by Layton Talbert
This article first appeared in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Understandest thou what thou readest?” That is the perpetual question with which hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) is concerned. The fact is, you engage in hermeneutics every day whenever you read or hear any form of communication. And you practice Biblical hermeneutics whenever you read your Bible. You make decisions about what the text means, how it applies to you, or whether it even applies to you at all.
You have probably heard someone assert, “No one knows for sure what the Bible means. You can make it say whatever you want.” Oddly, few ever say that about a Shakespeare play or a car repair manual. Why not? Is the Bible an open-ended Book that can mean different things to different people at different times? Or are there “rules of interpretation” that can help us handle the Bible objectively, consistently, and meaningfully?
Why Is It Necessary?
Aside from the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, rightly or wrongly, you engage in hermeneutics every time you open your Bible, why is an understanding of hermeneutics as important for the layman as it is for the preacher or teacher? Roy Zuck points out three reasons: (1) hermeneutics is an essential and unavoidable step beyond mere observation of the text (reading), (2) hermeneutics is essential for understanding and teaching the Bible accurately, and (3) hermeneutics is essential for applying the Bible properly.
A Preliminary Principle
Avoid using phrases such as “What this passage says to me” or “What this verse means to me is . . . .” Why? Those expressions remove—however subtly and unintentionally— the authority of a text’s meaning from the text itself and God’s intent in giving that text, and place it on me and my perception—or worse, my ingenuity. A text does not mean different things to different people at different times. What do you say, then, when you may not want, or may not be able, to be dogmatic about the meaning of a particular text? How about, “What this text seems to be saying is . . . .” That is subtly but significantly different from the subjective qualifiers above, because it acknowledges that the authority resides in an objective text, not in my subjective understanding of it.
Virtually all human communication follows a characteristically literal hermeneutic. No child ponders what his father really means when he says, “Son, take out the trash.” A characteristically literal meaning underlies all common, everyday human communication. I say characteristically because we all understand that normal communication also customarily involves idioms and figures of speech, which we learn to interpret accordingly. Even so, underneath every figurative expression is an actual, literal intent. (For example, when Christ referred to Herod as “that fox”—a kind of metaphor known technically as hypocatastasis—he did not literally mean that Herod had whiskers and a pointy nose; but He did literally mean that Herod was cunning and crafty.)
Since God gave the Bible in order to reveal Himself to man and since He gave it in the customary literary forms of human communication, our approach to understanding the Bible should follow the same characteristically literal hermeneutic that we employ in processing virtually all other communication. Two vital keys that we instinctively apply in everyday hermeneutics—but which are too frequently ignored in Biblical hermeneutics—are genre and context. The remainder of this column focuses on the latter.
Interpreting by the “Rules”
Hermeneutics entails both science (knowing and understanding the principles of interpreting communication) and art (accurately applying those principles). Biblical hermeneutics in particular involves two levels: (1) ascertaining exactly what the text meant to its original audience in their historical context (exegesis, which means to draw out the meaning inherent in the text, as opposed to eisegesis, which refers to reading into the text a meaning that is not there), and (2) discerning precisely what the text means to us in our contemporary context (exposition and application). The order of this process is crucial. When we bypass or ignore what it meant and jump directly to what we think it means, we short-circuit the hermeneutical process and end up with a skewed understanding of the Bible. And skewed understanding abounds.
The point is, when we talk about “rules” for interpreting the Bible, we are not talking about a unique code that scholars have invented especially for handling the Bible. Indeed, we are not talking about rules that have been invented at all. We are talking about observing, identifying, and applying the very same “laws” that govern our normal interpretation of virtually all other communication—laws that are as intrinsic to human communication as the law of gravity is to the operation of the physical universe.
Right Conclusion, Wrong Text
A frequent hermeneutical faux pas is coming to a right conclusion from a wrong text. “But as long as it’s a right conclusion,” someone asks, “why does it matter?” Such a cavalier approach to God’s revelation not only betrays a low regard for handling His Word accurately, but also speaks poorly to others (who see the contradiction between the principles and our “proof texts”) and discredits the Bible in their eyes. (“See,” they say, “they make it mean whatever they want.”) Moreover, when we misuse a text to teach what it was not meant to teach, we rob that text of the truth God actually intended it to teach. What causes contribute to this problem?
(1) Sometimes we fail to observe the context. When we cite 1 Corinthians 15:31 as proof that we need to die to self and sin daily, we show that we either do not know the context of Paul’s statement or do not care about what Paul actually was saying. Paul is stating hyperbolically that he faced physical death every day. The whole chapter is about literal death and resurrection, not “spiritual” death to self. Right principle, wrong text.
(2) Sometimes we misread the text. Why did Christ instruct His disciples, “Drink ye all of it” (Mt. 26:27)? Let’s suppose it means that we must partake fully of Christ’s sacrifice and embrace unreservedly all His work on our behalf, if we are to be saved. That might preach well, but it does not enjoy the luxury of support from the text. Grammatically, the “all” goes with the “ye,” not with the “of it.” It is, “All of you drink of it,” or “Drink, ye all, of it.” Good principle, wrong text.
(3) Sometimes we base an interpretation on a flawed translation. Proverbs 18:24 is commonly thought to teach the importance of friendliness. Valid principle, wrong text. In a sense, it teaches the opposite. The Hebrew verb traditionally translated “must show himself friendly” is actually from a root and in a form that means “to be smashed up”! That is why even the old American Standard Version translates it, “He that maketh many friends doeth it to his own destruction.” The verse isn’t downplaying the value of friendliness; it doesn’t address “friendliness” at all. As the rest of the verse makes clear, the point is loyalty, the kind of fidelity to a friend that causes one to stick closer than even a brother. A man of many friends—a friend to all the world, whose friendships are a mile wide but only an inch deep—will come to ruin, but there is a kind of friend that sticks closer than a brother.
Someone may say, “That really bothers and confuses me, because the Lord spoke to my heart and convicted me about my selfishness and unfriendliness through that verse. Are you saying that I was mistaken, and that it wasn’t God at all?” No. God is so great and so gracious that He is able to deal with us where we are and through what we have available to us in terms of teaching and understanding. However, when we come to understand—through accurate translation and contextual considerations—what a verse actually means, we need to “grow up” to that and use it to teach only what it actually teaches. Because the text itself is intended by God always to mean only one thing to everyone at all times.
(4) Sometimes we practice a flawed hermeneutic. Despite his brilliance, Augustine sometimes devised speculative spiritualizations through an allegorical approach to the text. For example, in his interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan, the man robbed and beaten is Adam, Jerusalem (where he is going) is heaven, the robbers are Satan and his angels, the priest is the Law, and the Levite represents the Prophets; the good Samaritan is, of course, Christ. We rarely go to this extreme, but we are probably more guilty of this kind of symbolic approach to God’s Word than we suppose. An allegorical approach is dangerous because it ignores the plain literal intent of the text, and it is unreliable because it has virtually no objective controls; the only limitation is your imagination.
Context, Context, Context
We commonly draw on Biblical language in our preaching, teaching, and conversation. But if what we mean doesn’t match what it means in its context, we do a disservice to the text and to people’s proper understanding of that text. Have you ever heard someone cite Genesis 31:49 (“The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent from one another”) as a tender wish for God’s watch care? That’s not at all what Laban had in mind. And it may make for popular preaching to say that Matthew 24:36–39 teaches that the days immediately preceding “the coming of the Son of man” will be characterized by widespread wickedness, but that is clearly not what Christ had in mind when he cited “the days of Noah.” How do we know? Context. The normal, non-sinful, everyday activities Christ cited from the days of Noah, coupled with the repeated emphasis throughout the entire passage, indicates that the point is suddenness, unexpectedness. I even heard of a church once that used Ezekiel 16:44b (“As is the mother, so is the daughter”) as the theme verse for a mother-daughter banquet. Yikes!
We tend to read the Bible too selectively, as though it were merely a collection of isolated proof texts. As helpful as they are for reference, verse divisions can cause us to forget that a verse is not an isolated statement of Scripture, but a sentence (or phrase) within a paragraph. The authority for our interpretation resides in the meaning of the text. And the meaning of any text is always determined by its context.
A Final Word
Proper hermeneutics is not a matter of knowing Greek or Hebrew. It is simply a matter, first, of observing the context. That is what produces sound, authoritative preaching, teaching, and Bible study. The point of all this is not to generate a critical spirit when we hear something that we may be convinced is not hermeneutically sound, or to assume God is not speaking through someone who may not be handling the text as accurately as one might hope. In hearing God’s Word, be charitable toward others. But in handling God’s Word, be strict with yourself, honest with the text, and observant of the context.
Dr. Layton Talbert is a professor at Bob Jones University.