My first semester in seminary involved a lot of crying. Yes, it was a lot of spiritual stretching and loads of work but mainly I could not understand what my professor was saying in class. Half of the words I heard were either Greek, English, or Hebrew, so it made the class even more difficult. Hermeneutics was one of those words that I had no idea what it meant. Not only was it a foreign word to me, but it was going to be a class I needed to take my first semester. I quickly learned what Hermeneutics meant and discovered that the class was going to be the best and most helpful class I would ever take in my schooling.
What is hermeneutics?
“…the word hermeneutics produces fear and trembling. It conjures up images of brilliant scholars, cloistered in quiet rooms, parsing verbs from original manuscripts by candlelight. Hermeneutics, however, is not a subject for students of Scriptures to fear. Rather, it provides the framework needed to interpret the Scriptures correctly.” Danny Akin p15 Engaging Exposition
I feel Danny Akin said it best when describing the fear and confusion. We do Hermeneutics all of the time. Hermeneutics is understanding and interpreting the scriptures. The definition is pretty simple, but it can become very complicated and philosophical. There are several large books on Biblical Hermeneutics. However, we can just focus on the basics unless you want to become a scholar.
Why must we understand hermeneutics and really do it well?
If we do not understand and interpret scripture well then we are in danger of changing the words of Truth to fit our own agenda. I am sure you have come across some odd biblical thinking over the years. Just take a look at many of the coffee cup verses; several do not mean what corporations have slapped on a mug to mean. This is one danger of not doing hermeneutics right. False thinkings start to spread around because of these bad misinterpretations. Often times we apply our lives to scripture and not scripture to our lives. Without understanding the grammar, the context, the meaning, and significance the Truth can become distorted.
How do we do hermeneutics?
The very first step before reading scripture is praying right away for the Lord to get rid of any agendas on the heart and in the mind. Additionally, we must keep in mind that the Bible is infallible, it does not contradict itself, and it does not make mistakes. It is Truth (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21). Now that our hearts and minds are prepared, we’re ready to read the passage Scripture. In order to practice hermeneutics well, we’re going to utilize several tools that should make the English nerds very happy. We’ll take a look at genre, context, grammar, outlines, and the author. There are many other elements to look at, too, but those are some basics on which to focus first. After that ask two questions:
First question when interpreting: What is the author’s intended meaning?
We cannot go and ask Paul what he meant in his letters, but we can pick up on what his intended meaning is by simply understanding the text. Scripture is not like an escape room where we try to find the specific clues to unlock the next door to find the next clues to finally find the hidden message. The message is clear, we do not have to ask Paul for the interpretation. We merely need to be responsible when reading the text. It would be irresponsible to take a verse out of context and prescribe it like a prescription to our lives. The word is too holy and sacred to be taken so haphazardly.
When looking at a text notice the words, patterns, the structure, and the tone. Look at the verb tenses, the context, and the genre. Interact with the text. I often times like to print out the section I’m looking at and underline, circle, and highlight. Really crawl into the text and immerse yourself in the words and the flow. It truly is beautiful.
Take a minute and look at Exodus 34. Apply the first step and ask this first question to this specific text.
Second question: What is the significance of the author’s intended meaning?
This is the part where the application of the text comes out. When we read through scripture we see cultural references that we might not understand, [e.g.] a lot of Jesus’ parables are relevant to his culture with farming and family. However, his main purpose is not about that story but about the main idea behind it. We might not ask our server if the meat had been sacrificed to an idol here, but the meaning remains true today. We must remain pure and holy and not let others stumble around us.
Taking what was gathered in the previous steps, what is the author’s intended meaning of Exodus 34? We do not formulate this thought based on our own thoughts but through the understanding of the first step we took. We can not apply the text unless we first understand the text.
I loved my Hermeneutics class. It really changed the way I read the Bible. I started to see the beauty where I had never seen it before. I did see what my own sinful selfish self had prevented me from seeing before. I did become passionate about Levitical laws and enjoyed reading Revelation. In class we had to write 10 responses to various passages answering the questions 1) what is the meaning in the text, 2) what are some inter- and intratextual connections, 3) How did you come to that conclusion 4) What is the author’s intended significance? I challenge you to take these passages and find what you get (Gen 22:1-19, Psalm 19, Psalm 103, Nahum 1, Jonah 4, Matt 4:1-11, John 5, Hebrews 7, Col 1:13-23). A bigger challenge is to take a look at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. This was my final interpretive paper.
If you really enjoy challenging books that are very confusing on Hermeneutics read these:
Biblical Hermeneutics by Gerhard Maier
Is there a Meaning in this Text? by Kevin Vanhoozer
Simpler reads and a bit more practical (especially if you’re a Bible teacher):
Engaging Exposition by Danny Aiken
Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin
Getting the Message by Daniel M. Doriani
If you want to take a free course on Hermeneutics:
Kara Hernandez holds a MA in Christian Education and Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which means that she likes books and taking notes during really in depth sermons. Some of her passions include Women’s Ministry, good cups of coffee, and delicious food.