Hermeneutics can be simply defined as the science of interpretation. It can be applied to the interpretation of any sort of literature, but is used often to speak of interpreting the Bible. The term comes from the Greek god Hermes, who was the messenger god responsible for delivering messages between gods and men.
When it comes to the Bible, individuals should use the proper “hermeneutic” when attempting to study and understand it. In this post, I would like to submit to you five determinations you should make, as well as five steps you should take, when studying Scripture.
1. Determine the author
The Bible is a series of books, letters, poems, etc. composed by close to forty different human authors (each, of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit). While under the inspiration of the Spirit, the individual experiences and personalities of these authors certainly comes through at times. Therefore it is important to know who wrote the portion of Scripture you are studying.
For example, Matthew was Jewish and Luke was most likely Gentile. Therefore Matthew references the Old Testament much more than Luke. Luke was also a physician, so he uses medical terminology. The more we can know about an author, the more we can understand the way they thought and therefore better interpret their writing.
2. Determine the audience
Newsflash: the Bible was not written to you. It was written to and for people living a long time ago in completely different cultures than ours. So what we have to do as interpreters is put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience.
For example, the prophetic books of the Old Testament were written to a people being oppressed by foreign nations (such as Assyria and Babylon). The letters of 1 and 2 Peter were written to Christians suffering because of their bold faith in Christ. Many other New Testament letters are occasional, meaning they were written to address a specific situation. Knowing this background will greatly enhance our understanding of the Bible.
3. Determine the genre
Genre refers to the type of literature, such as history, narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, or apocalyptic, just to name a few you can find in the Scriptures. You wouldn’t read a love letter the same way you would read a comic book, and in the same way, you don’t interpret poetry the same way you interpret an epistle. There are rules for interpreting different types of literature, and they must be followed.
For example, Jesus tells lots of parables in the gospels, and they must be interpreted properly. We must understand that they are fiction stories, but at the same time stories that could be true. The reason Jesus used parables is so that everyone could easily relate to the point He was making.
4. Determine the canonical context
The books of the Bible were placed in a certain order for a reason. In the Old Testament, all of the wisdom books are placed together, as well as all of the prophetic books. In the New Testament, all of the gospels are together, as well as all of Paul’s letters.
I do need to point out that the English canon (order) of the Old Testament is different than the Hebrew canon (called the Tanakh). The Hebrew Old Testament ends with Chronicles rather than Malachi, and some of the wisdom books are in different places. The small book of Ruth is an interesting example. In the English canon that you are probably familiar with, Ruth follows Judges, because it is set in the time of the Judges. But in the Hebrew canon, Ruth follows Proverbs, and some have suggested this is because she is a great example of the Proverbs 31 woman Solomon encourages his son to find.
Broadly speaking, it is important to consider whether you are reading in the Old or New Testament. Also, ask yourself if what you are reading was written before or after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
5. Determine the boundaries of the text
Especially when preparing to teach or preach on a given passage, it is vital to determine where that passage begins and ends. Words and phrases only have meaning within their context, so knowing that context and the boundaries of your passage is important.
1. Make observations and ask questions
When I sit down to read a passage, this is the first thing I do. If I want to know what it means, I need to observe what it is saying and ask questions that, when I go to find their answers, will help me better ascertain its meaning. Some of these questions are the ones mentioned above: who is the author? who is the audience? If Paul says “they” did this, who does “they” refer to?
Some of the best questions to ask are questions from the world of journalism: who? what? when? where? why? how? If you can answer these questions, you will be on you way to understanding the text.
Also, it is important to make observations. Take note if the same word is used multiple times in a few verses, or even throughout an entire book. If this is the case, it is probably an important word that you should investigate further.
2. Understand the structure and surrounding context
Determination #5 above involved the boundaries of a passage. While that will provide you with your main text for deriving meaning, it cannot be isolated from what comes before or after it. In the New Testament, the word “therefore” is used a lot. It means, “because of what was just said, therefore this…” So if you don’t know what was just said, you’re going to miss the point.
Another way of putting it is this: understand how the specific passage you are studying fits into the flow of the book’s argument. The best way to do this is to read and study an entire book from beginning to end. This is better than jumping into the middle and having scramble to figure out the book’s structure and flow.
3. Find the meaning of the text
Finally! Finally it is time to figure out what this passage means. You do this by seeking answers to all of the questions you have asked (step #1) and putting them together with your observations and fitting it into the flow of the book as a whole.
I must stop and say this here: every text has one, and only one, meaning. And that meaning doesn’t lie with you, the reader; you don’t get to determine the meaning. The meaning lies with the intent of the original author(s) (human and divine). So our goal is not to create meaning but to ascertain what meaning the original author was attempting to convey. This is why determinations 1 and 2 above are so important. If we know who the author is, who they were writing to, and what situation they were addressing, finding the meaning will be much easier.
To be honest with you, this is hard work and you will probably need help. That’s why Bible scholars have produced resources such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Bible atlases, and other interpretive tools. Of course, the ultimate author of the Scriptures is the Holy Spirit, and if you are a Christian He is residing in you and will guide you as you seek to find the meaning of God’s Word.
4. Find the theology of the text
After we find the meaning of the text, we can then find its theology—what does it say about God, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit and about us, mankind? Be careful, because theology is not application. Application is very specific, while theology is broad and timeless. What a text teaches us about Jesus will never change. How that applies to you or me in our own situations may differ slightly.
5. Find the applications of the text
Sadly, when most people read the Bible, they want to jump straight to this step without doing any of the other work. But you can’t arrive at the proper applications of a text until you first know its meaning and theology. Application is taking the original meaning of a text, as well as the timeless and universal theology of a text, and making it relevant to your unique and specific situation. Because of what you understand a text is saying, and because of what it teaches you about God, you may feel compelled to do X or to change Y about yourself.
All too often, people are convinced that the Bible is leading them to do X, but they are off the mark because they jump straight to application without truly understanding a text’s meaning and theology.
I know…All you want to do is sit down and read the Bible for five or ten minutes. You don’t want to take the time to work your way through all that I have mentioned above. But let me challenge you: Take the time, do the hard work, and get it right.