Hermeneutics- Why it matters
Updated: May 31, 2022
Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting what an author has written. In Christian theology, hermeneutics focuses specifically on constructing and discovering the appropriate rules for interpreting the Bible. It is the science of interpretation and explanation; exegesis; esp., that branch of theology which defines the laws whereby the meaning of the Scriptures is to be ascertained.
These methods and principles, however, are often drawn from outside of scripture in historical, literary or other fields. It inevitably involves exegesis, which is the act of interpreting or explaining the meaning of scripture. 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.
Here are the eight rules of Biblical hermeneutics: 1. The rule of DEFINITION: What does the word mean? Any study of Scripture must begin with a study of words. Define your terms and then keep to the terms defined. The interpreter should conscientiously abide by the plain meaning of the words. This quite often may require using a Hebrew/English or Greek/English lexicon in order to make sure that the sense of the English translation is understood.
2. The rule of USAGE: It must be remembered that the Old Testament was written originally by, to and for Jews. The words and idioms must have been intelligible to them – just as the words of Christ when talking to them must have been. The majority of the New Testament likewise was written in a milieu of Greco-Roman (and to a lesser extent Jewish) culture and it is important to not impose our modern usage into our interpretation. It is faulty to interpret a great many phrases and histories if one’s interpretations are shaded by pre-conceived notions and cultural biases, thereby rendering an inaccurate effort.
3. The rule of CONTEXT: The meaning must be gathered from the context. Every word you read must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it. Many passages will not be understood at all, or understood incorrectly, without the help afforded by the context. A good example of this is the Mormon practice of using 1 Cor. 8:5b: “…for there be gods many and lords many…” as a “proof text” of their doctrine of polytheism. However, a simple reading of the whole verse in the context of the whole chapter (e.g. where Paul calls these gods “so-called”), plainly demonstrates that Paul is not teaching polytheism.
4. The rule of HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The interpreter must have some awareness of the life and society of the times in which the Scripture was written. The spiritual principle will be timeless but often can’t be properly appreciated without some knowledge of the background. If the interpreter can have in his mind what the writer had in his mind when he wrote – without adding any excess baggage from the interpreter’s own culture or society – then the true thought of the Scripture can be captured resulting in an accurate interpretation. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Our only interest in the past is for the light it throws upon the present.”
5. The rule of LOGIC: Interpretation is merely logical reasoning. When interpreting Scripture, the use of reason is everywhere to be assumed. Does the interpretation make sense? The Bible was given to us in the form of human language and therefore appeals to human reason – it invites investigation. It is to be interpreted as we would any other volume: applying the laws of language and grammatical analysis.
As Bernard Ramm said: “What is the control we use to weed out false theological speculation? Certainly the control is logic and evidence… interpreters who have not had the sharpening experience of logic…may have improper notions of implication and evidence. Too frequently such a person uses a basis of appeal that is a notorious violation of the laws of logic and evidence.” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1956)
6. The rule of PRECEDENT: We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent. Just as a judge’s chief occupation is the study of previous cases, so must the interpreter use precedents in order to determine whether they really support an alleged doctrine. Consider the Bereans in Acts 17:10- 12 who were called “noble” because they searched the Scriptures to determine if what Paul taught them was true.
7. The rule of UNITY: The parts of Scripture being interpreted must be construed with reference to the significance of the whole. An interpretation must be consistent with the rest of Scripture. An excellent example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. No single passage teaches it, but it is consistent with the teaching of the whole of Scripture (e.g. the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are referred to individually as God; yet the Scriptures elsewhere teach there is only one God).
8. The rule of INFERENCE: An inference is a fact reasonably implied from another fact. It is a logical consequence. It derives a conclusion from a given fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition from another proposition. Such inferential facts or propositions are sufficiently binding when their truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence. Competent evidence means such evidence as the nature of the thing to be proved admits. Satisfactory evidence means that amount of proof which would ordinarily satisfy an unprejudiced mind beyond a reasonable doubt. Jesus used this rule when he proved the resurrection of the dead to the unbelieving Sadducees in Matt. 22:23-33.
RULES ARE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE GUIDANCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT The opposite of hermeneutics is taking a scripture out of context. One of the vital steps in correctly understanding Biblical passages is to consider them as a part of their larger context. Remember that the Bible was not originally written using chapters and verses, but as letters or chronological narratives. Citing a Bible verse to support a doctrine or theology is appropriate only if the thought is correct when considered as part of its larger context. Otherwise, cherrypicking verses can be and has been shown time and again to be dangerous.
Christian hermeneutics has been a central component to Christian theology since the early church fathers, such as Origen and Augustine. Christian interpretation was seen as an integral part of understanding biblical passages, by finding out what they meant at their original time period. The focus shifted from interpretation to translation in the Middle Ages, with grammarians like Jerome and theologians like Thomas Aquinas changing how scripture was interpreted. While many Christians today don't think about hermeneutics when they read their Bible or hear Christian sermons, it is important that we learn about where this discipline came from so that we can better understand our faith! Many modern-day Christian theologians are pushing for another shift towards our culture instead of focusing on past meaning. This leads to both dangerous and incorrect theology.
The lesson for us today is that we must be vigilant when we read Christian material other than the Bible. Be aware enough to compare the author’s arguments with what the Bible actually says. This matters particularly because there is a growing movement today to view theology through the prism of today’s social values and moral codes.
It is not the intent of this article to present what is correct theology for you, the reader. I am, however, suggesting that we all should proceed as diligently as did the Bereans as described in Acts 17:10-11: As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Notice that the Bereans are regarded with favor in scripture because they confirmed that Paul’s teachings aligned with scripture. Each of us should show the same level of care when we consume material other than the Bible itself.
It is the responsibility of every believer to know what they believe, why they believe it, and to be ready to defend it or teach it when called to do so. The New Testament is clear that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. Our enemy is satan, and he is a formidable foe. We protect ourselves by making sure our theology and doctrine is Biblically sound. We do that by spending quality time in God’s Word, by studying and applying it properly. We do our study by consulting respected Bible commentaries and dictionaries who have embraced the rules of hermeneutics as.
May your theology journey be blessed! Ron Heisey