By Steve W. Lemke –
The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy, his son in the ministry, that a mature Christian believer should “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman that does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of “truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NASB). Handling God’s Word accurately, or “rightly dividing the word of truth” as the King James Version translates it, means interpreting the biblical text correctly. In more scholarly language, it means to have good hermeneutics. Jesus chided the Pharisees of His day for their poor hermeneutics, saying, “you do not understand the Scriptures” (Mark 12:24, NASB). Having good hermeneutics is crucial for every Christian believer.
The first step toward good hermeneutics is a correct view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Unless you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, there really is little reason to study it closely. The standard conservative evangelical position is that the Bible was inspired by a “plenary verbal” process. “Verbal” inspiration means that the Holy Spirit so superintended the process of writing the books of the Bible that the very words of Scripture are precisely the words God intended (2 Pet 1:21). “Plenary” verbal inspiration emphasizes the extent of verbal inspiration—that each and every word is inspired. Scripture itself affirms that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim.3:16, KJV), or literally, “all Scripture is God-breathed” (NASB).1 If we believe that God’s Word is inspired by God, we should focus on Scripture alone as our source of divine truth, rather than imposing some other extracanonical authority over the Bible such as Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures (Christian Science) or the Book of Mormon (Mormons).
Most conservative evangelicals affirm the “inerrancy” of Scripture, particularly as it is defined in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.2 To be inerrant means that everything that Scripture affirms is true. Inerrancy does not require a wooden, literalistic reading of Scripture, nor does it mean that we should impose modern standards on Scripture which were foreign to the times in which it was written. But inerrancy does mean that whenever Scripture makes a positive affirmation, it is true. Every statement in Scripture is a true proposition.
Conservative evangelicals who hold a high view of inspiration and believe in the inerrancy of Scripture bear a particular responsibility to interpret the Bible correctly. For persons who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, having good hermeneutics is not only crucial—it is a sacred responsibility. What are some basic principles of good hermeneutics?3 The following principles are fundamental to good hermeneutics.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF HERMENEUTICS
The Faith Principle. The Bible should not be read like just another book. Secular scholars who read the bible will not understand the deeper truths of Scripture, because these truths are spiritually discerned. The Bible must be approached in faith believing in order to be understood at a deeper level (1 Cor. 2:14).
The Illumination Principle. It is always appropriate in reading Scripture to seek first the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was involved in the inspiration of Scripture, and He illumines our reading of Scripture (John 14:6). Humanistic readings miss the deeper truths of the Bible because they lack the spiritual illumination of the Holy Spirit. Understanding Scripture is not so much a matter of intelligence as it is of spiritual discernment.
The “Plain Sense” Principle. We should assume that the “plain sense” meaning of a word is what is intended unless we have reasons to believe otherwise. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation spoke of the “perspicuity” of Scripture, which means that Scripture is understandable and can be read and understood by the layperson as well as the scholar. In some cases, Scripture is clearly using hyperbole, metaphor, or poetic language to communicate a point. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the door,” (John 10:9), it would be silly to suggest that Jesus was saying that He is a literal door that swings on hinges! But unless we have such clear signals in the text that a symbolic meaning is intended, we should assume that the plain sense or literal meaning is the primary meaning. We should not impose mystical or symbolic interpretations on a text that was not intended in this way.
The Authorial Intent Principle. In general, we should not impose an interpretation on a biblical text that would be a surprise to the human author who wrote it originally. In a few cases, the human author may have had only a partial understanding of the full meaning of the text (scholars call this fuller meaning the sesus plenior). However, these occasions of sensus plenior are rare; most of the time the authors of Scripture had a clear understanding of what God was revealing through them.
To determine what the author intended to say, we should strive to understand what the words and sentences meant to the persons who wrote them down. If we understand how these words were used in the life and times of the authors of Scripture, we will have a better idea of the range of possible meanings of the words and what the author intended to say. Focusing on the author’s intended meaning helps avoid the subjectivity and personalizing that characterizes postmodern interpretations of the Bible.
