Posted By Thoma Perez. December 16, 2010 at 6:57pm.
“Hardly any study in the whole vast realm of intellectual life could be more important than the science of hermeneutics as applied to the Word of God, that which gives us an understanding of the eternal revelation of God to men.” –Wilbur M. Smith
Back in the first century an Ethiopian court official was in Gaza near Jerusalem doing business for the queen of Ethiopia. He was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah but wasn’t having much luck understanding what it meant. Under the direction of God, the apostle Phillip went up to the Ethiopian and asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian responded by saying, “Well, how could I unless someone guides me?” Phillip then explained what the Book of Isaiah was saying and how the passage they were looking at referred to Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian, now understanding the passage, believed in Jesus and was baptized.
Two points from this account in Acts 8:25–35 are worthy of notice. First, as the Ethiopian could testify to, seeing the words of the Bible does not mean that one understands the words of the Bible. It is possible to read the Bible but have no clue as to what it is talking about.
And second, proper guidance can help people understand the Bible. Phillip “opened his mouth” and explained what the passage meant so that the Ethiopian could know what it meant and then apply it to his life. Without Phillip’s guidance, the Ethiopian official would have remained in the dark about the Bible’s meaning.
Can you relate to the Ethiopian? How many times have you read the Bible only to wonder, “Now what does that mean?” If you have, don’t be too hard on yourself. Many people, myself included, have had the same experience.
What we want to do in these series of articles on How to Study the Bible, is offer principles and a plan for understanding and applying the Bible. Understanding the Bible is not rocket science but it still takes work. So in these series of articles we will discuss the things you need to be aware of and do to properly interpret and apply God’s Word.
I. The Need for Help: two examples
A. Read the account of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:25–35.
1. Does this text teach you anything about the need for help when studying the Bible?
2. Two observations from Acts 8:25–35
a. Seeing the words of the Bible does not automatically mean that a person will understand their meaning.
b. Proper guidance can help people understand the Bible.
B. Read Nehemiah 8:1–8. Ezra translated or explained the Word of God to the people so that they could understand its meaning.
II. Introduction to Hermeneutics
A. There is a name for the process of attempting to interpret and understand the Bible. This name is Hermeneutics.
B. Hermeneutics is the science and art of biblical interpretation.
1. Hermeneutics is a science because there are objective rules for studying the Bible.
2. Hermeneutics is an art because it takes skill and practice to accurately apply these rules.
“Hermeneutics. . . is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of the rules is by skill, and not by mechanical imitation.” (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 1)
Being a Bible interpreter is analogous to being a surgeon. There are objective rules by which a surgeon should perform surgery. Yet surgery is an art in that the surgeon must use his/her skill and good judgment when performing surgery. Not everyone who knows the rules for surgery will be a good surgeon. Nor is a person who has the potential to be a great surgeon a great surgeon without knowing the rules of surgery. Likewise, the interpreter of the Bible must know the rules of interpretation (science) and hone his/her skills of Bible interpretation (art).
NOTE: “The word hermeneutics is said to have had its origin in the name Hermes, the Greek god who served as messenger for the gods.” (Henry Virkler, Hermeneutics, 15).
III. Why Bible Interpretation (Hermeneutics) Is So Important
A. So we can understand what God has said. God has revealed His Word to us so it should be our top priority to find out what He has said.
“There is no profit to us if God has spoken and we do not know what He has said. Therefore it is our responsibility to determine the meaning of what God has given to us in Sacred Scripture.” (Ramm, 2).
B. So we can correctly apply what God has said. We cannot apply God’s Word to our lives if we don’t first correctly know what He has said. Remember, the ultimate goal of Bible study is heart appropriation not just head apprehension.
C. As evangelicals, the Bible is our sole authority so we must do what we can to understand it. There is no outside authority that is equal to the Bible or can tell us what the Bible says and means.
IV. Challenges to Correctly Interpreting the Bible
The first books of the Bible were written around 1400 B.C. The last book (Revelation) was written around 65 – 95 AD, scholars differ on this. Thus the Bible is an ancient book. This poses special challenges for those of us who want to correctly understand and apply the Bible. There are several gaps we must overcome.
A. Language gap. The Bible was originally written in three languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Fortunately, our English translations have done a great job of translating the Bible into our language, but it is helpful to be aware of some basic ideas about how these languages operated.
B. Time gap. Because thousands of years have passed since the Bible was written we do not have access to the original writers of Scripture, people who knew these writers, and the audiences to whom the books of the Bible were written. We can’t ask them, “What did you mean when you wrote that?” or “When you received this letter from Paul how did you understand this passage?”
