Topic Article #2: Biblical Hermeneutics
by Dr. Eugene Clingman, Executive Administrator
Copyright 2006, International Church Council Project
(This article may be freely distributed so long as it is not altered
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This is Topic #2 of a series on the 20 topics of the International Church Council Project (ICCP). Topic 1, Biblical inerrancy is essential because a true and correct view of the Bible is essential for knowing and believing the truth of God’s revelation to man. If the Bible is errant, if it contains errors, the Church has no foundation on which to stand, and the International Church Council Project has nothing to say, for no standard can be raised other than one opinion against another. However, the testimony of Scripture itself, of our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and of his Apostles, is this – that Scripture is the Word of God, and is to be trusted, even down to the very words of the original text. The International Church Council Project maintains that the Bible is from God, and is inerrant, and therefore must be held as the only reliable standard by which to determine Christian doctrine and practice, and from which to draw a worldview that accords with the reality imposed by the Creator and in which we must live.
Not only is it necessary to believe God has communicated truth unmixed with error in the Bible, it is also necessary to interpret God’s communication correctly. “Concerning Biblical Hermeneutics” is the second topic of the ICCP. “Hermeneutics” is the technical word that means “the art or science of interpretation.”
The publisher’s preface to Principles of Biblical Interpretation, by L. Berkhof, reads,
“Much of the present day confusion in the realm of religion, and in the application of Biblical principles, stems from distorted interpretation and misinterpretation of God’s Word. That is true even in those circles which adhere unwaveringly to the infallibility of Holy Scriptures. We are convinced that the adoption and use of sound principles of interpretation in the study of the Bible will prove surprisingly fruitful. We believe that this is one means which ‘the Spirit of truth’ is pleased to use in leading His people ‘into all truth’…”
If you have something to say to me, it is your job as communicator to communicate clearly so that I have the best chance of understanding. As listener, it is my job to do my best to understand what you are actually trying to say. I have no right to place on your communication whatever interpretation I fancy at the moment. If you say to me, “I saw a silver dove on my window sill the other day.” I have no right to say, “What he means is that he drove his car from California to Manhattan on a single tank of gas.” When we approach the Word of God we must be mindful that the Author spoke words filled with content from Him. I have no right to empty the content and replace it with content of my own imagination. Yet this is what many do when they approach the Bible. They read a passage, and depending on their state of mind, and the inclination of their emotions at that moment, they fill the passage with content of their own imaginatiion. Whatever comes to their mind, or whatever impression they have that moment is the meaning they draw from it. This would obviously be wrong in our every day communications with one another. It is equally wrong when we come to the Bible.
When we interpret the Bible, we must recognize the Bible contains different types (genre) of literature – history, prophetic and poetic symbolism, narration, law. Each must be interpreted according to its genre. If I attempt to interpret poetry in a literal way, the outcome will be absurd.
Her lips are a rose,
Her smile the sunrise.
How foolish to go in quest of this woman, examining each set of feminine lips to see whether they are composed of petals of the botanical species rosa (rose). If I were such a fool, I would take my sunglasses. Otherwise, once I found her and she were to smile, I would certainly be blinded by the brightness!
Equally foolish would be to approach a simple historic statement as if it were symbolic – “Washington crossed the Delaware.” “Oh, what that means is that George Washington was successful in his courtship of Martha in spite of the considerable challenges he had to overcome.” Hopefully in these examples we are awakened to the reality that different genre in human language, as well as in the Bible, must be approached according to their genre. I have no more right to place a literal interpretation on the poet’s words than I do to place a symbolic interpretation on the historic statement.
Confusion comes from sloppy hermeneutics. Christ’s leaders must constantly take care to use good biblical hermeneutics. The International Church Council Project’s topic “Concerning Biblical Hermeneutics” is a statement that will bring light and correction to this area, the neglect of which has brought much confusion to the Body of Christ.