Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. This subject is important to theology because it is logically prior to any theological study. Without a basis for accurate interpretation, the rest of theology will be flawed. While we have already made a case for the inspiration of Scripture (see “Verbal Plenary Inspiration”), what use is there in an inspired Bible, if we cannot get an objective meaning out of it? While modernists largely attacked the inspiration of Scripture, postmodernists attack the interpretation of it. Thus we should build a case for the project of hermeneutics.
Historically, there have been many faulty views on hermeneutics.
1. The Allegorical Method
Definition: The literal meaning of the text is either not the true meaning, or it is only one of many meanings.
History: Many early church fathers (from the 3rd century and beyond) utilized this method. Origen (AD 250) founded this hermeneutical school, but Augustine (4th century) made it popular. It was established as the preferred method of interpretation by Augustine and was dominant in Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. It is currently used by amillenialists in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy.
Examples: Take the disciples statement, “Lord, look, here are two swords” (Lk. 22:38). In 1308, Pope Boniface VIII taught that the “two swords” held by the disciples meant that the apostles were authoritative in both the secular and spiritual kingdoms. Regarding Genesis 1, Pope Innocent III taught that the two great lights refer to the order of authority on earth: The sun symbolized spiritual authority (i.e., the pope), and the moon symbolized civil authority (i.e. the emperor).
Comparison of Allegorical and Literal Interpretations
The author put the meaning in.
|The reader puts the meaning in.|
The meaning is in the words.
The meaning is beneath or behind the words.
|The obvious interpretation.||
The obscure interpretation.
We interpret newspapers, road signs, and one another in this way.
|Allegorical interpreters only interpret the Bible this way.|
|There is only one meaning and many applications.||
There are multiple meanings and many applications.
The method that the biblical authors chose to interpret other biblical authors (for the most part—we’ll see disputed passages later).
The method that modern interpreters choose to interpret the biblical authors.
More recent examples are more subtle. Consider Tim Keller’s exposition of John 2 from his book King’s Cross:
Later that day, Jesus would clear the temple of all that fruitless activity. He would take the private object lesson of the fig tree and turn it into a necessary public spectacle. Jesus is saying that he wants more than busyness; he wants the kind of character change that only comes from realizing that you have been ransomed… If you’re a fearful person, a self-hating person, or a self-aggrandizing person, is it very clear to the people who know you best that your character is undergoing radical regeneration? Or are you just very busy with religious activities?
While we are moved by this statement from Keller (cf. Watchman Nee’s interpretation of “brokenness” from the alabaster vile in John 12), it simply doesn’t follow from the passage that he is citing. Walter Kaiser refers to this type of allegorical interpretation as “right message… wrong passage.” Even excellent Christian authors like Keller can be guilty of this type of allegorizing. We reject this view, because it ultimately puts the interpreter in authority over the text, rather than under it. While Keller’s application from this passage above is convicting to the reader, it teaches the reader the wrong way to interpret the Bible for themselves. Thus we should avoid allegorizing Scripture—even when we can see a good application from the text. This shouldn’t be taken as disrespect to Keller or anyone else, but merely disagreement.
Advocates of an allegorical method usually appeal to a few passages to support their view. But when carefully examined, we don’t believe these support their case.
Is typology the same as allegory?
Types are similar to foreshadowing in the text. These are certain persons, events, or institutions in the OT that have a significance beyond themselves and which are fulfilled in the future (usually by Christ or the events surrounding His two comings).
Abraham sacrificing Isaac God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:2). This entire event prefigures God sacrificing Jesus on the same mountain (2 Chron. 3:1).
The Brazen Serpent in the wilderness The people of Israel were dying in the wilderness. To be saved, they needed to merely look up at the brazen serpent. Jesus compares this to his death (Num. 21:9; Jn. 3:14-15).
Noah’s ark Peter writes that Noah’s ark prefigured God’s future rescue through baptism (Gen. 6; 1 Pet. 3). Just as the eight people were put into the ark, believers are put into Christ.
