Hermeneutics and Expository Preaching

If any pastor has questioned the importance of hermeneutics or the serious challenges arising within the field over the last fifty to seventy-five years then the June 26, 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case should have removed all doubt. The court determined that the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees same sex couples the right to marry. Specifically, in the words of Justice Kennedy, who wrote the official opinion for the majority, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” One searches the Constitution in vain, however, to find where the original authors or the later amenders used words that they intended to communicate the right of citizens to “define and express their identity.”

Therein lies the rub. Until the middle of the last century it was commonly understood that meaning was a function of the creator of information (the author, speaker or poet) and not the recipient of information (the reader or listener). With the rise of “reader response criticism” and the so-called “new hermeneutic” this long-held, common sense approach to interpretation has been turned on its head. Now, as the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling graphically illustrates, it is common to regard meaning as a product of the interpreter.

Free from the restraints of authorial intent interpreters today can be guided by any number of considerations, including politics, ideology and psychology, in their search for meaning. This is why legal scholars have found the right to abortion and so-called same sex marriage in the Constitution even while acknowledging that the authors and framers of the document had never intended to communicate such ideas. It also explains why the Bible has received the same kind of treatment from theologians and biblical scholars who purport to find support for women pastors and Christian homosexuality in the Bible. In the new hermeneutic, meaning is now firmly in the hands of the interpreter.

Fortunately we have not yet granted to Pharmacists such authority. We still expect them to be guided by the intention of our physicians when filling our prescriptions. Fortunately, there are laws that require such because the consequences of making interpretive mistakes in the pharmacy can be both immediate and lethal.

The man of God is required to handle the Word with integrity, that is, to accurately understand and communicate its genuine meaning.

Though not quite as instant, mistakes in interpreting the Bible are even deadlier because they have eternal consequences. This is what Peter means when he warns of those “ignorant and unstable” interpreters who “twist to their own destruction” Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16). Misinterpreting Scripture is spiritually disastrous.

Contrary to such mishandling of Scripture, Paul admonishes Timothy to do his best to present himself to God “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This “word of truth” is the gospel of salvation (Ephesians 1:13) that is revealed in the Scriptures. The man of God is required to handle the Word with integrity, that is, to accurately understand and communicate its genuine meaning. To handle it wrongly, which is obviously a possibility, would be shameful for the communicator and detrimental to the hearers.

Every biblical expositor committed to handling the Word rightly must be governed by three convictions.

Conviction about the Bible

The Bible is the Word of God written. It is authoritative, sufficient and understandable

The classic text in Scripture regarding the nature of God’s Word is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Though Scripture is written by human authors, it ultimately comes from God and therefore carries the full weight of our Creator’s authority. Thus in the New Testament whenever an appeal was made to Old Testament Scripture with the designation, “It is written,” the question is settled. It is in effect a declaration that God has spoken.

The things about which He has spoken in the Bible include everything necessary to equip the man of God for “every good work.” This does not mean that the Bible is all we need to guide every worthy endeavor (such as the study of physics or the building of a website) but it does mean that, as the Second London Baptist Confession puts it,

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.

Such conviction will prevent the man of God from looking outside the Word of God for instructions in shepherding the people of God in his preaching and teaching.

A corollary of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is its clarity. As Charles Hodge explains, what this means is, “The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people.”

This is why it is called a “lamp for my feet and light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). Children are expected to be able to comprehend it (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; 2 Timothy 3:15) and common people can evaluate apostolic preaching in its light (Acts 17:11). While all of its parts are not equally clear (2 Peter 3:16) the whole of it is sufficiently clear that, under the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, all of God’s people can understand the revelation of Jesus Christ in it.

The biblical expositor will approach his work with confidence that in the Scriptures God has spoken all that wants His people to know and has done so in a way that can be understood.

Conviction about Preaching

Preaching is God’s prescribed method of authoritatively proclaiming His Word

God is pleased to save people, 1 Corinthians 1:21 says, “through the foolishness of the message preached” (NASB). In 2 Timothy 3 Paul warns his young colleague of perilous times that will come when wickedness increases in the world and in the church. The one thing that Timothy must do in such times is stated in serious, sober language. “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

The written Word of God must be preached and in such a way that those who hear can understand its meaning. Nehemiah 8:1-8 gives us an example of what such preaching entails. All the people gathered at one place. Ezra and his associates stood on a platform and “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (v. 8).

They read and explained the Word so clearly that the people understood it. This is the goal of expository preaching—to explain the text in such a way that people understand it. This is God’s ordained way for people to receive His authoritative Word.

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.

The biblical expositor will always have this goal before him. In order to attain it he will embrace the responsibility to work hard to understand accurately the text that he preaches. This leads to the third conviction that all such must expositors have.

Conviction about Interpretation

For the Word of God to be properly preached it must be accurately interpreted on its own terms

The nature of the Bible gives rise to two types of principles that must govern our interpretation of it. Since all Scripture is God-breathed we must approach our efforts to interpret any portion of it with specific principles that grow out of His revealed character as honest (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, Hebrews 6:18), faithful (Exodus 34:6, Hebrews 10:23, etc.) and consistent (2 Timothy 2:13). Because God did this through human authors there are other, general principles of interpreting any text that should likewise guide our interpretation of the Bible.

First, we must approach the Bible with humility and dependence on the Lord. It is, after all, the word of the living God and we are at our best “frail creatures of dust.” So we come to be instructed, expecting at points to be not only enlightened but corrected and reproved (2 Timothy 3:16). Prayer for the Spirit’s illuminating work is fundamental to the expositor’s work because He is the one who enables us to understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:10-14).

Next we recognize that the Bible has an innate unity that does not allow for inherent contradictions since it all comes from God. No one part of Scripture will genuinely contradict another part, though there may well be apparent contradictions due to our limited understanding.

This leads to a principle that has been known historically as the “analogy of faith.” Scripture is its own best interpreter and any one part should be compared to other parts and to the whole in order to gain insight into its meaning. Clearer passages should be used to shed light on less clear ones.

To apply the analogy of faith wisely one must also give due consideration to the context of the passage under consideration. What is its role in the larger argument or narrative? What is the purpose of the whole chapter or larger section as well as the complete book, testament and Bible? All of these questions must be brought to bear on any and every passage in order to gain an accurate understanding of it.

Because the Bible was written by various authors in various cultural contexts other considerations must also be made to arrive at an accurate interpretation of any passage. Just as I want anything I write to be understood in the way that I meant it, so we must interpret Scripture by seeking the original author’s intent. Before asking, “What does it mean?” we must ask, “What did it mean?” To ascertain meaning the following principles must be followed.

Scripture is its own best interpreter and any one part should be compared to other parts and to the whole in order to gain insight into its meaning.

First, the historical setting of the passage needs to be considered. Who is the human author? Who are the original recipients? What was going on in the lives of the author and recipients when it was written? What was the occasion that resulted in this book being written? Asking and answering these types of questions help provide important boundaries in our quest to discover the original meaning of a text.

Next, the particular genre of a passage must be ascertained. Though narrative passages are truthful descriptions of what happened they do not necessarily prescribe what should happen. So it is illegitimate to say that the Bible supports polygamy because David had multiple wives. Similarly poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, law, wisdom literature, and letters must be recognized for what they are and interpreted according to the purposes that they serve.

For example, to interpret Proverbs 26:4-5 (which are wisdom sayings) as law would be to accuse the Bible blatantly contradicting itself in the space of two verses (“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself,” v. 4 and “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes,” v. 5). Similarly, didactic passages must be allowed to interpret narrative and other types of texts. So Jesus’ teaching on marriage as monogamy (Matthew 19:3-9) further shows that not only does the Bible not support polygamy, it clearly forbids it.

Finally, the actual words of the text must be analyzed—individually as to their definition, background and usage and grammatically as to the meaning that they convey in connection to other words in clauses, sentences and paragraphs. What does the author want us to understand through the words he uses?

Conclusion

These principles are trustworthy guides that will help expositors come to the plain sense of the biblical text, that is, the meaning that the author intended to convey. Because God himself is the one who breathed out the text through human authors, we can be sure that, having come to understand it, we have come to know what God has said. That confidence makes for effective, authoritative preaching.


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Expositor.


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