All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. ~2 Timothy 3:16-17
The Apostle Paul’s words about the usefulness of Scripture are absolutely true, and everyone who calls themselves a Christian should strive to know the truth on a personal level. But it is this very desire that leaves many Christians asking about how to interpret the Bible.
Enter hermeneutics, a word that is misspelled as often as it is argued about. So let’s break this word down and cut through the confusion.
Biblical hermeneutics is the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation. The word most often refers to how to interpret the Bible or other sacred texts from other religions. This is not to be confused with exegesis. Where exegesis refers to the interpretation of a specific Biblical text, hermeneutics is deciding which principles we will use in order to interpret the text.
What are the different types of biblical hermeneutics?
It will come as no surprise that agreeing on the importance and veracity of the Bible is only the first step in what can be a very long conversation. There are four major types of biblical hermeneutics that have arisen throughout history, although only the first is widely accepted today amongst evangelical churches.
This approach seeks out the “plain meaning” of a biblical text. This is not to imply that every passage of Scripture should be interpreted literally, but rather the plain meaning be accepted as truth. For instance, when Jesus said the Christians are the light of the world, we don’t believe we are literally a 100-watt light bulb. We do believe that Jesus was telling us plainly that it is our role to showcase the love of God to everyone around us. We’ll discuss this more in-depth below.
Originally practiced by Jews who believed their laws, poems, and historical narratives had multiple layers of meanings, this approach supposes to reveal the ethics behind any text. One popular example is the Epistle of Barnabas, where the author believes the Old Testament food laws were misunderstood by the people of Israel. Rather than restricting diet, he believes the laws were meant to avoid behavior which was associated with these animals.
Closely associated with moral interpretation, this type of hermeneutics viewed the biblical narratives as having a secondary level of meaning. Most often this meant interpreting people and events as only foreshadowing people and events in the New Testament, usually Jesus and his actions. One such case would be Noah. Rather than focusing on whether or not a worldwide flood actually happened, viewing the story as an allegory allowed the readers to conclude what type of person God was seeking as followers.
Defined as mystical or spiritual, this approach sought to interpret Scripture in view of the life to come. Relying significantly on numerical values of Hebrew letters and words, the focus here was on Messianic prophecies and the study of the last days. Similar to moral and allegorical interpretation, importance was not given to the actual story but to a perceived deeper meaning behind the story.
What are the different rules of hermeneutics?
As you can see, there are multiple approaches and disagreements about which branch of hermeneutics should be utilized, and we haven’t yet interpreted a single verse from the Bible! Unfortunately, it’s true that people can find anything to argue about. All of this may have you asking the question, ‘How do I integrate biblical hermeneutics?’
While there are various branches of hermeneutics, we will be discussing the literal interpretation branch. We believe this allows us to understand both the original intent of the authors as well as discover how it applies to us. Here are four great rules for your personal study.
Define the Terms
When you are first attempting to understand the Bible, knowing the definitions of the words used by the authors is a great first step. But you should also know if you’re reading historical narrative, poetry, or a parable. Each literary style comes with its own rules of interpretation, undoubtedly understood by the authors who penned them.
Context is King
Laughing at a joke is appropriate. Laughing at a joke during a funeral may not be as appropriate. Knowing the context is key to being able to interpret anything, including the stories from the Bible. Understanding how Jesus’ words would have been interpreted by his original audience is an important step to being able to properly apply the truth in our own lives.
Look to Jesus
Do we mean to suggest that every story, poem, or verse only has significance as we consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? To be perfectly succinct, yes! The life and work of Jesus is the very center of all historical truth. The Old Testament prophesies the coming of Jesus and the New Testament teaches us about the extent of what Jesus did. Every story, every verse, every detail, involves real people relaying narrative and truth about God.
Start with Prayer
Start with prayer, end with prayer, and make sure prayer permeates every step along the way in your interpretation of the Bible. Since God will be most concerned with our application of the Bible, it follows God would be most interested in ensuring we utilize biblical hermeneutics correctly.
Are you considering a role in church ministry? Do you want to learn more about how to interpret the Bible? Grace Theological Seminary offers several degrees, like a Master of Divinity in General Studies. With several pathways you can choose from, GTS is invested in equipping ministry leaders with the tools they need to properly lead God’s people. Learn more about our multiple programs and see which one is right for you.