By Ben Campbell
Have you ever considered the effort it takes to correctly and faithfully interpret the Bible? I know, I know, it seems like a question that really should not be asked, but it should be. We must recognize the importance of a good interpretive process or a good hermeneutical method.
Hermeneutics can be understood as both the art and science of interpretation. The discipline of hermeneutics is foundational in biblical studies as well as in literature and philosophy. “Hermeneutics plays a role in a number of disciplines…it is preserved in the arts and literature, historical testimony, and other artifacts.” So, when preachers, pastors, theologians, and the like use this word (hermeneutics), they simply mean the art and science of interpreting the Bible. There is a tried and true method for arriving at the author’s intended meaning, allowing hermeneutics to function as a science. The discipline is also artistic in that individual creativity is required in the area of application, a component of interpretation. (Observe, interpret, apply) In other words, there is just as much of an art and a science to interpreting the Bible as there would be something like Homer’s, The Iliad or The Odyssey.
There are many principles which come with biblical interpretation, but first we must establish the foundation of biblical authority.
An Establishment of Authority
The Bible is authoritative in its own character and nature. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).” The Bible testifies about itself and it testifies that it is the very breath of God (theopneustos), meaning God’s authoritative character has transcended to His word, the Bible. R.C. Sproul comments on the issue and says, “The authority of the Bible is based on its being the written Word of God, and because the Bible is the Word of God and the God of the Bible is truth and speaks truthfully, authority is linked to inerrancy.” The Bible is authoritative and true because God is truth and speaks truth, and because the Bible is his written Word. The way pastors and theologians alike resonate this with laypeople is through two words: inerrancy and infallibility.
One of the major confusions among the issue of biblical inerrancy is that it confuses no mistakes with copies rather than simply the original autograph. A document that was copied from the original, by a human author, is possible to have mistakes within. However, the original autographs – the original message that came straight from the God-ordained authors who wrote the autographs – do not contain error. “If the original text were errant, the church would have the option of rejecting the teachings of the errant text. If the original text is inerrant…we have no legitimate basis for disobeying a mandate of Scripture where the text is not in doubt.”
In other words, Sproul proffers that the Bible is without error because it comes directly from a God without error. If this is true (we believe it is), then this changes everything about the Bible and its authority. According to Leroy Forlines, every human being is bound to answer what he called the inescapable questions of life. These are questions that form a person’s worldview. You see, every person has beliefs about God, the world, themselves, etc., so, every person answers these questions at some point in their life. Forlines tenders that when a person answers questions about God and concludes that God is a sovereign being who is holy, just, fair, right, and true, then his Word must be nothing less than inerrant.
Infallibility deals with the potentiality of making mistakes. Sometimes, the two terms (inerrancy and infallibility) can get confused or thought to be synonymous. However, this is not the case. Inerrancy implies there is no error contained within the manuscript. Infallibility deals with the author rather than the text. Yet, something cannot be infallible and errant. To contain errors is to contain the potential to err.
The Bible as authoritative is the first step in creating a regulated list of principles for biblical hermeneutics. If the Bible is the breath of God, it must represent his character, for words and speech represent who a person is. Thus, the Word of God is the written characterization of the God of the Bible. In his essay, Authority as a Principle of Theology, Julius Kaftan asserts “The idea of the recognition of the supernatural authority of the church founded on divine revelation here forms the continual and main groundwork of all Christian and theological knowledge.”
We must ascribe authority to the Bible if we aim to understand it correctly. Why? Because understanding the Bible correctly means that we are also understanding God correctly. So, in order to understand God correctly, we must have a set of principles – guidances, if you will – to interpret His Word.
Principles of Hermeneutics
So, let’s begin! What are the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics? How do we interpret the Bible? Well, here are a few helpful steps to do so (in no particular order):
- Study the Genre. The genre of the book you are aiming to interpret makes all the difference when it comes to biblical hermeneutics. You do not interpret Romans the same as the Psalms. Nor do you interpret Revelation the same as one of the four Gospels. Why? Because they are different genres of literature. It is for the same reasons you do not interpret one of Shakespeare’s sonnets the same as Homer’s works – they’re different.
- Determine the Context. The context of the book in which you are aiming to interpret is the catalyst for correct interpretation, when it comes to biblical hermeneutics. Contextual work aligns the interpretation with the original author’s meaning to his original audience. “Discovering the message to the original audience is top priority with any book of the Bible.” Context will give you a better understanding of the themes, message, and even culture of which the author is writing, which will then aid you in the interpretation process. When determining context, start broad (think the whole Bible) and work your way to narrow (book and passage).
- Diagram the Passage. Another way to find the meaning is to diagram the passage into its respective parts. While there is a small gap between the English translation and the original language, if you have a faithful translation of the Bible, you need not worry. Diagraming the passage will help you figure out what the subjects and verbs are and also the objects, prepositions, etc.
- Find Key Words. Sometimes, this point can be overemphasized, but actually we must affirm its verity in biblical interpretation. We must find out the key words within the text of Scripture of which we are interpreting in order to figure out its meaning. Key words aid in this process. Obviously, if you have ways of studying the original languages, it would be helpful, but it is not necessary. Again, a faithful translation of the Bible would be sufficient without original language training.
- Study the Cultural Context. One piece of advice I’ve been given is to aim to read Scripture without your western eyeglasses on. It is all too easy to impose our own cultural context on a passage, but when we do this, we miss the meaning altogether. Therefore, we must understand the culture in which the author writes in order to understand and interpret the meaning of what he is saying. Knowing the culture, what went on historically, and what type of norms were present all aid in the interpretation process.
There is much to do when it comes to biblical interpretation, but ultimately, the meaning of a text comes to a person when they seek the Spirit of God as their teacher. He is the good Teacher and will reveal the true meaning of a passage when we first seek Him. While these principles are effective for interpreting the Bible, they are only effective after we have first sought the Spirit of God to reveal to us His message within the Bible.
For Further Reading:
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Fee and Stuart
Grasping God’s Word, Duvall and Hays
Is There Meaning in this Text, Vanhoozer
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, Bloomberg, and Hubbard
Hermeneutics: An Introduction, Thiselton
 R.C. Sproul. Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine (Philipsburg: P&R, 2005), 121.
 Ibid., 148.
 F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest for Truth: Theology For Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 1. (hereafter, Quest)
 Ibid., 56.
 Julius Kaftan, “Authority as a Principle of Theology,” in The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Oct., 1900), 707.
 Terry G. Carter, J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays. Preaching God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Preparing, Developing, and Delivering the Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 214.