In writing this article, the editor acknowledges his special
indebtedness to Edward John Carnell's outline of hermeneutics in The
Case for Orthodox Theology, (Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1961).
If we are going to successfully read any scientific, philosophical or religious
work, there are fundamental rules to follow. Basically, the same rules apply
to a proper reading of the Bible.
We are not suggesting that people will understand the Bible if they follow
correct rules. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that no man will understand
the truth unless he is aided by the Spirit of God. Yet the Holy Spirit is
not given as a substitute for human responsibility in the area of reason
and common sense. Hermeneutics is the area of human responsibility in approaching
the study of the Bible.
The person who follows no rules in studying the Bible, yet expects to be
illuminated by the miracle of the Spirit, is no better than the sick man
who refuses to
accept reasonable medical attention while he expects to be healed by a divine
miracle. The man who successfully prays, "Lead us not into temptation," is not unmindful of his part in steering clear of temptation. And the man who intelligently prays, "Lord, give me Thy Spirit to teach me the truth in Thy Word," will
not ignore his duty to search the Word with diligence and discretion.
A. A Grasp of the Overall Outline of the Bible
The Bible has been written by at least thirty authors from every rank and class of society over a period of about 1500 years. Yet it has a theme, and it is important to get a grasp of the dominant outline. It commences with creation, the fall of man and the intimation of divine intervention for the sinful race (Gen. 3:15). The activity of God for man's redemption is progressively and gradually unfolded, and climaxes in the coming of Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest events in sacred history was the covenant, or promise, which God made to Abraham. He was promised a Seed through whom all the nations on earth would be blessed. As the drama of divine intervention unfolded, that Seed turned out to be Christ (Gal. 3:16). The significance of the Abrahamic covenant had to be progressively unfolded.
Although Abraham obviously did not grasp the full significance of the blessing through the promised Seed, it is clear that he knew it somehow pointed to the Redeemer to come (John 8:56). This much is clear: Beginning with Abraham, the Hebrew nation was given the promise of a coming Messiah, and it was their great privilege and responsibility to keep that hope alive in the waiting centuries.
Four hundred thirty years after God confirmed the promise of Christ to Abraham, another great event took place. God gave the Law to Israel. Since it was given through Moses, the Law is sometimes simply called "Moses." Moses (or the Law) embraced the whole corpus of instruction given for the existence and governance of Israel as God's special nation. It included laws that were ceremonial, judicial, hygienic and moral.
It is important that we correctly relate these two great events — the giving of the promise to Abraham and the giving of the Law to Moses. St. Paul says that the Law (Moses) added nothing to the promise (Gal. 3:17). The Law was given "because of transgression, till the Seed should come." Gal. 3:19. Without the Law, Israel would have degenerated into a pagan state and lost the hope of Christ's coming. The Law was therefore necessary to help Israel nurture and keep alive the hope of the coming Messiah. How did the Law do that? In two ways:
1. Its stern, unbending moral requirements served as a constant reminder of sin and kept God's people sensitive to their need of redemption.
2. Its ceremonial aspects foreshadowed that needed redemption. For example, the
Passover not only commemorated Israel's redemption from Egypt, but it pointed
forward to the real redemption by the blood of Jesus Christ. Every offering at
the tabernacle served to be a shadow of the one great offering of the body of
Christ (Heb. 10:10-14). The giving of manna, the water from the rock, the healing
by the brazen serpent and many other things which took place under Moses, were
a type of the coming Seed. They were a "shadow of good things to come." Heb. 10:1. These shadows and types of the coming Seed were what the writer to the Hebrews calls the "old covenant". The things under the old covenant could not be the reality or the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Aaron, the high priest, was only a shadow of Christ The earthly tabernacle was only a figure of the heavenly reality (Heb. 8:1-5). The land of Canaan was only a type of that "better country, that is, an heavenly," which the worthies looked forward to. Jerusalem and the kingdom of David were at best only a shadow of the "city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God." Heb.
We say again: That which God gave to Israel in the Law and under the Law — tabernacle,
Canaan, Jerusalem, kings, etc. — was the old covenant, and at best it could only
point to something better. It was not the reality of what God promised Abraham.
The Jews in Christ's day tried to turn the shadow into the reality, and not a
few are still trying to do this today. Since the Seed has come, how can we go
back to a temple ritual, blood of animals, Palestine or old Jerusalem as if these
things were any part of reality? Now that the full light of the gospel has come,
we must see that real circumcision is of the heart (Rom. 2:29), the real Jerusalem
is "above" (Gal. 4:26), the real Mount Zion and the real Jerusalem
are heavenly (Heb. 12:22), the real tabernacle is in heaven (Heb. 8:1-5), the
real country promised to Abraham is not any part of "this present evil world" (Heb.
