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Interpretation of the Bible

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"Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything... Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." -2 Timothy 2:7,15

Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting what an author has written. This article specifically focuses on hermeneutics as it relates to interpreting the Bible. Principles of interpretation which ought to be applied to the Bible, however, are often not specific to the Bible, but "are used by courts, historians, literary scholars, editors, news reporters and academicians" to examine "texts that have nothing to do with religion, ethics, morality, etc." [1]

Hermeneutics involves establishing the principles for our understanding any part of the Bible, and then interpreting it so its message is made clear to the reader or listener. It inevitably involves exegesis, which is the process of examining the actual biblical text as it came from the hand of its writer to discover how he communicated God's truth.

The goal in applying the principles of hermeneutics is to "rightly handle the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15), striving to accurately discern the meaning of the text.

  • Hermeneutics (Real Audio), by Douglas Stuart
  • Hermeneutics, by Robert Stein (Seminary class with free QuickTime lectures) (Registration required)

Distinct from exegesis

Although one may encounter the terms hermeneutics and exegesis used interchangeably, there is a distinction to be maintained. Bernard Ramm describes the difference as follows:

"Hermeneutics . . . 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 hermeneutics." (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Baker Books: 1970, page 11)

Exegesis, therefore, is the practical application of hermeneutics.

Challenges

Applying sound principles of hermeneutics seeks to answer these sorts of questions:

  • Who was the writer?
  • To whom was the writer writing?
  • "Is the use of a particular word, grammatical construction, verb tense, etc., significant in this instance?" [2]
  • What is the cultural, historical context?
  • What was the author's original intended meaning?
  • "How was the text interpreted by the author's contemporaries?" [3]
  • Why was he saying it?

General rules of hermeneutics

One interpretation

A fundamental belief in hermeneutics is that there is one interpretation. When the author of a book recorded history, or wrote their letter or gospel, they had a single intended meaning attached to what they wrote. This notion is easily understood today. When a person writes a letter, they are not thinking how they can write it so that the receiving person either cannot understand it or comes up with many different interpretations of what the writer meant. Instead, their is a particular meaning behind what they wrote. In turn, the interpretation is restricted by the writers intentions. Thus, when doing hermeneutics, one should always be aware of what the authors intended meaning was. This should guide and direct one's studies, and should also safeguard against interpretations that do not fit the thought or flow of the book one is studying.

Application

It should be noted that although there is a single interpretation to be found in each passage, there can be more than one application. However, these applications should stem from the interpretation and be guided by what Scripture says elsewhere.

Regard for genre

"A passage might be legal, narrative, polemic, poetry, wisdom, gospel, logical discourse, or prophetic literature, each having specific guidelines for proper interpretation." [4]

Regard for literary devices

"Various forms of Hebrew poetry, simile, metaphor, and hyperbole need to be recognized if the reader is to understand the passage's meaning." [5]

Regard for section of content

"A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." -D.A. Carson, quoting his father, minister to French- and English- speaking Canadians.

Words

Verbs, conjunctions, tense, voice, mood, person, synonyms, antonyms, and cross references.

Syntax

Context

Cultural context

Regard for literal meaning

A text should be interpreted with the degree of precision intended by the author. It should be interpreted "according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text." [6]

Primacy of self-interpretation

The text "is its own best interpreter." [7]

Rules specific to the Bible

Divine accommodation

"The Bible is to be interpreted in view of the fact that it is an accommodation of Divine truths to human minds: God the infinite communicating with man the finite... We must be careful, then, not to push accommodating language about God and His nature to literal extremes. God does not have feathers and wings (e.g., Psalms 17:8); nor is He our literal Father in the same sense our earthly father is." [8]

See also: Divine accommodation

Progressive revelation

"The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed." "The Word of God is to be understood from the Old Testament to the New Testament as a flower unfolding its petals to the morning sun." [9]

Harmony

"No part of the Bible may be interpreted so as to contradict another part of the Bible. The Christian presupposes the inerrancy and harmony of Scripture as a necessary result of a perfect Creator God revealing Himself perfectly to Mankind." [10]

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy produced three major statements: one on biblical inerrancy in 1978, one on biblical hermeneutics in 1982, and one on biblical application in 1986.

In similar fashion to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy of 1978, the Statement on Hermeneutics presents affirmations and denials as an expression of the results of labor to clarify hermeneutical issues and principles. The council did not claim completeness or systematic treatment of the entire subject, but maintained the resulting Articles represent a consensus of the approximately one hundred evangelical scholars gathered at the conference.

Details may be seen here:

Methods/schools

Allegorical

"Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, biblical interpretation was often dominated by the allegorical method. Looking back to Augustine, the medieval church believed that every biblical passage contained four levels of meaning. These four levels were the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the eschatological. For instance, the word Jerusalem literally referred to the city itself; allegorically, it refers to the church of Christ; morally, it indicates the human soul; and eschatologically it points to the heavenly Jerusalem." [11]

Letterism

"While often ignoring context, historical and cultural setting, and even grammatical structure, letterism takes each word as an isolated truth. A problem with this method is that it fails to take into account the different literary genre, or types, in the Bible. The Hebrew poetry of the Psalms is not to be interpreted in the same way as is the logical discourse of Romans. Letterism tends to lead to legalism because of its inability to distinguish between literary types. All passages tend to become equally binding on current believers." [12]

Postmodern

See main article: Postmodernism

Grammatico-historical

"[T]his method of interpretation focuses attention not only on literary forms but upon grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. It is solidly in the 'literal schools' of interpretation, and is the hermeneutical methodology embraced by virtually all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars." [13]" The writings of the earliest Church Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, Ireneaus, and Justin Martyr) indicate that they took Scripture literally, unless the context clearly militated against it." [14]

Role of the Holy Spirit

"Some have wrongly argued that knowledge of the culture and languages of biblical times is not necessary, that the Holy Spirit will interpret the text for us. The role of the Holy Spirit is to illumine the believer in order to accept and apply what is found in Scripture. The Bible says that the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). The Greek word for "accept" means 'to take something willingly and with pleasure.' The key role of the Spirit is not to add information to the text, or to give us special translating abilities, but to soften our hearts in order to receive what is there." [15]

"[W]e must not say that the Spirit adds more revelation to the written Word. This denies the sufficiency of Scripture. Further, it renders such an interpretation non-falsifiable because then the Spirit's added revelation is accessible to me only through you. Finally, it comes perilously close to Barth's neoorthodox position that the Bible becomes the Word of God in one's experience." [16]

See main article: Illumination of the Holy Spirit

The hermeneutics of Jesus

"Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees for replacing the original intent of the Scriptures with their own traditions. Jesus took a literal approach to interpretation which took into account the literary type of the passage." [17]

Resources

See also

External links

Theopedia-logo This page uses content from Theopedia, which favors a Calvinistic/Reform POV. The original article was at Interpretation of the Bible. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion-wiki, the text of Theopedia is under [Creative Commons 3.0 license]

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