All Christians should be aware of the overriding importance of rightly handling the Word of God. So much harm to the church and to individual Christians has occurred when we do not carefully and properly interpret the Scriptures. Heresies and cults of course are prime examples of this.
This piece is part of an ongoing series of articles on the matter of hermeneutics. See my previous piece recently written on this for some introductory matters: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/12/on-hermeneutics/
Here I want to stay with some rather broad-brush strokes, while future articles will deal with more specific matters concerning biblical interpretation. Let me start by very briefly looking at the matter of interpretative schools. There would be a number of these that we could examine.
Clearly some are better than others. There are some schools of interpretation to avoid, or at least treat with great caution. An obvious example of how NOT to do hermeneutics is that of second century heretic Marcion and his chainsaw approach. He decimated Scripture, saying the Old Testament and much of the New Testament must be jettisoned. He ended up with just some edited portions of Luke’s gospels and Paul’s letters.
Another one to be quite cautious about is the allegorical school of biblical interpretation. The church father Origen especially popularised this method, arguing that there are different layers of meaning in Scripture. He and others looked for a deeper symbolic or spiritual meaning to the text.
Briefly in response: yes there is some allegory to be found in Scripture (consider the parables of Jesus eg.). And yes the Holy Spirit can give individuals personal application. But that should not detract from what the text is actually saying. More on this in a moment.
More recent examples of rather bad hermeneutics would include the health and wealth gospel, and the name-it-and-claim-it teachings. I have already penned nearly 80 pieces on this: billmuehlenberg.com/category/theology/the-health-and-wealth-gospel/
And one thinks of the relatively recent liberation theology. While those promoting this claim to have the interests of the poor in view, overwhelmingly they use Marxism as the main interpretative lens by which they deal with Scripture. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/05/05/liberation-theology-and-marxism/
The preferred school of interpretation is the historical-grammatical method. This says that all biblical texts should be studied in terms of seeking to discover the authors’ original intended meaning in the text, looking carefully at grammatical and textual issues, along with the historical and cultural background. What did the author actually say? What did he intend to communicate? That is what we should strive to ascertain as best we can.
Yes, postmodernism and deconstructionism present to us a radically different understanding of hermeneutics. It rejects this idea of discovering authorial intent altogether. We simply read into a text whatever meaning we want to give it. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/01/when-truth-disappears/
With all this in mind, let me offer some general principles of biblical interpretation.
General interpretive principles
It is obviously vital, as just mentioned, to seek to discover the purpose of the author. This is key to understanding Scripture: just what was the intention of the author? What was the message he was trying to get across? We need to understand the text the way the original author intended it to be understood.
As Robertson McQuilkin rightly notes, “The purpose an author had in mind when writing a book influences every passage in the book.” And as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart state, “The true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.”
Sometimes the purpose of a book is clearly set out by the author, as in 1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” John said similar things in his gospel: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Sometimes the purpose is not so clear or there can be more than one purpose. For example, the two letters written by Paul to the Corinthians seem to have several purposes, eg, dealing with disunity, immorality, the matter of Paul’s authority, and so on.
The general rule of thumb is that meaning should determine the purpose. Sometimes the meaning of a passage is clear, but not the purpose. For example, Exodus 23:19 says this “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” The bit about the goat is pretty clear, but what exactly is the purpose of this command? Any good Bible commentary will offer various options as to just what this is there for, and what it is the rationale behind it.
Another key principle is to always consider the context. As has so often been said, “A text without a context is a pretext.” It is the easiest thing in the world to rip a passage out of its context and twist it in an unbiblical fashion, ignoring what is actually being said.
Cults do this all the time, as do Christians who want to push agendas inimical to Scripture. For example, I have written an entire book in which I look at how theological revisionists twist and distort Scripture to push the homosexual agenda.
Plenty of other examples can be mentioned here. How often have people mentioned ‘throwing the first stone’ as an excuse for sinful living? But the context includes the words of Jesus, “Go and sin no more”. The entirety of this pericope must be considered, otherwise we simply abuse and misuse Scripture.
