My hermeneutics (it’s not a disease; it’s principles for biblical interpretation) professor at Bethel seminary was doing a nationwide study of seminaries. And as he researched their hermeneutics classes, he was dismayed to discover that a large number of them did not offer any classes on how to interpret the Bible! That shocked me!
So when I was asked during Cross Training on Sunday how I interpret the Bible, I thought this would be a good chance to discuss some major principles of hermeneutics that I use every week when I study. Here are my top ten (not in order of importance).
1. Context. You have to ask what comes before the passage and what comes after. So when Revelation 6 ends with “who can stand?” it makes sense to see chapter 7 as answering that question. Context challenges us to get beyond “fortune cookie” Bible reading. For instance, when we say that we can do all thing through Christ who strengthens us, a quick look at the immediate context in Philippians 4 reveals that Paul is talking about suffering, not climbing Mount Everest! And there are different levels of context: chapter, book, Old or New Testament, Bible. There is also historical context: what was going on politically, economically, in the church, etc. It helps to know that the first century church experienced persecution when you read Revelation.
2. Genre. The Bible contains narrative, poetry, letters, etc. And Revelation has its own category: apocalyptic literature. It is not the only document to use such “end of the world” language. Which begs the question: will the sun actually be darkened? Will the moon turn blood red? And why are people hiding in caves when everything is being shaken? Some scholars note that this genre talks about cataclysmic events as a way of saying that terrible things are happening. So exaggerated language is used to convey the seriousness of the event. Could you interpret the destruction in Jerusalem in 70A.D. as an apocalyptic event? Perhaps. The historian Josephus describes in detail the horrors of that event.
3. Word. Jesus made it clear that every single word of Scripture is important (Luke 20:37-38). So we do word studies. Greek and Hebrew dictionaries help here (like Vine’s). The even more advanced use lexicons. But here is a word of caution. Defining a word does not trump the context the word is used in. Words do change meanings over time and take on difference nuances. And there are different ways to do word studies that go further than just looking up the meaning in a dictionary. And whatever you do, don’t use Webster’s dictionary to define a biblical word. Use Vine’s Dictionary of Biblical Words!
4. Scripture interprets Scripture. If God superintended humans authors so that they composed without error His words, then we should allow hard passages to be interpreted in light of clear passages. God is not saying contradictory things throughout history, so it makes sense that the writers of the Bible should agree with each other. An example of this is how the sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 parallels the sealing of God’s people in Ezekiel 9.
5. Only one interpretation, but many applications. Even though Christians may understand a passage differently like the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, that does not mean there is no correct answer or that we’re all right! There is only one correct interpretation for ever passage or verse. But we can apply the Bible to our lives in a myriad of ways! Old passages that we’ve known forever are actually fresh and alive because of this!
6. Old Testament Allusions. The New Testament is of incredible value to the church, and I would rather have a new believer read John than Leviticus. But it is so important that we understand when the Old Testament is referenced in the New. The early Jewish church would have understood these references. So much of Paul’s deep theological reasoning in Romans can only be understood with respect to Old Testament narrative. Another example of this is how Jesus’ 40 days of testing by the devil contrasts Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. This is the one area that I want to grow in the most. I really want to notice the allusions to the O.T. when I study!
7. Authorial Intent. This one’s a little tricky because you’re asking what the author originally intended when he or she wrote it. But this protects the interpreter from making silly mistakes like reading 21st century issues into the text or worse yet, treating the text as if it can have any meaning the reader wants it to have.
8. If the clearest sense makes sense, seek no other sense. Basically, if a prophetic verse seems like it could be interpreted literally, then why try to make it figurative. This is why the EFCA interprets the 1,000 year reign of Christ as a literal time in history. Let’s not try to make this harder than it needs to be.
9. The best method for Bible study involves observation, interpretation, and application, in that order! Make as many observations about the text as possible. I’ll never forget an assignment where I had to give at least 100 observations about John 3:16. The more observations you make, the better interpretation you will have. After writing out a concise interpretation of the text, you can then apply the passage to yourself!
10. After your own study, use the study of the “experts.” It’s a blessing to have so many scholars and commentaries on the Bible. But don’t read their work first and rob yourself of your own study. Do your work, and let God speak to you. Then you can compare and see if you have missed something (or if the smart people have missed something). I would also include Christian interpreters throughout the history as great resources! For instance, I enjoyed reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, and that is free in many online bookstores.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something…anyway…
Don’t ever let yourself fall for the lie that only scholars can discern the true meaning of the text. The Bible was written for your benefit. We have amazingly accurate word for word English translations of the Bible. So dig in!