All Your Rubiks Are Belong To MeHermeneutics: The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text.

When I find that a topic comes up in conversation several times in the virtual world and the real world in a short period of time, I tend to see it as a signal that I ought to pay a bit more attention to it, consider its application to me, and – possibly – write about it. One such topic that has come up in the past few weeks has been one of ‘hermeneutics’ – the way we interpret scripture.

So, perhaps it’s time to touch on the topic briefly.

First off, it is possible to get a Ph.D. in Hermeneutics, and my formal training consists of part of one course, so I claim no professional expertise in the subject. Rather, I will offer some thoughts, based upon my own study, and see where the conversation (if any) leads.

Bedrock Principle

The primary bedrock principle I consider is that everything in the Bible, in the original language, is inerrant, as it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This has a couple key implications:

1) In general , if there appears to be a conflict between one part of Scripture and another part of Scripture, then either a) there is a reason for the conflict due to revelation over time (for instance, the change in dietary law revealed to Peter, in conflict with OT dietary law); b) there is a conflict because of translation nuance/error; c) there is a conflict because our interpretation of one or more ‘conflicting’ passages is incorrect; or d) there is a conflict because we do not (or can not) understand the full truth which would annul the conflict.

2) In general, if there appears to be a conflict between Scripture and scientific/logical/critical comparison, then (primarily in light of Romans 1) either a) the scientific/logical/critical evidence is insufficient to explain why no conflict exists; b) there was a specific reason God exerted his supernatural abilities in contradiction of scientific/logical/critical evidence, stated within scripture; c) our interpretation of the religious truth in scripture is faulty.

Interpretation Methods

There are a plethora of techniques and methods for use in interpreting scripture, and most people – even if they are intentional about it – vary the techniques to meet each situation. This variation cannot be avoided without the potential of committing serious error.

Historical-Contextual Technique

In general, the first principle I ascribe to is the ‘historical-contextual’ hermeneutic. This can be summed up in this tree-step process:

  1. What did the original people to whom the scripture was first written to understand it to mean (i.e. what was the context in which it was understood)?
  2. What is the cross-cultural principle being communicated in this original meaning?
  3. How does this principle apply to us in our culture?

In many cases, the plain meaning of a passage scripture would be understood the same way now as it was to the first people it was written to. Apart from this, the absolute best way to determine step #1 is through the review of earlier Scriptural writings on the same topic. This is because, in general, the Word of God builds upon itself as it progresses through time. Thus, to fully understand and appreciate the later writings, we must first understand what came before.

Sometimes, particularly with colloquialisms and cultural practices, determining the original context is not fully possible within scripture, and so we look to evidence outside of scripture to guide interpretation – keeping in mind that this is more prone to fallibility. A couple examples of this:

Example 1

Women are instructed by both Paul and Peter that they should not braid their hair or wear jewelry. Multiple first-century sources indicate that braided hair and excessive jewelry were the calling-cards of temple prostitutes. Additionally, other sources indicated that this was both an expression of wealth and a means of protecting what they owned (by keeping it close to them at all times). The cross-cultural principle many Christians take from this is a) not dressing in ways to suggest you are sexually available; b) not putting your wealth on display; and c) not putting your hope in earthly riches.

Example 2

In Luke (and a parallel passage in Matthew), we read Jesus’ words:

“Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be completely lighted, as when the light of a lamp shines on you.”

From a number of pre-Christian and post-Christian Jewish sources, we have learned that having a “good eye” means that you are generous with your resources and that having a “bad eye” means that you are stingy. In light of this, we can see that Jesus is teaching about generosity and using the ‘eye’ as part of his illustration in a colloquial way, understood by his original audience.

