The Two Greatest Rules of Hermeneutics:
Honesty and Humility
Every student of God’s Word must consciously strive for absolute honesty in his attempt to understand the meaning God intended by His use of every jot and tittle of His Word. This commitment requires the honesty to eliminate presuppositions and personal biases from one’s study. Humility is also a prerequisite for anyone endeavoring to learn God’s Word. One must totally submit to the authority of God, respect His awesome character, and recognize their personal responsibility for accurately interpreting His Word. This fact is taught under the concept of “the fear of the Lord,” as described in about two-dozen passages throughout Scripture. The following verses specifically speak of this “fear” as the prerequisite mental attitude for being instructed by God in the knowledge and understanding of His Wisdom (the underlining is added for emphasis).
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:5).
The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honor is humility (Proverbs 15:33).
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10).
What exactly is this “fear” that a believer should have when he approaches God’s Word? Are believers really supposed to fear their God? The Hebrew and Greek words translated “fear” can mean “terror” (Luke 2:9, 8:37; John 21:19), “respect” (Romans 13:7), “reverence” (2 Corinthians 7:1, 11, 15; Ephesians 5:21), or “awe” (Mark 4:41). Believers are even commanded to have a fear of God rather than fear of Satan (Matthew 10:28). The Bible records historical events that must have been (or will be) awesome to their viewers: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24–28), Moses in the presence of God (Exodus 3:6), each of the ten plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7–14), King Nebuchadnezzar seeing the Son of God walking in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 3:23); as well as all of the final judgments described in the Apocalypse (Revelation 11–19).
Biblically, “fear” is defined as the rational warning of danger, such as the physical discomfort or pain that is an empirical warning by the senses. Fear originates in the heart of man—the seat of rational thinking and planning (see Deuteronomy 4:10; 10:12; 20:3; Psalm 27:3; Jeremiah 32:40; 51:46; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22).
The term “the fear of the Lord” is best understood as the awe of man when facing the almighty God of the universe. “awe” could be described as the mental and emotional expression of an encounter with superior power, strength, intelligence, size, and possibly unknown intentions. It is the rational realization of one’s insignificance when experiencing the overwhelming power of God face-to-face. This dreadful fear is like the mental apprehension a person might sense if he faces a vastly superior power whose character may be unknown to him.
A student’s humility before God requires him to exercise the self-discipline needed to re-evaluate any presuppositions or personal conclusions regarding his interpretation of the Bible. Humility is also required when a student’s pride is challenged by his study of the Scriptures and when his personal biases, presuppositions, or research is challenged by the Word or questioned by his peers.
Scripture alone must be allowed to interpret Scripture. No man-made rules of interpretation can be allowed to exist above the literal and fully substantiated interpretation of the spiritually illuminated Word of God. No man-made dogma, creed, category of doctrine, systematic theology, or catechism can be allowed to be in authority above the verifiable interpretation of Scripture by Scripture. Man-made rules of logic can only be guidelines opening a finite window into the infinite Wisdom of God.
Consistent monitoring of the researcher by others, who are qualified in proven character and expertise in the Bible’s interpretation, can assist in keeping man-made influences to a minimum. “Iron sharpening iron” (a principle from Proverbs 27:17, is the external control required to bind men to a verifiable interpretation. Grammatical mastery of the original languages, isagogics, and logic should be recognized as only tools by which a scholar might best interpret God’s holy communication. These tools can suggest possibilities or even probabilities which must be substantiated by the whole of Scripture. This type of substantiation results from examining all conclusions both vertically (contextually—grammatically and linguistically) and horizontally (categorically—in harmony with all Scripture). The purpose of this hermeneutics course is the explanation and demonstration of what correct interpretation is and how Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture.
What “Bible-Based Hermeneutics” Means
The definition of hermeneutics is: “The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text.” Or, more precisely: “Belonging to or concerned with interpretation; especially as distinguished from exegesis or practical exposition.”
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the most probable etymology for the word hermeneutic as having been derived from Hermes, the name of the mythological Greek god who was considered to be the tutelary (guardian or protector) deity of speech, writing, and traffic. Hermes was referred to in the book of Acts: And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker (Acts 14:12). In Greek mythology, Hermes served as a herald and messenger of the gods. Consequently, the science of hermeneutics can be understood as the interpretation of the true God’s message to man. The early Church’s title for a person employed to interpret the service to worshipers who used a different language was “Hermeneut.”
