Grammatical Historical Hermeneutics

By James M. Rochford

We need rules for hermeneutics to stop us from imposing our own view on a given text. While other hermeneutical systems distort the original author’s intent, grammatical-historical hermeneutics provide adequate guidelines in aiding the interpreter to get at what the original author had in mind. In this system, the interpreter studies the words, syntax, and historical background of the author and audience in order to understand authorial intent. We agree with this hermeneutical maxim: We want to know what we see—not see what we know.

The NT and OT writers use this method when interpreting Scripture. We believe in the old expression: “The Bible is its best interpreter.” We should use their hermeneutic, rather than one which is alien to the Bible.

-Jesus noted the verb tense of the Pentateuch (“I am the God of Abraham…”) to argue for the afterlife with the Sadducees (Mt. 22:31-32).

-Jesus believed that we should harmonize Scripture, when he debated with Satan (Lk. 4).

-Paul appealed to historical chronology to show the superior nature of the Abrahamic covenant over the Mosaic covenant (Gal. 3).

-Paul used the chronology of Abraham’s life to prove that circumcision is not necessary for justification (Rom. 4).

-Paul’s citations of OT prophets hinge on their chronology in Romans 9. For instance, he cites Malachi 1:2 to refer to nations—not individuals (Rom. 9:13).

Additionally, we use the grammatical-historical method for everyday life. We use it when we read a medicine bottle, a recipe, a road sign, or a newspaper. Thus we find it bizarre to use a completely different method of interpretation for the Bible that we wouldn’t use in any other area of life. Most of historical-grammatical hermeneutics is nothing but using common sense to distill the meaning of a text while minimizing our own biases. To do this, we interpret the text (1) grammatically, (2) historically, and (3) intelligibly.

1. Interpreting grammatically

If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense. If a passage contains symbols or a special literary genre, 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. 1:19-20; seven stars = seven angels). We should allow for non-literal genres (e.g. parables, poetic license, apocalyptic, wisdom literature).

2. Interpreting historically

We take into account the historical background of the author, the recipients, and any other relevant parties. As modern readers, we have to try to recover a general sense of the meaning of words, phrases, and concepts in the ancient cultures. Historical analysis can also help us grasp the significance of a passage (as opposed to its meaning). Here we are not interested at first in the question, “What does it mean to me?” but rather, “What did it mean to them?”

For instance, Jesus tells the church in Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). Christian preachers often claim that Jesus is speaking to the “pew sitter” here, who neither wants to live radically for God (i.e. “hot”), nor wants to walk away from God (i.e. “cold”). However, historically, we learn that there were both hot and cold springs in Laodicea (the city to whom Jesus was speaking). The hot water was useful for bathing, and the cold water was useful for drinking. However, the lukewarm water was putrid, containing high levels of sulfur (see comments on Rev. 3:15-16). Another example would be the head-coverings in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:5-6). Likewise, 1 John is written against certain false teachers who generally conform to proto-Gnostic dualism. This puts a very different spin on many passages in this book (e.g. 1 Jn. 3:6-9). Mk. 2; Jn. 9. Other examples would be the practice of sacrificing an animal for a covenant (Gen. 15:9-10), the thought that sick people were sinful (Mk. 2:3ff; Jn. 9:1), and the price of a denarius (Acts 19:19). Understanding each of these practices, religious views, or common currency would help us to understand the passage in a fuller sense.

3. Interpret intelligibly

Our interpretation must make rational sense. If our interpretation is permitted to contradict itself, we have no reason for hermeneutics, since we may make a passage say whatever we want.