The Contextual Principle. Texts taken out of their context are often called “proof texts.” A proof text is misapplied if it is lifted out of its context and placed into an entirely different context. Each verse should be read in the light of the whole paragraph, the chapter, the book, any other books written by the same author, the Testament, and the Bible as a whole. When we encounter difficult texts, we should interpret them in the light of clearer texts. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:29 has an ambiguous reference to “baptism for the dead.” Mormons use this passage as the basis for their huge industry of baptizing surrogates for the ancestors of Mormon converts. However, when we read 1 Corinthians 15:29 in the light of Romans 6:1-14 (another epistle by the Apostle Paul), we understand that the death referred to is the central symbol of Christian baptism—the death of old self-centered life and the rebirth to a new life in Christ. When we interpret Scripture by Scripture, we are more likely to come to an understanding of the truth.
The Grammatical Principle. To have the clearest understanding of the words of Scripture, it is helpful to understand the Greek and Hebrew words in which the Scripture was originally written, and the grammatical rules that govern these biblical languages. We must always remember that our English Bibles are a translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into English (or whatever our native language). Word studies of the original Greek and Hebrew words in Scripture can enrich our understanding of the text. A careful reading of scholarly commentaries can help us understand how grammar impacts the meaning of a text.
For example, in John 1:1, the Bible literally says “the Word was (the) God.” The New World translation utilized by Jehovah’s Witnesses mistakenly translates this as, “the Word was a god,” which is the basis for their belief that Jesus is not truly equal to God the Father. But the Jehovah’s Witness translation violates an important rule of grammar called Sharp’s rule of order, which states that the definite article before one noun connected to another noun by an indicative governs both nouns. So translating John 1:1 with “a god” is grammatically incorrect. Sometimes important theological issues literally hinge on a correct understanding of the grammar of Scripture.
The Historical Principle. To understand many things in Scripture, it helps to know about the life and times in which it was written. The more we understand the customs, laws, traditions, worldview, and historical events of the eras in which the Bible was written, the richer our understanding of Scripture will be. For example, Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about “thieves who break through and steal” (Matt. 6:19). It helps us to picture what Jesus was referring to if we know that in Jesus’ day houses were built out of mud. For a thief to rob a house, he literally had to dig a hole in one of these adobe-like dwellings. So understanding the culture and times of the biblical era helps us to grasp the meaning of Scripture more clearly.
The Genre Principle. One of the most foundational principles of good hermeneutics is to read the particular text in the light of the genre in which it is expressed. Each “genre” is a particular type of literature. Words are used differently in different types of literature. For example, if you called your sweetheart a “sugar plum” in her presence she would likely take it as an expression of endearment, but it might be interpreted differently in a botany laboratory! We should take the numerous genres of Scripture into account when reading a biblical text. We should interpret the poetic accounts in Scripture differently, for example, than historical accounts in Scripture. Some of the most common types of genre in the Bible are law, narratives, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, gospel, epistle, and apocalyptic literature. Not all of a Bible book may be in the same genre. Bible gooks that are primarily narrative may have sections that utilize poetic or prophetic genre. The next section will suggest hermeneutical principles for interpreting each of these types of genre.
INTERPRETING BIBLE GENRES
Law genre. The books of law are primarily the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes called the Pentateuch or the torah. The primary question in interpreting the Old Testament law is how it relates to a New Testament Christian. Are Christian believers under obligation to obey the Old Testament law, or are they exempted from the law by the grace of Christ? Not all Christians agree on the answer to this question. Seventh-day Adventists, for example, maintain Sabbath day worship and the dietary regulations of the Old Testament. In fact, some of the best known breakfast cereal companies originated by trying to provide an alternative to the traditional ham and eggs breakfast!
To help get our hands around this issue, it is helpful to distinguish three different types of laws in the Bible—the ceremonial law (instructions about how to carry out the Old Testament worship), the casuistic law (a legal code somewhat similar to those of surrounding nations), and the apodictic (moral) law (absolute, timeless moral principles such as the Ten Commandments). Many Christians do not believe that the ceremonial or casuistic laws apply directly to New Testament Christians, but they do believe that the Old Testament apodictic law applies to Christians.