PaRDeS

An additional ‘method’ (actually sub-methods to the above) I use when reading quotes from Jesus, Paul and Peter is called the “garden” method, from the Hebrew Word pardes, which means ‘garden’ and forms an acrostic for the four key techniques used in Second Temple rabbinic teaching:

  1. P’shat – the plain, or simple, meaning
  2. Remez – a ‘hint’ at additional meaning (by referring to verses before or after a quoted passage from the OT)
  3. D’rash (or Derasha) – a story or interpretive meaning
  4. Sod – a ‘hidden’ or esoteric meaning

I have discussed this method more in-depth here, if you are interested. Also, you can see a beautiful short video which illustrates Jesus’ use of remez on the cross. Additionally, I am working up a piece on recently published comparison between the Passion events in Mark (the gospel written to the church in Rome) and the sequential events in the coronation of a Caesar – which would have been recognized by the Roman church as a declaration that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Methods I Avoid

In general, I avoid strict literal interpretation, which tends to treat the Bible as an antiseptic literary work, completely disconnected from the culture in which it was written. This method was not used in the early church, as most Jewish members of the community knew scripture orally and the context of the epistles and gospels was well-understood. It was not until the majority of the church did not have large portion of scripture memorized and the printing press made the Word available to the masses is a “lazy” format (because it could be read without being memorized) that ill-placed literalism became a problem.

Strict literal interpretation is particularly problematic when used for cultural practices (in the epistles), parables (in the gospels), poetry and apocalyptic literature. In each of these cases, a literalist interpretation ignores the method being used by the Holy Spirit through the writer to convey religious truth, with the potential of completely missing the truth being conveyed.

Another method I try to avoid is the proof-text method – which ignores the context of scripture. More often than not, this is employed by conservative fundamentalist/evangelical Christians. In one extreme example, I’ve seen writers proof-text John 6:60-66 to suggest that the sign of a “true” church is that it drives people away. In another, I saw a sanctimonious writer try to use Jesus’ words in John 7:24 to try to force another person to agree with him.

On the other side of the coin, I also try to avoid the ‘reader-response’ method, often used in liberal Christian circles – both in some mainline and Emergent churches – in which the meaning of the scripture is derived from the opinions and attitudes of the reader, rather than from the original context of the scripture.

What About You?

So – turning the spotlight a bit – do you even consider how it is you interpret scripture? If not, why not? If so, what is your hermeneutic?

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26 Comments(+Add)

1   Rick Ianniello    http://rianniello.blogspot.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 1:30 pm

The method I use? I either understand it or I don’t and if not I check to see if John Piper wrote anything about it … is that ok?

2   Darren Sapp    http://www.vaporministries.blogspot.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 1:35 pm

The introductory course at Dallas Seminary, BE101 (Bible Study Methods & Hermeneutics) teaches a method of OBSERVATION, INTERPRETATION, CORRELATION & APPLICATION. One of the first assignments under OBSERVATION is to observe (not interpret) 25 things in Acts 1:8. This is no easy task but gets you to really notice some things. The next assignment is to find 25 more without interpreting. By then you are stating things like, “there is a period at the end.” I learned though, that if I really did deep to see God’s Word on display before me, my interpretation will be so much more clear. It has taught me that a cursory glance is insufficient and that if I keep reading a verse over and over I will find more of the Gospel and God’s glory.

By observing what is there before I interpret, I avoid eisegesis.

3   Phil Miller    http://veritasfellowship.blogspot.com
January 2nd, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Rick,
I would say that too, except I would ammend your statement – “I check to see if John Piper wrote anything about it, and I make sure I don’t agree with Piper.”

;-)

just kiddin’ – sort of

4   Chris    http://agendalesslove.wordpress.com
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:10 pm

It has taught me that a cursory glance is insufficient and that if I keep reading a verse over and over I will find more of the Gospel and God’s glory.

Darren are you suggesting something like “lectico divina”? tsk, tsk, tsk.

Just kidding! I do the same thing.

5   Neil    
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Darren,

You post gave me a flash-back of “Prof” saying; “For the next hour…” I assume you had Hendricks as well.

Neil

6   Neil    
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:28 pm

I know you should not judge a system by the abusers, but I saw some pretty lame twisting, what I would call hermeneutical gymnastics, by those employing a PaRDeS approach.

Whether it’s defending racism like they do at Rapture Ready, denying the church age like Harold camping – looking for the “sod” can lead to most anywhere… particularly if that’s what you want to see.

Therefore, I lean toward a literalism followed by a historical-contextual hermeneutic.

Neil

7   Neil    
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:30 pm

PaRDeS reminds me of another prof’s saying:

“Wonderful things in the Bible we see;
Things that were put there by you and my be.”

