The word hermeneutics comes from the Greek word which means “to interpret.” Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. How do we interpret the Bible correctly? What are the rules and guidelines for correct interpretation? If Scripture is the inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16), then reading it, studying it, and understanding God’s message to us is one of the most important things we can do. But how do I interpret the Bible correctly? How can I read my Bible so that I hear the voice of God and not my own voice or the voice of man? There is a lot of confusion in this area.
Modern literary interpretation operates on a reader-centered hermeneutic. The reader determines the meaning of the writing. The author has been banished. What a writing means is not what the author meant when he wrote it, but what the reader sees in the text and gets out of the text. This of course means that that the meaning of a particular writing is always changing. You see one meaning in it; I another. Everything is subjective.
Common sense would tell us that the meaning of a particular passage is what the author meant when he wrote that passage. But with the Bible, we have a unique situation. Who wrote Romans? Our first answer is the apostle Paul. But 2 Timothy 3:16 says that God is the ultimate Author of Scripture. So we have the human author and the divine Author. Sometimes God intended more than the human authors understood. But we still are looking for what the author of Scripture intended (whether the human author or the divine Author), not just what we think a passage means to me.
The Main Rule of Interpretation
Jim Van Dine, who once taught a course in hermeneutics at Emmaus, would introduce the subject by asking three questions: 1. What are the three most important things in real estate? Answer: location, location, location. 2. What are the three most important things in French cooking? Answer: butter, butter, butter. 3. What are the three most important things in the interpretation of Scripture? Answer: context, context, context. This is so basic that everyone agrees to it, but in the actual interpretation of Scripture, it is often ignored. This is one of the reasons Scripture is often misinterpreted. I would like to spell out this rule of context in six specific areas.
The Rule of Context Spelled Out
1. Interpret According to the Context of Scripture as a Whole
The Reformers had a central rule, Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone”. By this, they meant that Scripture is our only rule of faith and practice and that Scripture interprets Scripture. One thing this means is that if you have two interpretations — one that agrees with the rest of Scripture and one that does not — you accept the interpretation which harmonizes with ScriptTure. This, of course, does not guarantee the correct interpretation, but it does show us what is an incorrect interpretation — the interpretation that disagrees with the rest of Scripture.
That justification is by faith and not by works of the Law is a truth clearly taught in many different books. It is emphasized, discussed, and argued in Romans, Galatians, and the Gospel of John (See Rom. 3:28; 4:5). But James 2:24 presents a problem. James says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (NASB). The rule that Scripture interprets Scripture, or the analogy of faith, says that James is to be interpreted by what is taught in Paul and the other books of Scripture. Do not make one Scripture contradict another.
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Christ and claim that John 1:1 should be translated, “The Word was a god.” Does Scripture allow us to believe there is more than one God? If Christ is not truly God but is merely a god, then He is a false god! This is not the teaching of Scripture. Scripture calls Him God (see John 1:18; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8-9; 2 Peter 1:10), He is worshiped as God, He has the attributes of God, and He does the works of God. John 1:1 says He is God, not just a god.
2. Interpret According to the Context of a Passage
A second rule is to interpret according to the context of a specific passage. To take a verse out of context is to make it say something that is foreign to the surrounding verses.
I remember a youth group that always ended its meetings by joining hands and reciting Genesis 31:49, “The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (KJV). That sounds good! May the Lord protect us while we are apart. But in this context, Jacob and Laban were separating. Neither of them trusted the other. So Laban said, “The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.” The next verse is, “If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me” (NASB). In other words, if you wrong my daughters while we are absent one from another and I can’t do anything about it, God will get you.
Psalm 2:8 should not be used as a banner verse at missionary conferences: “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance” (NKJV). This does not say we should pray that God would convert the nations. The next verse in Psalm 2 says, “You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” The context is judgment, not conversion.
The Methodists during the time of John Wesley had a method of using the Bible to find guidance from God which encouraged this abuse. Some call this “luckydipping.” They would open the Bible at random, point to the page, and whatever verse they pointed to would indicate God’s will for that moment. The story is told of one lady who did this. The verse she chanced upon was Matthew 27:5, “and [Judas] went and hanged himself” (KJV). That didn’t seem too encouraging, so she thought that she would try it again. Her next verse was Luke 10:37, “Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” This was getting uncomfortable, so she tried a third time. This time her verse was John 13:27, “What thou doest, do quickly.”
Let me give an example of where good Bible students have differed and where I think the problem of interpretation comes from not observing the context. I am referring to the parable of the prodigal son. Is the prodigal son of this parable an unsaved person coming to the Lord for salvation, or is this a parable of a backslidden believer who is restored to the Lord?
The Backslidden Believer Interpretation. Two things support the interpretation that this refers to a backslidden believer: First, it says that he was a son. He never ceased being a son, He was not made a son by returning to his father; he was already a son. Second, he came back to his father.