And of course the classic case of this would be ‘Do not judge’ as found in Matthew 7:1. Plenty of Christians throw this around carelessly, and even many non-Christians know of it and are happy to run with it. But the verse is simply about hypocritical judging, and the rest of the chapter even tells us that we need to judge.
And the rest of Scripture has plenty to say about the need for us to judge, discern, make assessments and evaluations. But see more on this here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/10/08/thou-shalt-judge/
Related to this is another key principle: Scripture interprets Scripture. The Reformers especially emphasised this truth: the Bible must be interpreted by the Bible. The reason for this is based on the fact that although the Bible contains 66 books, it is really just one book.
It has one storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation. Because there is this unity to the biblical message, one part will not contradict another. The various books make up one complete revelation of God. All the biblical truths need to be held together in harmony even though sometimes they appear to conflict, such as the teachings about man’s free will and God’s sovereignty.
As one often used example, take James 2:14-26. Does this passage teach salvation by works? Many argue that it does, and that James completely contradicts Paul on this matter. Paul is quite clear that salvation is by grace through faith, not by works (Eph. 2:8,9, eg.)
So just what is James saying here? James 2:14 says this: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” He does not say that faith cannot save; he says that THIS sort faith – one which has no subsequent good deeds – cannot save. Real saving faith is always evidenced by good works. So we have no conflict here between what James and Paul are saying.
Also vital is the need to properly understand the words being used. While I will spend more time on this in future articles, let me say just a few words here. Words are not always used in the same way. Words can have a range of meanings. The word “faith” which I just discussed above is a case in point.
Consider the word “leaven”. If we say this always has a negative usage, we would be amiss. Yes, it is mostly used in a bad sense, such as Matthew 16:6: “‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’.” But it can have a positive use, as in Matthew 13:33: “He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough’.”
Or consider the word “lion”. Do we find this term being used of Jesus? Yes we do, as in Rev 5:5: “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.” But in a place like 1 Peter 5:8 we find it being used to refer to Satan: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
One more example. In 1 Peter 2:2 we see milk being referred to in a positive light: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” But not so in Hebrews 5:13-14: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
So we need to be aware of how words are being used, and often the context will help determine this for us. And of course words can change over time. So if you use older English translations such as the KJV you really need to be aware of this. Modern English has evolved greatly over the centuries since King James English was the norm. As I said in an earlier article:
Let me offer just a few obvious examples here. James 5:11 says the “Lord is very pitiful” in the KJV. Today that word means woeful or pathetic or deplorable. Back then it meant one who has pity on others. The unaware reader today would get an altogether faulty understanding of who God is and what he is like from such a passage.
Or take Philemon 7, which in the KJV speaks of “the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee”. The Greek word translated “bowels” can mean actual inward body parts, but it can also metaphorically mean the seat of inward emotions. So instead of giving us the impression of speaking about intestines and bodily waste discharges, newer versions such as the ESV say “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you”.
And a quick word about etymology. We need to be careful about overemphasising the roots of a word. Tracing a word back to its roots does not always help. Our English word “nice” for example comes from the Latin nescius meaning ignorant.
We shouldn’t read later meanings into an earlier word – that is the fallacy of anachronism. How many times have you heard the gospel called the “dynamite of God”? Romans 1:16 speaks to the power of God, and the Greek word dunamis does mean power, but Paul did not have in mind a nineteenth century invention when he used it!
We also need to remember not to doggedly depend on chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles, and that for the simple reason that they are not in the original documents – they were added later on. Sometimes the artificial divisions are less than helpful.
Consider one of the great servant songs – that of the suffering servant. It is clear that it begins in the closing verses of Isaiah 52 (verses 13-15) and runs through all of Isaiah 53 (verses 1-12). Also, John’s discussion about love in the latter part of 1 John 4 seems to run on into the opening verses of chapter 5. So do not rely too much on these divisions.
In future articles I will look at special principles of hermeneutics, such as understanding genre, figures of speech, and so on.