A Personal Hermeneutic

A Personal Hermeneutic

Like anyone else, I make a series of decisions when I approach the Bible. Some decisions begin before I open it. What version will I use? In what atmosphere will I read? Am I studying or merely looking for encouragement? What is my motivation for reading the Bible?

Others surface when I open the book. Where will I read? How much should I read? Am I willing to let it teach and affect me?

One of the most important questions, though, is this; how will I interpret what I read? The Bible’s size and diversity discourage well-meaning seekers and Christians alike. Many times they find themselves uncomfortable and affronted by the bold or seemingly cruel perspectives expressed in the Bible. How do we deal with those questions?

Of course, we must first acknowledge that many will turn away, and there is nothing we can do about it. God does not draw every person’s heart, and we should never water down the truth for the sake of wider acceptance. That said, we can certainly explain and teach how God’s Word may be understood, so that His glory may be more fully displayed and the greatness of His Word more readily grasped.

To that end, I want to share my personal approach to hermeneutics. I am certain this is neither perfect in its theological nuance nor comprehensive in its scope. However, it is a good expression of how my mind thinks about the Bible as I study it and try to extract and apply its meaning. These are the six presuppositions I use when trying to understand the purpose and place of the teachings in the Bible.

Think of this hermeneutic as a pyramid. Each piece is essential, and each piece is built on the others. Together, they form a way of thinking about Scripture that is designed to accurately extract God’s intended meaning from each Biblical passage.

1. The Bible is Inerrant
The first thing we must presuppose is that the Bible is inerrant. This means it is without error, and carries no deficiencies or weaknesses. If a Christian does not understand and agree with this concept, their entire faith is questionable.

Scripture is inerrant because God is sovereign. In essence, his eternal power and control protect the integrity of the Bible. If God desires to express or reveal Himself to us, and is all powerful, why would He allow His Word to be corrupted?

It should be noted that this does not prevent all controversy. Of course there will be differences in interpretation, which require thoughtfulness and faithfulness to work through carefully. There are also areas in which God has chosen not to express a particular preference, or has allowed room for differences of opinion. However, those areas are non-essential to the teachings of the Bible.

It should also be noted that mistakes can be made in translating or transcribing Scripture. Again, these errors are usually non-essential and easily fixed. In cases where the translators have been unfaithful or biased in their translation, the fault lies not with Scripture, but with the translators, and they should be held accountable.

Every piece of the Bible contributes to His expression of Himself to mankind. As such, every piece is also an accurate communication from God to us. When all these pieces work together, they form the full expression of the heart of God- His very Word.

2. The Bible is Self-Interpreting and Self-Moderating
At times, the Bible can seem extreme. Why is God willing to wipe out women and children? Why did Christ say that his mission was to the Jews, and not Gentiles? How can the Bible extol Jacob when he did so many sneaky and self-serving things?

Recognizing Biblical inerrancy is important to answering these questions. All Scripture can be compared with the rest, so a passage is incomplete without understanding how it relates to the rest of the Bible. For instance, it may be true that God exhibits seemingly “extreme” justice, but this is easily understood when one also understands His holiness, His hatred of sin, man’s responsibility for sin, and the amazing grace of God’s mercy.

True Bible study will then realize that the Bible is self-interpreting and self-moderating.
It is self-interpreting because only the Bible can explain itself. The number of books and words is necessarily limited, and it would be easy for a single passage -written from one perspective to a particular audience- to be misinterpreted. However, the Bible speaks about God from many perspectives and in a perfectly consistent manner, and as a result passages can be compared to each other to reach consensus about doctrine.

If, for instance, a person were to see a verse that says, “God is love,” they might rightly conclude that God is the source of all love, and is more loving than any other entity. However, they might also wrongly conclude that he would never challenge, never hurt, never discipline, and never punish. By studying the Bible as a whole, they would understand that a correct interpretation of “love” would recognize that love takes the form of justice and of discipline just as often as comfort and reward.

Systematic theologies, then, which explain key doctrines of the faith, are entirely dependent on Scripture’s self-interpretation. They form a consensus from all the Scripture passages written on a topic, and then explain how they work together to form a consistent whole.

The Bible is also self-moderating. It is easy for critics to read a single passage and create an extreme picture of God and the Christians who follow Him. However, expressing the fullness of an entity, especially one as vast and complex as God, requires more than one passage. Therefore, if we desire to know God we MUST accept that the Bible moderates itself. The various passages on a topic make clear the fact that the “extreme” passages seek to make a theological point, but do not by themselves sum up the character of God.

This is also true of doctrines. For instance, it IS true that God can become quite angry, enacting severe punishment on those who displease him. This might cause some to live in a state of spiritual paralysis, afraid of what God might do to them if they fail. However, by reading the rest of Scripture, they would find that even God’s anger is completely right and justified, and that in the end he works all things for good.

As a side note, this concept has led to the dialectical method of Bible teaching. This approach to studying and teaching the Bible is focused on finding the ways in which the Bible teaches the poles, or furthest extremes, of a concept. By doing so, the teacher or student maintains the balanced tension inherent in a particular doctrine and is prevented from going too far to one side or the other.

3. The Bible has a Redemptive-Historical Structure

One of the problems in accepting Scripture’s teachings is that God and His desires for His people seem to change. In some areas of scripture, He seems to suggest that adherence to the law will result in national blessing and prosperity. In others, Christ clearly teaches that the blessed ones are those who are beaten, persecuted, and killed. At some points in scripture, people are considered unclean for eating non-kosher foods. In others, God says His followers are free to eat whatever they choose. If the Bible is entirely consistent, what is to be done with these teachings?

