Introductory Thoughts on Biblical Interpretation

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to engage the issue of hermeneutics with my fellow elders and with a few other pastor friends. Below is a brief outline of some of my basic hermeneutical convictions and exegetical practices that I prepared for my discussion with these brothers. I pray that this outline is helpful for you as you think through your own approach to biblical interpretation. These comments are meant to be introductory (not comprehensive) so feel free to dialog about these principles in the comment section. 

Definitions
Hermeneutics refers to the principles that a biblical interpreter uses to arrive at the meaning of the biblical text. Meaning refers to what was intended by the original human author and, ultimately, the Divine Author.

Presuppositions
(1) The Bible is God’s Word and therefore inerrant and coherent. This implies that the Bible is without any contradictions and possesses an inherent unity that can be discovered by the interpreter. We can, therefore, speak of biblical texts (plural) and the Bible as a text (singular).

(2) The Bible is both a supernatural book (God-breathed) and a natural book (written by men), so it requires both supernatural reading (the illumination of and removal of spiritual blindness by the Holy Spirit) and natural reading (the use of normal means like attention to words, grammar, authorial intent, understanding context and historical backgrounds, etc.). If either of these elements is missing in our labor of interpretation, our efforts will fail and we will not arrive at the full and true meaning of the text.

Principles
(1) In my study of the biblical text, I am seeking to understand the Divine Author’s meaning, which is accessed through the human author’s written text.

(2) I believe the context of a particular verse and/or passage determines its meaning. This context should be understood as the immediate context (verses and passages immediately before and after the text in question), the chapter context, the section (of the book) context, the author’s corpus context (e.g., Paul’s epistles, The Law of Moses), the testament context (NT or OT), and whole-bible context. These contexts should be pursued in the order they are listed above: First the immediate context, second, the chapter context, etc. (see exegetical method below). Nevertheless, it is appropriate, because the Bible is a text (see Presupposition #1), to cycle through these contexts in order to better understand the text in question.

(3) I seek to understand what the author meant in his text; therefore, I prefer to speak of authorial intent rather than making a pre-commitment to literal v. figurative use of language (e.g., saying, “I interpret the Bible ‘literally,'”).

(4) Written texts have a single meaning, not multiple meanings. This single meaning, however, may not be fully understood until later revelation provides further knowledge of a given text or class of texts.

(5) The text, categories, and intra-textual hermeneutics (e.g., NT use of the OT; OT use of the OT) of Scripture determine our hermeneutical approach. In other words, the Bible itself is authoritative in dictating our hermeneutics. This means that the hermeneutical approaches of biblical authors actually teach us how to interpret the Bible.

(6) Regarding NT interpretation, I do not believe that the NT authors, for example, were given a special prerogative (i.e., a hermeneutic that cannot be reproduced by future interpreters) to circumvent or reinterpret the original meaning of those OT texts. No, these men were taught by the Holy Spirit to read those texts the way God always intended them to be read in light of progressive revelation and their fulfillment in Christ. I am not suggesting that the apostles did not receive new revelation; of course they did, as Paul’s use of the category of “mystery” indicates. But where the apostles interpreted OT texts, they did so using appropriate, biblically-warranted hermeneutical principles.

(7) Regarding OT interpretation, I do not attempt (nor do I think it is neither possible nor wise to attempt) to evacuate my mind of Christian convictions as I seek to interpret the OT text in question. This does not mean I rush to conclusions when interpreting an OT text (inserting superficial NT conclusions where they are unwarranted) or that I ignore the grammatical-historical context of the OT text; but I do come to an OT text with the advantage of knowing to what these OT texts are ultimately pointing to in Jesus Christ. I do not re-interpret the OT by the NT, I read the OT in light of the NT.

Exegetical Approach (Hermeneutics Applied)
(1) I pray and ask God for help in interpreting the text and I repent from known sin and the pursuit of personal glory, because sin (particularly pride) will blind the interpreter to what the text is really saying (see John 5:38-44). I pray for God’s help throughout the interpretive process.

(2) I study the text in question in the original languages (most of the time, when I can), paying attention to grammar, word usage, syntax, and the flow of the argument. I study historical backgrounds where necessary.

(3) I inquire of the immediate context in order to better understand the text in question. This immediate context usually consists of paragraphs coming immediately before and immediately after the text in question.

(4) I then inquire of the larger book in which the text falls, paying attention to how a certain author uses words throughout that book in order to best determine how he uses words in the text in question. This requires reading the book and the study of particular words and phrases in the book.

(5) I then inquire (if necessary), an author’s larger corpus (if studying Galatians, I consider how he uses the word “law” elsewhere in his letters) in order to understand an author’s categories of thought, concepts, words, and so on.

(6) I then inquire of the Bible’s redemptive-historical development and how a text falls within the flow of progressive revelation. I ask if and how a given author is using or alluding to past revelation and how that might shape his meaning of the text in question. I look for explicit and implicit connections between the given text and past revelation so that I might discern textual and theological development of a given set of words or concepts.

(7) I then inquire of the whole of biblical revelation in order to determine if my interpretation is valid in light of all of Scripture. This coherence with the whole of Scripture includes coherence within biblical-theological categories (how the redemptive-historical storyline unfolds) and coherence with systematic-theological categories.

Final Notes
(1) Because of these complexities and the effort that goes into understanding the Bible, I do not like to speak of the “plain meaning” of Scripture because this usually means “what is plain to a particular interpreter” or can imply that meaning of a text can be discerned without study or attention to historical and biblical context, etc.

(2) I believe that the more I study the Scripture and submit to the text, categories, and intra-textual hermeneutics of the Bible, the more refined my hermeneutic will become. This means that the principles listed above will be continually sharpened and even modified in order to bring them more in line with God’s written revelation and thus, with God’s own mind and heart.

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