Hermeneutics. This refers to the method or procedure by which one interprets communication of any kind; whether it is a TV news report, a newspaper editorial, a Sunday morning sermon, or a Facebook post. Biblical hermeneutics is the process by which one interprets the text of Scripture.
Now when we encounter communication of any kind, we have an automatic, instinctive way of processing that information. You could say we have a default hermeneutic, but this is done unconsciously. We don’t mentally and deliberately go through a process to determine the meaning of what we have heard or read. This default hermeneutic is the result of all the things that have influenced us as we were growing up. Our experiences and education have shaped our beliefs and attitude about the world. The culture in which we live has conditioned us to see things a certain way. By the time we reach a certain age this default hermeneutic is pretty much locked in place, and will remain with us unless we make a conscious decision to think differently.
Now, when we read Scripture we encounter a mental block; we are instinctively processing the biblical data through our default hermeneutic, and the result is either not being able to understand what we are reading, or worse, we are misunderstanding it. This is because of the gaps which exist between us, as 21st century evangelicals, and the Bible. The first gap is the language gap. Before we can interpret a text we must know what it actually says. Each language has its own peculiar expressions, idioms, and figures of speech, as well as grammatical or structural forms. Have you ever read some saying of Jesus in the Gospels, in an English translation, and then just sit there scratching your head, wondering what in the world could that mean? Your default hermeneutic has no way to process the information. This might be because what Jesus said was an idiom which would have been completely understood by the original hearers but not by us. The Scriptures were written in Hebrew(OT) and Greek(NT). These languages are quite different from English, and though translators try to do their best, the nuances of the original languages often get lost in the translation.
The second gap is the historical gap. The Bible was written over a period of hundreds of years. The earliest biblical writing was penned about 3500yrs. ago; the latest about 2000yrs. ago. The historical setting and circumstances in which they were written vary from each other as well as from our own time. The historical milieu in which each book was written must surely have a bearing on its proper interpretation.
The third gap is the cultural gap. The ancient culture of the Hebrew people is as much different from our 21st century American culture as night is from day. Culture involves the peculiar customs, religious practices, social norms, and philosophy of life of a people. How a people view human life, marriage and family, death, work, religion, etc. is all part of their culture.
Because of these gaps we must not simply rely on our default hermeneutic in our quest to understand Scripture. We must deliberately choose a different hermeneutic which takes into account the linguistic, historical, and cultural contexts of the biblical writings. Yes , this takes a little work, but the serious student of Scripture will consider it a worthwhile effort. Today there are abundant resources available online, much of it free of charge, so avail yourselves of these tools.
One final thing to consider. There is another aspect of our default hermeneutic which can be a hindrance to accurate biblical interpretation —– our theological presuppositions. Whatever theological system we have been indoctrinated into, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, becomes the overriding factor in how we interpret Scripture. For example: A person who has been raised in the Mormon religion, when he reads the Bible, he believes he sees the peculiar doctrines of Mormonism in it’s pages. He sees them there because he believes a.) Mormonism is true and b.) the Bible is true. Therefore a.) + b.) = c.) the Bible must be teaching Mormonism’s doctrines. The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having fully accepted the theology of the system to which they adhere, and having accepted the Bible as revelation from God, they must find the beliefs of that system in the pages of the Bible. Therefore in both of these cases the doctrines of the respective systems are read into the words of Scripture. When they come across something in Scripture which seems to contradict their belief system they do not change their belief to fit the truth of Scripture, but they twist and distort the Scripture to fit their belief.
Now while this may seem obvious to a evangelical Protestant, regarding Mormons and JW’s, it is not quite as obvious regarding themselves. Take a Calvinist for example. Having bought into that system he truly believes he sees its doctrines on every page of Scripture. But this is not because the Bible really teaches it, but because the belief system must be upheld. Like the Mormon and the JW, the Calvinist is locked into a certain hermeneutic that prevents him from ascertaining the true meaning of the words of Scripture. When he encounters the word ‘elect’ or ‘predestined’ in the Bible he just assumes these concepts mean what his belief system tells him they mean. No attempt is made to discover what these concepts mean in the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of the ancient Hebrew people. No, they simply must mean what a late 4th century Latin Church father said they mean.
So, what can be done? Can we really break free from our theological presuppositions and study Scripture with unbiased minds? I believe we can and I believe we must. But how? First of all, our overriding commitment must be to truth rather than to any system of theology, any tradition, any favorite teacher or church father, any creed or council. Truth must be paramount. Next, we must seek God’s help. Some years ago I began to seek God, asking Him to show me if anything that I was believing as true was in fact a man -made tradition. I honestly wanted to know and was willing to abandon any belief that I could not substantiate by Scripture. I began to examine all the “orthodox” doctrines of Christianity to see if they could hold up under close scrutiny. One by one they began to fall and the truth that I had previously been blind to became clear to me. My hope is that I may encourage others to do the same. Study Scripture with a deep commitment to truth, wherever it might lead. Examine all that you have been taught. Seek God’s guidance. Be willing to go with the truth He shows you, no matter what the cost, “for you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”