The Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God, and our understanding of truth must be grounded in Scripture. We do not have the liberty to import our ideas and philosophies into the text. Instead of adapting the Bible’s message to fit our preconceptions and desires, we should seek to understand what it says in its literary, cultural, and historical context and then apply its message to our context.
Author, Text, and Reader
Traditionally, the goal of biblical interpretation is to ascertain the intention of the original authors of Scripture and ultimately the intention of God in inspiring the text. Some interpreters say we should focus only on the text itself, because the author’s intent is impossible to ascertain otherwise. Both approaches assume that the text has objective meaning and that the goal of interpretation is to ascertain that meaning.
Recent decades have seen the rise of postmodernism, which in its ultimate form holds that there is no such thing as objective meaning or absolute truth. Postmodern interpretation asserts that the reader is integrally involved in the formation of meaning. Meaning resides in the interaction of writer, reader, context, and society, and it is revealed by the impact that the text makes on the reader. Postmodernism underscores an important point that is often overlooked or discounted. That is, everyone comes to the text with presuppositions, assumptions, and beliefs. But postmodernism is too pessimistic about the possibility of the text informing and correcting the reader. After all, authors write for the purpose of communicating their ideas, and if we abandon the attempt to understand their intention, we undermine the very purpose of writing. Even postmodernist authors write in order to present their own ideas, not merely to provide a vehicle for readers to create their own meanings.
As applied to the Bible, postmodern interpretation does not fully allow us to learn truth, to receive a clear word from the Lord. God gave the Scriptures to lead us to salvation, to prepare us for Christian life and ministry, to instruct and correct us as needed. (See II Timothy 3:15–17.) These purposes cannot be fulfilled by a strictly postmodern approach. Contrary to postmodernism, the Bible does make a claim of absolute truth.
The Hermeneutical Spiral
To understand Scripture, we begin with faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, identify and examine our presuppositions, and approach the Bible humbly with an attitude of learning. We must allow the Bible to inform and transform our beliefs. As we interpret the text, we modify our preunderstanding based on what we learn from the text, and then go back to the text for a fresh interpretation based on our modified understanding. We continue until we perceive that our understanding fits the expression of the text. In the process, we pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
This process is sometimes called the “hermeneutical spiral.” Hermeneutics means the science and art of interpretation. The process is like a spiral because the goal is to get progressively closer to an accurate understanding as we continue to compare our understanding with the text. On the one hand, we cannot avoid having a preunderstanding. We cannot pretend that, without any self-analysis or reflection, our commonsense reading of the text will directly and automatically lead us to a neutral, objective, timeless meaning of the text. On the other hand, we cannot abandon the search for objective meaning. We start by identifying and acknowledging our preunderstanding and then test it and correct it by our reading of the text even as we use it to approach the text.
Hermeneutics includes both understanding the Word and applying the Word, both exegesis and exposition. Exegesis means to “bring out” of the text the meaning the writers intended to convey to their readers, while exposition means to apply the text and its meaning to people today. Exegesis is the proper basis for exposition.
We seek to understand what the biblical authors attempted to communicate as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. We also recognize that the Spirit inspired the message to apply to future generations even beyond the full understanding of the authors. Thus, readers are a vital part of the process. We must be sensitive to the distance between the original literary, cultural, and historical context of Scripture and the contemporary context. Through prayerful study using various resources and references, we must bring the two contexts together so that understanding, communication, and learning can take place.
Since God intended for His Word to profit us through doctrinal teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction, we can indeed receive the truth of God’s Word by the hermeneutical spiral. In short, by a diligent, humble, multifaceted, and holistic study of the biblical text, we can understand God’s message to us.
Excerpted and adapted from David K. Bernard, Understanding God’s Word (2005).