Biblical Hermeneutics Essay
In its most basic definition, biblical hermeneutics refers to the art and science of biblical interpretation. It is considered an art because understanding, which is required for interpretation, requires a feel for the subject matter being interpreted, not just an analyzation of data. Biblical hermeneutics is also considered a science due to the fact that some aspects of the interpretation process resemble the activities of natural science. Because of this dual nature of hermeneutics, it is almost impossible for an interpreter to arrive at a neutral conclusion. Good or bad, most biblical interpreters translate scripture based upon predilections or presuppositions learned through a lifetime of exposure to biblical teachings, church sermons, Bible studies, etc. Nevertheless, the hermeneutical goal is to interpret the Bible as objectively as possible, that is, setting aside any presupposed meaning in favor of an attempt to gain more insight into the actual meaning intended to be conveyed in the message. This research paper will focus on the history, theory, methods, and practice of biblical interpretation. It should be noted however that while biblical hermeneutics is considered a special field of hermeneutics, there is really no difference in biblical hermeneutics and general hermeneutics. The same methods and principles apply even though the matter being interpreted is different.
God revealed His Word to the world over a period of about 1,600 years between roughly 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100. Between that time and the nearly 2,000 years since the last words of the modern Bible were written, there have been countless theories, methods, and techniques developed regarding the interpretation of the Bible. The history 1 of biblical hermeneutics usually begins with a discussion of Ezra. After the exile of the Israelites in Babylon and their subsequent return to Israel, there was a need for interpreting the Pentateuch. Most of the Israelites in Babylon probably lost their ability to read and understand Hebrew. We see evidence of this in Nehemiah 8:8 as the Israelites implore Ezra to read to them. This event signaled the beginning of the science and art of biblical interpretation.
Rabbinic exegesis and hermeneutics had developed into four primary methods by the time of Christ: literal, midrashic, pesher, and allegorical. The Literal interpretation, also known as “peshat”, is the basis for many modern types of biblical interpretation. It involved a grammatical-historical method of interpretation. The word “midrash” comes from the Hebrew word “darash” meaning to search. The primary goal of midrashic interpretation was to highlight and explain the scriptural teaching in new and changing circumstances. Rabbi Hillel, who was born approximately 110 B.C., is credited with developing the basic rules of this form of rabbinic exegesis. “Pesher” interpretation is similar to midrashic but with a significant eschatological focus. This method was used extensively among the Qumran community. Allegorical interpretation stated that the true meaning of Scripture actually lied beneath the written words. The philosopher Philo was a proponent of this method of interpretation.
In the centuries following the earthly life of Christ, several schools of thought developed regarding the interpretation of Scripture. This period is known as “Patristic 2
Exegesis” and lasted from approximately A.D. 100 to 600. One of the most well known patristic exegetes was Clement of Alexandria. The Alexandrian school of thought was that the Scriptures hide their true meaning as a way to make its readers more inquisitive and because not everyone should understand the Scriptures. This method of allegorization arose from the desire to view the Old Testament as a Christian document, as opposed to a purely rabbinic or Jewish document. This method, however, completely neglected the author’s intended meaning in the Scripture.
To combat the allegorization of Alexandria, the Syrian School of Antioch was developed. A scholar of this school of thought, Theodore of Mopsuestia, stated that the primary method for interpreting Scripture should be the
grammatical-historical method. This method stated that a text should be interpreted according to the rules of grammar and the facts of history. The exegetical principles of this school of thought laid the groundwork for modern exegesis.
Augustine, who lived from A.D. 354 – 430, was a genius in certain aspects of biblical exegesis. He was part of the Western School of interpretation. He developed significant theories of biblical interpretation such as: the interpreter must possess a genuine Christian faith & the literal and historical meaning of Scripture should be held in high regard, to name a few. Unfortunately, Augustine forsook most of his own principles and tended to follow a method of allegorization. His theories, however, became the predominant view of the middle ages. 3
The period known as “Medieval Exegesis” lasted from approximately A.D. 600 – 1500. Little original exegesis was done, with most biblical students concentrating on compiling the works of the patriarchal exegetes. During this period however, a four fold meaning of Scripture, originally developed by Augustine, became the primary method of biblical interpretation. The principles of this method stated that in each passage of Scripture there were four meanings, letter, allegory, moral, and anagogy (eschatological). During this period, basically any interpretation of Scripture was acceptable as long as it conformed to the traditions of the church, regardless of its literal meaning. Nicolas of Lyra had a significant impact during this period on the return to a literal interpretation of Scripture. He agreed with the four fold meaning of Scripture developed by Augustine, but gave a preference to the literal meaning of Scripture. His work had a significant impact on Martin Luther, who inspired the reformation period.
