Hermeneutics and Defining your terms
I was reading through Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy recently and was given an excellent reminder to define key terms. As the title of book lets on, it concerns itself with the subject of hermeneutics. However, his usage of the term somewhat varied from my own. We will discuss the definition of hermeneutics, list key hermeneutics, analyze Goldsworthy’s definition of hermeneutics, and reflect on the importance of defining key terms.
The definition I use for hermeneutics is it is the study of principles of interpretation, with which we study scripture. I believe that definition accords with much of reformed Christianity and even public perception of the term. D. A. Carson (1996), in his book Exegetical Fallacies, defines exegesis and hermeneutics as, “exegesis is concerned with actually interpreting the text, whereas hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretive process. Exegesis concludes by saying ‘this passage means such and such’; hermeneutics ends by saying, ‘This interpretive process is constituted by the following techniques and preunderstandings’” (p. 24). Merriam-Webster defines hermeneutic as “the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)” (n.d.).
What then are the hermeneutical principles. The five key ones I – and I believe many Christocentric, reformed Christians – hold to are the literal, historical, grammatical, contextual, and Christ hermeneutics.
The literal hermeneutic means that we interpret Scripture in light of it natural, genre guided sense. Unlike the medieval Roman Catholic church, we don’t allegorize Biblical stories, coming up with fanciful interpretations based on subjective, superficial word associations. Rather, we interpret historical narratives as concerning real events; we interpret poetry in light of poetic devices, etc. We read scripture in light of its natural, genre-guided sense.
The historical hermeneutic states we interpret Scripture in light of its historical setting. The background of a letter is key to understanding its contents. In many instances, parts of the historical setting can be reconstructed from discussions in Scripture itself. Many other times, if not every time, being knowledgeable of the concurrent cultural and sociopolitical setting will enhance our understanding of the letter of the Bible.
The grammatical hermeneutic tells us to interpret Scripture in light of standard grammatical rules of language. We don’t read the Bible with made up rules of grammar, so we can get desired conclusions. Rather, we read it with normative rules in mind. This applies first to the language it was originally written in and to the language it is translated into.
The contextual hermeneutic directs us to interpret Scripture in light of its context. Both the immediate context of the letter matters (overlap with the historical hermeneutic) and the context of individual verses in light of the rest of the book of the Bible they are contained in. Moving past there, the context of the author's other Biblical writings matter , and, finally, the context of the whole Bible itself.
Finally, and perhaps the most Biblically supported hermeneutic, is the Christ hermeneutic. Broadly defined, the Christ hermeneutic tells us to interpret all Scripture in light of how it is rooted in, pointing to, or fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ. The verses supporting this point have been discussed in prior posts, so I will just list a few here:
“he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” – Luke 24:25-27
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:39, 45-47
“For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” – Acts 26:21-23
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
The above definition and listing of hermeneutics were present in my mind when I read Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation. The subtitle to the book seemed to imply that Goldsworthy defined hermeneutics in the same way. However, his definition in the book was actually somewhat different. He remarked, “Post-Enlightenment evangelical hermeneutics, then, seeks to use every means at its disposal, including insights gleaned from the wider world of scholarship, to overcome every obstacle to the understanding of Scripture” (Goldsworthy, 2006, p. 198). In a footnote, he stated, “Hence the notion that hermeneutics is the bridge between exegesis and application to the present. This is the view that I proposed in my book Gospel and Kingdom…thought I realize that it may be seen otherwise” (Goldsworthy, 2006, p. 204). Goldsworthy, in the beginning of the book, actually listed different definitions for hermeneutics, some of which were similar to my own. However, the definition he actively uses is that hermeneutics are principles to get modern application from the Biblical text. When imagining a flowchart for his definition, I see it as follows:
Scripture --> exegesis --> hermeneutics --> modern understanding and application.
Hermeneutics is the bridge that allows us to apply exegesis of a text to the modern hearer or reader. It tells us how Bible verses apply to us today.
Whereas I imaging a flowchart for my definition as follows:
Scripture --> hermeneutics --> exegesis / modern application.
In my flowchart, hermeneutics contains the principles with which we perform exegesis, and the process of exegesis includes application to the modern hearer and reader.
The reason I bring up this comparison of definitions for hermeneutics is that in the first half of the book, I was reading with my definition of hermeneutics. As a result, some assertions in the first half had tentative implications in my mind due to discrepancies in the assumed meaning. However, once I grappled with his definition of hermeneutics in the second half, I was able to readjust my prior tentative implications in light of his definition of hermeneutics. Of course, this is to no fault of the book. The book was excellent, though it concerned itself more with applying Scripture than I anticipated. Perhaps the only adjustment I would make would be to have his definition of hermeneutics clearly discussed in the beginning.
The lesson I hope to impart through this experience is the importance of defining key terms. I had somewhat assumed that most reformed Christians had the same definition I had; however, it was clearly not the case in this instance. However, even if we don’t formally define terms beforehand; different usage of the same words usually becomes clear through context and results of the conversation. If a discussion goes on long enough, typically one side realizes they don’t mean the same thing by the same words, which prompts the defining of terms. The beautiful thing about language is that it’s typically self-correcting, though it may take a while. As a primitive example, if I asked you to “get me a cup” and you came back with anything other than a hollow, roughly cylindrical object with an open end, used to contain liquid, I would retort “that’s not a cup”. I would then get one myself to show you what I meant by “a cup”. Language depends on people communicating having the same referents for words. Discrepancies are often discovered in conversation and resolved.
I hope this discussion of hermeneutics has proven valuable. Let us aim to define key terms as needed in Biblical conversations; yet, still acknowledge that not doing so doesn’t mean the conversational context won’t clarify terms. Let us hold to and apply literal, historical, grammatical, contextual, and Christ hermeneutics.
Carson, D. A. (1996). Exegetical fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group.
Goldsworthy, G. (2006). Gospel-centered hermeneutics: Foundations and principles of evangelical Biblical interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Hermeneutic. Retrieved August 28, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hermeneutic