What is hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics is any effort to interpret the meaning of communication, particularly communication that is being interpreted in a different cultural context.
In the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Bernard C. Lategan says about hermeneutics: “Although language presupposes shared conventions between persons, the unique experience of the individual cannot be expressed adequately through this medium. The receiver therefore needs help to reproduce the meaning of the sender in his or her own consciousness. The task of hermeneutics is to provide this help.”
In other words, every time we read or hear something, we absorb the info using language. But even when we’re speaking the same language, we can misunderstand what someone means because their context is different from ours. That’s what hermeneutics does—it helps us understand what the original speaker/writer means by what they say.
Biblical hermeneutics is the method of interpreting Scripture so we can bridge the gaps between modern-day readers of the Bible, its original audiences, and God as its ultimate author.
Hermeneutics is foundational to theological study. Whether or not they know it, every biblical reader interprets the Bible through their own hermeneutic. Developing a clearly communicated biblical hermeneutic helps Bible students to understand the biases they bring into their interpretive work. Without effective (and faithful) methods of interpretation, we can’t understand the meaning of the text and therefore build cohesive biblical theologies, and therefore, a Christ-honoring, mission-driven Christian life.
Steve Bond, in his article on hermeneutics for the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, notes that how we interpret the Bible has much in common with how we interpret other texts, but “the difference between biblical texts and texts from law, literature, and the sciences is that despite the 66 biblical books having been written by many people over a period of 1,500 years, the Bible claims God as its ultimate author.”
Why is biblical hermeneutics important?
The church today faces many important issues as technological innovation transforms everything from communications to family structures to social relationships. We need the wisdom from God himself to properly engage and understand the world we live in. Yet the primary way we learn what God has to say is the Bible—a book written between 2,000 to 3,500 years ago.
How we interpret the timeless Word of God shapes how we answer the important questions we face as we pursue God’s mission in the world today.
In this article, I’ll help you to think through issues of biblical hermeneutics so you can better interpret God’s Word. Through this article, you’ll discover:
- How biblical interpretation has changed from the biblical period to the modern age
- Which key issues to consider when interpreting the Bible
- Why hermeneutics strategies are used differently in different biblical genres
4 eras of biblical hermeneutics
- Biblical Era
- Patristic Era
- Medieval Era
- Reformation Era
The task of hermeneutics is to discover the meaning of the text in its proper setting; to draw meaning from Scripture rather than reading one’s presuppositions into it. — John MacArthur
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Hermeneutics across church history
Hermeneutics goes all the way back to the biblical period itself. Astute Bible students have long noted how the biblical authors used previous passages of the Bible within their own arguments, like when Peter referred to Isaiah 40:7–8 in 1 Peter 1:24–25. Their interpretive strategies have impacted future hermeneutics in the church.
Stanley Porter and Beth Stovell describe these early hermeneutic strategies in their introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views: “In the Old Testament, the latter writings, like the Psalms and the Prophets, reinterpret the story of Israel presented in the Torah, and the New Testament continues to reinterpret this continuing story in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (an approach that later redemptive-historical scholars would appropriate).”
Even 2,000 years after the end of the New Testament, there isn’t consensus on how New Testament writers used the Old Testament. New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker’s book Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Times makes the case that Jesus and the New Testament writers leaned heavily upon contemporary Jewish interpretive strategies in ways they use the Old Testament in their teaching.
Because the early church fathers played such a critical role in describing and formulating New Testament theology, their interpretive strategies have had a large impact on future theologians. Despite their influence, church leaders in the patristic era weren’t uniform in their hermeneutics. Two interpretive schools dominated the era.
The Alexandrian school was centered in one of the most learned cities in the Roman Empire, Alexandria, Egypt. The school, heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy, taught the allegorical method of interpretation. Built upon a worldview that saw the physical world as a shadow of the spiritual, Alexandrian interpreters saw the Bible pointing non-literally to deeper spiritual (or allegorical) truths.
The Antioch school represented an opposite perspective. The school focused its approach on a literal reading of the text. The spiritual reading of the text, they believed, must come from the literal reading. According to the book Biblical Hermeneutics by Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy, the Antioch school was influenced by both Greek and Jewish thinkers. But instead of Plato, Antioch was largely influenced by Aristotle.
