Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics
What is biblical hermeneutics? Biblical hermeneutics is the science of interpreting texts in the Bible. In this series were going to look at several simple principles that can help us rightly divide the word of truth. Errors and false teaching seems to be the theme of our present day. How do we avoid these errors? We avoid errors and false teaching by understanding biblical hermeneutics. Read and memorize these 10 principles of Biblical hermeneutics to sidestep error.
The Literal Interpretation Principle
Probably one of the most important hermeneutical principles is the Literal Interpretation Principle. This is a very simple principle. What does the plain text say? When we read the Bible, we should look for the obvious and plain meaning of the words we are reading. Conversely we should reject any attempt at allegorizing scriptures. When God speaks in an illustrative way, it is always obvious to the reader. No one thinks Jesus has hinges and a door knob when he says “I am the door”. Nobody thinks the Father is a bird when He “hides us under the shelter of His wings”. Allegories in the scriptures are easy to spot. We need to stick to the plain and simple reading of God’s word if were to stick to the literal school of hermeneutics.
Many Christians are being taught that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are mainly allegory. Is that the way that God plainly portrays the beginning of Genesis? The rest of the Bible refers back to the first eleven chapters of Genesis repeatedly. Every author in the Bible takes Genesis as a literal historical account and we should to. If we read that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, we should not conclude that the six days are six periods of millions of years. The plain reading of the text does not permit that interpretation. When God says that “there was evening and there was morning the first day” he was not talking about there being an evening and a morning during the first period of millions of years. To say otherwise would be searching for a hidden meaning in the text that is simply not there. It would also make God out to be a deceiver who tells His children just-so stories to pacify their curiosity. That is not the God of the scriptures. When we read God’s word, we should expect Him to teach us in the most direct way possible. God knows the mind of men. He knows how we think. He did not write the Bible in a secret almost hidden gnostic allegorical way that only a few can understand. Furthermore, once you allow for an allegorical approach to God’s word, every doctrine is in danger of being allegorized, including the resurrection.
The Contextual Principle
I have heard it said “never read a scripture”. What this means is, never read a scripture in isolation. Always read many verses before and after a given scripture to grasp the context. Often I will choose to read the chapter before and after the scripture in question, as well. When practicing good hermeneutics, we want to put all scriptures in their proper context.
An example of an out of context scripture would be the oft quoted “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Is that a blank promise that Christ will give you the ability to do anything and everything? No. In Philippians 4:13 Paul was talking about being content in whatever state he found himself in. Paul was not giving future Christians an inspirational slogan that they could claim. Paul was not telling all believers that they could literally do anything because Christ strengthens them. We need to put all scriptures in their proper context.
Another example I often hear is “by the mouth of two to three witnesses, a thing is established”. When taken out of context, some believe that this is in reference to confirming a doctrine or prophecy. When this scripture and the many others that are similar, are put in context, it’s easy to see that the two or three witnesses are not to establish doctrine or confirm a prophecy. The witnesses are to confirm someone’s behavior so that a corrective action can take place.
Scripture Interprets Scripture Principle
This principle of hermeneutics is simple. Scripture can help interpret scripture. God’s word is an integrated whole and does not contradict itself. We also know that when God gives us an important doctrine, He is not going to only speak about it once. God places His important teachings in several places and in several different ways in order to ensure our understanding.
When we are studying a scripture in the Bible that is somewhat obscure, we should look to other scriptures that address the same subject for clarification. We should always let the explicit scriptures explain the implicit scriptures. In other words, the scriptures that are plain and simple to understand should be used to help us understand the scriptures that are more confusing.
An example of the Scripture Interprets Scripture Principle
I hate to keep harping on the literal 6 day creation, but it provides a nice illustration of this principle. If someone is confused about the duration of the first 6 days of creation they can compare Genesis with God’s description in Exodus. This description comes from the ten commandments that God Himself wrote on tablets of stone. Scripture interprets scripture.
Exodus 20:9-11 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: (10) But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: (11) For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
God Himself wrote these words on stone and he compares His 6 days of work to our literal 6 day workweek. In other words, God has given us a scripture to cross check, in order that we not confuse 6 days with 6 long periods of millions of years. You would almost think God foresaw some of the confusion about the length of a day when He wrote the Ten Commandments. Again, we can use plain and clear scriptures to help us understand scriptures that are not as clear.
The Progressive Revelation Principle
The Progressive Revelation Principle is a concept that might be a little harder to grasp than the other hermeneutic principles. It’s the idea that God is progressively revealing truth as His Bible was being written. It has been said that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. Some Old Testament teachings don’t become fully clear until the New Testament writings came along. Doctrines and concepts that have become progressively clearer with time include; the atonement, heaven, hell, judgment, angels, demons and Satan etc. As God reveals His words to mankind, He progressively builds upon our current understanding.
The Accommodation Principle
The accommodation principle is the concept that God uses language that accommodates our human understanding of things. This is not to say that God lies to us or gives us just so stories but there are times when God uses language in the Bible to describe something in terms that we should not take too literally. For example, God speaks about Himself in ways that sometimes personify Him in a human way. The Bible speaks about the arm of the Lord. Sacrifices are said to be a sweet aroma in God’s nostrils. The phrase “face of the Lord” shows up several times in the Bible. Latter Day Saints (Mormons) take these types of accommodating language and conclude that the Father is a flesh and blood man. Numbers 23:19 says that god is not a man that he should lie. The Bible is simply using accommodating language. We need to be aware that Bible uses this type of language in places.
The One Interpretation Principle
Every scripture in the Bible has only one interpretation. A scripture may have several applications and may even be a shadow or type of a future event, but it still only has one interpretation. Some pastors teach that all the promises that were given to Israel were forfeited when Israel rejected her Messiah. They then conclude that all the promises to Israel now go to the Christian church. This doctrine is called replacement theology and it is riddled with problems. One problem is that it gives the promises made to Israel more than one interpretation.
The Harmony of Scripture Principle
Another principle of hermeneutics is the Harmony of Scripture Principle. Scripture needs to be in harmony with the rest of scripture.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (17) That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
The entire Bible is given by inspiration of God and does not contain any errors. When we find a scripture that has the appearance of contradicting another scripture in the Bible, we must stop and figure out why they appear to contradict and how to reconcile them. Every verse must be in harmony with the rest of the Bible.
Consider the following two scriptures:
Joh 10:34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? (35) If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
Isa 43:10 Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.
Mormons argue that John 10:34-35 illustrates that we can become gods but that wouldn’t fit with other plain and clear scriptures (see also Isa 44:8, 45:5, 45:21). Because this interpretation contradicts many clear scriptures that declare there is only one God, we must reject the Mormon interpretation and look for what Jesus actually meant. God’s word does not contradict itself. We need to make sure our interpretation of any given text does not contradict another scripture.
As an aside, this may be a bit off topic, but I cannot help myself. Another problem with the Mormon interpretation is that it doesn’t fit with Mormon theology. They believe they can potentially become gods if they observe their gods commands. In John 10:34-35 Jesus called them gods (present tense). He did not say they potentially could become gods. The Pharisees weren’t even following Mormon theology so how could this support the Mormon belief that Mormons can become gods? Oops.
The Genre Principle
The genre of a biblical text is important to know when practicing good hermeneutics. There are 66 books of the Bible and several different literary genres that these books fit into. The Bible contains poetry, history, prophetic writings, letters and books of wisdom. We need to keep in mind what genre of book we are reading. We should read a historical book like 1 and 2 Kings differently than we would read the poetry of the Psalms. If we are reading Proverbs (wisdom) we should not assume that each saying is a promise from the Lord. When Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”, we shouldn’t take that as a guarantee that our children will be saved. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, not a book of promises from God.
The Watchtower makes this mistake when they read the doctrine of soul sleep into the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom that gives the perspective of a heathen man who has the opportunity to chase every worldly desire he wants. Most of the Book is written from a secular viewpoint and cannot be relied upon for theology. It is a book that imparts wisdom to the reader. The Watchtower quotes Ecclesiastes 9:5 to show that the soul ceases to exist after death.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are reading this scripture out of its intended genre. This particular portion of Ecclesiastes is giving the perspective of the secular man and is not giving a biblically accurate position. When practicing good biblical hermeneutics, we need to take into account what genre of text we are reading.
The Grammatical Principle
Grammar and syntax are important components to good Bible study. It’s no secret that the Bible was written in Hebrew Greek and Aramaic. Because of this we now have hundreds of Bible translations available in nearly every language on the planet. Some of these translations are good and many of them are not. It becomes important to first find a good English translation (KJV hint hint) and then get yourself some good lexicons and dictionaries. Understanding the meanings of the Greek or Hebrew words can help flush out the meaning of a given text.
Grammatical mistakes do happen. The Watchtower is notorious for messing with the grammar and syntax of the Bible to make it fit their theology. One instance is at the beginning of the book of John. Instead of saying “the word was God” the New Word Translation (Watchtower Bible) says “the word was a God”. That’s a huge difference. They actually create new grammatical rules for the purposes of getting this particular translation. Another grammatical goof of the Watchtower is to move the comma in Luke 23:43, from before the word “today” to after “today”. This change completely changes the meaning of the sentence. Jesus was telling the man on the cross next to him that he would be in paradise today. This does not fit with the Watchtower doctrine of soul sleep, so they modified the grammar of their version of the Bible.
Luke 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Good hermeneutics always includes watching grammar and syntax.
The Historical Principle
Another important principle of hermeneutics is the historical principle. The Bible has been written in a way that any culture from any time period can understand and apply its truth. Nonetheless, we can understand so much more when we have a grasp of the historical backdrop of a given text.
Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. At face value we have a story about a Samaritan man who helps a Jew that has been beaten. This story illustrates who our neighbor is (everyone) and that we should love them as we would love ourselves. That’s great but if we understood more about what a Samaritan was it makes the lesson so much better. After Assyria had conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel many Assyrians had moved into the seized land. As the years progressed, the Assyrians intermarried with the surviving Jews. Don’t forget, the Jews were strictly forbidden to marry non-Jews. The resulting generations were referred to as the Samaritans and were despised by the Jews in the southern kingdom of Judah. In the parable, we have a Samaritan man who was hated and treated like dirt by the Jews all of his life and yet he is the one who helps out his Jewish neighbor. This Samaritan saves the life of someone who he should justifiably consider his enemy. That’s powerful! That puts a whole new spin on who our neighbors are. As you can see, the historical principle is a great hermeneutic to help us get a better understanding of God’s word.