Equipping the Saints: How to Have a Sweet Hermeneutic

Standard

The Bible, old school style...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!
—Psalms 119:103

And in the end, isn’t that what every believers truly desires?

11 thoughts on “Equipping the Saints: How to Have a Sweet Hermeneutic

  1. David

    Good one, and timely, I’m doing some hermeneutics tonight for our small group. It’s eye-opening how different translations change our view of what is written…delving into Greek, Latin and Hebrew becomes even more fun. It’s easy to come to a full and complete stop, toss everything and walk away without the presence of the “Helper”. God’s Spirit can get us through the most tortuous route, but we have to be in constant and close contact to be able to hear Him. Pray, pray, pray. “Not my words but thine be spoken.”

    • David,

      I have always trusted the Holy Spirit for that A-HA! moment. I think His best work of revelation is to make the Scriptures pop and come alive. I will always be thankful for His teaching me that the snow in Isaiah 55:10-11 passage is the word of the Lord unmelted atop the believer’s heart. It is not until the heat is on that the snow melts and sinks into the soil, from which life will come.

      I wish I could have written a more in-depth piece on this issue, but I think this will have to suffice. It’s more about good exegesis than hermeneutics, but the two are so closely bound up they might as well be the same thing.

  2. Brian

    Dan,

    I second the Fee and Stuart book recommendation. The exegesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan alone is worth the price of the book.

    Living by the Book by Howard and William Hendricks is also a good guide. That’s the book we used in my district’s ministry school for the intro to hermeneutics class.

    Another story similar to the one you cited:

    Farmer Brown and Farmer Smith were talking after morning worship at their small rural church. Farmer Brown was asking Farmer Smith how his farm was being so profitable, while Farmer Brown was struggling, and was behind on his mortgage and equipment loans.

    Farmer Smith told his friend, “Two years ago, I prayed and asked God to show me the direction I should take the business. I opened my Bible and started reading. The passage was about sheep. So I bought a small herd. As you know, we had a nasty cold front from Canada that winter. I made a killing in the wool market.”

    Farmer Smith continued, “Since that first year went so well, I figured I’d ask the Lord to help me again. So spring of last year, I prayed again and asked God to show me what to do on the farm. I opened my Bible and started reading. The Scriptures were talking about wheat. So I planted wheat. We had good weather and a good crop here. But out in Oklahoma a lot of wheat farmers lost their crops to hail from a series of thunderstorms. So the price of wheat went up due to short supply. I made another nice profit.”

    “This year, I repeated the process, and I feel the Lord is showing me to raise cows. I’m expecting the beef market to do me good.”

    Farmer Brown replied, “Thanks for your advice. I’m going to do that as soon as I get home. Maybe God will show me what to do with the farm.”

    Farmet Brown went home, knelt down, and prayed. “Oh Lord, I need help! Please show me which direction I should go with this farm business.” He then opened his Bible and pointed his finger at the page.

    Chapter 11

  3. Dan – Amen.

    “1. Always ask the Holy Spirit to be your guide.”

    John 6:45
    It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God.

    Deuteronomy 4:36
    Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice,
    that he might instruct thee:

    Psalms 32:8
    I will instruct thee and teach thee
    in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.

    John 14:26
    But the Comforter, [which is] the Holy Ghost,
    whom the Father will send in my name,
    he shall teach you all things…

    John 16:13
    Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come,
    he will guide you into all truth…

    1 John 2:20
    Ye have an *unction from the Holy One, and ye *know all things.
    *unction = anointing – *know = perceive, discern, discover.

    1 John 2:26-27
    These [things] have I written unto you
    concerning them that seduce you.
    But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you,
    and ye need not that any man teach you:
    but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things,
    and is truth, and is no lie…

    Proverbs 16:9
    A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

    Psalms 25:8-9
    Good and upright [is] the LORD:
    therefore will he teach sinners in the way.
    The meek will he guide in judgment:
    and the meek will he teach his way.

