The Necessity of Hermeneutics

In our society today, even in evangelicalism, the idea that Scripture needs to be at the forefront of our lives, that the God’s word needs to be the measuring stick for how we live, has been lost (if it is true that this was ever held). When many Evangelicals do look to Scripture for guidance, as their authority, they often take snippets of a verse—taking what it may be saying—and build their lives and their doctrine of this without paying heed to the rest of testimony of Scripture, without even consulting the context that surrounds the verse. How many times do we hear Isaiah 53:5 quoted as proof that no matter why we are experiencing illness or infirmity God will heal us every time, if we only ask Him in faith; clearly this verse teaches that by Christ’s death, by His stripes, we are healed… doesn’t it? A closer look at the surrounding context shows that this chapter is talking overwhelmingly about moral sickness, about sin, and a look at the Hebrew word translated “healed” reveals that rapa’ can, and in this context definitely does, mean spiritual healing; by Christ’s stripes we receive spiritual healing, we receive salvation. The word “hermeneutics”—which is defined as “the science of interpretation,” usually used in reference to the Bible—is treated as a relic of modernity; something that should be left in the byway and replaced by our own intuition of what the Bible is saying, our understanding of “what it means to me.” Some people complain that our modern hermeneutics is quantifying Scripture and taking from its power, reducing it to a science, consistent with the enlightenment rationalism. If we are to take Scripture seriously, if we are to take it to be the very word of God and the sufficient source of guidance and growth in our Christian lives, then we need to learn and apply hermeneutical methods to our reading of Scripture. Sadly, there is a need to defend this first statement; to defend the truth that as Christians we need to take the Scriptures seriously.[1]

How can we not take Scripture seriously? It is our sole source of doctrine on who God is and His redemptive work through His Son Jesus Christ. It is only by Scripture that we know what it means to be saved and it is only through Scripture that we learn how to be saved. General Revelation can only reveal to us that God exists, it can only reveal His “invisible attributes,” and condemn us; it cannot reveal to us the need for salvation, nor can it show us the way to salvation (Romans 1:18-2:16). As the sole source for our knowledge of the Life of Jesus and His teachings we need to pay heed to what the word says; and if we are going to listen to what the Spirit has written in the Bible about God, we need to give credence to its claims for priority in our lives. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul, through the inspiration of the Spirit, writes, “16 All Scripture is inspired by God [Theopneustos– lit. God breathed] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”[2] Here Paul claims that every verse of the Scriptures is breathed out by God and profitable. The main use of “Scripture” throughout the New Testament is in reference to Old Testament, but it is made clear that this designation also refers to the writings of the apostles. In 2 Peter 3:14-18 Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture” and in Paul’s own writings, 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Deuteronomy and Luke’s gospel as Scripture. All Scripture is profitable for teaching and correction so that we may be equipped for every good work. Paul in this verse places incredible weight on Scripture and teaches Timothy of its utmost importance. In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes to them and instructs them to, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). Part of this is “holding fast the word of life” (2:16). Paul writes that if they did not do this, hold fast to word of life, his labours with them would be in vain (2:16). Probably the most in-depth exhortation on the importance of Scripture is Psalms 119, throughout this long chapter the Psalmist writes on the importance and reward of delving into the LORD’s word. In v. 9 the psalmist writes that a young man can keep his ways pure by keeping them according to Scripture, and throughout the Psalm he sets an example for our lives in his esteem for the word. The psalmist regards the word so highly that he writes, “I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways. 16 I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word” (Psalm 119:15-16). This is the approach we need to take to Scriptures, as God’s very word breathed out we need to pay due diligence to its teachings and apply them to our lives; we need to “meditate” on its teachings, that is we need deeply think on, slowly chew, the words of the Scriptures. This is where hermeneutics comes in; if we look at Scripture and take it to mean what we want it to say, if we take to heart what it is “saying to us”, then we are not treating it as God’s word. We are paying lip service to it being our authority, but we are really putting ourselves on the throne and taking our instructions for life from our own presuppositions and desires, not from what God is saying through His word.

