What does this mean, and what are the rules?

It may seem complex at first, but a breakdown of the term will make it clear. Most of us, unless we are theologians and students in bible college, don't end up in too many discussions about hermeneutics. I'm not sure if this is good or bad. It seems like Christians should be very interested in being sure that they are interpreting the words of the Bible correctly. Being able to defend our beliefs seems important to me. However, for some reason, if you mention hermeneutics, many will give you a blank look. If you wanted to talk about a triple coronary artery bypass, arteriosclerosis, schizophrenia, Black Holes, or Dolby Digital Surround Sound, you won't have any problem. For some reason, Christians don't shrink back from tough terms in other areas of life. I'm not sure why theological terms would be any more difficult to learn.

Nevertheless, it is an important issue. While you may be tempted to just let your pastor handle subjects like this one, we are all called by God to study His word, and to do our best at understanding it. The book of Hebrews calls us all priests. A quick study of the interpretive rules will prove very helpful in your future Bible study. If the word hermeneutics bothers you, just substitute the phrase interpretive rules for Bible study.

The principles of the Literal Grammatical Historical approach encompass more than just the three terms. The term therefore represents an approach to hermeneutics, or a set of rules.


Lets get started

This means that we start out by taking the words in their most normal meaning. If I say My house is red, you will understand what I mean. There would be no question about it. However, if I say Listen to this parable about the Homeowner, or used comparative words like the word like as in like a roaring lion, you would understand that my words might not be meant to be taken literally, but possibly figuratively. 

I ate like a horse last night, and then felt so sick that I beat my head against the wall trying to figure out why I ate so much.

Unfortunately, since many people today cannot accept much of the Bible, it is convenient to make the parts that are undesirable symbolic. For example, they can't believe that God raised Lazarus from the dead, but they do claim to believe in creation. You may not want to let this secret out, but if God can create the world, He can raise someone from the dead. This method of interpretation makes no sense. It picks and chooses which items to believe, and in a way that really just denies the personal God of the Bible. The story about Lazarus is not told as a parable, but as an historic event. Another example would be Jonah and the sea monster (whale?). The Bible doesn't give any indication that this should be taken figuratively. As a matter of fact, Jesus certainly believed in the story of Jonah was literal. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 12:38-40

Was Jesus saying that in the same way that Jonah symbolically was in the belly of the sea monster, I will be symbolically in the heart of the earth? If this is the interpretation, Jesus would have needed to tell the listeners that the story of Jonah was not to be taken literally so that they could understand the non-literal example He was about to give. When we look at what actually happened to Jesus, it is clear that He meant it literally, and not symbolically.

In speaking about the Literal method, Bernard Ramm in his book Protestant Biblical Interpretation says "This does not deny that substantial doctrinal truth is conveyed symbolically, parabolically, typically, and poetically. But as previously indicated, the symbolic et al. (i) depend on the literal sense for their very existence, and (ii) are controlled by the literal. For example, the effort to spiritualize the Levitical priesthood and so make it a justification for a clergy-priesthood, is to be rejected as it lacks New Testament verification."

My point being that Literal doesn't mean that we reject symbolism. This is a misunderstanding among people in our day that throw stones at those who claim to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Is poetry to be taken literally? Certainly all biblical text has a point, or literal truth, but the words being used to describe the truth may not be meant to be taken literally. That is often the nature of poetry. This is acknowledged by our method of interpretation.

It follows the rules of grammar, and is expected to use grammatical tools like similes, metaphors, etc. When interpreting the Bible, standard grammatical tools must be recognized, and then interpreted in light of the normal usage of the grammatical tool. 1 Peter 5:8 says "Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Does this mean that the devil is a Lion that eats people? No. It's very clear that He is comparing the devil to a Lion. It tells us something of the nature and purpose of the devil.

Also included here is the ability to use the original languages to determine the true sense of a word. While not everyone knows Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, most everyone has access to a commentary that will give notes on points of grammar from the original language. Language students might argue this point, but in most cases one can come up with a correct interpretation of a passage of scripture with an English Bible, or possibly a couple of versions of the English Bible. 

To drop the history of the time period is like stripping any conversation from its context. Try applying everything in the book of Jeremiah to today. Forget about the fact that he is directing much of his words at the southern kingdom of Judah thousands of years ago, warning them to repent or be sent into exile. Should we fear that our country is about to be sent into captivity for 70 years?

We are very fortunate today to have more information about Bible times than has been known before. Archaeological discoveries have opened many doors to understanding biblical history better, and thus the context of the books of the Bible.

