Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles or methods of interpretation concerning the biblical text. Many of us who preach “cut our teeth” on a book entitled Hermeneutics by D.R. Dungan. In the field of hermeneutics, emphasis is placed upon employing the best method of interpretation concerning a particular text. The reason for this is so that the Bible student has the correct understanding of a passage in accordance with how the original passage was intended.
Often the Bible class teacher who says a passage “means what it says and says what it means” can be accused of being overly simplistic in his approach to the Bible. Sometimes this is true. Yet it does need to be understood by every person interested in studying the Bible that a passage of Scripture has one particular meaning and the Lord expects each Bible student to understand that particular meaning. Peter wrote, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). Implied in Peter’s statement is the essentiality of knowing and understanding what the scriptures mean. The inspired apostle would continue, by stating, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).
Proper hermeneutics of the Holy Scriptures begins with taking a passage and giving that passage a literal interpretation unless the context demands otherwise. To help us in our biblical understanding, it is good for the Bible student to know the background of a particular passage, including the background of the writer. In coming to this understanding, several questions should be asked. Most importantly, how does this text relate to the chapter in which it is found? Is the interpretation of the passage in harmony with the chapter and book in which it is located, and with the overall context of the Bible? If not, then the Bible student has the wrong interpretation of the text.
Likewise, it is imperative that an obscure text not be interpreted in a way that conflicts with the clearer or more understandable passages of Scripture. Speaking of Paul, Peter writes, “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). I remember in Alabama where I engaged in my first pulpit work, a dear Christian lady in Alabama loved to have me visit and talk about the Bible. She loved the Bible and, overall, was a good Bible student. But this dear sister was convinced that the following passage should be interpreted that Christians could be baptized by proxy on behalf of those already dead (similar to that which is espoused by Mormonism). The passage is found in the midst of Paul’s thrilling chapter concerning the resurrection on the last day. He writes, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29). This is an interesting, curious, and difficult passage that has confounded Bible scholars for centuries. I have never known faithful gospel preachers to be dogmatic concerning possible explanations of the passage, unless it has to do with what we know the passage does not mean. Because of correct biblical interpretation, we can know the passage does not mean that Christians now living can be baptized by proxy for those who were not baptized while living but are now dead. The reason we can know this is because such an interpretation would violate the innumerable passages that teach baptism is for the penitent believer. In no passage of Scripture is it taught that one can believe for another, repent for another, or be baptized for another.
Those who believe in biblical inspiration likewise understand that the ultimate arbiter of divine truth is the Holy Spirit. When Jesus speaks, He speaks truth. As the cross is looming near for Jesus, “Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus also spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the apostles. He is identified as the eternal spirit (Heb. 9:14) and as the Spirit of Truth. “Howbeit when he, the spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew it unto you” (John 16:13).
Therefore, as one approaches the Bible, he should have the attitude and desire to honestly perceive and understand what the Holy Spirit is seeking to accomplish (Prov. 1:2-3). To perceive, understand, and interpret the scriptures correctly, the Bible student should continue to ask questions related to a particular text, such as who is speaking, to whom is one speaking, what was the original meaning to those who heard it, what is the message today, and what does that passage mean to me personally?
Furthermore, to aid the Bible student it is good to know the background of the biblical writers and the reason they were writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit. It can assist our understanding of the employed language if it is realized that Isaiah, for example, was a city dweller and Amos lived in the country. Luke was a physician and often used the language of a physician. John, the beloved apostle, wrote the gospel that bears his name to set forth the deity of Christ.
By employing the principles of proper hermeneutics, the Bible student will examine such passages as Genesis 8 where we find Noah building an ark and know the command to do so was limited to Noah. However, the principle for always obeying God should clearly be learned by every generation. Correct biblical interpretation will lead one to understand that the thief on the cross was forgiven by Jesus and promised a place in Paradise before Jesus died on the cross. Hence, one cannot take what Jesus said to the thief and necessarily imply that such words concerning salvation also apply to one living today. Through correct interpretation, the Bible student will conclude that when Peter spoke on Pentecost, he spoke that which was sealed in Jesus’ blood and would apply to all people of every generation in any region until He comes again.
I pray these thoughts in this article will help the average student who honestly seeks to know God’s divine will.
Barry preaches for the Riverbend congregation in Dalton, GA.