8   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Neil,

“Sod” is the most difficult, and the one I’m most skeptical about. Remez, though, I have found to be very illuminating, since it uses scripture to interpret scripture.

Some examples here, here, here and here.

With Sod, you need a very reliable source and not just conjecture, and even then it is only possible suggestion and not certitude.

9   Darren Sapp    http://www.vaporministries.blogspot.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:36 pm

Chris,
I might meditate on Scripture but do not do Yoga over it.

Neil,
Actually I had Dr. Bailey because I could not take Dr. Hendricks section at the time. I understand the methods taught are identical but I missed numerous gems from Dr. H.

10   Neil    
January 2nd, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Darren,

Even when I took it, it was co-taught between the two. And you’re right, this many years removed the only real benefit to having had Hendricks is the fact that I can say “I had Hendricks.”

Neil

11   Neil    
January 2nd, 2008 at 3:05 pm

Chris,

Thanks for the examples… Do you have any examples of “sod” that you may offer as a “suggested” deeper more mystical meaning.

My concern with the “sod” section is the abuse that I saw (is there an easy way to insert a hyper link?) at rr-bb.com. I’d do a search there but they kicked me off for holding to a two-state solution in the Middle East. I didn’t even promote it, my exact post was “I am an American Evangelical and I hold to a two state solution.” BAM – gone the same day… anyway, like I said before, I don’t want to dismiss it just because they abused it. Funny thing, they love to trash anything that smacks of mysticism, but if they can use it to advance their political interpretation of scripture, then it’s OK.

I just think the text was written to be understood without digging out your decoder ring… (that’s directed at them not you Chris)

Neil

12   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Neil,

There are two key “Sod” examples I’ve used when teaching about PaRDeS -

1) The simplest is the dual-meaning of many numbers (3, 6, 7, 12, 40, etc.). For instance – in Kings and Chronicles, we find out that Solomon received 666 talents of gold in tribute along with other gifts and gold. With 666 being 3 6’s, you have 3 (the number of completion) and 6 (the number of man), and the implication is that Solomon’s wealth did not come from God at all, but was completely from man, and not of God’s desiring.

2) Another example which involves numbers comes from the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000. In the first instance, you had 12 baskets left over in NW Galilee. In the second, you had 7 baskets left over in SE Galilee.

In this instance, there are numerous references in rabbinic first century writing referring to the NW Galilee region as “the land of the twelve” – the place that faithful Jews were from, and the SE Galilee (by Decapolis) was “the land of the seven” – because it was pagan (deonted by Deut 7:1 as the pagan nations too strong to be driven out). And so, in the dialogue in Mark 8, “Sod” would suggest that Jesus is the bread of life for the “twelve” (religious Jews) and the “seven” (the gentiles).

A third example I am currently researching, based on some journal articles which suggest that Mark’s description of the 8 key events in the Passion of Jesus directly correspond with the 8 key steps in coronating a Caesar as god, and that the reason Mark’s account stresses different details than the other synoptics is because he is stressing that Jesus’ crucifixion was his coronation as Lord, and that Caesar is only a pretender.

Once again, though, when using “sod”, you cannot replace the plain meaning of a scripture. Rather, it may be supplemental insight into the scripture…

13   Kyle in WI    
January 2nd, 2008 at 5:41 pm

Quick question about the “garden” method of interpation. Is this similar to the mystic catholic interpation method that was promient during the dark and middle ages? They sound very similar.

Side note. That “garden” sounds really messy! What about biblical theology and biblical(christological) typology. The other methods you metioned I am in agreement about while I will have to look at the “garden” more, but it seems fanicful to me, something almost like the bible code, I understand it is not, where if you look long enough and combine certain things in sundry ways then and only then can you come to the true meaning and scope of the passage. Gnostic to me. I will have over delive into the garden and see what it is all about.

14   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Kyle,

The “garden” method (PRDS) is not Catholic – it originated in the 100 years prior to Jesus, though it was not formalized until later. Two of the four pieces are long well-understood:

1) P’shat – the plain meaning
2) D’rash – the meaning is in the form of a story/parable

A third one is based on memory of scripture, remez, where you simply look for where Jesus quotes the OT and go back to the OT to see the verses just before and after the one quoted.

