What is Hermeneutics?
Biblical hermeneutics is perhaps summarized best by 2 Timothy 2:15: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." Biblical hermeneutics is the science of knowing how to properly interpret scripture. And while this verse encourages us to properly divide scripture, the implication is that we can wrongly interpret scripture.
We would all like to think that the Bible is easy to follow, and if we really let ourselves go, believe that we are literalists, and that is the only way to interpret the Bible; literally. To those who piously make this claim, I would like to offer you a knife so you can poke your eye out, because after all, Jesus said if your eye causes you to sin, poke it out. He also said that in order to follow Him, you must hate your mother and father. I certainly hope no one interprets these literally. What Jesus is doing here is using a literary style common at the time called hyperbole. It is an exaggeration to make a strong point. And like this, there are other literary styles in the Bible that must be considered before coming to a clear understanding of the meaning of many verses in the Bible.
Someone once told me he cannot follow Jesus because he called a poor woman a dog, referencing Mathew 15: 26 which reads, "But He answered and said, 'It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” This was a clear analogy which is not meant to be literal. If I was talking to a male friend and said, a wife if much like a car if you don't take care of it, it will fail you. Well, obviously I'm not calling my wife a car, just using an example to highlight my point. Mormons take this to a heretical extreme when they claim that God is a glorified man because of the scriptures that reference God's arms (Isaiah 53:1) and ears (Isaiah 37:29).
On the other extreme, you have those who claim most everything in the Bible is symbolic or allegorical and take something meant to be literal and claim it's just an allegory. Obviously much in the Bible is meant to be taken literal and we see this throughout the Old Testament when God lays out the Mosaic law, it was to be taken literally. When Josiah finds the Book of the Law, he commands the Israelites to repent - literally. When Jeremiah warns of inevitable destruction, it was literal. The overwhelming weight of the Bible is to be taken literally, not allegorically. The best rule of thumb is read the scripture literally unless you have reason to think otherwise.
We need Biblical hermeneutics because it is too easy and tempting to take a verse out of scripture and misinterpret its meaning. I was once watching an MMA fighting competition and one opponent was clearly getting the advantage as the other staggered around the ring. The victor finally came in with a combination of punches and kicks to the face, knocking out his opponent and leaving him bloodied on the mat. When it was over, the winner's corner ran over, raised his hand and put a t-shirt on him. In bold letters it read, "I Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthen Me." I'm not sure that there is a verse of scripture that has been more misused in the 21 century than Philippians 4:13. Outlined below are several reason why we should understand Biblical hermeneutics.
- God’s revelation is progressive.
- Content often brings different meaning to a verse.
- We are separated by time, culture, language, covenant, etc.
- We cannot understand the text apart from the original audience.
- The Bible uses various literary styles.
Like so much of what this ministry does, we have simplified the most important steps in Biblical hermeneutics below, in hopes that the reader can use them on a practical level.
- Determine whether it is literal, allegorical, poetic or prophetic?
- Grasp the text contextually – read the entire chapter or book.
- Determine the audience. Situation (rebellion, expansion, pre-law, etc.), New or Old Covenant. What is the reason, purpose and point of the book and chapter.
- What is the principle?
- How do I apply it?
So lets look at Philippians 4:13 and put it to the test.
- Step 1: There is no indication that it is allegorical or poetic, therefore we must take it literally.
- Step 2: This is where it takes on its meaning. Starting from the two previous verses; "Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Paul is clearly speaking in the context of overcoming trials and the importance of being content in the midst of trials.
- Step 3: The purpose of the chapter was to let the Philippians know that he was doing well in his imprisonment and to thank them for the gift they had sent.
- Step 4: The overriding principle is that we can overcome in times of distress and persecution.
- Step 5: I can apply this verse to my life when I'm facing persecution at work or when I find myself struggling financially.
While this verse is not a license to take a vacation to Europe or buy that new Cadillac, it still has a great message for the believer. When we face struggles and persecution we can take comfort in knowing that we can and will overcome. That we can be content in times of need and in times of plenty.
What do we do with the Old Testament Laws?
- Moral Laws – They should still be followed as they still have blessings and consequences, though they no longer affect our relationship to God, as Christians stand forgiven.
- Civil Law – We’re not ancient Israel and currently have more advanced laws, many of which were built on these laws.
- Ceremonial law – Gone – we are under the New Covenant and no longer have a need to sacrifice at the Temple.
Rightly Interpreting the Bible Ron Rhodes
The Eight Rules of Biblical Interpretation Apologetics Index