By Elizabeth Prata
Hermeneutics. It’s not a word you hear often inside of churches. In our watered down state, preachers and pastors rarely use the “big words” any more. If they do, they’re abashed and even apologize for saying theological words like ‘justification’ or ‘inerrancy.’ However hermeneutics is a battleground in our continued spiritual warfare against the schemes of the devil. You must know what it is.
From the Compact Dictionary Doctrinal Words by Terry L. Mithe, hermeneutics is
From the Greek hermeneutikos, “interpretation.” Hermeneutics is the science of the study and interpretation of Scripture, the branch of theology that prescribes rules by which the Bible should be interpreted. Biblical hermeneutics strives to formulate guidelines for studying scripture that help recover the meaning a biblical text had for its original hearers.
Below are essays and a quote regarding hermeneutics I came across which illuminate the practice of hermeneutics and also illustrates the problems today with casual interpretation and practices infiltrating the Christian life, such as “life verses” and “what this verse means to me”.
First up, John MacArthur explaining the fallacy of teaching “What does this verse mean “to me?”‘ I read MacArthur’s essay, it’s good. I highly recommend it. Here is an excerpt:
What Does This Verse Mean “to Me”?
Titus 1:9, Romans 12:1-2 June 16, 2009
That’s a fashionable concern, judging from the trends in devotional booklets, home Bible study discussions, Sunday-school literature, and most popular preaching. The question of what Scripture means has taken a back seat to the issue of what it means “to me.” The difference may seem insignificant at first. Nevertheless, our obsession with the Scripture’s applicability reflects a fundamental weakness. We have adopted practicality as the ultimate judge of the worth of God’s Word.What Does This Verse Mean “to Me”?
In just one sentence, MacArthur punctures the practice. We cannot adopt a scripture because it has personal applicability to us and dispense with other verses because they don’t. MacArthur continues,
No believer can apply truth he doesn’t know. Those who don’t understand what the Bible really says about marriage, divorce, family, child-rearing, discipline, money, debt, work, service to Christ, eternal rewards, helping the poor, caring for widows, respecting government, and other teachings won’t be able to apply it. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about salvation cannot be saved. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about holiness are incapable of dealing with sin. Thus they are unable to live fully to their own blessedness and God’s glory. True doctrine transforms behavior as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. But it must be understood if it is to have its impact. The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately. Practical application comes easily by comparison.
Solid biblical hermeneutics searches for truth under the premise of “What did God intend for me to know about Himself in this passage?” vs. today’s practice of me-centered interpretations asking “What does this verse mean to me?” The latter leads to a false kind of open-mindedness regarding interpretation. In theology at some point you need firmness, it’s imperative to obtain a settled authoritative stance on at least the fundamentals of the faith.
Dogmatic theology gets its name from the Greek and Latin word dogma which, when referring to theology, simply means “a doctrine or body of doctrines formally and authoritatively affirmed.”
Biblical hermeneutics appropriately conducted leads to an illumination of the scriptures which leads to a Spirit-settled understanding which leads to an authoritative witness with conviction. S. Lewis Johnson this in his sermon “Paul’s Right to Compensation.” In highlighting the importance of dogmatism he compared the ridiculousness of open-minded non-dogmatism in the secular world:
Now, I’ve been talking like I’m dogmatic, haven’t I? I’ve been trying to inject a little bit of the apostolic dogmatism in it. The world has little use for people without convictions when — for example, when your child becomes very, very sick and you want to call a doctor, you don’t call a doctor who is open-minded about personal disease, do you? Or we don’t send our children to school if we know the teachers are open-minded about the multiplication tables and things like that. We don’t do that. We want someone that we have confidence in…Paul’s Right to Compensation
This piece I stumbled across was an excellent discussion of the science of the interpretation of Law, (legal law not biblical law) by Craig A. Parton from Patrick Henry College. It seems to have been written about ten years ago, on the heels of an important Supreme Court decision. It’s titled,
Remember, hermeneutics is the science of the study and interpretation of Scripture, the branch of theology that prescribes rules by which the Bible should be interpreted.
There are prescribed rules for interpreting Law, as well. Why are we content with leaving the interpretation of medical issues and legal issues to the doctors and lawyers, intuitively understanding that their years of training and education allow them this right, yet when it comes to the Word of God, interpreting has no rules, it’s ‘whatever this verse means to me?
There is a science of interpretation that adheres to rules and has rigor, which is increasingly being set aside for open-minded views. This method only serves to confuse the Christian. In his article above, Mr Parton outlined the legal approach with the Christian approach, quoting Justice Scalia in three main points,
1. The actual words control every interpretation of a text and no interpretation should suffer to contradict the natural and plain sense of the text.
In this case, I’ll offer you the example of a plain and simple verse that should be easily interpreted: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). Yet people dispute the interpretation of wages, redefine sin, and claim death is annihilation, not eternal conscious torment. They also redefine and dispute eternal (as in eternal punishment), wrath, and refute plain texts such as “women may not teach men in the church” and “homosexuality is sin” (no, it’s the lack of hospitality that’s sin…”. Yet the plain meaning is clear. Next,
2. The meaning of a text should never be created from external sources (nor, we might add, from the pressure of current events or evolving public opinion) and then imposed on a text to render a meaning contrary to the clear language.
[W]hen a text is clear on its face, that ends the matter. To then plumb the depths of secondary sources to impose a meaning contrary to the clear text would be to engage in pure divinization. Lord Bacon summed it up nicely: Non est interpretatio, sed divinatio, quae recedit a litera (“Interpretation that departs from the letter of the text is not interpretation but divination.”)
When we say “what this verse means to me,” particularly about a clear, plain textual meaning of a verse, it is an interpretation coming from external sources: outside of the word of God. The third principle Parton outlines in his comparison of biblical interpretation and legal interpretation is
3. There is one best interpretation of a passage.
Traditional Biblical interpretation stresses the “sensus literalis unus est”–the one proper and intended sense of the text. This is determined from the words of the document itself. The law supports this approach unreservedly, and the rules of evidence in California set this forth in a number of specific principles of contract–or document–construction.
Does a pastor ascend the pulpit on a Sunday morning after a week of study, and say, “Open to John chapter 3, here is what the verse means to me. It may mean something different to you.” No. Not a good pastor anyway.
In contrasting the “this verse means to me” approach with the biblical approach, we now turn to Acts 8:26-40 for an example. The Spirit directed Philip the evangelist to go up to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was seated in his chariot reading scripture, Isaiah 53 as it turns out. How did Philip begin the teaching lesson? Did He say, “Oh, I see you are reading scripture. What does the verse ‘“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth’ mean to you?”
Of course not. We read in Acts 8:30-31 that Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This indicates there is one understanding, not many understandings dependent on personal applicability, whether the reader likes it, or how it fits into their culture or era.
In humility, the Eunuch said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” indicating that interpreting a verse is not about a mutual exchange of different interpretations relative to an individual’s personal meaning, but a teacher-student relationship wherein one submits to the other’s greater knowledge and listens. (Always check for proper interpretations as a Berean afterward as per Acts 17:11). What happened next was,
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:35)
Philip told him. Dogmatically, i.e. authoritatively. That’s what a teacher does, he studies, submits himself to the Spirit and seeks the interpretation. Then he tells the Good News. Do we say “I will share the Good News. It’s Good News to Me. Maybe it won’t be to you.” Heavens, no!
If a Judge is duty bound to search the documentation until he can offer a delivery of THE authoritative interpretation, how much more so should we do this in the scriptures?!
This is not to say that we aren’t humble. Philip was humble when he submitted to the Spirit’s order to go where he didn’t know and approach the person he didn’t know and explain the scriptures to him. The Eunuch was also humble in his reply. We are all humble before the Spirit who illuminates the Bible to us. But the Bible is perspicacious (clear)
The difference between errant dogmatism and correct dogmatism in hermeneutical interpretation is the Holy Spirit. He will settle you, if you earnestly seek the Lord and submit to His teaching. Once a passage or doctrine is settled in your mind due to the Spirit’s illumination, then is the time to explain, exhort, and defend.
How to Interpret the Bible for Yourself book. Richard Mayhue, The Master’s Seminary
“How To Study Your Bible.” Book. Kay Arthur