Bible - Interpretation

1 - Is Your 'Hermeneutical House' a Safe Place to Live?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The principles and methodology of hermeneutics are like the unseen supports of a house. Doctrinal safety requires sound support.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part one of a series. Adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism.1

The principles and methodology of hermeneutics are like the unseen supports of a house - the foundation under the basement, the wood inside the walls. If we employ sound principles carefully and consistently, our system of doctrine will be sound. Spiritually speaking, our doctrine will be a house that is a safe one in which to live.

Imagine for a moment that you own a house, and have been living in it happily for many years. But something strange has happened to the house. From time to time through the years, cracks have appeared in the basement floor and walls. Perhaps you've had to patch them because water came in through the cracks when it rained. You've also noticed cracks from time to time in your living room walls. Perhaps you've had to plaster them and re-paint the room to keep those fissures from becoming unsightly. Or, perhaps you've gotten tired of patching and painting and decided to cover the whole problem with wallpaper instead.

But then, you begin to notice that some of the windows and doors aren't opening or closing as easily as they once did because the frames aren't quite straight anymore. Pictures that once hung perfectly have developed an annoying tendency to hang askew. And, new cracks have appeared in the basement and in the living room. One day you look across your living room and see that one wall is noticeably crooked. You decide it's time to find out what is causing all this.

You call a home repair company and they send someone out to investigate. After checking things carefully, the company representative comes to you with alarming news: Your foundation has been severely damaged by water seepage, and the wood inside the walls of your house has been badly eaten by termites. Your house, although it appears to be sound, is actually in danger of collapse. It is no longer safe for you to live there.

The Importance of Sound Hermeneutics

What does our house illustration have to do with the subject of this series, Biblical hermeneutics? The discipline of hermeneutics consists of the principles that one employs, and the science of applying those principles, to correctly understand the meaning of the Scriptures. The principles and methodology of hermeneutics are like the unseen supports of a house - the foundation under the basement, the wood inside the walls. The house - the part that we see - is the interpretation of the Scriptures, and the system of doctrine we derive from that interpretation.

If the interpretive principles and methodology we employ are sound, and we employ them carefully and consistently, our system of doctrine will be sound. Our system of doctrine will be correctly derived from the words of Scripture. We will believe the right things, because we will believe what God really says. Spiritually speaking, our doctrine will be a house that is safe for us to live in.

But if sound interpretive principles and methodology are being gradually undermined, our system of doctrine will be increasingly unsound. It will not be correctly derived from the words of Scripture. We will believe the wrong things, because we are being deceived. Spiritually speaking, we will be living in a house that is increasingly in danger of collapse. If we go on living in that house, we will do so at the peril of our souls.

What Are Sound Principles of Interpretation?

What are sound principles of interpretation? One of the great truths reclaimed at the Reformation was the principle of sola scriptura - "Scripture alone." The issue before the Reformers was this: Shall Christians interpret Scripture on the basis of the often-conflicting pronouncements and traditions of the fallible (and often corrupt) rulers of the Roman Catholic Church, or shall we interpret the Scriptures based solely on the only infallible authority - the Word of God itself? The Reformers rightly concluded that Scripture alone can be trusted to serve as its own interpreter. Our attitude toward Scripture will drive our principles of interpretation.

The principle of sola scriptura is essential to sound hermeneutics. Employment of this principle led to the further development of what theologians call the grammatical-historical method for interpreting Scripture.

Use of the grammatical-historical method is not confined to Scripture. Its principles apply to any kind of literature. In his classic book on the subject, nineteenth century theologian Milton S. Terry stated the most fundamental elements:

The grammatico-historical sense of a writer is such an interpretation of his language as is required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history. Sometimes we speak of the literal sense, by which we mean the most simple, direct, and ordinary meaning of phrases and sentences. By this term we usually denote a meaning opposed to the figurative or metaphorical. The grammatical sense is essentially the same as the literal, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin. But in English usage the word grammatical is applied rather to the arrangement and construction of words and sentences. By the historical sense we designate, rather, the meaning of an author's words that is required by historical considerations. It demands that we consider carefully the time of the author, and the circumstances under which he wrote....

A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.2

These principles apply, whether one is reading the Bible, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, or today's news. But when we are dealing with Scripture, our use of grammatical-historical principles is governed by an additional, overriding principle: that Scripture alone is the Word of God. This leads us to apply grammatical-historical principles in Scripture-directed ways:

  1. Because Scripture alone is the inspired Word of God, every word having been authored by the Holy Spirit, Scripture is its only infallible and authoritative interpreter. No word of fallible man can stand in authority over the infallible Word.
  2. Scripture is intelligible. God meant to communicate truth to man through the words of the Bible, in a manner that man can understand. God did not communicate in an analogous or indirect fashion. God communicated His own thoughts directly, and man can understand them because he is made in God's image.
  3. Because it is the infallible Word of God, Scripture is internally consistent. God is consistent. With Him there are no contradictions or paradoxes. If we think we see paradox or inconsistency in Scripture, we are looking at God's Word improperly. God cannot lie.
  4. Because God meant to communicate truth, and because Scripture is internally consistent, the words of Scripture have only one meaning in context. There may be multiple legitimate applications of a passage of Scripture, but a passage has only one meaning in context. This is what it means to interpret Scripture according to its literal, or normal, sense. Literal interpretation is not a "wooden" interpretation of words without regard to their surroundings. In literature of all kinds, the literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense; in other words, the meaning the writer actually expressed. In the case of the Bible, the grammatical-historical sense is the meaning that God intended to express, communicating through human writers. Interpretation according to the literal sense takes into account the Holy Spirit's use of figures of speech and literary forms (narrative, history, poetry, instruction, etc.) found in the text and the ways in which the same words and phrases are used in various portions of Scripture.
  5. We are to employ passages in Scripture that are more clear on a particular subject to interpret those that are less clear, never vice versa.
  6. We must always remember that the Bible we hold in our hands is a translation. It is important for ministers of the church to examine the words of Scripture in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) and in their historical and cultural setting in order to accurately understand their meaning in context and to properly translate them into other languages, thus accurately communicating God's truth.
  7. Extra-Biblical resources, such as language helps, commentaries, the writings of the so-called church fathers, and archaeological and scientific evidences, can be useful resources in correctly interpreting Scripture. But since they are the words and works of fallible men they are not authoritative. These resources and evidences must never be placed in a position of authority over Scripture itself, nor allowed to obscure the fact that God is the author of every word of the Bible. And, where Scripture and human scholarship come into conflict, our attitude must always be, "Let God's truth be inviolate, though every man becomes thereby a liar" (Romans 3:20).3

Dear reader, how is your "hermeneutical house"? How is it with your church, your seminary, or Bible college? Satan has arrayed many forces to undermine sound Biblical interpretation in our time, and thereby to undermine sound doctrine. In future articles in this series we shall examine some of those threats, and God's answer to them.

Next: Liberalism's "Hermeneutic of Trust"

References:

  1. The material in this series is adapted from chapter eight of Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2005). This book is available in our online Resource Store.

  2. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (Hunt & Eason, 1890; reprinted by Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 1999), 101, 103.

  3. Robert Reymond gives this translation of the verse in his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998) 754.

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