The word hemeneutics comes from the greek word, hermeneia (ἑρμηνεα), which means "interpretation” or “explanation." This is not strictly a theological word, but is used to communicate how something is to be accurately understood. We see the concept of biblical hermeneutics most clearly represented in Paul’s second letter to the young pastor Timothy.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
The phrase “rightly handling” (ESV) or “accurately handling” (NASB) comes from a single Greek word, orthotomunta (ὀρθοτομοῦντα). It literally means to “cut straight,” or in this context, to “teach rightly.” As with anything propositional in nature, literature especially, there is a singular truth being communicated that can either be understood or misunderstood. The implication, then, is that Scripture can be handled (interpreted and taught) wrongly. This ultimately leads to a misunderstanding of the revelation of God, having various degrees of problems depending on the nature of the particular proposition (truth claim). There are traditionally four laws of biblical hermeneutics which originate from a consistent reading of what the Bible claims about who God is as well as what the Bible claims about itself. These laws help to ensure that distortions of the truth are prevented and that the student of Scripture clearly understands all God has revealed in His Word. The laws of biblical hermeneutics state that Scripture should be translated and taught literally, historically, grammatically, and contextually.
- The Bible is to be translated and taught literally.
This means that God’s Word says what it means and it means what it says. This law corresponds to a characteristic of the Bible known as the Perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture, which states that God does not have trouble communicating with us by His Word. While certain portions are more clear than others, it is because of its clarity that we are responsible to read it, understand it, and live accordingly. We are to understand the Bible in its normal or plain meaning, unless the passage is obviously intended to be symbolic or if figures of speech are used. Therefore, a literal approach to understanding the Bible prevents the over-allegorizing and over-spiritualizing of the biblical text. And, where Scripture does not plainly teach allegory and imagery, there can be no confident claim that such meanings were intended by God, the Holy Spirit.
For example, when the first two chapters of the Bible describe the creation of the heavens and the earth, along with all its inhabitants in 6 literal days, it is best understood to have been done in the span of 6 literal 24-hour periods. Not only are the days of creation never given a different meaning elsewhere in Scripture, the Hebrew word for day is only used to speak of a literal 24-hour day. If in fact the days of creation were figurative “days,” nothing would prevent any other element of creation from being figurative as well, from plants, animals, the Sabbath, even the Godhead itself.
- The Bible is to be translated and taught historically.
This means that the truth of Scripture is best comprehended in light of the understanding of the writer’s original audience. While the Bible’s central message of salvation and redemption is clear without such extra-biblical historical information, the fact remains God has providentially preserved His Word for all people in a book written directly to particular people in a particular place and time. This law corresponds to the characteristics of the Bible known as the Inerrancy and Infallibility of Scripture. Meaning that not only does God’s Word never err in anything it states, but it is incapable of making such an error. Therefore, a reading of the Bible informed by its historical background will always lead to a clearer understand God’s Word. Like law #4, this law of hermeneutics prevents a self-centered form of eisegesis, where the reader, despite the historical setting of a passage, inappropriately reads himself into the story or claims to have a more contemporary understanding of what God has revealed in His Word.
For example, In order to truly appreciate the significance of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan or His encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well, the reader must understand how first century Jews repudiated Samaritans. While Old Testament warnings of syncretism with such pagan peoples lay the groundwork for the tension that existed, little is done elsewhere in Scripture to detail for the reader how walls of hatred were erected on both sides and did nothing but harden for the next 550 years. The Samaritans would come to be known as “half-breeds,” in reference to intermarriage and religious compromise, and were universally despised by the Jews. It is inter-testamental history that bolsters our understanding and makes the truth of Scripture more clear and compelling.
- The Bible is to be translated and taught grammatically.
This means that in order to properly interpret and teach God’s Word, we must follow the rules of grammar and recognize the nuances of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek). As with law #2, we are confronted with God’s providence to preserve His revelation to certain people and in particular languages. This law of biblical hermeneutics corresponds to the characteristic of the Bible known as Verbal Inspiration, which states that each and every word of Scripture is breathed out by God, and men spoke and wrote in their own language as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Here we see another similarity to law #2; while the Bible’s central message is clearly discerned from a good translation of the Bible, certain portions contain a depth of understanding that gets lost in translation. The biblical Hebrew and Greek reveal theological truths that range in theological significance, from interesting to critical.
For example, when Paul writes in Titus of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”, the Granville Sharp rule in Koine Greek states that God and Savior are parallel terms and are both in apposition to Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul clearly calls Jesus “our great God.” This is significant confirmation of the deity of Jesus and is only recognizable with such clarity in the Greek according to Greek grammar.
- The Bible is to be translated and taught contextually.
This means that the student of Scripture must consider the larger context of a verse or a passage when determining the meaning. The context includes the verses immediately preceding and following, the chapter, the book, and, most broadly, the entire Bible. This law of hermeneutics corresponds to the characteristic of the Bible known as Plenary Inspiration of Scripture, which teaches that every portion of Scripture is all equally inspired by God and thus equally inerrant and authoritative. While our Bible contains 66 individual books/letters written by 39 different men over a period of 1,500 years, it is nonetheless a united revelation of God to humanity regarding who He is and how we are to be saved. In fact, Peter assures us that no prophesy has come from man but that men spoke and wrote as they were carried along by the sole author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit. That said, no doctrines can either be made or denied using isolated passages. Instead, the passage in question ought to be understood in light of everything else God has revealed about the subject in Scripture and all unclear passages ought to be understood in light of the clear, as God is consistent with Himself.
For example, the writer of Hebrews, in two passages in particular, Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-27, seems to indicate that apostasy is possible for the truly saved and their salvation can be forfeited. This is the honest, objective reading of these brief passages. However, in the case of each of these, the writer goes on in the same chapter to affirm the utter confidence the saints can have in regards to their salvation. Also, to prematurely come to a doctrinal conclusion from these isolated passages, would be to contradict the clear teaching that Christians simply cannot lose their salvation and for someone to apostatize simply reveals they were never truly among the elect.
Studying to properly interpret and teach Holy Scripture is a particularly intellectual exercise. A running theme throughout Scripture is the call for knowledge and understanding. And Paul writes in Romans that we be transformed by the renewing of our mind. However, Scripture also teaches that proper understanding and application of Scripture is intensely spiritual.
1 Corinthians 2:11-13 – For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
Only Christians can truly understand God’s Word, because only those who are filled with the Holy Spirit can have a saving knowledge of The Word, being convicted of its truth and compelled to obedience. This is the sovereign work of God, the work of regeneration and sanctification. Therefore, we must admit our dependence upon God to renew our minds and to give us ears that hear His Word to us and eyes that see its truth.