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A complex-sounding, unusual word, hermeneutics is simply the science, art, spiritual practice of Biblical study and interpretation.
Correct Bible study and interpretation should answer the question, "How do I understand what this particular passage means?" Because there are rules which govern its use, it is a science. Because knowing the rules is not enough, it also is an art. Because the Bible is not a mere human resource, it is a spiritual practice. This practice needs to be applied to learn how to use the rules of Bible study and interpretation.
The question of how to interpret the Bible is not a minor issue. If Satan has a list of what he does NOT want us to do, Bible study is at the top, along with prayer and worship. Through study of Scripture we learn who Jesus is and are enabled to become like Him. How can we become like Him, if we do not know what He is like? Devotional studies are important, but they must result from serious study of Scripture. The apostle Paul prayed that the Colossians might be "filled with the knowledge of His Will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding." (Colossians 1:9)
Knowing Scripture and obeying it are the twin foundations of a Godly life. A Holy Spirit-filled life produces the further desire to study God's Word. Bible study and the application of its meaning, therefore, takes the student from study to application, back to study and on to further application, in a mounting spiral toward God in devotion and toward mankind in service and witness. Satan's attempt to take away our desire to study Scripture is nothing less than an attempt to remove the basis of our spiritual growth and stability.
The Basic Principles of Bible Study
Four basic principles are at the heart of a sound method of Biblical interpretation.
Because Scripture is a divine Book, and because of our limitation as humans, prayer is an absolute necessity as we study the Bible. Paul teaches that the non-Christian and the spiritually immature Christian are limited in their ability to know Christian things (1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3). Therefore, we must pray that God will bridge the gap that separates us form understanding spiritual things, by having the Holy Spirit teach us (John 14:26; 16:13). Without this illumination or insight from God's Spirit, we cannot learn. This need for insight was the concept Paul referred to when he told Timothy to "reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this" (2 Timothy 2:7).
The Bible is also a human book and, to a degree, must be interpreted like any other book. This brings us to the principle of common sense. For example, the grammatical-historical method of studying the Bible instructs us to look at the passage carefully to see what it says literally, and to understand a biblical statement in light of its historical background. We understand a historical statement as a straightforward statement and do not change its literal, grammatical sense. This is "common sense". Using the common sense principle, under the control of the Holy Spirit, is a valid principle of interpreting the Bible.
The primary rule of biblical interpretation is "context". The context refers to (1) the setting of the verse or passage, the surrounding verses and their subject matter, and (2) the historical or social setting in which the event happened or the words were spoken. When allowed to speak for itself within the context of the paragraph, chapter or book, the Bible itself will prevent the majority of all possible errors in interpretation.
A challenge at this point is avoiding our own bias, or our subjectivity. We might be tempted to approach a passage thinking we already understand it, and in the process read our own meaning into the passage. (This is called eisegesis--basically meaning in Greek 'into one's persona'). But to interpret the Bible correctly is to humbly seek the Lord and listen to what the Holy Spirit Himself has breathed into the text--to find what the text itself is saying, and then draw the meaning out of the passage. (This is called exegesis--Greek meaning 'outside of one's persona'). If we allow a passage to be basically defined by what it and the surrounding verses say, then we have taken a large step toward interpreting the Bible properly.
Four key words--observation, interpretation, evaluation and application--are the heart of all approaches to finding out what the Bible means. They provide the structure of what questions you ask of the text, and when. Observation: Do I understand the basic facts of the passage such as the meaning of all the words? Interpretation: What did the author mean in his own historical setting? Evaluation: What does this passage mean in today's culture? Application: How can I apply what I have learned to how I live my life?
We should remember that just as Biblical passage can be set in its culture, so the interpreter is likewise controlled to some extent by his own culture. Many people today do not believe that the Biblical accounts of miracles are true. For example, some scholars argue that miracles were a part of the first century culture and were believed by people in Jesus' day. But this is the 20th century and people do not believe in miracles in this culture. But these scholars' views on the impossibility of the supernatural are likewise influenced by the materialistic, science-oriented culture in which they live. We must be careful about allowing our own culture to influence our view of Scripture.
Above all, humility and an openness to the Holy Spirit are fundamental to "hearing the Word of God" when you read and study it. Rules of interpretation are not to inhibit this, but to help us avoid the mistakes of those who, through history, have used the Bible recklessly unto their own shipwreck of faith and holy living; or to guard against any who would mishandle the Word and submit themselves to error.
In interpreting the Bible, we must remember from Whom it comes. We are handling the Lord's message, given by the Holy Spirit for our illumination. This calls for an attitude of humble respect and for our willingness to subject ourselves to its truth, its authority and its call to holiness and love.
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