The fact is that God chooses to reveal Himself to the world over time. Through a series of covenants and stages, God allows mankind to see more and more of Himself. This self-revelation was most fully expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who was and is the fullness of God in human form. The self-revelation will be fully completed in the last day, when Satan is defeated and creation is restored to the perfection it had before sin entered the world.
We must therefore acknowledge that the Bible has a redemptive-historical structure.

When we understand this redemptive-historical structure, we can study the Bible in a healthier way. Instead of feeling the Bible contradicts itself, we can see that in context, God is entirely consistent. Man can only respond in faith and trust, because to do anything else is to deny God’s Lordship and Kingship over our lives.

Therefore, when we approach a passage, we must ask where in the timeline of God’s self-revelation the passage occurs. That done, we can extract the principles God is teaching, and more accurately apply them in our lives. For instance, when God tells the Israelite exiles to Babylon that He will “prosper and not harm” them, giving them “a hope and a future,” it would be folly for us to assume this means we too will be physically prospered. However, the passage does display for us God’s absolute sovereignty and involvement in our lives. We may not know God’s purposes for our next steps, but we do know that those purposes will undoubtedly be accomplished.

The redemptive-historical model is important, but should not cause people to think the Bible is not unified. The whole structure is built around one central idea, one central truth. That truth is the truth of the gospel.

4. The Bible is Viewed through the Lens of the Gospel
The most important factor in understanding the redemptive-historical model and in moderating and interpreting Scripture is knowing the Bible should be viewed through the lens of the gospel.
This means whenever we approach a passage, it can only be understood as it relates to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, exercising simultaneous justice and mercy. In one action, God completely affirms His holiness and justice, but also expresses the depth of His mercy and grace. This balance is key to understanding the biblical message.

So often, churches take things taught in Scripture to extremes. Because they are taught not to sin, they begin to hate and reject sinners. Others are so in love with mercy that they lose sight of truth and water down the gospel. Both of these (and many other) extremes are incorrect.
Truly honoring God requires that people allow themselves to be taught by Scripture as it relates to the gospel. When we receive teaching about the dangers of sin, we must of course recognize how truly deep and awful our sin is. At the same time, though, we must learn to show mercy and grace and love to the struggling sinner.

When we view those who suffer and hurt, we must know what it is to show them mercy and kindness, providing help where we can. However, we must also make clear the wrongness of sin, and the absolute need for God’s forgiveness. The Bible clearly teaches both things, and so we must display both things.

If we do not maintain the tension inherent in the gospel, we will quickly lose much of its power, and thereby become weak tools in the Master’s hands.

5. The Bible is Christ-Centered
At the heart of the gospel lies Jesus. There is nothing more important to God’s work in the world than Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Without His sacrifice, we would still be desperately trying to cover our sins with the blood of lambs and bulls. Ultimately, we would have little hope in the world.

However, Christ brings hope. He was the hope of the Old Testament, and prophets and godly people looked forward with longing to the arrival of the Messiah. Their salvation came from trusting in this Savior who would come, a Savior who would free all from sin, their greatest oppressor.

He is also the hope of all who follow Him. Christians look back to Christ, recognizing that He is the only Way, Truth, and Life. Nothing else can save us from complete separation from God. Only His work on the Cross, His act of receiving full punishment for sins He did not commit, can be offered in our place. Only His salvation is enough.

For this reason, Scripture is centered on Christ. It looks to Him, cries out for Him, prophesies about Him, spreads the news about Him, and rejoices in Him. When we study the Bible, we must see this centeredness, and study with His work in view. Only then will we truly understand the place God desires to bring us to, a place of grateful obedience under the headship of our Savior and Only Hope.

6. The Bible Glorifies God
Ultimately, all things are for God’s glory. Every piece of the Bible, from creation to consummation, is an expression of God’s greatness. As time moves along, God reveals His glory piece by piece.

His power to create, to guide, and to design glorifies Him. His choice of Israel, a choice they did not deserve, glorifies Him. His saving acts glorify Him. His work on the cross glorifies Him. His movement in establishing His kingdom in the world glorifies Him. His return and cleansing of the world will glorify Him.

If we are to correctly interpret the Bible, we must appreciate that the story is not about us- it is about glorifying God. Our good is not the final goal of all things- God’s glory is. Now, it is true that the greatest joy and blessing comes to the Christian when they are most focused on God. However, we are not needed. Our involvement in God’s glory is a completely free gift He has given for no reason other than that He loves us and chooses to do so.

When I sit down to study a passage, I force myself to think through these things. When exposition of a Biblical passage is built on these presuppositions, the teaching that results will honor God by having these characteristics;

1. It will be trustworthy, because the Bible is inerrant.

2. It will be correctly nuanced and entirely consistent, because the Bible is self-interpreting and self-moderating.

3. It will be understood in correct context, because the Bible has a redemptive-historical structure.

4. It will maintain the correct tension of justice and mercy, because the Bible is viewed through the lens of the gospel.

5. It will speak of the amazing work of Christ, because the Bible is Christ-centered.

6. It will glorify God, because all things in the Bible are for His glory.

My hope and prayer is that hermeneutics of this kind and the preaching and teaching that results will be obediently faithful to God’s desires for our lives. Soli Deo Gloria.