Hermeneutics: How to interpret the Bible
People ask many questions about hermeneutics:
- “What is hermeneutics?”
- “Can’t I understand the Bible without rules for interpretation?”
- “Didn’t the Reformation secure that freedom for the person in the pew?”
- “Why do I need to know the rules for interpretation?”
- “Isn’t the Bible supposed to be clear enough to understand?”
The Bible has its own meaning, objective and independent of you and me. God breathed this meaning into the Bible when He wrote it. If God’s words don’t have a specific meaning, then He hasn’t communicated with us, and He hasn’t revealed Himself to us.
Luther is perhaps most famous for his “Here I stand” speech, in which he declared that Scripture means what it says, and no amount of Popes and councils could convince him otherwise unless they appeal to Scripture and plain reason. We might rightly call hermeneutics the ‘plain reason’ Luther had in mind. Luther was willing to die for the contention that God wrote the Bible in words which mean something, and no one and nothing can say those words do not mean what they obviously mean. “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [2 Peter 1:20-21 ESV]”
Louis Berkhof stated the matter well in his Systematic Theology when he said, “We should not depart from the plain meaning of the words unless the context requires us to do so.” On the other hand, modernist and postmodernist literary and artistic criticism say the author’s meaning in his work is irrelevant or secondary. Those critics ask, “What does the work mean to you?” If we come to the Bible with this attitude, we have asked the wrong question.
Hermeneutics begins with what the Bible says about itself.
“Hermeneutics” means how to study the words of Scripture correctly, and comes from the greek word “hrema” meaning “word”. Therefore, hermeneutics is a set of rules for using God’s own words to better understand the Bible. Naturally, the idea of using the Bible to interpret the Bible must be built upon things the Bible says about itself. Historically, there are four:
- Scripture is without error in any way, and it cannot contain errors. [Psalm 12:6, 2 Timothy 2:15 ESV]
- Scripture is perfectly clear and understandable. [Psalm 19:7-11 ESV]
- Scripture is necessary for our knowledge of God and salvation in Christ. [Deuteronomy 8:3 ESV]
- Scripture is sufficient or complete so that God has told us everything we need for repentance, justification, and a Godly life. [Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Revelation 22:18-19 ESV]
Since the Bible is without error, and since human preachers and commentaries are always subject to error, the Bible will always be a better commentary on itself than any mortal resource. If I do not understand a passage in the Bible, my first question should be: “Is there another passage which talks about the same subject and can help me understand the first passage?”
Since Scripture is perfectly clear, anyone [even children] can understand it. Which begs the question: why do so many people misunderstand passages [if not the whole] of Scripture? Our minds are bent by sin and darkened from living in a fallen world. Our minds’ ability to understand the Bible is no match for the Bible’s clarity. Our hope of understanding the Bible must then come from outside ourselves, from God and His Word. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 (ESV)”
Since Scripture is necessary for regeneration, justification, and faith, the Bible is our go-to resource for understanding the Bible. God’s general revealing of Himself and His character through nature and creation is just enough for us to know He exists and is angry with sinners. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:18-21 (ESV) “ We need the Bible to tell us that Jesus is the one name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved.
Since the Scripture is complete, we do not need any other resource, not Christian commentaries, not encyclopedias, not the ‘holy books’ of other religions. “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 (ESV) “ If I didn’t believe sermons and commentaries can be helpful, I wouldn’t have written this article, but while the works of men are often helpful, they are not necessary for understanding the Bible.
‘Clear’ passages interpret ‘difficult’ passages.
While the whole Bible is clear, and any confusion about its meaning is our fault, some passages are easier to understand than others; we can call these “clear” and “difficult” passages.
The household baptisms in the book of Acts [Acts 10:48, 16:15, 33] are an example of difficult texts. What does it mean to baptize a household? Is it all the consenting adults? …everyone who has made a profession of faith? …all the people regardless of age, gender, or social class?
Since Luke doesn’t tell us exactly whom he includes and excludes from family baptisms, we have to ask, “What did family and household mean to Peter and Paul?” Their understanding was shaped by the Old Testament which involved the whole family in worship, rites, and sacrifices regardless of their age [Genesis 17:9-14, Exodus 12:3-4]. Therefore, when Peter or Paul performed a family baptism, his understanding of family being informed by the Old Testament, he doubtless baptized in the infants and slaves of that family.
Teaching passages interpret narrative, poetic, and prophetic passages.
This rule is really a subset of our first rule because teaching passages [like Jesus’ sermons or Paul’s letters] are generally the easiest to understand. Providing commands, as well as a moral and spiritual framework for our life and decisions, is the purpose of the teaching passages.
To speak of the genres as increasing in difficulty, narrative passages come next. Their purpose is to record an event. The Biblical author often comments on what he has recorded, to tell us if it was right or wrong. Whenever the Bible makes such comments, they are inspired and correct, but the author does not always provide an assessment of the history he records. One such example would be in Judges 7:22-8:17. Here we see three groups responding to Gideon’s leadership, and his three different responses to them. The author does not tell us that Gideon’s responses were just or unjust, he merely records the events. We must appeal to the moral framework which the Bible’s teaching passages provide, in order to make such judgments.
The most difficult category of passages is prophetic because its purpose is to tell an event which hasn’t happened yet using the limitations of human language and analogies to the finite, fallen, created world in which we live. Beyond this God sometimes gives prophecy through a vision or dream, using symbols and figures of speech. We should not wonder that this genre of Biblical texts sounds the most mysterious and is the most difficult to understand considering its almost impossible task. We best interpret prophetic texts by appealing to the moral and religious framework which the teaching texts provide, the timeline which the narrative texts provide, and the pattern or ‘character’ of the way God has already fulfilled other prophecies. As an example of the narrative timeline principle, reading Revelation 12 alone leaves the impression that the infant Jesus ascended into heaven immediately after His birth. However, when we read the controlling text of Matthew’s history, we see 33 years of Jesus’ life and ministry separating these events. Therefore, though prophecy is the most difficult, God has also provided the most help for understanding it.
There are other genres in Scripture like poetry and parables. There are passages which combine these genres. Psalm 2 is a prophetic poem about the coming kingdom of Christ. Other passages use different genres one right after the other. Isaiah 7-9 records the history of Syria’s military threat against King Ahaz and a prophecy which Jesus ultimately fulfills.
The difference between necessary and unnecessary inferences
The different ways people interpret John 3:16 provide an excellent example of this principle. The text says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (ESV)” Arminians read “whoever believes” in this verse and conclude that anyone can believe through free will apart from God sovereignly electing and converting the heart beforehand. Calvinists look at this verse and conclude that “…whoever believes will not perish but have eternal life”. Jesus is not telling Nicodemus [or us] in John 3:16 about man’s ability or inability to believe in God; He is telling what happens when “whoever believes”.
Having established what John 3:16 does and doesn’t say, we can move on to the question of human ability to believe in God. Looking at John 3:1-8, we see that Jesus compares believing in God to being born [an event in which the child is utterly passive]. From Jesus’ parable of birth, we might infer that man is unable to believe in God unless God moves first. Then Jesus’ words in John 3:7-8 confirm our inference and make it a necessary one. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. [ESV]”
While the rules of hermeneutics are pretty much common sense or ‘plain reason’ as Luther called it, they require careful thinking, hard work, and some familiarity with the whole Bible to apply consistently and correctly. I want to encourage you that God has given you all the tools you need to understand the Bible within the Bible. Furthermore, our heavenly Father loves us and wants us to understand His word. Therefore, He has promised to reward our prayerful, diligent, virtuous attempts to understand the Bible. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1:5 (ESV)” Not only has He given us all the tools, He has not left us alone to use them!