11:10-16), and the real children of Abraham (Jews) are those who believe in
Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:29; Rom. 2:28).
Summarizing: The promise of Christ was given to Abraham. The Law (or old covenant) was given to help Israel keep the hope of Christ's coming alive. The Law was not the fulfillment of the promise but a shadow that pointed forward to its realization. To take anything of the Law (including Jerusalem and the land of Palestine) and call that the promise made to Abraham is to utterly miss the purpose of the Law.
When Christ finally came, the dispensation of Law (Moses, or the old covenant)
had fulfilled its function in history. The blood of animals, feast days, the
Jewish temple, Jerusalem and the "holy land" had fulfilled their function,
and any return to those things now is a denial of the reality brought to us by
B. A Grasp of the Rules of Interpretation
We need to pay attention to five fundamental rules of Biblical hermeneutics:
1. The Old Testament must be interpreted by the
New. Once we grasp the overall outline of the Bible and see that it is a progressive revelation, we will always look to see how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. For instance, God promised Abraham a Seed which would bring a blessing to all nations. The New Testament interprets that Seed as Christ (Gal. 3:16). We are not to take the things of the old covenant and fabricate the meaning of them out of our own head. The New Testament interprets the meaning of the Passover, the offerings under the Law, the priestly ministry, etc.
The same principle applies to the handling of Old Testament prophecies. Those
prophecies are not self-interpreting. Some people pride themselves that they
can understand these prophecies if they simply take them "literally." And
without consulting the interpretation of the New Testament, they arrive at
all sorts of fantastic things which are supposed to happen in modern day Palestine.
A prophecy may or may not be meant to be understood literally. For example,
Isaiah declared that God would put a foundation stone in Zion, one that would
support a building in time of wind and hail (Isa. 28:16). He does not say he
means that the stone is a person. It is a veiled prophecy of Christ. We need
the New Testament to interpret it for us. The same prophet speaks in terms
of a highway building program in the desert to make a way for the King of Israel
(Isa. 40:3, 4). Few would be foolish enough to see this being fulfilled in the
freeways which the Israelis are now constructing in the new State of Israel.
Testament authoritatively interprets the prophecy for us as meaning the mission
of John the Baptist. Malachi 4:5 speaks of Elijah's coming before the day of
the Lord. No intimation is given that it is not to be taken with strict literalness.
When we read the New Testament, "Elijah" turns out to be John the
The prophet Amos writes about the time when God would "raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen . . . and . . . build it as in the days of old." What
does this mean? The rebuilding of Solomon's temple? The New Testament interprets
it for us. This took place in the outpouring of the Spirit in the raising up
of the Christian church (see Acts 15:16).
Not only does the New Testament show us how to interpret the prophecies of the Old Testament, but it shows us how to interpret the laws of the Old Testament. The New Testament shows us how the laws of ceremony have met their spiritual reality in the person and work of Christ. But not all the laws found in the Old Testament are ceremonial in nature. Some are moral, and their moral principles are perpetually binding. The apostle Paul refers to a number of them as a rule of life for Christians. The Sermon on the Mount interprets the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments and, instead of lessening their binding force, strengthens their demand for holiness (see Matt. 5:17-28). Jesus claimed the authority to interpret the law. When a dispute arose about proper observance of the Sabbath, He claimed His Lordship of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) and interpreted the law to allow for works of mercy and necessity to be performed on the Sabbath.
All this goes to show how important it is that we allow the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament.
2. The Gospels must be interpreted
by the Epistles. The Gospels record the historic events of our redemption—the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. But by themselves historic events are not sufficient. We need an authoritative word that tells us the true significance of those events.
If a man thinks he can look at a historic event and out of his own head interpret what that event means, he puts himself in the place of God. Take the historic fact of the resurrection for example. It is not for us to presume what the resurrection means. The Epistles spell out to us what it means, and he who goes beyond what is interpreted in the Epistles is fabricating a doctrine out of his own head—or passing on what someone has fabricated out of his head. Neither is it the prerogative of the church to interpret any of the events of redemptive history. God sent apostles for that purpose, and we must not add or take away from their word.
We need to go to the Epistles to correctly interpret the events recorded in the Gospels.1 The
church often fails to follow this fundamental principle. She often tries to justify
some practice or custom by drawing some "spiritual" lesson from the life, death or resurrection of Christ, but this is a human rather than a divine interpretation of the gospel. "He
that hath an ear, let him hear."
