My first course through Western Seminary was Hermeneutics, which is the study of the interpretation of scripture. All of my seminary study will be based on the bible, so it makes sense to start with a solid foundation on how to interpret it. The video lectures were conducted by Dr. Todd Miles, with a live seminar with Dr. Patrick Schreiner.
Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting the bible. It’s a science because there are organized rules you must follow when interpreting the bible. But it’s also an art because it’s a contested science. You are dealing with literature. You are dealing with stories and poems with divinely inspired authors. It takes practice and a deft touch to interpret this scripture skillfully.
Over the course, Miles provided 27 axioms to guide our study. I think it will suffice to share the first 13. These are very helpful to remember as you read the bible. Keep in mind, these are just my interpretations of his axioms.
Axiom #1: Your hermeneutics will flow directly from your convictions on inspiration.
A proper biblical hermeneutic is dependent on the belief that all the words of scripture are the very words of God (2 Timothy 3:16) yet the words also belong to the human authors, as they were moved along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). This hermeneutic of dual-inspiration requires that you seek out what the human authors are trying to say (considering their historical and cultural context), while also trying to seek out what God is saying (considering he is the author of everything from Genesis to Revelation).
Axiom #2: Hermeneutics is, first and foremost, a theological endeavor.
As you study the bible, you must constantly consider the truths about who God is, and who we are, in order to interpret correctly. God being perfect and holy, helps us understand how his word is inerrant. We being finite creatures must work hard to discover meaning found in the text. God being a God who speaks authoritatively, and we being his subjects who must listen, helps motivate our diligent study.
Axiom #3: The Bible is God’s speech to us where God engages us.
When you read the bible, you are not just reading facts about the life and the world, but you are actually engaging with God. When you engage with God’s speech, it accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish. What God says to us will change you. If Timothy says that scripture can make you wise for salvation, then scripture will save you.
Axiom #4: One of the first questions of interpretation is: “What is God doing in this text?”
Sometimes God is giving you assurance. Sometimes he’s making promises, or giving commandments. Sometimes he’s teaching, or giving hope. Sometimes he’s trying to evoke praise in you. Don’t just analyze scripture. Let it move you.
Axiom #5: Hermeneutics is intuitive and not complicated. We are not Gnostics!
You really can interpret the bible and discover it’s meaning, not unlike how you can understand anything you read. God is a master communicator, and we were made in his image. There are no deep secrets to interpreting the bible.
Axiom #6: Faithful Bible interpreters must be fervent Bible readers.
In order to understand the smaller parts of the bible (especially the harder parts), you have to understand the whole. The more you read the whole of the bible, the more you will understand the context of the parts.
Axiom #7: The three most important things in hermeneutics are context, context, and context.
Context determines the meaning of the text. Ignoring context would be strange. No one likes to be taken out of context, and there’s no reason to do so with the biblical authors. If you feel your out-of-context interpretation is from the Lord, it is NOT from the Lord. God is a good communicator who understands context, and he inspired the authors in their context.
Axiom #8: There is a progress to revelation and redemptive history. Pay attention to it!
The whole bible contains a story with a definite and unfolding plot line. It is not a collection of abstract stories and teachings. Each has its place in the canon and redemptive history. You have to understand what plot points and revelations come before and after the text you are reading.
Axiom #9: We cannot interpret the Bible correctly unless we understand the story of Scripture as a whole.
Just as understanding the whole will help you understand the parts, the parts will help you understand the whole. You have to know what the whole story of the bible is. Miles would say the bible’s story is God’s demonstration of his glory through the redemption of his people, that he might dwell with them, and the restoration of his Kingdom, that his rule might be acknowledged by all.
Axiom #10: For the interpretation of any biblical text to be valid, it must be consistent with the historical-cultural context.
As with any piece of writing, your interpretation of it must account for the context of the original author and audience. They lived in a different time using different languages from you. If your interpretation makes no sense to the original audience, then your interpretation is wrong.
Axiom #11: The first and best place to look for the historical-cultural context is in Scripture itself.
Much of the historical and cultural setting required to understand the meaning of the text is found in scripture itself. The bible authors (and God himself) were good writers. Scripture is inerrant, including the historical and cultural facts embedded in it.
Axiom #12: Words have meanings, not meaning. But they have meaning in context.
Every word has a semantic range with a variety of meanings, and the context narrows that range to one meaning. The sentence is the smallest unit of meaning. Words are just the building blocks of meaning. Keep in mind, the meaning of words can change over the course of history.
Axiom #13: A genre is a type of literature with the rules that govern its interpretation.
There are different rules to consider when reading different genres, which are literary forms. These genres include narrative, law, poetry, proverb, prophecy, apocalyptic, discourse, and parable. You will miss the point of the text if you read all of the bible like a textbook.
Much of biblical interpretation is common sense. It’s also hard work, as we are dealing with ancient texts written over thousands of years. But, all that hard work is still rooted in common sense. With that said, Christian interpretation requires that the Holy Spirit move you to believe right things about God. So always start by praying.