There are three main perspectives regarding the applicability of Old Testament law to New Testament Christians. One approach is the Grace over Law perspective, in which a sharp distinction is drawn between Old Testament law and New Testament grace. In this perspective, Christians are freed from the Old Testament law by the grace of God, so the law is not applicable for Christians (Rom. 8:1-4).
The second major position is sometimes called the Theonomy approach or Christian Reconstructionism. In this perspective, the Old Testament law is still applicable to New Testament Christians, just as Jesus suggested (Matt. 5:17-18). Christian Reconstructionists advocate basing the legal systems of modern societies on Old Testament law.
The Principlist approach affirms the applicability of the apodictic law to Christians, and believes that we should find modern-day applications for the principles taught in the casuistic and ceremonial law. The specific applications of the casuistic and ceremonial law may be changed, but we should seek the principle behind the law to apply it in our own situation. Jesus modeled this by expanding the teachings of the Old Testament law to even broader applications (Matt. 5:21-48).
We should be consistent in applying the Old Testament law to Christian believers. It is not right to simply apply Old Testament laws as absolute commands when we agree with them (regarding issues such as homosexuality, abortion, etc.), while ignoring adjoining verses (regarding levitical marriage, dietary regulations, Sabbath worship, etc.). We should develop a consistent hermeneutic in applying the law to Christian living.
Narrative genre. The biblical narratives are written to tell us about what happened as God has worked in His creation and among His people. To be understood most clearly, the biblical narratives should be read on three levels. At the most basic level, the narrative describes the work of God with a person or group of people at a particular place and time. At the next level, we should read a narrative in the light of how God works with His people (primarily Israel in the Old Testament, and the Church in the New Testament). At the third level, we should read the biblical narratives in the light of the whole universal plan of God. The following guidelines are useful in interpreting narratives:
- A narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine, but it may illustrate godly or ungodly behavior that is taught propositionally elsewhere in Scripture. Although some narratives do teach a truth explicitly, the truth is often suggested implicitly.
- Narratives record what did happen—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite. Many of the characters in biblical narratives and their actions are far from perfect. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge that on the basis of what God has taught us directly elsewhere in the Scripture.
- The biblical narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. They are primarily historical accounts of God’s activity in history.
- Each individual narrative or episode within a narrative does not necessarily have a moral all its own. Sometimes it is necessary to read a larger section of Scripture in order to discern the spiritual lesson.
- Narrative is not a binding mandate unless it says so. Just because godly people did something does not mean it was right or obligatory. We need discernment to discover whether examples given in the narrative merely record an historical account or teach an abiding principle. A repeated pattern of behavior is more suggestive of an abiding principle than a single isolated incident.
- All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (John 21:25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere, in other ways.
- The biblical narratives are not just stories about people who lived in ancient times, but they are first and foremost accounts about what God did to and through those people. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.
Prophecy genre. The primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to call people back to God. When people think of prophecy, they often focus on the prediction of future events. But the primary characteristic of biblical prophecy is proclaiming the ethical standards by which God expects His people to live. Although there is a predictive element in Old Testament prophecy, it is more concerned with “forth-telling” than “fore-telling” the Word of God.
Interpreting the ethical teachings of Old Testament prophecy is fairly straightforward; the message applies to us just as much today as it did in the ancient times in which the prophecy was originally delivered. It is the predictive aspect of prophecy that is sometimes more difficult to interpret. We err on the one hand when we get so totally focused on biblical prophecy that we miss the ethical content of the message, and on the other hand when we do not take the supernatural element of prophecy seriously. A balanced approach interprets prophecy with the following guidelines:
- We should apply the Grammatical Principle and the Historical Principle to determine what the prophet was actually saying, and the historical situation into which he delivered the message.
- We should take seriously the ethical admonitions of prophecy, rather than being only focused on prediction.
