Interpreting the Biblical Text – Hermeneutics

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.[1]

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)

[1]Definition from

Reflections – John 8:34

Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave  to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’

John 8:34 (ESV)

Slavery is a word that hits people hard, especially if they’re American. Across the United States, children will learn in their history classes about the atrocities committed by the slave trade in the 17 and 1800s. Slaves were ripped from their homelands, separated from their families, and forced to live in complete submission underneath their masters who had bought them. They were abused in many senses of the word, and forced into backbreaking labor. They didn’t have any choice but to live this way.  They were bound to their masters, having no power to free themselves.

The characteristics of physical (bodily) slavery relate very closely to those of spiritual slavery. As children of Adam, we are born into spiritual slavery, forced to submit to our master, sin. As a result of Adam’s act of rebellion toward God, the shackles of sin were wrapped around the human race, binding it in death. Every human, no matter how young and innocent-looking, is conceived by sinful parents and born into a sinful world. Like infants, we cannot live without a parent to watch over us. The way Satan would have it, we would live our short lives here on earth, die as sinners, and face God’s eternal and righteous judgment on our own.

That’s not how God would have it.

As Jesus tells us in the verse above, those who practice sin are slaves to sin. As slaves, we cannot remain in the household of God. However, Jesus gives us hope. Those who are sons of God will remain in His house forever. But how can this happen? If we are born as slaves to sin, how can we become sons of God? The answer is simple yet beautiful: we are adopted as sons on account of Christ.

Paul expresses the intricate nature of God’s plan for salvation in Galatians 4:4-5 –

“But then the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Because sin entered the world through one man, so must sin be conquered through another. We were cast into sin through Adam, who is the father of us all. But we were reconciled to God through the precious atonement of Jesus, giving us a place in God’s house, where He will remain our Father. He has “set us free,” as Jesus tells us in the verse above. This same truth is expressed by Paul in Romans 5:17 –

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

God has placed a seal on our adoption with the precious gift of baptism. There we were marked as His children, reborn through water and the Word. Our baptism assures us of our place in God’s house by killing our sinful humanity and raising us anew in Christ, who is our redeemer. We were adopted by God’s grace, through faith in Christ Jesus. Looking to Christ, we now have the assurance that God is our Father, for life and for eternity.

The Nicene Creed – Uniting Christians Across History

I’ll be honest – church wasn’t a passion of mine when I was a kid. (Hard to believe, right?) I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t completely understand its importance. I can still remember certain things happening in church when I was just a few years old. One of them feels more vivid than the rest: my reaction to the Nicene Creed.

I had always understood that there were two main creeds we confessed in church – The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Of the two of them, the Apostles’ creed was shorter, and easier to understand. Every time our congregation recited the Nicene Creed, I became slightly frustrated. To me, it was just a long-winded version of the Apostles’ Creed. Half the stuff in it didn’t even make sense to me. God from God? Light from Light? What was the point of adding this language when the Apostles’ Creed was a perfectly good summary of Christianity?

The Apostles’ Creed definitely is a eloquent summary of the Christian faith. It highlights all three persons of the Trinity, briefly describing their areas of work and purpose. It predates the Nicene Creed, being an early confession of the Church. Early Church tradition stated that it was actually written by the Twelve Apostles, though realistically it was just a statement formulated later in the Church, having its roots in the true confession of the Apostles. It served the Church well as a confession of the true Christian faith.

The Council of Nicaea
Flash forward to the year 318 A.D. An elder of the Church, named Arius, began teaching and proclaiming that Jesus was not actually God. Rather, He was an exalted servant of the Father, not actually being divine Himself. Arius had a variety of reasons for believing this, citing Jesus’ humanity, death, and display of human emotion as reasons Jesus couldn’t actually be God. At the time that this heresy arose, the Church had not yet officially and explicitly stated the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. The ideas of Arius made sense to many Christians, giving it momentum within some of the Church.[1]

In a reaction to the spreading of this heresy, known as Arianism, a council was called together in the city of Nicaea. The council was a meeting of elders, bishops, and presbyters of the Church. The meeting consisted of a great deal of debate and discussion over the divinity of Jesus. Because His divinity was the main issue, the persons of the Father and the Holy Spirit were not a main focus.

What does this Mean?
The council ultimately ruled against the teachings of Arius; Jesus was declared to be God, just as were the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, the council didn’t just write a simple or vague statement on Jesus’ divinity. The specific wording found in the Nicene Creed was chosen so that there would be no room for another heresy to develop concerning Jesus’ divinity. The Nicene Creed specifically states:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

The objective of the phrases “God from God,” “Light from Light,” “True God from true God,” and “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” is to emphasize the fact that Jesus and the Father are “of the same substance.” (Known as homoouisios, from the Greek word “μοούσιος,” meaning “same essence.) Jesus’ unity with the Father was emphasized, while still confessing that He is the Son of God. Jesus is confessed as the true and eternal God, just the same as the other two persons of the Trinity. It is also stated that the world was created through Him. The portion of the Creed that is quoted above is the most significant addition to the general template of the Apostles’ Creed.

The implication of Jesus not being God can be discussed at great length, but in summary it has to do with our salvation. No mere human or created creature could be the one to atone the sins of the entire world. It is imperative that God Himself was our atonement.

It is difficult to actually wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus is both God and man. It’s impossible to comprehend that there are three persons, yet only one God. Instead of attempting to understand the great mysteries of the Lord, we humbly submit to the amazing Truth he has revealed to us.

Needless to say, I no longer get upset when confessing the Nicene Creed. It’s my prayer that you, too, would contemplate and recognize the importance of this confession. Ultimately, it unites modern Christians with the historical Church in one faith. Let us rejoice in the fact that Jesus has preserved the one holy and apostolic Church through all of history, and will continue to do so until he returns in glory.

“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’

John 18:37


1. Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils, Grand Rapids, 2014, p. 34.