The Church Needs Biblical Hermeneutics
During an evangelistic encounter, Philip the evangelist once asked a man reading the Old Testament, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). His response was, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (8:31). This illustrates our needs to interpret the Bible. As Philip then guided this man to Christ through the proper interpretation of Isaiah 53, today, while we are guided by the Spirit, we also need interpretive guidelines explained by God-given Bible teachers to navigate Scripture. These guidelines of interpretation are called biblical hermeneutics.
The term hermeneutic comes from the Greek word hermēneuō (ἑρμηνεύω) which means to “translate” or to “interpret” (John 1:38,42, 9:7; Hebrews 7:2). Biblical hermeneutics is the art and the science of biblical interpretation, the rules to correctly study the Bible. It is a science because the rules are objective, precise, and repeatable by anyone anywhere. Yet, it is also an art because a complete mechanical application of these rules is not attainable. MacArthur and Mayhue stated that proper hermeneutics “are the interpretive rules applied by exegesis in order to find the single meaning God intended to convey in the text. By employing the hermeneutical principles of literal, grammatical-historical interpretation, the student can understand this meaning”.
Biblical hermeneutics in a nutshell: the literal historical-grammatical method
Most importantly, the literal historical-grammatical method of interpretation seeks to extract the single divinely intended meaning in any given verse. It is first literal because it aims to take God at His words, literally, unless the biblical genre, figures of speech in the passage, or the totality of Scripture indicates otherwise.2 Literal is intended to mean the natural or plain reading of the text for its first audience. Indeed, the whole of Scripture interprets individual scriptures in this manner. Moses interpreted Genesis 1 literally (Exodus 20:8-11). The direct words of God in the entire books of Genesis and Job came to pass as the plain language indicated they would.3 It is because the Jews did not believe in the plain reading of Isaiah 53 and the messianic psalms that they rejected and crucified Jesus (Acts 2:22-36). Thus, if my interpretation goes against the plain reading of the verse and the totality of Scripture, then it is erroneous.
Second, it is also historical since it reconstructs the original geographical, cultural, social, and political contexts of the time. The biblical record is indeed actual history and people. A classic illustration of this principle is that when Jesus spoke to the church in Laodicea saying, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16), He was alluding to the first-century Roman aqueduct which brought water to the city from the nearby hot spring, but by the time the water arrived to Laodicea, it was lukewarm which caused nausea. What a vivid picture for the first hearers! Similarly, we will enter Bible times with amazement when realizing the modern equivalents of ancient monetary references (Luke 15:8-10), personal items (2 Timothy 4:13), and customs (Ruth 4:7-8). Proper interpretation also takes into account progressive revelation in God’s redemptive history. In sum, if my interpretation is anachronistic or out of step with the time of the audience, then it is wrong.
Third, it is grammatical, to interpret God’s words consistently with the unbending rules of grammar. Every word matters, including verbs, subjects, singular and plural nouns, clauses, and the syntax. Jeremiah was not to “hold back a word” from God (Jeremiah 26:2).John summoned us not to add to the “words” of his book (Revelation 22:18). We thus see Paul paying close attention to words in Galatians 3:16: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.” Similarly, Jesus proved the resurrection doctrine in the Pentateuch by noting the present tense of a verb in Exodus 3:6 (Mark 12:26-27). Indeed, “every word of God is pure” (Proverbs 30:5) and all Scripture is verbally inspired (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Christ our Lord decidedly taught and exemplified that the grammar of Scripture is essential (Matthew 5:18; John 10:35). Hence, if my interpretation does violence to the principles of grammar, then it is also false.
The need for biblical hermeneutics
Why do we need biblical hermeneutics? First, because we cannot interpret Scripture in any way we want; rather, God expects us to understand what He meant. Consider what Jesus said to His religious contemporaries when they did not practice God’s Word: “have you not read in the Law” (Matthew 12:7), “have you not read what was said to you by God” (22:31). These indictments were then, and still are today, without escape. They should have known and obeyed what God said, and so should we. Indeed, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation” for the words came “from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Bible is not a collection of private opinions. We must use proper hermeneutics to know what God communicated to us.
Second, we need biblical hermeneutics to help us bridge the large gaps between us and the original audience. We are separated geographically, historically, linguistically, politically, culturally, and socially which hinder our understanding and applications of biblical texts. Proper hermeneutics will first find the meaning of the passage for the original audience of the text. Then, the interpreter will bridge the gap and find atemporal and transcultural commands and principles to consider how the text correctly applies to modern readers.
Third, we need biblical hermeneutics, just as the Ethiopian eunuch did in Acts 8, because certain parts of the Bible can be quite complex and enigmatic to us. After all, Scripture comes from the infinitely wise Creator of the universe. Speaking of Paul’s inspired letters, Peter himself said that they “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Sound rules of hermeneutics will place every text in its proper context, and then help us to know and discriminate with confidence between what the text could mean and then what it does mean.
Fourth, we all come to the biblical text with preunderstanding before opening the Bible such as biases, preconceived notions, previous learning, cultural assumptions, and our fallenness. Consider how the following preunderstanding can hinder proper interpretations. According to Barna research, about 40% of adults in the U.S. say that the Bible has errors, and 64% think truth is always relative to peoples and situations. The report concludes that “the basis of people’s moral and ethical decisions these days is more likely to be feelings and less likely to be the Bible.” It is thus apparent that sound hermeneutics will counter our biases, to please God (2 Timothy 2:15)
Consequences of unbiblical hermeneutics
All we have to do to know the impact of unbiblical hermeneutics is to observe the state of the Evangelical Church today. God is dishonored by people who put words in His mouth that He never said. Saints are starving without proper spiritual food. Churches no longer take a stand for clear words from the Lord on the evils of abortion, the sinfulness of sexual immorality of all sorts, and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. Lack of discernment, susceptibility to wolves, and liberal theology are on the rise. Perhaps saddest of all, error also divides the Bride of Christ. We must then pray, Lord “give me understanding,” “that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:125,11).
The superiority of the historical-grammatical method versus other hermeneutics
In Church history, “four major types of hermeneutics have emerged: the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical”.7 The latter three methods have the same fatal flaw, namely the subjective allegorizing of Bible verses to make them say what common sense and careful study show was never the intent of the original writers. This is apparent as the adepts of such methods continuously came to novel, eccentric, and false conclusions, hence casting doubt on whether one can ever attain the knowledge of the truth. Yet, the Bible is clear, and it enlightens us (Psalm 19:8). More recently, naturalistic and historical-critical hermeneutics have proposed that no miracles can ever take place and that only human reason can tell us what is true, effectively denying the Gospel. Proper hermeneutic, however, does not lead us to sit in judgment of Scripture, but rather to be judged by and submit to God’s Word. What is more, Jesus believed in the historicity of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15), Noah and the worldwide flood (24:37), Adam and Eve (19:4), and Jonah and the large marine creature (12:40). Therefore, the main reasons demonstrating the superiority of the literal historical-grammatical method are the facts that unlike other methods it is how Scripture interprets itself, it was exemplified by Jesus and the apostles, and is the only method doing justice to the words of God.
In conclusion, the Church needs sound hermeneutics to understand and faithfully preach Christ and God’s Word. These principles are not man-made. They come from the patterns of Scripture and the divine and eternal rules of communication. In eternity past, communication existed within the Triune God, and in time, the Word (the Son) became flesh to uniquely communicate with us and to save us from sin (John 1:1-17). God gave us the gift of communication, and as with every other good gift in life, the Creator reigns over how it is to be received and utilized.
Written by Jonas Croissant for the completion of the Reformation Seminary degree. Hillsboro, Oregon February 2022.
. J.F. MacArthur, R. Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 134.
. Scripture cannot contradict itself and passages must be harmonized. Clear texts interpret lesser clear ones.
. Christopher Cone, online article, “The Precedent for Literal Grammatical Historical Hermeneutics in Genesis”. https://drcone.com/2017/08/26/precedent-literal-grammatical-historical-hermeneutics-genesis/. Accessed February 25, 2022.
. J.S. Duvall, J.D. Hays, Grasping God's Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 3rd Ed., 2012), 118-135, 184.
. Barna Group research, online article entitled “State of the Bible 2021: Five Key Findings” https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/. Accessed February 20, 2022.
. Barna Group research, online article entitled “Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings” https://www.barna.com/research/americans-are-most-likely-to-base-truth-on-feelings/. Accessed February 21, 2022.
. Encyclopedia Britannica, online article entitled “hermeneutics: principles of biblical interpretation” https://www.britannica.com/topic/hermeneutics-principles-of-biblical-interpretation. Accessed February 21, 2022.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949.
MacArthur, John F.; Mayhue, Richard. Biblical Doctrine. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.
Hermeneutics and Exegesis
Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House, 1980.
Berkhof, Louis. Principles Of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1994.
Zuck, Roy B. Basic Bible Interpretation. Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1991.
Duvall, J. Scott; Hays, J. Daniel. Grasping God's Word. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, Third Edition, 2012.
Maier, Gerhard. The End of the Historical-Critical Method. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2001.