Organic Discipleship - Appendix 4: Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutics For Lay Readers

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Author: 
Gary DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum

This study covers principles of Bible interpretation according to the grammatical-historical approach. Most of this approach is nothing but a common sense way to establish the intent of the original author, and to balance any truth discovered with the rest of the Bible. Go over the rules, discussing why each does, or doesn't make sense. Then, look up the verses, trying to see how each illustrates the rule mentioned.

  1. Interpreting grammatically
    The grammatical-historical method assumes that words and expressions have a relatively stable meaning during given periods of history. Therefore, we begin by taking what we can determine as the normal, everyday meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences to the extent possible. In other words, our interpretation must correspond to the words and grammar in the text in a reasonable way. Otherwise, the interpreter could assign his own meaning without objective control. The Bible would become a horoscope of vague sayings we try to plug into our lives however we want.

    Most of the Bible can be easily interpreted by simply taking the language (either in the original or translation) in the usual way (John 3:36; Acts 1:11). In other words, if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.
    A plain sense reading should not be confused with a literalistic interpretation. We should allow for figures of speech, symbolism, and poetic language (Mark 1:5; Luke 22:19). If a passage contains symbols or a special literary genre (or style) this should be indicated in the text, either by textual cues, or because symbolism is required in order to make sense of the text. Most symbols are explained by the Bible itself (Rev. 1:9-20)

  2. Interpreting historically
    Historical interpretation means that we take into account the historical background of the author and the recipients as much as possible. The Bible was written to common people, and is understandable to anyone. However, it was written thousands of years ago to a different culture. Therefore, as modern readers, we have to try to recover a general sense of the meaning of words, phrases and concepts in the ancient cultures.
    We are not interested at first in the question, "What does it mean to me?" but rather, "what did it mean to those whom it was originally written?"
    Examples:

    • Rev. 2:12,13 - Pergamum was the center of the worship of Aesclepius.
    • I Cor. 11:4-6 - Shorn hair was typical of Aphrodite priestesses, who were also ritual prostitutes; shaven heads were typical of convicted adulteresses (vs. 5).

    Use Bible dictionaries or other sources to discover customs, money, geography, etc. Then find a corresponding meaning in our culture.
    Examples:

    • Good Samaritan (Luke 10)
    • 200 Denarii (Mark 6:37)
    • 50,000 Drachma (Acts 19:19)
    • Pharisees' teaching on the relationship between illness and sin (Mark 2:5-10; John 9:1-2)
  3. Interpret Critically
    Your interpretation must make rational sense. If interpretation is permitted to contradict itself or other passages, there in no reason for hermeneutics since we can make a passage say whatever we want.

Six rules for interpreting critically

These rules will enable you to arrive at a critically sound interpretation. Some of these rules are the outgrowth of a high view of scripture. In other words, the entire Bible is the product of one author (God) at the same time that it is the product of many authors. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to seek to find a consistent message throughout the Bible. Notice that Jesus and the New Testament authors harmonize the messages of different, unrelated passages in the Old Testament when interpreting. (See, for example, Paul's reasoning in Gal. 3:6-17)

  1. Interpret in light of the context of the passage: Follow the thought development in the book you are reading, and make sure your interpretation flows along with the general direction of argument. Sudden changes in subject are unusual. If you have the thought development of a book centering on one subject, suddenly switching to another, and then back to the first, your interpretation is almost certainly wrong.
    Consider the larger context as well: Which Testament? What author? What time period? Never view a passage in isolation from its surroundings. The context should be considered the most important kind of evidence in the interpretation of a passage. Usually context supplies all we need to know. We should turn to other explanations only when we can find no critically feasible interpretation based on the English text in context. Anyone who claims to see a break in context bears the full burden of proof.
    Examples:

