Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How to interpret the Bible - Hermeneutic

Someone posted this comment here:

Not only should we consider the word meaning and context we should also consult the grammar.Often people focus on just the meaning of the word by itself. Many times the context and grammar will actually change the meaning of the word, sometimes only slightly.

I thought it would be good for me to help some of you in the whole area of biblical interpretation in the next few posts. This may be helpful to those of you faithfully reading and journaling your thoughts through our Bible Reading Plan.

How do we read the Bible for all its worth? We are to read it with a wholistic approach to biblical method of interpretation. Remember the story of the six blind men who was brought to the zoo to help them experience by touch what an elephant is. Each blind man felt a different part of an elephant and came to his own conclusion what an elephant is. The man who touched the body said the elephant is like a wall. The second man who touched the tusk said the elephant is like a spear. The third thought the trunk is like a snake. The fourth man held the leg and exclaimed it’s like a tree trunk. The fifth man who touched the ear said surely the elephant is like a big fan. The last man said they are all wrong because upon touching the tail, he said the elephant is really like the rope. Who’s right? They are all right in their own perspective but certainly not adequate to understand what the elephant really is. Each man had one of the few defining traits of an elephant.

In the same way, we must be careful not to be like the blind men! There are five critical components in discovering the writers’ intended meaning. In writers, I also mean to include the One who inspired the writers. These five components include literature, grammar, history, context, and theology. Each of these components is a defining trait of the Bible books.

Component 1: Literature
We start any study by asking what type of literature it is. There are seven distinct types or genre: narrative, prophecy, wisdom, psalm, gospel, epistle and apocalyptic. Each type of literature has specific defining traits. If we attempt to interpret a verse or paragraph, we must ask ourselves what defining trait this is.

a. Narrative literature (e.g. Exodus), as the name implies, are narratives texts of the writer to convey a story with facts, accounts and even biographies of certain individuals from a theological perspective. Often, we are to take everything at face value as they are descriptive.

b. Prophetic literature (e.g. Isaiah) is literally conveying what God actually said to the people about a particular issue. A response is expected from the people who will determine God’s action towards them whether present or future.
c. Poetic literature (e.g. Song of Solomon) is an expression of the writer’s heart, emotions, mind and spirit.

d. Gospel literature (e.g. Matthew) describes and documents the earthly life of Jesus Christ, his teachings and historical timeline.

e. Epistolary literature (e.g. Galatians) are personal letters written to either churches or individuals to encourage, reason, defend, correct, rebuke or to teach and present ideas, concepts, doctrines, etc.

f. Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs) as the name suggests teaches basic truth concerning how one can live wisely.

g. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Revelation) – this would probably be the hardest to understand as it points often to the future. It is really about a message of hope to God's people in a time of trials and tribulation and not to give up because things will be way better in the end. It is written in different styles: figures of speech, narrative, poetry, and prophetic utterances.

A great student and reader of the Bible would not attempt to discover the meaning of a verse without a full understanding of these traits. Otherwise he will make errors in interpretation. This is as good as using the Bible like some kind of horoscopic book where we pick and interpret the verses that we like for our convenience.

Reminds me of a funny story which some of you may have heard: "A man received an unexpected sum of money and he is toying with the idea of spending it on himself or giving it to mission. He knows the right thing to do but he also wants to indulge in himself. He has a hidden agenda. The man asked God for a sign, so with his eyes closed he opened the bible randomly and placed his finger on a page, and it reads: Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21) This can’t be right? He closed the Bible and try again. "And Judas hanged himself". (Matthew 27:5) The man quickly closed the bible and decided to do it again, and when he placed his finger on another page of the bible, it read: "Go and do likewise". (Luke 10:37) :)

I will go to component two of grammar in the next post.

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