April 4, 2013

Hermeneutics for Bible Eschatology

[Hermeneutics - The science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures. The branch of theology that deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis.
Exegesis - Critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible.]
Since I started studying the Bible with the intention of understanding the true meaning of its words, I had to encounter the concept of hermeneutics (defined above). It might seem plain to some 'laymen' that you just read the words and there's your meaning. However, as in the study of any written material, it's more complicated than that. Unless one knows the ancient languages used to record the Bible-- Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek-- you are reading a translation. Every translation is, necessarily, an interpretation. Moreover, the Bible is a collection of literature written over a vast span of years, by numerous authors, in various social circumstances and cultural milieus.

The point is that a student of scripture should keep these factors in mind when reading the Bible. Additionally, other specific principles can be applied to the text with the aim of attaining a correct understanding. Whether one recognizes it or not, we are always applying some kind of hermeneutics when reading scripture. If you simply take the words as written, then one can say that literalism, or a literal hermeneutic is being used. This is, in fact, the approach used by those known as 'fundamentalists,' who insist that 'every word was dictated by God!'

Yet, given the influences noted above, a correct understanding of scripture requires an approach beyond the literal. The question then is, what principles should be applied? As expected, there are different answers to this question, depending on things such as the student's religious, cultural, and educational background, and even-- I contend-- on his/her personality. For examples of what I'm saying, one has only to do a short bit of searching on the Internet on the subject of scriptural interpretation (broadly stated) and then prepare for a bewildering assortment of understanding on almost any topic.

The matter of hermeneutics is particularly important in the field of eschatology-- the study of the 'End-times.' In this case, the scriptures are prophecies-- statements of events that are to occur in the future. There are, in this new century, many earnest predictions based on the same familiar Bible scriptures, yet they all come to radically different understandings of events. How does this happen?

The answer is that differing interpretations of the same texts are caused by differing background assumptions-- different hermeneutics. How then, can one define accurate hermeneutics that will lead to correct interpretations? Ah, yes; that is the issue!

There is no magic formula, dear reader, for defining unerring hermeneutics. Each student must determine what rings true, allowing the Holy Spirit of God to guide and enlighten. Ultimately, it is God's Spirit that will give you understanding, and will give you the discernment essential to recognizing truth when you see it.
With that introduction, I will describe my own hermeneutics that I've used in the essays and Bible studies presented in my web-log.
1. Especially for eschatology, my first principle of understanding is one that, as far as I know, is uniquely mine (I've never seen it stated anywhere else). That principle is that the prophetic scriptures pertaining to the End of the Age are deliberately, purposefully obscure! I'm saying that there is confusion over the understanding of Revelation because it was intended to be ambiguous and confusing; at least up to the time when its meaning would become obvious to the serious reader... and (presumably) when it was needed to be known by believers.

Why would God want to hide the truth? Because, dear reader, humanity is so corrupt and self-serving, is why. If those persons in authority could have simply read the scriptures and then know what was coming-- perhaps even identifying specific individuals and places-- then you can be sure they would have tried to leverage that knowledge for personal gain of some kind. Perhaps they would try to disguise the truth, subvert it, and even alter the words of scripture.

Instead, since the texts have been so controversial and their interpretation quite convoluted, it was impossible for such tampering to occur. Certainly, some persons have attempted to twist the scriptures towards specific ends. This happened blatantly with the Scofield Reference Bible which uses 'study notes' designed to lead readers to particular conclusions. Another example is the New World Translation of the Jehovah Witnesses, that changes certain words to reflect their theological presumptions.
But overall, the meaning of eschatological prophecy has been shrouded in sufficient 'doubt factor' that the End-times have been able to arrive on our threshold with very few people becoming aware, including many 'scholars.'

2. Without a global overview of the Bible, it is virtually impossible to correctly interpret prophecy. So often, we see pundits collecting isolated verses of the Bible and assembling them into some fanciful scenario that they assure us will soon take place. (For good examples, just peruse the best-selling books of the well-known evangelical writers). That is not responsible exegesis. So often, I read critics' dismissal of the Bible because, they assert, it doesn't make sense; or, it contradicts itself. To profane eyes, these accusations appear reasonable. But the Bible is not ordinary writing; it doesn't yield its secrets to any arrogant, cursory perusal.

When you gain some insight into the grand scheme of Biblical exposition, you start to understand how the pieces fit together. Anomalies exist; but they merely serve as part of the camouflage I allude to in principle no. 1. Once you get the major themes, the odd inconsistency, if such really exist, can be recognized and handled accordingly. You can't find the truth by focusing on the obstacles, but by following the golden threads that progress from Genesis to Revelation, alpha to omega.

3. Context is vital. As one wise scholar put it: a text without a context is nothing but a pretext! Just as a global purview is essential, so it is necessary to examine any individual verse within its neighborhood. If a passage is talking about a named city, in a specified time span, you can't pull out one verse and claim that it refers to the future. It seems self-evident; yet this kind of thing is done by so-called experts all the time.

4. Some things are literal, and some are symbolic; don't mix and confuse the two. The problem, naturally, is how do we know which is which? This is where spiritual discernment is handy. Generally, the context will provide clues to help us determine when a passage is literal or else allegorical. See point 5, below.

5. Given a chance, scripture will usually explain itself. Instead, too often, pundits will see something tantalizing and will impose a meaning that appeals to their current interest or level of knowledge. Specific words conjure up certain 'objective correlatives' in our minds, ones that ring familiar in our cultural conditioning; yet they can be completely wrong when applied to a Bible text. We should always use cross-references and other textual links to discover what the Bible itself probably intends, before imposing supposed meanings.

6. Some prophecies may have more than one fulfillment. The first fulfillment is 'local and literal;' while a second occurrence would be figurative and universal. For example, Jeremiah's prophecies of doom on Israel were enacted during those OT centuries; but it's possible that a future event could occur that symbolically reprises the abstract features of those events, involving God's true people everywhere on Earth.

7. Sometimes, we just don't know! There will be some passages that will be ambiguous or opaque despite our best efforts to decode. In the case of prophecy, the picture will often become clearer as we get closer in time to the event. (e.g. The 'Mark of the Beast will likely become evident, once it's accomplished). Other references will likely remain vague until all truth is revealed by God (e.g. Who the Nephilim really are).

These are my primary principles of Bible interpretation, a.k.a. hermeneutics. These are the mental tools I use when exploring the scriptures. We are fortunate today to also have at our disposal computer technology which allows anyone to perform sophisticated exploration of the Bible. Using an on-line Bible, you can quickly compare many alternate translations of the same passage, giving a better idea of what the text was attempting to convey. You can search for every occurrence of a word or phrase to see how it's used, and where; and to find cross-references. You can study specific topics; compare Old and New Testament themes, and so on. It's a very handy tool... when used under the guidance of God's Spirit.

Holy scripture is the stuff of genius. To scoffers it is opaque, senseless. To the humble, sincere student, it offers the gift of life. You can't explain this to anyone; they have to experience it themselves.


  1. John, I think we share your first principle on eschatological hermeneutics. I've stated in my writings and Hermeneutics courses this way: "for messianic, as distinct from many other prophecies, only the fulfillment can interpret the prophecy."

    Dr. Ray Ashmore

  2. John,
    I very much appreciate your thoughts as expressed in your first point. I remember in my studies in the years past this very same idea; and in pursuing this idea again I stumbled upon your site.

    I would like to discuss this with your further. Would you be willing to contact me?