The word “hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word that means “to interpret.” It the science and art of interpretation, with its own set of rules and principles. You may not realize it but you use hermeneutics every day. When you read your favorite biography or the latest novel, or even when you browse through the latest headlines, your mind is busy interpreting what you read. It is so common that you may not even be aware that you are “interpreting” as you read a book, see a documentary, or communicate with your friends. You are unconsciously making decisions, formulating ideas, developing perspectives, all based on how you interpret the input that presses itself on your mind and senses. But in this case, you almost do it by “instinct”, guided by preconceived ideas about how to interpret particular external and internal messages from different media.
Many of us do the same thing when we come to the text of Scripture. The problem with that is that we end importing our own ideas and modern cultural perspectives when we interpret the Bible. We unconsciously put on “modern” glasses when we look at the Bible, not aware of the fact that the Bible was written during time and culture much different than our own. The result is that we become our own antagonist and do not end with an interpretation that is faithful to what the author intended to communicate in the first place. Instead, the outcome is an interpretation that has been filtered by own prejudices and modern culture. And that is the main issue that hermeneutics seeks to address.
The critics would argue that it is impossible to gain any type of hermeneutical certainty because the definite meaning in the mind of the author has been lost to us since the author is no longer here to explain themselves. The best we can expect is a type of “community interpretation” where the text is understood to mean what a particular tradition teaches us it means. This is one of the reasons there are so many different denominations today. I would contend that it is the over-emphasis and/or under-emphasis of particular verses of Scripture, church traditions, and doctrines that fuel the plethora of denominations and faith traditions.
The goal of biblical hermeneutics is to “discover the intention of the Author/author (author = inspired human author; Author = God who inspires the text).” (1 – pg. 24) In other words, by following consistent hermeneutical principles we can come to understand what the author was intending to say to the audience which they were addressing. We allow the author to speak for themselves. It sounds pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. The principles themselves are not necessarily complex. The problem comes in when we try to apply the principles of hermeneutics consistently That is what we must strive for: consistent application. Secondarily, there is the issue of cultural distance. We are centuries removed from the time of the writings and the languages of Hebrew and Greek. The Bible does not automatically cross into our culture in its application to our lives without at least a rudimentary understanding of the “where, when, and who.”
Every true believer in Christ recognizes the hermeneutical task as sacred. Why? Because it is the very words of the living God that we are trying to understand. It is the duty of every believer to strive to interpret, apply, and teach the Bible in such a way that it does justice to what God intended to communicate, and not what we want to the text to say to us. The goal is to understand “the ultimate treasure of divine truth!” (2) Biblical hermeneutics provides us with the tools that we need so that we can mine this divine truth.
(1) Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010, pg. 24
(2) Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, pg. 21