Below is my completed and finished term paper I transcribed for my course and studies in Biblical Hermeneutics. I am indebted to Dr. Mal Couch, President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute in Ft. Worth, Texas for personally grading and editing this time consuming work. In addition, I am also indebted to the scholarly books written by both Dr. Bernard Ramm and Dr. Roy Zuck. Without these two works of literature I would’ve been unable to further understand the basics of Biblical interpretation. I hope this study will benefit others as it has me.
Hermeneutics is the science and art of linguistic interpretation, in this case, Biblical interpretation. It is a science because there exists a systematic, mechanical, and formulated approach to the interpretation process. It is an art because it involves an individual’s talent, skills, and knowledge to perform the task of interpreting the Scriptures. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek form of the god, Hermes, who was a messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology, Hermes gave and interpreted the messages sent by the immortal gods to be given to mortal man.
The primary need for hermeneutics is to understand and to know what God has said to us through His written word. The intent is to determine the meaning of the Word of God.1 The secondary need for hermeneutics is to put aside any denominational, geographical, or cultural bias’ that separate our minds from that of the writers of the Bible in order that we may better understand the Word of God. Hermeneutics is essential to the student of Scripture. Without it, we cannot properly grasp the message that God desires to convey to us.
Some may argue, “Since the Bible was written some 2,000 years ago, what use is their in interpreting these ancient, age-old scriptures?” A valid argument indeed. However, most, if not all of the scriptures we have today are as it was originally written. For example, according to Dr. Harold Hoehner, Chairman of New Testament Greek Department, Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas; we have 99% or more of the New Testament text, as it was originally written by the apostles.2 Additionally, we have probably some 96% or more of the Old Testament text as determined by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Keys to Interpretation
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Biblical interpretation process is the utilization of Bible tools. Bible tools are a must when studying the Bible. Without them, one could not know the background, or the historical, geographical, and religious settings, the social status, or customs of a particular person, place, or thing mentioned in the Bible. According to Bernard Ramm, an interpreter must have, “those works which deal with the inspiration, canon, and criticism of scripture. He should have standard grammars, lexicons, and concordances of the Hebrew and Greek languages. He should consult the learned commentaries of the past and present.”4
To show an example of the importance and usefulness in using Bible tools let’s briefly examine Paul’s letters addressed to the Corinthians:
From reading these letters, one would not know that the city of Corinth was a major cosmopolitan city in Greece located at a crossroads of travel and commerce5 between the two bustling seaports of Lechaeum and Cenchreae. Because of it’s location, it was a very ethnically diverse city consisting of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and many other people of the Mediterranean. Additionally, the city had it’s share of wealth. By day the people gathered to conduct business transactions and by evening they would conveniently patronize the many now excavated night clubs and taverns that existed throughout the city. To this day archaeologists have unearthed over 33 taverns throughout the city of Corinth.6 Historically, the city was taken as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar almost 100 years prior to the time in which Paul wrote these letters to the Corinthian church. Eventually, during the Roman occupation, the city became the provincial capital of the Roman province of Achaia therefore the residence of the Proconsul Gallio as mentioned in Acts 18:12. As stated earlier, the city had acquired much wealth, and with it came much corruption and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, the Greek verb korinthiazomai meaning “to practice fornication” is a derivative of the city’s name.7 Paul specifically addresses such issues as sexual immorality explicitly in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:9-20. Another issue Paul raises is about men who pray or prophesy with their heads covered, thus dishonoring God (1 Corinthians 11:3-5). What the scriptures don’t tell you is that it was a customary practice amongst the Romans to wear devotional head coverings during the worship of their many polytheistic gods. Apparently the Corinthian church had observed this practice and followed suit not understanding it’s spiritual implications.
Space would not allow for me to list the many more examples of additional information that can be obtained from the use of Bible tools specifically pertaining to the Corinthian letters. Many numerous books ranging from commentaries to study series have been written about 1st and 2nd Corinthians alone. Just imagine the vast wealth of information that exists and are at the disposal of our fingertips pertaining to the Bible in it’s entirety. Personally, I have enjoyed utilizing a recently developed resource in my study of God’s Word — the internet. Many seminaries, universities, organizations, ministries, and scholars have provided much information to the public about the Bible. Some sites have devoted itself to the sole purpose of teaching God’s Word and nothing else. Aside from the internet, I myself proudly boast of an extensive library consisting of many Bible references such as: Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, The (surprisingly conservative) Oxford Companion to the Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary Series, J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentary Series, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life, The NIV Complete Concordance, The Complete Works of Josephus, Halley’s Bible Handbook, The Thompson Chain Reference Bible Companion, The New Bible Atlas, and lastly, The Master Christian Library (V.5) on CD-ROM which consists of a multitude of reference works.
Aside from the utilization of Bible tools and reference books, it is also important to know and understand the original languages used in the Bible for the interpretation process. According to Ramm, “To be a competent Biblical interpreter a knowledge of the original languages is indispensable.” Additionally, Ramm notes, “It is a principle of Protestantism, the soundness of which has been confirmed by the experience of centuries, that there should always be in the churches a body of men able to go behind the current versions of the Scripture to the original tongues from which these versions were executed.”8 The Bible as we know it was originally transcribed in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, with some Aramaic. It is therefore essential and imperative for an interpreter and student of the Scriptures to learn at least one of these languages. Why? Today’s English versions of the Bible are mere translations of the original text. They have undergone many translations since the inception of the Bible itself. For example, the Septuagint in the second century B.C., the Masoretic Text of the Middle Ages, the William Tyndale translation into English in 1526, and finally the King James version of 1611, not to mention the many popular versions and translations of the 20th century alone. Please see previous study entitled, A Brief History of the Bible. One can see the necessity of going back to the original tongue to truly understand the proper and in-depth meaning of the words contained within the Scriptures. It is also important for the student to know the original tongues to truly understand the message that the authors of the books were trying to convey to the audience. With a thorough knowledge of at least one of the original languages coupled with utilizing available Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, an interpreter will get a very good idea of what the author is saying. I myself have had no linguistic training in any of the original languages of the Bible, with the exception of Spanish since Paul himself had visited Spain (Romans 15:24,28), although it is irrelevant in the interpretation process. However, because of my training, I am somewhat aware of the language barrier that Paul might have faced when he in fact did visit Spain. In conclusion, a knowledge of any or all of the original languages of the Bible is essential and imperative in attempting to fully and properly understand the message and words of the Bible.
The Interpretation Process
Within the science of interpretation there exists three essential and primary steps in the interpretation process. They are: Observation, Interpretation, and Application.
Observation is the first of three steps in this interpretation process. This step asks, “What does it say?” As the interpreter, we are to objectively observe the whole picture of what we are attempting to interpret. Figuratively, we are to act as a detective — investigating, and examining what the passage is saying. Within this process, the interpreter is to determine the background and setting of all that encompasses the passage, including that of the author himself. Additionally, he is to observe the text itself, determining what is a metaphor, simile, transitional or comparative word, etc. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who are the key figures in the book? Who is Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Cyrus, Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, Peter, John, Luke, etc.?
– What are the key dates? When was the book written? When did the author die? When did King Cyrus reign? When was the temple completed?
– What are the key verses in the book? What are the key words? What statement is the author trying to convey?
