The purpose of this article on hermeneutics is not to teach any new or “special” hermeneutic, nor is it to promote myself as an expert on the subject, I am not. Rather, my purpose is to give several proven and foundational methods of biblical interpretation which are seemingly all but forgotten in our modern times. From my perspective, I see two core reasons why sound hermeneutical principles have all but vanished, even among many so-called teachers and preachers today.
Due in large part to the popular gospel of a “futuristic kingdom”, when people read words or phrases such as “the end”, “last days”, “judgment”, “end of the age”, “wrath”, “kingdom”, etc., they automatically dismiss any kind of past / historical application, which causes them to completely gloss over what the text might actually be teaching.
Due to the seemingly unquenchable need for modern Christians to have a “personal application” of scripture, the emphases for many teachers and preachers in not on hermeneutics and exegesis – on what it originally meant to whom it was written – but on finding and applying some personal or moral application which can “help out in everyday life”, and which “speaks to their situation”.
I have nothing against applying scripture personally or morally in order to add value and principle to our lives. However, when moral and personal application take the place of sound exegesis based on simple hermeneutics and becomes the primary focus of biblical teachers, we can be sure that the Church has wandered far from sound biblical doctrine. Such are the days we live in today.
May what follows serve as a reminder that without proper hermeneutics, men will distort the scriptures to teach all things that are “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10). In this article, we will explore some powerful biblical principles which are absolutely necessary to follow in order to accurately understand and interpret the bible. These principles are called hermeneutics.
The definition of a hermeneutic is: A method of interpretation.
Biblical hermeneutics are: The methods of biblical interpretation, or the methods of interpreting the bible.
The Purpose of Biblical Hermeneutics:
The purpose of using biblical hermeneutics when interpreting the bible is to understand the original meaning of the words of the author, and how the originally audience would have understood what was written.
When we have determined these things through sound hermeneutics, we can then establish the original and historical application of the text to the original audience.
Once, we understand the original and historical application of a text to its original audience, we can then form an accurate personal / moral application for our own lives and situations today. This is known as “progressive application”.
However, if the original and historical application of a text is ignored or misapplied, then a faulty and inaccurate personal / moral application is sure to follow, not to mention ignorance of what the text was originally intended to communicate.
The Basics of Biblical Hermeneutics:
These biblical hermeneutics are not listed in order of importance, as each one carries its own level of importance according to the text on which it is applied. Neither is this list of hermeneutics exhaustive. Rather, what follows is a short list of a few of the methods of interpretation which have helped me tremendously in my personal quest for biblical truth and understanding.
Hermeneutic #1: The bible is subject to the same rules and hermeneutics of interpretation as all other literature.
This means that just because the bible is a spiritual book – of divine origin, and infallible in revelation – doesn’t mean that we can disregard certain rules of interpretation. The basics of who, what, where, why, when, and how must always be asked by the reader. Actually, because the historical and cultural context of the bible is so far removed from ours today, this demands that we be all the more diligent when it comes to applying proper hermeneutics.
Hermeneutic #2: All scripture is to be read as being history-centric. Scripture must be read and interpreted in its original historical and cultural setting and context.
What this means is that we are not to read the bible like a newspaper, as if it was written to us yesterday. Proper interpretation always seeks to determine the original intent of the author, and the original understanding of the original audience. In other words, we must keep everything in context. This hermeneutic takes into serious consideration the historical setting, geography, culture, language etc. of the original writer and audience. We must always remember that no scripture was written to us, but all scripture was written for us.
Hermeneutic #3: Not every constituent element of a doctrine must be present in a text in order for that text to teach that particular doctrine.
This means that when the same doctrine is clearly taught in multiple texts, but one of those texts do not contain all the constituent elements of that doctrine, we must still interpret that text to teach that particular doctrine. The absence of a constituent element of a doctrine in a parallel text, does not demand a different doctrine.
Many times this hermeneutic is unwittingly abused in biblical interpretation. For example, it is nearly universally agreed that 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Peter 3 are teaching the same thing, the second coming of the Lord. But notice how different the texts are.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
2 Peter 3:10-13
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
From these two texts, it is more than evident that not every constituent element of a doctrine needs to be present in a text in order for that text to refer to that specific doctrine. As we have already stated, it is nearly universally agreed that both these texts refer to the second coming of the Lord, yet there are very few of the same constituent elements contained in both texts. In many cases, the differences in constituent elements is intended to communicate and emphasize a different aspect of the doctrine. For those who make a distinction of doctrine within parallel texts based solely upon the absence or presence of a constituent element of that doctrine, are interpreting the text with a faulty hermeneutic.
Hermeneutic #4: The scriptures are their own best interpreters.
If allowed to speak for themselves, the scriptures will interpret themselves.
Hermeneutic #5: The old covenant prophets did not understand either the timing or the manner (nature) of the things which they prophesied.
1 Peter 1:10-11
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.
This means that when the old testament prophets prophesied of the “messianic temple”, they did not understand what that temple really was. Likewise, when they prophesied of the ‘Davidic kingdom”, they did not understand what that kingdom was to look like. And, when they prophesied of “restoration to the land”, they didn’t really understand how or “where” that would happen. In other words, the old testament prophets did not have insight into how and when their prophesies would find fulfillment.
