Hermeneutics is the science and methodology of Bible study
interpretation. One of the most fundamental principles of Bible
interpretation is to interpret the Bible in light of God's character.
If a particular interpretation contradicts God's character, that
interpretation is wrong. The second principle of Bible interpretation is
that what the Bible says clearly, explicitly and comprehensively takes
precedent over interpretations which are based on inference or
peripheral passages or just a few verses. Now granted that what we know
of God's character is revealed in the Bible, and so requires some
interpretation. But God clearly, explicitly, and rather comprehensively
reveals His character throughout the Bible. Consequently to get God's
character wrong one would have to make real effort to misread the Bible.
But many have managed to do so.
Interpretation particularly comes into play in passages where the interpretation may
not be clear or intuitively obvious, when there's possible ambiguity or
something paradoxical. When there is more than one possible interpretation
of a text, what principles do we use to determine the right one? For this
reason I think it best to instruct by examples. For example it says, "God is just" 2Th 1:6a
Therefore any interpretation which proposes that God imputes guilt to
the innocent or holds people accountable for other people's crimes or
for things over which they have no control, is a Biblically incorrect
One of the things about Bible study is that what may seem clear to you
may be not be clear to someone else. (Ex - meat sacrificed to idols) Frequently
in such a case even many well-educated theologians resort to the kind of
rhetoric that goes like: "You've got to be an idiot not to see it the way
I see it." or perhaps even a more severe accusations of "heresy" or the
like shrouded in religious terminology. (See Calvin's
style of arguing) But in reality such a reaction is often because the
person has no idea how else to defend his interpretation. In fact often
people use the word "clearly" in an argument on a point which is actually
unclear. Don't use the word "clearly" in an argument unless everyone agrees
that the point is in fact clear, and not just clear to you!
Everyone uses principles to interpret the Bible, though they may not
be able to verbalize those principles. What are some of those principles?
One principle of bad Bible study is known as eisogesis - which
basically means to read into the Bible rather than reading out of it. Such
a person approaches the Bible trying to justify his chosen lifestyle or
ideas rather than deriving his life and ideas from the Bible. Often such
a person approaches particular passages with a "how can I get around what
it says" type of attitude rather than making an honest attempt at deducing
what the author actually has in mind.
Often used in combination with eisogesis is over-allegorizing
passages. This is one way to make the Bible say whatever you want it to
say. This is particularly used with regards to historical events. Though
a person may claim that his conclusion or application is based upon the
Bible, yet it may have little correlation to what the Bible actually meant.
On the opposite extreme is taking things too literally. For example
is says in Matthew 5:29 "If your right
eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you." I've
heard of a man who literally did that. Sometimes the literal interpretation
is not the correct one. At times the Bible uses figures of speech, poetic
forms of speech like hyperbole to get a point across, whereas the literal
interpretation would not be what the author intended.
In contrast, the Grammato-historical hermeneutic is a good principle
to use. This is basically trying to interpret the Bible in the way
it is written, using Semantics based upon syntax, contextual interpretation,
consistency, possible versus probable interpretation. The objective is
to try to understand what the author meant based upon what he said. The
Bible is assumed to represent actual history in those texts which use rhetoric
one would expect in describing historical events. But it is also acknowledged
that allegorical connections are often meant to be drawn from actual historical
Ex: Galatians 4:22-25 "For it is written
that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he
of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these
are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage,
which is Hagar—— for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds
to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—— but the
Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.")
And when it comes to applying passages, rather than use a "That was then,
this is now" approach, which is often the phrase used to eliminate any
application of the Bible that one feels uncomfortable with, instead we
for the "for" statements, look for an explanation in the text itself.
Often in combination with a particular command or application the author
may give an explanation which is inconsistent with the "that was then,
this is now" hermeneutic. In other words the Bible at times tells us why
it says what it says, which should not be overlooked.
Women in Authority?
Example: 1Tim 2:11-14 "Let a woman
learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman
to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. ForAdam
was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being
deceived, fell into transgression."
Why does Paul not allow a woman to take such a position? Those who say
it simply had to do with the culture at that time have ignored the
statement. It is because of the order of creation and the order of the
fall, which is in the law. Is this consistent with what the Bible
says elsewhere? Notice 1Cor 14:34 "Let
your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak;
but they are to be submissive, as the law also says."
Where does the law say it? The quote from 1Timothy indicates that it can
be inferred from Genesis, which is the first book of the Law of Moses.Given
what the Bible says we can use simple logic to infer meaning.
Digressing on what "says" means
In this example in 1Cor 14:34 Paul uses the phrase "as the law also
says", but the law doesn't explicitly make such a statement. Therefore
when such a phrase is used it may be meant as "the law implies". Furthermore
just by observation of other verses we can conclude that "says" or "said"
often means "said in effect" or "implied". Compare quotations of Jesus
in the different gospels. While it could be argued that Jesus may have
repeated himself on a number of occasions, yet even when it is agreed upon
that we are observing the same event in the different gospels, yet the
gospel writers seem to quote Jesus slightly differently, not word for word.
Most of the quotations of Jesus should be understood as "He said (in effect)..."
or "Essentially he said...".
Now getting back to the quote from 1Tim 2:11-14 I will give an example
where using a logical deduction can guard us from a false interpretation.
A popular misinterpretation of this passage by feminist evangelicals is
to propose that a woman can be assigned to such a role of authority over
men as is described in the passage as long as she has a male authority
figure over her. But why then would Paul not be assigning women to such
positions, seeing as he would be the male authority over them? It can be
logically deduced that Paul rejects the "umbrella theory" outright. Not
based upon culture or ability or such, but based upon what God has revealed
in the Genesis of the gender relationships it is inappropriate for women
to have such positions of authority over men.
By now I suspect many readers are in the "how can we get around
what the Bible says" mode. Given that the feminist culture
tends to be predominant in much of Christianity today, I purposely chose
such a passage to invoke such a reaction. Bad hermeneutics often comes
from a "how can we get around what the Bible says" type of mentality.
Popular theology is often in conflict with Biblical theology.
Here's an example of using the possible versus probable hermeneutic
to interpret an "ambiguous" verse.
Divorce = Adultery?
Mark 10:11,12 "Whoever divorces his
wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces
her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
While the verse seems clear enough to me, I was surprised to learn of a
number of theologians who hold a different interpretaton based upon the
meaning of "and". What does "and" mean? There are those who interpret "and"
to mean "or", as a listing of a number of different ways a person commits
adultery. In effect "Whoever divorces his wife or marries another
commits adultery" which is the same as "Whoever divorces his wife
commits adultery and whoever marries another woman commits adultery".
Or is "and" being used as a logical "and" as in (if (A and B) then C) [that's
&& for you software programmers] In this case it would mean
that adultery is committed only if a man both divorces his wife and marries
So we have two interpretations. Need we leave it at that? Certainly
not. Now we have to figure out which is more probable. First of
all we note that divorcing and remarrying are not unrelated. For a person
to remarry, they must logically first divorce out of a married situation.
Divorce preceeds remarriage. And so also in Jesus' statement the word "divorce"
preceeds "marries another". So far this supports the logical "and" concept.
Furthermore if Jesus meant "or" then why didn't he say "or" and eliminate
the ambiguity. The word in Greek "kai" is never translated "or". In fact
there is a special word in Greek "eite" which is used for situations of
"whether A or B" or "if A or if B", such as is used in 2Cor 1:6 for example.
But it isn't used here. Why? So again we see the logical "and" is supported
in this by the fact that Jesus could have phrased it differently if he
meant something else. Next is the issue of consistency with the rest of
the Bible concerning marriage. "Adultery" is normally thought of as involving
a sexual act with someone other than your legitimate spouse. But if we
interpret Mark to mean that he who doesn't remarry after divorce is nonetheless
still guilty of adultery even though there is no sex with others. Such
an interpretation has little consistency with the rest of the Bible. So
such an interpretation through grammatically possible is highly improbable.
What else can we learn from these verses? Does divorce nullify a marriage?
Do the divorced still have obligations towards their ex-spouse? If divorce
nullifies a marriage, then why would remarriage to someone else constitute
adultery? The logical deduction is that divorce does not nullify a marriage.
(See also Marriage, Divorce, and Adultery)
Now let's take an example from a theology which used to be popular, namely
Reformed Theology. And while I could deal with the issue of infant baptism,
I would like to deal with something even more fundamental, namely
Sin. The issue I would like to deal with is whether the guilt of Adam's
sin is imputed to all mankind. Does God hold people responsible for things
they have no control over, namely are we held responsible for what some
other guy did thousands of years before we were even born?
There is a division in the Christian community over this issue. Those
of an Augustinian-Calvinist background (namely Catholics and those of the
Reformed theology) hold that the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to us,
while many Arminians, varieties of evangelicals, and those of a Western
or Eastern Orthodox theology believe that though we have been affected
by Adam's sin, the guilt of Adam's sin in particular has not been imputed
What does the Bible have to say on this issue? First of all does it
say anything explicitly? While Adam is mention a few times in the New Testament,
the only times relevant to this issue are in 1Cor 15:22 and Romans
5:12-21. Let's deal first with 1Cor 15:22 "For
as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive." The
context of 1Corinthians 15 is dealing with physical death and physical
resurrection. We notice no mention of sin or guilt here. It's essentially
stating that humans die, but Christians shall be raised to life. As nothing
much more relevant to the subject can be derived explicitly from this verse
concerning the topic best to move on to the passage in Romans, where I've
done an exegetical analysis which can be found at http://www.bcbsr.com/books/rom5b.html.
But we're still left with some ambiguity. Some may read the passage and
conclude that guilt is imputed, while others like myself don't hold to
such an interpretation, even after a thorough analysis of the syntax.
However a stronger argument can be made when considering the implications
of each interpretation, and whether such implications are consistent with
the rest of the Bible. I included such an argument in that study guide
as well. For if God holds people responsible for things they have no control
over, then how is that consistent with how God speaks of His judicial nature
in the Bible? It simply isn't. Though I could digress further to entertain
armchair theologians. Or some would say that we were essentially a part
of Adam and therefore we were actually involved in committing the sin.
But God says, "Fathers shall not be put to death
for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is
to die for his own sin." Deuteronomy 24:16 If we're reckoned
guilty for our own sin and not our parent's sin, then it seems consistent
that neither are we reckoned guilty for Adam's sin. So there's a problem
with the internal consistency with the interpretation of imputed guilt.
And therefore the derivation of such an interpretation based solely upon
the passage in Romans may be grammatically possible but improbable especially
when considering what the rest of the Bible says.
Let's go on to another ambiguous verse, one which again deals with feminist
theology, namely Ephesians 5:21 "Submit
to one another out of reverence for Christ." Some maintain that
this verse advocates a mutual, egalitarian type of submission - the idea
that everyone submits to everyone else, which would include husbands submitting
to their wives and parents submitting to their children. Others like myself
understand this verse as "Submitting yourselves one to another",
as the King James puts it, in which "another" refers to legitimate authority
figures. Which is the correct interpretation? The syntax itself doesn't
help resolve this ambiguity in this case. But we need to consider three
other things, namely the meaning of the words in the verse, the context,
and the correlation or consistency with the rest of the Bible.
First is the word "submit". Submission is only used in relationship
with a recognized authority figure. But the question then is whether everyone
should recognized everyone else as their legitimate authority figure. So
let's move on to see whether the context specifies distinct authority figures
or it indicates that everyone should be recognized as a legitimate authority
Verse 22 goes on to say, "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."
Does it go on to say "husbands submit to your wives"? No it doesn't. Furthermore
it goes on to say in Eph 6:1 "Children, obey your parents in the Lord."
Does it go on to say "Parents obey your children"? No it does not. And
furthermore it goes on to say in Eph 6:5, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters."
Does it go on to say "Masters obey your slaves"? No it does not. So the
context does not support the "mutual submission" concept.
What about correlation with the rest of the Bible or in particular with
regards to the New Testament commands? No where does it affirm for example
for a husband to submit to his wife. In fact it contradicts the above analysis
of 1Timothy 2:11-14. But also notice for example in Colossians 3:
18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as
is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do
not be harsh with them.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything,
for this pleases the Lord.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children,
or they will become discouraged.
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters
The positions of "wife", "child", and "slave" are never spoken of as
positions of authority over "husbands", "parents", or "masters". And what
of the Old Testament? Isaiah speaks of the shameful condition of Israel
saying, "As for My people, children are their
oppressors, And women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause
you to err, And destroy the way of your paths." Is 3:12
So while it may be argued that the "mutual submission" concept is a
possibility based upon the syntax of Eph 5:21 alone, yet it is not a possibility
based upon the semantics, the context and the continuity with the rest
of the Bible.
Applying the Old Testament
Often there is confusion between what is considered interpretation and
what is considered application. This is especially the case when
applying the Old Testament to the Christian life. Often Christians who
say that they interpret a passage to mean such and such, really mean that
they apply the principle or principles found in that passage in such and
such a manner. While the Bible has only one correct interpretation, namely
that which the author intended, yet it has many applications, to which
the author is pointing or which can be inferred from the interpretation.
Getting Paid for Ministry
For example take Deuteronomy 25:4 "Do not
muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." This pretty
much means what it says. The interpretation is very easy. The Jews under
the law were not allowed to put a muzzle on their ox when farming. In other
words it is allowed to eat the grain it is treading out. But does this
not speak of a broader principle which could be applied? Indeed twice the
apostle Paul quotes this verse to justify the idea of Christian ministers
getting paid for their services. For example Paul writes:
1Corinthians 9:9,10 For it is written
in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the
grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says
this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when
the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the
hope of sharing in the harvest.
This is what may be called an Allegorical Application. In
applying this verse, the ox represents the Christian minister, and its
treading out the grain is the work of the ministry. Eating the grain is
receiving some material benefit from the ministry.
Just to digress on Paul's point, he mentions this to show that he has
the right to get paid, but in verse 15 he says, "But
I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope
that you will do such things for me." For he was teaching Christians
to give up personal rights in order to serve God better.
Let's trying another one. As we saw above what Genesis says of Adam and
Eve can be applied to the role relationships between men and women today.
Jesus also makes use of them in speaking on divorce and the issue of serial
polygamy. But let's use the same princples of interpretation that Jesus
and Paul used concerning the Adam and Eve story and see if we can say something
First of all in his argument concerning divorce and remarriage Jesus
quotes two verses from Genesis, namely Genesis 1:27 and Genesis
5:2 saying, "Have you not read that He who
made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’and said,
‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined
to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Matthew
19:4,5 Thus we can say that God's intention was for marriage to be
between a man and a woman, which is inherent in the gender differences
between Adam and Eve. And so throughout the Bible all examples of marriages
are between a man and a woman. So also we can infer from the phrase "the
two shall become one flesh" that sex was to be limited to the
marriage relationship. Of course there are many cross references to validate
such an interpretation that homosexuality has no place in the practice
of Biblical Christianity. But the point here is when you're reading the
Old Testament, ask yourself not only what is God saying, but what is the
principle behind what is being said. And then go on to derive applications
from those principles.
Now here's an allegorical application held by those of a Reformed Theology,
which is dubious, namely given that in the Old Testament babies entered
into the Old Covenant through circumsion, babies of believers enter the
New Covenant through water baptism. Infant baptism, theologically known
as padeobaptism, I often refer to as a form of Unbeliever's Baptism in
contrast with believer's baptism which the Bible advocates. For inherent
in infant baptism is the fact that the infant's faith or lack thereof has
nothing to do with their baptism. They're getting baptized, and being reckoned
"Christian" not because of their faith, but because of their close genetic
relationship with a "believer", namely their parent.
From the Westminster Larger Catechism (Reformed Theology)
Question 165: What is Baptism?
Answer: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ
has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself,
of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption,
and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized
are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and
professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's.
Question 166: Unto whom is Baptism to be administered?
However, baptism in the New Testament is always associate with faith in
Christ as a prerequisite, that is, the faith of the person getting baptized.
So also all the characteristics mentioned of Baptism in Question 165 of
the Westminister Catechism are only associated in the New Testament with
those who have faith in Christ. Never is there an example of an infant
being baptized, nor is it ever explicitly stated that infants of Christians
are infants are automatically saved, (nor even implied from my point of
Answer: Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the
visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they
profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descending
from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ,
and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be
But in speaking on this subject the Reformed Theologist John Calvin
the analogy between baptism and circumcision. For while circumsion
was the sign of the Old Covenant and Baptism of the New,
themselves are essentially different.
"Therefore, there is no difference in the inner mystery, by which
the whole force and character of the sacraments are to be weighed. What
dissimilarity remains lies in the outward ceremony, which is a very slight
factor, since the most weighty part depends upon the promise and the thing
signified. We therefore conclude that, apart from the difference in the
visible ceremony, whatever belongs to circumcision pertains likewise
to baptism." John Calvin
And so he concludes that since the faith of the baby being circumcized
is not relevant to his circumcision, so also the faith of babies being
baptized are not relevant to their baptism. Yet Calvin fails to realize
among other things that the New Covenant is different than the Old in this
matter of faith. One of the verses he uses to support his theology is the
Matt 19:14 But Jesus said, "Let
the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is
the kingdom of heaven."
But this verse is actually saying the opposite of what Reformed Theology
teaches. For it doesn't presume that such infants are already saved. Nor
does it make their salvation contingent upon their parents.
that if children out of their free will chose to follow Christ, then let
them follow Christ. It has nothing to do with baptizing babies.
Furthermore Calvin often contradicts himself on the issue saying for example,
"You will therefore speak most aptly if you call baptism the sacrament
of penance, since it has been given to those who are intent on repentance
as a confirmation of grace and a seal of assurance." But who is he
to say that the babies being baptized under Reformed Theology are intent
at all on repenting? A single unrepentent Presbyterian baptized as an infant
would disprove that.
Other than trying to make the general analogy between circumcision and
baptism, Calvin provides little scriptural support for his theory of infant
baptism. It's an example of bad theology and arguably a false gospel. (See
also Infant Baptism)
There are of course a multitude of examples of verses in which people may
derive conflicting interpretations. But while there may be many "possible"
interpretations given a particular verse standing alone, yet the objective
of Bible study is to discover what is the one probable interpretation which
the author had in mind.
The Holy Spirit's Role
Just as atheists feel that it's intuitively obvious that God doesn't exist,
while Christians feel it's intuitively obvious that God does exist, so
also as I said at the start what seems an intuitively obvious interpretation
from one person's point of view may not be intuitively obvious from another's.
Intuition is a function of our spirit. And so is being directed by our
conscience. And it is through our conscience and intuition we may derived
applications from passages which may not be speaking in an explicit manner.
But bad Bible study often come from an unhealthy conscience or an unhealthy
intuition. The health of these are a function of our relationship with
God's Holy Spirit. It says, "When He, the Spirit
of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth;" John
16:31 But the Spirit uses the Word of God to do so. It opens our mind
to understand, our intuition to derive applications, and directs our conscience
to obey. While hermeneutics can be described as a science with specific
principles, yet no matter how "educated" a person in such a science, it
is one's relationship with God which has a major effect on how one interprets
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