– What are the key events taking place? Pentecost? Martyrdom of Stephen? Paul’s conversion? The calming of the storm? Christ’s resurrection?
– What conclusions can be drawn from this passage? Must we observe Jewish customs and laws while being a Christian? Can we summarize the passage?
– What is the historical setting? When was Ephesus occupied by the Romans? When did Paul setup the church at Antioch?
Additionally, the interpreter will observe any key doctrines, themes, and the author’s intention in writing the book. It is within this process that the interpreter would greatly benefit by utilizing Bible tools and references. Dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, concordances, etc. It is important to interpret literally in this process and to allow the Bible to speak for itself. In the Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute’s, Hermeneutics course study notes, Dr. Mal Couch points out, “study objectively not subjectively.” It is important to not allow any preconceived conclusions to influence this vital step of interpretation. This includes denominational beliefs, personal opinions, spiritualizing or excessive allegorizing of the passage, etc. Lastly, without this first process of observation, the interpreter cannot properly continue to the next step — interpretation. As Zuck states, “Interpretation should build on observation and then lead into interpretation.”9
Interpretation is the second of three steps in the process of interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “What does it mean?” As discussed earlier, the interpreter must first perform a thorough and concise observation of the book or passage prior to continuing on with the remaining steps of the interpretation process. Within the process of interpretation, the interpreter is to determine the meaning of the passage or book, and to whom it is addressed to. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who wrote the book? Paul? Moses? Luke? David? Who in fact did write Hebrews?
– What is the overall theme of the book? About God’s grace? God’s love? The establishment of the Law? Paul’s missionary journey’s?
– Who is the third person? Me? God? Jesus? Who is the “I” referring to? Daniel? When Christ said, “God so loved the world.” Who is the world? Only those that believe?
– Can certain passages be generalized? Or must it be specified? Is it literal? Is it symbolic? The Beast of Revelation. Is it an actual man, or is it a system?
– Does the passage only refer to that particular generation? Or does it similarly refer to our generation of today?
– What does the passage mean? When Jesus said, “I am the vine.” What is the vine referring to? What does the term, “last days” mean? Was it at the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.? Or is it yet future?
As can be clearly seen, it is obvious that the interpreter will have to again consult his or her Bible references and tools during this process. Additionally, a lot of cross-referencing will be made as well. For example, in comparing similar passages that can be found throughout the synoptic gospels. How does Luke describe the account of Jesus’ miracle of calming the storm versus Matthew’s account? Or, what is the difference between the Holy Spirit of the Old Testament such as in Psalm 51:11 and that of the New Testament at the day of Pentecost, it’s first arrival after Christ’s ascension? These are but a few of the many questions that can be asked within this vital step of interpretation. It is worth noting that this crucial step of the interpretation process, “is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming of these three steps.”10 If ever there were a step that should not be avoided, ignored, or even misused, it is this one. After confidently analyzing and interpreting the applicable book or passage, the next step of the interpretation process is application.
Last and foremost is the application process. This step is the final of three steps in interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “How does it apply to me?” Without this step, the reader will not properly understand how the passage pertains to his or her life. Perhaps the most important aspect of this step is in determining who the passage is both directly and indirectly addressed to. Additionally, it must be determined if the passage can be applied directly to all, at any time, or not. These determining factors can be better labeled as: Direct, Indirect, and Generic.11 Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– To whom is the passage addressed to? Timothy? Titus? The church at Colosse?
– What is the passage about? Church government? Marriage? How to approach a brother who might be in error? Spiritual gifts?
– Who is the passage directly applied to? Me? Timothy? Anyone?
– How would it be indirectly applied? Written directly to Timothy, but indirectly to pastors? Spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 applied directly to the church at Ephesus but could it be indirectly applied to any of us today?
– How can I determine if it is a generic application? What key words are observed in determining this? For example, all, you, I, the church at Philippi.
Using Galatians 3:26-27 as an example. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We must determine to whom Paul has directly and indirectly applied this passage to. Clearly, the passage was directly written to the church in Galatia. By using the interpretation process, the student will have seen that in Roman society, a youth coming of age laid aside the robe of childhood and would put on a new toga. This represented his passage into adulthood with full rights and responsibilities. Paul combined this cultural understanding with the concept of baptism. After being baptized, the Galatian church were becoming spiritually grown up and ready to take on the privileges and responsibilities that came along with being more spiritually mature.12 Indirectly, this passage can be applied to all of us today. Some of the key words can be observed, “…all of you who were baptized into Christ“. All of us who have been baptized must recognize we too have now put on new robes and have clothed ourselves with Christ, ready to take on anything the Lord might give us. After all, we have had the honor and blessing of being called, “sons of God”.
On a personal level, I myself have struggled with this particular step in the interpretation process. Because of this, since becoming a Christian, I have purchased what is called the NIV Life Application Study Bible by Zondervan publishers. This Bible has been instrumental in assisting me in understanding the Bible and how it applies to my life today. I strongly suggest this study Bible to all who might likewise have difficulty in understanding the application of the Bible to one’s own personal life.
As with any book of the Bible it is important to know and understand the elements of the setting of the book in which you are about to study or interpret. Let’s take the book of Ephesians for example. First, in the observation process, we must present ourselves with many questions. Who are the Ephesians? Where are they located? What is their history? What are their cultural and social customs like? What spiritual problems were they faced with? What was the overall religious life like in Ephesus? Personally, one of my favorite passages and one of the most well known and commonly used verses in Ephesians is chapter 6:10-18 regarding spiritual warfare. Why did Paul write this passage? Were the Ephesians faced with hostile forces around them? Were they constantly being persecuted? Were there many opposing religious beliefs around them? It is important for us to understand these elements and to answer the questions before beginning the process of interpretation and application. Without knowing the background and setting of the book, we won’t know what the intention of the author was in writing the book and therefore not fully understand how it applies to us today.
Overall, the book of Ephesians is a letter of encouragement to the believers at Ephesus. It was not meant to address any particular heresy or problems such as in the case of other letters Paul had written. The Ephesians are a group of people who reside in the city of Ephesus located just east of Athens across the Aegean Sea. It is located in Asia Minor in what is today modern day Turkey. Historically, Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century B.C. and Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. both had left their marks on the Asiatic peoples that made up it’s population. Under Roman rule, which began about 190 B.C. Ephesus became a racial melting pot.13 Because of this, it became a point of many diverse religions and beliefs of the Roman empire. The dominating religion of the area was that of Diana worship. The goddess of fertility. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world once existed in Ephesus, the Temple of Diana. It was a splendid building of great architecture especially for it’s time. As an Ephesian Christian it would be quite common to witness legalized prostitution that was so prevalent throughout the city. These prostitutes were simply a part of the religion and worship itself and were referred to as “temple prostitutes”. Sex was a means of worship to the goddess of fertility. In addition to Diana worship, emperor worship was another major religion of the area. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero were deified by the peoples of Rome. Statues and sculptures of these Roman gods can be found throughout the Roman empire and local cities. These and many other acts of worship were against the very nature of God. The local Christians at Ephesus were faced with these issues on a daily basis and needed the comforting and encouraging words that Paul had written to them. Additionally, the passage on spiritual warfare was added ammunition for their constant spiritual battle that surrounded them. With the discovery of many Christian decorated tombs and burial sites and unearthed churches and inscriptions it’s apparent that Christianity eventually became the flourishing and dominant religion of Ephesus.14
We can clearly see now why Paul was led by the Spirit to write this book. We see what issues existed, and what the church was up against in Ephesus. More so, we can now properly understand the intention the author had in writing this book and how it applies to us today. Does Ephesus resemble America today with it’s many religions, cults, and beliefs? What about the moral dilemma we face in our country? Just like the Ephesians, we too see prostitution on our streets, and the worship of sex on television, internet, billboards, magazines, etc. The large temples constructed to worship the goddess of fertility in the form of “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, and “Cabaret’s”.
