October 9th, 2009, 10:50 PM
Hermeneutics - The Art of Interpreting the Bible Correctly
Webster's Dictionary defines revelation as, "an act of revealing or communicating divine truth."31 Revelation simply is something that is revealed by God to man. Revelation is very much and still is abused to this day. Within some Charismatic churches today, there are many that still claim to receive revelation from God to be used as additional God-breathed scripture. It is through the supposed revelation from God that Joseph Smith received the words of what is today the Book of Mormons.
On the positive side, when the disciple John was exiled to the island of Patmos, it was there where he received direct revelation from God about future events that would take place throughout the world. He penned this revelation in the Book of Revelation. Additionally, the Apostle Paul received the gospel not by man but by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12).
The entire scriptures were written by means of inspiration. It was written by man inspired of God. In other words, God put His infallible words in written text. The words themselves are what is inspired, not the writer.
It is important for the interpreter to recognize the Bible as a wholly God-inspired work and not just some mere religious book containing words written by man. If an interpreter does not recognize this fact then he will easily find inconsistencies and find the stories rather strange or extraordinary. As Ramm notes, "The divine inspiration of the Bible is the foundation of historic Protestant hermeneutics and exegesis."
Bible Cultural Background Interpretation
As mentioned earlier, understanding and knowing the cultural backgrounds of the people contained in the books of the Bible is imperative to the interpreter. For example, knowing the Galatian culture might assist the interpreter in better understanding the book of Galatians and their livelihood. He will be able to better understand the issues effecting the Christians of Galatia and Paul's intentions of addressing them in his epistles.
Even more so, the interpreter must take into account the cultural differences between the Galatians of the Bible and that of today's culture. Are some of the issues addressed to the Galatian church irrelevant to us today? How does the interpreter determine what is and is not relevant to our cultural practices and customs today? Zuck further elaborates, "The issue of cultural relevance is an important one because of the two tasks of the interpreter: to determine what the text meant to its immediate readers in that cultural setting, and to determine what the text means to us now in our context."33
The issue of head coverings is an issue that I personally have observed as being a cultural difference. It was about 55 A.D. when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. In this letter, chapter 11, Paul emphatically demands that women are to wear head coverings while prophesying and/or praying. Since a majority of these activities take place in church, I'm sure Paul also intended for women to wear their coverings while attending church or fellowship. How often do we see our Christian sisters wearing hats today in our churches? Not very often. Occasionally, I will see perhaps an elderly woman dawn her beautiful knit hat complete with white, ruffled, feathers and satin bows. But I'm quite sure she was not purposely observing Paul's ordinance of head coverings. Why is this so? Is it because hats were in fashion 1,944 years ago and aren't today? If the interpreter consults his tools of references, he will better understand this issue.
Contrary to our culture today, at the time I Corinthians was written it was customary in the eastern world for those that were in subjection or shame to wear some form of veil or covering 34. This is why Paul addresses this issue to women. The woman was subject to her husband while her husband was subject to Christ. By the woman wearing her head covering she is publicly acknowledging her submission to her husband and thereby honoring him. The man on the other hand is commanded to take off any head covering to give full honor to Christ. Should women therefore wear head coverings today in our churches? No. In today's society quite the opposite is true concerning head covers. Instead, they show authority, importance, or dominion.
We can clearly see the cultural differences of yesterday versus today. This is an important and significant issue that the interpreter must sincerely contend with. He must establish what is and is not relevant to us today. If an issue is not relevant then sometimes the principle is. In which case the interpreter can apply a relevance that pertains to us today and apply it to that very same principle. This cultural understanding is vital in the interpretation process.
Grammatical interpretation is "the process of seeking to determine its [Bible] meaning by ascertaining four things."35 These four things consist of:
a) lexicology - determining the usage and meaning of words.
b) morphology - determining word forms and how they are structured.
c) parts of speech - determining certain functions of words.
d) syntax - determining the relationship of words and how they are used together.
Grammatical interpretation is important in the overall principle of hermeneutics. Understanding the grammatical usage of words, a particular sentence, phrase, or paragraph is imperative so that the interpreter can get a fuller sense of the meaning of which the writer was trying to convey. Since the Bible is a verbally inspired work then we must truly begin to understand every single word, "jot and tittle", so that we can grasp every meaning that can possibly be found throughout the scriptures.
Rhetorical interpretation is the process of determining the literary quality of a writing by analyzing its genre, structure, and figures of speech and how those factors influence the meaning of the text.37 In other words, it is the determining process of understanding the organizational layout and different styles of expression and words contained within a certain passage.
Observation is the first of three steps in this interpretation process. This step asks, "What does it say?" As the interpreter, we are to objectively observe the whole picture of what we are attempting to interpret. Figuratively, we are to act as a detective -- investigating, and examining what the passage is saying. Within this process, the interpreter is to determine the background and setting of all that encompasses the passage, including that of the author himself. Additionally, he is to observe the text itself, determining what is a metaphor, simile, transitional or comparative word, etc. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
- Who are the key figures in the book? Who is Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Cyrus, Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, Peter, John, Luke, etc.?
- What are the key dates? When was the book written? When did the author die? When did King Cyrus reign? When was the temple completed?
- What are the key verses in the book? What are the key words? What statement is the author trying to convey?
- What are the key events taking place? Pentecost? Martyrdom of Stephen? Paul's conversion? The calming of the storm? Christ's resurrection?
- What conclusions can be drawn from this passage? Must we observe Jewish customs and laws while being a Christian? Can we summarize the passage?
- What is the historical setting? When was Ephesus occupied by the Romans? When did Paul setup the church at Antioch?
Additionally, the interpreter will observe any key doctrines, themes, and the author's intention in writing the book. It is within this process that the interpreter would greatly benefit by utilizing Bible tools and references. Dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, concordances, etc. It is important to interpret literally in this process and to allow the Bible to speak for itself. In the Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute's, Hermeneutics course study notes, Dr. Mal Couch points out, "study objectively not subjectively." It is important to not allow any preconceived conclusions to influence this vital step of interpretation. This includes denominational beliefs, personal opinions, spiritualizing or excessive allegorizing of the passage, etc. Lastly, without this first process of observation, the interpreter cannot properly continue to the next step -- interpretation. As Zuck states, "Interpretation should build on observation and then lead into interpretation."
The Audience to Whom the Book is Written
It is imperative in knowing whom the book is written to. This will impact the interpretation of any given passage of the book. In many of Paul's epistles the titles of the books themselves are addressed to a particular people, i.e. Corinthians, Thessalonians, Hebrews, etc. Who were the Corinthians? What were they like? Were they comparable to our society today? These questions must be asked and answered by the interpreter before he is to study the book itself. This is so that he might better understand what issues are applicable to us today and how it may directly or indirectly relate to or effect us.
Determining the Social Environment of an Audience
It is important in knowing the audience you are about to teach and guide through the scriptures. This way the teacher will be able to formulate a concise way of communicating God's Word to them in a way in which they will fully understand and comprehend.
There is clearly a distinct social difference between an audience from The Bronx, New York and that of Beverly Hills, California. Harlem, New York and Newport, Rhode Island. The West End and Plano, Texas. It can be determined by simply observing the audience before you. Mannerisms, dress, race, material possessions, can all be contributing factors in this determination process. Additionally, being aware of the occupational and educational backgrounds of the audience as a whole can be beneficial as well. You'll get a feel as to where to begin your approach. "How much do they already know? Are they culturally biased? Will they be able to relate to this passage?" These are all questions that a Bible teacher can ask himself beforehand in determining the social environment of an audience.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a form of written expression used to vividly illustrate a point by using forms contrary to normal laws of grammar. An example of such can be found in John 4:13-14 when Jesus refers to himself as "living water" with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The "living water" the woman thought of was literal water that would never make her thirst again. The "living water" Jesus was referring to was Himself, the living Word.
Do figures of speech go against literal interpretation? Generally not. In fact, figures of speech can be used to "drive home" (figure-of-speech intended) a literal point or truth. The "living water" is a figure of speech for Christ's offer of eternal life to all who drink of it. This point is a factual, literal, and true statement. All who accept Christ into their lives will have everlasting life. Zuck gives some primary rules in determining what is figurative and what is literal:
a) Always take a passage literally unless there is ample reason not to.
b) If it is impossible for it to be literal, then the figurative sense is intended.
c) If the literal interpretation is an absurdity, then the figurative approach should be used.
d) Take note of a literal statement immediately following a figurative statement.39
Syntax comes from the Greek word syntassein, which means "to place in order together."36 Syntax is the process of determining the relationship between words and how they are used together to form sentences, phrases, etc. The order in which words appear and how they are used relationally can make a significant difference in what it is saying. It is important for the interpreter to determine the correct usage of a sentence or phrase by examining this relationship of words.
Literary genre is a category depicting the various forms or types of literature found throughout the Bible. Some of the primary categories are: Legal/Law - consisting primarily of the Pentateuch, replete with a systematic form of rules, ordinances, etc. Narrative - consisting of a story that entails a crisis, problem, or issue that might occur in an individual(s) life with progressive problems that finally reach a climax. Ultimately, the story will end with some form of a solution or victory. Poetry - books put to song, prose, and lament with the intention to convey an important message. Wisdom Literature - consisting primarily of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes because of the vast amount of wisdom given. Gospels - the form of literature used to describe the life of Christ complete with biography, doctrine, and narrative. This form of literature consists of the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of John. Logical Discourse - these are the epistles that can be found throughout the New Testament. Two kinds of epistles exist: expository and hortatory discourse.38 Prophetic Literature - material that consists of information, revelation, and disclosures pertaining to future events. The Book of Revelation written by John is most notable for this form of literature.
A synecdoche is a phrase used to substitute a part of something for a whole or a whole for a part. The term Gentiles is used quite frequently to represent all that are not Jewish. In yet another example in the Olivet Discourse when Jesus was talking about the end-times and days of tribulation, he spoke of two men in the field, one will be taken and the other left (Matthew 24:40). He was not speaking of their being just two men, he was speaking in generalities of many men that will be taken and many that will be left. This is an example of synecdoche.
A merism is a type of synecdoche that comprises of two opposing parts signifying a whole singular concept. An example of such can be found in Isaiah 11:6: "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat..." Although these exact animals may in fact live amongst one another peacefully someday, the message here is that there will be a universal peace that will transcend the earth when Christ returns to forever reign. A time when all living creatures, great and small, will live peacefully with one another here in the new earth or in the kingdom of God.
A hendiadys is as Zuck states, "the substituting of two coordinate terms (joined by "and") for a single concept in which one of the elements defines the other."40 One example of a hendiadys can be found in I Thessalonians 3:12: "May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else..." Here, "increase and overflow" can be used as "increasingly overflow". May the Lord make your love "increasingly overflow" for each other and for everyone else.
Personification is the attachment of human characteristics or expression to anything that is not a human. One such example can be given in Isaiah 14:8, "Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, 'Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down."
An anthropomorphism is the ascribing of human elements to God. Recently, on a local Christian radio station I was listening to R.C. Sproul. He asked the listening audience to close their eyes and to visualize what God looks like to them. Afterwards, he called upon certain people to describe what they envisioned. Some envisioned God as depicted in Michelangelo's famous painting at The Sistine Chapel in Italy of the old yet muscular man reaching out to Adam. Others envisioned him as a spirit containing human emotions and characteristics. These are all considered to be anthropomorphisms.
An anthropopathism is a type of figure of speech attaching human emotions and expressions to God. Such an example can be found in Nahum 1:2a, "The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath." Jealousy is a component of human emotions, thus an anthropopathism.
A zoomorphism is the ascribing of animal characteristics to God.41 Shortly after the mass exodus from Egypt, the Israelites encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses then went up to the mountain to receive instruction from God. God told Moses what to say to the people. "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." (Exodus 19:4) "eagles' wings" is an animal feature used to describe God's carrying the people out of Egypt.
An apostrophe is a figure of speech describing someone speaking or talking to an object as if it were a person. Additionally, it is the description of someone speaking to an absent or imaginative person. An example of this is when Jesus rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mark 8:33) Satan himself was probably not physically there. The Bible makes no reference to it. Yet Jesus addressed Satan as if he was right there amongst the disciples.