Reformation exegesis was a period during the 1500’s. During this time, most exegetes abandoned the four fold principle of interpreting Scripture in favor of a singular sense. Furthermore, Martin Luther believed that it was impossible to understand Scripture without a genuine faith in Christ and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He also challenged the modern philosophy of the church that the Scripture should determine what the church teaches,
instead of the customs and traditions of the church determining what Scripture teaches.
Probably the greatest exegete of the reformation was John Calvin. He agreed with 4
most of the principles established by Luther but surpassed Luther in aligning his personal practices with his theory. A popular phrase used by Calvin was “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Calvin also stated that an interpreter should “let the author say what he does, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” The exegetes of the reformation period developed the principles that guided modern protestant hermeneutics.
Between 1550 and 1800, three hermeneutical methods came to life: Confessionalism, Pietism, and Rationalism. Confessionalism was developed in response to criticism against the protestants from the Roman Catholic Church. The result of this period was the development of multiple creeds for the churches to follow. During this period, however, hermeneutical methods were poor or neglected.
Pietism resulted as a reaction to the poor hermeneutical methods of confessionalism. In a writing titled “Pious Longings,” Philip Jakob Spener, the leader of the pietism movement, called for an end to needless biblical controversy, a return to mutual Christian concern and good works, better knowledge of the Bible for all Christians, and better spiritual training for ministers. Unfortunately, most Pietists preferred a method of interpretation that depended on a special “guiding” or “unction” of the Holy Spirit over the grammatical-historical method.
Rationalism is defined as a philosophical position of accepting reason as the only authority for determining a person’s opinion or course of action. Empiricism, the belief 5
that the only knowledge we can obtain is that which is learned through the five senses, merged with rationalism. This resulted in the belief that reason, rather than revelation, was the proper guide to interpreting the Bible.
The modern hermeneutical period began in the 1800’s. Due to the rationalism of the previous generation, however, the period unfortunately began with a liberal approach to theology. As a result, many biblical concepts and doctrines were abandoned or explained away. The miracles of Christ, His virgin birth, and victorious atonement are examples. Scholars came to the conclusion that these events did not fit into the mentality of educated men, and therefore, could not have occurred. A great deal of allegorizing arose during this period as well.
Neoorthodoxy arose in the twentieth century to combat, in a sense, the liberal view of Scripture that had developed. Neoorhodox scholars believe that God reveals Himself only by His presence and not in His words. Therefore, the written words of the Bible themselves are not important, but rather, what a person perceives, what they feel God reveals to them through the reading of His word, is the true meaning. This process is known as revelation. Unfortunately, neoorthodoxy views many of the reactions in the Bible between the natural and supernatural to be myth. Many of the interpretive skills associated with this practice involve “demythologizing” the Scriptures.
From the mid-twentieth century until the present time, the field of hermeneutics has taken a major shift. While scholars have held differing beliefs on how the Bible is 6
supposed to be understood (myth, figurative, literal, etc.) all of them have approached the task with the common goal of determining what the original author intended to convey in a text. This has become the common theme of hermeneutical scholars within orthodox Christianity. Within this group, a good biblical interpretation will involve a study of the history, culture, language, theology, etc., of the original audience. The primary goal is to determine the fixed meaning intended by an author in a given text. Although there are many differing theories, practices, and principles regarding hermeneutics, for the purpose of this document, the remainder of this text will focus on hermeneutics within orthodox Christianity.
The greatest argument in favor of understanding the author’s original intent of a text is that it is the most common sense approach. No one likes to have their words taken out of context. All authors expect to be understood, quoted, and interpreted in context. While the Bible is a text that is living and breathing and capable of taking on a life of its own, the biblical texts are not free of the rules of literature. All of the texts contained within the Bible were written for a purpose, to a certain audience, and contain historical characters and events that need to be interpreted and understood accordingly. If we, as Christians, believe in a central biblical author, God, then we have even more reason to rely on the text He has given us to determine its own meaning and how we should interpret it.