- If a prophecy appears to predict the future, we should note whether it is predictive or contingent. If it is predictive, it is God’s sure promise that an event will come to be. We should then seek to ascertain whether the prophecy has already been fulfilled or if it is yet to be fulfilled. If it is contingent, the event will come to be only if certain contingent prerequisite qualifications are met. For example, God’s promise of revival to Solomon (2 Chron. 7:14) is contingent on God’s people humbling themselves, praying, and repenting. God is not committing Himself to send a revival even if His people do not respond appropriately.
- The messianic prophecies of the Old Testament are most clearly understood when we see their fulfillment described in the New Testament.
Poetry genre. Although poetry is primarily in the Old Testament writings of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, etc., we also see poetry in narrative and prophetic books in both the Old and New Testament. Old Testament poetry does not primarily use rhyme, but does use a variety of literary devices, including plays on words (Mic. 1:10-16), meter, metaphor, acrostics (Psalms 112, 119), chiasmos (Genesis 6-9), and parallelism.
Of these poetic devices, meter and parallelism are used most frequently. We seldom recognize the meter in biblical poetry because the rhythm of the meter beat is noticeable only in the original biblical languages, but it is lost in translation to other languages. We would need to be able to read Hebrew or Greek to notice the meter. Our only clue in most modern English translations is that the text is indented to indicate it is poetic literature. The writers of the Psalms utilized different meters to set the emotional tone for the different types of Psalms, such as the Lament Psalms (Psalms 22, 73, 80, 137), the Psalms of Thanksgiving and Praise (Psalms 8, 19, 29, 65, 111-118), the Wisdom Psalms (Psalms 1, 27, 40, 77, 100, 103, 112, 127, 133), the Psalms of Trust and Faith (Psalms 23, 77, 91, 124), the Royal Psalms (Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, 110), and the Psalms of Zion (Psalm 48, 120-134).
Parallelism is a device primarily used in the Old Testament whereby two parallel sentences either say the same thing to make a strong emphasis or say the opposite thing to emphasize a strong contrast. In synonymous parallelism, the second line repeats the same concept as in the first line, but in different synonymous words (Ps. 103:10, 117:1; Prov. 19:5; Mic. 3:6-7, 10). In antithetical parallelism, the idea in the second line is sharply contrasted with that of the first line, often contrasting godly living from ungodly living (Ps. 1:6, 37:21; Prov. 11:2). The most common error in reading synonymous parallelism is to interpret the second line as meaning something different than the first, when in fact the second line is repeating the concept with synonymous words that was stated in the first line.
We all read poetry with the understanding that the poet occasionally takes “poetic license” to express a truth in a compelling way. Likewise, we should not press literal interpretations on biblical passages utilizing poetic language as we do the language in a law, narrative, or prophetic genre.
Wisdom genre. There are proverbs and wisdom literature in every culture, but scriptural wisdom literature focuses on making godly choices. Although scriptural proverbs recommend a particular lifestyle as being successful, it would be a misconstrual to define this success in worldly terms. The biblical notion of wisdom is illustrated in Prov. 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The following guidelines can help us interpret wisdom literature correctly:
- Proverbs are written in a literary style that is intended to be memorable, rather than technically precise and delineating every exception.
- Wisdom literature defines success as godly living, not selfish or pragmatic gain.
- The Proverbs should be read as a whole collection, not merely individual verses. Some proverbs balance, complete, and supplement each other. Proverbs deals with important areas of life, but is not exhaustive of every area of life.
- The proverbs should not be read as guarantees or promises from God in every situation, but as true principles for godly living and wise counsel of the probable and likely results of godly or ungodly behavior, which may have exceptions in real life (Prov. 22:6).
Gospel genre. The Gospel narratives record the life and teaching of Jesus. In reading the individual accounts of the life of Jesus, it is helpful to read the account in all the Gospels which describe the event. They Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke supplement the details of many accounts in their various Gospels. Sometimes an event in Jesus’ life is simply recorded without further explanation, and we must attempt to understand the meaning of the event from the event itself. Sometimes the events are matched with a teaching of Jesus which illumines and explains the event. For example, the miraculous sign of the feeding of five thousand people in John 6 is illuminated by Jesus’ teaching that He is the Bread of Life (John 6:35).
