Hermeneutics is the term used for ‘the art (or science) of interpretation of literature’. In the Biblical context, it refers to the interpretation of Biblical literature.
The New Testament was written in the time of the early church fathers, which would have had no difficulty in understanding the background of the New Testament books. Consequently, they would most likely have used a literal approach of interpretation.
As the church began to grow, heresies entered and some of the ‘church fathers’ began to put together more exacting guidelines for Scripture interpretation. Different influences played a role in developing hermeneutic through the centuries. Some of the early ‘church fathers’, for example, were converted Pagans and influenced much by Greek philosophy – giving rise to an allegorical (symbolistic) approach which continued to a large extent through the dark ages and all the way up to the reformation. During the reformation, the literal method came to be used again for prophecy.
The church itself has gone through many stages during the last 2000 years in interpreting and understanding the Scriptures. Many foundational issues were debated though the years, starting with the issue of Christ’s deity.
Today hermeneutics is characterised by many approaches or schools of thought. It would be unrealistic to expect that such a fragmented approach could lead to unity in doctrine among the host of organisational fragments that the modern church has evolved into.
Graham (1984:29) declared well that “Truth is timeless. Truth does not differ from one age to another, from one people to another, from one geographical location to another. Men’s ideas may differ, men’s customs may change, men’s moral codes may vary, but the great all-prevailing Truth stands for time and eternity.”[i]
Hermeneutics, because of the variations of approaches that characterizes it, has created many different theologies and sown confusion instead of ensuring the church is served by the truth. Something needs interpretation when there are factors involved that hinders spontaneous understanding; when there is a gap between the reader/viewers comprehension and the material to be understood. This gap may, for example, be based on historical, cultural, linguistic, geographical and biological factors.
It has been said that one cannot paint a masterpiece under artificial light. In the same way, the believer should strive to put Scripture under the natural light of the time, place and circumstances it was written in. The "natural light" that hermeneutics is supposed to provide should serve to remove language, cultural, literary, historical and communication barriers.
It should also guide the believer to avoid a number of hazards, such as misreading, distorting and contradicting the text, as well as subjectivism, relativism and overconfidence.
As we know from all the evidence to the contrary, this has unfortunately not been the case. Spiritual philosophizing is practised widely by preachers, authors and the like. Consequently we need to take other measures for ourselves - by following the example of the Bereans of Acts 17:11 for example.
We must agree with Albert Mohler that recovery starts at home where parents are the first and most important educators of their own children. However, it raises the question, what about the knowledge of the parents? This where the church must step in, but it needs to rid itself first of insecure leadership and the controlling religious spirit that often accompanies it.
Mohler declares that the church needs to recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching. But then we must underline that the church has the responsibility to safeguard the true and original apostolic doctrine found in Scripture and to commit it to others without compromise or corruption. This implies the necessity of clear, unpolluted and uncompromised biblical instruction within the church.
The Bible itself shows that believers should be given the means by which to defend it against all false theologies (e.g. Acts 20:31; Galatians 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:1) - in other words, all believers, not only a select so-called educated elite. We do not say this unkindly, but with great reverence for the educated who diligently seek to know and teach the truth.
Mohler[ii] quite rightly (in our view) states that we will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of compromise we have seen in this generation is directly related to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.
[i] GRAHAM, BILLY. 1984. Peace With God. (Revised & expanded ed.). Maitland, South Africa: Struik.
[ii] MOHLER, A. 2004. The Scandal of Biblical Literacy: It’s Our Problem. 29 June. www. AlbertMohler.com.
Picture of young girl engulfed in light by Petroshki.
[Published 29 August 2014]