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Hermeneutics 2 – What is Hermeneutics?

October 21, 2012

Before discussing any details of hermeneutics I must offer you an explanation and a definition.  Some of you may wonder why I asked, “What is hermeneutics?” and not, “What are hermeneutics.”  Graeme Goldsworthy in Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics explains that although the dictionary says hermeneutics is a plural noun, we use it in the singular to describe the academic discipline that studies the methods of interpreting Scripture.  Louis Berkhof in Principles of Interpretation said, “Hermeneutics is the science that teaches us the principles, laws, and methods of interpretation,” (11).

Although I mentioned in the above paragraph that hermeneutics is an academic discipline, I do not believe the discussion of hermeneutics should be limited to the academy.  When every Christian reads their Bible they should endeavor above all else to make sure they are taking from Scripture what God intends for them.  In his book Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson exhorts believers to recognize that since the Scriptures are God’s thoughts, we ought to labor to understand them properly and present them clearly. I believe that all Christians should be familiar with some basic concepts that will help them to properly, “hear,” Scripture.  We do not want to spend our Christian lives reading into Scripture what we already believe to be true, or misusing Scripture by making it say something that it does not actually say.  If we are going to honor God in our thoughts and believe about Him what is true about Him, we must not haphazardly approach Scripture.  We must honor God by worshipping Him in truth, according to who He actually is.

Talking about the method (or methods) of interpreting Scripture does not mean we do not believe in the Bible’s clarity (often called its perspicuity).  We should believe that any Christian can come to Scripture and come away with an understanding of its main concepts.  The Bible is sufficiently clear about the sinfulness of human beings and God sending His Son Jesus Christ to save sinners.  Also, I do not believe many will disagree with me saying that the essential virtues of the Christian life are clearly presented to us in the Bible.  Then why should we think about how we interpret the Bible?

As much as I do not believe many will disagree with me about the statements above relating to the clarity of Scripture, I also do not believe many will disagree with me about the vast amount of differing opinions that exist among professing Christians.  If we do not need to examine how we should read and interpret our Bibles because everything is equally clear, then why do so many denominations and factions exist in the church?  How is that Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Independents, and even liberal scholars can all point to Scripture to “prove” their points?  How is that individuals can both look at the same passage and be convinced that it teaches two different things?  Are we to believe that the Bible teaches different things to different people?  Are we to believe that there is no objective meaning to any particular passage but that the Holy Spirit makes it mean whatever He desires it to mean to any given individual at any particular time?  If we are to believe such things, on what basis are we to believe them?

Most Christians desire that their understanding of God be based on the Bible’s presentation of who God is.  The topics that are commonly addressed under the heading “hermeneutics” will help such Christians to understand the Bible rightly.  We can learn from the different approaches that Christians have taken to understand their Bibles over the course of history in order to avoid their mistakes and build on their successes.  The topics under this heading will help to ensure that when we read the Bible, we hear God’s Word as He intends us to hear it.  Although hermeneutics will help us to appreciate why people believe what they do about God through the Bible and give us a better ground for discussing our different views, primarily it will help to ensure that it is our minds that are being transformed by the Word of God, and not the Word of God being transformed to fit what our minds want to believe.  Thursday, I will offer some more introductory remarks about hermeneutics and discuss how it relates to the way we form theological truths.

What do you think?  Without even getting too deep into the considerations to be addressed in hermeneutics, what advantages are there to thinking about how we read and interpret the Bible?  How have you tried to explain your view to someone whom you believe is misunderstanding or misusing a certain text of the Bible?

From → Hermeneutics

  1. I am really looking forward to reading the sections on Hermeneutics. I have often explained to others, when I’m asked about “difficult to swallow” portions of scripture what it means for how I live or how I think. I explain that I have certainly come upon portions of scripture that, for lack of better terminology, I just didn’t like. But being a Christian and knowing that God’s Word is inerrant, I had (have) a responsibility to submit to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and allow God to change the way I think, rather than try to mold what it says to my liking, which would be heresy, or to conveniently just skip over those uncomfortable parts of God’s Word. I fear misuing any text in the Bible and I fear teaching others a wrong interpretation. Personally, I feel like God has specifically sets forth a way in which He wants me to live and clearly set forth the Gospel. Why would he want to make it confusing or superbly mysterious or anything like that? He WANTS me to know it. He isn’t trying to play tricks on me, He is a Good God.