Hermeneutics, as described by Bernard Ramm, is the “game” of interpretation; every game needs to be played by a set of rules.[3] Within Hermeneutics you really have two choices for rules; Eisegesis or Exegesis. Eisgesis is what we see many people doing today; it is the subjective act of reading into Scripture what we want it to say, there are no rules. This is the “post-modern” approach; Scripture means what I want it to mean. Exegesis is the objective act of taking out of Scripture what the Author intended to say, this means reading Scripture with the perspective of “what did Paul (or any other biblical writer) mean to say” and not “what is this saying to me?” Exegesis is what we naturally do; it is what we do when we pick up a newspaper, a novel, or a history book. We try and figure out what the author was trying to say, whether that is telling us a story or relaying facts, because we assume that the words on a page are not just a chance combination of symbols but symbols containing meaning that the author intended to convey. With a contemporary work this is easy and natural, but when it comes to a book written over a span 2000 years—the last of it being finished almost 2000 years ago—this requires some work. The Bible comes from a foreign culture and was written in three very foreign languages. An example of this difficulty can be shown by imagining a reader even a hundred years from now reading a blog post from our day. Imagine that this blog post started off like this; “When I was talking to my friend yesterday he mentioned a terrible TV show where the host screamed; ‘September 11thwas a good thing, do it again!’ Now we both highly disagreed and pursued legal methods to stop this hateful talk to from being propagated.” Naturally when you read this you see September 11th and because you lived through the last 20 years you know that that is a reference to September 11th 2001, the terrorist attack on the twin towers and the pentagon. This can also be supported by the immediate context around it. Using the literary context—that is the greater text within which a statement is found—instinctively you see the line “a terrible TV show where the host screamed…” and you know that “September 11thwas a good thing, do it again!” is not a statement agreed with, but a highly offensive comment made by a TV host. Context showed that this was not an affirmative statement by the writer of the blog. Also historical context would inform you that legal methods means suing, legal action along the lines of what is so common in our day. With a comprehensive understanding of the English language but without any historical context (even TV may not mean anything to someone a hundred years from now) this sentence will make no sense, and without literary context you could paint the writer falsely as an anti-American terrorist. This illustration hopefully shows how ingrained exegesis is to our reading, and how dangerous it can be to neglect it. If this imaginary reader a hundred years from now truly wanted understand what was being said he go through some work to figure it out. To find out what a “T.V. show” was he could look in a dictionary of the English language as it was in the early 2000’s, to discover what “September 11th” meant the reader could look into major events from the time frame of the blog or maybe even search the rest of the blog and see if other references were made. With some research it is conceivable that the reader in the future could discern what the blogger intended to say. When we are reading the Bible some verse are easy to figure out from the immediate context of the verse, others that are more difficult require the studying of what is called the “historical context;” that is the cultural, social, geographical, and religious setting within which the specific book of the Bible took place and within which the verse was written. Hermeneutics is a powerful tool and even just reading verses within the greater context of the discourses in which they are found and acknowledging the existence of foreign cultural issues being dealt with goes a long way towards guarding against error and understanding what God is saying through His word. Hermeneutics is a powerful tool, but it is not the most important tool in our arsenal when it comes to reading Scripture. No matter how diligent we are in applying hermeneutical methods to our Scripture reading, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit we will never understand God’s word. The illumination of the Holy Spirit is His daily work in our lives through which He shows us what Scripture means and how it applies to our lives. Many a great thinker has read the Bible but without the Holy Spirit’s illumination come away spiritually dry.

Hermeneutics takes things that we naturally do, things we instinctively do, and applies them to a historical text. If we care about authorial intent, about what the author meant, then we need to pursue hermeneutics to figure it out. It is natural and easy to do this for a contemporary English book, but with the Bible which comes from a foreign culture and contains alien idioms this process takes a lot of work. But the fruit of this work, which can only be done with the aid of the Holy Spirit, is an understanding of what Christ said, of what the prophets said; of what God ensured would be recorded so that we can know of Him (Special revelation). If we ignore hermeneutics and read the Bible without any acknowledgment of authorial intent then we are taking Scripture and replacing it with our thoughts. We can make anything say anything we want it to say if we ignore enough of it. If we simply read a passage, especially one like Revelation 3 which is steeped in historical context, and assume that our modern understanding will make complete sense of it then we will end up with a completely false understanding and will be totally ignoring God’s chosen means of communication with His bride, His Church. Because we are removed from the Greek and Hebrew culture of the Bible we need to be disciplined and do our best to put ourselves in their time frame (through studies) so that we can truly understand what the Holy Spirit wrote through His servants and grow closer to God through His chosen means of self-revelation. If we do this hermeneutical method for the love letter written by our girlfriend, or a letter from our grandparents; then why wouldn’t we honor God’s Word by submitting ourselves before it, truly striving to learn what it is saying, and humbling ourselves before God’s teaching through it.

Bibliography

Couch, M. Biblical Theology of the Church (Couch). Kregel Publications, 1999. http://books.google.ca/books?id=2selAsbjCSUC.

New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.


[1] It seems kind of redundant to argue from Scripture that Scripture is important, but the audience I am writing for here are those who read Scripture but are not convinced of the need for its pre-eminence in their lives. To take Scripture seriously is to take into account the fact that it calls for us to dive into its depths so that we can grow in our Christian walk.

[2] All Scripture references are taken from the NASB unless otherwise stated. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3] Bernard Ramm quoted in; M. Couch, Biblical Theology of the Church (Couch) (Kregel Publications, 1999), 14, http://books.google.ca/books?id=2selAsbjCSUC.

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