MAKING SENSE OF THE BIBLE
SOME IMPORTANT STUDY FACTS AND HELPS
From the Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO, USA
MAKING SENSE of SCRIPTURE
A Collection of Articles on Biblical Interpretation
Edited by Jerry Griffin
BIBLE ADVOCATE PRESS P.0.Box 33677 Denver, Colorado 80233
HEREMEN ... Who?
It has been said that if one hundred people read a certain
verse of Scripture they would undoubtedly offer one hundred
different interpretations. Is this what God intended when He
delivered His Word to mankind? Should the Bible mean anything
anyone wants it to mean? Is its message that arbitrary?
If not, then what does a given text mean, and how should one
go about discovering its meaning? Moreover, how do you go about
reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible? Have you ever
thought about your own process of interpretation?
Such questions pertain to the subject of hermeneutics.
Simply defined, hermeneutics is the science and art of
interpreting the Bible-of getting the message in what one reads.
It is a science because it adheres to the regular rules of
grammar as they apply to written communication. Moreover, it is
an art because communication is flexible, and a mechanical
application of rules will sometimes distort the true meaning. To
be a good interpreter, one must learn the rules of hermeneutics
as well as the art of applying those rules.
Ever since the Reformation, the common person has enjoyed an
unprecedented access to the Scriptures. The Bible's accessibility
has brought both blessing and curse. It has brought blessing
because anyone may now read and study the Bible for himself. One
need not be dependent upon any authority other than the
Scripture's own authority to ascertain the will of God. Such
privilege requires responsibility.
Unfortunately, the Bible's accessibility has also made it
vulnerable to misuse. Christianity is now under the curse of a
plethora of beliefs, practices, and notions derived from
individuals mishandling Scripture.
Much of the doctrinal confusion in the Christian world today
is the result of sloppy hermeneutics. In the last two hundred
years in this country alone. numerous sects and cults have come
into existence because of some "unique" reading of Scripture. The
fault lies not with the Bible, but with individuals who have not
taken the time to understand the nature and composition of
written communication-the very method by which God chose to
deliver His Word to mankind.
The failure to recognize how the Bible works as literature
has created a piecemeal approach to Scripture. A verse here and a
verse there are taken "to prove" whatever one wants. The end
result has been the proliferation of every wind of doctrine.
The piecemeal approach also has become so ingrained in
people's thinking that they assume this is the way the Bible was
intended to be understood. Consequently, many Christians have
unwittingly substituted their own preconceived ideas, limited
knowledge, and cultural values for the true word of the text.
In the course of everyday communication, one usually
understands what one reads and hears without consciously thinking
about the rules of communication. For example, in the following
statements, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," and "The men of
the stranded expedition were so hungry they ate a horse," one
easily recognizes the former as a figure of speech and the latter
as a statement of fact. The rules by which one interprets the
meanings of these two statements occur spontaneously at the
One usually does not become aware of this spontaneous
process until something blocks his understanding of a
communication. This brings one to the need for hermeneutics. The
science and art of hermeneutics is simply the conscious
application of common sense principies, those which normally
function at the unconscious level, to any communication which may
be difficult to understand. The more blocks to spontaneous
understanding, the greater the need for conscious hermeneutics.
This is especially true when reading the Bible. A common
complaint is, "I've given up on reading the Bible, because after
I've read it I don't understand what I'vejust read." Whenever one
voices this complaint, he is encountering blocks to his
understanding of the original meaning of the text.
For example, since the modern reader is separated by place
and time from the original writers, readers, and events of the
Bible, he may encounter a historical block to his understanding
of the biblical text. There are also significant differences
between the life settings of the peoples of the Bible and today,
thus producing a cultural block. The Bible was written in Hebrew,
Aramaic, and Greek - three ancient languages with very different
structures and idioms from English. So one may also encounter a
linguistic block. Finally, since the contemporary world view is
different from how the ancients thought and reasoned about Iife,
their circumstances, and the nature of the universeone als o
faces a philosophical block.
One can overcome these blocks to understanding by getting
into the world of the biblical text, and hermeneutics helps one
do just that. This is one reason hermeneutics is such an
It is also important because it acts as a safety valve, a
check and balance, against improper and fanciful interpretations.
The method used to arrive at an interpretation, as well as the
interpretation itself, must be based on sound principles. If the
method is faulty, the interpretation generally will be faulty as
well. Even if the interpretation should happen to be right, the
use of a faulty method may prevent others from accepting the
validity of the interpretation. If people detect a fallacy in the
method behind an interpretation, they cannot be blamed too
severely if they were to reject the interpretation also. Much
time is spent on debating doctrinal beliefs, but little time is
spent on examining the methods used in reaching those beliefs.
The sacredness of God's Word makes sound hermeneutics
imperative. If one truly believes God has spoken through the
scriptures, then he must be serious about how he handles God's
message. He must not be guilty of adding to or taking away from
the Word of God. He must use exegesis, the task of bringing out
what God has said, not eisegesis, the act of reading into the
Bible his own suppositions.
If you were previously unaware or unconvinced about the
value of hermeneutics, I hope you are beginning to see its
importance to the proper understanding of the Bible. May the
collection of articles in this series whet your appetite for a
deeper appreciation of and commitment to the science and art of
Jerry Griffin Editor, Bible Advocate (1987)