    • I think you hit on one of the essentials aspects of interpretation, namely a belief that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God. It is this conviction that will drive us to want to know God’s Word accurately and should prevent us from handling it irreverantly. I think that fear of misusing the Bible is also extremely important. Unfortunately I do not know if such a fear is all that common in the church today. The last portion of your post makes me think of a statement I have heard Alistair Begg make; “The main things are plain, and the plain things are main.” Amen!

  2. I think it’s unfortunate that we can sometimes, as denominations, get so focused on areas of the Bible that are not “plain” and lose sight of the “main” things. We in our sinful nature make the Bible more complicated than it ought to be. Why would we think that we would understand it all perfectly when a Holy, Awesome God breathed the words? My approach to understanding the Bible is that you read it like a majestic & holy piece of literature. That we should take literally what is plainly literal and figuratively what is plainly figurative and what we can’t understand we should endeavor to understand better, but be at peace that His ways are higher than our ways. Our loving Father will reveal to us what He knows we need, when we need it. Hope that makes sense… 🙂

  3. I think I have also learned that some things are beyond my full understanding, and to those things I must trust that as Heather said, His ways are higher than our ways, and I am to trust and obey. That is what faith is, trusting in all the ways of the Lord, even those that we don’t fully comprehend. Maybe the understanding will be granted to me someday, maybe it won’t, but Jesus still knows better and I just need to hold on to HIm.

    • Thank you both for your comments! It is a blessing to hear from you both and you both make great points. I wanted to run this by you and see what you thought. I recently read one author explain the difference between our quantitative knowledge of God and our qualitative knowledge of God. He quoted Deut. 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children, that we may follow all the words of this law,” (NIV). He explained that there are certain things that God has chosen not to reveal to us. We will not ever know everything that there is to know about God because He is the infinite Creator and we are finite creatures. This is what he called our quantitative knowledge of God. However, God gave us His Word to reveal some things about Himself to us. He said that the things God gave us in Scripture we can know accurately. Of course this does not mean that is always easy. Peter said in 2 Pet 3:16 that there are “some things that are hard to understand.” The parables are a good example of this. I read another author describe Jesus explanation for why He spoke in parables in this way: He explained that those who did not have a heart to know God in truth would not understand the parable and walk away without understanding of what Jesus meant. But the disciples, who loved Jesus, sought Him out after He spoke those things and asked Him to explain the parables so that they could understand them. The author explained that certain parts of Scripture are like that. We may not immediately understand them but God uses those parts to test our hearts, to see if we will seek out understanding because of love for Him. So, qualitative knowledge is that we can know the things God has revealed accurately even though we may have to work a little harder to understand certain parts of that revelation. I guess I have a slight fear that we could assume, perhaps too quickly, that if we don’t understand something right away that it is part of the “secret things” God has not revealed when perhaps God is testing us to see if we will seek Him out for understanding. Of course, we must be careful that we are not prying into the things God has not revealed and being guilty of promoting “controversial speculations” (1 Tim 1:4, NIV). But the point of the first author was that the things God HAS revealed we can know and should seek to know, even if some things are more difficult to understand or not as clearly stated.

      • That makes perfect sense and I completely agree. I think about it, and if the Lord made everything in the Bible perfectly clear and perfectly easy for all to understand right away then our sinful nature would tend to read it once and never go back, falsely believing that we didn’t “need” His Word anymore. By making certain aspects of scripture more complex (but NOT confusing) we should be drawn to search deeper and reach farther towards the Lord and the Word that He gives us.

  4. I agree that we need to endeavor to know God’s word, but I do think some things will never be answered this side of heaven. For instance, how is it that we are given a choice, but that we are chosen? I think that both are true and we are unable to grasp how both can be true simply because we have limited understanding. I believe that all we NEED to understand will be made plain to us and that many things we will understand in layers, as we grow in Him and when He decides it is time for a truth to be “unveiled”. I think so many misunderstandings and splits occur over things that we cannot know and I find it unfortunate that God’s church would be divided over trying to discern the undiscernable (if that is a word:)).

  5. BTW, wasn’t yelling in the all caps, just emphasizing 🙂

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