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Hermeneutics

The Science of Interpreting the Bible

 

 

Definition

General hermeneutics  is that  set of  rules employed  in all materials which stand in need of interpretation.   It is used, with proper adaptation to the subject matter, in art, history, literature, archeology and   translation. Something stands in need of interpretation when  something hinders  its spontaneous  understanding. To put  it another  way a  gap exists  between the  interpreter and the materials to be  interpreted and rules  must be set  up to bridge  this gap.  In that the interpreter  is separated from his materials in  time there is a historical gap; in  that his culture is different from  that of his text there is a cultural  gap; in that the text is usually  in a different language there  is the linguistic  gap; in that  the document originates  in  another  country  there is  the geological gap and the biological  gap  (the  flora  and  fauna).   In  that usually a totally different attitude towards life and the universe exists in the text  it can be said that there is a philosophical gap.

Biblical hermeneutics is  the study of  those principles which  pertain to the interpretation of Holy  Scripture.   Here,  we  will briefly consider the following hermeneutics:

- Understanding the Purpose of the Book
- Understanding the Historical Background
- Understanding the Culture
- Understanding the Context
- Understanding the Meaning of the Words
- Understanding the Parallel Passages
- Understanding the Literary Styles
- Understanding How to Make an Application

Understanding the Purpose of the Book

There are  66 books  in the  Bible each one has a specific purpose which relates  in the revelation of  Jesus Christ.   Leviticus has an entirely different purpose from say,  Romans.  When you read  something in Leviticus,  you would  not apply  it in  the same  way as  you would Romans.     Understanding  the  purpose  of  the  Thessalonian  letters greatly helps in  trying to understand  some of Paul's  comments there. Each of the  four gospels has  a different purpose,  which explains why they are not identical biographical sketches.

Understanding Historical Background

One of the  more critical principles  in understanding the  Bible is to understand the Historical  Background of a  passage.  For  instance, in Luke  4:25-30,  we  find  the  Jews  trying  to throw Jesus off a cliff because of what He said.  We can only understand why they wanted to  do this  by  understanding  the  historical  background  of the two people Jesus spoke of.  In John  10:22, if we knew the historical  background, we would have  very interesting information  about why the  Holy Spirit saw it  as important  to add  that the feast of  the dedication was in winter. Understanding the historical background of, say Ezekiel 26  in how the prophecy against Tyre was fulfilled gives us an example of  how God intends  us to  interpret prophecy,  and with  what precision it is carried out.   In Revelation 3:18  we read of  the things of  which the Lord counsels the church at Laodicea  to buy of Him.  If  we understood the historical  background of  the passage,  we'd understand  the irony here.

To  aid  us  in  understanding  the  historical background of books and passages  in  the  Bible,  we  could  look  at  a Bible Survey, a Bible Handbook, or a Bible Dictionary.   There are also many books  available devoted to  the history  of specific  times during  the Bible.   Alfred Edersheim  is  the  classic  work  on  THE  LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH.   He  also  wrote  a  very  interesting  work  on  The Temple.

Josephus  was  a  historian  who  wrote  during  the  time of Jesus and discusses some  of the  verbal traditions  of the  Jews at  the time as well as a  "secular" view of Jewish history.

Understanding the Culture

Again, a critical subject.  Not understanding the culture in a  passage sometimes may  lead to  a false  interpretation of  what is  read.   In Romans 12:20, for example,  if we knew the  culture, or customs of  the land,  we'd  know  that  Paul  is  not  showing  us a way of "Christian vengeance."  In Matthew 13, Jesus  draws heavily on the customs of  the day in  giving His  kingdom parables.   Not understanding  the  customs have lead many liberal scholars  down completely false paths in  trying to understand the purpose of the church.

To aid us in understanding the cultural background of various  passages in  the  Bible,  we  use  books  on  manners  and customs in the Bible. Again, some commentaries may contain some of this information.

Understanding the Context

Misinterpreting Scripture, and  wrenching things out  of the text  that were never there goes on all the  time.  It is not difficult to  pull a Scripture  out  of  its  context,  and  give  it a completely different meaning.  When interpreting Scripture, it is critical to keep the  text in context.  By context, we mean the parts of a sentence or  paragraph, immediately next to or surrounding a passage.  Some passages that  seem very difficult clear up nicely when we carefully examine the context.

The whole prosperity doctrine and presumptuous faith movements  largely build their doctrines on taking scripture out of context and making the Bible say things that it never said.

There is no book really that can help us learn to study the context  of a  passage.   Our  resources  here  are  limited  to  possibly  using a commentary  as  a  helpful  guide  in reinforcing, or contradicting our interpretation.

Understanding the Meaning of the Words

One of the obstacles we face  in understanding the text is finding  out exactly what the  author meant when  he wrote the  words.  We  must not impose our definition on the words,  but find out what they meant  when they  were  written.   This  is  a  particularly difficult, or at least tedious  task  since  this  problem  is compounded by understanding the English word in  our translation, understanding  the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word in  the original, and  understanding what that  word meant when  it  was  written.   Words  change  in  meaning  even  in  our own generation.   Words are  not static.   They are  constantly changing in their  use  and  meaning.   There  are  many  ways  we  can attack this problem.  On the first level,  a good English dictionary should not  be overlooked.  You might be surprised  at how often this will serve  as a valuable tool.  On  the next level, it  begins to get difficult  if you are  not   familiar  with   Greek  or   Hebrew.   Strong's   Exhaustive Concordance proves  to be the easiest  way to  do a complete, original study of a particular word.   However, this is only the beginning!   In conjunction with  Strong's, we  use a  set of  four books  published by Baker  Book  House.   These  include  a  Greek  Concordance,  a  Hebrew Concordance, a Greek Lexicon, and  a Hebrew Lexicon.  These  books will be discussed later in this text.