Knowing the Writer
Aside from understanding the background of a book, it is also quite important to fully know and understand the writer of the book you are about to examine and interpret. A knowledge of the writer himself will in turn give you a brief glimpse into his life and his intention in writing the book in the first place. As an example, let’s examine the one man most known for writing numerous books of the New Testament, the apostle Paul. What are some important factors about the background of this most remarkable man? Let’s examine.
Aside from Bible reference tools, we can learn quite a bit about the apostle Paul just from the Bible alone. Before becoming the apostle Paul, he was known as Saul. He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22:3). He was a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). He was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). Saul was a learned Jewish scholar under the teachings of Gamaliel where he received thorough training in the law (Acts 22:3). He knew the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages (Acts 21:40). He was a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:2-3). He was a Pharisee (Acts 26:5) He hated and persecuted Christians (Acts 22:4). He was supernaturally converted to Christianity by the Lord Himself (Acts 9:3-9, 22:6-11). His name changes to Paul (Acts 13:9). He received the gospel through direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). He partly received this revelation while in the desert of Arabia (Galatians 1:17). He undertook three primary missionary journey’s with a fourth to Rome:
– First Journey (A.D. 47-48) Acts 13-14
– Second Journey (A.D. 49-52) Acts 15-18
– Third Journey (A.D. 52-56) Acts 18-21
– Fourth Journey (A.D. 56-58) Acts 21-28
These missionary journey’s consisted of winning people to Christ, preaching the Gospel, church planting, establishing church government, defending the faith, appealing before governors, and writing numerous books of the New Testament. As a Christian, Paul is believed to have written some 13, possibly 14 books of the New Testament to various peoples and churches. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11). Paul was imprisoned many times, his last imprisonment was in Rome while under house arrest under the watch of a soldier to guard him (Acts 28:16). Lastly, the fate of his death is uncertain. The most popular tradition depicts him as a martyr in Rome, beheaded during the intense persecution of the Emperor Nero in the 60’s A.D.15 In regards to Paul’s character, we have learned several things about him. He was a very spiritual person. He was devoutly committed to his Jewish faith and even more so with his faith in Christ as a Christian. Furthermore, we know that he was a very aggressive and zealous person. From his persecution of Christians as a Jew to becoming a light unto the Gentiles zealously spreading the gospel of Christ to all men at all costs. Perhaps he was what we call today, an extrovert — outspoken, bold, involved, and always on the go. All of these factors are important in knowing more about the letters he wrote throughout the New Testament.
The Human Drama
One of the ways in further understanding the author’s intention in writing a particular book is to understand his emotions and feelings, and the circumstances that might have motivated his writing. This is called the “human drama”.
The “human drama” is the emotional expression behind the author’s writing. There is perhaps no more profound example of this drama than what can be found throughout the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is a written expression of man’s innermost heart, mind, and soul and it’s communion with God. King David is the author of a majority of the Psalms. He is attributed with writing at least 73 of them. It is easy for the reader to see David’s heartfelt emotions throughout the Psalms. One Psalm in particular touches my own heart. Shortly after David had committed the grave sin of adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:4), I visualize him flat on his face dressed in sackcloth, alone before God. He can easily be seen with tears running down his face, unkempt hair, perhaps barefoot, humbly begging and pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just listen to King David’s heart as it cries out in anguish to the forgiving and loving God:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:1-12)
The intensified emotion and drama can clearly be seen in this Psalm written and expressed by David. Knowing the background behind a particular Psalm or book can better assist the reader in understanding the author’s emotions and feelings at the time he wrote it.
There are many more examples of the “human drama” that can be found expressed throughout the Psalms, not to mention the New Testament as well. For example, many times Paul was imprisoned for various reasons. Amazingly, it was while he was imprisoned that he wrote many letters of the New Testament known simply as the Prison Letters. These letters consist of: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These were written primarily during his imprisonment while in Rome. Many times throughout these letters we can see his emotions found within the letters themselves. More times than not they were expressed positively and optimistically because of his sincere joy in Christ. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12) Additionally, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
The Audience to Whom the Book is Written
It is imperative in knowing whom the book is written to. This will impact the interpretation of any given passage of the book. In many of Paul’s epistles the titles of the books themselves are addressed to a particular people, i.e. Corinthians, Thessalonians, Hebrews, etc. Who were the Corinthians? What were they like? Were they comparable to our society today? These questions must be asked and answered by the interpreter before he is to study the book itself. This is so that he might better understand what issues are applicable to us today and how it may directly or indirectly relate to or effect us.
Hermeneutically Teaching the Word
There is a distinct difference between preaching and teaching. “Preaching” (Greek: kerusso) is to proclaim, publish, or herald the Good News. While teaching is to systematically and objectively instruct, guide, and apply others through the Word of God. With the direction of the Holy Spirit, both can ultimately lead to a person’s salvation. In general, preaching should be used for the unsaved while teaching should be used for the saved. In comparing the two, the Bible clearly places greater emphasis on teaching over preaching. Jesus himself was often times referred to as “Teacher” (Matt. 8:19, 12:38, 19:16, 22:24) or “Rabbi” (John 1:38). Additionally, many New Testament passages allude to teaching more clearly:
– “Command and teach these things.” (1 Timothy 4:11)
– “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
– “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct…” (2 Timothy 2:25)
However, we are not to neglect preaching. Jesus tells us to, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15). Paul tells us to, “Preachthe Word; be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Within our society today one can clearly see two distinct types of pastors and ministers within our churches. There are those who “preach” the Word, and then there are those who “teach” the Word. A layman who belongs to a church whose pastor might be more of a preacher rather than a teacher might not gain any additional knowledge of the Word of God. However, he or she will be well versed in knowing how to proclaim the Good News or in evangelizing. On the other hand, an individual whose loyalty lies with a teaching pastor will clearly obtain further knowledge and understanding of God’s Word but might lack the “know-how” in witnessing to others. Together, when the two means are correctly utilized can compliment one another. One is not inferior to or worse than the other. Personally, I have heard some really good preaching throughout my walk with Christ, primarily at the time of my conversion. I have also received excellent Biblical teaching as well, both of which have helped my growth in Christ.
The Point of Contact
Having once served in the military and having been inundated with multitudes of acronyms, I like to refer to it as the POC. The point of contact is simply the primary issue that connects the teacher to his/her audience. It is the central focal point that the audience can easily relate to. It’s important for the Bible teacher to determine the issue(s) that are currently affecting the audience prior to engaging in a systematic approach to teaching the Bible. He must ask himself, “How can the lesson be applied to at least a majority of the audience?”
Additionally, he must be educated in knowing how to present and apply the Bible to them while maintaining their attention and focus. For example, a Bible teacher is teaching a middle-class audience. He would want to apply the Bible to issues that affect people of that particular working or social class. Issues such as: money, family, and work. These are the points of contact. Once the teacher has determined the needs and issues of the audience, he can now begin to formulate a way of presenting the applicable passages to the audience. For instance, the teacher might want to apply the following passages to the audience.
– Money – the parable of the loaned money (Matthew 25:14-30)
– Family – the passage for Christian households (Colossians 3:18-21)
– Work – working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24)
This is only a brief example of the many verses that can be found throughout scripture that can be readily applied to this particular audience. Only the process has been explained. A good teacher will be well educated in knowing how to determine the point of contact of any audience that God might provide them. Only with prayer and practice can this be accomplished.
Determining the Social Environment of an Audience
It is important in knowing the audience you are about to teach and guide through the scriptures. This way the teacher will be able to formulate a concise way of communicating God’s Word to them in a way in which they will fully understand and comprehend.
There is clearly a distinct social difference between an audience from The Bronx, New York and that of Beverly Hills, California. Harlem, New York and Newport, Rhode Island. The West End and Plano, Texas. It can be determined by simply observing the audience before you. Mannerisms, dress, race, material possessions, can all be contributing factors in this determination process. Additionally, being aware of the occupational and educational backgrounds of the audience as a whole can be beneficial as well. You’ll get a feel as to where to begin your approach. “How much do they already know? Are they culturally biased? Will they be able to relate to this passage?” These are all questions that a Bible teacher can ask himself beforehand in determining the social environment of an audience.
Throughout history, there have been many big names in the study of hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation. Some have had a significant positive impact while others have had quite the opposite. As you will see, there have also been both liberal and conservative approaches to interpretation sometimes resulting in heresy or even pure mysticism. We will only examine the one’s who have made significant impacts, both good and bad, within the study of hermeneutics. But before I begin, I must explain allegory first since this was the primary divisive issue throughout the history of Biblical interpretation.
Webster’s dictionary defines allegory as, “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Or, “a symbolic representation.”16 Zuck summarizes allegory as, “a narrative or word picture which may or may not be true-to-life, with many parts pointing symbolically to spiritual realities.”17 Both of these definitions accurately describe allegory. There is a correct place for allegory to be interpreted in the Bible just as there is not. For example, many times Christians have suggested that the nation of Israel of the Old Testament is symbolically representative of the Church. Or, the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple is symbolic of the inner recesses of man’s mind and heart. These both have been mistakenly interpreted as an allegory. A correct example of allegory is shown in Psalm 80:8-11: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea (probably the Mediterranean), its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates or Jordan).” The “vine” in verse 8 is undoubtedly the nation of Israel and refers to it’s exodus led by Moses in 1446 B.C. “You drove out the nations and planted it.” This is referring to Israel’s many victorious battles against the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, and their geographical establishment as a nation. Verses 9-10 describes Israel’s expansion throughout the newly conquered land. In verse 11, it says, “It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.” This is referring to the nation of Israel’s outermost reaches and boundaries. These are just a few examples of correct and incorrect allegorical interpretation.
Historically, there have been many schools of allegorical interpretation. Greek allegorism – which was later adopted by both Christians and Jews alike. This particular school incorporated philosophical thinking with the prevailing religious traditions of its time. Jewish allegorism – this school of interpretation utilized three primary means of determining what should be allegorized. They are: a) if a statement says anything unworthy of God; b) if a statement is contradictory with some other statement or in any other way presents us with a difficulty; c) if the record itself is allegorical in nature. Christian and Patristic Allegorism – this school had the basic conviction that the Old Testament was a Christian document. Thus, through the allegorical method of interpretation they attempted to make the O.T. a Christian document. From this school many prominent individuals had sprung forth: Clement, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine to name a few. Catholic Allegorism – within this school there were ten primary rules and guidelines of interpretation in which the interpreter had to adhere to. For example, the Latin Vulgate was the only authorized version that the interpreter was to use. Only the Church dictated on matters of authorship and Biblical introduction. The interpreter had to accept all verses which the Church had already interpreted. Ultimately, the Catholic Church is the official interpreter of Scripture.18 Within these schools of allegorical interpretation much liberty was taken, and consequently, many abuses of the Scripture. There were those who allegorized everything and then there were those who never allegorized anything. Today, with experience, prayer, and the aid of Bible tools much of these issues of interpretation can be easily clarified and resolved.
Origen (ca. 185-254), an early church father “was a man of great learning and magnetic personality.”19 He developed many works of ecclesiastical literature such as the Hexpala, an arrangement of parallel text consisting of Greek and Hebrew versions of the O.T. Additionally, he wrote the Treatise Against Celsus and De Principiis both of which were works of apologetics. His basic thought of interpretation was allegory. He believed that there were deeper hidden messages contained within the passages of Scripture because of its vast amount of parables and symbology. He is primarily known to have taken this measure to an extreme, allegorizing everything. One writer stated, it was “fantasy unlimited.”19 In his book, De Principiis, Origen said that Scripture itself demands that the interpreter employ the allegorical method. Additionally, he observed a threefold meaning in Scripture – literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical. These were the basis of his means of interpretation. He based this theory on the Septuagint’s translation of Proverbs 22:20-21. “Do thou thrice record them…that thou mayest answer with words of truth.”In summary, his approach and method of interpretation can be explained in four primary beliefs:
1) The literal meaning of Scripture is only the preliminary level of Scripture.
2) To truly understand the Bible, we must have grace given to us by Christ.
3) The true exegesis is the spiritual exegesis of the Bible.
4) The Old Testament is the preparation of the New Testament.20
On the surface these methods don’t sound absurd. However, after examining some of Origen’s examples of his allegorical means of interpretation, one can clearly see the absurdities. Examples of some of his allegorical interpretations are as follows:
– He taught that Noah’s ark was representative of the church and Noah represented Christ.
– Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant meant we must daily read the Scriptures to meet Christ.
– In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the donkey represents the Old Testament and the newly acquired colt represents the New Testament.21
This is obviously a gross distortion of the true literal meaning of Scripture. This method was used up until the Middle Ages. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, rejected Origen’s extreme use of allegories and is quoted as saying, “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.”22 In conclusion, there is a proper place for allegory in Scripture, Origen however saw no limitations of it’s usage and at times clearly violated the true meaning of Scripture with his excessive use of allegory.
What Origen did with allegory, Luther did with literalism but not as extreme. Unlike Origen, Luther was much more rational with his interpretations. Luther denounced and opposed the allegorical schools of interpretation. Additionally, Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation (1483-1546) rejected the fourfold sense of scripture which was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Instead, he stressed the literal sense of the Bible. He held to a strong belief in the primacy of the Scriptures by going back to the original languages of the Bible in which he was well learned. In his book, Luther’s Works he wrote, “the Scriptures are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.”23 At the time, much of the Roman Catholic church adhered to the allegorical and mystical senses of Scripture. While faithfully serving within the Roman Catholic Church as a monk and eventually a priest, Luther was fully taught the Catholics interpretation of Scripture. For a good part of this time within the Church, Luther struggled with much of these interpretations. Later, as a result of his diligent studying, his emphasis on the original languages, and a literal view, he came to understand and interpret the Scriptures in a whole new light that eventually would lead to the Protestant Reformation.
Luther believed and taught that the common man can now understand the words of the Bible without relying upon the mother Church. He believed that the central focus of Biblical interpretation was centered on Christ. Rather than allegorizing Christ in the Old Testament, he instead saw Christ quite frequently throughout the O.T. Luther adopted six primary principles of hermeneutics, they are as follows:
1) The psychological principle – This principle relied on the direction of the Holy Spirit for insight into the Scriptures. In addition, the Bible was to be looked upon and treated differently than any other form of written literature.
2) The authority principle – The Bible is the final and supreme authority on all theological and doctrinal matters.
3) The literal principle – With attention to the grammatical and historical aspect of interpretation, this principle dismisses allegory and accepts the literal view of hermeneutics with the aid of the original languages of the Bible.
4) The sufficiency principle – The competent Christian was sufficient enough in interpreting the Scriptures without the aid of the Catholic clergy.
5) The Christological principle – The end and final means of interpretation is to find Christ. This is Luther’s intention of making the Bible a Christian document.
6) The Law-Gospel principle – This principle insured the interpreter to distinguish between the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. The Law exposes man’s sin, while the Gospel cleanses man’s sin.24
With his knowledge of the original languages, the guidance of the Spirit, and the literal view of the Bible, Luther was able to clearly and effectively interpret the Scriptures in the way it was intentionally written by the writers themselves.
In the days of the Post-Reformation (1600-1800), a multitude of movements developed within the field of Biblical interpretation. One of these movements was Rationalism. Rationalism allowed human intellect to determine what is true and what is false in the Bible. What corresponded with man’s reasoning was considered true. What was contrary to man’s reasoning was considered false. One of the pioneers of this movement was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher that taught human reason is free from theology. He denied the miracles of the Bible because of its lack of reasoning and believed the Bible is to be studied solely for historical interests. He did however believe in the necessity of knowing the original languages and the importance of knowing the backgrounds of each book contained in the Bible.25
Friedrich D.E. Schleirmacher
Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a 19th century liberal theologian/interpreter. He rejected the authority and primacy of the Bible and firmly believed Christianity to be a religion of “feeling and self-consciousness.” Additionally, he believed in subjectivism which holds to the view that knowledge of the Bible comes through ones own experience. A statement from his book entitled, Monologues sums up his view of Christianity, “Christianity should be viewed as a religion of emotions, not as a series of dogmas or a system of morals.”26
Like Schleiermacher, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who was known as “the father of modern existentialism” believed in the subjective experience of an individual to determine his or her true faith. Overall, Kierkegaard rejected Christianity as a whole because of its vast amount of creeds and rationalism.27 However, unlike Schleiermacher, he did believe the Bible to be the Word of God. He believed the academic study of the Bible was only a preliminary reading of it and the Bible is to be read for what it truly is, God’s Word. To cloud it with ignorance, carelessness, or professionalism will only hinder the underlying message of the Bible.28
Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) basically believed the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was penned by separate individual authors rather than the one author commonly known to be Moses. He adopted this view from Karl Graf and called it the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis consisted of four different authors: Author J – compiled the sections of the Pentateuch that invoked the name of “Jehovah”. Author E – compiled the “Elohim” sections. Author D – was the Deuteronomist, and Author P – compiled the Levitical Priestly code and law. Additionally, he held to the heretical belief that the religion of the O.T. people evolved from a polytheistic religion to animism to eventually monotheism.29
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) believed the Bible is to be interpreted existentially, meaning by one’s own personal experience. Additionally, because they cannot be scientifically proven, he also did not believe in the miracles as described in the N.T. This he labeled the “mythological principle” in his understanding of the Bible. Anything that cannot be scientifically proven is simply passed off as a myth. He attributes the miracles as poetic prose to entice the reader.
Bultmann adopted seven primary principles in his interpretation process that he called “the new hermeneutics”.30 These principles are:
1) The scientific principle
2) The critical principle
3) The mythological principle
4) The demythological/existential principle
5) The dialectical principle
6) The revelational principle
7) The law principle
The Catholic Church
Since the Catholic church was the predominant universal church for nearly 1400 years until the Protestant Reformation, I thought I would add their view on the interpretation of the Scriptures. The church in general to this day relies heavily upon it’s own historical interpretation of the Scriptures. The Catholics view of the Bible is very different from the Protestant view. For example, they only accept the Latin Vulgate as the “authentic” version. Additionally, they believe the Church is the official interpreter of the Scriptures. The priests, or Fathers, are to be guides in interpreting the Scriptures to the laity. Lastly, any passages that seem obscure or unclear, they simply refer to the unwritten traditions of the Church. In conclusion, the Catholic church does not view the Bible as the sole authority (sola Scriptura) for all matters of dispute pertaining to doctrine and interpretation. Instead, the Church feels they possess the authority to make conclusive decisions on all Biblical issues.
Revelation vs. Inspiration
Webster’s Dictionary defines revelation as, “an act of revealing or communicating divine truth.”31 Revelation simply is something that is revealed by God to man. Revelation is very much and still is abused to this day. Within some Charismatic churches today, there are many that still claim to receive revelation from God to be used as additional God-breathed scripture. It is through the supposed revelation from God that Joseph Smith received the words of what is today the Book of Mormons.
On the positive side, when the disciple John was exiled to the island of Patmos, it was there where he received direct revelation from God about future events that would take place throughout the world. He penned this revelation in the Book of Revelation. Additionally, the Apostle Paul received the gospel not by man but by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12).
The entire scriptures were written by means of inspiration. It was written by man inspired of God. In other words, God put His infallible words in written text. The words themselves are what is inspired, not the writer.
It is important for the interpreter to recognize the Bible as a wholly God-inspired work and not just some mere religious book containing words written by man. If an interpreter does not recognize this fact then he will easily find inconsistencies and find the stories rather strange or extraordinary. As Ramm notes, “The divine inspiration of the Bible is the foundation of historic Protestant hermeneutics and exegesis.”32
Other Key Factors of Interpretation
Bible Cultural Background Interpretation
As mentioned earlier, understanding and knowing the cultural backgrounds of the people contained in the books of the Bible is imperative to the interpreter. For example, knowing the Galatian culture might assist the interpreter in better understanding the book of Galatians and their livelihood. He will be able to better understand the issues effecting the Christians of Galatia and Paul’s intentions of addressing them in his epistles.
Even more so, the interpreter must take into account the cultural differences between the Galatians of the Bible and that of today’s culture. Are some of the issues addressed to the Galatian church irrelevant to us today? How does the interpreter determine what is and is not relevant to our cultural practices and customs today? Zuck further elaborates, “The issue of cultural relevance is an important one because of the two tasks of the interpreter: to determine what the text meant to its immediate readers in that cultural setting, and to determine what the text means to us now in our context.”33
The issue of head coverings is an issue that I personally have observed as being a cultural difference. It was about 55 A.D. when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. In this letter, chapter 11, Paul emphatically demands that women are to wear head coverings while prophesying and/or praying. Since a majority of these activities take place in church, I’m sure Paul also intended for women to wear their coverings while attending church or fellowship. How often do we see our Christian sisters wearing hats today in our churches? Not very often. Occasionally, I will see perhaps an elderly woman dawn her beautiful knit hat complete with white, ruffled, feathers and satin bows. But I’m quite sure she was not purposely observing Paul’s ordinance of head coverings. Why is this so? Is it because hats were in fashion 1,944 years ago and aren’t today? If the interpreter consults his tools of references, he will better understand this issue.
Contrary to our culture today, at the time I Corinthians was written it was customary in the eastern world for those that were in subjection or shame to wear some form of veil or covering 34. This is why Paul addresses this issue to women. The woman was subject to her husband while her husband was subject to Christ. By the woman wearing her head covering she is publicly acknowledging her submission to her husband and thereby honoring him. The man on the other hand is commanded to take off any head covering to give full honor to Christ. Should women therefore wear head coverings today in our churches? No. In today’s society quite the opposite is true concerning head covers. Instead, they show authority, importance, or dominion.
We can clearly see the cultural differences of yesterday versus today. This is an important and significant issue that the interpreter must sincerely contend with. He must establish what is and is not relevant to us today. If an issue is not relevant then sometimes the principle is. In which case the interpreter can apply a relevance that pertains to us today and apply it to that very same principle. This cultural understanding is vital in the interpretation process.
Grammatical interpretation is “the process of seeking to determine its [Bible] meaning by ascertaining four things.”35 These four things consist of:
a) lexicology – determining the usage and meaning of words.
b) morphology – determining word forms and how they are structured.
c) parts of speech – determining certain functions of words.
d) syntax – determining the relationship of words and how they are used together.
Grammatical interpretation is important in the overall principle of hermeneutics. Understanding the grammatical usage of words, a particular sentence, phrase, or paragraph is imperative so that the interpreter can get a fuller sense of the meaning of which the writer was trying to convey. Since the Bible is a verbally inspired work then we must truly begin to understand every single word, “jot and tittle”, so that we can grasp every meaning that can possibly be found throughout the scriptures.
Rhetorical interpretation is the process of determining the literary quality of a writing by analyzing its genre, structure, and figures of speech and how those factors influence the meaning of the text.37 In other words, it is the determining process of understanding the organizational layout and different styles of expression and words contained within a certain passage.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a form of written expression used to vividly illustrate a point by using forms contrary to normal laws of grammar. An example of such can be found in John 4:13-14 when Jesus refers to himself as “living water” with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The “living water” the woman thought of was literal water that would never make her thirst again. The “living water” Jesus was referring to was Himself, the living Word.
Do figures of speech go against literal interpretation? Generally not. In fact, figures of speech can be used to “drive home” (figure-of-speech intended) a literal point or truth. The “living water” is a figure of speech for Christ’s offer of eternal life to all who drink of it. This point is a factual, literal, and true statement. All who accept Christ into their lives will have everlasting life. Zuck gives some primary rules in determining what is figurative and what is literal:
a) Always take a passage literally unless there is ample reason not to.
b) If it is impossible for it to be literal, then the figurative sense is intended.
c) If the literal interpretation is an absurdity, then the figurative approach should be used.
d) Take note of a literal statement immediately following a figurative statement.39
Syntax comes from the Greek word syntassein, which means “to place in order together.”36 Syntax is the process of determining the relationship between words and how they are used together to form sentences, phrases, etc. The order in which words appear and how they are used relationally can make a significant difference in what it is saying. It is important for the interpreter to determine the correct usage of a sentence or phrase by examining this relationship of words.
Literary genre is a category depicting the various forms or types of literature found throughout the Bible. Some of the primary categories are: Legal/Law – consisting primarily of the Pentateuch, replete with a systematic form of rules, ordinances, etc. Narrative – consisting of a story that entails a crisis, problem, or issue that might occur in an individual(s) life with progressive problems that finally reach a climax. Ultimately, the story will end with some form of a solution or victory. Poetry – books put to song, prose, and lament with the intention to convey an important message. Wisdom Literature – consisting primarily of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes because of the vast amount of wisdom given. Gospels – the form of literature used to describe the life of Christ complete with biography, doctrine, and narrative. This form of literature consists of the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of John. Logical Discourse – these are the epistles that can be found throughout the New Testament. Two kinds of epistles exist: expository and hortatory discourse.38 Prophetic Literature – material that consists of information, revelation, and disclosures pertaining to future events. The Book of Revelation written by John is most notable for this form of literature.
A synecdoche is a phrase used to substitute a part of something for a whole or a whole for a part. The term Gentiles is used quite frequently to represent all that are not Jewish. In yet another example in the Olivet Discourse when Jesus was talking about the end-times and days of tribulation, he spoke of two men in the field, one will be taken and the other left (Matthew 24:40). He was not speaking of their being just two men, he was speaking in generalities of many men that will be taken and many that will be left. This is an example of synecdoche.
A merism is a type of synecdoche that comprises of two opposing parts signifying a whole singular concept. An example of such can be found in Isaiah 11:6: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…” Although these exact animals may in fact live amongst one another peacefully someday, the message here is that there will be a universal peace that will transcend the earth when Christ returns to forever reign. A time when all living creatures, great and small, will live peacefully with one another here in the new earth or in the kingdom of God.
A hendiadys is as Zuck states, “the substituting of two coordinate terms (joined by “and”) for a single concept in which one of the elements defines the other.”40 One example of a hendiadys can be found in I Thessalonians 3:12: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…”Here, “increase and overflow” can be used as “increasingly overflow”. May the Lord make your love “increasingly overflow” for each other and for everyone else.
Personification is the attachment of human characteristics or expression to anything that is not a human. One such example can be given in Isaiah 14:8, “Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, ‘Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.”
An anthropomorphism is the ascribing of human elements to God. Recently, on a local Christian radio station I was listening to R.C. Sproul. He asked the listening audience to close their eyes and to visualize what God looks like to them. Afterwards, he called upon certain people to describe what they envisioned. Some envisioned God as depicted in Michelangelo’s famous painting at The Sistine Chapel in Italy of the old yet muscular man reaching out to Adam. Others envisioned him as a spirit containing human emotions and characteristics. These are all considered to be anthropomorphisms.
An anthropopathism is a type of figure of speech attaching human emotions and expressions to God. Such an example can be found in Nahum 1:2a, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.” Jealousy is a component of human emotions, thus an anthropopathism.
A zoomorphism is the ascribing of animal characteristics to God.41 Shortly after the mass exodus from Egypt, the Israelites encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses then went up to the mountain to receive instruction from God. God told Moses what to say to the people. “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) “eagles’ wings” is an animal feature used to describe God’s carrying the people out of Egypt.
An apostrophe is a figure of speech describing someone speaking or talking to an object as if it were a person. Additionally, it is the description of someone speaking to an absent or imaginative person. An example of this is when Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33) Satan himself was probably not physically there. The Bible makes no reference to it. Yet Jesus addressed Satan as if he was right there amongst the disciples.
A euphemism is “the substituting of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive or personal one.”42 Euphemism comes from the Greek word, euphemismos, which means auspicious or to sound good.43
An ellipsis is a set of words to be added by the reader to better understand what seems to be an incomplete sentence or phrase. In Romans 5:13, it says, “For until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” (NASB). For until the Law what? The reader simply adds, “was given” to understand this verse more clearly.
