9 Principles for Personal Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. It aims at getting at the Scriptures true meaning. For true Christians, God’s Word is life because it presents to us Christ who is our life. It is of utmost importance, therefore, to interpret the Bible correctly. Below I’ve listed 9 principles for interpreting the Bible that I think are necessary and/or helpful to keep in mind when pursuing the actual meaning of God’s Word. Philosophical Hermeneutics is an interest of mine, so I’m likely to update this post as I continue to think through the subject. That being said, this is more of an ongoing meditation, less an attempt at a doctrinal treatise.
(1) Analogia Scriptorum (Analogy of Scripture)
The Scripture is a light unto our feet and a lamp unto our path. When God inspired Scripture, He inspired it for the church. Therefore, in its main message it is clear enough for a child to understand. Notwithstanding this general simplicity, there are linguistic, cultural, intellectual, and moral barriers which keep us from understanding each portion of Scripture as clearly as the others. Therefore, when interpreting a difficult passage of Scripture we should look to other Scriptures speaking on the same doctrine or theme in order to interpret the more difficult passages. In a word, we interpret the unclear passages of Scripture in light of the clear passages
(2) Analogia Fidei (Analogy of Faith)
Just as some Scriptures are not as clear to us as others, so too some doctrines are more clearly revealed than others. The Scripture clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly declares a high and lofty doctrine about itself, for example. It’s doctrine of angels and of the exact nature of heaven, on the other hand, seem more shrouded in mystery. While we should hold to a biblical doctrine all of biblical doctrine tenaciously, we recognize that some doctrines are more clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically revealed than others. Therefore, we should always interpret the less clear doctrines of the faith in light of the more clear doctrines.
(3) Scopus Scripturae (The Scope of Scripture)
When you hunt, the scope is what you look through in order to shoot rightly at the target. In a similar manner the principle of Scopus Scripturae is a principle that reminds us to aim our hearts and minds at the center of the Bible, Christ (Christocentricity). We are aimed at seeing Jesus in all the Bible. Likewise, It would be unfitting to study feline (cat) natures in Algebra II, because the scope of the class itself refers to numbers not to cat natures. So too, getting the organizing principle of the Scriptures right is of the utmost importance. The Bible contains a story, a philosophy, doctrine, poetry, and etc; yet, the Bible is not principally a textbook in Metaphysics, nor is it a few good rules you can follow in order to have a good life (though it does present to you a doctrine of the good life), nor is it just a story or drama. Rather, the Bible is a book about Christ (John 5:39) – His glory, His salvation, and how the Father is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ by the power of the Spirit.
(4) Regula Fidei
Protestantism rejects an infallible interpreter of the Scriptures outside the voice of God Himself speaking in Scripture. Notwithstanding, there is ample rationale, biblically speaking, to treat as normative the practice of immersing oneself within conversation on biblical interpretation which has gone on in the church for multiple millenia. Though the church is not endowed with the ability of infallible interpretation, she is nonetheless the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim 3:15) who has been endowed with the Holy Spirit, who guides her into all truth (John 15:26-27). Christ appointed teachers (Eph 4:11-16), under himself as the Teacher (Matthew 23:8), to guide His people. We ignore them to our own detriment. The principle of Regula Fidei reminds us to interpret the Scriptures in the conversation of interpretation which the church has engaged in for thousands of years.
(5) Context, Context, Context
Context determines meaning. If I walked up to a friend at church and said, “Friend, you are a pretty cool dude,” and he responded to me, “What are you talking about, I have a temperature of 102!” – he would be taking me out of context. A similar thing happens when we treat the Bible like a series of isolated Bible verses outside the original context in which they were given. Ample consideration, when determining meaning, must be given to historical and linguistic concerns. One must pay attention to the genre of the text under consideration, the audience, and the general flow of the argument or narrative. Failure to do so makes the Scripture like a wax nose, able to be made to say whatever the interpreter wants it to say. Context mediates against eisegesis (putting our own thoughts into God’s Word) and is key to exegesis (Grasping the meaning of the original author in interpretation). The Bible is God’s Word, written through human individuals – therefore ample attention must be paid to it’s individuality as well as it’s systemic unity.