Hermeneutic #6: Jesus and the new testament writers are the inspired and infallible interpreters of what the old testament prophets actually predicted.
This means that we must honor the manner (nature) in which Jesus and the new testament writers said that the old testament prophesies were being fulfilled in their days. In other words, if Jesus and the new testament writers tell us plainly or by implication that a specific prophecy was being fulfilled spiritually in their days, then we must accept that interpretation as the inspired and infallible interpretation and not seek a future fulfillment of that prophecy beyond their days; weather literal or spiritual. Below is an example.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land, in the shadow of death, upon them a great light dawned.”
Verses 15-16 of Mathew 4 are a direct quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2. However, the context of Isaiah 9:1-2 is the restoration of the northern kingdom of Israel and the establishment of the Davidic kingdom (Isaiah 9:6-7). Therefore, when Jesus says “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet”, and then quotes Isaiah 9:1-2, Jesus is telling his disciples (and us) that by preaching the gospel in the regions of Galilee, he was beginning to restore the scattered nation of Israel into their promised Davidic kingdom.
Jesus clearly interprets the restoration of Isaiah 9 spiritually – Israel was being restored in Him through the gospel – and we must honor his inspired interpretation.
Hermeneutic #7: Always seek to understand the original audience relevance.
This hermeneutic is one of the most abused and neglected of all biblical hermeneutics. Today most Christians and even many teachers read the bible as if it was written to them, originally. We must keep in mind that when personal pronouns such as “you”, “we”, “us” “them” etc., are used, they never refer to us within the historical narrative and context. Without the application of this hermeneutic, the bible will continue to suffer many false and arbitrary interpretations.
Hermeneutic #8: Honor the “time statements” in the bible.
Part of what this means is that we must allow time to be a “limiter” in the scriptures. In other words, the time period in which an event is said to take place, must “limit” the fulfillment of that prophecy to that particular period of time. A great example of this is the prophecy of Daniel concerning the time that the kingdom of God was to be established.
Daniel said, “I was looking in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. “And four great beasts were coming up from the sea, different from one another…. After this I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong; and it had large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed and trampled down the remainder with its feet; and it was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns…. These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth, But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.’… Thus, he said: ‘The fourth beast will be a fourth kingdom on the earth, which will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth and tread it down and crush it…. Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.’
Daniel the prophet emphatically limits the establishment of the kingdom and the reception of that kingdom by the “saints of the Most High” to the days of the “fourth beast”, the Roman Empire. Jesus, alluding to Daniel 7 likewise does the same thing.
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Both old and new testaments place the “time” for the Messianic kingdom of God to be established in the first century – in the days of the Roman empire and within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporary generation. Failure to honor this hermeneutic has caused mass confusion regarding the nature of the kingdom of God.
Hermeneutic #9: All new testament eschatology is the reiteration, elaboration, and interpretation of old testament eschatology. There is no “new” eschatology in the new testament.
This is one of the most powerful and important hermeneutics that we can understand. What this means is that the last days / end times “hope” of the new testament writers (and all new testament saints), is actually the “hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). There is but one eschatological hope that runs throughout the biblical narrative (Ephesians 4:4, Hebrews 11), which has been realized in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11-12).
Hermeneutic #10: Recognize the old testament metaphoric and symbolic language in the new testament, and interpret that language consistently when the contexts are the same or similar.
For example, if the old testament prophets use “de-creation” or “cosmic-disturbance” language such as the darkening of the sun, the falling of the stars, the shaking of the heavens etc. to describe the destruction and judgment of a nation and not the literal dissolution of the solar system, then why not interpret that same language in the same way when used in the new testament, especially in the context of national judgment. The following is an example of what I mean.
The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw…. Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light.
Isaiah used the metaphoric language of “cosmic darkening” to symbolically refer to the judgment and destruction of Babylon by the Medes. This prophecy was historically fulfilled, yet the heavenly lights did not cease to shine or exist. Compare this language with what Jesus says to his disciples in the context of the national judgment and destruction of old covenant Israel.
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Both Isaiah and Jesus use the exact same language (“cosmic darkening / dissolution”), in the exact same context (national judgment and destruction). If these words in Isaiah referred to national judgment and not cosmic destruction, then so must the words of Jesus in the gospel of Mathew. This hermeneutic recognizes this and seeks to interpret the bible consistently.
This brings us to our last hermeneutic.
Hermeneutic #11: Be consistent with all biblical hermeneutics.
It has been said that “context is king”, and this is true. However, it is also true that “consistency is king”. Many people apply this short list of hermeneutics when it fits “what they believe”. Yet sadly, most are quick to abandon biblical hermeneutics altogether when the implications of those methods of interpretation challenge or even contradict their favorite “church traditions”.
The truth is this. Everyone who applies these biblical hermeneutics consistently over time and is honest with the implications of doing so, will eventually believe in fulfilled eschatology. But, the truth is also this, that many – even the majority – are simply unwilling to do so.
May the Lord bless you in your studies, and may He give you the wisdom and courage to consistently apply these few biblical hermeneutics, in order that you too may embrace and rejoice in the finished redemptive work of Jesus Christ.