• Creation/Evolution
  • Hell
  • Women in leadership
  • Homosexuals in the church
  • Care for the environment

These controversial issues have one important thing in common: there are people who believe different things about them who claim the Bible supports their view. They disagree on all kinds of things, but they agree that the Bible should dictate what they believe about them. They just interpret the Bible differently.

So obviously, the way you interpret the Bible is important.

Hermeneutics is the study of how to interpret the Bible. To have a ‘hermeneutic’ means to have a ‘way of interpreting.’ In Luke 24:27, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appeared to two disciples and revealed the Old Testament to them in a whole new way. The word Luke uses here is ‘ἑρμηνεύω’ (hermeneuo): Jesus “explained the meaning” of the Old Testament to them.

Everybody who reads the Bible has a hermeneutic. Everybody interprets the Bible one way or another. Whether we’re aware of it or not, when we read anything we are constantly making sense of what we read in the context of everything else we understand about the world. Everybody has an inbuilt sense-making machine that fits new knowledge into the framework of old knowledge. For example, if someone told you that they have a drinking problem, you would assume they meant alcohol. They didn’t say the word ‘alcohol’, but you assume that it’s implied based on the cultural context. Or if someone says “I worked all day today” you don’t assume they worked 24 hours from midnight to midnight. You just assume they had a longer-than-average day.

Assume, assume, assume. Assumptions go into interpreting everything we read. These assumptions come from our hermeneutical framework, our sense-making machine which seeks an interpretation of something that makes the most sense. We don’t think about it, we just do it – like walking, we don’t think about each step we take. It’s natural, inbuilt, unconscious.

The study of hermeneutics helps us to become conscious of this process of interpreting. It makes us aware of how we’re making sense of information and the framework we’re using to do it. It gives us a language to talk to other people about the hermeneutical process, so we can help each other with our understanding.

Why should we want to become conscious of our hermeneutic? Why not just use it? To follow the above analogy, why should I become conscious of walking? Shouldn’t I just get on with the process of walking? Shouldn’t I just get on with reading the Bible and making sense of it?

Well, yes. Most of the time ‘just doing it’ is good enough. But what if you discovered the way you walked was damaging your back slowly over time? Then you’d need to become aware of it so you could change it. It would be a slow and difficult process; eventually you could learn to walk unconsciously in a different way. But to get to that point you would have to become conscious of it for a time.

It’s the same with understanding the Bible. If everyone agreed on what the Bible says, then we could just get on with reading it. But when there is disagreement, then someone’s assumptions may be wrong. So we need to become conscious of those assumptions so we can change them if necessary.

If we don’t study ways of interpreting the Bible, it doesn’t mean we won’t have a way of interpreting it (a hermeneutic). It just means that we’ll unconsciously use whatever hermeneutic we grew up with. We’ll interpret the Bible some way, and it will just be the one given to us by our upbringing. It’ll make us certain that our understanding of the Bible is right and other people’s is wrong, without the ability to give reasons for this certainty. We’ll think that the bible ‘clearly’ says something which is actually only ‘clear’ from our limited point of view. This puts a ceiling on what we can learn from the Bible, and isolates us from the wisdom we can find in other perspectives.

Hermeneutics gives us the power to choose how we interpret the Bible, so we aren’t just swept along by the assumptions of the culture around us (I mean both the Christian culture, and the wider non-Christian culture we’re part of). By examining and understanding those assumptions, we can decide whether they’re good ones or not, and then potentially change them. We can gain insight into other people’s ways of reading the Bible. This can help us both not to assume that someone else’s understanding of the Bible is wrong when it’s different from ours, and to see the richness and value in their understanding.

This is one way we can grow deeper in knowledge of God’s character and of his will for our lives. Our understanding of the Bible increases as we learn to see it from many points of view.

Getting Started with Hermeneutics

Top recommendation:

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Baker Academic, 2009.

See also:

Smith, James K. A. Fall of Interpretation, The: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. 2nd ed. Baker Academic, 2012.

McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008.



This post was first published at Kings Theology on Jul 01, 2012.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.