The fourth one – Sod – looks for symbology in numbers, phrases, patterns and themes. This last one – “sod” – as Neil noted, is the primary one which can be misused.

15   F Whittenburg    http://www.christiannewbirth.com
January 2nd, 2008 at 6:29 pm

Here is one Bible study method that has worked well for me. I wrote a whole chapter about my Bible study tips in my ebook When Faith Came. Maybe this wll help others in their study of the scriptures.

Page 177 When Faith Came:

“I use four main sources in my studies, the Holy Spirit as my “spirit guide”, a King James Version Bible, a Franklin computer pocket KJV Bible, and a Strong’s exhaustive concordance that lets me know what each word in the Bible means in Hebrew or Greek. I also use the Old and New testament in KJV on cassette tapes for studying while I am asleep, which is one study practice that has worked surprisingly well for me, which I will explain now. It will be a good starting point, after you receive the Holy Spirit.
One of the first things the Lord showed me was a little passage in the book of Job. I have heard that the sub-conscience mind never sleeps so at night while sleeping, people play recordings of subliminal messages to absorb in their minds. Everyone thinks that “new age” practitioners, scientists, or some psychiatrist dreamed up this practice, but the truth is, this practice was revealed in one of the oldest books of the Bible. This is how God would speak to man through their sub-conscience mind when man’s conscience was shut down during sleep and it would not be able to inject error or man’s natural judgment into the message.

For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; THEN he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, That he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword (Job 33:14-18).

When God revealed this passage to me, I went out and bought the KJV Old and New Testament on cassette tapes and played them on my tape player while I slept at night. I did this for six years, over and over. I just turn on the tape player and go to sleep. I was utterly amazed at what revelations would surface during the day when I was awake. Scriptures would assemble together in ways that I had never even imagined they would fit, and I would be stunned at what was being revealed. I can safely say in my experience, that the wisdom that is in the Bible is not of this world. I also could talk to somebody and a scripture would come to mind that was perfect for the situation that I would need to apply it to. Because of the technology advancement of recording devices, this is a study tool that mankind never had access to until the past several years. The only way anybody that was living in the past could have experienced this type of study, is if they had someone read the Bible to them while they slept.

F Whittenburg
http://www.christiannewbirth.com/whenfaithcame.html

16   Kyle in WI    
January 2nd, 2008 at 6:58 pm

So the remez is what some call the scripture kung foo, in fact I think that is what Rob Bell called it, where people would use verses so to speak and go back and forth. After reading up on it. The first two are good principles, the last two I am still unsure about and would still have to read more. The third one does not even seem like a principle of interpretation at all. It sounds more like just reading what some quotes? I think that the one of the more important methods is typology. Finding Christ as a type like Adam, the flood and Noah, Isaac, David are all types of Christ Even Jesus said that the whole OT told of Him and His coming. We must see Christ in all of scripture or we have failed to see the scripture at all. Just like the Pharisee the too searched the Scriptures seeking salvation but never say what the Christ was all about. Mainly death and suffering on behalf of His people.

17   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Kyle,

Actually, the “scriptural king-fu” described by Bell is not remez, but the debating techniques used by rabbis, not the teaching techniques.

If you watch the short video from the NIV Bible translators, which includes remez, you will get a better idea of its application. Ray Vanderlaan and others have documented about 30-60 remezim in Jesus’ words (so it is a fairly small number), and I’ve written about a few – like this one.

18   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 2nd, 2008 at 7:22 pm

Kyle,

This post also explains the simplest remez of Jesus, which is the one referenced in the NIV video.

19   Julie    http://www.loneprairie.net/lp_blog/blog.htm
January 3rd, 2008 at 12:47 am

What’s my hermeneutic?

I can barely spell the word. This is a sad state of being.

20   Dave Muller    http://blog.thewebsiteguy.com.au
January 3rd, 2008 at 1:12 am

I’ve never studied hermenu…..tic..s… but it turns out I use the PaRDeS method! From my personal reading I’ve been finding the bible full of consistant symbols which seem to reoccur and back itself up. A small example being leaven (Ex 12, Lev 6:16-18, Matt 16:6-12, 1 Cor 5:6-8) and Thorn (Num 33:55, Josh 23:13, 2 Cor 12:7). I don’t have my list on me, but I have discovered at least 10-15 of these that explain some very tricky scriptures quite easily.

