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Five Important Hermeneutical Steps to Remember

Whenever we approach a text in Scripture we employ various hermeneutical steps in order to arrive at a proper interpretation of the Bible. For example, we examine the original language of the text, its historical and cultural setting, and the context in which the passage is delivered. However, I think there are some other basic principles that we often overlook that are important in our interpretative process. Of course, our interpretative process must always be guided by the perspective of Christ and the apostles (i.e., that Christ is the goal to all of Scripture), but there are certain hermeneutical keys that help aid this process too. These five points may seem rather obvious, but they are good reminders that interpretation is much more than simple steps that we follow to arrive at the meaning of the text.

1.) We May Not Know What a Text Means, but We Can Know What it Does Not Mean.

I was speaking with a pastor friend and we were discussing how although we may not know the correct meaning of a text we can often eliminate the incorrect meaning, which inevitably helps us get to the right meaning. When we read Scripture there are certain interpretations that we know cannot be correct based on what Scripture teaches as a whole. For example, when we hear people say that baptism is a necessary part of salvation we know that to be incorrect based on what the Bible teaches elsewhere. However, the real challenge is when we approach those difficult texts over God’s sovereignty and human responsibility or Israel and the Church. This step is not the only factor in determining the meaning of a text, but through the process of elimination we can, at times, better understand the text and hopefully determine the correct interpretation.

2.) The Literal Reading is Not Always the Biblical Meaning.

Kevin Vanhoozer is famous for writing this statement and it couldn’t be truer. In a day and age when interpretation is extremely dispensational in its orientation we need to make sure that we’re paying attention to how the biblical authors use language. We must consider the particular genres they employed to tell God’s story. For some odd reason people think that if you claim something as non-literal then you are denying the inspiration or truthfulness of the Scriptures. However, to understand that the biblical meaning as not always the literal meaning does not deny that literal truth exists in the text; it simply means that we must pay careful attention to the various literary methods that the biblical authors used such as typology, symbolism, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. Understanding the specific genre of individual books of the Bible is especially important when we consider how to understand the ideas of land, temple, or Israel and when we read prophetic and apocalyptic literature (e.g., Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation).

3.) We Must Always Be Driven Back to the Text.

The Reformers gave us Semper Reformanda, which means “always reforming.” This statement is especially true for the practice of hermeneutics. Because we are fallible human beings, we must always be willing to drive ourselves back to the text and submit ourselves to its authority. It is simply amazing to me how many people claim the Scriptures as their final authority and pronounce it as God’s inspired and inerrant word, but the minute you challenge them on specific texts or beliefs they close their Bibles and are unwilling to discuss the Scriptures. If we are truly secure in our interpretations then we should be willing to open our Bibles and discuss the text. Moreover, we should be willing to have our interpretations critiqued. We should always examine our beliefs in light of the text and be willing to change them in light of the Scriptures no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may be. Only then can we truly claim the Bible to have complete authority over our theology and practice.

4.) We Always Do our Interpretation in the Context of the Church.

Because we are fallible human beings and subject to incorrect interpretations, we must do our interpretation in the context of the church where there are other believers who can challenge and critique our views. This does not mean that their challenges and critiques are always right, but it does mean that we recognize that our theologizing is not done apart from the God ordained community (the church) in which we live and grow. God has given the church many gifted men to encourage and help the church in the interpretative process. God has provided this generation of Christians with so many past and present resources that there is really no excuse for us not to apply ourselves to the text and seek the right interpretation. We also must pay careful attention to how the church has interpreted particular texts in the past. Again, this does not mean that past believers were always right in their interpretations, but it would be foolish for us to ignore how the church has understood the Scriptures. There is something to be said for consistency and the long line of godly men who have faithfully applied themselves to the text.

5.) Hermeneutics is Everything.

All the debates within the church over issues of the sovereignty of God and human responsibility or Israel and the Church come down to one essential issue: how do we interpret the text? Both a dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist will read the same exact text and come away with completely different interpretations. Part of the reason for this is because we all approach the text with presuppositions. It is impossible for us to escape presuppositions; therefore, we must always be submitting ourselves to the text, be open to critique, and be seeking consistency with the whole of biblical revelation. We must continually work at interpreting and re-examining the text; understanding it in light of the entirety of Scripture. At the end of the day all of our beliefs must be derived from the text and when disagreement emerges the text must be the object of our theological formulation. Interpretation is not just for forming our doctrinal beliefs, but also for understanding how we live as God’s covenant people. Because interpretation of the text is so essential to forming the correct beliefs and living holy lives, hermeneutics is an essential subject that must be taught in our churches. We must not only spur the people in our churches to read the Bible, but to interpret the Bible correctly and apply it properly.

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Categories: Hermeneutics
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