The Unsaved Coming to Salvation View. The problem with the backslidden believer interpretation is that it ignores the context. Look at Luke 15:1-2. “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable” (NASB). Actually, He told them three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In this context, these three parables are our Lord’s justification for eating with sinners. They are parables of sinners finding the Savior, not of backslidden Christians being restored to the Lord.
3. Interpret According to the Context of Usage
The principle here is that the meaning of words is determined by how they are used.
At the time of the Reformation, there was a controversy over justification by faith versus justification by works. Part of the controversy also involved the definition of the term “to justify.” The Reformers said it means “to account, to reckon as righteous.” The Roman Catholics said that to justify means “to make righteous.” This is actually a huge issue and it continues to be debated today. When we are justified, are we made righteous or are we accounted to be righteous?
If to justify means to make righteous, then it is a process that has not yet been completed. Does God make us righteous? Yes, He does. But the Bible calls this sanctification. Once we have been saved, the Holy Spirit works in us and transforms us progressively toward the final goal of making us conformed to the image of God’s Son. But the process won’t be complete until we are glorified (Rom. 8:29-30). If to justify means to make righteous, then present tense (you are being justified) can be used, or the future tense (you will be justified) can be used. But the past tense (you have been justified) cannot be used.
How do we determine the meaning of a word like justify? It is by usage. Let me give an example from a passage in the Old Testament where there is no theological controversy and where the meaning is clear:
Deuteronomy 25:1 says, “If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked….” Here is a court case. A person is guilty. What does a judge do? He condemns the guilty. Another person is innocent. What does the judge do? He justifies him.
Now, what is it that the judge does when he justifies the innocent man? Does he make him righteous or does he declare him to be righteous? The judge does not make him righteous. He is already righteous. All that the judge can do is make a legal declaration. He pronounces him to be righteous. Isaiah 5:23 speaks of those judges “who justify the wicked for a bribe.” What do they do? They don’t make the wicked man righteous. Rather, they are corrupt judges who take a bribe and make a legal pronouncement. They say this man is innocent or righteous. A crooked judge cannot make a guilty man righteous, but he can make a legal pronouncement. He declares him righteous.
Theologically we have not been made righteous yet. We still have fallen natures, and we continue to sin. But God reckons Christ’s righteousness to us and we are declared to be righteous in Him. That is why Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” It is something that has already happened. We are fully and completely justified, not on the basis of our works, but through faith in the Savior who paid the penalty for all our sins and gives us acceptance by God as righteous in Him.
The hermeneutical principle is that the meaning of a word is interpreted according to usage.
4. Interpret According to the Context of the Type of Literature
Within the Bible some passages are historical narrative, others are doctrinal exposition, and others are poetry, prophecy, parable, wisdom literature, etc. Failure to recognize differences in these types of literature has sometimes led to erroneous interpretations.
The Interpretation of Parables
A parable is not an allegory. From the time of the early church, the parable of the Good Samaritan has been allegorized. An allegory is a literary device in which the literal meaning is not the real meaning. It is just a vehicle to convey the real meaning. For example, Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory in which all of the details are meant to be figurative illustrations of spiritual truths. Pilgrim’s Progress was not meant to be taken literally.
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) has often been allegorized. The Samaritan represents Jesus. The inn is the church. The oil and wine are the Holy Spirit. The man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Down from Jerusalem is away from God. He fell among thieves who stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead (v. 30). These are the effects of sin in our lives. The priest and Levite who passed by represent the Law.
According to this allegory, the parable is saying that Christ, moved with compassion comes to meet us, pays the cost to cure us, and provides for our spiritual needs. I heard a preacher who used this approach, saying he could not figure out what the donkey in the parable represents (v. 34). What he didn’t realize is that the donkey doesn’t represent anything! It is not meant to be symbolic. It is just part of the story.
There are two reasons for saying this: 1. This is a parable, not an allegory. Not everything in a parable is symbolic. Parables often make just one main point. 2. The parable is about our love for others, not Christ’s love for us. Remember the rule of the context of the surrounding verses. In verse 29 Christ told this parable in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus had cited the Scripture “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?” in order to justify himself. The parable was not designed to show how Jesus acted in love to us but how men should act in love toward others. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The principle is: Do not allegorize a parable. This can become tricky because parables are figurative ways of expressing truth. But every item in a parable doesn’t have to be given a meaning. Some parts of the parable are just parts of the story.
Historical Books versus Epistles
Scripture is normative for our life and practice, but how do we establish scriptural norms and practices? Can we derive a principle from a particular occurrence in a historical book? For instance, some have argued on the basis of the book of Acts that receiving the Holy Spirit is a second work of grace. While it may happen at the time a person believes, it is something that normally happens after salvation.
That is a doctrinal conclusion based on examples seen in the historical book of Acts. In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, and in Acts 10, when Peter was preaching in the home of Cornelius the reception of the Holy Spirit was immediate at the time of repentance and faith (Acts 2:2- 4, 38; 10:44). However, in Acts 8:14-17 the Samaritans had believed without receiving the Holy Spirit and Peter and John were sent to lay hands on them in order that they might receive the Spirit. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul found disciples who had not received the Holy Spirit and upon whom the Holy Spirit came when he laid hands on them.
