Hermeneutics. Yes, hermeneutics.
For some Christians, they may know the study of hermeneutics from a theology book. For others, they may have never heard of it before. But most likely we all see the practice of hermeneutics on a daily basis in churches, at the workplace, in school, or even in personal Bible study. Think about if you have ever heard someone say something like…
“That verse really spoke to me. What does it mean to you?”
“Please turn in your Bibles to….”
“The New Testament reinterprets the Old Testament.”
“You can find Jesus in every verse!”
“Are you a Pre-, Post-, or Amillennialist?”
These are all reflections of one’s hermeneutics. Although we may glance over that word in a textbook or blog, it is actually a very important study in the Christian life. In fact, hermeneutics is the foundation of all Biblical study. It determines how you study your Bible, your exegesis, your theology, and how you apply Scripture to your life. If you have an incorrect understanding of your hermeneutics, you will have an incorrect understanding of your holiness. If this is wrong, then you will get the rest wrong!
So, what is it?
With hermeneutics being such an important part of biblical study and the Christian life, it is critical that it be understood for what it is. The word hermeneutic comes from the Greek word ἑρμηνεία (her-may-nei-a), which is defined as a translation, interpretation, or exposition. We see this word twice in the New Testament referring to the “interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:26). Essentially, the study of hermeneutics refers to the underlying principles of interpreting the accurate meaning of the word of God. Or in other words, hermeneutics answers the question, “How do I understand the meaning of Scripture?”
What’s the point?
When it comes to hermeneutics or “Bible interpretation,” there is a lot of good, bad, and ugly in the church and in the world. Depending on one’s approach of finding biblical meaning, Scripture could be horribly misused or misapplied. Especially in the 21st century, there is a flood of relativism and post-modernism that teaches how meaning is determined by the audience rather than the author. For example, recently a popular musician was asked about the meaning of her lyrics to one of her songs by a well-known actor. She answered, “It’s your interpretation of the song. I don’t want to project what I thought onto you.” The actor replied, “Well it would help to know what you thought.” This short correspondence is an example of how culture allows meaning, truth, and interpretation to be up for grabs. Truth is determined by the listener. Yet it only leads to confusion when you want to know what the author meant by what she said!
What we can see as a proper guiding principle for Christians as they study their Bibles is this: to understand the original and divine intent of the author to his audience. To comprehend the Bible, we must bridge that gap between the 21st century to the 1st century. The audience today must understand the author’s meaning to his original audience back then. By having this frame of mind, we are careful not to misapply the text and to believe what God truly meant when He wrote it.
How do I do it?
This leads to the biggest question, “How do I find the meaning of Scripture?” Now that we know what hermeneutics is and its goal, how do we put it into practice? I would suggest that the most accurate hermeneutic to understand the original and divine intent of the author to his audience is what’s called the Grammatical-Historical Method. The Grammatical-Historical Method deals with the context both inside and outside of the text through grammar, history, and culture. At its most basic form, this means you study the Bible through Observation, Interpretation, and Application. In movie terms, this is like the famous phrase, “Lights, Camera, Action!”
Observation. This is asking the questions of the text that we are all familiar with when growing up: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. As we observe what is going on in the passage, we are putting spotlights on the text. We are trying to notice every detail and bring it to light.
Interpretation. By interpretation, we seek the explanation and meaning of the text. Now that we have all the facts, what does it mean? After putting the spotlight on the verse, we now are angling the camera and positioning it so we can have a true picture of meaning and understanding.
Application. Having all the facts and understanding the meaning of the text, it is imperative that we do something about it! When the director of a movie has the perfect lighting and camera angles, he doesn’t stand still. He shouts, “Action!” so that the actors and actresses can play out the scene. Once we have observed and interpreted Scripture, we are not to remain idle lest our Bible study be an idol. Rather, we are to apply the text to our lives and live out our hermeneutics through our holiness.
So, this all comes back to the importance of hermeneutics in our lives. Whether you have studied it before or have never heard of it, we all practice it and see it used in some form on a daily basis. Although we ask the question, “What is hermeneutics?” the real question for us to answer is, “What is our hermeneutics and how do we practice it?” Ultimately, the answer to that question will determine how we understand and apply Scripture to our lives.
- Name some examples of how you have seen hermeneutics applied in your church, culture, and own life. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
- What are some Bible passages you have heard being misused because of bad hermeneutics?
- The Grammatical-Historical Method of interpretation requires Observation, Interpretation, and Application in practice. How do you study your Bible now? How do you come to understand the meaning of Scripture? Will you begin to study the Bible this way?
- Read 2 Timothy 3:14-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21, and Psalm 19. What is the significance of God’s word and how does it biblically impact your life?
Masters of Divinity, The Master’s Seminary
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Harris Connection: I met Dr. Harris in 2010 while attending The Master’s College. His influence and teaching has shaped the way I understand Scripture and how that applies to the way I live my life. After having Dr. Harris as a professor at The Master’s Seminary in 2014, he invited me to be a Pastoral Intern at Lake Hills Community Church. Because of his impact, I consider him my professor, my pastor, and my friend.