A euphemism is "the substituting of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive or personal one."42 Euphemism comes from the Greek word, euphemismos, which means auspicious or to sound good.43
An ellipsis is a set of words to be added by the reader to better understand what seems to be an incomplete sentence or phrase. In Romans 5:13, it says, "For until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law." (NASB). For until the Law what? The reader simply adds, "was given" to understand this verse more clearly.
A zeugma is a sentence containing two nouns associated with one verb, when only one noun would suffice. An example of a zeugma can be found in Luke 1:64 which reads, "His mouth was opened and his tongue." Here there are clearly two nouns associated with only one verb. As Zuck stated, "The NIV has supplied the words "was loosed" after the word "tongue" in order to render the sentence in good English."44
An aposiopesis is a sudden break in a sentence. This is usually due in part to the character's overwhelming emotions. Such example can be given in I Peter 2:4-5, "As you come to him, the living Stone * rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him * you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." It can be speculated that Peter, the author of this book, was caught up in the emotion at the time he wrote this, thus the sudden breaks in the sentences.
A rhetorical question is a question asked by someone that does not necessarily require an answer. It's primary purpose is to make a certain point and to allow the reader to ponder the thought or reasoning rather than providing an answer. In my own estimation there is perhaps no more profound example of rhetorical questioning as can be found in the Book of Job. Instead of God answering Job's questions, Job is presented with a series of many questions by God, questions that no man could ever answer. Such questions as:
- "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" (Job 38:4)
- "Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?" (Job 38:8)
- "What is the way to the abode of light?" (Job 38:19)
- "Have the gates of death been shown to you?" (Job 38:17)
- "Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?" (Job 38:31)
There are many more that follow. God knew that Job couldn't possibly even begin to answer these questions. God's intention for these rhetorical questions was to simply get Job to recognize his awesome power and sovereignty.
A hyperbole is simply an expression used to emphasize a point by using slight exaggerations. One such example can be found in Matthew 18:21-22. Peter went up to Jesus and asked him how many times shall we forgive a brother when they sin against us. Peter went on and asked, "Up to seven times?" Jesus' response was quite amazing. "Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." Jesus obviously did not mean for us to forgive someone only 77 times and after that, that's it no more forgiveness. He meant that we shouldn't even keep track of how often we should forgive someone. Just as we have been forgiven we too should also continuously forgive others as long as they are truly repentant and seeking our forgiveness.
A litotes is an understatement or a negative connotation to express a positive point or affirmation. When Paul was expressing how God had given him the grace to preach to the Gentiles, he referred to himself as "the least of all God's people" (Ephesians 3:8). Additionally, when expressing how Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners, Paul referred to himself as the "worst of sinners" (I Timothy 1:15). The King James version says he was the "chief" of sinners. Nevertheless, the underlying point is that Christ can save anyone, even Paul, who as he claims, is the worst of all sinners.
Webster's dictionary defines irony as, "the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning."45 When Jesus was explaining to the religious leaders who his Father was, the leaders were responding by saying God was their Father. Jesus then responded with, "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire." (John 8:44) At first glance it sounds as if Jesus was agreeing with them saying, "You belong to your father...", then He equivocally continues by saying, "the devil". He goes on to agree that they do in fact carry out their father's desires.
A pleonasm is a repetition of words or the adding of similar words.46 Perhaps an example of a pleonasm can be given from Psalm 17:6, "I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer." The passage, "Give ear to me and hear my prayer" seems to be a slight repetition of words or expression. Instead, the Psalmist could've said, "give ear to my prayer" and the question would've been the same with less words.
An oxymoron is an expression containing two opposing words to make a point. The word oxymoron comes from two Greek words * oxus ("sharp") and moros ("stupid").47 Paul gave many oxymorons when he was addressing the Corinthians about the importance of not being yoked together with unbelievers. For example:
- "For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?"
- "Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?"
- "What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?"
- "What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?"
These can also be construed as rhetorical questions. However, these questions contain opposing words to enforce the issue more clearly. Another oxymoron can be found when Jesus was speaking of who will be first in the kingdom of God. "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." (Matt. 19:30) Here are two opposite phrases used together in the same sentence, an oxymoron.
A paradox is an expression of terms containing what might seem an absurdity or contrary to normal opinion.48 An example of a paradox can be found in Galatians 2:20. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Obviously, Paul was not literally crucified with Christ on the same day Christ was crucified on the hill at Golgotha. Additionally, the term "crucified" is not synonymous with "life" such as how Paul uses it in this passage. This is considered a paradox.
A paronomasia is better known as a "play on words". These words sometimes contain a two-fold meaning. Webster's defines paronomasia as, "to call with a slight change of name."49 A good example of a paronomasia can be be found in Matthew 4:19, "Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men." Jesus knew Peter and Andrew's trade as fishermen. He knew they could catch fish physically. Instead Jesus chose the words, "fishers of men" so that Jesus could show them how to be productive spiritually. Like bringing fish out of the water so to were Peter and Andrew to bring men out of one element into another.
This is a word by which the sound of the word itself is also the very meaning of it. Such examples are: bang, clang, chirp, buzz, ring, etc. In the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13, Paul uses an onomatopoeia in verse 1. "If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have no love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." The word "gong" is not only a percussion instrument, it is also the sound it makes. Additionally, the word "clanging" is also the very sound a cymbal makes (clang) when struck together. These are all examples of an onomatopoeia.
October 9th, 2009, 10:51 PM
An idiom is an expression used that seems strange or foreign to certain people because the expression itself is unique to another group of people. Culture seems to have a substantial influence on how idioms are used. Zuck gives an example of the differences in the expression, "He has a hard heart," which in English means, he is stubborn, or indifferent to another's needs or desires. However, in the Shipibo language of Peru, the expression means, "he is brave."50 Quite the opposite of our English rendering of the expression.
How does this differ from a typical figure of speech? It differs only because the expression is unique to a certain people group or country. Whereas, a figure of speech is generally acknowledged or better understood universally and is more commonly used.
One example of an idiom used in the Bible can be found in the book of Acts. At Paul's conversion while he was on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him. "He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4) The literal Aramaic rendering of the term, "why do you persecute me?" is, "Why do you continue to kick against the goads?" This term is used later when Paul is giving his defense before King Agrippa. "About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." (Acts 26:13-14) According to Webster's dictionary, a goad is, "a pointed rod used to urge on an animal".51 An oxgoad was a pointed stick commonly used in the Middle East generally to prod cattle. Saul was making a pointless effort in urging the Christians to recant or turn from their faith, ultimately he was only hurting himself. He was "kicking against the goads".
Like figures of speech, an idiom can mistakenly be considered to go against literal interpretations or be considered as mistakes. Idioms should not be thought of as that. Zuck explains, "Idioms should not be thought of as mistakes in the Scriptures; they are ways in which the thought is conveyed in that native language."52 When the interpreter begins to understand the underlying meaning of a particular expression, in this case an idiom, by consulting his Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, he will get a certain idea as to the true meaning of what the writer was originally trying to convey. Without referring to Bible reference books, the interpreter will be ignorant to the meaning of certain idioms and expressions used throughout the Scriptures.
I once read a story about a group of men from Wycliffe Bible Translators who were missionaries/Bible translators living in a remote village of Central Africa. In their attempt in translating the Bible to the local natives they ran across many obstacles of linguistics. One such example was their attempt in trying to translate the expression, "light of the world" found in John 8:12. The local natives had no idea what the expression meant since they themselves knew not what light was. The only light they were familiar with was the light that emitted from small contained fires, just enough to light up a small village. So the interpreters had to provide a translation into their native tongue that best describes a light unto the world. A universal light. This is an example of an idiom. "Light of the world" is an expression used that a specific group of people were simply unfamiliar with. The translators had to come up with an interpretation that the natives could readily understand.
A symbol is a depiction represented by an object or action to give a meaning or purpose. In my own opinion, there is perhaps no more profound and controversial symbol used than that of the Lord's Supper. For centuries past, the symbolism of the Lord's Supper/Communion has been very divisive. It was because of this symbolism, one of the reasons the Protestant church was formed. For many years the Catholic church believed in the literal partaking of Christ's body and blood in what is called, "transubstantiation". They believe that Christ's body is literally transformed into the bread, or wafer. Likewise, his blood is transformed into the wine. The partaker then consumes his flesh and blood and is thus receiving Christ into his or her own body. This is in essence similar to a minor form of cannibalism.
It is apparent to us as Protestants that this is obviously a fallacy. We most certainly believe that partaking of the Lord's Supper is symbolic of Christ's body that was broken and His blood that was shed for us. The bread is symbolic of His broken body, the wine/fruit of the vine is symbolic of His shed blood.
How can we better interpret what is meant to be symbolic versus a literal interpretation? Zuck provides 9 essential principles in determining and interpreting symbols. Briefly, they are:
1. Observe the three elements in symbols (the object, the reference, and meaning).
2. Remember symbols have their base in reality.
3. Determine the meaning or resemblance, if any is assigned to the text.
4. If no meaning is given in the verse, check other references to it within the Scriptures.
5. Be cautious in assigning the correct characteristics to the symbol.
6. Look for major point or resemblance.
7. Realize one referent may be depicted by several objects.
8. Pertaining to prophetic literature, do not assume the whole passage contains symbolism.
9. Do not assume all future things prophetic are symbolic when it is possible to be literal.53
Interpretation is the second of three steps in the process of interpreting the Bible. This step asks, "What does it mean?" As discussed earlier, the interpreter must first perform a thorough and concise observation of the book or passage prior to continuing on with the remaining steps of the interpretation process. Within the process of interpretation, the interpreter is to determine the meaning of the passage or book, and to whom it is addressed to. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
- Who wrote the book? Paul? Moses? Luke? David? Who in fact did write Hebrews?
- What is the overall theme of the book? About God's grace? God's love? The establishment of the Law? Paul's missionary journey's?
- Who is the third person? Me? God? Jesus? Who is the "I" referring to? Daniel? When Christ said, "God so loved the world." Who is the world? Only those that believe?
- Can certain passages be generalized? Or must it be specified? Is it literal? Is it symbolic? The Beast of Revelation. Is it an actual man, or is it a system?
- Does the passage only refer to that particular generation? Or does it similarly refer to our generation of today?
- What does the passage mean? When Jesus said, "I am the vine." What is the vine referring to? What does the term, "last days" mean? Was it at the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.? Or is it yet future?
As can be clearly seen, it is obvious that the interpreter will have to again consult his or her Bible references and tools during this process. Additionally, a lot of cross-referencing will be made as well. For example, in comparing similar passages that can be found throughout the synoptic gospels. How does Luke describe the account of Jesus' miracle of calming the storm versus Matthew's account? Or, what is the difference between the Holy Spirit of the Old Testament such as in Psalm 51:11 and that of the New Testament at the day of Pentecost, it's first arrival after Christ's ascension? These are but a few of the many questions that can be asked within this vital step of interpretation. It is worth noting that this crucial step of the interpretation process, "is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming of these three steps."10 If ever there were a step that should not be avoided, ignored, or even misused, it is this one. After confidently analyzing and interpreting the applicable book or passage, the next step of the interpretation process is application.
Webster's dictionary defines allegory as, "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence." Or, "a symbolic representation."16 Zuck summarizes allegory as, "a narrative or word picture which may or may not be true-to-life, with many parts pointing symbolically to spiritual realities."17 Both of these definitions accurately describe allegory. There is a correct place for allegory to be interpreted in the Bible just as there is not. For example, many times Christians have suggested that the nation of Israel of the Old Testament is symbolically representative of the Church. Or, the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple is symbolic of the inner recesses of man's mind and heart. These both have been mistakenly interpreted as an allegory. A correct example of allegory is shown in Psalm 80:8-11: "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea (probably the Mediterranean), its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates or Jordan)."
The "vine" in verse 8 is undoubtedly the nation of Israel and refers to it's exodus led by Moses in 1446 B.C. "You drove out the nations and planted it." This is referring to Israel's many victorious battles against the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, and their geographical establishment as a nation. Verses 9-10 describes Israel's expansion throughout the newly conquered land. In verse 11, it says, "It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River." This is referring to the nation of Israel's outermost reaches and boundaries. These are just a few examples of correct and incorrect allegorical interpretation.
What is a parable?
A parable is simply a fictitious story that illustrates a religious principle or truth. The word finds it's root in the Greek word parabole which refers to short statements and proverbs also called similitudes. There are many parables found throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famous are those told by Christ to His disciples. However, these particular forms of parables are not found in John's gospel, they are found extensively in the Synoptics.54
The Parabolic Teachings of Jesus
The question is asked, "Why did Jesus teach in parables?" Jesus used parables primarily for two purposes. Zuck states, "One was to reveal truths to his followers and the other was to conceal truth from "those on the outside" (Mark 4:11)."55 However, these two purposes seem to contradict one another. But as you will see, there were legitimate reasons behind these purposes.
Jesus wanted to truly impart his truths and teachings to his disciples unhindered. He desired for them to learn and grow from these most profound illustrations. Jesus knew that these parables would be forever written on the hearts of men and women and would make disciples of of people for centuries to come. He employed the use of parables to enlighten, exhort, and edify the believers. On the other hand, He also knew that the ones who were plotting to kill Him, and setting out to destroy Him, such as the religious leaders, i.e. Pharisees, Saducees, etc. would be unable to understand or comprehend the true underlying spiritual meaning of his parables. They were simply blinded by the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief. To the unbeliever, on the surface these parables seemed like mere stories containing good moral principles. However, they contained much more than that, they were "meat" for spiritual growth and stories to help illustrate godly principles for living.
Jesus also knew the effectiveness of using parables. Generally, He used stories containing elements that the average person could relate to. I personally have made an observation that a majority of the parables contain some form of element relating to agriculture or farming. Such examples as the parable of: Sheep and Wolves (Matt. 7:15), The Soils (Mark 4:4-8), The Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19), The Workers in the Harvest (Matt. 20:1-6), The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), just to name a few. Unlike today, this was a common way of life for most people living at that time. Because of this, Jesus was able to maintain their attention and focus and effectively communicate to them the underlying spiritual implications of these stories.
Additionally, these parables moved the listener to think. It required much thought and effort to understand and decipher the meaning of the parable. It stimulated the mind and aroused their curiosity. It moved them to enact and apply the message to their own lives.
Jesus was obviously well acquainted with the purpose and effectiveness in using parables. Parables were commonly used in the era in which Christ lived. Even more so in the Middle East. He knew what the results would be in using His parabolic teachings. It would cause growth for some, yet blind others, his enemies.
Last and foremost is the application process. This step is the final of three steps in interpreting the Bible. This step asks, "How does it apply to me?" Without this step, the reader will not properly understand how the passage pertains to his or her life. Perhaps the most important aspect of this step is in determining who the passage is both directly and indirectly addressed to. Additionally, it must be determined if the passage can be applied directly to all, at any time, or not. These determining factors can be better labeled as: Direct, Indirect, and Generic.11 Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
- To whom is the passage addressed to? Timothy? Titus? The church at Colosse?
- What is the passage about? Church government? Marriage? How to approach a brother who might be in error? Spiritual gifts?
- Who is the passage directly applied to? Me? Timothy? Anyone?
- How would it be indirectly applied? Written directly to Timothy, but indirectly to pastors? Spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 applied directly to the church at Ephesus but could it be indirectly applied to any of us today?
- How can I determine if it is a generic application? What key words are observed in determining this? For example, all, you, I, the church at Philippi.
Using Galatians 3:26-27 as an example. "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." We must determine to whom Paul has directly and indirectly applied this passage to. Clearly, the passage was directly written to the church in Galatia. By using the interpretation process, the student will have seen that in Roman society, a youth coming of age laid aside the robe of childhood and would put on a new toga.
This represented his passage into adulthood with full rights and responsibilities. Paul combined this cultural understanding with the concept of baptism. After being baptized, the Galatian church were becoming spiritually grown up and ready to take on the privileges and responsibilities that came along with being more spiritually mature.12 Indirectly, this passage can be applied to all of us today. Some of the key words can be observed, "...all of you who were baptized into Christ". All of us who have been baptized must recognize we too have now put on new robes and have clothed ourselves with Christ, ready to take on anything the Lord might give us. After all, we have had the honor and blessing of being called, "sons of God".
It should never be taken for granted that today, there is easy access to the Scriptures. About the time of the reformation William Tyndale literally translated the Bible into English whilst on the run and being pursued by those trying to take his life for doing so. Thomas Cranmer was burnt alive for his defense of the same and today people attempt to edit sections of the Holy Bible that they are uncomfortable with or that they perceive to not be authentic.
In this day and age liberals and higher critics literally meet together in an attempt to determine the meaning of scripture and which portions should be interpreted literally, which parts should be removed and which segments were supposedly written at a later date.
The date of the writing of the book of Daniel was questioned for the above reason as it provides such an accurate depiction of the Empires that succeeded the Babylonian one. Interestingly, a visit to the British Museum contains historical items relating to the book of Daniel which supports the orthodox Biblical record.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
The best commentary on Holy Scripture is Scripture itself, which helps Bible students to understand its meaning. For example, a detailed analysis of the gospel of John and the epistles of John will reveal that the epistles of John are basically a commentary on John's gospel.
Also, a verse or even a passage should not be read in isolation to form an opinion but it should be understood in the context of the whole passage, book or even better the whole Bible. Many people can derive independent theologies from using a particular verse out of context to suit their own agenda instead of interpreting the verse in light of the rest of Scripture.
Literal Versus Allegory
In their favor, allegorical commentators note that if a hyper literal approach is granted the meaning can be nonsensical.
Bible passages should be read literally in their common sense plain meaning unless it is obvious that it relates to a symbolic truth. For example, it is apparent that Jesus isn't a literal lion or a lamb but two of His titles are 'Lamb of God' and the 'Lion of Judah' as they are descriptive of His character and can be understood more easily if read in context.
Since the creation story provides a systematic non-allegorical description of the Garden of Eden, surely it should be understood that way. Each day of creation is treated literally, morning passed and evening came. Adam is listed in a literal chronological framework in Genesis 5:1 Chronicles 1, Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The Tree of Life in Genesis concurs with the Tree of Life in Revelation Chapter 22.
If allegorical or symbolic explanations are given for the creation story or the flood, interpreting the Bible can degenerate into guesswork. The rest of the Bible consistently treats these as literal historic events.
Due to the historical, cultural and linguistic difficulties, certain parts of the Bible can be difficult to comprehend. Currently though, numerous commentaries, Bible Dictionaries and lexicons are available to assist in this process. In addition, did not James say though "if any of you lack wisdom, let Him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." (James 1:5)
SIX PRACTICAL RULES
These rules will enable you to arrive at a critically sound interpretation. Some of these rules are the outgrowth of a high view of scripture. In other words, the entire Bible is the product of one author (God) at the same time that it is product of many authors. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to seek to find a consistent message throughout the Bible.
* Interpret in light of the context of the passage. Follow the thought development in the book you are reading, and make sure your interpretation flows along with the general direction of argument. Sudden changes in subject are unusual. If you have the thought development of a book centering on one subject, suddenly switching to another, and then back to the first, your interpretation is almost certainly wrong.
Consider the larger context as well: which Testament? which author? what time period? Never view a passage in isolation from its surroundings. The context should be considered the most important kind of evidence in the interpretation of a passage. Usually context supplies all we need to know. We should turn to other explanations only when we can find no critically feasible interpretation based on the English text in context. Anyone who claims to see a break in context bears the full burden of proof.
o - Mt. 16:28 - Referring to the transfiguration (in context of passage)
o - I Cor. 14:34 - Means to disrupt (see I Cor. 11:5 - context of book and passage)
o - I Cor. 3:17 (thought development of the passage limits interpretation)
* Interpret in light of progressive revelation(Heb. 1:1,2). While God's purpose for man has never changed, His strategy in accomplishing that purpose has changed. He has dealt with man under different "covenants," or programs. Therefore, it is important to ask "Under which program was this written?."
Primary application of the passage will be to the people operating under that program, but not necessarily to others. There may be secondary applications for other programs based on principles which have universal application. Note special problems here in connection with the ministry of Christ before the cross.
o - Polygamy was permitted in the Old Testament, but taught against in the New Testament (I Tim. 3:2)
o - Theocracy was commanded in Old Testament, but secular government is affirmed in the New Testament. (Rom. 13:1-7; Mt. 22:21; IIChron. 7:14)
o - Animal sacrifices, dietary laws, Sabbaths, holy days, festivals, priests and liturgy have all been fulfilled in Christ and are thus obsolete (Col. 2:16,17; Heb. 8).
o - Mal. 3:7-12 - in context of the testament (see Num. 18:21-24; Deut. 14:22-29)
* Interpret scripture in harmony with other scripture Since the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contradict itself. Therefore, never interpret scripture in such a way that it clearly contradicts other scriptures. First discover the allowable range of meaning for a passage, then choose the interpretation that doesn't contradict other scriptures.
o - Acts 2:38 could either be referring to baptismal regeneration, or simply adding baptism as a desirable adjunct to the minimum requirement for salvation (i.e. faith).
o - Jas. 2:14-26 "justify" can also mean "justify before men."
* Interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Scripture teaches every major, essential truth clearly and many times. Never build a doctrine on an unclear passage.
o - Lk. 16:9 is used by Roman Catholics to support indulgences.
o - I Cor. 15:29 mentions an obscure, unknown practice used in Corinth. Today the Mormon church uses this passage to elevate dead ancestors to a higher status in the afterlife.
o - I John 5:16 The sin unto death is never defined. Don't base a doctrine of falling away on such a passage.
* Interpret the "spirit" of the passage, not necessarily the "letter", or the literalistic meaning, especially when the text is a literary genre prone to figures of speech or colorful statements.
o - Proverbs 22:6 The book of Proverbs contains many general maxims, but not all are absolute promises. Not every child will go right, but most will.
o - Proverbs 15:1 Not every gentle word will turn away wrath, but in most cases it will.
o - I Cor. 11:1-18 - In some New Testament passages interpretation by the "letter" contradicts the "spirit" of the passage (c.f. I Cor. 10:32,33).
* Interpret with dependence upon the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to teach you. Mark T or F.
o - Proverbs 3:5 "Lean not unto your own understanding" means we should avoid approaching the Bible on a primarily analytical level.
o - Since the Bible is "living and active", the interpretation of a passage may be different for different people.
o - Unless we approach God's word with a deep reverence for God and a passion to know His will for our lives, we may often get the wrong interpretation.
o - If the rules of interpretation give one answer and the Holy Spirit shows another, we should choose the latter.
o - We should pray before studying that God will enable us to understand the passage.
October 9th, 2009, 10:51 PM
Problems with Allegorical Interpretations of Prophecy
Philip B. Brown ( www.newwine.org )
The first and most important question that must be asked when interpreting Bible prophecy is, “What are your rules of interpretation?” “What are your hermeneutics?” Is your objective to determine what the author was meaning to say? There is no question that authors of Scripture would sometimes use symbolism. John the Baptist called Christ the “Lamb of God.” John was not saying that Christ is literally an animal. Jesus spoke in parables, and it was clear that he was doing so. But what if the natural reading of an author’s words reads like it could easily be literal? What if, given the culture and time of the author, it would be hard to believe that the author was saying anything other than it’s “historical and grammatical” interpretation? Do we have the license to say that the author’s words are “figurative,” and do not say what the author himself would have understood?
Consider the words of Zechariah 14. Verse one begins with a statement of victory in battle:
(NIV Zechariah 1:1) A day of the LORD is coming when your plunder will be divided among you.
Then we have a description of Jerusalem being attacked by “all nations.” The women are being raped. Jerusalem is falling. Yet, at the last moment, the feet of God stand on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4), and there is victory. Zechariah goes on to describe this victory. In verses 12-15, we read of the panic that the Lord strikes into the invading armies. We read of their eyes rotting in their sockets and their tongues rotting in their mouths. And we read of all the wealth that is collected from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem.
Yet, this passage is often attributed to 70 AD, when Jerusalem was surrounded by Rome, and Jerusalem was destroyed. There was no military victory for Jerusalem. There was only defeat. There was no gathering of plunder from the nations that attacked Jerusalem. So how can anyone reasonably apply Zechariah 14 to 70 AD? It’s done by the use of allegorical interpretation.
Did Zechariah himself believe this battle would end in defeat or in victory? There is no question that Zechariah himself was doing his best to describe a victory for Jerusalem. But allegorical interpretation is used to reverse this victory and basically say that Zechariah’s was using “figurative language,” and that the actual fulfillment was the opposite of what he literally was saying.
Using allegorical interpretation, how do they deal with this victory? They would simply say this gathering of plunder is representative of the victories the church would have during the centuries that followed 70 AD. By calling upon allegorical interpretation and “figurative language,” there is always some way to make the words say what you want them to say. But anyone who is truly honest in wanting to know what Zachariah himself would have understood, would never apply this prophecy to 70 AD.
So why do otherwise conservative Bible scholars reverse the meaning of Scripture like this? It’s because they have problems fitting this apparently literal prophecy with the book of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews teaches that Christ was the one sacrifice, and that animal sacrifice is no longer needed nor wanted by God. Everything that the book of Hebrews says, as understood by that author, is true. And the literal interpretation of Zechariah 14 is that all the nations will be forced to worship at the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 16-19) after Christ returns. That Old Testament feast included animal sacrifice. It was a part of the old covenant. But is this reason to effectively reverse the intended meaning of Zechariah, as he understood it? Such apparent contradiction is not a reason to reverse the interpretation of Scripture. Such apparent contradiction is only a sign that we should reexamine our understanding of what all authors of Scripture meant to say. Harmony can be found in Scripture without, in effect, changing the meaning of Scripture.
The History of Allegorical Interpretation
It may be helpful to examine some of the history of allegorical interpretation. Until the time of Constantine, Alexandria was second only to Rome in the Roman Empire. Alexandria was named after Alexander the Great, and it was known for it’s great library, and for all it’s high learning, philosophy, and Greek culture. The allegorical interpretation of Bible Scripture dates back to Alexandria.
Philo (15 BC – 50 AD) was Jewish (not Christian) and lived in Alexandria, along with many other Jews. Philo learned about allegorical interpretation from the Greeks, who did this in order to make their ancient Greek myths be more relevant to their everyday lives. Philo wanted to prove, through allegorical interpretation, that Jewish culture was not inferior to Greek culture. So Philo interpreted Moses as a philosopher who was the source of all later philosophy. Allegorical interpretation made the ancient Greek myths seem important to their culture. Philo wanted to find this same deep level of interpretation in the writings of Moses. Scripture started to have meaning well beyond the simple historical accounts of Moses.
Salvation is a free gift. But inheriting the kingdom requires lots of work. Solving the friction between grace and holiness verses. Solved by applying ancient Jewish eschatology.
The millennium as a free-grace alternative to Purgatory.
Would a loving God have a merciful plan for our loved ones Who have died having never heard or understood about Jesus Christ? Solved by applying ancient Jewish eschatology to the Church.
Around A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) followed Philo's lead. He taught that God gave the Law to the Jews and that God gave philosophy to the Greeks. Both were for the purpose of leading people to Christ. God’s Word (Logos) was the source of both. This fit right in with the Doctrine of Logos, which was a Greek doctrine. The Logos is that which accounts for the design in the Creation. In this Greek doctrine, the Logos is the source of all knowledge, especially about religion. John was probably influenced with this Greek doctrine when he wrote John 1:1.
Clement taught that the Logos was Jesus before becoming a man, and that the Logos is the Son of God. The Holy Spirit attracts men to Christ when they seek true knowledge. Such knowledge was the true gnosis. This is not to be confused with the false gnosis of the heretics, which claimed secret knowledge, and did not stay with the knowledge given by the Scriptures. The Doctrine of Logos gave Clement a tool to unite Christianity with Greek philosophy. Clement believed that the truth in Scripture is often hidden, and could only be found by the use of allegorical interpretation. But this was the deeper meaning (gnosis). Clement did not deny the literal, historical meaning of what the authors of Scripture had said. But the emphasis was on allegorical interpretation to find "spiritual" knowledge (gnosis).
(NIV John 1:1-5) In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
When the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus came, Clement left Alexandria. A young boy, Origen (185-254), wanted to join his father and be martyred during these persecutions. But his mother hid his clothes so that he would have had to go out naked. Thus he did not join the martyrs. After Clement left Alexandria, his work was given to the young scholar, who for the next thirty years ran the school at Alexandria.
Origen was one of the most influential men of the early church. He developed Philo and Clement’s methods of allegorical interpretation. He believed there are three levels of allegorical interpretation, which corresponded to three aspects of man. These were the literal, moral, and spiritual meanings and corresponded to the body, soul, and spirit of a man. The body was the least important, and the spirit was the most important. If an author of Scripture, such as Moses, was writing about a literal historical event, then the literal event is least important, just as the body is least important. The soul (psyche) and the spirit (pneuma) are two different things in the Greek. The moral meaning of a Scripture corresponded to the soul (psyche) of a man. The spiritual meaning of a Scripture corresponded to the spirit (pneuma) of man. And these meanings could only be discovered by the use of allegorical interpretation. Even the historical Jesus was less important than as the Logos of Christ available for believers in the church and in the sacraments.
Some Old Testament Scripture is obviously shadows of Jesus. Origen found shadows of Jesus all through the Old Testament, not just in the more obvious Messianic prophecies. New Testament text symbolized the sanctification of the soul, or the church, and showed the progress in our journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. While others devalued the Old Testament as being Jewish, Origen held it to be the inspired world of God. But the valued truth within was not about the Jews and ancient Israel. It was spiritual knowledge. This helped the church in wanting to keep the Old Testament as Scripture, because the followers of Marcion wanted to reject it. So without allegorical interpretation, the early church might have rejected the Old Testament entirely as being God's word. Rather than defending each story, Origen could just say they had not read deeply enough to see the true meaning (knowledge).
Crossing the Line Into Error
The problem, here, is that the early church had doubts about the Old Testament being God’s Word (Logos), without error. They didn’t like what was being said. So instead of changing their views to conform to God’s Word, they used allegorical interpretation to alter the literal meaning that was intended by the authors.
There is nothing wrong with allegorical interpretation in and of itself. Paul used allegorical interpretation in Gal. 4:21-31. Similar to allegory is typology, which is to use an early story or character as a “type” that shadows a later person. The writer of Hebrews uses typology in his discussion of Melchizedek. He brings out a lot of meaning that is not evident in the original account beginning with Genesis 14:18. But apparently the author of Hebrews found this meaning.
Matthew uses allegorical interpretation in Matt. 2:14-15 when he quotes, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” from Hosea 11:1. Hosea was clearly talking about the nation of Israel being called out of Egypt, which was an historical event, not a future prophecy. But the Messiah comes from Israel, and you can argue that Christ’s name is Israel. Therefore this is an allegorical interpretation. There is nothing wrong with allegorical interpretation in and of itself.
I also think there is truth and value to the idea that Jesus is the Logos. I don’t doubt that John used the Greek Doctrine of Logos in making his point. And I do believe that God’s Word has deeper meaning (gnosis) that can be discovered with allegorical interpretation. I think Clement may have been right about the three levels of allegorical interpretation. And I have no doubt that Origen was right about the Old Testament being full of shadows of Christ.
I think it may be possible to find shadows of Christ in every Old Testament story. The Scripture is the Logos, and Christ is everywhere in the Logos. But when these methods of allegorical interpretation in any way take away from, or deny, the literal meaning that was intended by the author, then we have crossed the line into error.
The Nature of Scriptural Inerrancy
Let’s go back and think about why we believe that Scripture is God’s Word. 2nd Tim. 3:16 says that all Scripture is God-breathed. Each book of Scripture has the writing style and personality of the author. Some authors were better educated than others, and the writing reflects it. There is even embarrassing grammatical errors in Scripture. So men wrote Scripture. And yet the Holy Spirit revealed the doctrines and truths they wrote. The Holy Spirit prevented them from making doctrinal errors. And each author understood those doctrines. He had to understand them in order to write them down.
(NIV 2nd Timothy 3:16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
At the same time, I believe the God is powerful enough for Scripture to have deeper meanings that we can find of which the authors themselves were not aware. Hosea may not have been specifically thinking about the coming Messiah when he wrote, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Yet the fact that Israel was called out of Egypt, and yet remained sinful, was something that Hosea clearly understood.
The Holy Spirit gave Hosea this truth and he wrote it down with his words. But later Matthew was lead by the Holy Spirit to use these words in a little different way (Matt. 2:14-15). This in no way denies the truth that Hosea understood. We cannot use allegorical interpretation to deny the truth as understood by the authors of Scripture, because the Holy Spirit gave them this understanding.
So Hebrews and Zechariah 14 are in harmony. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of both, and the authors of both understood what they wrote.
Philip B. Brown
October 9th, 2009, 10:52 PM
The Next Heresy
At critical times in church history, God has assembled His people to identify and repudiate the devil's latest doctrinal innovations. Acts 15 reports the first defining moment of this kind, when the church separated itself from Judaizers. There were many other defining moments during the early centuries of the church and again during the Reformation. The last, I believe, was almost a hundred years ago, when a wide range of Christian leaders contributed articles to the volumes known as The Fundamentals, which gave fundamentalism its name (1).
These volumes affirmed true Christianity in distinction from the liberal and modernist counterfeit. Another minor defining moment occurred about thirty years ago when, partly through the influence of Harold Lindsell, many evangelical bodies declared inerrancy to be essential (2). (Fundamentalists were spared this moment because they had never admitted deniers of inerrancy to their ranks.)
We seem to be on the threshold of another defining moment. This time, the issue will be hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is that branch of Biblical studies which some of its practitioners style "the science of interpretation." Its pretense to be science has won it an undue measure of influence in the church, and this influence has not been helpful.
Wherever the church is firmly committed to inerrancy, the devil has been using the latest fashions in hermeneutics to lure people into positions I can only describe as forms of intellectual schizophrenia—positions which say in essence that the Bible is true because we must believe it is true, but true only because it does not mean what it says. With respect to a wide range of issues, this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of hermeneutics has found ways of manipulating Scripture to suit contemporary thought.
* It treats much of the Bible as worthless for doctrine.
* It reformulates Old Testament prophecies so that they do not appear to make verifiable predictions of events in the distant future.
* It makes Genesis fit the modern ideas that the species of life appeared gradually over a long period of time, and that any flood must have been local in extent.
* It casts aside any moral teaching of the Bible that offends modern sensibilities.
* It limits the daily relevance of Scripture to a believer's needs by denying that a text can have any meanings or applications beyond the supposed immediate intent of the human author.
The following are some of the hermeneutical rules that have long been recognized as valid and necessary. Each demands that the interpretation of a text agree with an objective determinant of meaning.
Authorial intent. No reader has the right to impose his own ideas on the text. The only true meaning is what the author himself intended. This rule was first devised to combat allegorizing and other fanciful modes of interpretation which obscured rather than elucidated the sense of Scripture.
The single sense. The basic meaning of a passage is the single sense evident to any reader who allows the words their ordinary meanings and who expects the grammar and syntax to shape and combine these meanings in a normal fashion. We need not await a mystical revelation of a truer sense dependent on allusions hidden to ordinary readers, the numerical values of letters, esoteric definitions, or other mumbo jumbo. No spiritual application, typological analysis, or theology derived from the text is legitimate unless it is faithful to this single sense. In other words, no larger meaning may be construed which distorts what the words actually say.
This rule was first devised to combat medieval systems of interpretation which, upon dissection of a text, often found meanings that were alien to the natural meaning. The same rule remains valuable today as a check against any effort to treat Scripture as an occult writing. Yet the rule should not be applied indiscriminately, without recognition that Biblical writers may sometimes propound a riddle or engage in word play. In either instance the words may bear more than one basic meaning.
Context. The context of a passage may supply clues to the correct interpretation. Such clues may even clarify a passage that otherwise would be obscure. Many heretical doctrines violate this rule. For example, the Catholic teaching that Peter was the first pope appeals to Matthew 16:18. But in context, the rock is not Peter, but Christ.
The teaching of Scripture elsewhere. With regard to many passages that would be otherwise be obscure, Scripture illuminates itself. In general, the New Testament explains the Old. Without the New, we could not be confident that the Old contains types and allegories, and we would scarcely know how to interpret them.
A type is a person or event that pictures a person or event in the future. The New Testament informs us that Melchizedek is a type of Christ (Heb. 6:20-7:3). That Joshua the high priest is a symbol of the Branch—that is, Christ—is made plain even in the Old Testament (Zech. 3:8; “wondered at” can be translated “of symbol”), but only from the perspective of the New Testament do we understand the significance of his name, Joshua (that is, Jesus). The New Testament teaches that the rites of Mosaic religion furnish types of Christ's redemptive work (Heb. 9:8-9).
A factual account in which each element represents something beyond itself is a common species of allegory. Israel's escape from Egypt is an allegory of Christian experience (1 Cor. 10:1-6), and the struggle within Abraham's family between Hagar and Sarah is an allegory of the conflict between law and grace (Gal. 4:21-31).
Another type of allegory hides spiritual truth in a plain statement about something else. Paul encourages us to see allegories in minor provisions of the Mosaic law (1 Cor. 9:9-10).
The literal sense. The Bible is to be taken literally unless it is using symbols or a figure of speech.
A figure of speech is an expression implying an idea other than what is actually stated. The most common kind of figure in Scripture is the metaphor, backbone of Hebrew poetry. No less than six metaphors occur in a single verse (Psa, 18:2). A metaphor speaks of an equivalence when there is no more than a resemblance. God is not a high tower; He merely in some ways resembles one.
Probably the clearest example of symbolism in Scripture is the mysterious drama in Revelation 12:1-6. Another clear example is the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23).
Fallacy: The possible sense of a passage is limited by the knowledge and capacity of the human author. An important corollary follows from restricting the sense to the author's own conceptions. According to Henry Krabbendam, "The recognition of the historical unfolding process ensures that the meaning of any biblical text will be established in the light of previous Scripture" .
That he means "previous Scripture alone" is implied by his later assertion that "the meaning of the biblical text is determined by that text as addressed to and understood by its original audience".
According to Walter Kaiser, "The reader will notice that we have deliberately avoided all references to using later texts, such as the NT in order to interpret the OT . . . . We reject the all-too-prevalent practice of using the NT fulfillment as an 'open sesame' for OT predictions".
Reply: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16). Although each text is stamped by the personality and style of the human author, the meaning transcends his finite limitations, for he is merely God's mouthpiece. God is the author we need to consider when we apply the rule of authorial intent. God was able to lead the human author to write about doctrine beyond his understanding and about future events beyond his historical imagination. One outstanding example is Isaiah's ability to name Cyrus as the deliverer of Israel (Isa. 44:28; 45:1).
It is true that a text generally conveys truth in language understandable to the original readers, familiar only with prior revelation. Yet a text may also convey truth intelligible only in the light of later revelation. It has always seemed obvious to believers that the New Testament offers itself as the interpreter of the Old. Without the New Testament, what sense could anyone make of Moses' lifting up the pole in the wilderness or of numerous other pictures of Christ and His redemptive work?
Fallacy: The literal meaning of the text is the only meaning. In other words, the single sense permitted by the ordinary meanings of words must always be understood literally.
Reply: While no hermeneutical scholar would purge all larger meanings from the Bible (for example, it is obvious from the context that the beasts in Dan. 7:1-8 signify something beyond themselves), students too often come away from rudimentary instruction in hermeneutics with the idea that no text has any significance beyond the literal meaning. Writers on hermeneutics do little to dispel this confusion. Indeed, they augment this confusion in two ways:
A. They are in the habit of inveighing against multiple meanings. Often quoted are the following words attributed to that giant among the Puritans, John Owen, "If the Scripture has more than one meaning, it has no meaning at all." But anyone misled by this quotation to think that Owen was on the side of modern hermeneutics should look at his introduction to James Durham's commentary on the Song of Solomon. Like Durham, Owen regards the Song as an allegory depicting the love between Christ and His Church.
"The more general persuasion of learned men is, that the whole is one holy declaration of that mystically spiritual communion, that is between the great Bridegroom and his Spouse, the Lord Christ and his church . . . ; so the safe rules of attending to the true meaning of the original words, the context of the discourse, the nature of the allegorical expressions . . . , the analogy of faith, by collation with other scriptures, and the experience of believers in common, will through the supply and assistance of the Spirit . . . lead humble and believing enquirers, into such acquaintance with the mind of God, in the several particulars of it, as may tend to their own, and others', edification".
B. Some writers mask their acceptance of multiple meanings by treating any larger meaning found in the text as a component of the single sense. Kaiser's handling of prophecy furnishes an example of this procedure: "God gave the prophets . . . a vision . . . of the future in which the recipient saw as intimate parts of one meaning the word for his own historical day with its needs . . . and that word for the future".
Yet the meaning of any abstract idea is componential. Also, any set of meanings can be synthesized into a new meaning. Therefore, the question as to the number of meanings in any expression of language is ultimately, pardon the expression, meaningless.
There are as many meanings as we wish, depending on how finely we divide them or how completely we join them. This plasticity in the number of meanings wherever we look is responsible for the two main tendencies of philosophy—monism (the belief that all reality is essentially one thing) and positivism (the belief that we can have certain knowledge of nothing save fragmentary sense data). Either brand of philosophy is false, of course, because meaning is not the same as reality. I can think of two trees as of one kind, but still there are in reality two trees. I can think of one tree in terms of its many constituent parts, but still there is in reality only one tree.
A student indoctrinated in the idea that Scripture has only a single sense is likely to be prejudiced against the discovery of larger meanings. These are often seen as reading too much into the text. But the same God who wrote the Bible also packed many of the key numerical concepts of mathematics into the small equation e^i(pi) = -1 and all the design specifications of the human body into a single molecule of DNA.
Fallacy: Hermeneutics is a science. Elliott E. Johnson says, "Hermeneutics is frequently defined as the science of textual interpretation of the Bible" . "This science is called 'hermeneutics,'" according to Krabbendam (10). Bernard Ramm offers a more modest definition. "Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation" .
Reply: No accepted definition of science can be stretched so far as to cover any form of Bible study. Interpreting the Bible according to a set of rules is less similar to science than to baking a cake with the help of a recipe or to filling out an income tax form.
The motive behind the claim that hermeneutics is a science is probably twofold: to steal a little luster from true science, and to bolster the pretense that the results of hermeneutics are as assured as the results of true science.
Yet no man-made system of Biblical interpretation can guarantee access to the mind of God. If it could, then any unregenerate reader would be able to understand Scripture as well as any believer. But Scripture must be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:10-16). Enthusiasts for hermeneutics nevertheless claim, "It must be conceded that an ignorant Christian is no match for a learned unbeliever"
The best way to rebut this view is to consider specific doctrines. How many well-tutored but unbelieving Bible students can find the Trinity in the Bible? For that matter, how many can find the full deity of Christ or the Millennium?
Having masqueraded as science, modern hermeneutics uses its stolen prestige for no good. It undermines the basis of important Bible doctrines, mutes the supernatural in Bible prophecy, attacks the accuracy of Bible history, revises Bible ethics, and tightly fetters the application of practical Bible teaching.
I. The Allegorical Method
* History - This method was used by many 2nd & 3rd century church fathers. It was established as the preferred method of interpretation by Augustine and was dominant in Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. It is also used by amillenialists in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy.
* Definition - The literal meaning of the text is either, not the true meaning, or only one of many meanings. The elements of each passage have a corresponding spiritual reality which is the "real" or ultimate meaning of the passage.
o Origen interpreted Noah's Ark to have 3 meanings (literal, moral, and spiritual) to correspond to man's body, soul and spirit: salvation from the Flood, salvation of the believer from a specific sin and salvation of the church through Christ.
o Popes used this method to uphold papal supremacy. Innocent III taught that the two great lights in Gen. 1 refer to the order of authority on earth. Thus, the sun symbolized spiritual authority (i.e., the pope) and the moon symbolized civil authority (the emperor). Boniface VIII referring to Luke 22:38, taught that the two swords held by the disciples meant that the apostles were authoritative in both the secular and spiritual kingdoms.
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o Since there is no objective standard to which the interpreter must bow, the final authority ceases to be the scripture and becomes the interpreter. Whose allegorical symbols are right? This question leads to the establishment of a church hierarchical authority which effectively replaces Scripture as the true locus of authority.
o Allegorical interpretation is only rarely seen in scripture (Gal. 4:21-31; I Cor. 10:1-4). Parables are usually not allegories. When would allegorical interpretation be allowable?
o An even more extreme example of this kind of over-interpretation is numerology. In numerology, numbers in the Bible (whether actual numbers, or the number of letters in names and passages) are seen to hold secret symbolic messages. There is no warrant in the Bible for this kind of interpretation. It should be avoided at all times.
o Interpreters distinguish between types and allegories. Types are restricted in several ways that allegories are not. See "Elements of Biblical Typology" by the present authors for a description of types.
II. The Literalistic Method
* History - This method was used by the Jews after the Babylonian Exile. It is also used by extreme fundamentalists and many cults (Children of God, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.).
* Definition - Every word is taken absolutely literally including figures of speech and symbolism. Historical background is considered unnecessary and ignored. Any deviation from this rule is regarded as sacrilegious.
o Mormonism teaches that God has a body because of references to God's "eye," "hand," etc. However, see Ps. 91:1-4. Does this mean He also has feathers and wings?
o Roman Catholic interpretation of Lk. 22:19 leads to the doctrine of transubstantiation. However, does this also mean that Christ is a door (Jn. 7)?
o Jehovah's Witnesses use Col. 1:15 to prove that Christ was a created being. But "first- born" was also used to refer to the inheritor of the family estate (Num. 21:15-17).
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o Subscribers always use it selectively (see the above examples).
o It makes scripture unintelligible, contradictory, and unlivable (i.e., Lk. 14:26).
III. The Naturalistic Method
* History - This system arose during the Enlightenment (18th century). It is used by old-line liberal theology as their basic hermeneutic.
* Definition - The naturalistic world-view (i.e. the universe is a closed system of cause and effect) is the standard by which scripture must be interpreted. Scripture becomes intelligible only as ancient man's attempt to explain nature. It also assumes that religion has evolved through several stages which can be used to date the material in the Bible.
o Miracles are rejected as primitive explanations or myths.
o The goal is to rediscover the "true record" (i.e., the "historical" Jesus, or the "strata" in the Pentateuch) within the legendary accounts of the Bible.
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o It makes an unproved world-view the final authority.
o The attempt to separate the historical from the "legendary" has been proven to be impossible.
IV. Neo-Orthodox Interpretation
* History - Neo Orthodox theology arose after World War I which shattered the optimism of liberal theologians. Its founders, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, began a movement which dominates both Catholic and Protestant theology today.
* Definition - Neo-orthodoxy takes an approach to theology that places the religious experience of the interpreter in the center. The Bible is important for stimulating such an experience. When it does so, it "becomes the word of God" for that reader, at that time. Neo- orthodox theologians are generally willing to accept the conclusions of the naturalistic theologians regarding errors in the Bible, but feel that these do not affect the reader's ability to encounter God through it.
o Through seeing the wonder and rapture of the disciples as they behold the "miracles" of Christ, we can enter into the same sense of rapture. Thus, as we see the amazement of the disciples when they behold the resurrected Christ, we too are amazed to find that He has risen in our hearts. Of course, whether Christ actually did rise from the dead is not important. Thus the Neo-orthodox theologian can declare, "He is risen!"
o Neo orthodox theologians routinely refer to miraculous events as though they were history, when they actually believe that the experience of the authors rather than the events themselves that are historical.
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o The separation of "truth" or "encounter with Jesus" from the factual content of scripture lowers the Bible to the same level as any other book about religion.
o Unless Christ was physically raised from the dead, our experience of his "resurrection" is superfluous (I Cor. 15:12-19).
o The criticisms of the naturalistic school also apply.
V. Devotional Interpretation
* History - This method grew out of the post-Reformation as a reaction against sterile creedalism. This is the system unconsciously used by most Christians today.
* Definition - The devotional method focuses almost exclusively on what is personally applicable and edifying. It tends to ignore context, historical background, and other important interpretive principles.
o Watchman Nee uses Mk. 14:3, Jn. 12:3, Jn. 3:30 & Mk. 8:6 to support the necessity of "brokenness" in the Christian life.
o Extremists use Col. 3:15 to support being led by the Holy Spirit on the basis of feelings.
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o Devotional interpretation can easily lead to uncontrolled allegorizing and inaccurate interpretation through eisogesis.
o While the goals of this approach to Scripture are commendable, a critical analysis of the text has to precede the devotional question.
VI. Ideological Interpretation
* History - The "New Criticism" advanced in the 1940's began to focus on text and reader rather than on the author. The author has no more authority over the meaning of the text than anyone else because: 1) He didn't realize his own bias at the time he wrote, and 2) We have no way to read his mind and thus know his intentions.
* Definition - Ideological interpreters approach the Bible looking for material relevant to their ideology. They usually are open about the fact that they have an agenda, and usually claim they are correcting oversights from earlier years by focusing on their area of interest. Most ideological readers also entertain a reader-centered hermeneutic. They are skeptical about ever knowing what the author intended to say, and focus instead on how the text affects the modern reader.
o Feminist Theology - seeks to study women in the Bible, and to demonstrate that the more enlightened speakers in Scripture were anti-patriarchy. In general, their studies are intended to explode the myth of patriarchy and to uncover cruelty to women. Some advance gender-neutral language in translation, including God as "she," sometimes based on lady wisdom Prov. 1:20ff.
o Marxist or Liberation Theology - seeks to show that the true intent of God in the Bible is to teach that poor and oppressed classes should be liberated from their oppression by the love of God. Tends to interpret redemptive language in terms of economics and political power. They see class struggle in much of the conflict in the Bible.
o Deconstruction - Postmodern readers see the Bible, not as teaching liberation, but as a tool used for exploitation. The Bible is propaganda intended to show why patriarchy is appropriate. The authors of Scripture sought to legitimize the status quo of society by teaching people to obey their authorities. They also sought to justify aggrandizement of the state of Israel and the subjugation of neighboring peoples.
* Why This Method Is Unacceptable
o Most systems seek to decrease reader bias through the application of rules.
These rules introduce objectivity to the interpretive process, according to traditional methods. Ideological and reader-centered methods hold that objectivity is never possible, because the text was never objective in the first place. The first act of interpretation was the author's decision about what to include and what to exclude in his text. Also, the uncertainty of language means modern readers might as well supply their own interpretation, because we will never know what the "true" interpretation should be. To hold to such a thing as a "true" or "real" interpretation is naive, because such faith fails to take into account the arbitrary nature of language and the social forces which distort people's (both readers and author's) view of the world.
o Consequently, reader-centered theories are openly biased, but they hold that in this they are no different than other approaches except that they are more honest and less naive.
o The reader is not under the authority of Scripture. Scripture is pressed into the ideological mold of the reader, leaving the reader in authority.
October 9th, 2009, 10:53 PM
Skeptics often ask me, "If the Bible is God's Word, why are there so many different interpretations of what He supposedly said?"
Those who accept the Bible as the Word of God believe that God has spoken to us unambiguously. We believe that there is only one "right" interpretation of any given Biblical passage - the meaning God intended when He "breathed" His word into the human author. If this view is correct, it follows that of the many "different interpretations" skeptics refer to, there must be only one that is valid. That is, while a particular passage may have many applications, it must have only one meaning - the one the author (through inspiration of the Holy Spirit) intended.
How, then may we determine the proper interpretation of Scripture? The science of Biblical Hermeneutics - in all it's varied "schools" - seeks to provide a methodology to answer that question.
Biblical hermeneutics is the science that teaches the principles and methods of interpreting the Word of God. Proper hermeneutics provide us tools to help ensure that we are basing our interpretations on the truth as God has revealed it, while avoiding error to the greatest degree possible.
Using sound hermeneutic principles is not optional for the true disciple of Christ. The Apostle Paul enjoins us to "be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief introduction to some basic hermeneutical principles - principles that we strive to adhere to in the commentaries on this website. A short bibliography and links to resources for additional research are provided at the end of this paper.
The Bible Affirms its Own Clarity
The Apostle Peter reminded his readers that some things in the writings of the Apostle Paul are "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16). We must therefore admit that not all parts of Scripture are able to be easily understood. However, it would be a grave error to conclude that all Scripture is obscure or that it requires years of study to adequately interpret it.
The Bible itself - directly and indirectly - proclaims that it is written in such a way that believers, regardless of their education or mental acumen, may read and understand its pages. Indeed, Peter himself in the passage just quoted, does not say the difficult passages in Paul's letters are impossible to understand - only "hard."
Moses tells the people of Israel:
And these words I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 RSV).
The clear implication is that all the people of Israel were able to understand Moses' words clearly. They would have to, if they were to teach these words to their children, and if they were to discuss them on a regular basis. The Psalmist says: "The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple" (Psalms 119:130 RSV). This should be a great encouragement to all believers - for if the "simple" (those who lack intellectual ability and sound judgment) can be made wise by God's Word, it must first be understandable by them.
Some may wish to introduce 2 Peter 1:20 at this point: "No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation" (NIV). Those who advocate that proper interpretation of Scripture is the sole province of the Church, or an anointed class of specially gifted leaders, press this verse as proof against individual interpretation by ordinary believers. The context if this verse argues against such a view. Peter has just made reference to the Transfiguration, which confirmed for those present the exalted status of the Son of God.
He says that his readers may be even more sure of Christ's exaltation because they have the "prophetic word" (verse 19) - that is, written Scripture. He then explains why they may be more sure, even beyond a divine vision such as Peter was graced to see. The prophecy of Scripture - the declaring forth and recording of God's Word - is not a matter of the prophet's own "interpretation" of what God intended, but rather was the very Word of God Himself:: "no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (verse 21). Thus, it is the creation of Scripture that is in view here, not the subsequent interpretation of it.
The New Testament writers often state it is the moral state of the reader, not the intellectual state, that prevents clear understanding of Scripture (cf., 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:14-16; 4:3-4; Hebrews 5:14; James 1:5-6, etc.). Paul affirms the clarity of his words to the church at Corinth: "We write you nothing but what you can read and understand" (2 Corinthians 1:13).
It is helpful to keep in mind that Paul's letters were read to the entire church - to all present, even Greeks with little understanding of Jewish culture and unbelievers. Scripture is able to be understood by all - by unbelievers who read it sincerely seeking salvation, and by believers who read it seeking God's help in understanding it. This is because in both cases the Holy Spirit combats the influence of sin which otherwise would make the wisdom of God appear obtuse to the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Cultural / Historical Perspective
When attempting to interpret Scripture, it is important to remember that the Bible was written in a specific culture - the ancient Jewish or "Semitic" culture of the near East. Our culture - the post-Modern Western culture - is vastly different from that of the authors of Scripture; we will sometimes find deep differences in what we take to be "givens" in a specific area of knowledge and what the Biblical writers took as their "givens." The Biblical writer’s history, culture, customs, environment, and language are diverse and removed from our culture and way of life.
We will find that great gaps exist between eastern and western culture; therefore we need some help in bridging these gaps. We, as westerners, will find ourselves separated from the Bible culturally, geographically, historically and especially by language.
On the other hand, we believe God's Word to be universal in meaning and application. We believe the Holy Spirit will reveal all truth to us, particularly with regard to the Bible. Many in the New Testament churches did not understand the Hebrew of the Old Testament, yet the Apostles expected them to understand the truth of the Old Testament scriptures when translated into Greek. Does this mean that we may safely ignore the cultural, historical, and language differences between us and the Biblical writer? I don't believe it does, any more than we may rely on the Holy Spirit to teach us to speak or read or use logic. The Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical authors and illuminates God's Word to those who earnestly seek its truth, but interpretation is properly the responsibility of individual Christians.
Paul describes the one who "rightly divides" the Word of Truth as a "workman;" thus proper interpretation comes through effort. Paul is writing to Timothy who was apparently gifted as a teacher, and certainly the Holy Spirit provides the church gifted teachers to help us better understand God's Word, but Scripture is quite clear that we are all to read, study, and meditate upon God's Word (cf., 1 Timothy 4:13; Proverbs 4:2; Psalm 1:1-3) - and this can only be done if we are prepared to be "workmen" and to test the things our teachers teach us against the pure measure of Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
What This Text Means to Me...
The view that all one must do is pray and read the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will provide the proper interpretation, or the view that one's own, idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture is just as valid as that any other ("what this text means to me...") renders the interpretation non-falsifiable. That is, if I say that the Holy Spirit provided me with the interpretation, or my interpretation, it is impossible for anyone to demonstrate that I have wrongly divided the Word.
The "truth" I have arrived at is self-contained and ultimately incommunicable to you. You will have to "experience" the same personal revelation, and even then, we will may wonder if our two experiences really were identical, or if there were subtle differences that may affect our interpretation. This hermeneutic methodology (or really lack of methodology) provides ample opportunity for me to twist Scripture to my own destruction, and to that of any others who would follow my interpretation (2 Peter 3:16).
The noble-minded Bereans in Acts 17 diligently searched the Scriptures, seeking to learn if the Gospel Paul was preaching to them was true. We may be certain that they held a common view - an "orthodox" interpretation of the Scriptures they read - by which they measured what Paul was saying. This interpretation, if contemporary Rabbinic writings are any measure, was a careful application of principles like the ones we shall be considering.
It may be helpful at this point to consider the definition of some terms and concepts that pertain to hermeneutics.
Some Definitions: Revelation, Inspiration, Illumination, and Interpretation
Revelation The act of God the Holy Spirit unveiling or uncovering truths that man through his own intellect, reason, and investigation cannot discover for himself.
Inspiration The act of the Holy Spirit superintending the writing of the truths that God wants man to know. I use the term "superintending" to indicate that God uses the personality, experience, vocabulary, and writing style of the author. Inspiration is divine guidance, not dictation. By superintending the Biblical authors, God ensures that His revelation is recorded accurately and without error.
Illumination The act of the Holy Spirit to convict the reader of the truth of Scripture and lead the reader to an "extra-exegetical" understanding of the general truth of God's Word.. By "extra-exegetical," I don't mean to imply that the Holy Spirit is not involved in the process of exegesis (the interpretation of a given passage), but that illumination is properly understood to be an aspect of the convicting role of the Spirit, to soften the heart. God speaks to us through His written Word. The Holy Spirit helps us to know that what we are reading is indeed God's Word.
Interpretation The prayerful application of Scriptural principles by which the illuminated student of God's Word comes to an understanding of Scripture that corresponds as closely as humanly possible to the inspired meaning. The Holy Spirit reveals general truths about God; the student, convicted of these general truths, applies hermeneutic principles to arrive at the proper meaning of specific passages.
Schools of Biblical Interpretation
Through the centuries, people have recognized the value in using principles for interpretation. But, humans being the way we are, have developed a number of different principles and methodologies. Here's a brief summary of the more popular hermeneutic "schools:"
The Allegorical Schools of Interpretation This method of interpretation developed among the Helenized Jews and Christians who were strongly influenced by Platonic philosophies. Clement of Alexandria and Origen are two early church "fathers" who viewed Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, as being symbolic rather than literal.
The allegorical school teaches that beneath each verse of scripture (beneath the obvious) is the "real" meaning of the passage. Hidden in each sentence or statement is a symbolic spiritual meaning.
The Roman Catholic Church allegorizes some passages of Scripture. For example, the Catholic Church views the bread and wine of Melchizedek in the Book of Genesis, the manna in the wilderness, and the oil in the diet of Elijah, as allegorical "types" of the Catholic Mass.
This method of interpretation was rejected by all of the Reformers. Luther called it a scourge. Calvin called it Satanic. Those holding to the principles of the Reformation generally regard this method of interpretation as undermining the power and impact of the literal Word. That is not to say that the Reformers rejected all allegorical interpretations, but argued instead that allegorical or symbolic passages were contained in clearly defined contexts, such as the Book of Revelation.
The Devotional Schools of Interpretation The devotional schools emphasize the edifying aspects of the scriptures and their interpretation, with the goal of developing one's spiritual life.
This method often advocated the reading of the scriptures as a means of obtaining a mystical experience. The Bible is said to be useful for devotion and prayer, but need not be studied. Critics of the devotional school argue that while the Bible is uniquely able to spiritually edify and is the primary means by which God conforms us to the image of His Son, this school's methodology can lead to idiosyncratic interpretations which have little to do with the truth of Scripture.
The Liberal Schools of Interpretation Theological liberalism is prevalent today. Liberal theologians do not accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and reject the verbal inspiration of the Bible.
This is not the place to provide a thorough critique of liberalism in Bible Studies and its various critical methods (Source, Form, Historical Critical, etc.). I note here, however, that once one abandons the verbal inspiration of the Bible, one own intellect becomes the determining factor in questions of truth. Relativism is the inevitable result, which, when extrapolated to it's logical conclusion, is unable to prove anything with certainty, let alone one's preferred liberal interpretation.
The Literal Schools of Interpretation The literal method of interpreting the Bible is to accept the literal rendering of each sentence unless by virtue of the nature of the sentence or phrase or a clause within the sentence renders it impossible. For instance, figures of speech or fables of allegories do not admit to being of a literal interpretation.
The spirit of literal interpretation is that we should be satisfied with the literal interpretation of a text unless very substantial reasons can be given for advancing beyond the literal meaning.
When the New Testament writers refer to the Old Testament scriptures, they interpret those passages literally. The writings of the earliest Church Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, Ireneaus, and Justin Martyr) indicate that they took Scripture literally, unless the context clearly militated against it. Thus, we have Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence that in the earliest days of Christianity, a literal interpretation of Scripture was displayed.
In case you haven't guessed, this is only school of interpretation that I believe has a Biblical basis, and as such, it is the foundation of the hermeneutical principles I attempt to follow in my own study of God's Word.
The Principles of Biblical Interpretation
There are certain principles that will help us to accurately handle the Word of Truth. These principles are embedded in the scripture itself. We do not need to go beyond the boundaries of the Bible to discover these laws and maxims that are used to determine the meaning of scripture. The Bible interprets itself (scripture interprets scripture).
Principle #1: The Literal Interpretation Principle
We take the Bible at face value. We generally take everyday things in life as literal or at face value. This is a common sense approach. Even symbols and allegories in the Bible are based on the literal meaning of the scripture; thus the literal meaning is foundational to any symbolic or allegorical meaning.
The golden rule of interpretation is: “When the plain sense of the scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” Therefore, take every word at its primary, usual, meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise.
Principle #2: The Contextual Principle
D.A. Carson has been quoted as saying, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." By "proof text," of course, Carson means the abuse of a single verse or phrase taken out of context to "prove" a particular view. The word "text" is derived from the Latin word, which means to “weave.” The context is that which accompanies the text. The Word of God is a perfect unit. The scriptures cannot be broken; they all hang together, a perfect unity. We must look and consider the verses immediately before, after, and around the passage. We must consider the book of the Bible and the section of the Bible in which the passage occurs. The Bible must be interpreted within the framework of the Bible.
Principle #3: The Scripture Interprets Scripture Principle
We may rest assured that God did not reveal an important doctrine in a single, ambiguous passage. All essential doctrines are fully and clearly explained - either in the immediate context, or somewhere else in the Bible. This principle is best illustrated by what is known as "topical Bible study." There are two essential 'rules' for applying this principle: 1) The context of the two passages must be the same; and 2) The plain passage must be used to guide our interpretation of a less clear passage - not the other way around!
Principle #4: The Progressive Revelation Principle
The Word of God is to be understood from the Old Testament to the New Testament as a flower unfolding its petals to the morning sun. God initiated revelation, but He did not reveal His truths all at one time. It was a long and progressive process. Therefore, we must take into account the then-current state of revelation to properly understand a particular passage. For example, an interpretation of a passage in Genesis which assumed a fully delineated view of the "new Covenant" would not be sound. As the saying goes, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”
Principle #5: The Accommodation Principle
The Bible is to be interpreted in view of the fact that it is an accommodation of Divine truths to human minds: God the infinite communicating with man the finite. The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Bible was also created in space, in time, and in history so that man could understand it. The truths of God made contact with the human mind at a common point, the Bible, to make God (and, indeed, all of reality) knowable. We must be careful, then, not to push accommodating language about God and His nature to literal extremes. God does not have feathers and wings (e.g., Psalms 17:8); nor is He our literal Father in the same sense our earthly father is.
Principle #6: The One Interpretation Principle
Every verse in the Bible has only one interpretation, although that verse may have many applications. The one correct interpretation is that which mirrors the intent of the inspired author.
Principle #7: The Harmony of Scripture Principle
No part of the Bible may be interpreted so as to contradict another part of the Bible. The Christian presupposes the inerrancy and harmony of Scripture as a necessary result of a perfect Creator God revealing Himself perfectly to Mankind. Proper application of hermeneutical principles will resolve apparent conflicts. The key here, of course, is the word "proper," for exegetical fallacies can easily result from a zealous but ill-informed attempt to "save" Scripture from an apparent contradiction.
Principle #8: The Genre Principle
Genre is a literary term having to do with the category or "genus" of literature under consideration. Proper interpretation must take the general literary category of any given passage into consideration. Are we dealing with poetry or prose? Are we dealing with history or prophecy? It is important that when we interpret the Word of God, we understand as much as possible the author's intent. For example, if the author is writing history - the genre of the Pentateuch of Moses - it would not be proper to interpret a single reference (such as the speech of Balaam's ***) as a poetic personification, unless a variety of contextual markers compelled us to do so.
Here are some books of the Bible and their respective genres:
Psalms - Poetry
Proverbs - Wise Sayings
Isaiah - History and Prophecy
The Gospels - Biography and History
The Epistles - Teaching and Doctrine
Revelation - Eschatology and Prophecy
Principle #9: The Grammatical Principle
The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. While we have several highly accurate translations of the Bible in English, all translation involves a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the translator. Thus, the study of word meanings, grammar, and syntax of the original languages is important for a proper understanding of Scripture. This doesn't mean that every student of the Bible must learn Hebrew or Greek. There are a number of tools available - lexicons, Bible dictionaries, detailed exegetical commentaries - that can provide a deeper understanding of crucial passages.
Principle #10: The Historical Background Principle
The Bible was composed in a specific culture at a particular point in time. While they are universal in application, the truths in the Bible can most fully be realized only when taking the surrounding culture and history into account. For example, when Jesus is called "the first fruits" (1 Corinthians 15:20), we may have some understanding of this title from the Old Testament, but a study of Jewish religious practice in the first century can provide a deeper understanding of why Paul chose this title in this passage, as opposed to another title with the same general meaning of "first."
The Grammatico-Historical Method
The exegetical commentaries on this website generally follow the "Grammatico-Historical" method of interpretation. As its name implies, this method of interpretation focuses attention not only on literary forms but upon grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. It is solidly in the "literal schools" of interpretation, and is the hermeneutical methodology embraced by virtually all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars. It embraces each of the ten principles enumerated above.
Some Common Exegetical Fallacies
Unfortunately, each of the principles of interpretation we have considered may be abused in various ways. Fortunately, the remedy for the resulting misinterpretation is generally as simple as recognizing which principle has been abused and the proper reapplication of that principle to the passage in question. Here are some common exegetical fallacies resulting from the misuse of hermeneutic principles.
Taking Figurative Language Literally When Jesus says that He is the "door," few would take Him literally. Some, however, take figurative language, such as Jesus "sitting at the right hand of the Father," to mean that the Father has a literal right hand (and thus, a physical body). The phrase "at the right hand" was a figurative expression in Semitic cultures in Biblical times, signifying a position of authority.
It did not mean that the one exalted literally sat next to the one doing the exalting. The Literal Interpretation Principle does not mean that we woodenly take every word in the Bible literally, but rather that we approach it as we would any other book, taking figurative phrases, hyperbole, poetic personifications, and other figures of speech into account in our interpretation.
Over-Contextualizing Some view Jehovah's declaration that He does not "know" of any other gods in Isaiah 44:8 as limited to the immediate context. Since Jehovah is here engaging in a polemic against idol-worship, some would suggest that Jehovah is really saying that He knows of no idols who are real gods - but leaves open the possibility of other subordinate gods who are not idols.
While we must safeguard against taking words or phrases out of context, there is no warrant for taking an absolute statement and confining it to immediate context. Jehovah says He knows of no other gods. He says this in the context of chastising those who worship idols, but this context does not limit His statement, any more than the Great Commission is limited to the disciples who heard Jesus speak it.
Allowing the Implicit to Explain the Explicit Jesus is called "firstborn" on several occasions in the New Testament. In Colossians 1:15, He is called the "firstborn of all creation." Many non-Trinitarians see in these verses evidence that the Son of God was a created being - the first creation of Jehovah. Trinitarians point to verses like John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, which state that the Son pre-existed all things. Non-Trinitarians argue that we should interpret these verses in light of Jesus as "the firstborn." Thus, "all things" must mean "all other things." Trinitarians argue that the "firstborn" passages must be viewed in light of John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, and thus must be a figurative title.
The term translated "firstborn" has a figurative as well as a literal connotation. Even if taken literally, non-Trinitarians typically do not believe that the Son of God was literally born, and thus they believe that it implies the creation of the Son in some fashion. John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, on the other hand, explicitly state that the Son existed before all things, and indeed that all things came into existence through Him. Allowing the implicit to explain the explicit - the possible to explain the certain - is not a sound interpretive principle. Scripture indeed interprets Scripture, so long as clarity explains ambiguity, and not the other way around.
Modern Day Revelation Some groups claim that God continues to reveal Himself in various ways to an elite cadre of spiritually mature and/or gifted individuals. Some, like Latter Day Saints, believe that this modern day revelation has produced new scriptures. When contradictions between these "revelations" and the Bible are pressed, these groups often respond that God's revelation is progressive, and thus may accommodate new or revised doctrines for the modern era. But progressive revelation may never be used to overthrow the principle of the harmony of Scripture. God may have chosen to reveal Himself gradually to humanity, but He does not contradict Himself.
Harmonization by Denial The Bible declares that Jesus was a man (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:5; etc.). It also calls Him God (John 1:1; 20:28; etc.). God says in Hosea 11:9 that He is not man. Non-Trinitarians that hold to the principle of the harmony of Scripture, believe these verses present an apparent contradiction, and they resolve this contradiction by denying the fully Deity of Christ.
They either favor grammatical arguments that remove the attribution of "God" to Jesus, or they argue that He must be a lesser divinity and not true God. It is certainly exegetically valid to deny what Scripture does not explicitly or implicitly affirm. However, to deny what Scripture affirms both explicitly and implicitly is not a sound hermeneutical methodology. If we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), we should allow Scripture to shape our theology (or, in this case, our Christology) in such a way that Scripture is harmonized by complete affirmation of its teaching. Thus, when Scripture tells us the Christ is both Man and God, we should allow these truths to shape our view of Christ's nature, rather than deny one or the other.
Problems Relating to Literary Genre To properly take genre into consideration, we must first understand the genre in its historical context. In most cases, this is not difficult. However, some genres - such as "proverbs" - offers some considerable challenge. A proverb is not a promise - those who approach the book of Proverbs in this fashion are likely to be disappointed when the expected promise is not fulfilled.
Further, as D.A. Carson notes, Proverbs 23:3-4 seem to offer contradictory advice: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly ... Answer a fool according to his folly." (Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 137-138). Careful exegesis is necessary to resolve this and other apparent contradictions, and such exegesis depends in no small part on the proper understanding of genre.
Misunderstanding Proper Application of Grammar A wide range of fallacies can result from a misunderstanding or misuse of grammatical. tools. For example, a simplistic approach to "word studies" can produce a number of problematic interpretations. A common misuse of lexicons or Bible dictionaries is to assume that the "literal" or "original" meaning of a word pertains in a given context. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, defend the rendering of the Greek word kolasis in Matthew 25:46 found in their New World Translation (NWT) with what may be termed an "etymological fallacy." The NWT translates kolasis as "cutting off."
While kolasis originally had this meaning in classical Greek times, by the 1st Century, kolasis had taken on the meaning "punishment," which is why the majority of English translations render kolasis this way. Witnesses confuse the original meaning of kolasis with the common meaning in the contemporary setting. Some Witnesses may cite older lexicons in favor of the NWT translation, but no modern lexicon provides "cutting off" as a valid translation of any 1st Century text, and a careful examination of the older lexicons reveals that they were dependent on classical Greek texts, not texts contemporary with the New Testament.
While word studies are important to proper interpretation, we must be careful to use them as a part of an overall methodology that takes all aspects of the text - including then-current word usage - into account.
Historical Fabrication The reconstruction of Biblical history presents a whole host of opportunities for interpretive fallacies. The interpretations of the New Testament offered by scholars such as those in the Jesus Seminar depend largely on theoretical reconstructions of various "communities" in the early years of the Christian Church. While the reconstructions may originate from deductions based on certain passages of Scripture, they soon become intertwined with the interpretation of other passages to such a degree that it is difficult to separate the theoretical reconstruction from the interpretation.
This fallacious approach to Scripture is true whether the reconstruction in question is the result of liberal Historical Criticism run amok, or the superficial attempts by Non-Trinitarians to portray "Biblical Monotheism" as anything but monothesim. The problem is that we have almost no access to the history of 1st Century beliefs outside the New Testament. Some speculation based on extra-canonical texts is certainly possible, but it is a fallacy to think that speculative reconstruction has any force in informing our interpretation of Scripture.
October 9th, 2009, 10:53 PM
Rhetorical Terms with Examples
Alliteration: repetition of the same sound beginning several words in sequence.
*Let us go forth to lead the land we love. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural
*Viri validis cum viribus luctant. Ennius
*Veni, vidi, vici. Julius Caesar
Anacoluthon: lack of grammatical sequence; a change in the grammatical construction within the same sentence.
*Agreements entered into when one state of facts exists -- are they to be maintained regardless of changing conditions? J. Diefenbaker
Anadiplosis: ("doubling back") the rhetorical repetition of one or several words; specifically, repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next.
*Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. Francis Bacon
*Senatus haec intellegit, consul videt; hic tamen vivit. Vivit? Immo vero etiam in senatum venit. Cicero, In Catilinam
Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or lines.
*We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. Churchill.
*Nihil agis, nihil moliris, nihil cogitas, quod non ego non modo audiam, sed etiam videam planeque sentiam. Cicero, In Catilinam
*Lysias, Against Eratosthenes 21
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 48
Anastrophe: transposition of normal word order; most often found in Latin in the case of prepositions and the words they control. Anastrophe is a form of hyperbaton.
*The helmsman steered; the ship moved on; yet never a breeze up blew. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
*Isdem in oppidis, Cicero
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 13
Antistrophe: repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.
*In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo -- without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia -- without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria -- without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia -- without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland -- without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand -- and the United States --without warning. Franklin D. Roosevelt
*Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 198
Antithesis: opposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction.
*Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Barry Goldwater
*Brutus: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
*The vases of the classical period are but the reflection of classical beauty; the vases of the archaic period are beauty itself." Sir John Beazley
*Demosthenes, Olynthiac 2.26
Aporia: expression of doubt (often feigned) by which a speaker appears uncertain as to what he should think, say, or do.
*Then the steward said within himself, 'What shall I do?' Luke 16
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 129
Aposiopesis: a form of ellipse by which a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty.
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 3
Apostrophe: a sudden turn from the general audience to address a specific group or person or personified abstraction absent or present.
*For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Archaism: use of an older or obsolete form.
*Pipit sate upright in her chair
Some distance from where I was sitting; T. S. Eliot, "A Cooking Egg"
Assonance: repetition of the same sound in words close to each other.
*Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
*O fortunatam natam me consule Romam! Cicero, de consulatu
Asyndeton: lack of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words.
*We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural
*But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 200
Brachylogy: a general term for abbreviated or condensed expression, of which asyndeton and zeugma are types. Ellipse is often used synonymously. The suppressed word or phrase can usually be supplied easily from the surrounding context.
*Aeolus haec contra: Vergil, Aeneid
*Non Cinnae, non Sullae longa dominatio. Tacitus, Annales I.1
Cacophony: harsh joining of sounds.
*We want no parlay with you and your grisly gang who work your wicked will. W. Churchill
*O Tite tute Tati tibi tanta tyranne tulisti! Ennius
Catachresis: a harsh metaphor involving the use of a word beyond its strict sphere.
*I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear. MacArthur, Farewell Address
*Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis. Propertius I.1.1
Chiasmus: two corresponding pairs arranged not in parallels (a-b-a-b) but in inverted order (a-b-b-a); from shape of the Greek letter chi (X).
*Those gallant men will remain often in my thoughts and in my prayers always. MacArthur
*Renown'd for conquest, and in council skill'd. Addison et pacis ornamenta et subsidia belli. Cicero, Pro lege Manilia
*Plato, Republic 494e
Climax: arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power. Often the last emphatic word in one phrase or clause is repeated as the first emphatic word of the next.
*One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Tennyson, Ulysses
*Nonne hunc in vincula duci, non ad mortem rapi, non summo supplicio mactari imperabis? Cicero, In Catilinam
*Facinus est vincere civem Romanum; scelus verberare; prope parricidium necare: quid dicam in crucem tollere? verbo satis digno tam nefaria res appellari nullo modo potest. Cicero, In Verrem
*Demosthenes, On the Crown 179
Euphemism: substitution of an agreeable or at least non-offensive expression for one whose plainer meaning might be harsh or unpleasant.
*When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door -- a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it--and outside the door would be a man... come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband's body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, "burned beyond recognition," which anyone who had been around an air base very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother's eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it. Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
Hendiadys: use of two words connected by a conjunction, instead of subordinating one to the other, to express a single complex idea.
*It sure is nice and cool today! (for "pleasantly cool")
*I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Psalms 116
*Perfecti oratoris moderatione et sapientia. Cicero, De oratore
Hypallage: ("exchanging") transferred epithet; grammatical agreement of a word with another word which it does not logically qualify. More common in poetry.
*Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius, Horace, Odes III.30
Hyperbaton: separation of words which belong together, often to emphasize the first of the separated words or to create a certain image.
*Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem Vergil, Aeneid 4.124, 165
Hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect.
*My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should got to praise
Thine eyes and on thine forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest. Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
*Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
Dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
Deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum. Catullus, to his.
Hysteron Proteron ("later-earlier"): inversion of the natural sequence of events, often meant to stress the event which, though later in time, is considered the more important.
*"I like the island Manhattan. Smoke on your pipe and put that in." -- from the song "America," West Side Story lyric by Stephen Sondheim (submitted per litteram by guest rhetorician Anthony Scelba)
*Put on your shoes and socks!
*Hannibal in Africam redire atque Italia decedere coactus est. Cicero, In Catilinam
Irony: expression of something which is contrary to the intended meaning; the words say one thing but mean another.
*Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Litotes: understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed. (Sometimes used synonymously with meiosis.)
*A few unannounced quizzes are not inconceivable.
*War is not healthy for children and other living things.
*One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. (meiosis)
Metaphor: implied comparison achieved through a figurative use of words; the word is used not in its literal sense, but in one analogous to it.
*Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. Shakespeare, Macbeth
*. . . while he learned the language (that meager and fragile thread . . . by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness. . . ) Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
*From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. W. Churchill
Metonymy: substitution of one word for another which it suggests.
*He is a man of the cloth.
*The pen is mightier than the sword.
*By the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat thy bread.
Onomatopoeia: use of words to imitate natural sounds; accommodation of sound to sense.
*At tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit. Ennius
Oxymoron: apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another.
*I must be cruel only to be kind. Shakespeare, Hamlet
Paradox: an assertion seemingly opposed to common sense, but that may yet have some truth in it.
*What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young. George Bernard Shaw
Paraprosdokian: surprise or unexpected ending of a phrase or series.
*He was at his best when the going was good. Alistair Cooke on the Duke of Windsor
*There but for the grace of God -- goes God. Churchill
*Laudandus, ornandus, tollendus. Cicero on Octavian
Paronomasia: use of similar sounding words; often etymological word-play.
*...culled cash, or cold cash, and then it turned into a gold cache. E.L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate
*Thou art Peter (Greek petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra) I shall build my church. Matthew 16
*The dying Mercutio: Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
*Hic est sepulcrum haud pulchrum feminae pulchrae.
Personification: attribution of personality to an impersonal thing.
*England expects every man to do his duty. Lord Nelson
*Nunc te patria, quae communis est parens omnium nostrum, odit ac metuit et iam diu nihil te iudicat nisi de parricidio suo cogitare. Cicero, In Catilinam
Pleonasm: use of superfluous or redundant words, often enriching the thought.
*No one, rich or poor, will be excepted.
*Ears pierced while you wait!
*I have seen no stranger sight since I was born.
Polysyndeton: the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses.
*I said, "Who killed him?" and he said, "I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right," and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Bay and she was all right only she was full of water. Hemingway, After the Storm
*omnia Mercurio similis, vocemque coloremque
et crinis flavos et membra decora iuventae Vergil, Aeneid 4.558-9
*Horae quidem cedunt et dies et menses et anni, nec praeteritum tempus umquam revertitur, nec quid sequatur sciri potest. Cicero, De senectute
Praeteritio (=paraleipsis): pretended omission for rhetorical effect.
*That part of our history detailing the military achievements which gave us our several possessions ... is a theme too familiar to my listeners for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by. Thucydides, "Funeral Oration"
*Let us make no judgment on the events of Chappaquiddick, since the facts are not yet all in. A political opponent of Senator Edward Kennedy
Prolepsis: the anticipation, in adjectives or nouns, of the result of the action of a verb; also, the positioning of a relative clause before its antecedent.
*Vixi et quem dederat cursum fortuna peregi, Vergil, Aeneid 4.653
*Consider the lilies of the field how they grow.
Simile: an explicit comparison between two things using 'like' or 'as'.
*My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease, Shakespeare, Sonnet CXLVII
*Reason is to faith as the eye to the telescope. D. Hume [?]
*Let us go then, you and I,
While the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table... T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Syllepsis: use of a word with two others, with each of which it is understood differently.
*We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. Benjamin Franklin
Synchysis: interlocked word order.
*aurea purpuream subnectit fibula vestem Vergil, Aeneid 4.139
Synecdoche: understanding one thing with another; the use of a part for the whole, or the whole for the part. (A form of metonymy.)
*Give us this day our daily bread. Matthew 6
*I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
*The U.S. won three gold medals. (Instead of, The members of the U.S. boxing team won three gold medals.)
Synesis (=constructio ad sensum): the agreement of words according to logic, and not by the grammatical form; a kind of anacoluthon.
*For the wages of sin is death. Romans 6
*Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. Acts 6
Tautology: repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence.
*With malice toward none, with charity for all. Lincoln, Second Inaugural
Zeugma: two different words linked to a verb or an adjective which is strictly appropriate to only one of them.
*Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
*Longa tibi exsilia et vastum maris aequor arandum. Vergil, Aeneid