Meaning in the mind of the culture, and in many places in the world, has become incredibly subjective. Many say that meaning is made by the reader, not the author. You may read the text, or hear a speaker, and find “your truth” from this. However, as David Steinmertz asserts, “indeed, contemporary debunking of the author and author’s explicit intentions has proceeded at such a pace that it seems at times as if literary criticism has become a jolly game of ripping out an author’s shirt-tail and setting fire to it.” Authors write pieces of literature not so the reader can find their own truth, but in order to communicate something. By their lexical choices in the words they use or do not use, an author is communicating his mind in the way he sees fit. In the case of the Bible, there are two authors; the human, and the Divine. In reading our Bibles Christians are not reading in order to find their own new meaning, but to learn what the author intended with the words he used, and what God intends for His people in the fullness of the canon.
The Goal and Purpose of Biblical Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is a ten-dollar word which means, “biblical interpretation.” God has given His word to His people throughout all of history. From what Moses wrote in the Pentateuch, to what John wrote in Revelation, it is inspired so that, “the man of God may be complete” (ESV). The purpose of biblical interpretation is in order that the people of God may know and understand what their God has said. The Christian ought to pick up their copy of the text to find joy in it, so they may find joy in the God it reveals. The purpose is linked to the goal. The purpose is to learn what God has to say and find joy there. The goal is to be, “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does he prospers” (Psalm 1:3, NASB). That is, to be rooted and built up in the truth of God’s word.
There are many gaps that stand between the mind of the modern reader and the intention of the ancient authors. Here I will focus on three main gaps, the cultural gap, the language gap, and the appropriation gap. The cultural gap has to do with the types of stories where the modern reader is left scratching their heads about what in the world is going on. As modern people this is often experienced when we read the Old Testament. Sometimes we get so confused that we become functional Marcions and do not even bother to read what God revealed in the Old Testament. It is hard in some portion to understand what is going on. Why, in Judges 11:37 does Jephtah’s daughter need to go up into the mountains, and mourn because she will die as a virgin? To the modern reader, that is weird. It is okay to admit that something we read is weird, but do not stop there. Dig, read a commentary. What was life like back then? Why did the author include this?
The next gap is the language gap. This may come as a surprise to some, but the Bible was not written by King James in 1611. It was not even written in English! The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. While a good English translation can get you very far in the field of biblical exegesis, you will be lacking without an understanding of the original languages. If you want to do any kind of meaningful exegesis you will have to interact with the original languages at some point. While I personally wish that every Christian would at least learn Koine Greek (the Greek of the NT), realistically I know this will not happen. It is hard and many do not see it to be very important anyways. If you do not understand something because it may be encoded deeper in the syntax of the original languages, there are many good commentaries that will help you find those things out. Or ask your local Greek-loving pastor.
The final gap is the appropriation gap. This has to do with application. Again, where many people run into problems is in the Old Testament. How do I apply the phrase; “do not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk”? That is weird! But attempt to bridge the gap, look at the context around it, find out what it means. However, do not go so far over the gap that you create another gap and over apply the biblical text. It is absolutely possible to apply the Bible in a way that it was never meant to be applied. Be careful and cautious, proper interpretation before your application will assist in proper application of a passage.
General Principles for Good Hermeneutics
In this short article, here are some general principles that will assist in your journey through biblical interpretation.
1. Observe. This may seem like a very simple step, but do not discount the benefits of simply observing what is going on in the text. Gather information first.
2. Interpret. Now that you have all of the information, begin to find out what it actually means. Check context surrounding the passage, check outside sources, cross reference other texts and define tough terms with the Bible’s own words. Andreas Köstenberger often says, “the Bible is it’s own commentary.” And I could not agree more. Find textual connections, do word studies. Figure out how the Bible defines terms, not how the culture you are currently in defines terms.
3. Ask good questions. This is part of the interpreting step. Ask questions that may come up as you read the text. When you answer one you may have another and it will push you deeper into the text.
4. Apply the text. After finding the meaning, and gathering information, now move onto application. Your application of the text should come out of your interpretation, not the other way around.
5. Be consistent. As you read through your Bible, use consistent principles throughout the entire canon. When you get uncomfortable, do not start reading the Bible differently so that you are comfortable. Pray, ask for wisdom and help from the Spirit, and push your nose into the text until your mind conforms to what God has said in His Word.
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