    Isaiah 30:1
    Woe to the rebellious children, saith the LORD,
    that take counsel, (advice) but not of me;
    and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit,

    Matthew 23:8
    But be not ye called Rabbi: (teacher)
    for one is your Master, [even] Christ;

    Isaiah 54:13
    And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD…

  4. Good suggestions. I always try to keep in mind Greg Koukl’s phrase of “never read a Bible verse.” Which is a combination of your fourth and fifth points.

    It’s easy to do, but it can be dangerous to pull a verse out of context. Often times we lose the broader significance, but we can even lose the specific point of the verse.

    • e. barrett,

      I recall a teaching where the teacher did nothing but string together verses that fit his preconceived agenda. It made it sound as if the Bible was saying something it most definitely did not support. It was utterly awful. But the people in the seats ate it up and never questioned the guy’s hermeneutic. Fact is, I’ve experienced many teachings like that in my lifetime as a Christian, and I have always been flabbergasted that people will nod their heads in agreement at the “profundity” of a teaching based on verses lifted out of context. What is particularly galling is that the contradiction to such teachings is often found in the very next verses that follow the one’s quoted! But people won’t read farther on, so they miss it. Nor will they challenge the teaching. Perhaps that explains much about the state of belief and discipleship in this country.

  5. Dan you made some excellent points and I’d like to pick up on one issue.
    How often does our reading and study hinge upon VERSES of scripture? That also goes for a lot of preaching, where the speaker will start with A TEXT and use that as a springboard for his topic.
    And when we check someone’s teaching against scripture, how often do we go beyond looking up the individual verses that he quoted and actually SEARCH the scriptures to see whether the teaching is valid?
    Chapters and verses are late additions to the bible and are not part of the inspired word of God. They were added for (alleged) convenience; but how many other books and letters do we come across that isolate and number every sentence? So much of our reading and understanding has been dictated by those manmade additions.

    One of the most profitable bibles I own has removed all chapter and verse divisions leaving each book as a whole text. Its format makes it much easier to appreciate context.
    It also groups the books into a more logical sequence for example Paul’s letters are in chronological order instead of according to length.

    Did I say I wanted to pick up on ONE issue? Well maybe I meant TWO!

    I have found it to be essential that we turn to scripture FIRST trusting the Holy Spirit to be our teacher. It is so easy to put our trust in men’s teaching and let them do the work for us and THEN turn to scripture as a secondary resource.

    In the past I found myself led into all manner of questionable things by taking the latter course. When I did take time to approach scripture first I became confused because what I was reading seemed to contradict what I had been taught.
    Eventually I became confident enough to trust what I was reading over what I was being told when I found the Lord giving me confirmation from various sources that I wasn’t on the wrong track.
    However it is surprising how many people become hostile when I suggest that we should trust the Holy Spirit to be our teacher above any man. It seems like many are so devoted to their pet theologies that they would rather cling to man’s teaching about scripture than trust the one who inspired its writing.

    • Onesimus,

      I agree wholeheartedly with everything you just said.

      I routinely read from the J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testement, which removes the verse numbering. The personal Bible study program that I advocate recommends reading its books as whole entities. I think the only book in the Bible with a usable granularity at the verse level is Proverbs, and even then not all of Proverbs functions best at that level.

      A.W. Tozer long said that no one who comes to the Bible fresh can come away a cessationist. Yes and amen. And it’s not just that one issue that is often undone by depending on teachers first over the Holy Spirit. (I have long wondered why the passages in Acts 2 and 4 that talk about “no one counted anything as his own” and the communal way the early Church lived are routinely ignored in our churches today. And I believe it’s solely because we fail to let those verses stand on their own apart from our preconceived notions of how we should live in America 2009.) I think teachers work best as a help for understanding the historical and cultural contexts of Scripture, but I don’t believe that that is the Holy Spirit’s primary intent. He wants the Scriptures to work in a way that draws people to Jesus, not simply to fill their heads with the cultural mores of 1st century Palestine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.