Apologies for being away for more than a week. Thanks for being a reader and for hanging in there through blog hacks and workloads.
As we start winding down this look at equipping the saints, let’s talk about hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is NOT the fan club of the father on The Munsters. It’s the theory behind how to properly interpret. While the word hermeneutic may be associated with other fields of study, it gets its workout in the field of interpreting the Bible. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, biblical hermeneutics.
If you’ve been a Christian long enough, you’ve encountered both good and bad biblical hermeneutics. The classic example of bad hermeneutics is the fellow who decides he wishes to hear from God and chooses as his oracle to let his Bible flop open, followed by him blindly dropping a finger on the open page. The first verse that comes up is Matthew 27:5, wherein Judas hanged himself. Unnerved, the guy lets his Bible flop and ends up on Luke 10:37, where Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” In a near panic, the guy tries one last time and comes up with John 13:27, which admonished, “Whatever you are going to do, do quickly.”
We laugh, but I’m certain each of us has encountered this kind of application and interpretation of the Bible, not just by those new to the Faith but also by teachers, pastors, preachers, and leaders who should know better.
If we are going to truly equip a generation to be strong in the knowledge of the Bible, we have to have a solid biblical hermeneutic.
Here are my top ten suggestions on how to interpret the Bible properly:
1. Always ask the Holy Spirit to be your guide. One of the reasons the Holy Spirit was given by God is to help us understand God’s words to us. If we ask God for His Spirit’s guidance in understanding the Bible, He will be faithful to provide it. Not enough of us make this plea, and it is one reason why we have so many weird Bible interpretations out there.
2. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. The Bible is a coherent whole. God is wise enough to know how it comes together, so He can help us see that unity. If we come to the Bible with an agenda or with the latest nonfiction title from Oprah’s book club in our other hand, we’re going to let those doing the interpreting for us. So many people fall down at this stage that I would advise “Let the Bible interpret the Bible” be stamped in large letters on every Bible printed.
3. The Bible has two distinct testaments, Old and New—and that’s for a very good reason! Whenever New Testament Christians begin to read the Bible through Old Testament lenses rather than New, error crouches at the door. It boggles my mind how many Christians attempt to resurrect Old Testament practices and make them “new,” even though those old practices were fulfilled in Christ. More often than not, the Church suffers for this, as people attempt to live by the Law and not by the Gospel of Grace. If I had my way, every new Christian would spend a full year in study of the New Testament book of Galatians before ever being allowed to read one page out of the Old Testament. Whenever I hear a teaching meant for the Church today and it spends the vast majority of its time in the Old Testament, the flags go up. Be very careful on this, as confusing the Testaments makes for deadly cases of damnable legalism. This is not to say that the Old Testament does not speak to modern Christians, only that what it says must be interpreted through the reality of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God as revealed through Jesus.
4. Thou shalt not build entire systematic theologies on a single verse. If God really wants to command us to do something or show us how to live, He’s going to do so more than once. Some of the wackiest things Christians do comes from some leader’s weird interpretation of a single verse, usually taken out of…
5. Context, context, context! When verses are taken out of their full context, they can be made to say anything. Witness again the poor fool with the floppy Bible and errant finger. Context is king! I recent had the displeasure to hear someone talking about Jesus’ sole “command to tithe” in Matthew 23:23, as it seems that Jesus is praising the Pharisees for tithing their spices. That this passage occurs within a litany of condemnations Jesus calls down on the heads of those same Pharisees, the poster children for doing it wrong and missing the real heart of the Lord, should give us pause. Context begins with the whole of Scripture and trickles down through the testaments, the books, the chapters, and the scenes (but never to the verses alone). I would even offer that for some books of the Bible context should never go lower than the whole book. The epistles (letters of Paul and other writers) of the New Testament are meant to be read in their entirety and should be understood in that larger context.
6. Beware of numbers. I don’t mean the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, but any teaching that makes enormous use of the numbers of the Bible. Some of the worst theology, especially related to end times predictions, has been concocted by people attempting to string together numbers in the Bible. For instance, I have heard numerous teachings over the years on the “number of completion in the Bible,” with the only problem being that each teacher chose a different number: 3, 7, 10, 12, 40, 100, 1,000, and 144,000. Such exercises are more likely manmade than God-inspired, as tossing around numbers is a sure way for a “Bible expert” to appear “deep.” Numbers are what they are, and attempts to read too much into them can lead to some seriously goofy teachings, especially when trying to make them say something within a teaching agenda. (A glaring exception to this is the Trinity, but even then, I would be wary of always associating anything with the number 3 back to God. I mean, Paul asked God three times to take away his thorn, but I don’t think I’d carve in stone that he was addressing a different person in the Trinity each time!)
7. While the Bible is timeless, culture is not. This can be a fine line for people and creates the most arguments as to WHAT GOD REALLY INTENDS™. For the serious Bible student (which, honestly, should be every Christian!), it pays to understand the cultural context of the times in which the Bible was written. When God says he doesn’t want trees near His altars (Deut. 16:21-22, and elsewhere), it pays to understand why, especially if we wish to see if that reasoning is based in culture. When Paul tells the Corinthians that women should always wear a head covering when praying and prophesying, is His admonition culturally mandated or not? Why? (Evidently, we think it is a product of the times, since rarely do I see today’s women covering their hair in church as commanded by Paul.) Be very careful, though, to avoid confusing timeless truths with cultural ones, as that confusion is often used by moral relativists to justify all manner of sin. Such sins as lying, pride, and sexual perversion are always wrong, no matter the cultural context, and the Bible will always bear this out.
8. No matter who a Bible teacher might be, always be discerning. Paul praised the Bereans for not taking him strictly on his word, factchecking him against the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11). That kind of healthy skepticism is missing in the lives of too many Christians, as millions readily fail to check if what they are hearing is really true. Honestly, in my own life, I start with the assumption that what I am hearing is suspect until proven otherwise by the dual testimony of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of the Scruptures, and that reasoning has not failed me in nearly 35 years of walking with the Lord.
9. Use multiple translations of the Bible when examining passages, especially ones that are not immediately clear. Some Bible companies offer parallel Bibles that include multiple versions/translations side by side for comparison. Chronological bibles are fascinating tools to help readers see how books like the Psalms or Jeremiah fall into the context of books like Kings or Chronicles. The Amplified Bible is an interesting attempt to expand the meaning of certain Hebrew and Greek words and phrases (though I would NOT recommend it as an everyday reading Bible), which can help illuminate the text. I believe that English-speakers will be well off with a literal translation (such as King James, New American Standard, or English Standard versions), a dynamic equivalency (which tries for literal phrasing, if not word for word—the New International Version is fine), and a paraphrase (such as the New Living Translation or the NT-only New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips).
10. Don’t just read the Bible, study it! And use good reference books, too. A devotional reading of the Bible will not help us understand it fully. Such a technique may help us find comfort in its words, but there is much that lies below the surface, and it pays to root out the deeper truths. Many good reference books exist (I use a bunch of old, dusty ones that are no longer in print, but excellent contemporary helps are available), so do a little comparative shopping and talk with people whose spiritual lives you wish to emulate. I’m sure they can recommend books that can help them. (One newer book I recommend on this topic of proper hermeneutics is How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.) Every student of the Bible should have a good concordance (for looking up words in verses), Bible dictionary, and Bible commentary (or three) as a means for study.
These ten suggestions do not comprise the whole of good hermeneutical technique, so I would encourage you to delve deeper into the topic of how to properly read and interpret the Bible. With so many bad teachers and preachers out there today, wisdom dictates that being properly equipped demands more of us than simply nodding our heads in unison to whatever some guy with moussed hair, brilliant dentition, and a Brooks Brothers suit tells us to believe.
Finally, why did I choose to label this post “How to Have a Sweet Hermeneutic”? Because when we truly know how to handle God’s word correctly, we’ll enjoy this:
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
And in the end, isn’t that what every believers truly desires?