“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). These words from the Apostle Paul to his protégé, Timothy, remind us of our responsibility to rightly interpret the Word of God. After all, God has spoken to us through His Word, and it is of utmost importance that we understand what He says. This is why we need sound hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is the science and the art of biblical interpretation. It is a science because there are rules for interpreting Scripture, just as there are rules for driving a car. If you do not know the rules, you will not know how to drive properly. Beyond knowing the principles, however, you must also know when to apply them. Because of this, hermeneutics can also rightly be called an art. Since Scripture is not monolithic because it contains multiple genres and was written over a vast period of time, by many authors, in different languages, it requires discernment to know which rules of interpretation to apply to any given text to find its intended meaning. That, ultimately, is the goal of hermeneutics: to understand how to interpret the text to find its intended meaning.
The primary concern when interpreting the Bible is finding the author’s intended meaning. One all-too-common approach to studying the Bible is to read the text and then ask, “What does this text mean to me?” While seeking to apply the text to one’s life is important, it should never be the first question we ask of Scripture. Instead, the first question should be, “What did the author intend to communicate?” Skipping over this question can cause misunderstandings and misapplications of the text. Below are a few foundational hermeneutical concepts that will help when looking for the author’s intended meaning in a text of Scripture.1
The Historical-Grammatical Method
Historically, many orthodox Christians, including those in the Reformed tradition, have employed what is called the historical-grammatical method to discern the author’s intention in Scripture. This method has its roots in the ancient Antiochene school of interpretation, was heavily utilized during the Reformation, and continues to enjoy widespread use in the church today. It focuses on the historical context and the grammatical forms of the biblical text.
Regarding historical context, the reader should ask questions such as: Who is the author? Who was the original audience? Do any cultural allusions in the text require further investigation? Paying attention to grammatical forms involves studying the meaning of words, understanding syntactical relationships, and recognizing the literary constructions of the text. Studying these things will help the interpreter not only understand a specific passage but also ask how that passage contextually relates to what precedes or follows it. To sum up the significance of seeing the text in its proper historical and grammatical setting, one could perhaps say that the three most important words to remember when interpreting the Bible are these: context, context, context.
The historical-grammatical method stresses interpreting Scripture according to its literal sense. This language is helpful so long as we understand that “literal” does not mean flattening out the literary nature of the text. Because Scripture is literature, it often includes figures of speech, symbolism, metaphor, and other literary devices. Interpreting Scripture according to its literal sense means correctly identifying these devices and understanding them according to the normal rules of the text’s literary genre. So, when Scripture uses symbolism in poetry or prophetic texts, we must interpret it symbolically, or we are doing violence to the author’s intended meaning.2
The Analogy of Faith
Because the Bible has a divine author as well as human authors, the divine author’s intention must also be considered. In light of this, a foundational hermeneutical principle is the analogy of faith, or the rule of faith, which says that Scripture must interpret Scripture. Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (1.9).
Beyond affirming that Scripture has just one sense (the literal sense, as defined above), the confession recognizes, as the Bible itself does in 2 Peter 3:16, that some places in Scripture are more difficult to understand than others. Because God does not contradict Himself, neither will His Word contain contradictions. Therefore, when there are places that are difficult to understand in Scripture, it is necessary to bring clearer portions of Scripture to bear when interpreting them.
Christ in All the Scriptures
A second hermeneutical implication of the divine authorship of Scripture is that while the divine author’s intention is never in conflict with the human author’s intention, it might expand beyond the human author’s full grasp. Thus, when the Westminster Confession speaks about the “true and full sense of Scripture,” it recognizes that God’s later revelation sheds light on His earlier revelation.
Luke’s gospel affirms this reality when it records the resurrected Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke says that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Just a few verses later, when He appeared to the eleven remaining Apostles, Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, which included “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). This explicit reference to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible indicates that Jesus is claiming every part of the Old Testament Scriptures as bearing witness to Him. Through responsible typology, especially by tracing themes and patterns that the divine author has woven throughout His Word, we can see how all roads in the Bible lead to Jesus.3
- For a more detailed explanation of these and more hermeneutical principles, see R.C. Sproul’s Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).↩
- While many grammatical and historical questions can be answered by paying attention to the details of the text and asking good questions, making use of tools such as a good study Bible or commentary can help highlight important details of the text.↩
- An excellent resource for understanding how to practice responsible typology and pick up on the themes woven throughout Scripture is Dennis Johnson’s Walking with Jesus through His Word: Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015).↩