Introduction to Hermeneutics

A. Definition of Hermeneutics

1. Derivation

Greek: hermeneuo, hermeneia, hermeneutike (cf. techne): occurs 19 times in NT: e.g., Matt 1:23; Mark 5:41; cf. Diermeneuo” Luke 24:27: “to expound, to interpret.”

a. Explanation in one’s own language

b. Translation into another language

Note: cognate to wing-footed messenger-god Hermes in Greek mythology, who transmuted to men what was beyond human understanding

2. Definition

Hermeneutics: is the science and art of interpreting the Bible, that is finding, in an accurate and judicious manner, the meaning of the author, and explaining it appropriately to others (Ernesti).

Terry: “Hermeneutics, therefore, is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.”

3. General and Special Hermeneutics

General Hermeneutics applies to the interpretation of all kinds of writings, literature, laws, poetry, secular and religious. Currently, this field has swallowed up the field of epistemology, the inquiry into how we know anything, and infused the whole subject matter with such fruits of rationalism as existentialism and skepticism.

Special Hermeneutics deals uniquely with the Bible, as the inspired Word of God. We will use the term in this specific sense.

B. Relationship to Exegesis

1. Derivation: Greek: exegeomai: “to lead out of”; LXX uses it to translate Hebrew sapher: to recount, tell, declare”; cf. John 1:18; Luke 24:35; Acts 10:8; Acts 15:12; Acts 15:14; Acts 21:19

2. Definition: Exegesis is the determination of the meaning of the biblical text in its historical and literary contexts (Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 19).

3. Conclusion: Essentially, hermeneutics and exegesis are about interpretation, that is, “opening up the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out it single, full, and natural sense” (Perkins). Exegesis denotes the act of interpretation itself; Hermeneutics, the principles underlying such an act.

C. The Warrant for Hermeneutics

1. Acts 8:31: hodegeo: “to guide”

2. Nehemiah 8:7-12: byn: “to cause to understand”

3. John 1:18: exegeomai: “declared”

4. Luke 24:27: diermeneuo: “expounded”

D. The Necessity of Hermeneutics

1. The Fall and our lapsed understanding:

a. “Sin darkened the understanding of man, and still exercises a pernicious influence on his conscious mental life. Therefore, special efforts must be made to guard against error.”  Berkhof, Principles, 12.

b. McCartney/Clayton (p. 34-35): “[S]in … is a hindrance in any communication, especially in interpretation … Our interpretation is too inescapably beset by unconscious motivations of self-interest … Interpretation would not be a problem for us were it not for our sin. False interpretations are sinful and are generated by sin … [R]ecognition of the problem of sin in interpretation should result in a deep humility about our own interpretations, and a recognition of our need continually to repent of the sinfulness which we may not even recognize in our interpretive endeavors. Perhaps this is why James warns teachers so harshly (James 3:1).”

2. Babel and our confused tongues: Add to this the differences in intellectual capacity, nationality, etc.

Note: William Greenhill, Preface to Commentary on Ezekiel:

“Some would have the word only read, and that there should be no preaching or expounding of it. It was not the eunuch’s reading, but Philip’s preaching, that wrought faith in him, Acts 8. The spices of the Scripture send forth the strongest and sweetest smells when they are bruised and broken; the fire of the sanctuary yields most heat and light when stirred up and blown. It is neither fleshly, devilish, nor treason to the Father, to make constructions upon the prophets and apostles, and expound their meaning. If so, then Ezra and others, who read the law and gave the sense of it, Neh 8:8, sinned, were fleshly, devilish and traitors to the Father: then Paul gave ill counsel to Timothy, to divide the word of truth aright, 2 Tim 11:15. How children should have their milk, young men their bread, old men their wine, and that only by reading, I see not. If that could be, surely Christ needed not have appointed a wise and faithful servant “over his household to give them meat in due season,” Matt 24:45 … I beseech you, be content with, and thankful for, those precious, glorious truths the Lord hath given you in the law and gospel, studying to know them more fully; and endeavor to yield unto the Author of them the obedience of faith; acknowledge it an unspeakable gift, that you have them, with preachers and expositors amongst you, to further you in the knowledge and practice of them.”

E. The Importance of Hermeneutics

1. Believing Truth: If we don’t know truth, for instance concerning the Person and Work of Christ, we are in trouble; if we don’t know God’s call for us on the earth, we will be poor reflections of what God wants us to be.

2. Proclaiming Christ: If we don’t understand the Word of God, our call to the world will be unintelligible and fall short of what God calls us to in Matt. 28:20.

3. Practicing Godliness: If we don’t understand how God calls us to live, we will be falling into all kinds of snares Satan sets for us.

4. Avoiding Error: a mistaken hermeneutic may produce gross theological and moral errors (2 Cor 4:2; 2 Pet 3:16)

F. The Posture of Hermeneutics: cf. 2 Pet 1

1. Faithful Persuasion: (cf. 2 Pet. 1:2, 3, 5, 8).  The Christian life is not characterized by ignorance or imagination, but being established in firm knowledge. There is no place for sophistries and mythologies.

2. Compelling Pilgrimage (2 Pet. 1:11, 12, 15)  We are not guided by an absolute character of this life, this world, this age. Christians are passing through this world not looking at this world for meaning, significance, and absolutes. Rather, they look to another world, and a book that comes from another world, which nevertheless, is addressed to this world. Peter learned from his Master the far exceeding weight of glory, rendering this temporary life little more than that of a tabernacle.

3. Brilliant and Radiant Illumination (2 Pet. 1:16).  The indubitable excellency of Christ cannot but shed light upon hermeneutics. Proper hermeneutics brings the majestic appearance of Christ into view for the otherwise faltering and jaded human spirit. It is no less glorious than a luxuriant light, a celestial voice, and fellowship with the God-man. In fact, it has an even more certain character.

G. The First Principle of Hermeneutics:

1. Its Formulation: “Scripture is not of private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20-21)

a. negatively: not that an individual may not interpret Scripture – the whole world might agree on an interpretation, and it would still be “private,” that is, opposed to the meaning of the Spirit

b. positively: we must not confide in our own understanding, but in the clear teaching of the Word itself.

– Calvin “Except thou art resolved willfully to cast thyself into a labyrinth, especially beware of departing even in the least thing from the rule and direction of the word.”

– Brakel: “Private interpretation is to assign a meaning to a text which is foreign to Scripture, is not extracted from Scripture, and is the product and conclusion of a person’s own intellect.” (vol. 1; chp 2)

2. Its Ground: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21)

a. source: Scripture did not originate with man; consequently, its interpretation does not originate with man.

b. norm: Scripture is the deposit of what the biblical authors spoke, being moved by the Spirit; consequently, its interpretation derives from what men hear as are illumined by the Spirit.

3. The Method

a. We need to mine the truth, not make it up.

b. We need to study and savour the truth, not strangle it or suppress it.

c. We need humility and hunger for the word of God; being teachable and ready to obey whatever we find, not quarrelling with it.