    • Mat. 16:28 - Referring to the transfiguration (in context of passage)
    • I Cor. 14:34 - Means to disrupt (see I Cor. 11:5 - context of book and passage)
    • I Cor. 3:17 (The thought development of the passage limits interpretation – he is talking about the church as God's temple, not individuals. Therefore this is not teaching that suicide is the unforgivable sin. Notice that some connect this verse to 6:19, which is a different context.)
  2. Interpret in light of progressive revelation: (Heb. 1:1,2). While God's purpose for man has never changed, his strategy in accomplishing that purpose has changed. He has dealt with man under different “covenants,” or programs. Therefore, it is important to ask, “Under which program was this written?” Primary application of the passage will be to the people operating under that program. There may be secondary applications for those under other programs based on principles which have universal application. Note special problems here in connection with the ministry of Christ before the cross. He operated under the Old Testament covenant. (Gal. 4:4)
    Examples:

    • Polygamy was permitted in the Old Testament, but taught against in the New Testament (1 Tim. 3:2)
    • Theocracy was commanded in Old Testament, but secular government is affirmed in the New Testament. (Rom. 13:1-7; Mat. 22:21; 2 Chron. 7:14)
    • Animal sacrifices, dietary laws, Sabbaths, holy days, festivals, priests and liturgy have all been fulfilled in Christ and are thus obsolete (Col. 2:16,17; Heb. 8).
    • Mal. 3:7-12 - in context of the testament (see Num. 18:21-24; Deut. 14:22-29 compare to 2 Cor. 9:6,7)
  3. Interpret scripture in harmony with other scripture: Since the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contradict itself. Therefore, never interpret scripture in such a way that it clearly contradicts other scriptures. First discover the allowable range of meaning for a passage, then choose the interpretation that doesn't contradict any other passages.
    Examples:

    • Acts 2:38 could either be referring to baptismal regeneration, or simply adding baptism as a desirable adjunct to the minimum requirement for salvation (i.e. faith - compare with Acts. 16:30).
    • James 2:14-26 "justify" can also mean "justify before men," (vs. 18 and compare with Gal. 2:16)
  4. Interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear passages: Scripture teaches every major, essential truth clearly and many times. Never build a doctrine on an unclear passage.
    Examples:

    • Luke 16:9 is used by Roman Catholics to support indulgences and purgatory.
    • 1 Cor. 15:29 mentions an obscure, unknown practice used in Corinth. Today the Mormon Church uses this passage to elevate dead ancestors to a higher status in the afterlife.
    • 1 John 5:16,17 the “sin unto death” is never defined. Don't base a doctrine of falling away on such a passage.
  5. Interpret the “spirit” of the passage, not necessarily the “letter”: Don't necessarily follow a literalistic meaning, especially when the text is a literary genre prone to figures of speech or colorful statements.

    • Proverbs 22:6 the book of Proverbs contains many general maxims, but not all are absolute promises. Not every child will go right, but most will.
    • Proverbs 15:1 not every gentle word will turn away wrath, but in most cases it will.
    • 1 Cor. 11:1-18 - In some New Testament passages interpretation by the “letter” contradicts the “spirit” of the passage. Paul's point is that they should not offend cultural sensibilities by praying with no head covering. By insisting on head coverings today, we offend cultural sensibilities, and at the same time, fail to communicate submission, since head coverings have long since lost all meaning in western culture (c.f. 1 Cor. 10:32,33).
  6. Interpret with dependence upon the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to teach you. 
    Mark True or False.

    • Proverbs 3:5 "Lean not unto your own understanding" means we should avoid approaching the Bible on an analytical level.
      [False – this passage is referring to making autonomous plans, not how to interpret scripture.]
    • Since the Bible is “living and active,” the interpretation of a passage may be different for different people.
      [False – application can be different for different people, but the correct interpretation is the one intended by the author, and that means only one interpretation is right.]
    • Unless we approach God's word with a deep reverence for God and a passion to know His will for our lives, we may often get the wrong interpretation.
      [True – lack of these attitudes could lead us to distort the meaning.]
    • If the rules of interpretation give one answer and the Holy Spirit shows another, we should choose the latter.
      [False – this would never happen. If we thought the Holy Spirit was indicating something different than the properly interpreted text, we are elevating our subjective feelings or impressions above scripture.]
    • We should pray before studying that God will enable us to understand the passage.
      [True – God can help us think clearly, and he can show us how to apply passages to our lives.