Hermeneutics is the science or art of interpretation. The word is from the Greek for to interpret, explain or translate. The Greeks spoke of Hermes, the god of writing, art and science and messenger of the gods. Hermeneutics is
The science of interpreting an author’s language (Milton Terry)
Principles, laws and methods of interpretation (Louis Berkhof)
It assumes that people communicate to be understood and that there is a need to remove confusion between writer and reader so that the writer is understood. It also assumes that you find meaning by understanding a writer’s intention, something that not all would accept.
Hermeneutics can be applied to any literature. We distinguish between general and special hermeneutics, the latter dealing with law or poetry, for example. We further distinguish between secular special hermeneutics and biblical hermeneutics, a very special sort dealing with God’s Word and having its own special field. The Bible was written by men but above all else it is God’s Word to his people. Critical methods alone will never do it justice. Historical and rational methods of interpretation have their place but can only take us so far in our understanding.
It is useful to distinguish between biblical hermeneutics and related fields of study.
Biblical Introduction (Isagogics) deals with questions of authorship, date, canonicity.
Textual Criticism seeks to discover the exact words of the original biblical manuscripts. At the point where textual criticism ends hermeneutics begins.
Exegesis This is sometimes thought of as part of hermeneutics, but we can distinguish. Exegesis is the application of the principles and laws of hermeneutics, the practical outcome of hermeneutics. Exegesis relates to hermeneutics as language to grammar, reasoning to logic. Speech and reason existed before written grammars or rules of logic; but to speak correctly and reason rightly usually involves knowing grammar and logic. Hermeneutics (science) seeks to lay down principles of interpretation. Exegesis (art) applies those rules. Both affect each other in some ways, as rules of grammar and spoken language can interact.
Hermeneutics is not all important. Right interpretation does not guarantee right practice. However, it is fundamental. The Bible is God’s Word but if not correctly understood it is useless. Misunderstanding God’s Word can do great harm. This is how heresies begin. Because it is God’s Word, it is vital for us not only to understand its general sense but every word. Without hermeneutics you can establish no other branch of theology. It leads to sound interpretation, the root of all sound theology. Without correct interpretation how can anyone preach faithfully?
‘But you don’t have to interpret the Bible. Just read it and obey it. If you have the Spirit that’s enough.’ One writer describes a student weeping for her hermeneutics lecturer because he could not see that you do not need to interpret, you just believe. Such attitudes often spring from an objection to the need for preachers and scholars but what about Ephesians 4:11, 12? It was he who gave some to be ... pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up ....
Walter Kaiser has boiled the objections down to three and gives answers:
1. God’s Word has its own compelling power. However, it is as you understand and apply it that its power is unleashed.
2. If you have the Spirit that is enough. So why did Peter find some of Paul’s writings hard to understand? (2 Peter 3:16). The Spirit’s main work is overcoming pride and prejudice. Without his work, we fail to see a truth’s value or how to apply it. The Spirit is vital but uses means.
3. If you have faith you will understand. We dare not deny Scripture’s clarity. The Bible can be understood by all who seek God’s help and are willing to obey it. However, some parts are more difficult to understand than others and we must give attention to these too. It is when we have understood that faith becomes important.
Besides, anyone who wants to understand the Bible must take into account these important factors:
1. Even the most straightforward statements often need interpretation.
2. Sin has darkened man’s mind and continues to impair his ability to think and understand, including ability to interpret accurately.
3. People tend to disagree, to drift apart mentally (Berkhof’s phrase)
4. Also remember Isaiah 55:8, 9 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, … As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are … my thoughts than your thoughts.
5. Even the most experienced and judicious readers are not yet fully mature. Inevitably, differences of interpretation arise even among those who love Scripture and accept it as God’s Word.
6. Besides all this, various cults and false religions have promoted many false interpretations. We must expose and correct their errors.
7. We must remember how cultural presuppositions affect us (words such as church, cross, etc). In using a translation, we are already involved in hermeneutics as every translation involves a degree of interpretation.
8. We must also remember the Bible’s nature. God’s Word came through human beings in particular historical settings not as a series of propositions and commands. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart put it, God ‘chose to speak his eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history’. This is not a disadvantage but leads us to hope that by these same words God will again speak to his people in the context of human history, this time our own.
Thus, one has to
- Hear the word they heard then and try to understand what they said to those people then and there
- Then learn to hear that same word in the present
Bible interpretation is not always a simple matter. There are many traps to avoid. Not only is it difficult to transpose ourselves into the time and spirit of the biblical writers but we are aiming to know not only their mind but that of God himself.
In hermeneutics, the material object is the writing to be explained. The formal object concerns the sense expressed by the book’s author. Our material object is the Bible. We seek a complete set of rules for finding and expressing the true sense of its inspired writers. The formal object is to discover and present the Bible’s genuine sense.
A modern group of writers (Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard) say we need to practice proper hermeneutics to:
- Discern God’s message. Good hermeneutics lead to good exegesis and so Scripture’s true meaning is established. It avoids the oft abused ‘proof-texting method’.
- Avoid or dispel misconceptions, wrong perspectives and false conclusions about the Bible.
- Be able to apply the Bible’s message to our lives. In different ways, the ancient biblical text teaches us how to live today to God’s glory. The task of hermeneutics is to discover what the text reveals about this.
This article first appeared in Grace Magazine