Augustine set the stage for much of Medieval hermeneutics with his landmark book On Christian Teaching (or On Christian Doctrine) published in the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D. In the book, he described a number of interpretive rules that are still bedrocks of biblical hermeneutics in the 21st century. For example, he wrote that Bible students should:
- Interpret obscure texts in light of clear ones
- Apply secular knowledge to biblical interpretation when possible
- Determine the literal and figurative senses of the passage
In Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth, Ray Zuck describes hermeneutics as a key element to the Reformation. He writes: “The Reformation was a time of social and ecclesiastical upheaval but, as [Bernard] Ramm points out [in his book Protestant Biblical Hermeneutics], it was basically a hermeneutical reformation, a reformation in reference to the approach to the Bible.”
In Biblical Hermeneutics, Corley, Lemke, and Lovejoy describe the hermeneutics of Protestant Reformation leaders as inductive and faith-oriented. They emphasized the “illuminating power of the Holy Spirit” in the interpretive process. Four principles—that all challenged contemporary Roman Catholic hermeneutics—dominated their contributions. Those principles, as described in Biblical Hermeneutics, were:
- The focus of Scripture was on Christ, not the church nor man.
- The ultimate purpose of the Bible was salvation, not knowledge.
- The basis for Christian doctrine and practice was the Bible.
- The authority for interpreting the Bible was in the individual.
The innovations of the post-Reformation era centered on attempts to apply the reasoning and methods fueling academic advancement in other fields to the study of the Bible. Movements like rationalism, Protestant scholasticism, Calvinism (as well as responses to Calvinism) dominated 16th and 17th century Protestant hermeneutics.
In his early 18th century book De Sacrae Scripturae Interpretandae Methodo Tractatus, Jean-Alphonse Turretin illustrated some of these rationalistic approaches to interpretation in the following five points related to biblical exegesis and interpretation:
- We should interpret Scripture like any other book.
- Interpreters should give attention to words and expressions in the Bible.
- The goal of biblical exegesis is to understand the purpose of the author in the context.
- The interpreter should use reason to understand the Bible.
- Biblical interpreters should understand the text’s original authors in their own contextual terms.
Modern hermeneutics (roughly 1800 to today), particularly among Protestants, has often seen a split between conservative (or even fundamentalist) hermeneutics and more liberal biblical approaches.
The celebrated “Princeton School,” emanating from Princeton Theological Seminary and later Westminster Theological Seminary, centered on a return to Calvinism and the reformational roots of Protestantism.
Corley, Lemke, and Lovejoy describe the Princeton school this way: “Princeton’s methods of scriptural interpretation relied heavily on the principles of Scottish common sense philosophy. Their defense of scriptural authority was based upon the notion that empirical induction is the primary source of truth and that all reasonable people intuit moral absolutes. They defined theology as a science, mining the Scriptures for facts much like a scientist gathers data from nature.”
Fundamentalism, which arose in the early 20th century, emphasized a literal and dispensational approach to interpreting Scripture. Dispensational theology divided human history into seven periods (or dispensations). The relationship between God and man varied in each of these periods. These differing periods impacted how to interpret associated Scriptures.
Classic liberal theology arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an attempt to harmonize the Bible with new scientific information. Liberal theologians saw the Bible as a human book, whose supernatural elements could be explained in scientific terms.
5 key components of biblical hermeneutics
As you try to interpret the meaning of the text, start by considering its context. Usually interpreters consider two aspects of context.
First, you have the historical context. You want to ask the question, “What did the text mean in its original situation?” Commentaries (or even book summaries at the beginning of a study Bible) can help shed light on the historical situation. Bible dictionaries with articles on specific biblical books can also help.
In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Grant Osborne suggests four specific questions to consider when looking at the historical context.
- Who wrote the book?
- When was the book written?
- What group was the book addressing?
- What is the purpose or theme of the book?
Another important area of context to consider is a passage’s logical context. What comes before and after the passage you’re studying? The closer a section of text is to whatever you’re studying, the more important it is to interpreting the passage. Osborne describes eight concentric circles of context that help unlock the meaning of the text. Those circles include: passage, immediate context, major section, book, writer, testament, Bible, and genre.1
Next, it’s important to consider the basic laws of language. Although knowing the original languages helps considerably with this step, students without that background can still benefit from looking at how the biblical writers structured their sentences.