C. Geographical gap. We live thousands of miles away from the actual countries and places in which the Bible characters lived. Often, we are not familiar with the lands of Egypt, Babylon, and Israel. We are often not familiar with the many areas where the apostle Paul traveled.
D. Cultural gap. People in Bible times simply did a lot of things differently than we do today. In order to understand the Bible better we need to understand the customs of the peoples back then.
1. Ex. Why did Abraham cut various animals in two pieces and why did God go between these pieces? (see Genesis 15). 2. Ex. Why did some people throw dust on their heads? (see Job 2:12; Ezek. 27:30).
E. Literary gap. The writers of the Bible used a wide variety of literary genres in their writings. The various literary genres include narrative, poetry, legal, wisdom, epistle, apocalyptic, and others. Some books of the Bible have a combination of these genres.
1. Are proverbs promises or general principles?
2. When the Bible says that the trees will clap their hands is that literal or figurative language?
F. Supernatural gap. Since the Bible is written by God it is a unique book. Like no other book, the Bible is God speaking to us. Since God is infinite and perfect and we are finite and tainted with sin, there are mysterious truths in the Bible and matters that are difficult to comprehend. Even Peter wrote, “Our dear brother Paul also wrote. . . some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15–16).
1. Ex. The Deity of Christ. How is it that God is one and yet the Son and Holy Spirit is called God are three persons within this one God?
2. Ex. The Bible speaks of predestination and election but it also tells us that we are fully responsible for our actions.
V. Qualifications for Interpreting the Bible
A. Must be Born Again and possess the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 2:14 states, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
1. First Corinthians 2:14 is not saying that unbelievers cannot intellectually understand most of the Bible. In fact, several nonbelievers have written helpful commentaries on what the Bible actually says. But the word “accept” (dechomai) means “to welcome.” Those who are saved welcome what the Word of God says and intend to apply it to their lives (see Acts 17:11 and 1 Thess. 1:6). Unbelievers, on the other hand, reject God’s Word and do not welcome it to change their lives. Unbelievers also “cannot understand” the words of God. The word for “understand” is ginosko which means “to know by experience.” As Roy Zuck, says, “Only the regenerate have the capacity to welcome and experience the Scriptures, by means of the Holy Spirit.” (Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 23).
B. Must understand the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation process.
1. The writings of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This ensures that the original writings or autographs of the Bible were one-hundred percent accurate in everything they affirmed.
2. Part of the Holy Spirit’s ministry includes illumination. Charles Ryrie says, “. . . illumination refers to the ministry of the Spirit by which the meaning of Scripture is made clear to the believer.” (Charles C. Ryrie, “Illumination,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 545). Thus, illumination is the process by which the Holy Spirit helps us understand the Bible.
3. The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, however, does not mean:
a. our interpretations are never wrong.
b. that we will fully understand the entire Bible.
c. that all Christians will agree on every passage of Scripture.
d. the Holy Spirit gives us intuitive flashes of insight apart from study of the Bible.
e. human teachers are not needed. The Bible stresses many times the need for spiritually gifted individuals to teach us the Word of God (See Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; and Eph. 4:11). We must be in balance on this issue. We should ignore the extremes of (1) never studying the Bible on our own because we have teachers and (2) having an unwillingness to listen to what others have discovered about the Word of God. Be teachable but be discerning.
C. Must study hard to understand the Bible. Second Timothy 2:15 states: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Understanding the Bible will not always come easy. Thus, there must be a willingness dig hard and withhold judgment on accepting an interpretation until a thorough review of a passage has been completed.
D. Must be willing to accept what the Bible says and reject any false ideas about it. We are to conform to the Bible, not the other way around. Be willing to be molded by it and to change your ideas on an issue or an interpretation if the Bible calls for it.
E. Must rely on the Holy Spirit with an obedient attitude.
VI. What Faulty Bible Interpretation Can Lead to
A. Wrong understanding of what the Bible says.
B. Wrong application of the Bible.
1. Some have died from drinking poison and snake bites as a result of misinterpreting Mark 16:17–18.
2. Some have taken more than one wife based on the fact that Abraham, David, and Solomon had more than one wife.
C. Confusion. The Body of Christ is not served well when there are so many different understandings of Bible passages.
D. The Bible being maligned and misrepresented. Jesus’ declaration of “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1) is often taken to mean that no person should ever make a moral judgment about anyone or anything.
E. The life of an individual or church can be seriously misguided and unbalanced.
VII. The Process of Understanding the Bible: Three Steps
A. Observation. What do I see?
B. Interpretation. What does it mean?
C. Application. How do I apply this to my life?