In this series we started by looking at some micro-hermeneutical issues (what I call mechanical hermeneutics) and then moved on to macro-hermeneutics (big ideas, story, etc). Now, we are returning to mechanical issues.
In interpreting and applying a passage from the Bible, there are some key questions to ask yourself. Here are a few of the more important ones (not a complete list):
1. What genre is the text in question?
This is a pretty simple but important question. Is the text poetry, letter, history, law, prophecy, parable, apocalyptic? These are just some of the genres found in the Bible and each needs to be interpreted differently.
2. If it is a letter/epistle, is it “occasional”, “general”, “pastoral”, etc
Much of the New Testament is made up of letters (or epistles) from one individual to either another individual (such as 1 & 2 Timothy, Philemon), a particular community (such as 1 & 2 Corinthians) or to a more generalized community and meant to be circulated (such as Romans). 1st & 2nd Corinthians, for example, is what is called an “occasional letter”. This means it was written to a specific group of people to address very specific issues. It is also part of a correspondence to which we only have Paul’s side (kind of like listening to one side of a telephone conversation). This raises some definite interpretive challenges.
3. Is a command given “specific” or “universal”?
There are lots of commands and imperatives in the Bible — both Old Testament and New Testament. The key question to know whether the commands and imperatives are specific (and time-bound) or universal (and still apply). Sometimes it is easy to figure out, other times not so much.
For example, which do you think these are?
“Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Tim 5:23)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also shouldwash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak…” (1 Corinthians 14:34)
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)
“Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…” (1 Corinthians 11:14)
I could list dozens of examples, but you get the idea. Again, sometimes it is easy to discern and other times less so. But either way, it an important question to answer when interpreting a passage.
4. Is a theological issue considered “essential” or “non-essential”?
Some issues/theological positions have been considered “essentials” to believe to be part of historical orthodox Christianity. Examples of “essential doctrines” include the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc. Generally these are the issues you find addressed in the historical creeds. Examples of “non-essential” items are things like end-time theology, whether creation is a literal 7 days or not, different theologies of worship or sacraments, etc. While people may be passionate about these issues, it not essential that all Christians agree. There can be multiple faithful readings and faithful answers. Our approach to theology should be “In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” (This phrase is often wrongly attributed to Augustine but comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius.) This is such an important issue, I am going to do a whole post on it before I end this series on hermeneutics.
And here are some general principles to remember:
1. The principle of authorial integrity.
We should presume that authors don’t contradict themselves — that there integrity in their writings from book to book. We also need to respect the idea that thought and theology develops. So when reading Paul, it is helpful to know which letter was written when. His later writings probably carry more weight than his early writings when it comes to developing theological convictions.
2. The principle of canonical consistency.
I come to the task of hermeneutics with a posture of faith, so I assume that there is consistency in the meta-narrative of the full canon of scripture. My assumption is consistency and therefore try to interpret with this in mind. Some people assume inconsistency and contradictions; that is not my approach. There must be string evidence to support an inconsistent interpretation.
3. The principle of temporal context.
We need to assume that the text had a particular meaning to a particular person or group of persons at a particular moment in time. Our first interpretive task is to try and understand what that message was, why that message was given, and how it was to be applied. We can only then begin to ask what it means for us today.
4. The principle of textual syntax.
Grammar, language, etc, all matter. We need to take syntax into consideration when interpreting.
5. The principle of discourse analysis.
This is particularly helpful with epistles or sermons embedded in the text. We need to look at what the whole argument being made is, why it is being made, and then why it is being made in the manner it is. Who is the intended audience? What is the issue at stake? Why is the argument being made the way it is to this particular audience? These are all important — and at times complex — questions.
6. The principle of consistent interpretation.
We need to have consistency in how we interpret. This is true within a passage (or even a verse) and within the whole canon. Where we do not have consistency, we must have a good reason to do so. This is particularly important in figuring out what parts of the Old Testament law still apply today — but this issue comes up all the time and needs to be taken seriously.
And one final pair of questions, based on all our other analysis:
Given what we have discovered through the hermeneutical process (spiral, circle, story, hinges, center, etc) (a) WHAT DOES THE TEXT SAY, and (b) WHAT DOES THE TEXT NOT SAY?
This last step is pretty critical because of what Deuteronomy warns us about God’s Word:
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands
of the LORD your God that I give you. (Deut 4:2)
In other words, we neither want to take away from God’s Word (and so we must ask, “what does it say?”) nor do we want to add to God’s Word (and so we must ask, “what does it not say?”) To require something of people that the Bible does not is to add to God’s Word — and as bad as taking away from God’s word.
So there are some questions and principles we need to remember as we dive in to interpret a specific text.