Commentaries will help you understand the grammar, but you don’t want to depend upon the exegesis of others. Comparing multiple Bible versions with varying translation strategies will help to make sure you aren’t leveraging a particular commentary writer’s grammatical approach.
Digital Bible tools can be extremely helpful as well. With apps like Logos, you can tap on a word in most English translations and see the word in its original language, along with information about the grammatical construction. At that point, you’re only a few taps away from grammar textbooks that can fill in the gaps about what the particular verb tense or noun declination means.
Readers trying to make a proper interpretation of a verse don’t need to note the grammatical construction of every single word but can focus on the key words in each verse, particularly the subject, verb, and important clauses.
Word studies have become one of the most popular lay exegetical activities in recent years. One reason is that digital tools make word studies really easy. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne notes that semantics (determining word meanings) is a relatively young field in biblical studies. It dates back to the 19th century and didn’t move to the forefront until the 1950s.
Again, original language background (along with an expanding original language vocabulary) helps with semantics but many of the important skills aren’t dependent upon language knowledge. Mark Ward provides a great three-step guide that helps any Bible student dig into the words of Scripture:
- Look for a promising word. Find a word that if it’s better defined you’ll have a better sense of the passage—and can more effectively apply it to your life and the lives of those with whom you’re in community.
- Identify the underlying Greek or Hebrew lemma. Greek and Hebrew words often have multiple English meanings. Try to identify the meaning particular to your passage.
- Find every instance of a particular Greek or Hebrew word. Digital tools can do this with a simple search function, but a good original language concordance will also do this.
All of this can be done without extensive original language knowledge. Once you’ve discovered the usage of a word, you can then begin to look at it in context and get a better grasp of the meaning. Digital tools that allow you to review verses using a word’s various senses help with this as well.
When you look at the grammar of a verse or passage of the Bible, you’re focusing on the rules of how words relate with one another. The syntax relates to how the words are actually used. Syntax is about the relationship between words.
Sometimes studying the syntax of a verse simply means you look at a specific word and its place in the sentence. Is the noun being used as a subject or an object? How is the verb understood when it has God for the subject? How is it understood when the word has God for its object?
You can make these observations by looking through a concordance or with the help of digital tools, like Logos.
Other times studying the syntax of a verse is looking deeper into the figures of speech used. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne defines six types of figures of speech to consider:
- figures of comparison
- figures of addition or fullness of expression
- incomplete figures of speech
- figures involving contrast or understatement
- figures centering on association or relation
- figures stressing the personal dimension
Understanding which, if any, of these figures of speech are being used in the verse helps you to unlock its meaning.
5. Historical or cultural backgrounds
Understanding the background of a particular Scripture helps it come alive for Bible students. Osborne writes: “The stories and discourses of the Bible were never meant to be merely two-dimensional treatises divorced from real life. Every one was written within a concrete cultural milieu and written to a concrete situation. It is socio-scientific background studies that unlock the original situation that otherwise would be lost to the modern reader.”
A number of resources can help you understand a passage’s historical and cultural background. The IVP Bible Dictionaries can be particularly helpful because they include extensive articles on most important background topics. Commentaries can be helpful as well.
Resources for studying hermeneutics
Logos 9 Basic
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Hermeneutics Collection (12 vols.)
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Introduction to Biblical Interpretation Video Lectures
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Hermeneutics: An Introduction
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Hermeneutics and Interpretation Bundle (3 vols.)
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Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon
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Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics
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Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books)
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Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period
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Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture (2nd Ed.)
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Basic Bible Interpretation
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The IVP Bible Dictionaries (8 vols.)
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Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary | AYBD (6 vols.)
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Holman Illustrated Bible Commentary
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Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis | HOTE)
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Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis | HOTE)
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How to Read Proverbs
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Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (IVP Bible Dictionary)
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Interpreting biblical genres
The 66 books of the Bible are hardly monolithic and can’t be interpreted as if they are. While general hermeneutic principles apply throughout the Bible, specific strategies help us better interpret each genre of Scripture. Below are some of the unique strategies to use while interpreting various biblical genres. These strategies aren’t exhaustive, but they will help as you begin to explore hermeneutics based upon the biblical genre.
Although not all of the texts within the books of the Pentateuch are law (in fact, the Pentateuch is primarily narrative), all the instances of law in the Bible are within the Pentateuch. The law includes the biblical texts that make up the moral, civil, and ritual instructions for the people of Israel. Understanding which type of law you’re studying is a critical part of proper interpretation—particularly as you try to apply the law to contemporary society.
In his book Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook, Peter Vogt tells readers to determine the nature of the legal requirement within the law. In other words, what is the law requiring or forbidding? Sometimes this is straightforward, but often it takes a detailed reading of the verse.
Then, Vogt says, Bible students should clarify what the law’s purpose was in Israel (the good of the community, maintain a sense of equity, protection, etc.). Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to apply the law’s purpose to your contemporary situation.
Narrative elements of the Bible are spread throughout the Old and New Testaments, including parts of the Pentateuch and the vast majority of the historical books of the Old Testament, along with the Gospels and the book of Acts in the New Testament.
Writing for Insight for Living Canada, Steve Johnson explains, “Biblical narratives are interpreted history with a specific divine purpose. They are not allegories nor are they primarily intended to teach moral lessons or doctrine although they may illustrate doctrine taught propositionally elsewhere. Narratives may teach either explicitly, by clearly stating something, or implicitly, by clearly implying something without actually saying it.”
Interpreting narratives throughout the Bible hinges on understanding three elements. First, narratives have settings, which means they have a time and place. Understanding the settings means doing the historical background research on where and when the narrative takes place. Two distinct settings are important during the interpretation process—the setting of when the story takes place and the setting of when it’s written. Both impact the author’s meaning.
Second, narratives have characters—both primary and secondary. In his book Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Robert Chisholm notes that it’s important to understand how the narrator evaluates the characters (so we know whether the character’s actions are intended as a model or a warning for us). Because the narrator of biblical texts tends to leave evaluation to the reader, this makes the interpretive task more difficult.
Finally, it’s important to understand the plot—the sequence of events— within the narrative. Chisholm describes a number of different plot structures in the narratives of the Old Testament’s historical books, including tragedy, comedy, admiration story, reward story, etc. Understanding the structure helps you understand the part the narrative plays in the biblical book and overall story of Scripture.
When most Christians think of biblical poetry, they immediately focus on the Psalms, but there are a variety of songs and poems throughout the Bible. Still the vast majority of biblical poetry can be found in the Psalms.
As you seek to interpret biblical poetry, start by identifying the type. In Logos, you can see the different types of poetry with each Psalm categorized according to its type.[Insert Psalms Explorer graphic]
Writers used specific types of poetry in order to better communicate the poem’s message.
Biblical poets almost always used a structure of parallelism to communicate their message. Generally, that means that in biblical poetry a line has correspondence with the next one. The challenge is usually trying to discern what that correspondence is. Sometimes, as with synonymous parallels, the second line simply repeats the first line a little differently.
Other times, as with antithetic parallelism, the second line is the opposite. Still others use a form of advancing parallelism, where the second line advances the message of the first. Understanding which of these methods is being used is critical to both interpretation and application of the text.
Most of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are considered wisdom literature. Of all the genres of Scripture, wisdom literature has some of the most unique interpretive rules. Thus, it also includes some of the most misinterpreted Scripture in the biblical canon.
Take for example biblical proverbs. In his book How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman III explains, “A proverb expresses an insight, observation, or advice that has been popularly accepted as a general truth. Indeed, a proverb can be so universally accepted as true that simply citing it is enough to end a conversation. But notice this: a proverb is only accepted as true if applied at the right time.”
While Proverbs are generally true, they aren’t designed to be absolute. Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Start a youth out on his way; even when he grows old he will not depart from it” (CSB), is generally true, but that doesn’t mean that when a child departs from the faith it is because his or her parents didn’t faithfully disciple the child as a youth.
It’s also critical to understand the form of the wisdom literature. Sub-genres within wisdom literature include proverbs, extended didactic sayings, allegories, etc. Each has its own interpretive rules.
Also, watch out for clear hyperbole in the text. Often wisdom literature writers use exaggeration to make a point. Osborne notes Proverbs 23:9–10 as an example of this in The Hermeneutical Spiral. While the saying reminds us that God will repay our sacrifices, it isn’t necessarily saying we will get rich in doing so. Osborne wrote, “Wisdom sayings are written in order to be remembered, and so they tend to be pithy statements that prefer rhetorical skill to accuracy.”
The prophetic books of the Old Testament contain some of the most quoted passages in the Bible—and some of the least understood. They include the major prophets—like Jeremiah and Isaiah—passages from which many Christians have committed to memory. They also include the minor ones—like Nahum, Haggai, and Micah—which many believers would struggle to find in their Bibles.
Possibly the most important interpretive principle to consider when reviewing biblical prophecy is a general one that is particularly critical for this genre. Take note of the historical situation before considering contemporary application. Often the text itself alerts you to when the text was shared (usually prophetic texts were spoken before they were written). Take the time to understand what the prophet wanted to say to the people of his day. Identify a specific theme, and then apply that theme to the world of today.
Also, take the time to understand the passage as a part of the entire prophetic book. Prophecies in the Old Testament can often be misapplied when taken out of their logical progression.
Because the Bible’s prophetic books were directed at Israel, God’s people of the Old Covenant, it’s important to consider his New Covenant people when interpreting it today. Think through what the specific prophecy says to the church today. How can God’s people corporately apply its warnings and encouragement as the church fulfills its mission in our communities and in our world?
Sometimes when biblical readers see the word apocalypse, they immediately think about the end times, but the word literally means to reveal or unveil something that is hidden. In this kind of biblical literature—most notably in Daniel and Revelation, but also spread out in various Old Testament passages—the biblical writer is given a vision of a transcendent reality. Paul Hanson writes in Visionaries and their Apocalypses, “The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation. This is achieved via God’s transforming this world for the faithful.”
Most apocalyptic literature was written in a time of persecution of God’s people, which means it needs to be read with an underlying theme of hope. Apocalyptic writers were encouraging the faithful to remain committed to God’s ways despite the difficulties they were facing. Discovering how the text is presenting hope is one of your key interpretive challenges.
Symbols play a major role in interpreting apocalyptic literature. To do that, you’ll need to dig into the historical meaning of these symbols. Because these texts are often focused on future events, it’s sometimes easy to forget that apocalyptic literature is written in a previous time and place. As you look at the symbols, spend some time unpacking what those symbols meant for the original readers—then you’ll have a better idea of what they mean today. Osborne writes, “Yet in every case the author’s original meaning must predominate, for it is the key to the fulfillment.”
The letters of the New Testament contain some of the most important theological content in the 2,000+-year history of the church. Using proper hermeneutics when studying these letters is critical. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne calls letters “the most basic of the genre categories.” Yet, he notes, there are many unique “hermeneutical peculiarities” to them.
Though some of Paul’s letters were personal in nature (Philemon, for example), most were meant to be read corporately—and often several times in several different locations. G. R. Osborne, in his article on “Hermeneutics” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, writes: “Paul’s letters were more than personal reminiscences; they represented his presence in the community and were meant to be read again and again in the worship service. On the basis of Paul’s apostolic authority behind the letters, they possessed almost a creedal authority from the start.”
Maybe the most critical interpretive point to keep in mind as you study New Testament letters is that while letters were passed around to different churches, they had specific audiences and were addressing particular situations. The letter writer often provides clues to the situation within the text. Pay attention to these clues. While the letter has meaning beyond the original situation, the interpreter needs to start with the original meaning.
Often, as is the case with Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth, the biblical letters are part of a string of correspondence. We don’t have access to any of the other pieces of this string of correspondence. Take this into consideration as you interpret these letters.
More related resources
Jesus shows up in the Bible long before you get to the Gospels. Discover how to see the work and person of Jesus in the Old Testament.
Learn how to do a word study and other essentials of biblical Greek study in The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Biblical Greek, a free guide by Dr. Mark Ward.
Discover tools for reading the Bible more effectively.
This 12-volume collection of resources examines modern hermeneutical processes that can help you get a better grasp of the intended meaning of Scripture.
Biblical scholars William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard provide a seminary-level overview of biblical hermeneutics. The course includes content on the history of biblical interpretation, guidelines for reading biblical poetry and prose, and insights for understanding and applying Scripture today.
Hermeneutics: a lifetime of study
Faithful students of the Bible will spend their lives learning to interpret God’s Word more faithfully. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years.” Every single time you open your Bible, you are interpreting the text, either effectively or ineffectively. The principles above will help, but choose today to never stop learning about this important topic.