The purpose of the science of hermeneutics and the skillful use of its rules is to produce the most accurate determination of precisely what God means by what He says in Scripture. Of course, this is only possible by a believer who is totally dependent on Spiritual illumination from God due to man’s limited and sinful ability. This course will be concerned primarily with what happens after grammatical exegesis (i.e., what the text says) and before determining its application to man (i.e., the exposition of how man is to understand or utilize the information). Bible-based hermeneutics is a system of rules developed from Scripture and non-contradicting logic that endeavors to determine each text’s primary meaning (i.e., exactly what God meant by what He said by the words He used). The science of hermeneutics (interpretation) combines with a literal, grammatical exegesis in actual practice to produce the best understanding possible of what God has communicated to man for understanding and using in his intellectual and spiritual life.
Much of the incorrect interpretation of Scripture over the centuries has resulted from reading a biased meaning into a text (eisegesis) or by someone mechanically performing grammatical exegesis without utilizing sound rules of hermeneutics. Every word in every text must be analyzed grammatically, literally, and historically within its context, as well as by comparison with all related Scripture. A strict, Bible-based hermeneutic is needed to interpret Scripture accurately and verifiably. Next, that hermeneutic must be utilized honestly and consistently to determine what God actually means by what He says in each and every verse. It is not enough to know the rules; it is also essential to apply them consistently, without bias or dishonesty, in our interpretations. Only after knowing God’s meaning can one know how each passage is to be understood. As we study the following sections, we will begin to develop a system of Bible-based rules and methodology to assist us in interpreting what God meant, as much as humanly possible, by every word, every passage, and every category of doctrine.
A set of rules that are verifiable by Scripture is necessary in order to overcome obstacles in the understanding of God’s Word as accurately as possible. Five of the obstacles to the spontaneous, accurate, or precise comprehension of the Scriptures are the language barrier, the cultural and historical barrier, the geographical and time barrier, and the philosophical barrier. Let us briefly consider each of these obstacles.
- The language barrier is due to the fact that the Word of God was written in three ancient languages, each having its own unique forms, syntax, idioms, figures of speech, and vocabulary. Imagine the misunderstanding that might occur if someone translated the following English sentences into another language without understanding their idiomatic or figurative sense: “When our ship comes in, we’ll be on top of the world,” or “The officer threw the book at the reckless driver, and he was right as rain to do so.” A strict grammatically literal translation of these sentences would not communicate the intended meaning of their author. The same can happen when one tries to interpret what God has recorded in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.
- The historical and cultural barriers represent two more obstacles. The historical barrier results from the wide time gap between the writers and the original recipients of various portions of Scripture and today’s readers. The cultural barrier is obviously due to the vast differences between the ancient cultures and our own. Ruth’s request of Boaz provides us with an example of both of these obstacles that can mitigate an accurate and precise interpretation of God’s Word. The KJV translates Ruth 3:9, And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman. The Hebrew word for “skirt” is normally translated “wings” as it is in Ruth 2:12. The term “spreading of the skirt” was a cultural practice among the peoples of the ancient Middle East. It indicated a proposal of marriage and was figuratively used to denote the protection of a husband. This same metaphor is used of God in relationship to His people in Ezekiel 16:8, “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord GOD. If the rules of hermeneutics were not applied correctly to Ruth 3:9 and Ezekiel 16:8, today’s reader would not be able to bridge the gap caused by the historical and cultural differences.
- The geographical and time barrier is particularly relevant when it comes to unfulfilled prophecy. Many of the interpretations of prophecy, which have been postulated in the past only to be proven wrong later, could have been avoided if the interpretation of the prophetic events had been consistent with their historical settings. For example, Scripture clearly teaches that,
- There is a gap in Israel’s history in which the Church came into being and will exist until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:11–31),
- The Church will be taken away: Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17), and
- Then Israel’s final seven years of earthly history will resume as they are re-grafted into the root and all of the currently unfulfilled prophecies to them are completed (Mathew 11:23–25). [Comment: Any differing interpretation of these passages (and others that speak to the subject) would have to be allegorical in nature, rather than natural, normal, logical, and literal. Please see Appendix D for a more complete presentation of this position.]
- The philosophical barrier can be overcome by understanding the similarities and differences of the general beliefs, values, attitudes, and mores of the writers and their original audience. Some accuse the Bible of being sexist or racist because they fail to take into account the philosophical beliefs of the people of ancient times. Another example is the general attitude of the people in the New Testament period toward Cretans—that they were always liars and dangerous gluttonous people (1 Timothy 1:12).
Note: Chapters 4–6 of Dr. Roy Zuck’s excellent book, Basic Bible Interpretation, more completely addresses “Bridging the Gaps” in the interpretation of Scripture.
Epistemology (How Can Man Know?)
The stated epistemological approach of this course will be developed and substantiated by Scripture. The basic tenet of this approach is that: man is MEANT to know, CAN know, and CAN KNOW that he knows all that God intend for man to understand. The Bible repeatedly declares the fact that every believer is at least meant to know and understand what God has revealed in His Word.
