The Importance of Hermeneutics

The Importance of Hermeneutics

I remember hearing a story about Pearl Jam, one of the big bands of the 90s. One of their biggest songs called “Alive” is a painful autobiographical song written by the singer, Eddie Vedder. However, fans of the song heard the song as a song of inspiration and strength. They sent letters to express this to him. As a result of the letters and encouragement, the song’s meaning changed for Vedder himself.

This is how many approach the Bible, believing it can mean different things to different people or that we can even change God’s mind as to what He intends the passage to mean. Our conception of the Bible will affect how we read it before we even open it to read it. If we are not careful with how we handle the Bible, we can twist the Bible to make it conform to whatever we want it to say. If two people have conflicting interpretations of a Bible passage, at least one of those interpretations is wrong – they cannot both be right because God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).

When we think about how we approach and interpret the Bible, we are talking about hermeneutics – the science of biblical interpretation. We can call each individual method we use to interpret the Bible our hermeneutic. There are several hermeneutical approaches and the ones we use are driven by our preconceived ideas of who God is, the reliability of the Bible, and its authority in our life.

The subject of hermeneutics is very broad and important. In this article, we will look at two key hermeneutical approaches to help as we read the Bible regularly.

The Bible Is Not Subjective

One of the most important concepts for approaching the Bible is to understand that there is a correct way to interpret it. In other words, the Bible has an objective meaning and we should read it looking for consistent themes, patterns, and truths. This approach helps us to approach the Bible to receive what God is telling us rather than to find ways to twist the Bible to say what we want it to say.

For example, when Jesus is speaking to the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John, He tells them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me (John 5:39).” This concept is affirmed later in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus is speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus discusses the Scriptures to the disciples, “and beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27).”

When Jesus speaks of the Scriptures, He is referring to what we call the Old Testament, so His statement is a clear indication of how to approach reading the Old Testament. We should read it expecting to find pointers to Him, either through prophecies or through types and shadows with people such as Moses and David. To read the Old Testament as a collection of fables or as something that does not apply to Christians is an incorrect hermeneutic.

There will be times when the Bible goes against our intuition or feelings, and if it conflicts with our hearts in those moments, we must do as R.C. Sproul said, “We must do what God says, like it or not. That is what Christianity is all about.” [1]

Analogy Of Faith

The primary Reformed hermeneutic is called the “analogy of faith,” which basically means that Scripture interprets Scripture.[2] This means that if we read a passage in the Bible that seems to contradict another passage, we should look at other places in the Bible that mentions the same subject. By doing this, we will get a better picture of what the Bible says about the subject and should try to interpret the passage that seems to be contradictory in a way that is consistent with the other passages. When we read and interpret scripture this way, we will not interpret in a way that makes it contradict itself.

For example, the sixth commandment is, “you shall not murder (Exodus 20:13).” However, right after this command we read, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death (Exodus 21:12).” At first glance, we might see this as a contradiction. First, we read that God prohibits murder, then we read that He says it is ok. But if we are using the analogy of faith as our hermeneutic, we will dig deeper to understand how both verses can be true.

In this case, we do not have to look far. We read in Exodus 21:13-14, “But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” By reading this, we can see that God allows murder as punishment for murder. Additionally, we can see that He makes a difference between murder and what we would call manslaughter by not requiring the death of someone who killed someone accidentally.

By using the analogy of faith as our hermeneutic, we not only understand how those verses do not contradict themselves, we also learn more about how God thinks and we grow in our knowledge of Him. We do not see the Bible as flawed but instead we magnify God’s glory in His wisdom in giving us the Ten Commandments.

When we approach the Bible in this way, it glorifies God and helps us to stay in humble submission to His teaching.

  1. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 33 ↩︎

  2. Sproul, 51 ↩︎