How can we make sense of the Bible? How can we know what it really means? One of the growing philosophies in American Christianity is a reflection of postmodernism – “Well, that’s what you think the Bible says. But that’s not what it means to me.” It is the notion that we can never really know for sure what the Bible is saying. Now, of course, humans make errors frequently. The same thing can happen when we try to discern exactly what the Bible means. Do we take it literally? Is it a figurative allegory? Is it filled with mysterious myths constructed by primitive minds?
There is a whole area of theology devoted to the study and interpretation of the Biblical texts known as Hermeneutics. The most basic definition of this word is –
The science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures.
Methods of Interpretation
To start at the basis of Biblical hermeneutics, we should look back at the methods and interpretations of the Christian Church across all of history. Since the founding of the New Testament texts, Christians have, with few exceptions, interpreted the Bible in a literal and historical sense. There were a small number of the Church fathers that interpreted stories like the creation account as merely symbolic. However, there’s a slight hermeneutical nuance apparent in many of the writings of the early Church fathers: they really liked to allegorize the text. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t also take it literally. This means that they understood the text of the Bible as real, historical, literal truth, but also liked to apply every story and detail to the Christian life. While the Bible certainly does contain examples and situations we should reflect with our actions, we also have to accept that not every single sentence in Scripture is supposed to apply to our daily lives. Ultimately, the reason the Bible was written is not to tell us how to live. Rather, the narrative of the Scriptures is primarily there to point the reader to Christ and His cross.
Starting with the philosophical era of the Enlightenment, many scholars began to look at the Bible through the lens of a type of hermeneutics labeled as the “historical critical” method. At the very core of this principle is the human reason and secular thought. Instead of looking at the Bible as historical and inerrant, interpreters began to question the actual meaning and accuracy of the Scriptures. Real events like the Flood were painted as ancient myths that were just there to symbolize Biblical concepts. When miracles were mentioned in the Bible, they weren’t perceived to be true, supernatural acts. They either didn’t happen at all, or they had a reasonable explanation. This shift from the inerrancy of Scripture to a method of higher criticism is still used by liberal Bible scholars that make up much of the academic landscape of America.
The hermeneutic principle used by Confessional Lutheranism, as well as (most of) Roman Catholicism and (most) Reformed churches, is that of the “historical grammatical” method. This principle is the same one held by the Church throughout history, until people began questioning the historical accuracy of the Bible. The main emphasis of this method is on the history, context, and grammar of the text. This view holds up the inerrancy of Scripture as the sole determining factor. However, it also focuses on the historical context in which the book was written, which gives us greater insight into the text.
Scripture was not written inside of a vacuum – the books in the Bible were written by real, historical people who were writing for a specific reason. Many books were written to specific groups of people, like Paul’s epistles. The grammatical part of this method examines the structure of the language used in the texts, and uses the known rules of human languages to determine meaning. For example, when we read the word “day” in Genesis 1, we take it to literally mean a single day, because the literary and grammatical context of the word points to this interpretation.
This isn’t to say that we don’t take anything in the Bible as symbolic. Rather, we only take portions of Scripture as symbolic if Scripture tells us that they are symbolic. In the beginning of Revelation, Jesus clearly states that the lamp stands and stars that John sees in his vision represent something else, and are not to be taken literally. Above all, the historical grammatical method of hermeneutics uses Scripture to interpret Scripture. When we come across a verse with an unclear meaning, we look to other clear verses of Scripture to interpret the unclear ones. We realize that Scripture is inerrant, so we take the interpretive steps needed for Scripture to remain harmonious.
So, as a summary:
Historical critical – Bible is not always historically accurate, and the “supernatural” cannot really occur. There are many myths and exaggerations in the text that need to be recognized.
Historical grammatical – The Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Scripture is used to interpret Scripture, and historical and grammatical context are very important for determining the meaning of the text. Human reason is used and is valuable, but it is not used to disregard portions of the text that our minds can’t comprehend.
P.S. While writing this article, something occurred to me: If the Bible were not a religious text, it would likely be used by secular scholars as one of the most accurate and complete historical records of ancient history. Because of the presence of supernatural elements, they disregard the whole book as inaccurate. We should be reaffirmed that the Scriptures are exceptionally historically accurate.
“All Scripture is the Word of the Holy Spirit and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (Micah Jahns Paraphrase)
Definition from dictionary.com