Each person interpreting Scripture takes with them certain presuppositions. The 7
primary presupposition of hermeneutics should be that the meaning of a text is that which the author intended to convey. Without this principle there is no way of determining the validity of an interpretation – it could be whatever the reader imagines. That is why the authorial perspective is key. Biblical interpretation involves the following six steps: 1) historical-cultural & contextual analysis, 2) lexical-syntactical analysis, 3) theological analysis, 4) literary analysis, 5) comparison to other interpretations, and 6) application.
No text can be interpreted apart from or without historical-cultural and contextual analysis. There are three basic questions a person must ask when attempting to do this type of analysis: 1) what is the historical environment the author is speaking of, 2) what is the specific historical & cultural context and purpose of the book, and 3) what is the immediate context of the passage in question?
In determining the historical-cultural context, there are three principles that must be applied. First, we are to determine the general historical situation facing the author and his audience. This knowledge is crucial for answering the basic questions of a text. Second, knowledge of certain customs will often clarify the meaning of given actions. We are separated by
nearly two millenia of historical and cultural differences from the biblical audience. Developing an awareness of biblical cultures can only enhance our understanding of the Scriptures. We must also determine the spiritual condition of the intended audience. Many books in the Bible were written during times when the people 8
had turned far away from God or when their commitment to God was at its lowest. The true meaning of a text cannot be separated from these factors. In order to properly understand any biblical passage we must study the historical and cultural environment the author and audience lived in.
When attempting to determine the historical-cultural context and purpose of a book, we have to discover or research the spiritual background and experience of the author, who his audience was, and whether or not the author’s purpose for writing is stated within the text. Repetition of certain words and phrases can be key in determining an author’s purpose for a writing. We should also observe any type of exhortation within a text. Exhortations are often valuable in discovering the meaning of certain theological facts. Another key element is to observe the issues emphasized or even omitted in a text. How an author spends his time writing and what he includes in his text all play key roles in interpretation.
The next step is to develop an understanding of the immediate context of a passage. A good place to start is to develop an outline for the book we are working in. These outlines should be developed by a careful study of the text and not imposed upon the text. Also, when studying or interpreting a specific passage we need to see how that passage relates to the text immediately before and after it. Any interpretation at which we arrive that does not coincide with those verses should be discarded.
Perspective is another key issue here. Often, the biblical writers write as if looking 9
through the eyes of God. We must differentiate between an author’s intention to be understood as a spokesman for God and his intention to be understood as a human reporter. There are times in Scripture when the authors intended
to write from a noumentological perspective and sometimes from a phenomenological one. If we fail to make this distinction, we run the risk of coming to an inaccurate conclusion when interpreting Scripture.
We must also determine whether a passage regarding biblical truths is descriptive or perspective. Descriptive truths are those in which God has performed some act that may not be normative and shouldn’t be expected to be repeated in the future. A perspective truth is one in which God has performed a normative act that can and should be expected to befall all believers. Contextual analysis is the best way to differentiate between these passages.
The teaching focus of a passage of Scripture and what it represents is another primary concern of the hermeneutic. There are certain parts of a passage that are incidental and not intended to be a main focus of the author. If we fail to maintain a distinction between that which is incidental and that which is a main focus of the author, major heresies can arise from our interpretations.
Finally, we must study who is being addressed in the passage we are studying. The culture they were living in, certain practices they may have performed, the geography of their region, as well as other details are key to understanding and 10
interpreting Scripture correctly.
The next step in the process is lexical-syntactical analysis. This involves the study if individual words and how they are phrased. The basis of this study is that words can have a variety of meanings but only one intended meaning in a given context. Without this we have no validity that our interpretation is that which God intended to convey. There is a seven step process involved in lexical-syntactical analysis.
The first step is to identify the general literary form an author uses. Literary form will influence the way an author writes and, in turn, how we should interpret a text. For example, poetry should not be interpreted as
prose, and so forth.
Secondly, we need to understand the author’s theme and how it is developed throughout a text. Unless a passage is put into the perspective of its context, we may lose sight of the primary meaning of the words. The key point of this step is that we cannot understand the smaller portions of a text without first understanding its larger, overall meaning.
