The Science of Interpreting the Bible
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 . . .
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."
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 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 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.
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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