Principles of Hermeneutics
The first ten
principles listed here are from Knowing Scripture,* by R.
C. Sproul (InterVarsity Press, buy below). It is a remarkably
condensed, but thorough, review of hermeneutics for both the
layman and the theologian.
I have quoted Dr.
Sproul briefly for you to get an idea of what each principle
means, but there are several more pages of explanation on each
that I have omitted. These ten principles comprise only one
chapter of the book, so he has much more in the way of
hermeneutics for you!
I (and Dr. Sproul,
as well -- see below) am convinced that if these principles were
followed diligently, we would have far fewer churches,
denominations, and disagreements among Christians.
Following the ten
principles of Dr. Sproul,
I have listed some other simple principles that I have found
Bible is to be read like any other book.”
“The Bible is
uniquely inspired and infallible, and this puts it in a
class by itself. But, for matters of interpretation, the
Bible does not take on some special magic that changes basic
literary patterns of interpretation.” (63)
“But if the Bible
is to be interpreted like any other book, what about prayer?
Shouldn’t we seek assistance of God the Holy Spirit in
interpreting the Book? Isn’t divine illumination promised to
this book in a way that differs from other books?” (Dr.
Sproul goes on to answer those questions.) (64)
Bible should be read existentially.”
“I do not mean that
we should use the modern ‘existential’ method of
interpreting Scripture whereby the word of Scripture are
taken out of their historical context for subjective meaning
(for example, as Rudolf Bultmann does).” (65)
“What I mean is that as we read the Bible, we ought to get
passionately and personally involved in what we read. I
advocate this not only for the purpose of personal
application of the text but for understanding as well.” (66)
narratives are to be interpreted by the didactic.”
literature is literature that means to teach or to instruct.
Much of Paul’s writing is didactic in character… (for
example) the Gospels record what Jesus did and the Epistles
interpret the significance of what He did. Such a
description is an oversimplification in that the Gospels
often teach and interpret as they are giving narration. But,
it is true that the emphasis in the gospels is found in the
record of events, while the Epistles are more concerned with
interpreting the significance of those events in terms of
doctrine, exhortation, and application.” (68)
implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit.”
“In the business of
language, we make distinctions between that which is
implicit and that which is explicit. Often, the difference
is a matter of degree and the distinction can be muddled.
But, usually we can determine the difference between what is
actually said and what is left unsaid, though implied. I
am convinced that if this one rule were consistently
followed by Christian communities, the vast majority of
doctrinal differences that divide us would be resolved.”
(page, 75, Ed’s emphasis)
carefully the meaning of words.”
“Whatever else the
bible is, it is a book which communicates information
verbally. That means that it is filled with words. Thoughts
are expressed through the relationship of those words. Each
individual word contributes something to the whole of the
content expressed. The better we understand the individual
words used in biblical statement, the better we will be able
to understand the total message of Scripture.” (page 79)
There are scores of words in the bible that have multiple
meanings. Only the context can determine the particular
meaning of a word. For example, the Bible speaks frequently
of the will of God There are at least six different ways
that this word is used” (examples follow). (page 82)
For more discussion
on this important issue, see Knowing Scripture
at the end of this article.
the presence of parallelisms in the Bible.”
“One of the
fascinating characteristics of Hebrew literature is its use
of parallelism. Parallelism in ancient Near Eastern
languages is common and relatively easy to recognize. The
ability to recognize it when it occurs will greatly aid the
reader in understanding the text.” (85)
“There are three
basic types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, and
the difference between Proverb and Law.”
“A common mistake
in Biblical interpretation and application is to give a
proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute.
Proverbs are catchy little couplets designed to express
practical truisms. They reflect principles of wisdom for
godly living. They do not reflect moral laws that are to be
applied absolutely to every conceivable life situation.”
“Observe the difference
between the Spirit and the Letter of the Law.”
“We all know the
reputation of the Pharisees in the New testament who were
quite scrupulous about keeping the letter of the law while
violating the spirit constantly.” (90)
“There were a
variety of types of legalist in the New Testament. The first
and most famous was the type that legislated rules and
regulations beyond what God had commanded. Jesus rebuked the
Pharisees for making the tradition of the rabbis as
authoritative as the Law of Moses…. Another way the law is
distorted is by trying to obey the spirit of the law but
ignoring the letter. Letter and spirit are inseparably
related. The legalists destroy the spirit and the antinomian
destroys the letter.” (91)
“Be careful with Parables”
enjoy sermons that are based on parables… Yet from the
viewpoint of the New testament scholar, the parables present
unique difficulties in interpretation.” (94)
“(One problem) is
the original intent of the parable… whether (Jesus) used
parables to elucidate His teaching or to obscure it.” (91)
“Be careful with
predictive prophecy from the New Testament and the Old is
one of the most abused forms of biblical interpretation.
Interpretations range from the skeptical, naturalistic
method which virtually eliminates predictive prophecy to the
wild, bizarre method that sees in every contemporary event a
‘clear ’ fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.” (97)
“If we examine how
the New Testament treats Old Testament prophecy (an example
of Scripture interpreting Scripture), we discover that in
some cases an appeal is made to fulfillment of the letter
(such as the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem) and
fulfillment in a broader scope (such as the fulfillment of
Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah.” (97)
While I do not have the
qualifications of Dr. Sproul, and do not want to equate my work
with his, I have found the following principles to be helpful.
beliefs and systematic theologies are a one good test of
“There is nothing
new under the sun,” wrote the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.
“Ortho” means “straight, right, true.” “Doxa” is simply
doctrine or teaching.
So, orthodox means
“true teaching.” In this case, it is true teaching that has
occurred throughout church history. Whenever you hear some
teaching that “does not quite sound right,” that is,
consistent with what one has heard in the church, red flags
should go up in your mind. You should ask yourself or the
person giving such teaching, “What has the church taught
consistently and specifically throughout history” on this
Of course, this
method is fraught with inconsistencies. There is the Roman
Catholic tradition of papal infallibility vs. the Reformers
sola scriptura. There is the predestination of the
Reformed tradition and the free will of the Arminians. There
are the three forms of millennialism.
comparison of present teaching with that of the past is
useful. 1) All Christians of all ages form the mind of
Christ (Link on website). 2) The study of the history of the
Church, particularly her doctrines, is a good exercise for
us independent-minded moderns. 3) There is a consistency in
historical orthodoxy that might be surprising to some
Christians, when they study the central teachings of the
Church by her best theologians who are consistent over the
For example, there
are The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. And, while the
Westminster Confession with its Larger and Shorter
Catechisms are not adopted by the majority of churches
today, it grew out one of the most scholarly and
transforming periods of the Church’s history.
“Is” (“are”) is not an
A common verse
among Christians is, “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). While
God is certainly the highest and best meaning of love, His
attributes and His Person are far greater than one word. He
is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, just, merciful,
jealous, unchanging, truth, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
etc. (just to name a few characteristics and names of God
found in the Bible).
Of course, this is
a specific application of Dr. Sproul’s first principle
(above). “Is” and “are” may be followed by a noun or an
adjective. Rarely, is what follows these verbs equivalent to
the subject of the sentence.
More on "is"
A text without a context
is a pretext, that is, the meaning of a text is determined by
its context. The context may be the entire Bible.
A) To understand what
a verse means, it must be read and examined in the context
of the passage in which it appears. For example, “For God so
loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that
whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have
everlasting life” (John 3:16). The context is clearly about
a person’s being regenerated (“born again” or
“born-from-above) and being translated into the Kingdom of
God. It is also clear that “The wind blows wherever it
pleases,” meaning that the Spirit of God chooses those that
Another example is
that of “where two or three are gathered together in My
name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). That
passage is in the context of church discipline, not the
special presence of God among more than one believer
gathered for prayer. Indeed, if this passage were about
community prayer, what would one do with “The effective,
fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
the context of any verse is the entire Bible. The
context of book, chapter, and verse is not always sufficient
to determine the meaning of a verse. This application
requires a considerable knowledge of the Bible or a
comprehensive cross-reference text. But, then, if
every Christian read through the Bible periodically, would
not an association of verses be more likely to be
recognized? This application also requires a
systematic theology, so that all statements can be fitted
into the whole. This hermeneutic would also be one
meaning of "Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture."
For more on
The Bible has the answer
to every problem that I face in life (or sometimes called, “the
sufficiency of Scripture”).
is re-statement of several verses in the Bible, such as II
Timothy 3:16-17 and II Peter 1:3-4.
When faced with
problems, the tendency is to look everywhere or talk to
anyone except God’s instruction manual for human beings
created by Him. Answers are often sought in psychology,
Far Eastern religions, the occult, etc., etc. Only the Bible
is truth, as it is written by God Himself.
It is also
comprehensive. Consider whom you should marry. While it may
not tell you the name of the person, it will tell you what
kind of person that you should marry. You are free to choose
a mate within those parameters. Or, what career should you
choose? The Bible may not tell you the particular
profession, but it will tell you those that are righteous
and those that are not.
The Bible -- for many
words -- has its own definitions that would not be found in
dictionaries written by non-Christians (and too often those
written by Christians).
A good illustration
of this hermeneutic is “love.” Biblical love includes such
statements, as “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John
14:15), “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10),
and “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).
A definition of love must include those instructions.
A short definition
that might be helpful is, “Love is an action that is aimed
at the highest Biblical good of the one loved.” (Link for
discussion of love)
Read all the words of
every passage in context.
This principle is a
corollary of #13. Not only should the context be examined,
the whole context of the passage must be examined.
This context may be a paragraph, a chapter, or even a whole
An example is the
Book of John, Chapter 3. There is a lot about Nicodemus in
the first few verses: he is a Pharisee (probably a high
ranking one), he “came by night,” and he called Jesus a
“Rabbi” and “a teacher come from God.” All that information
applies to the subjects that Jesus discusses, such as being
“born again,” “the kingdom of God,” and Jesus being God’s
“begotten” son. Who and what Nicodemus is influences Jesus’
answer and must be understood in that religious context.
Perhaps, it is even
more important to read all the context in Old Testament
passages because it involves so much narrative and a culture
that is very unfamiliar to us.
17. Believers must
KNOW the Bible in order to interpret it.
The greater their
knowledge of books, chapters, major themes, and individual
verses, the greater will be Christians’ understanding. Those
who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example,
knew the well-know verses and the obscure verses that helped
them shape the statements for the Confession.
In light of this
principle and the importance of the Bible, all Christians
should have a plan to read through the entire Bible
periodically, every 1-3 years.
18. The Bible must
be read with a consciousness of who and what God is… His
“Our wisdom, in so
far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists
almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of
ourselves.” This is the first sentence of John Calvin’s
Institutes of the Christian Religion. Too many
Christians do not really know God.
In #12 above, we
briefly examined, “God is love” (I John 4:8). One cannot
understand the love of God without understanding the God of
the Law (commandments, precepts, statutes, etc. of Psalm
119), for Christ’s sacrificial death was efficacious because
He had fulfilled the law, in every detail. Further,
an understanding of the depth and breadth of His sacrifice
is greatly lessened without an understanding of God’s
requirement that His law be fulfilled.
God is knowledge,
wisdom, power, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent (neither
can exist without the other), Wonderful Counselor, Might
God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, King of Kings,
Lord of Lords, creator of a universe governed by laws,
sustainer, Word, law-giver, etc., etc.
19. As one reads the
Bible, he must develop some systematic approach that fits the
This principle is a
corollary that Scripture must interpret Scripture. An example is
the ordo salutis or order of salvation in this sequence:
effectual calling, regeneration, faith and repentance, adoption,
justification, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification.
Of course, such a
systematic approach challenges the concept of “no creed but the
Bible” or “no creed but Christ.” But, these statements are
creeds in themselves, as they are statements about Scripture and
Christ which are not quotes of Scripture. Indeed concerning
Christ, there are
many claims to whom Christ is.
(This website -- highlighted -- demonstrates the necessity of
having a creed about Christ.) For those who would
argue that system in theology, ethics, or any other area of
knowledge is not necessary are challenged to "prove the virtue
of disjointed truths," to quote from Gordon Clark in his
Introduction to Christian Philosophy. See
In Defense of
Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge.
The Bible is not to be
primarily has to do with those who “lucky-dip.” That is, they
look for an answer to a problem by opening the Bible blindly,
run their finger down a page, and then look to see what it says
to apply to their lives. This approach is not different that the
person who claims that “God” or the “Holy Spirit” told me to do
such and such. This claim is the same as adding to the
Scriptures which is clearly condemned (Revelation 22:18-19).
process of formal, logical reasoning from true propositions of
Scripture reveals conclusions that are equivalent to
propositions of Scripture.
The Trinity is one example. No orthodox,
Bible-believing Christian would deny "Trinity," as being fully
Biblical and equivalent to Scripture. The phrase "mere
human logic" is inaccurate and shows ignorance of the syllogisms
of formal logic and the truth that it yields when based upon
true propositions. See the hyperlink in this paragraph.
22. "It must
forever be kept in mind that a theologian's (any person's)
epistemology controls his interpretation of the Bible."
(Gordon Clark, The Incarnation, page 46.)
For example, "all truth
is God's truth" is used by some to equate inductive (empirical)
conclusions with revelational truth. The posit of
"theistic evolution" is one illustration.
Another example is the
Roman Catholic acceptance of the equal authorities of Scripture,
the magisterium, tradition, and the Pope speaking ex
cathedra (officially from his position as head of the
can be uniquely applied to Scripture.
In the natural world,
no investigative (empirical) method can examine every particular
in its universe. For example, every dog cannot be
examined, and neither can every star. Thus, conclusions
are drawn from an examination of a limited number of examples.
Such induction is never truth because of this limited study.
However, the inductive method as applied to Scripture can
determine truth because every example of a particular can be
examined in Scripture—a finite book or a limited "field" of
investigation. For example, every occurrence of the word
"love" can be examined in its context and a definition or
definitions can be derived that is (are) a true representation
of the whole. (As an aside, "love" ought to be
investigated in this way. I have never found where that
has been done. Thus, "love" is one of the most hackneyed
and misused Biblical words in the modern world.)
This method is not that
of Baconian hermeneutics which ignores all past and present
theology and interpretation. This method seeks to be
consistent with true systematic theology and the Scripture
together. Properly understood, theology and Scripture will
present the same truths.
24. Words have more than
one definition in Scripture.
In English everyone recognizes that words
have more than one definition. A dog may be a dog or it
may be a bad result or a bad person. But, it seems that
Christians want every appearance of a word in the Bible to mean
the same thing. Perhaps, the most egregious error is that
of "law." One theologian has estimated that "law" has 12
or more meanings in the New Testament alone. Sometimes it
means the whole Bible; another time it means the Torah; another
time it simply means instruction. Particular care must be
taken in Romans. For example, in the same sentence in
Romans 8:2, law is used as the principle of life and also as its
opposite, the principle of death!
Of greatest concern is the antipathy of law
and grace. Christians say, "We are under grace. The
law has no application for us any longer." However, Jesus
said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).
Commandments are law; commandments are instruction; the whole
Bible is law; the whole Bible is instruction. Now, certain
ceremonial and communal laws of the Old Testament no longer
apply, but someone has estimated that there are 800-1200
"commands" (instructions) in the New Testament alone. And,
if a person is a newborn, as in "born-again," he is going to
need instruction (laws) for him to know how to behave.
Behavior is inescapably tied to instruction... to law. We
are "under grace," but we inevitably need law to give direction
to our actions.
25. "All" does not mean "all."
Yes, you see correctly, "all." A pesky word that has
wreaked havoc in Biblical theology. Sometimes, "all" does
We use it in a limited way in everyday conversation. "All"
people everywhere watched the Super Bowl. Well, not "all"
even have TVs or neighbors with TVs. Caesar Augustus
decreed that "all" the world should be taxed—were the American
Indians or Indian Indians taxed? I Timothy 2:4 says that
God desires that "all" men should be saved—is universalism then
inescapable? Could Paul mean only the elect? Dear
readers, that "all" is not "all" is basic language usage, but
what havoc has been wrought by trying to make all every
particular of a class in the universe.
* Taken from R. C.
Sproul, ©2009 by R. C. Sproul. Used by permission of
InterVarsity Press, P. O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL
www.ivpress.com The book may be ordered at
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics