How do you interpret the Bible? How do we know the best way to interpret the Bible?
I’ve suggested an acronym H.E.A.R.T.S. for some good hermeneutical principles.
HEBREW AUDIENCE – Remember that both the Old and New Testaments are thoroughly Hebrew. Jesus was a first century Jewish man who thought and taught like one. In order to understand his teaching, we must think like an ancient Hebrew as well. Every teaching in the New Testament is based upon Jesus’ teaching, and Jesus’ teaching was expounding upon the Old Testament. They are layers of the same message. Additionally, we must understand that Jews read their Bible on three levels at once; 1) the literal level, which was the basic story; 2) the moral level, which was the story behind the story; and 3) the spiritual level, which was about the overarching covenantal message. The literal level was for teaching children the basic stories, the covenantal level is what a mature believer should aspire to understand. And that is what we are trying to do here – help you understand the Scriptures on the covenantal level.
The New Testament letters are one side of a two-sided conversation between the original audience of new believers and more mature Apostolic responders. The letters we have are the “answers” from the Apostles to the new believers’ “questions” about things within the first century Hebrew context. They were asking about how to understand and live by the Hebrew scriptures which had been – and were about to be – fulfilled in Jesus. Today we have their “answers” as the New Testament, but we can only infer what their original questions were.
AUDIENCE RELEVANCE – What did the text mean to the original reader? What was the first century Jewish writer trying to say? Look at the:
- The audience to whom the statement is presented. How would the intended first recipients hear Jesus? How would the original audience understand an epistle from Paul? For one thing, the “you” in Scripture was THEM not US!
- The overall context of the statement. What was going on in the first century and in their lives to spark the New Testament letters? When Paul says things like “in light of the present crisis” behave this way, or “the time is short” so behave that way…to what is HE referring?
- The overall clarity of the statement. By clarity I mean, in what sense is a term being used? Is it being used in a way that would be more apparent to the original first century largely Hebrew & Greek readers than us? Look to other uses of a word in the Old and New Testament to gain clarification of the terms used in the statement. What genre of literature is it? What do the terms “generation”, “elements” and “resurrection from the dead ones” mean when studied in light of ALL the uses of those terms in Scripture?
TIMING STATEMENTS – Christianity has canonized doubt in the Scriptures, all the while thinking it has faith in them! A Fulfilled view will do much to help a person see the extent to which they doubted and twisted the Scriptures before realizing that the timing statements about WHEN something prophetic is said to be or about to be happening is KEY to understanding the nature of the issue at hand.
When a good translation of a New Testament letter says something is “about to” happen “soon”, it’s about to happen soon. The authors meant what they said. And soon means soon in human terms, just like everything else written in the Bible has meaning relative to human terms. Things don’t get wacky all of a sudden in the ‘time’ category. And something amazing DID happen in the covenantal – not cosmic – world in 70AD.
Try believing the plain, simple rendering of the 100 + imminent timing statements in Scripture. If you find it hard to believe something you read has happened already, try considering the genre of literature it is, then look up the way those terms are used in the Old Testament. Then consider, if Jesus and the author in question was wrong about the timing of Jesus’ coming, then what else are they wrong about? Over 1/3 of the New Testament is eschatological and pushing toward an imminent ‘end’ of something. In order to rightly divide the Bible story, it is imperative that you understand the nature and timing of what was being urgently and everywhere discussed – what was ending and what was beginning in their midst? What has ended and begun in ours?
FEAR OF PUNISHMENT AND LOYALTY TO TRADITION
A word must be given to the role of FEAR and LOYALTY to church tradition to drive people’s Biblical interpretation off track. Ask yourself, “WHAT IS YOUR ONLY RULE OF FAITH AND PRACTICE?” Is it the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible? Hermeneutics is “the study or science of interpreting the Scriptures.” The Westminster Confession of Faith states that, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, IS THE SCRIPTURE ITSELF; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture … it must be searched and known by other places [IN SCRIPTURE] that speak more clearly.” J.I. Packer states this another way when he says, “that we must give ourselves in Bible study to following out the unities, cross-references and topical links which Scripture provides.”. Amen to this. If only more people actually did this.
Many churches teach that Scripture is their only rule of faith and practice, yet, when it comes down to the eschatology of the Bible, which the Reformers themselves did not understand correctly, churches depart from the plain and consistent message of Scripture and hide behind outdated church dogma, incorrect ideas of past confessions and creeds. At the end of the day, many pastors are afraid of rustling feathers and losing their jobs, or are ashamed of questioning authority simply by siding with Scripture over incorrect man-made ideas that have embedded themselves in the modern Christian imagination – like a “future” and “bodily” return of Jesus. Even though Scripture itself, when contextually understood, consistently contradicts this! Their forced loyalty to tradition is a result of our flawed hierarchical church structures, not just hermeneutics. But these things are intricately related so I mention this here because one effects the other. If you’re going to lose your job by coming to a fulfilled view, most pastors will pass on “seeing” it in Scripture and choose instead to go with the mainstream and simply do what is expected of them. Who wants to lose their church, their high pastoral status, and their means of supporting their family, over an eschatological shift? Only a VERY BRAVE person would do that. And some have. However, if we follow good hermeneutical principles to their own consistent conclusion, letting the Scripture direct our theology and not dogma or tradition, this leads us right into fulfilled eschatology – and true freedom from a fear-based message and freedom from controlling church powers. This is the great church dilemma of our age – do we follow good hermeneutical principles and Scripture where it leads us – or stay loyal to tradition out of FEAR?