After talking to skeptics and several people from various religious backgrounds (i.e. Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Black Hebrew Israelite’s, etc). I often reflect on what I see is an ongoing problem as to why so many of these groups come to embrace erroneous view of the Bible. It really boils down to a lack of understanding about some of the basics of Bible interpretation. Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. It is a crucial part of discipleship. So in this post I have created some rather simple pointers. This is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject. However, if people would follow some of the basics here, it would help quite a bit.
Why Learn About Hermeneutics?
1. If we misunderstand the correct interpretation of Scripture, it most certainly can lead to improper conduct. Hence, one must be sure he is interpreting properly.
2. The Bible may be misused when you are ignorant about a certain topic.
3. The Bible may be misused when we take a verse out of context! Most recently I had a Muslim show me a list of verses out of context that demonstrated the Bible has contradictions. Let me give an example of how a verse is taken out of context.
- Example: 1 John 2:27 says, “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.” Is this saying there is no need for teaching? Of course not. Otherwise we would not see the commands to teach and preach the word. If you look at the passage in context, it is discernment for truth and abiding in Him.
4. The Bible may be misused when we read something into a passage and have it say what it doesn’t say:
- Example: Mark 16: 17-18: “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Some think this passage commands Christians to do all the things listed here.
4. One of the primary tasks of the Christian is to know God: The Bible is the primary way we come to build our knowledge of God.
What is the the Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics?
1. The Bible, God’s Word, is “living and active” operative or effective” (Heb. 4:12; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13: 1 Pet 1:23).
2.The Spirit’s ministry does not mean He gives new revelation: His work is always through and in association with the written Word of God, not beyond it or in addition to it. The Holy Spirit and the Word operate together.
3. The role of the Holy Spirit in Bible interpretation means that the unregenerate do not welcome and apply God’s truth, though they are able to comprehend many of its statements cognitively: Paul insisted that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). They cannot even “know” him. But Paul does not say that natural persons cannot perceive truth about God, but that they do not receive (Gk. dekomai, “welcome”) it.
4. Remember a person’s preunderstanding: Atheists, for example, come to the Bible with the preunderstanding that the miracles of Jesus must be interpreted as fiction/myth (they didn’t happen). Because atheists assume that there is no God, they cannot interpret these passages as literally true.
5. Carnality is a hindrance to understanding and interpretation: A worldly Christian, one who is not obeying the truth and is not yielded to the Lord, is unable to understand the Word fully (1 Cor 3:1-3) and “is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” (Heb 5:13). Carnality is a hindrance to understanding and interpretation.
6. The role of the Spirit in interpretation is no substitute for diligent study: The Holy Spirit works through the efforts of the individual as he reads the Bible, and studies it, meditates on it, and consults other works about it. Therefore, the Spirit’s work in biblical interpretation does not rule out the use of study helps such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries: The Holy Spirit works with our hard work. He does not promote laziness!
Remember this Terminology:
Exegesis: The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the original text which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance. This includes the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other aspects of exegesis include the study of literary genres and grammatical issues (the relationship that words, phrases, or sentences have toward one another) and (relationship of words) features in the text itself.
Eisegesis: The opposite of exegesis (to draw out) is to do eisegesis (to draw in), his or her own purely subjective interpretations in to the text, unsupported by the text. In other words, instead of asking “What did this passage mean to the original audience, we skip that and ask, “What does the text mean to me?”
Descriptive (it describes the situation in the passage/what happened then). Prescriptive (prescribes what we ought to do today/what we must do now).
Example: Matthew 10: 5-8: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”
This passage describes the situation- Jesus is sending out his disciples with specific instructions. He tells them to only go to the Jewish people. But can this be prescriptive for today? Do all churches/Christians only evangelize Jewish people? No! After his resurrection Jesus commands his disciples to preach the Gospel to the nations.
Figurative or Literal?
Common Question: “Do you take the Bible literally?”
Response: “Did the original author mean for his original audience to take the passage literally?” A literal approach does not preclude or exclude figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, correct understanding of types, illustrations, metaphor, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.
Did the original author mean it to be literal or figurative? Example: Someone reject the miracles of Jesus as literal events. But is that the intention of the original author?
Literal refers to the thing itself, while figurative is generally an analogy, parallel, to the thing itself.
Equating literal with real and the figurative with the unreal:
1 Cor. 3:10-15 speaks of the judgment of Christians. Paul speaks of building on a foundation with materials that are either combustible or noncombustible. The fire will bring out the difference between two kinds of materials. All of this is a figurative way of saying that the motives of believers while performing Christian service will be judged by God himself. Only Christian work that originates from the right motives will be rewarded, and in that sense, enduring. There will probably not be a literal bonfire in heaven at the judgment seat of Christ, but that does not mean the judgment of the works of the Christians is any less real.
Assuming a single passage of Scripture must be fully literal or fully figurative:
In many cases, some passages alternate back and forth between the literal and figurative: John 1:10: Christ “was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” In the first two occurrences of “world” it means the physical world, the globe. But in the third case, “world” means people who inhabit the globe.
Mark 10: 29-30: “Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” The relatives first mentioned are literal, as are the homes and fields. But the second mention of the relatives cannot be literal, since it is impossible to have 100 mothers.
Some Simple Tips in Studying the Bible:
The Christian reads the passage and makes observations? Example: John 4:1-26
- Why did Jesus ask for a drink? (4:7)
- What was the name of the well (4:6)
- Whom did Jesus speak to? (4:7)
- How did Jesus capture the woman’s interest? (4:7-9-16;19-26)
- When did the woman usually draw water from the well? (4:6)
- Where was Galilee in relation to Judea? (4:1-3)
The Christians then tries to interpret the passage:
What did the author mean to convey to the original audience? This takes into account the entire context and cultural background of the passage. How does the passage relate to the entire book? The meaning of any passage is nearly always determined, controlled, or limited by what appears immediately beforehand and afterward in the text.
Make sure to remember what multiple passages say something about a topic: All Scripture assumes the unity and harmony of teaching throughout the Bible. In other words, when multiple passages say something about a topic (either explicitly or implicitly), then what those passages say about that topic should be consistent:
- Example: Psalm 34:15 speaks of God having eyes and ears, whereas John 4:24 says God is spirit. We can reconcile them when we recognize that in Psalm 34:15 the author is using a figure of speech and is not asserting that God has literal, physical eyes and ears. He is asserting, rather, that God watches over His people and hears their cries for help; whereas in John 4:24 Jesus is asserting that God is not a physical being, therefore, the physical location of His worshipers is not what is most important to Him.
Interpret in light of progressive revelation: While God’s purpose for man has never changed, His strategy in accomplishing that purpose has changed.
Application: An application should be tangible and realistic. Also, application is also a process. Remember, surrender is the key of all application. Disobedience clouds our ability to discover and do God’s will. The goal is changed living!
Questions to ask:
- Is there a command to obey?
- An example to follow?
- A sin to forsake?
- A new truth to learn about God?
- An error to avoid?
One of the best resources for getting started on the issue of hermeneutics is Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Revised and Updated by: William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The section on this post called The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics by Roy B. Zuck was adapted from their text. Some of the other points in this post were adapted from Studying, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible . I also suggest Fee and Stewart’s How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth .