Basic Bible Study and Hermeneutics
Most Christians have never heard the word, "hermeneutics." For years I have defined hermeneutics as "the art and science of biblical interpretation." I am sure most students would question using the word "art" in my definition, and might question whether "interpretation" is a science. For now, I will leave these alone, and get to what I think is the heart of biblical interpretation: (1) Observation; (2) Interpretation; and (3) Application.
Howard Hendricks and Leland Ryken have shaped my theory and practice of understanding biblical texts. Both scholars include a kind of literary approach to biblical studies. Ryken reminds us that the Bible is an anthology of "little books" that presents various genres of writing, and knowing this guides us in our reading and interpretation. In other words, to interpret various biblical genres (Narrative, Poetry, History, etc.) one must understand the basic rules of that particular type of writing.
In his book, Effective Bible Teaching, Ryken deals with biblical narrative much the same way that English teachers deal with secular stories. This is not to say biblical narrative is to be approached with the same attitude we would approach Ernest Hemingway, but that the rules of story-telling are essentially the same. Bible stories, like other stories are best studied by considering: plot structure, conflict, characterization, setting, symbols, allusions, and more. In my experience, I have found this to be true.
There is probably no greater need among those who study God's word than to be careful observers of what a particular text says. Before we can agree on what a text means (Interpretation), we must agree on what it says. When we disagree on what the scripture says, of necessity our view of what it means will be diversified. Indeed, this is a major problem today, given the various and sundry translations and paraphrases of the Bible.
A first step to become a better observer is to do "close readings." A close reading will include consideration of grammar, punctuation, literary conventions and patterns. A basic pattern that is often missed is the tendency of writers to use repetition for emphasis. Most teachers know that repetition is a law of learning. A simple strategy for studying a passage is to search for what is repeated. Sometimes an author repeats words; sometimes authors repeat ideas using different words. Discovering repetition in a passage suggests the thematic interests of the writer--the theme, or as Ryken sometimes puts it, "the big idea."
Another pattern frequently used throughout the Bible is comparison, which means to show likeness. Probably the most common unit of comparison the Bible uses is the metaphor. "God is a rock," the Psalmist says. Of course, He is not describing physical characteristics of God, but rather comparing a part of God's being that reminds the writer of a rock--strong, invincible, solid, a foundation on which to build. There are many metaphors and similies in the Bible and the careful student will pay attention to these and other figures of speech in order to get at the meaning of the verses. Later we will discuss figurative language in more detail.
Probably the greatest temptation we face as hermaneuticians is to rush to judgment--to reach closure prematurely. My next blog will present techniques that force us to slow down, observe more closely, and prolong dealing with the text before moving to Stage Two--Interpretation. Let me know if you have questions. In the mean time, work at being a more careful observer. Start by look for patterns like repetition and comparisons such as metaphors.