The OT sacrificial system The author of Hebrews demonstrates how this prefigured Jesus’ work on the Cross (Heb. 8-10).
OT festivals Paul writes that the OT festivals prefigured Christ’s work (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 4:4-9; 1 Cor. 5:7-8; Jn. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 Cor. 15:23; Acts 2:1ff).
Passover This Jewish festival prefigures Christ (1 Cor. 5:7).
Melchizedek This mysterious priest from the time of Abraham prefigures Christ, according to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 5, 7).
Adam was a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45).
David was a type of Christ (Is. 55:3; Acts 2:25-26).
Solomon was a type of Christ (2 Sam. 7:11-16).
Jonah as a type of Christ (Mt. 12:39-41).
Abraham was a type of all believers, who inherit God’s blessing through faith (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:6-9).
Elijah was a type of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:17; Mk. 9:12-13; Mt. 11:14-15).
In order for something to be a type, it needs to be designated by the OT or NT author—not the interpreter. Moreover, types are not one-to-one fulfillments or exact foreshadowings. They are simply examples that are similar to the fulfillment.
2. The Literalistic Method
Definition: Every word is taken absolutely literally including figures of speech and symbolism. Historical background is considered unnecessary and ignored. Any deviation from this rule is regarded as sacrilegious.
History: This method was used by the Jews after the Babylonian Exile. It is also used by extreme fundamentalists and many cults (e.g. Children of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc.).
Mormonism teaches that God has a body, because the Bible also teaches that God has an “arm” (Deut. 7:19), “wings” (Ps. 91:4), “nostrils” (2 Sam. 22:9), “mouth” (2 Sam. 22:9), and “eyes” (Heb. 4:13).
However, these are just metaphors and symbols. Consider what David writes: “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God for help… 8Smoke went up out of His nostrils, and fire from His mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it. 9He bowed the heavens also, and came down with thick darkness under His feet. 10He rode upon a cherub and flew; and He sped upon the wings of the wind (Ps. 18:6-10). If taken literalistically, this verse would imply that God is a giant fire-breathing monster! Other passages would state that God has feathers and wings (cf. Psalm 91:4)
Likewise, when we see the words “the face of God,” we should not translate this as a literal face. “Face” is a metaphor in the Hebrew language. For example, in English, the term face can be metaphorical (e.g. “face to face…” “his face fell…” “he stood up to his face…” “his face was set against them…”). “Face” conotes God’s presence. It serves a literary—rather than a literal—function. Likewise, the “arm of the Lord” connotes God’s power.
Jehovah’s Witnesses note that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). And yet, the title “firstborn” is a biblical expression. It does not mean “first created.” It means “first place” or “first in rank” (cf. Col. 1:18). For instance, David was the last to be born among his brothers; however, he was called the “first born” in Psalm 89:27, because he was the most important. Exodus 4:22 speaks of Israel as the “firstborn.”
Roman Catholic interprets have been guilty of a literalistic method in their doctrine of transubstantiation (e.g. the bread and wine turning into the literal body and blood of Christ). Jesus told the disciples: “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Lk. 22:19). Jesus also said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (Jn. 6:53). However, Jesus often spoke in metaphor. If Jesus is literally bread, then is Jesus also literally a “door” (Jn. 10:7)?
Advocates of this view always use it selectively (see above examples), using it only when it fits their theology, which is suspicious. Moreover, it makes Scripture unintelligible, contradictory, and unlivable. Any system that makes the Bible nonsense should be abandoned (cf. Lk. 14:26).
3. The Naturalistic Method
Definition: The naturalistic worldview (i.e. the universe is a closed system of cause and effect) is the lens through which Scripture should be interpreted. Scripture becomes intelligible only as ancient man’s attempt to explain nature. It also assumes that religion has evolved through several stages which can be used to date the material in the Bible (e.g. existence of angels in Daniel prove a late date). Under this view, miracles are rejected as primitive explanations or myths. The goal is to rediscover the “true record” (e.g. the “historical” Jesus, or the JEDP “strata” in the Pentateuch) within the legendary accounts of the Bible.
History: This system arose during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. It is used by old-line liberal (critical) theology as their basic hermeneutic (see William Barclay on the feeding of the 5,000).
This method assumes a naturalistic worldview. It is interesting that historians will claim that there were two Isaiahs, because one Isaiah could not have possibly predicted king Cyrus over a century in advance by name (Isa. 45:1). However, why should a historian be passing judgment on a philosophical question? This would be similar to asking a mathematician to pass judgment on politics: They might have an opinion, but they certainly aren’t an expert. Critical historians merely assume naturalism, without ever offering any evidence for it.
History: Apocalyptic sensationalists and fanatics often appeal to numerology to advance “secret meanings” in the text of Scripture. You may have even seen examples of this on the History Channel (An episode of the satirical show South Park was making fun of the History Channel, where a voiceover says: “The History Channel… where the truth is history.”) We will often here sensationalist authors claim: “The Bible predicts that 2012 is the end of the world.” Such fanatics are using this methodology to support their claim.
Definition: In numerology, numbers in the Bible (whether actual numbers, or the number of letters in names and passages) are seen to hold secret, symbolic messages. They use “equidistant letter sequencing” (ELS) to “uncover” the Bible’s secret meaning. Using this ELS method, these enthusiasts claim that the Bible predicts references to Hitler, the Holocaust, the assassination of JFK, and the 2012 apocalypse!
There is absolutely no warrant in Scripture for anything like this. This system is immediately suspicious when it is never used by Jesus, the apostles, or any another biblical author. Moreover, this methodology has been overwhelmingly shown to be a spurious. A researcher applied the same ELS methodology to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and comically found that it predicted the assassinations of 13 major public figures!
5. Neo-Orthodox Interpretation
Definition: Neo-orthodoxy takes an approach to theology that places religious experience at the center. The Bible is important for stimulating such an experience. Neo-orthodox theologians do not say that the Bible is the word of God; rather, the Bible becomes the word of God through our experience of it. Neo-orthodox theologians are generally willing to accept the conclusions of the naturalistic theologians regarding errors in the Bible, but feel that these do not affect the reader’s ability to encounter God through it. Most observers think Emergent authors follow neo-orthodox principles. Under this view, the Bible isn’t actually true (in the correspondent sense), but it produces an effect in us. Under this view, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus rose from the dead, as long as we experience his resurrection “in our hearts” (e.g. called the “Easter faith”).
History: Neo-Orthodox theology arose after World War 1 which shattered the optimism of liberal theologians. Its founders are Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich.
This view lowers the biblical record to every other spiritual book. What really makes their encounter with God any different than a Hindu or Muslim? Moreover, the biblical account flatly disagrees with the concept of an “Easter faith.” Unless Christ was physically raised from the dead, our experience of his “resurrection” is futile (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
6. Devotional Interpretation
Definition: The devotional method focuses almost exclusively on what is personally applicable and edifying. It tends to ignore context, historical background, and other important interpretive principles. It is similar to allegorical, but it focuses explicitly on personal sanctification and edification.
History: This method grew out of the post-Reformation, as a reaction against sterile creedalism. This is the system unconsciously used by most Christians today. It arose out of the pietistic movement. Many believers adopt this view without realizing it. Thus we should be gentle in correcting those with this view. Their heart is usually in the right place—even if their head isn’t.
A classic example would be the devotionalist interpretation of Colossians 3:15, which states, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Devotionalists use this passage to support being led by the Holy Spirit on the basis of feelings. However, as the context makes clear, the correct interpretation is peace between believers.
Another example would be Jesus’ teaching that the “Holy Spirit… will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Devotionalists use this passage when they are taking a test at a university. Of course, this passage says nothing of the kind. It only refers to the Holy Spirit reminding the disciples of Jesus’ teachings while on Earth.
Devotionalists will also cite Jeremiah 29:11 which states, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” While devotionalists will often cite this passage for the life of the believer, it actually refers to the nation of Israel.
The devotional interpretation is really an egocentric view. It orients the reader around themselves, rather than around God’s message. Before we can what a passage means to me, we first need to ask what the passage meant to the original author and audience. While the devotional interpretation is often comforting to the believer, it begins a slippery slope that leads to misinterpreting more serious matters.
7. Postmodern deconstructionism
Definition: Postmodern theologian Myron Penner writes,
We cannot equate our speech about God with the being of God… Contingent “approximations” are all we finite, fallible creatures have available to us. Absolute, timeless Truth is God’s alone… Prophetic speech is not universally prophetic. Addressed to others outside the situation and specific context of the audience, prophetic witness may be superfluous and even unedifying—and to that extent untrue, in my sense. In the same way, Christian witness does not proclaim a set of timeless and necessary truths.
Many Christians have bought into this way of thinking. George Barna writes, “Although 88% of those in evangelical churches say the Bible is the infallible word of God, 53% also say there is no such thing as absolute truth! The proportion of evangelical youth doubting that absolute truth exists approaches the same ratio as that in society as a whole.”
History: Postmodern was a reaction to modernism. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were leading thinkers in this view.
The postmodern hermeneutic should be rejected for a number of reasons:
First, it directly attacks the authority of Scripture. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). God is the God of truth (Ps. 31:15). God’s word is truth (Jn. 17:17). The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” (Jn. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). If God is loving, wouldn’t it make sense that if a loving God has recorded a vital message for humans, he would communicate it in such a way that we can understand that message?
Second, the Bible is perspicuous. That is, the Bible is “essentially clear.” The Bible is not totally clear, but it is essentially clear. For instance, the “baptism for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29) and the “666” (Rev. 13:18) in Revelation are a mystery to us. Moreover, Daniel was even confused over the meaning of his own words (Dan. 12:8-9; cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-11). The apostles in the early church were even confused over the meaning of Scripture (Acts 15), and Peter even found Paul’s letters difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Yet the Bible’s major doctrines are essentially clear (e.g. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:14-15). Thus we should interpret the unclear portions in light of the clear.
Third, postmodern claims are true to some extent, but greatly exaggerated. For instance, Isaiah writes, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5). Would we hold to a postmodern view when reading the directions on a medicine bottle? What about a street sign?
Fourth, postmodern claims are self-contradictory. When you say that there is no universal objective truth… Do you mean that universally and objectively? If we really cannot communicate through language… then why write a book about it?
First, the Christian leader is expected to interpret properly. Some workers are going to be “ashamed” of the way they handled (or interpreted) the Scriptures. Paul writes, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The hermeneutical project is exactly this.
Second, hermeneutics are important for devotion. Never allow the false dichotomy between good interpretation and devotion. We should do both. In fact, we have repeatedly found that when believers discover the true meaning of a passage, it results in a profound effect in their life.
 Pope Boniface VIII writes, “When the Apostles say: “Behold, here are two swords” [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient… Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest” (Unam Sanctam, His Holiness Pope Boniface VIII, November 18, 1302).
 Pope Innocent III writes, “Just as the founder of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, so too He set two great dignities in the firmament of the universal church…, the greater one to rule the day, that is, souls, and the lesser to rule the night, that is, bodies. These dignities are the papal authority and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority” (Pope Innocent III, Papal Authority: Letter to the prefect Acerbius and the nobles of Tuscany, 1198).
 Hitchcock, Mark. 2012, the Bible, and the End of the World. Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 2009. 83-85.
 Penner, Myron B. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Baker Publishing Group. Grand Rapids, MI. 2013. 95, 109-110, 131.
 Barna, George. The Barna Report: What Americans Believe, (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991) pp. 292-294.