inspired by God and is without error in the  original autographs (manuscripts)   For a better understanding of how we got the Bible and why we can trust it check out  our  5 part series on  "How We Got Our Bible"    
  • The Bible must be read carefully, prayerfully, and obediently.  
Hermeneutics:  Principles for Interpreting the Bible  

  We believe in the grammatical-historical-contextual method of interpreting Scripture which is based on a 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?   By contextual, we mean the context  the word or verse is used in as it relates to  both the immediate passages surrounding it and also to the whole book.   
Hermeneutics  can be defined  as a set of principles while   "Exegesis is an implementation of valid interpretive principles" (Thomas).    Simply put, exegesis would be like “playing the game” and hermeneutics would be equivalent to the “rule book” for 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”  (1) Bernard Ramm 
     Robert L. Thomas explains some of the confusion over definitions of hermeneutics brought about by “revisionist” hermeneutics which began in the 1970’s.
 “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.   The two systems are incapable of meaningful dialogue with each other because they use differing rule books.   It’s as though the [LA] Lakers basketball team were to meet the [LA] Dodgers baseball team in an athletic event.  Rules for the two sports differ so profoundly that no meaningful competition could result.  Utter confusion would ensue. The same happens when evangelicals gather to discuss hermeneutics.  There is utter confusion because they share no commonly accepted hermeneutical procedures among themselves.” (2)
  On that note here’s a list of some essential rules for sound Biblical interpretation:  

     1. Scripture Must Be Interpreted Literally 

     We’ve always abided by the principle,  “If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.”    We want to read the Bible the same way we would read a letter from a friend.   We’re looking for the writer’s intended meaning and don’t want to draw out of their words some ridiculous  allegory such  as John MacArthur humorously illustrated in his "Little Bo-Peep Method"  . 

     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”  (3)

     2.  Doctrinal Unity

   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,  passages such as Philippians 2:12work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and James 2:17  So also faith by itself,  if it does not have works,  is dead.”  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 meaning to these passages.    

     3.  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” (4) 
     4.  Grammar

    That is, the words and sentences must be properly understood.  This is where the use of words studies  such as Strong’s and Vines come in . (See Part 1)

     5.  Context 
         A. What are the verses before and after it saying?   
  This is so important because  we can easily assume popular evangelical interpretations.    For example:  Matthew 18:20- “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” is often interpreted to mean that there's a special kind of presence of God whenever 2 or more Christians get together, as though  His presence is somehow diminished  when we're  alone .   But the context  (vs 15-20) is speaking of  church discipline wherein  God's authority is present in the mutual action taken  by the church  to discipline  the unrepentant brother.   Similarly,  I Corinthian 16:9 states:  “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”  which if often taken to mean that we should take good care of  our physical bodies because the Holy Spirit lives in it, but  the context is really referring to  fleeing sexual immorality.   

    Other questions include - What is the  book and its  theme?  Is it Old or New Testament?    How does the verse  or passage relate to the entire Scripture?   etc. 
    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.”  (5) 

     The best Bible study tool for this is The Treasury For Scripture Knowledge.

      C Historical and cultural

  When 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.

     Once the ground rules are established we’re ready to begin the actual exegesis of the passage.   This process includes reading the passage numerous times, outlining, identifying primary and secondary clauses, identifying important words to look up in the original language,  identifying doctrinal teachings, consulting commentaries, etc.   But, this is a post for another time.


1. Protestant Biblical  Interpretation:  A Texbook of Hermeneutics by Bernard Ramm;  Baker Book House;  1970; pg 11
2.  Evangelical Hermeneutics by Robert Thomas: Kregel; 2002; Pg 17, 19
3.  Ramm: ibid: pg 121
4.  Ramm: ibid: pg 104-105
5.  Ramm; ibid. pg.14


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EJN said...

I love the new look of the blog. This post is great.
Thank you.
Grace, Peace and Joy,

Mrs.C said...

I do wish, when I was a young girl, that I had been taught how to properly study God's word. This is wonderful, and needs to shared with young ladies new to the faith or those who haven't had good training in studying. Thank you so much for posting and sharing! Love the new look, I need to change my button, don't I. :D

Diane said...

Thank you JoJo - Blessings!

Diane said...

Thanks for your kind words Mrs. C - God bless you.

Cindy said...

This is so helpful. I'm emailing you separately with some questions regarding a specific topic and how this fits in with that.

Cindy said...

Oh, and p.s., I'm glad you're back to blogging. I was sad when you went away for a while! :)

Petra said...

You're an excellent teacher, my friend. And, if I've not already told you, your new blog look is awesome, uplifting actually. :-) ♥

Diane said...

Thanks so much Cindy - It's good to be back -

Diane said...

Petra - You humble me sister. Thanks for your kind words.

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