We also need to pay attention to the natural divisions in a text. Because of contemporary chapter and verse divisions, there are times that we may look over a natural division in the text. The importance of looking for these divisions is that authors often used them to differentiate between thoughts and ideas. We need to make certain we are following the author’s conceptual process and not the added divisions in our modern Bibles. 11
The fourth step is to recognize the connecting words within paragraphs and sentences. Conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, etc., are all connecting words that may aid us in following the author’s natural thought process.
The next step is to discover what the individual words in a text mean. Words can have specific or implied meanings. We must rely on the context to supply the individual word meanings, but we must be aware of the fact that words can have slang meanings. There may also be idioms and nuances associated with words that we as modern interpreters are not familiar with. That is why a study of the historical context of a passage is of great value. There are a variety of tools available, such as lexicons and theological wordbooks, that can help in word studies.
The sixth step in the process is to analyze the syntax, that is, the way thoughts are structured in a sentence or paragraph. Each language has its own structure, and being able to identify that structure can contribute to our understanding of a passage.
The final step in the process is restatement. Once we determine the meaning of the passage, we should restate, or paraphrase, the information into a
clear, easily understood meaning, consistent with that which the author intended to convey.
The third step in the overall process of hermeneutics is theological analysis. The premise of this step is to determine how a specific passage fits within the overall context of God’s revelation to man. As Christians, we believe that the Bible has many writers but a single, divine author. Therefore, our exegetical task is to expound upon the relationship 12
of a singular text with the entire canon.
The next step is to determine the literary genre that we are reading. Each genre uses different literary forms, structures, and devices. It is necessary to know, not only the rules of biblical interpretation, but also the literary rules of each genre. The vast amount of information on this topic is too large to give a detailed summary in this document. There are, however, five basic steps that should be followed when performing a literary analysis. First, we need to identify the main characters; often, key points in a document surround the main characters. Second, we need to determine the topic or detail that is talked about most. This is most likely the author’s focal point for writing the document. Third, we need to observe the dialogue between characters. Frequently, this will emphasize key features within a story. Fourth, we need to consider the possibility that the main point, or climax, of a story does not occur until we near the end. Lastly, we need to identify unexpected twists in the story. Sometimes these twists are there for emphasis or to make us reconsider a certain point of view. Missing these points may cause us to miss the entire meaning of a text.
The fifth step in the hermeneutical process is to compare our findings with that of other biblical scholars. This comparison can either confirm or repudiate an interpretation. It may also give us further insight into the meaning of a passage of Scripture and shed light on something we may have missed.
The final step in the hermeneutical process is application. It can be said that 13
understanding without application is irrelevant. There is quite a bit of difference between interpretation and application. Interpretation has to follow the meaning intended to be conveyed by the author. Application does not have to follow this exact method. An example is Ephesians 6:5-9. In this passage Paul deals with the issue of slavery. In today’s society, slavery has been abolished. However, we can still apply these verses contemporarily to workers. If we have a job, we should perform that job as if we were working for Christ, and if we are managers, then we should treat our employees fairly just as Paul compels slave owners in this Scripture. The ultimate goal of any biblical interpretation should be a contemporary application. We have to be on guard, however, of the tendency to make a Scripture coincide with a point we are trying to prove. Our primary goal is to develop an interpretation consistent with the meaning intended to be conveyed by the author then apply it in today’s society.
It is easy to see that the task of biblical interpretation can be a challenge. With the many philosophies and theories that have been adopted over the years, one may easily become confused or led astray. Although it may seem to be a daunting task, sound biblical interpretation is the duty of any serious student of the Bible. As long as one follows the rules of interpretation outlined with this text, possesses a genuine relationship with Christ, and relies on the guiding of the Holy Spirit, he or she is capable of reaching the proper conclusion regarding any text in the Bible. There will be difficult passages and interpretations that we come across as biblical students, but as long as we 14
apply the proper hermeneutical skills and principles and rely on the Scripture to provide insight into difficult passages, we should be able to determine God’s intended meaning in the passage.
Kaiser, Walter C. & Sliva, Moises (1994), An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI Virkler, Henry A. & Gerber Ayayo, Karelynne (1981, 2007), Hermeneutics: Principles and
Processes of Biblical Interpretation, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI