Hermeneutics, Handling Aright the Word


     I do not need tell you that the religious world is seriously divided. There are multiplied thousands of divergent religions and new ones starting each month. Why is this? There are many reasons for the divided state of the religious world but one paramount cause is the lack of serious study given to the Book that most claim to believe, the Bible. This article shall introduce you to the science of hermeneutics, handling aright the word of God. Paul enjoined, "Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2: 15, ASV). The expression, "handling aright" (orthotomounta) literally means to "cut straight." Inherent in the teaching is the required energy in studying God's word ("diligence," spoudason) and the responsibility of correctly using it. Hence, there is an implied incorrect way to handle the word of God. One book that has stood the test of time (written ca.1888) and has for many years served as a classic textbook in the field of Bible study is appropriately named, "Hermeneutics," by Professor D. R. Dungan. Let us begin our study with a definition of hermeneutics provided by Dungan:

     "SEC. 1. OUR SUBJECT DEFINED--Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. It is derived from the Greek Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the interpreter of Jupiter. Every Hermeneus was, therefore, an interpreter, as he was supposed to inherit some of the mystic qualities of this god of philology, this patron of eloquence. Sacred hermeneutics is the science of interpreting the Scriptures. Exegesis (from ex, out, and egeisthas, to guide or lead), means to lead out. It is the application of the principles of hermeneutics in bringing out the meaning of any writing which might otherwise be difficult to understand" (Introduction).

     Studying the Bible, man's responsibility. The Bible continues to be a best seller but, alas, is seldom really studied. The old method of, "allowing the pages to fall open at random and reading a section" is still in vogue today. Professor Dungan added regarding studying the scriptures:

     "SEC. 2. GOD EXPECTS US TO USE HIS BOOK IN BECOMING ACQUAINTED WITH HIS CHARACTER, AND IN GAINING A KNOWLEDGE OF HIS WILL. The Bible to be used as other books.--An interpreter implies a misunderstanding, between two parties, or, at least, a liability to such a misunderstanding. And it is at once objected that if the Bible is of God, it should be so plain that no one could misunderstand it; that, if God could give us such a book, and would not, He was certainly to blame. But if He would, but could not, He is not [1] perfect in wisdom or ability to execute. This logic is not good. We might as well say that if God is the Author of Nature, its meaning should be so apparent that all would perfectly understand it, and therefore, understand it alike. And yet we know that our scientists are quite disagreed about many things in nature, and that the great masses of men are in ignorance, almost from first to last, respecting the whole question. God has, therefore, made it necessary to study nature in order to get its lessons. Geology, astronomy, physiology, etc., etc., are known only to those who study them. It is reasonable, therefore, that He should make it necessary to study His word" (Ibid.).

     Matters that prevent a serious and profitable study of the greatest book of all, the Bible. One common hindrance to understanding the Bible is the lack of appreciation as to the importance and nature of the Bible. The Bible is the collection (canoniscity) of the inspired utterances of the God who created you and me and the God to whom we owe allegiance (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17, Eccl. 12: 13, 14). God has also provided man within the Bible all that is needed to acceptably know, worship, and serve him (2 Pet. 1: 3, Jude 3). Included in the teachings of the Bible are matters of commandments and, yes, law that God has given man (Jas. 1: 25). The Bible itself claims to be understandable or intelligible. Not only is it understandable, but the Bible purports to be capable of being understood alike by all who consider it (cp. Eph. 3: 1-6). A denominational spirit or men seeking a following has stood in the way of a universal understanding of the scriptures (cp. I Cor. 1: 10ff.). The doctrines and creeds of men that attempt to force the Bible into agreeing with their teachings have also impeded in the study of the scriptures (Mk. 7: 6-13). Faulty study methods also prevent an understanding of the Bible.

     Matters that are necessary to a successful study of the Book of God. An open mind that wants to understand the Bible is a must (Acts 17: 11). God has promised that if man desires to understand, he shall (Jn. 7: 17). Noticing the natural divisions of the Bible ("Old" and New Testaments, etc.), the author and design of a given book within the Bible, context, word usage and definition are all urgently important. The adopted method of study is crucial and often determines how one concludes one's studies. The inductive method has shown its superiority in all fields of science and literature study. Roger Bacon helped to formulate and provide descriptive terminology for the inductive method, but simply stated this method involves induction and deduction, taking all pertinent information and from it, making the necessary deductions or drawing the natural conclusions. Jesus practiced this method, if you will, and reprimanded the Pharisees for failing to so do in the case of the observance of the Sabbath day (Matt. 12: 1-13).

     The express command or direct statement, approved example, and necessary inference approach to a study of the scriptures. Possessing Bible authority for all we believe and practice is essential (2 Jn. 9-11). After all is said, I believe you will find the express command, approved example, and necessary inference approach is definitive in establishing a "thus saith the Lord" (cp. I Thes. 5: 21).

     The express command. The express command is the easiest of the three in determining the will of God. "Repent and be baptized…" is a command (Acts 2: 38). From a study of the verse in which the command occurs, the context, and the remote context, it is evident that the command is applicable to all non-Christians. This command is part of the Great Commission that was given for all men until Jesus comes in Judgement (cp. Mk. 16: 16). Any utterance, then, in the imperative mode, unless there are circumstances to limit, must be viewed as God's applicable teaching and so applied.

     The approved example. The Book of Acts is the history book of the New Testament. It is replete with examples of how people became Christians in the First Century (Acts 2, 8, 16, etc.). From these examples we learn that they believed, repented, confessed Jesus' deity, and were baptized for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2: 36, 38, 8: 37). All remote contexts are in harmony with the facts seen in these examples; hence, these are approved precedents or examples for man to mimic today (cp. Rom. 6). "Approved precedents or examples" allow room for the inference that not all examples are meant to be universally binding. For instance, it is wrong to take the example of prophetesses being covered and bind this on all women (I Cor. 11: 3-16). There are a number of features that show there are peculiarities associated with this matter at Corinth (the teaching applied to prophetesses and not to all women in the church at Corinth, vs. 4-6). Hence, to use such an example as the prophetesses at Corinth and insist on a universal application is to produce an anachronism.

     The necessary inference. A portion of the teaching found in the Bible is obviously inferential. Jesus' teaching regarding life after death was, on one occasion, set forth by use of the necessary inference. "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living," said Jesus (Matt. 22: 32). The point Jesus is inferentially making is that since God is not the God of the dead but of the living and in view of the stated fact that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they are living or in a state of consciousness. Jesus was debating with materialists who denied life after death. He had just told them, "Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God" (vs. 29, notice vs. 23, these methods in general are discussed in Hermeneutics, pg. 89-95). It should be pointed out, though, that care must be taken to make sure that the pondered inference is indeed necessary and not forced. To implicitly teach that infants were baptized because the jailer's family was baptized is not only unnecessary, but it contradicts what is explicitly taught regarding believers being baptized (Acts 16: 33; Mk. 16: 16).

     The express command, approved example, and necessary inference in practice. I have suggested to you that command, example, and necessary inference constitute a complete method of establishing authority. Let us now put them to the test.

     Water baptism. Water baptism is expressly commanded in the New Testament. "And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the lord," we read of Peter and Cornelius and others (Acts 10: 48). A command is something that is required. Required matters are essential because of their nature, purpose, and role. Scriptural baptism is "for the remission of sins," to place on in Christ, and to partake of Jesus' death and resurrection (Acts 2: 38; Gal. 3: 27; Rom. 6: 1ff.). Approved examples are in harmony with the command to be baptized. For instance, people were immediately baptized (Acts 16: 33). Since baptism is a command involving responsible people, the precedents exemplify that people capable of understanding were baptized (Acts 5: 14, cp. Gal. 3: 27). Baptism is said to be a "burial," hence, it is necessarily implied that the action of baptism is immersion (Rom. 6: 4).

    The Lord's Supper. The observance of the Lord's Supper is a commandment (I Cor. 11: 24). We read that the early Christians partook of the Lord's Supper regularly and on the Lord's Day (Acts 2: 42, 20: 7). Since the Lord's Supper is seen as a vital part of the Lord's Day worship of the early church, we necessarily infer that the memorial is to be observed each Lord's Day (since each week has a "first day of the week," we also infer a weekly observance, Acts 2: 42, 20: 7, cp. Ex. 20: 8).

     While the exact phraseology express command or direct statement, approved example, and necessary inference is not found verbatim in the scriptures, some question the method. The fact of the matter, however, is that this approach is seen in practice. We see this method of arriving at authority regarding the great controversy in Acts 15. Express command or direct statement, approved example, and necessary inference are all used in the dialectic process of determining the truth of the issue before the brethren (Acts 15: 13-18; 7; 8). This method has the stamp of approval by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15: 28). Jesus used express command, approved example, and necessary inference throughout his teaching (Matt. 15: 3, 4; Matt. 12: 2-8; Matt. 4: 10, Jesus necessarily inferred "only" from the quoted text of Deuteronomy 6: 13).

     The Bible is a book, made up of words, ideas, and concepts and must be intelligently approached and treated as any literary work. The Bible also articulates the will and law of God for all men (Heb. 1: 1, 2, Acts 3: 22, 23, Jas. 1: 25). With this in mind please consider the following:

     "To interpret law, we must inquire after the will of the maker, which may be collected either from the words, the context, the subject-matter, the effects and consequences, or spirit and reason of the law. (1) Words are generally to be, understood in their usual and most known significance; not so much regarding the propriety of grammar, as their general and popular use. . . . (2) If words happen still to be dubious, we may establish their meaning from the context, etc; of the same nature and use is the comparison of a law with laws that are made by the same legislator, that have some affinity with the subject, or that expressly relate to the same point" (Blackstone's Commentaries, Vol. 1, pg. 59-61).

     One other matter that is worthy of mentioning at this point is the often ignored "law of silence." Jesus could not have been a priest on earth because he was of the tribe of Judah, according to the inspired writer (Heb. 7: 14). While the Hebrew scriptures did not specify each unaccepted tribe, they did specify the appointed tribe. Hence, Judah was understood as automatically excluded. Judah would be a different tribe. When the Bible tells us by express command or direct statement, approved example, or necessary inference a certain truth, then all matters contrary are excluded. For instance, Jesus said to "baptize" and baptism (Greek baptisma) means immersion (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vines, Vol. 1, pg. 96). Hence, sprinkling and/or pouring are excluded. I mentioned this to also point out how expedients are allowed (means to facilitate the execution of a command), but an expedient does not constitute a different act. A baptistery is an expedient to baptize. However, sprinkling and/or pouring constitute a different action other than immersion or baptism.  (To study more about expedients, click on, "An Exchange on the Bible Class Arrangement.")

     The new hermeneutic. The Lord's church is being inundated with teaching regarding the so called "new hermeneutic." This new hermeneutic is nothing but a stripped down and perverted version of the tried and proved express command, approved example, and necessary inference. The evolutionary stage of the new hermeneutic is presently as follows: many of the advocates have now denied approved examples, and necessary inference and are in the process of rejecting express command, claiming that we have no system of law today and, therefore, thinking in terms of commandments is untenable. As a consequence, the new hermeneutic is simply a rejection of Bible authority and the means of establishing a thus saith the Lord. The new hermeneutic is necessary, though, for the allowance of the introduction of many strange and foreign doctrines contrary to the "doctrine of Christ" concerning which the Christian must believe, protect, and in which he must abide (2 Jn. 9-11).

     In closing, it behooves us to possess authority for all that we religiously believe and practice (Col. 3: 17). To work lawlessness is to be rejected by the Lord (Matt. 7: 21ff., "iniquity," vs. 23, is from the Greek anomia and means lawlessness or without law). If man would honestly and intelligently approach the Bible, there would be appreciably less confusion and divergence of contradictory beliefs. Profession Dungan observed: "Everything must be found to agree. Harmony is one of the first demands of truth. Two truths are never contradictory. It is impossible for contradiction to be found where there is truth in all concerned" (Hermeneutics, pg. 83).  (To learn more about Bible study, click on, "How to Study the Bible", "Have You Not Read This Scripture?" and, "Bible Authority, a Closer Look." Regarding the claim that such material as the above is legalism, please study, "Legalism, What Exactly It It?)  (For your study, I have included an internal link to a brief exchange titled, "An Exchange Regarding the New Hermeneutic," click on to visit.)