Note: I suggest that you read Dr. Schaeffer’s book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent. This short but deeply insightful book deals with the philosophical problems man has faced over the past 200 or more years concerning the vital issue of epistemology.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them” (Exodus 24:12). [Comment: Moses had to know what he was expected to teach.]
If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD, then the LORD will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues—great and prolonged plagues—and serious and prolonged sicknesses (Deuteronomy 28:58–59). [Comment: The Israelites had to understand precisely what God expected them to obey, or else.]
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29). [Comment: The infinite God surely knows many things which He chooses not to reveal, but what He does choose to reveal is in finite terms and demands human accountability.]
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:8). [Comment: Lack of knowledge of God’s revealed law results in inability to live it and receive the resulting blessing.]
And keep the charge of the LORD your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn (1 Kings 2:3). [Comment: Knowing and obeying God’s law was an obvious prerequisite to national and personal prosperity for Israel’s people.]
For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright (Proverbs 2:6–7).
Get wisdom! Get understanding! Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth (Proverbs 4:5). [Comment: One cannot forget or turn away from what one does not first know.]
So that your trust may be in the LORD; I have instructed you today, even you. Have I not written to you excellent things of counsels and knowledge, that I may make you know the certainty of the words of truth, that you may answer words of truth to those who send to you? (Proverbs 22:19–21).
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:8–11). [Comment: Obviously, the infinite God thinks and acts in ways that are beyond human understanding, but His Words are finite and meant for human comprehension.]
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). [Comment: To live by every one of God’s words (the Greek word here translated “word” is rhēma, and most specifically means “the thing spoken, like a saying, a series of words, a legal matter, or a discourse”). This means that a believer is able to know and understand every word of every discourse that originates from God!]
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). [Comment: Jesus makes it clear that knowing and living by His Word is the means for realizing the truth. The specific truth He was referring to in this context was about the believers’ freedom from personal enslavement to the sin nature—a freedom that the Mosaic Law could never provide (see John 8:34–36).]
The unique position this course presents is that a believer who is in fellowship and submitted to God’s Spirit for illumination will be encouraged to determine with certainty what God has said and meant by what He has said in every passage of Scripture! There would be no reason to perform word studies or to exegete passages from the original languages unless one could actually reach verifiable conclusions about God’s plan and instructions for humanity. Obviously, God intended to communicate to man, and His Word is of the utmost importance for EVER BELIEVER IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. We are each meant to love it, learn it, understand it, believe it, and to live by its every Word.
I will worship toward Your holy temple, And praise Your name For Your lovingkindness and Your truth; For You have magnified Your word above all Your name (Psalm 138:2; emphasis added).
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).
If you have understood this Section, you are well on your way to learning how to interpret God’s holy words with great accuracy. The philosophical presuppositions behind any concept are usually the most difficult to grasp. It is significantly easier to teach a system of rules than the reasons for their existence. NASA engineers working on the Minuteman III guided-missile project once asked me, a lowly printed circuit board designer, which of the military specifications for the design of a highly technical electronic circuitry could be altered. I was able to help them reach this answer because I understood the theory (reason) behind the rules.
You should now at least partly understand the thinking behind this course of study. The next Section should help you understand how God has enabled the believer that he can learn to interpret His Word with a great deal of confidence. Now, let us study the power and resources God has given believers to accomplish this essential objective.
 The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “Hermeneutics.”
 Ibid. “Exegesis, Greek exēgēsis, from exēgeisthai, to interpret and ex + hēgeisthai, to lead out of; the interpretation of a text by reading out its meaning.”
 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “Eisegesis, the interpretation of a text by reading one’s own ideas into it.”
 R. Jamison, A. R. Faussett, and D. Brown. Ruth, ed. G.A. Cooke, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Logos Research Systems, www.logos.com Bellingham, WA, 1997).
 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Cook Communications Ministries, 1991), 76–142.
 The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “Epistmology. The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.”
 Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001). [Comments: This book can be purchased for $9.01 from Amazon, but it is recommended that you buy, The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, Illinois: Cross Way Books, a division of GoodNews Publishing, 1990), which includes that title in a hardback printing for $15.75 (this book is also from Amazon). Please note that HTHS was intended by Dr. Schaeffer to be read after The God Who is There; a book that lays the groundwork and establishes the terminology that sets out the basic thesis for his philosophical apologetic. If you have difficulty comprehending HTHS, I would recommend that you read GWIT first. Nevertheless, reading through HTHS very carefully should provide you with a basic understanding of false views about epistemology, by which philosophies modern man has been heavily influenced. This 104-page book should help to provide you with a sound foundation for your own philosophical viewpoint.