Another way  to study  the meaning  of a  word is  to use a book called Vine's Expository Dictionary.  This book lists the English word,  gives the  passages  which  are  relevant  and discusses the meaning of that word.  The only real shortcoming  in using this approach is that  it is not exhaustive.   There are  words that  are not  discussed.   However, this is an easy short-cut if your particular word is listed.

Other approaches are to purchase  word studies.  Wilson's Word  Studies are  very popular. Wuest's   Word  Studies  are  also  popular  and inexpensive.

Words in the Context of their Times

It is easy  for words to  lose  or  change their meaning  over a period of time.   In our  day and  age the  word "gay"  has come  to take on a whole different meaning than it did 100 years ago.  Likewise with  words and phrases found in the Bible.  It is important to consider the  times(historical period) in which words were used in the Bible, and to  look at how the contemporaries and  sources outside the Bible used  the same words.   One  example  is  the word  "Satan".   "Satan" is a word left un-translated from the  Hebrew.  "Satan"  simply means "adversary",  and in the Old  Testament the word  was used in  reference to men  (Matthew 16:23),  an  obedient  angel  of  God  (Numbers  22:22),  and  even God Himself (2  Sam. 24:1  cf 1  Chron. 21:1).   As one  approaches the New Testament  era  and  after, the  Jewish  rabbis often used the word to represent the  "evil influence"  that lurks  in the  heart of  all men. Today, however, the word "Satan"  has lost much of its  Jewish heritage and has come instead to denote  a super-natural fiend that wears a  red cape and carries a pitchfork.  To avoid misunderstandings, however,  we should give  consideration to  the way  that the  writers of  the Bible used words originally in the days which they were written.

Understanding the Parallel Passages

When  studying  the  Word,  one  must  take  into consideration all the  Scriptural passages that shed light  on a particular subject.   Let the Bible  speak  for  itself.   The Bible  in  many cases is its own best commentary.  Practice comparing Scripture with Scripture.

Whenever  you  come  across  some  new  amazing  discovery in the Bible relating  to a  spiritual  principle,  there  is a nice little rule of thumb I like to use from the  Bible itself.  That is, "by two  or three witnesses shall a thing be established."   What I mean here is that  if this new  discovery is  an important  spiritual principle,  I should be able to find it reiterated somewhere else in the Bible.

Understanding the Literary Styles

Throughout the Bible, you will encounter various literary styles,  such as  history,  poetry,  prophecy,  proverbs,  and  parables.   We cannot interpret these  differing styles  in the  same way.   History passages should  be  interpreted  literally,  while  poetry  passages  are often written in  figurative language.   The greatest  help we  have in these circumstances is our  common sense.   We also have  the context of  the passage we are dealing with.   If we understand the background of  what we are reading, we should  rarely have a problem with  literary styles. Being careful not to jump to conclusions will serve us well.

Let's look at a few figures of speech used in the Bible . . .

The Metaphor

A  metaphor  is  a  figure  of  speech,  in which a word or phrase that ordinarily means  one thing  is applied  to another  thing, in order to suggest a  likeness between  the two.   Examples of  metaphors are,  "a copper  sky"  and  "a  heart  of  stone."The Simile A simile is also a comparison between two  things, like a  metaphor; only, the  comparison is indicated by, "like," or "as."   Examples of this are, "a face  like stone," "as hard as nails," and "his eyes were like fire."

The Analogy

An  analogy is a likeness in some ways between things that are otherwise unlike.  There is an analogy between the human heart and a pump, the Lord and a shepherd, and the saints and sheep.

The Hyperbole

The hyperbole is an exaggerated statement, used for effect, and not meant to be taken literally.   An example is in Matthew 7,  where Jesus talks about  the person  looking for  the specks  in his brother's eye, while having beams in his own eye.

The Personification

The poetic device which takes  inanimate objects, and gives them  human characteristics is called a  personification.  An example is saying that the mountains sing, or clap their hands.

The Idiom

Every language has certain  peculiar phrases, which cannot  be analyzed by the  usual grammatical  process.   Idioms are  a mode  of expression that  defies  the  rules,  and depends  on  the  society to supply the definition.   The  dictionary  defines  idioms  as,  "a  small group or collection of  words expressing  a single  notion."   We often say that "we're in a pickle,"  or "it is raining  cats and dogs," or  "he's dead from the  neck up."  These are  all idioms,  and we  depend on everyone "getting the picture" because they live in our society.

Making the Application

How  do  we  apply  the  truths  found  in  the  Word?   There are some passages of Scripture that are obviously not to be applied in the  same way they were applied at the time of their writing.  Yet, if there  was no application for us today, the  passage would never have been in  the Bible  for  "All  scripture  is  given  by  inspiration  of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for  reproof, for correction, for  instruction in  righteousness,  that  the  man  of  God  may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (2 Timothy 3:16-17) - A BIBLE COMPANION copyrighted shareware  software Version 5.0

See The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics - Main Page

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Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture on this website was taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION(r). Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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