The following article is adopted from a sermon by John MacArthur called “Proper Biblical Interpretation”.
What is hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics is a theologian’s word to explain the science of Bible interpretation, and hermeneutics is a crucial building block in discerning theology. In fact, the absence of hermeneutics or misunderstanding of it feeds false teaching or incorrect understanding of Scripture.
To understand the meaning we can go to what Jesus did when He was walking on the road to Emmaus. He explained to them the things concerning Himself in the Scriptures. The Word explained is “hermeneual” from which we get hermeneutics. He carefully interpreted the Old Testament. He used hermeneutics. He’s a model of a teacher, used sound interpretive methods.
When we teach the Word of God, and we come to conclusions, we want to be certain that we don’t make severe errors. One, by making points at the price of proper interpretation. Two, by somehow concocting or spiritualizing something that isn’t there. Three, conclusions by superficial study. Superficial study is equally disastrous.
Let us look at five sound principles of interpreting the Bible.
Principle number one we’ll call the literal principle, the literal one. When we go to the Bible, this is so basic, we assume that God is talking to us in normal speech. Normal language, normal, common, everyday communication. In fact, the theologians used to call it “usisloquindi” in the Latin, meaning the words of Scripture are to be interpreted the same way words are understood in ordinary daily use. If it says horse, it means horse, if it says he went somewhere, he went somewhere. If it says house, it means house, if it says man, it means man, and not everything is to be extrapolated off into some mystical spiritualization, allegorization or whatever. He is literal.
We understand Scripture then in the literal sense of language. Now there are figures of speech, there are simile, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, whatever else, ellipses. All of the figures of speech will be there. There may even be sarcasm. There may even be exaggeration as a device. There may be symbolism such as the symbolism in the prophetic literature which is obviously symbolic, clearly symbolic. But it is in the normal language of speech. We use symbols in our language. We say, “That man is as straight as a pine tree,” or “that man is as strong as an ox.” Well, we’re using a symbol to make a literal point or statement. So then, when we interpret the Bible, we’re not hunting for some extrapolated, mystical experience.
There was occasionally of course, figurative language in Scripture as I said, but they’re quite evident to us in the normal course of understanding language. Scripture was not written to puzzle people. It was not written to confuse them. It was written to make things clear to them. Even parables are nothing more than illustrations. They’re not riddles. They’re illustrations, and in most cases, Jesus explained their meaning. And in all cases, He said that the meaning would be revealed to those who belong to Him by the Holy Spirit. So, we can’t abandon literal interpretation and favor of mystical, allegorical, metaphorical kinds of interpretation to discard all hope of achieving accuracy and coherence, and throw us into some imaginary field. I would venture to say that most Charismatic preaching is imagination run wild, proof texted. When you do not take the time to discern the literal meaning, you are not serving Scripture by trying to understand it, then you are making Scripture your slave by molding it into whatever you want it to say.
What is the characteristic of the city in which the believers lived who heard this? What was going on there? What were the politics? Who was ruling? What were the social pressures? What were the tensions, problems and crises that they were going through? What was the culture of the day? What was life like? What were customs like? I spend a great amount of my time researching all of that information so that when I get in the pulpit, I can make something clearer, and I’m always amazed, in fact, it happened a couple times this morning. People came to me and said, “You know, that passage is so clear. It’s so clear. I wonder why I’ve never seen it before?” The reason it was clear, the reason you understood it is because I fed you the context in which it had its significance. It seemed simple and clear to you, a lot simpler than you know. It is simple to the one who was there and heard it the first time, but it is more complex to me as I have to discern what they heard and how they heard it. That’s part of the process. To answer the cultural, historical question, you use Bible dictionaries and books on history and Bible handbooks, and commentaries, and books about Bible customs.
Principle number three is a grammatical principle. You go to a text of Scripture and you have to approach it grammatically. This is called syntax, S-Y-N-T-A-X. Lexicography is the study of words, syntax is the study of the relationship of words. You have to learn about verbs and adverbs and adjectives, and you have to learn about infinitives and participles, and you have to learn about prepositions. You have to learn about conjugating verbs and you have to learn about cases for nouns and substantives, ablative and genitive and all of that and accusative, nominative. You learn all the structure of language. You have to learn about antecedents about relationships. You have to learn about conditional and non conditional clauses.
Study the Biblical text in the original language and learn the grammar and understand all the word relationships, go over sentence structure and grammar so you know exactly what is being said, what modifies what and how it all fits together. You can do this by reading commentaries which will help you in the process, by doing inductive Bible study, breaking down into diagramming sentences. You perform discerning grammatical construction.
Principle number four is the synthesis principle. The old reformers use the expression “scriptura scripturum interpretator”. What that means is Scripture is its own interpreter, and you use the synthesis principle. What does that mean? That I always interpret a given passage in the Bible in the light of the rest of the Bible. I don’t come across a passage and say, “Wow, this is a new doctrine taught nowhere else in the Bible.” Wait a minute. If you think that passage is teaching a doctrine that is taught nowhere else in the Bible and appears contradictory to other things taught in the Bible, you’ve misinterpreted it. Because Scripture will be consistent with itself. One perfect author wrote it all. Who’s that? God. Scripture will interpret Scripture. The Holy Spirit won’t disagree with Himself, and you can interpret the Word of God by the Word of God. That is a very, very essential thing.
Principle number five is the practical principle. You go through this whole process starting out, what’s the literal meaning here? Then you move to what’s the historical background, the context. What are all the grammatical components here? How does this synthesize with the rest of Scripture. And then, the last question you ask is so what? What does it mean to me? What does it have to do with me? How does it apply to my life? But you never ask that question until you’ve gone through all the other steps.
In conclusion, all these principles stand under the control and umbrella of the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit will teach us the truths of God. The Bible was written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was breathed out by the Holy Spirit as it drove apostles and prophets to write the Word of God. It is then natural to conclude that the Holy Spirit must be the One who control these principles to understand the Word of God.
The principle of the Holy Spirit and illumination is the overall principle whereby these five principles stand. Even when I have taken it literally and worked through the grammar and reconstructed the history, and when I have delved into all the terms and the words and synthesized it with all of Scripture, all of that effort would come up empty if it weren’t for the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit because He alone knows the things that are coming from God, 1 Corinthians 2 says. And He is the One who teaches them to us. He is the anointing, in 1 John 2:27, that teaches us all things. Remember that verse, 1 John 2:27? John says, “The anointing which you have received from Him abides in you. You have no need for anyone to teach you, but as His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and not a lie, just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.” It’s not telling us we don’t need teachers and it’s not telling us we don’t need those who guide us because He’s given to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, teaching pastors, and even teachers to teach us. And he’s given us some the gifts of teaching and preaching so that we can be taught. But it is an assurance that we can know the difference between the heresy that is being discussed in 1 John 2, and the truth regarding the Gospel of Christ because we possess the Spirit. It doesn’t guarantee that we’re gonna have the correct interpretation of every verse in the Bible even though we do nothing. It doesn’t mean we don’t need human teachers. It just means, regarding the Gospel, regarding the basic truth of Christ, we can discern by the Holy Spirit’s leading truth from error.