Jesus used several literary devices in His teaching, including parable, hyperbole, proverbs, similes and metaphors, questions, and irony. Jesus’ parables are rich with meaning, but are often misinterpreted. The parables touch a thread of experiences which are common to all of us, such as a lost possession or lost child (Luke 15). The parables emphasize the ethical dimension of the kingdom of God (Matt. 18:21-34). Parables tend to look at life from an eschatological perspective, not a worldly one (Matt. 13:44-51). Most parables therefore have a reversal of expectations—a surprise ending (Luke 10:25-37).
One important key to interpreting parables is to understand the difference between a parable and an allegory. Allegories may have many meanings or truths, but most parables emphasize one major point. For example, in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the point is that we should be faithful and persistent in prayer. But if we interpreted this parable as an allegory, it could be taken to teach that God was a wicked judge! Obviously, that is not the point of the parable. We should assume that a parable has one primary teaching unless we are told differently in the text.
Epistle genre. The epistles of the New Testament were written as letters, and therefore most of them have a standard format. The epistles usually begin by identifying the name of the writer, the name of the recipients of the letter, a greeting, a prayer of thanksgiving, the body of the letter, and then a closing greeting and blessing. Epistles are “occasional documents,” that is, they were intended to address a specific occasion, not to provide a thoroughgoing systematic theology. Usually the occasion was some kind of behavior that needed to be corrected or a doctrinal error that needed to be set right. The epistles are designed to answer the questions of the people who received them, and sometimes they do not answer all of our questions.
The toughest hermeneutical issue in reading the epistles is to discern between those teachings which are addressed only to the particular cultural situation at that time and place, and the timeless principles which apply to every time and place. Whenever our life situation is similar to that of the first century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as it was to them.
If our cultural practices have changed, we must discern the principle behind the teaching so we can apply it to a different setting in our day. For example, males greeting other males with a kiss (Rom.16:16) would be seen as inappropriate in contemporary American culture, but the cultural equivalent would be to greet each other warmly with a handshake or a pat on the back.
In many cases, the broader principle behind the specific New Testament teaching is obvious in Scripture. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul instructed the Corinthian Christians not to eat meat offered to idols. Most of us live in places where the meat at the grocery store is not offered to idols before it is sold to us, so we could ignore this specific teaching as irrelevant to us. However, Paul states as well the principle that we should not do anything that would lead a new believer to stumble (1 Cor. 8:13), and that applies to many things in contemporary life.
Apocalyptic genre. Apocalyptic literature, which describes the events at the end of time (eschatology), is very intriguing and interesting to read but challenging to interpret properly. Apocalyptic language uses highly symbolic language and literary devices such as numerology and chiasmos.
We should seek a balance in interpreting symbolic literature between reading it as merely mythical with no historic significance, on the one hand, and reading it literally as historical but missing its symbolic meanings, on the other hand. Symbolic literature points to something real, but it does so in a veiled way. For example, the book of Revelation obviously uses “Babylon” as a symbol for Rome. It is talking about real events, but is doing so with highly symbolic language.
This article has provided but a brief survey of some basic principles of good hermeneutics. Students of the Word of God should investigate these principles of sound interpretation thoroughly in order to learn how to rightly divide the word of truth.
Steve W. Lemke (Ph.D.) is Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is co-editor (with Bruce Corley and Grant Lovejoy) of Biblical Herneneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, 2nd ed. (Broadman and Holman).
1 For a more detailed explanation of views of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, see Steve Lemke, “The
Inspiration and Authority of Scripture,” in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to
Interpreting Scripture, 2nd ed., Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy, eds. (Nashville:
Broadman and Holman, 2002), 176-193.
2 The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is published by the International Council on biblical
Inerrancy in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 493-502; it is also
published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21, no. 4 (December 1978), 289-296.
3 There are many good conservative evangelical books to guide good hermeneutics, including the book
referenced earlier that I helped edit and write: Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke,a nd Grand Lovejoy, eds.,
Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Guide to Interpreting Scripture, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Broadman
and Holman, 2002). Some other excellent works include Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read
the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981); Walter
Kaiser and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.,
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1983); and Tremper Longman III, Literary
Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).