A friend and I were recently discussing a very popular, New York Times bestselling Christian novel (and a series of dvds by the author supporting the truth of the novel’s claims.) I rather unthinkingly tossed out an opinion and a four-syllable word: “That’s bad hermeneutics, I said.” He misunderstood me to mean that hermeneutics is some cultish group of Christians, and we were off and running.
Hermeneutics is not a type of Christianity or religion (e.g. orthodox, charismatic, Pentecostal, etc.) Hermeneutics is whatever method of Bible study you use to interpret Scripture. I think good hermeneutics is a method that follows a train of logic, using the mind God gave us, to first interpret and then apply scripture:
1. Who wrote the passage and why? 2. Who was the message intended for? 3. Based on 1 and 2, what does the passage mean? Here is where you also compare it to other biblical teaching and try to be consistent with them. 4. Given the understanding of the original meaning, how does it apply to me? (I think this is to be approached prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit for wisdom to bring the message home to my heart and behaviors.)
It’s simple, logical and Spirit led, and minimizes the chance of “being tossed to and fro by every wind of teaching.” It is the reason a Christian doesn’t read Leviticus and sacrifice a bull. (Leviticus was written to someone else, but we can still learn some things from it (4).) I think this is part of not being a “wuss,” to take a stand and say that there actually is such a thing as good Bible study method (hermeneutics), and bad Bible study method (hermeneutics).
Think of it this way. Let’s say a page of a letter blows through the parking lot and lands on your windshield. Thinking someone left you a note, you read it. It is a middle page, so you do not know who wrote it, to whom, or why. One sentence says, “Please meet me in Grand Junction.” Do you drive there to meet a stranger? Of course not because you don’t have enough information to act on it, and the message was directed to someone else. The rest of the paragraph explains that there is a delightful Italian restaurant in Grand Junction. So even though it was not written to you, you think you would like to try that place out and plan a trip there with a friend. The understanding of what the letter says, and that it was written by a stranger to someone other than yourself is “interpretation.” The decision to check out the restaurant anyway is “application” (see 4 above).
Those who use bad hermeneutics (as opposed to good hermeneutics) would read the middle page of a letter to someone else, pick out parts they like and decide those were written to them. As a ridiculous example, they may read the verse that says Judas went out and hanged himself, and another that says “go and do likewise” and…you get it. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” had a meaning for the Philippians when Paul wrote to them, and God might want to apply it to your life in any number of ways…just be sure to be consistent with the rest of the Bible when you make your applications: Is the way I am applying this verse consistent with the rest of the New Testament?
A simplified way of going about understanding a passage might look like this:
What does it say? (read it)
What does it mean (to it’s intended recipient)?
What does it mean to me (how does God want to apply it to my life)?
These three steps are observation, interpretation, and application. Be sure the Holy Spirit is leading you each step of the way. A good study Bible can offer a lot of help in answering these questions.
I pray this helps someone. There are tons of resources and study Bibles out there. Much is given so much is expected.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15