Biblical Hermeneutics

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 interpretation.

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 events.
 

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 look 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 "For" 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 another.

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)

Original Sin?

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 Original 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 to us.

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.

Mutual Submission?

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 figure.

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 in everything;

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.

Homosexuality

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 about homosexuality.

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.

Infant Baptism

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?
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 baptized.
 

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 view.)

But in speaking on this subject the Reformed Theologist John Calvin over-allegorizes the analogy between baptism and circumcision. For while circumsion was the sign of the Old Covenant and Baptism of the New, the covenants 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 following:
  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. It says 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)

Conclusion

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 the Bible.
The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources May 16,2013