A zeugma is a sentence containing two nouns associated with one verb, when only one noun would suffice. An example of a zeugma can be found in Luke 1:64 which reads, “His mouth was opened and his tongue.” Here there are clearly two nouns associated with only one verb. As Zuck stated, “The NIV has supplied the words “was loosed” after the word “tongue” in order to render the sentence in good English.”44
An aposiopesis is a sudden break in a sentence. This is usually due in part to the character’s overwhelming emotions. Such example can be given in I Peter 2:4-5,“As you come to him, the living Stone rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It can be speculated that Peter, the author of this book, was caught up in the emotion at the time he wrote this, thus the sudden breaks in the sentences.
A rhetorical question is a question asked by someone that does not necessarily require an answer. It’s primary purpose is to make a certain point and to allow the reader to ponder the thought or reasoning rather than providing an answer. In my own estimation there is perhaps no more profound example of rhetorical questioning as can be found in the Book of Job. Instead of God answering Job’s questions, Job is presented with a series of many questions by God, questions that no man could ever answer. Such questions as:
– “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4)
– “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?” (Job 38:8)
– “What is the way to the abode of light?” (Job 38:19)
– “Have the gates of death been shown to you?” (Job 38:17)
– “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31)
There are many more that follow. God knew that Job couldn’t possibly even begin to answer these questions. God’s intention for these rhetorical questions was to simply get Job to recognize his awesome power and sovereignty.
A hyperbole is simply an expression used to emphasize a point by using slight exaggerations. One such example can be found in Matthew 18:21-22. Peter went up to Jesus and asked him how many times shall we forgive a brother when they sin against us. Peter went on and asked, “Up to seven times?” Jesus’ response was quite amazing. “Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus obviously did not mean for us to forgive someone only 77 times and after that, that’s it no more forgiveness. He meant that we shouldn’t even keep track of how often we should forgive someone. Just as we have been forgiven we too should also continuously forgive others as long as they are truly repentant and seeking our forgiveness.
A litotes is an understatement or a negative connotation to express a positive point or affirmation. When Paul was expressing how God had given him the grace to preach to the Gentiles, he referred to himself as “the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8). Additionally, when expressing how Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners, Paul referred to himself as the “worst of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). The King James version says he was the “chief” of sinners. Nevertheless, the underlying point is that Christ can save anyone, even Paul, who as he claims, is the worst of all sinners.
Webster’s dictionary defines irony as, “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.”45 When Jesus was explaining to the religious leaders who his Father was, the leaders were responding by saying God was their Father. Jesus then responded with, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:44) At first glance it sounds as if Jesus was agreeing with them saying, “You belong to your father…”, then He equivocally continues by saying, “the devil”. He goes on to agree that they do in fact carry out their father’s desires.
A pleonasm is a repetition of words or the adding of similar words.46 Perhaps an example of a pleonasm can be given from Psalm 17:6, “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” The passage, “Give ear to me and hear my prayer” seems to be a slight repetition of words or expression. Instead, the Psalmist could’ve said, “give ear to my prayer” and the question would’ve been the same with less words.
An oxymoron is an expression containing two opposing words to make a point. The word oxymoron comes from two Greek words oxus (“sharp”) and moros(“stupid”).47 Paul gave many oxymorons when he was addressing the Corinthians about the importance of not being yoked together with unbelievers. For example:
– “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
– “Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
– “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”
– “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”
These can also be construed as rhetorical questions. However, these questions contain opposing words to enforce the issue more clearly. Another oxymoron can be found when Jesus was speaking of who will be first in the kingdom of God. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30) Here are two opposite phrases used together in the same sentence, an oxymoron.
A paradox is an expression of terms containing what might seem an absurdity or contrary to normal opinion.48 An example of a paradox can be found in Galatians 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Obviously, Paul was not literally crucified with Christ on the same day Christ was crucified on the hill at Golgotha. Additionally, the term “crucified” is not synonymous with “life” such as how Paul uses it in this passage. This is considered a paradox.
A paronomasia is better known as a “play on words”. These words sometimes contain a two-fold meaning. Webster’s defines paronomasia as, “to call with a slight change of name.”49 A good example of a paronomasia can be be found in Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus knew Peter and Andrew’s trade as fishermen. He knew they could catch fish physically. Instead Jesus chose the words, “fishers of men” so that Jesus could show them how to be productive spiritually. Like bringing fish out of the water so to were Peter and Andrew to bring men out of one element into another.
This is a word by which the sound of the word itself is also the very meaning of it. Such examples are: bang, clang, chirp, buzz, ring, etc. In the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13, Paul uses an onomatopoeia in verse 1. “If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have no love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” The word “gong” is not only a percussion instrument, it is also the sound it makes. Additionally, the word “clanging” is also the very sound a cymbal makes (clang) when struck together. These are all examples of an onomatopoeia.
An idiom is an expression used that seems strange or foreign to certain people because the expression itself is unique to another group of people. Culture seems to have a substantial influence on how idioms are used. Zuck gives an example of the differences in the expression, “He has a hard heart,” which in English means, he is stubborn, or indifferent to another’s needs or desires. However, in the Shipibo language of Peru, the expression means, “he is brave.”50 Quite the opposite of our English rendering of the expression.
How does this differ from a typical figure of speech? It differs only because the expression is unique to a certain people group or country. Whereas, a figure of speech is generally acknowledged or better understood universally and is more commonly used.
One example of an idiom used in the Bible can be found in the book of Acts. At Paul’s conversion while he was on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him.“He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) The literal Aramaic rendering of the term, “why do you persecute me?” is, “Why do you continue to kick against the goads?” This term is used later when Paul is giving his defense before King Agrippa. “About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:13-14) According to Webster’s dictionary, a goad is, “a pointed rod used to urge on an animal”.51 An oxgoad was a pointed stick commonly used in the Middle East generally to prod cattle. Saul was making a pointless effort in urging the Christians to recant or turn from their faith, ultimately he was only hurting himself. He was “kicking against the goads”.
Like figures of speech, an idiom can mistakenly be considered to go against literal interpretations or be considered as mistakes. Idioms should not be thought of as that. Zuck explains, “Idioms should not be thought of as mistakes in the Scriptures; they are ways in which the thought is conveyed in that native language.”52 When the interpreter begins to understand the underlying meaning of a particular expression, in this case an idiom, by consulting his Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, he will get a certain idea as to the true meaning of what the writer was originally trying to convey. Without referring to Bible reference books, the interpreter will be ignorant to the meaning of certain idioms and expressions used throughout the Scriptures.
I once read a story about a group of men from Wycliffe Bible Translators who were missionaries/Bible translators living in a remote village of Central Africa. In their attempt in translating the Bible to the local natives they ran across many obstacles of linguistics. One such example was their attempt in trying to translate the expression, “light of the world” found in John 8:12. The local natives had no idea what the expression meant since they themselves knew not what light was. The only light they were familiar with was the light that emitted from small contained fires, just enough to light up a small village. So the interpreters had to provide a translation into their native tongue that best describes a light unto the world. A universal light. This is an example of an idiom. “Light of the world” is an expression used that a specific group of people were simply unfamiliar with. The translators had to come up with an interpretation that the natives could readily understand.
A symbol is a depiction represented by an object or action to give a meaning or purpose. In my own opinion, there is perhaps no more profound and controversial symbol used than that of the Lord’s Supper. For centuries past, the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper/Communion has been very divisive. It was because of this symbolism, one of the reasons the Protestant church was formed. For many years the Catholic church believed in the literal partaking of Christ’s body and blood in what is called, “transubstantiation”. They believe that Christ’s body is literally transformed into the bread, or wafer. Likewise, his blood is transformed into the wine. The partaker then consumes his flesh and blood and is thus receiving Christ into his or her own body. This is in essence similar to a minor form of cannibalism.
It is apparent to us as Protestants that this is obviously a fallacy. We most certainly believe that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is symbolic of Christ’s body that was broken and His blood that was shed for us. The bread is symbolic of His broken body, the wine/fruit of the vine is symbolic of His shed blood.
How can we better interpret what is meant to be symbolic versus a literal interpretation? Zuck provides 9 essential principles in determining and interpreting symbols. Briefly, they are:
1. Observe the three elements in symbols (the object, the reference, and meaning).
2. Remember symbols have their base in reality.
3. Determine the meaning or resemblance, if any is assigned to the text.
4. If no meaning is given in the verse, check other references to it within the Scriptures.
5. Be cautious in assigning the correct characteristics to the symbol.
6. Look for major point or resemblance.
7. Realize one referent may be depicted by several objects.
8. Pertaining to prophetic literature, do not assume the whole passage contains symbolism.
9. Do not assume all future things prophetic are symbolic when it is possible to be literal.53
What is a parable?
A parable is simply a fictitious story that illustrates a religious principle or truth. The word finds it’s root in the Greek word parabole which refers to short statements and proverbs also called similitudes. There are many parables found throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famous are those told by Christ to His disciples. However, these particular forms of parables are not found in John’s gospel, they are found extensively in the Synoptics.54
The Parabolic Teachings of Jesus
The question is asked, “Why did Jesus teach in parables?” Jesus used parables primarily for two purposes. Zuck states, “One was to reveal truths to his followers and the other was to conceal truth from “those on the outside” (Mark 4:11).”55 However, these two purposes seem to contradict one another. But as you will see, there were legitimate reasons behind these purposes.
Jesus wanted to truly impart his truths and teachings to his disciples unhindered. He desired for them to learn and grow from these most profound illustrations. Jesus knew that these parables would be forever written on the hearts of men and women and would make disciples of of people for centuries to come. He employed the use of parables to enlighten, exhort, and edify the believers. On the other hand, He also knew that the ones who were plotting to kill Him, and setting out to destroy Him, such as the religious leaders, i.e. Pharisees, Saducees, etc. would be unable to understand or comprehend the true underlying spiritual meaning of his parables. They were simply blinded by the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief. To the unbeliever, on the surface these parables seemed like mere stories containing good moral principles. However, they contained much more than that, they were “meat” for spiritual growth and stories to help illustrate godly principles for living.
Jesus also knew the effectiveness of using parables. Generally, He used stories containing elements that the average person could relate to. I personally have made an observation that a majority of the parables contain some form of element relating to agriculture or farming. Such examples as the parable of: Sheep and Wolves (Matt. 7:15), The Soils (Mark 4:4-8), The Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19), The Workers in the Harvest (Matt. 20:1-6), The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), just to name a few. Unlike today, this was a common way of life for most people living at that time. Because of this, Jesus was able to maintain their attention and focus and effectively communicate to them the underlying spiritual implications of these stories.
Additionally, these parables moved the listener to think. It required much thought and effort to understand and decipher the meaning of the parable. It stimulated the mind and aroused their curiosity. It moved them to enact and apply the message to their own lives.
Jesus was obviously well acquainted with the purpose and effectiveness in using parables. Parables were commonly used in the era in which Christ lived. Even more so in the Middle East. He knew what the results would be in using His parabolic teachings. It would cause growth for some, yet blind others, his enemies.
I have demonstrated the important need for hermeneutics in it’s most basic sense. We can conclude that it is absolutely imperative for any serious student of the Bible to apply the given processes of interpretation to his or her studies. Without a systematic approach to Biblical interpretation, the translation can run amok and thus be a stumbling block to others and ultimately to oneself. The processes of interpretation, knowing and understanding the many aspects of the English literary language and figures of speech, and with a basic knowledge of at least one of the original languages of the Bible can better equip the student and/or believer to not only understand and comprehend the Word of God, but to withstand the many liberal translations and interpretations of the Bible that is so rampant in our society today.
I do sincerely hope that this article has provided a clear and concise basic overview about the system of hermeneutics. Just prior to taking this course I had absolutely no idea what hermeneutics was. It is considered a required course for all seminary students and I am glad it is. Like it has with me, I hope you as the reader can apply this knowledge of Biblical interpretation to help benefit your studies of God’s most precious Word, the Bible. God Bless.
For further reading and studies on this issue, I strongly suggest two particular books that were course requirements for me. They are:
- Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm (1970) Baker Book House
- Basic Bible Interpretation by Dr. Roy Zuck (1991) Chariot Victor Publishing
1 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970)2
2 Mal Couch, Ph.D., Hermeneutics Course Notes , 2
4 Ramm. Ibid. 16
5 Richard E. Oster, Jr., “Corinth” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)134
6 Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958)112-113
7 Oster. Ibid. 134
8 Ramm. Ibid. 15-16
9 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1991)13
10 Zuck. Ibid. 10
11 Mal Couch. Ibid.
12 NIV Life Application Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. and Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991) 2121
13 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
14 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
15 John W. Drane, “Paul” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)576
16 Noah Webster, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1974)30
17 Zuck. Ibid. 221
18 Ramm. Ibid. 24-45
19 Zuck. Ibid. 36
20 Ramm. Ibid. 32-33
21 Zuck. Ibid. 36
22 Zuck. Ibid. 45
23 Zuck. Ibid. 45
24 Ramm. Ibid. 53-57
25 Zuck. Ibid. 51
26 Zuck. Ibid. 52
27 Zuck. Ibid. 52
28 Ramm. Ibid. 75-76
29 Zuck. Ibid. 52-53
30 Ramm. Ibid. 83-91
31 Webster. Ibid. 991
32 Ramm. Ibid. 93
33 Zuck. Ibid. 90
34 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. VI “1 Corinthians (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1935)561
35 Zuck. Ibid. 100-101
36 Zuck. Ibid. 117
37 Zuck. Ibid. 124
38 Zuck. Ibid. 134
39 Zuck. Ibid. 146
40 Zuck. Ibid. 151
41 Zuck. Ibid. 152
42 Zuck. Ibid. 152
43 Webster. Ibid. 394
44 Zuck. Ibid. 153
45 Webster. Ibid. 611
46 Zuck. Ibid. 159
47 Zuck. Ibid. 159
48 Zuck. Ibid. 160
49 Webster. Ibid. 834
50 Zuck. Ibid. 165
51 Webster. Ibid. 493
52 Zuck. Ibid. 166
53 Zuck. Ibid. 1185-187
54 Dr. Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963)12
55 Zuck. Ibid. 197
This article was written and submitted by: Gregory B. Dill, who manages a Christian website called The Dill’s Family Home page. If you want good, thorough Bible studies, you need to visit this site. “This contributed article is copyright protected, and the sole property of the contributing author. The materiel may be freely used by anyone, as long as it is not sold or in any way used for monetary or property gain by the users!” Document expiration: indefinite.