One the biggest issues I have faced in my short life as a pastor is the widespread practice of bad biblical interpretation. The hermeneutic of even the most conservative churches is lacking to say the least. We say we believe that the Bible is totally inerrant and infallible, yet our practices communicate something far different. I am not innocent when it comes to this issue, and I have made my fair share of borderline heretical interpretations. However, there are simple principles that can and should be taught in local churches to promote a healthy hermeneutic.
- Authorial Intent
There has been no other principle that has helped my hermeneutic more than the principle of “authorial intent.” This is the principle that seeks out the intention of the original author before making personal application. Most errant interpretations can be avoided by applying this practice. Here is a simple phrase that helps when looking for the author’s intent, “The author cannot mean what he did not mean to mean.” In other words, the Bible reader does not ask the question, “What does this mean to me?” until he first asks, “What did it mean to the author and his audience?” Applications may change, but the author’s intent remains the same, and as long as application is closely tied to and informed by the authorial intent you can guarantee an accurate interpretation and application.
2. Chronological Bible Storying
Most people are quite familiar with the stories of the Bible. They know about Noah’s ark, Abraham’s obedience, David’s kingdom, the Christmas narrative, Jesus walking on the water, and the resurrection, but do our people know the Story of the Bible? The stories in the Bible and the Story of the Bible are two different animals. There should be knowledge among our churches about God’s story as a whole. There is no reason why they should not all know the events within the story and how they fit together chronologically and theologically to form the greatest narrative in history. Interpretation is greatly aided by understanding where the events in the text fall chronologically within the overarching story. This principle provides clarity to texts Jeremiah 29:11 or Acts chapter 2. Simply recognizing where you are in the Story puts up some safe guards to promote proper interpretation.
3. Literary Background
Literature is a subject that gets people super excited, but when we are talking about the Word of God we are talking about written words collected in a book. Therefore, we must use some literary principles in hermeneutics. One such principle is genre. There are different styles of literature in the Bible, there is poetry, prophecy, and letters to name a few. Understanding genre is greatly beneficial because it can add clarity to some difficult passages. For example you cannot read a letter the same way you read a poem. Letters are situational and they are part of correspondence, and poetry is artistic and expressive. Both communicate truth and both are inspired by God, but they are not one in the same. Interpret the text with knowledge of the genre.
Another literary principle is called immediate context. A proper interpretation can only by found in reference to the surrounding text and the book as a whole. No one reads a book this way, but we do it all the time with the Bible. A verse means what it means because it is part of a larger paragraph, a book as a whole, and the entire story of the Bible. The best corrector to this issue is expository preaching!
4. Historical Background
Knowing the historical background is not as easy to find as the other principles, but it is equally as important. New Testament letters are the easiest example to prove the necessity of historical background. As stated above, a letter must be read like a letter, therefore there is an author and a recipient. The best interpretation of a letter can be found when the reader gains as much information about the historical situation of both the author and his audience. For example, the term “antichrists” in 1 John 2 is far less threatening when you understand the situation the audience finds themselves in. The best part about this example is that the historical information can be found within the text itself. There are those in this particular church that are leaving the fellowship and not only that, but they are promoting a false doctrine trying to take others with them. This knowledge makes it quite clear that they are the antichrists that John is talking about, not some eschatological figure. Historical background information should be gathered to the fullest extent possible, avoiding speculation and not banking on extra-biblical sources, but nonetheless taught in our churches to help promote good hermeneutics.
Context is king in biblical hermeneutics. All of the other principles flow out of this one. Isolated biblical proof texting has done great harm to the church, because it does not teach people how to read scripture. It promotes selfish hermeneutics wherein, if the reader cannot see what a verse means to him or her, he or she simply skips over it to find another one. Therefore the book of Leviticus becomes completely obsolete in every regard. However, understanding context by finding the authorial intent, recognizing where you are in the story, and researching the literary and historical background can give insight into the interpretation and promote the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
In conclusion, the church may struggle with biblical interpretation, but it is a fixable problem. We MUST teach our people hermeneutics because of what we believe about the Bible. I believe in the 100% inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, I believe that it is the literal Word of God, therefore I commit to practicing and teaching good hermeneutics.