Additional rules

The Bible must be interpreted as part of a whole. To be more precise, each passage of scripture has 1. its immediate context, 2. the context of the book it belongs to (and author), 3. and the context of the whole of the Bible. This is a rule of interpretation that is quite often broken it seems. New interpretations of familiar passages of scripture often make a mistake of context. Spiritualizing scripture in places that don't warrant this kind of interpretation often breaks this rule of context. Words mean things only within their context.

This may seem like common sense but historically it wasn't always practiced. All truth in the Bible should be compared against the Bible since God doesn't contradict Himself. This of course assumes a belief in the verbal inspiration of scripture.


The Inspiration of the Bible

Where does the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible come in? Actually, it's the first and most important truth that has led us to our method of Bible interpretation. What would be the sense in believing in the importance of historical context if the history was incorrect? Not much. Even more important, how can we go to the Bible for spiritual truth if there are errors in the Bible. If the Bible has errors, who is going to decide which words are true, and which are not? Did God leave us to use our imperfect human mind to determine truth? God wouldn't be too smart, or loving if He did that, since it is a losing plan. The answer is clear. So many groups today claim to have the truth, and their truth is diametrically opposed to the Bible. They have decided the Bible is wrong, or was written for some other time, and that they have come to the truth by using their human wisdom and intellect. Now, isn't it interesting that no one can judge the beliefs of someone that doesn't believe what the Bible says, because once we say the Bible is wrong, once again, truth is up for grabs. The private interpretation of individuals claiming to have new truth is what leads people into cults.

Why are there so many groups today, with so many beliefs? Partly because clearly stated truths in the Bible are not accepted. Man has become the source of knowledge, and not God and His word. This happened when liberal scholars decided that God's word was not correct, and we therefore now need their wisdom, or someone else's to come to real truth. In short, they have rejected the personal God of the Bible, who Himself claims to be the source of all truth, and who Himself claims to care that we are able to know the truth. The Bible either IS the standard for knowing truth, or it is not. It can't be both. Partial truth doesn't help anyone.

We don't condemn those that don't believe the Bible. It's not our job to do so. We are in a battle however with those that claim to believe the Bible, but then say that it can't be trusted to have absolute truth. This is an absurd position, since it denies the ability of the God in the Bible to clearly give truth to the people He created. If God didn't give us any clear truth, then we are in even worse trouble, since that would show that God doesn't really care. Does anyone really want to die to face an all-powerful being that doesn't care about us? That's too horrible to even imagine.


What about the Canon?

The Canon refers to the putting together of the books of the Bible, finished in the 4th century A.D. There are two things that need to be understood, outside of the historical record, if one is to understand and believe that the Bible is actually the word of God. I understand that the reasoning here may seem to be on an emotional level. In part I'm sure it is, however, the Bible does teach these things as truths about God.

  1. God cares about us
  2. God interacts in history when needed

If you can believe these two statements, then you can believe that God protected His word and made it all part of the completed Bible that we have right now. The Canon, or the present 66 books of the Bible were put together during the early church. If God did not guide this process, then you can certainly make claim that He does NOT interact in human history. For, if He could not even keep His own word pure, as the OT states it is, then there is no way to know truth, since He doesn't really care anyway.

On the contrary, God has made it clear that He does care by protecting the manuscripts. This is not to say that every translation from the original language is perfect. The words are God's in the original language, and in the original manuscripts. It is true that we don't have any original manuscripts, but we do have thousands of different manuscripts that all agree on all major points of doctrine. There are some minor differences that were introduced by copying mistakes, made by scribes. The debates over which manuscripts are better will continue, but it doesn't lead to the conclusion that our Bible is not correct. The fact that the thousands of existing manuscripts agree is proof that we have the correct text in our Bible.

Also important to note is that different Bible translations had different objectives, like easy reading vs. word for word translation, and may therefore come out with some wording that will seem slightly different. This is unavoidable when translating from one language to another, and especially in this case where one of the languages, Koine Greek, is a dead language. (Unspoken)

Our Bible is reliable. This is provable.

What does the Bible claims about itself...

2 Timothy 3:16 ... "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."

1 Peter 1:10... "and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. 10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look."

2 Peter 1:20... "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

Hebrews 4:12... "For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Joshua 1:8 - This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.


Suggested Reading

  • The Basis of the Premillennial Faith - Charles Ryrie (Loizeaux)

  • Things to Come - J. Dwight Pentecost (Zondervan)

  • Protestant Biblical Interpretation - Bernard Ramm (Baker)

  • A Ready Defense - The Best of Josh McDowell