What we actually see in the book of Acts is a mixed pattern. Some received the Holy Spirit immediately on believing, while others at a later time. But here is a case where the teaching of the epistles is clear and decisive. In Romans 8:9 Paul says, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” If a person does not have the Holy Spirit, he does not belong to Christ. He is not saved! The doctrinal teaching of the epistles is that you do have the Holy Spirit when you are saved.
How then do we explain Acts 8 and 19? Probably on the basis that Acts describes a transitional period between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, between Judaism and Christianity. Acts 8 has to do with Samaritan believers and Acts 19 with disciples of John the Baptist. They were special cases to link the reception of the Holy Spirit with the apostles in order to emphasize and establish the unity of the church.
This does not mean we can dismiss all historical incidences as normative. They are included to teach us something. But we need to be careful when a practice is merely referred to, or referred to only once in a historical book. We are on more solid ground when we find a principle or practice in epistolary teaching.
5. Interpret the Bible Literally
The term “literal interpretation” is often misunderstood. We use the term “literal” in two different senses. Literal can be opposed to figurative, or it can be opposed to allegorical. If we insist on literal interpretation as opposed to figurative, then Matthew 5:30, “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off,” means we should literally cut off the hand. That is missing the meaning of the passage which is saying we must be ruthless in dealing with sin in our lives.
The other meaning of “literal” is opposed to allegorical and here literal means normal. To Interpret “literally” means interpret the way you normally use language. Literal interpretation allows for figures of speech. Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Is he a literal lion? No. This is a figure of speech, a metaphor. He is like a lion in certain characteristics. Another name for literal interpretation is grammatical-historical interpretation. We interpret using the normal laws of grammar in the historical context of the passage.
An example of a non-literal interpretation may be seen in the interpretation of the 153 fish in John 21:11. When I was in school, a traveling preacher came to our assembly and was speaking on John 21. He saw great significance in the number 153. What was the significance of the 153 fish? A literal interpretation would say it means that they caught 153 fish. What fisherman can’t tell you how many fish he catches?
But that didn’t seem meaningful enough to this preacher, so he sought a deeper meaning. He asked what number should be associated with the Old Testament. The answer was ten – the number of Law (the Ten Commandments). What number should be associated with the New Testament? Answer: seven (the number of perfection or completeness). Add ten and seven and you get 17. Then if you take 17, 16, 15 … 1 and add them all together, what do you get? 153! So the 153 fish signify the completeness of both the Old Testament and the New Testament! Such an interpretation says more about the ingenuity of the interpreter than it does about the teaching of the New Testament.
While the Reformers insisted on the literal interpretation of the Bible, one area where they made an exception was in the area of eschatology, the doctrine of prophecy. For example, they understood the church to be spiritual Israel. When they saw Israel in Scripture, they sometimes understood it to refer to the church. Many today still insist that the church is spiritual Israel. However, a concordance reveals that the term “Israel” is used 68 times in the New Testament. There is no question it refers to those who are ethnic Jews in the great majority of cases. There are only a couple of passages that are even controversial. The overwhelming literal usage of the term should make one hesitate before reading the term Israel to refer to the church in the New Testament.
6. Interpret According to the Periods of Redemptive History
Why don’t we sacrifice animals? Doesn’t Scripture command this in the Old Testament? Why don’t we stone people in the church for committing adultery? Doesn’t God’s Word command this? The answer is that while all Scripture is equally inspired, and all Scripture is profitable and has lessons for us, not all Scripture is written to us. We are living in a different dispensation from the Old Testament saints. We are not under the Mosaic Law. Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes. There are differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
For instance, do you like to sing Psalm 51:10? “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” That is the cry of the heart of a godly believer. But then we come to verse 11, “Do not cast me away from Your presence; and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” Do not take your Holy Spirit from me! Is that a prayer a Christian should pray? It was David’s prayer, but it is not our prayer. That is because in the New Testament the Holy Spirit permanently indwells every believer. To lose the Holy Spirit is to lose salvation (Rom. 8:9). But in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit would come on individuals selectively and temporarily. The Holy Spirit came upon David, but there was no promise of permanent indwelling. We are living in a different dispensation.
We must distinguish the periods of time in the progressive revelation of God. Only those things which are directly for the church age can be directly applied to us. Other things may be applied indirectly.
Scripture is not putty in the hands of the interpreter, to be shaped into any form and made to say what the interpreter desires it to say. It is the Word of God and must be handled carefully and correctly. That is why Paul tells Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Hermeneutics seeks to determine the correct rules for interpretation so that we might be the approved workmen who accurately handle Scripture.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Journey Magazine.
Dr. Jack Fish has taught Biblical studies and Biblical languages at Emmaus since 1969. After earning a B.A. in linguistics from Brown University he went on to Dallas Theological Seminary where he earned a Th. M. in Semitics and Old Testament and a Th. D. in New Testament Literature and Exegesis.