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Hermeneutics is defined in one dictionary as “the art of finding the meaning of an author’s words and phrases, and of explaining it to others.” When applied to Scripture, accurate hermeneutics would require the scholar to:
These are all proven study methods. However, it has always puzzled me how Bible scholars who claim to follow all of them arrive at totally opposite interpretations of the same passage.
For example, in a seminary in the Northwest, two professors wrote on the topic of divorce and remarriage. Each one assured his readers that he was following sound rules of Biblical interpretation. Yet, each one arrived at a view that was opposite of the other.
One day, I called up my former Greek professor at Wheaton Graduate School. He had written on the subject of hermeneutics, and I asked him if he could summarize the rules of hermeneutics in a concise list. His answer startled me. He said, “Bill, there is no such list.” I asked how we would know if we are breaking hermeneutical rules if there are no rules. He explained that there are certainly guidelines of interpretation. However, they cannot be confined to one set of rules.
So, what are the additional factors of correct Biblical hermeneutics?
The first factor of interpreting Scripture is to approach it as an exercise in spiritual discernment rather than just an intellectual pursuit. Paul emphasized this in his letter to the Corinthian believers. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14). Jesus Himself confirmed that Biblical understanding does not come from human reasoning but from spiritual enlightenment. He said, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25).
The Holy Spirit is the One Who inspired the writing of Scripture, and He is the most qualified One to interpret its meaning to each reader. Jesus assured us that the Holy Spirit would indeed guide us into all truth. “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
This being the case, it is also reasonable to conclude that if a person who wants to interpret Scripture has sinful habits or practices in his life that grieve the Holy Spirit and quench His power, the Holy Spirit will not reveal the truth of Scripture to such a person. In fact, God warns that such individuals will take Scripture out of context to their own destruction. (See II Peter 3:16.) This result supports the axiom that a man’s morality will dictate his theology and his philosophy.
In the final analysis, accurate Biblical interpretation is based on the revelation of Jesus Christ throughout the Scriptures. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than on that walk on the road to Emmaus. The disciples had been personally taught by Jesus for three years. However, they still did not understand the Scriptures from which He taught. They were distracted by the conflicting interpretations of contemporary scholars. It was not until Jesus began with Moses and all the prophets and explained how they revealed Him that they understood the true meaning of Scripture. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). They later recalled, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).
The scholars of Jesus’ day carried out heated debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture, but Jesus counseled them to search the Scriptures on the basis that they testified of Him. “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).
Since the Scriptures reveal the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, it also follows that the primary theme of the Bible is the love of God and how we are to live out His love in our daily words and actions.
When a clever lawyer tried to involve Jesus in a wordy battle, He began his forensic sparring with the question “Which is the greatest commandment?” The reply that Jesus gave is a profound principle for Biblical interpretation. All the Law and prophets are based on the command to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Therefore, we must interpret Scripture on the basis of how it teaches us to love God and to love others. Love is the theme of the Bible. All good character qualities are simply practical expressions of genuine love. When the Pharisees used the Law of Moses to justify their harsh and unloving treatment of wives, Jesus reproved them for hardness of heart and took them back to the Creation design of one man and one woman becoming one flesh for the rest of their lives.
The lawyer who tried to engage Jesus in debate then tried to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Every interpretation of Scripture is based on some foundational structure of reasoning. Jesus provides the structure of truth in the commands that He gave to His disciples during His earthly ministry, and they are the guiding lights for correct Biblical interpretation. They clarify what was written in the Old Testament and are further explained in New Testament teaching. Jesus promises that if we keep His commands before our eyes, He will reveal more of Himself to us. This was the great goal of Paul: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Jesus further promises, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32).
It is customary for a Bible scholar to base his interpretation of a passage on the theological position that he has accepted. The problem with this approach is that no theological system is totally without some human error, because it is not inspired. It is man’s explanation of Biblical truth.
This is not to say that theology is unimportant. Wrong doctrine leads to wrong behavior. No one was more concerned about false doctrine than the Apostle Paul. He maintained a continual battle against false teaching. However, he did not base sound doctrine on the theological views of his day but on the words of Jesus Christ and that which leads to Christlike living.
He explains this in his epistle to Timothy. “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (I Timothy 6:3–5).
The Bible makes it clear that there is only one interpretation of Scripture. However, there can be many applications. It is the Holy Spirit Who guides us not only to the right interpretation of a passage but also to the precise application of Scripture to our daily lives. If our lives are in harmony with the Lord, we can expect the Holy Spirit to illuminate certain passages of Scripture for our personal application. When this happens, it is God giving us a “rhema” of Scripture.
In the New Testament, the Word of God is generally referred to by the Greek word logos. Jesus is identified as the Living Word (logos). However, there are many references that use the Greek word rhema to define the Word of God. A rhema is a precise direction of Scripture for a particular person or circumstance. When Jesus told Peter to cast his net on the other side of the boat, Peter replied, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word [rhema] I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). Jesus did not tell every one to cast their nets on the other side of the boat—only Peter.
It is on the point of the Holy Spirit applying a passage of Scripture to a decision that critics often rise up and claim that this is not acceptable hermeneutics. Their quarrel is not with believers who know in their spirits that God is directing them by the witness of two or three rhemas, but with the Holy Spirit Who confirms the application of rhemas.
Jesus used rhemas in overcoming Satan’s temptations, and one of the passages He used affirms rhemas. “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word [rhema] that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Paul gave Timothy wise instruction in hermeneutics when he wrote, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
Scripture is a living, powerful instrument in the hand of God. It functions on what appears to us to be paradoxes. In a similar fashion, the muscles in our bodies are only able to function by opposing tensions.
On the one hand, Scripture presents the Law of God, but then it contrasts this with the grace of God. Scripture teaches the need for justice, but then it counters this with mercy. We are told to cease from our own labor and enter the rest that is in Christ. At the same time, we are commanded to work for the night is coming when no man can work and to labor for the Lord. We have freedom in Christ. However, we are to make ourselves servants to all people.
If we emphasize only one side of God’s Biblical equation, we can certainly support it with verses of Scripture, but we will come out with the wrong answer. Truth out of balance leads to heresy. For example, if we emphasize the “rest” that a believer has and fail to give equal and primary emphasis to the “labor” of a believer, we will view any emphasis on working for the Lord as legalism.
Paul put labor and rest together when he wrote, “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (Hebrews 4:9–11). Similarly, there is certainly freedom in Christ. However, if we focus on freedom, we will react to God-ordained authority as being oppressive and cultish.
Proper hermeneutics requires diligent use of all the above factors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 2002–2011, William (Bill) Gothard. All Rights Reserved.