(6) Logic I: Non-Contradiction
The maintenance of common sense logic is key to biblical interpretation. Imagine I walk up to you and ask, “What is your favorite color?” “Blue,” you reply. After which I say to you, “I agree, red is my favorite color also.” In the instance of such a reply you would rightly look at me with a face either of exasperation or you would laugh because you’d known I was making a joke. Contradiction literally means “to speak against” and what it means is, essentially, that because two propositions cancel one another out there is no actual meaning to what is being said. That is pretty abstract, so let me make the principle simple. At no point in your interpretation of two different passages are you allowed to hold two different interpretations which cancel one another out. You are not allowed to hold, for example, that it is and is not possible for a true Christian to lose their salvation. The law of non-contradiction (you’re not allowed to hold contradictory interpretations) is absolute and must be upheld consistently in interpretation.
(7) Logic II: Implication
If all human beings are mortal, and socrates is a man, then it follows by implication that Socrates too is mortal. Humans have this innate ability to draw legitimate inferences on the basis of a limited amount of information. If I didn’t do my laundry the day before and my wife looks at me with a sour face as I wake up in the morning, I can make a probable inference that her sour is a result of my dour performance. If the Bible says that the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God, and the Father is God, and that there is one God, we legitimately draw the inference of the doctrine of the Trinity. The fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity is just as biblical as the doctrine that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” even though the former required logical inference and the latter did not. God knew he was writing a book to rational beings and thus what is logically inferred is just as “real” as what is explicitly stated and must be treated as biblical. The Westminster Confession states essentially this:
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6)
(8) Ockham’s Razor
If you walked outside after waking up from a night’s sleep and saw puddles of water on the ground you would be justified in saying that it probably rained. Though it is possible that martians from mars dumped water into puddles that made it look like it rained but actually it was them, it is highly unlikely and unbelievable that such an event occurred. This same principle applies to Scripture. Biblically, I could interpret the millennial reign of Christ to be preceded by apache helicopters carrying the antichrist from Russia to Hades, because of the imagery I see in the book of Revelation. I may even have a logically consistent system built off of such a doctrine in order to justify my belief; notwithstanding, the belief is unreasonable because I have multiplied complication unnecessarily and without warrant. The principle of Ockham’s Razor, as I understand it, is simply that you do not multiply unnecessary complication without due warrant. To state it more simply, you don’t make the text more complicated than God does.
(9) Thomas’s Scalpel
Consistent with the principle above, at times the Scripture itself brings forward a complication. Being complex is not necessarily bad (in the Scriptures it is always good). In such a case, our job is not to shave down the complexity of Scripture; rather, our job is to make legitimate and logical distinctions so that we can hold to the complexity of biblical teaching. Because we are not allowed to have contradictions, we must make distinctions. For example, the Bible states and teaches that true Christians persevere till the end and that all who are united to Christ for salvation make it all the way to glorification (Romans 8:28-30). Nonetheless, the Bible also says that some people united to Christ are cut off from Christ (John 15). How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction? Some people say that the latter is hypothetical, that is how they reconcile the apparent contradiction (I think this interpretation violates Ockham’s Razor). As for me, I believe they are united, externally, to Christ’s body the church but not united to Him personally (What Berkhof calls the “Dual aspect of the covenant”). Either way, a distinction is necessary and it is proper for the interpreter of the Bible to use the Scalpel of reason to make such distinctions. (1)
Some of these principles are a bit more practical at the outset than others, so I will finish with a practical program for application drawn from my own experience. Begin by seriously considering the Biblical text in context. Though much can be gained by commentaries on given passages, the Bible itself is it’s own best commentary and much can be gained simply by immersing oneself into the flow of the text. If you do this enough, you’re naturally going to be asking questions of logic which were posed above. “How does this make sense given this?” At that point, you will be engaged in doctrinal formulation and some of the other principles will make intuitive sense as you seek to uncover meaning (the regula fidei, analogia fidei, etc.). So in the first, pay attention to context. And also in the first, pay attention to Christ. All study is in vain if we do not see with the eyes of our hearts the blessed Son of God. The worst error in the world would be to engage in serious study of God’s Word only to miss the essence of the Word, Christ. Be seeing Him in all His manifold beauty! As the Psalm states,
“My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
You are the most handsome of the sons of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your splendor and majesty!
In your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!
- The content for this section, particularly the language of “Thomas’s Scalpel” was derived from thinking through a post that Mark Olivero made on the facebook page he moderates called, “Reformed Thomist.” Credit to him (and to Thomas)!