3. The incidental must be interpreted
by the systematic. This rule applies to the proper reading of any literature. It is common sense, but how hard it is to use common sense when we are so anxious to prove our point!
For example, the heart of all Bible doctrine is the great doctrine of justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith. There are two books in the Bible (Romans and Galatians) which present this doctrine systematically, and they do it also in the perspective of sacred history—the promise to Abraham, the giving of the Law, etc. Common sense should teach us to build our understanding about justification by going to the places where the subject and all the ramifications of it are treated systematically.
Now there are places where Paul touches on justification incidentally, like in Titus 3:5-8. He is writing to a fellow minister and has no need to speak in detail. Some have used the incidental passage in Titus (i.e., the Roman Catholics at Trent) in an effort to substantiate the doctrine of justification by infused righteousness (inward renewal). Now let us grant the point that it is possible to get that idea out of Titus 3:5-8. Then there is the book of James, a wonderful place where some go to build a prima
facie case for justification by works.
Major heresies are often the result of turning minors into majors. In 1 Corinthians15 Paul incidentally makes some reference to "baptism for the dead," and
most scholars will admit that Paul's meaning here is obscure. But the Mormons
use this as the basis of a whole doctrine on baptism for the dead. And while
we are talking about the dead, how hard it is for us humans to think rationally
when we are governed sentimentally. If we want to prove something about the
intermediate state badly enough, we will find a text somewhere to support it,
but the chances are that we will build a great edifice on an incidental passage.
Rather, we should honestly go to where the subject is treated in a systematic
way. Do not interpret the systematic passage in the light of the incidental
one, but the incidental must be interpreted by the systematic. It is positively
foolhardy to build a doctrine on an incidental passage.
4. The local must be interpreted
by the universal. The Bible often inculcates universal principles in the context of a local culture. We must be very careful not to make some feature of local culture a universal norm. For instance, Moses took off his shoes as a token of reverence in the presence of God. That was an Eastern custom which is still practiced in some parts of the world. We Westerners show reverence by taking off our hat. Christian men would not think of going into church with their hat on, for this would show disrespect. But if we were associating with people of another culture, we might take our shoes off before entering the church.
Paul commands us to greet the brethren with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16). A strict
literalist may insist that this form of Christian fraternity is still obligatory
today, but most Christians understand it to mean that we should treat fellow
Christians like a blood brother. Similar things may be said about Paul's instruction
on the covering of the head of women in the churches, the length of a man’s
hair, advice to slaves, etc. We must not
make the custom of a local culture a universal imperative.
5. The symbolic must be interpreted by the didactic. If we want to know
something about the "rapture" question, we should not try to build a theory on passages that are written in a symbolic context. There are passages in 1 and 2 Thessalonians that speak on the matter of being "caught up," and if these didactic passages are not interpreted in the light of some speculation from a symbolic passage, they are clear enough. Our doctrinal positions should be established by a plain "Thus saith the Lord" from
a straightforward didactic passage.2 Then we should use this information to interpret a symbolic passage. If we do not do this, we might just as well follow those wild-eyed prophetic expositors who take their text from the Bible and preach from the newspapers.
These rules of Biblical interpretation are by no means exhaustive. Neither
are they suggested as a magic formula to solve all problems and cause all
Christians to see eye to eye. Obviously, difference of opinion will remain.
Yet if these rules are honestly applied, they will prevent us from using
arguments not entirely sound and will perhaps help us to see the difference
between "pet theories" and great testing truths. Again we say: These
rules are not a substitute for the Holy Spirit, for without a conscious dependence
upon His guidance and illumination, all is lost. But on the other hand, many
good people need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit does not cancel the
need for the human agent to use a sound and sensible approach to Bible study.
1The same thing may be said about the historic portion of the book of Acts. It cannot necessarily be assumed that because an event is recorded in the book of Acts, it is normative for today's church. This is a basic fallacy of Pentecostalism. If speaking in tongues is normative for a man baptized in the Holy Spirit, why not wind and tongues of fire too? And why not the slaying of dishonest givers at the offertory as with Ananias and Sapphira? Because Acts records how Paul was converted, we must not make the manner of his conversion normative. A historical must not be turned into an ought. We have no right to turn indicative historical narrative into imperative ecclesiastical precepts without a clear word from the Lord.
2 To our knowledge, the popular American evangelical view of the
'rapture" cannot be substantiated from any didactic portion of the New