21   Neil    
January 3rd, 2008 at 10:04 pm

I heard a woman teach on the David and Goliath story. She said that 5 was the number of grace. So when David picked up five smooth stones he represented grace and therefore Goliath represented the Law – the rest is obvious from there.

Is that “sod” (the deeper meaning) or a weak attempt to try and make an OT story preachable?

22   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 6th, 2008 at 11:17 pm

I heard a woman teach on the David and Goliath story. She said that 5 was the number of grace. So when David picked up five smooth stones he represented grace and therefore Goliath represented the Law – the rest is obvious from there.

Is that “sod” (the deeper meaning) or a weak attempt to try and make an OT story preachable?

I’d have to look into it a bit more (though that seems like a stretch). In the original Hebrew there are some numbers associated with the David/Goliath story which have some additional rabbinic interpretations, but – as noted above – the layered meanings should not contradict the plain meaning to those to whom it was first spoken/written to…

23   F Whittenburg    http://www.christiannewbirth.com
January 7th, 2008 at 12:55 am

Hello Chris L,

In my previous comment on this post, I mentioned a study practice that I used (i.e. tape recorder) in studying the scriptures while sleeping, to bypass the conscience, according to this the passage in Job:

For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; THEN he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, That he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword (Job 33:14-18).

I have a question. This is a type of subliminal study that is available today because of recording devices that was not avaliable as such to the early church a valid form of hermenutics? I also seriously doubt that any of the Catholic monks, Desert hermits, the Protestant Reformers, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, century preachers (i.e. Spurgeon, Wesley Chambers, etc.) used this type of study method. In light of the passage in Job 33:14-18, do you consider this a acceptable Bible study practice (hermenutics) even though it totally bypasses conscience deductive reasoning.

Are the historical-contexual, PaRDeS, sod, etc. methods the only ones that are useful in the correct understanding of the “deeper” things in the scriptures?

What if some parts of the “knowledge of God” is a knowledge that is “deeper” than the conscience mind can discover thru deductive reasoning?

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,9 KJV).

It was during sleep when Jacob saw “heaven opened” and angel’s ascending and descending from Heaven on a ladder (Genesis 28:12).

If God’s thoughts are “higher” than ours, what usefulness do you see in Eastern meditations and contemplative prayer to gain access to higher scriptural knowledge? Unless these techniques result in an answer from “the other side” are they not just simple futile attempts to bypass the conscience by an act of the conscience? Are not meditation techniques (centering prayer, chanting mantras, etc.) just determined and focused acts of “self” applied to “yourself” to try and obtain knowledge that Isaiah say is “higher than self”? Would not this only result in obtaining the highest “knowledge of self” instead of the “knowledge of God”? The Bible says to mediate on the scriptures. What meditation techniques do you see would be most useful? Should not simple revelation of the “deeper things” of God in the scriptures by the Holy Spirit be enough?

F Whittenburg
http://www.christiannewbirth.com/whenfaithcame.html

24   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 7th, 2008 at 9:25 am

Whit,

What you’re referencing is meditation/learning of scripture, not hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the method of interpreting scripture – something that can then be explained as part of teaching it. If you were to strictly use ‘visions’ or the sub-conscious as a hermeneutic, then you’re doing something close to the ‘reader-response’ method.

This is not to say that listening to scripture (awake or asleep) is not beneficial – but just to say that this should not be the basis for interpretation of scripture…

25   Joe Martino    http://joemartino.name
January 7th, 2008 at 9:43 am

Chris L,
I’m very bitter with this subject for two reasons:
1. I had to take a hermeneutics class last semester and could not test out
2. It ruined the grades I wanted. Having said that there were three excellent books we had to read that taken together can really help someone new to this idea

Hermeneutics by Henry Virkler
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Fee and Stuart
and
Reading the Bible as Literature by somebody–I can’t find the book right now

26   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 8th, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Check out Mark’s comments on the parallel post to this over on Fishing. If we had more “Mark’s” over here, it might become a bit more obvious to the ODM’s that we’re not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater…