Engaging Exposition (5): 10 Basic Principles of Hermeneutics

I will dedicate two blogs to our ten principles. We will address five in each one.

Hermeneutics is the proper use of the principles of interpretation to discover the author’s intended meaning of a biblical text, with a goal of applying that meaning to a contemporary audience. The following principles of interpretation are designed to safeguard our exegesis as we seek to discover the author’s intended meaning and its significance for our contemporary audience.

1) The Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant word of God.

We gladly affirm as a definition and description, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” that was formulated in 1978. We believe the Bible is unique among human writings, and it must be studied with that in mind.

Scriptures, rather than our personal experiences, must be our starting point in hermeneutics. In other words, we must begin by asking “What does this text mean?” rather than “What does this text mean to me?” We must set aside any presuppositions which would hinder us from hearing the biblical texts as anything but what they are-the very words of God. Our failure to do this will affect our ability to discern the author’s MIT (Main Idea of the Text). We must allow revelation to shape our theology rather than basing our theology on personal opinion. We must approach the Bible with a very clear understanding that it is a unique, divinely-inspired, divinely-preserved book. As a result, we will strive to teach it “correctly,” knowing that it contains “everything required for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3).”

2) The primary goal of hermeneutics is the discovery of the author’s intended meaning.

The ultimate meaning of any passage of Scripture is that which the author intended. We believe the author’s MIT can be discovered through the careful study of the words (semantics), grammar (syntax), and style (genre) that the author used to write his text, as well as through our understanding of the cultural, historical, geographical, and theological contexts that influenced his life.

3) The author’s intended meaning is conveyed through the different layers of context.

The resurgence of expository preaching has resulted in the development of numerous resources to assist with the process of interpretation. Many of these resources emphasize the study of Hebrew and Greek, which is essential for becoming skilled in the practice of hermeneutics, exegesis, and homiletics. However, this emphasis upon the original languages has led some interpreters to place a greater importance upon the individual meanings of Hebrew or Greek words than upon the context in which they are found. Indeed, some pastor-teachers interpret entire texts based upon the meaning of a single word. This type of “word-driven” interpretation is flawed and even dangerous.

It is important to understand this principle: the individual words of biblical texts have meaning within sentences, paragraphs, and books. A word’s meaning is determined by its relationship to other words within the context of sentences and paragraphs. The author’s choice and combination of specific words becomes his vehicle for delivering content.

4) The author’s intended meaning in every biblical text is always discovered within its own unique context.

When we think about the context of a text, we are focusing our attention upon a number of factors that existed when the author recorded his particular content for a particular audience. Biblical authors did not write in a historical vacuum. They addressed the specific needs of their own day. As a result, understanding the significance of the author’s personal context, as best as we can, is important. Understanding the culture, history, geography, and theology of the writers and their audiences is helpful for discovering the historical particularity of biblical texts.

5) The biblical author’s intended meaning in every biblical text is always discovered within its own unique grammatical content.

Eisegesis is one of the results of poor exegesis. Eisegesis is the practice of reading one’s presuppositions and opinions into a biblical text, rather than allowing the text to reveal its own meaning. Interpreters may fall into this trap for a number of reasons. First, they may lack training. Second, some interpreters may have been exposed to a steady diet of topical preaching. This type of preaching often allows personal preference to drive sermon development at the expense of the meaning of a biblical text. Third, some interpreters may be driven more by personal ideology than biblical theology. These interpreters may use individual verses or parts of verses to support their pet positions, despite a lack of biblical support. This type of interpretation, and the preaching it produces, is damaging both to the scriptures and the Church.

We, on the other hand, want to be interpreters who are committed to “correctly teaching the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).” We are committed to allowing the text to reveal the author’s intended meaning by applying the principles of hermeneutics to the process of exegesis. For this to happen, we must be committed to understanding both the content and the context (near and far) of every biblical text.

When we think about the grammatical content of a passage, we are focusing our attention upon the literary elements that the author chose to frame his discussion. These elements include the author’s choice of specific words and the way he combined them into sentences and paragraphs, as well as the literary genre he selected (i.e., prose, poetry, historical narrative, wisdom, epistle, apocalyptic). When we consider this, we can see the dangers of lifting individual clauses or verses out of their specific literary and grammatical construction-it almost insures that the interpreter will misunderstand the content of the passage.

  1 Comment

  1. Scotty on Denman   •  

    I must differ. Both eisegesis and exegesis have their applications, neither of which requires belief in God. There is wisdom in the Bible for even atheists. The best modern scholarship has shown that the Bible is the work of numerous authors writing in different languages, over millennia, assembled and translated into several different languages by unknown interpreters and redacted by church officials on several occasions. Even if we could be assured of the author’s training, vigilance for eisegesis him—or her—self or innocence of topical preaching (which we can’t), the shear amount of translation, interpretation and redaction we know about would surely obscure it. This fact has to be taken into account.

    The “layers of context” appear to be a contingency too wide in latitude. It’s questionable that a translation to an unrelated language yields a better picture of what the author was trying to say in the original—if indeed he or she didn’t intend to mislead.

    In my view, the a priori belief in God’s infallible Biblical authority necessarily commits eisegesis in order to maintain the now disproven authorship of the Bible. It doesn’t have to be this way: one can be an exegete with a modern understanding of Biblical authorship, translation, interpretations and redaction and still a) believe in God and b) find truth in the Bible as it is or, should I say, Bibles as they are.

    Scotty on Denman

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