I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue of proper, sound principles of interpretation of Scripture, and particularly how those principles relate to the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. Studying hermeneutics is a tricky issue, because, of course, the student of Scripture wants to adopt principles of interpretation that are in line with Scripture. But the question quickly surfaces: How can I derive my hermeneutics from Scripture if I first need a hermeneutic by which I approach Scripture? Isn’t it circular to attempt to interpret Scripture in search of how to interpret Scripture? As Professor Matt Waymeyer has cleverly quipped, it’s sort of like asking how it’s even possible to read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book! Where do we start?
I’m not absolutely sure of all my conclusions yet, but I thought I’d present some of my thoughts. This is a little bit more heady than is probably acceptable for a blog post, but I promise I won’t make it a habit. But let me assure you that I think if there’s a topic that’s worthy of a little extra mental effort, hermeneutics is it, precisely because it is so foundational to how we approach and understand the Word of God. (If you’re interested, you might read Dan Phillips’ classic post on how hermeneutics proved to be a life or death issue for him.)
Scripture is God’s Communication
A fundamental assumption that we must work with is that all Scripture is God’s revelation to man. By means of His Word, God is speaking, or communicating, to human beings. I think this is pretty easily established by Scripture itself.
- The opening verse of Hebrews tells us that God spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and many ways (Heb 1:1). That is, the Old Testament is God’s speaking to man.
- The writer continues, “In these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son” (1:2). Christ is the ultimate revelation (Heb 1:3; John 14:9) or explanation (John 1:18) of the Father to mankind.
- Then, in His earthly ministry, the Son promised that He would send the Holy Spirit to bring to the Apostles’ remembrance all that He said (John 14:26). The product of this promise is the four Gospels, and thus the Gospels are God’s speaking to man in His Son.
- The Son also promised that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, revealing to them those things which they could not bear then (John 16:12–13). This is the rest of New Testament revelation, and thus Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation are God’s speaking to man in His Son.
To reiterate by way of summary, then, all of Scripture is God’s speaking, or His communicating to man. Therefore, if we’re going to honor and respect God’s revelation on its own terms—i.e., as communication—we must seek to understand it as we would aim to understand any other form of communication. That is to say, in the same way one desires to be understood in a way that neither adds to nor takes away from his words, we should afford that courtesy to the Biblical authors. This is often referred to as the hermeneutical Golden Rule: do unto authors as you would have them do unto you. In his book, Think, John Piper puts it like this:
At the root of [a] coherent worldview and the process of being rooted in the Bible is the hard work of understanding what an author intends to communicate. … When I write something, I generally have an idea that I would like others to grasp. If they construe my sentences in a way different from what I intend, then either I have written poorly or they have read poorly. Or both. But in either case, I am frustrated, because the aim of writing (except for liars and spies) is to be understood. So the aim of reading should ordinarily be to understand what the writer wants understood.
We know that God does not inspire poor writing. We also know that neither He nor the biblical authors were liars or spies. So a fundamental aim of our reading the Bible is to understand what the original author wants understood. We must understand God’s Word through the original authors in a way that neither adds to nor subtracts from their words.
The Normal Sense
I believe the only logical conclusion to be reached from these truths—specifically, that Scripture is God’s revelation or communication to us with the intention of being understood—is that our default orientation to any passage of Scripture is to read it in the plain, normal sense. The old grammatical-historical axiom is valid: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”
Recently in a discussion about the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, someone was speculating on whether or not the passage had anything to say about the doctrine of eternal security, or the perseverance of the saints. Her thought was that Scripture sometimes speaks of oil as being indicative of the Holy Spirit. And since the foolish virgins originally had some oil to keep their lamps burning, that they at one time had the Holy Spirit—and thus were to be considered saved—and then did not have the Holy Spirit—and thus were to be considered lost. Now, this is a rather extreme example, but at the root of this person’s many interpretive problems was simply the fact that in Matthew 25:1–13, oil just means oil. There’s no reason to go fishing for a deeper meaning behind Jesus’ choice of illustrations. The plain, normal sense of the words leads you to a proper understanding of Jesus’ point.
In his Biblical Hermeneutics, Milton Terry put it this way:
It is commonly assumed by universal sense of mankind that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others. Hence that meaning of a sentence which most readily suggests itself to a reader or hearer, is, in general, to be received as the true meaning, and that alone.
I don’t believe, based on the passages above about Scripture being God’s communication to man, that God has designedly put forth a riddle. The perspicuity of Scripture keeps us from seeking a “deeper meaning” behind what God has clearly said through the Biblical authors.
Now, of course this does not mean, as is so often charged, that we must be committed to a wooden literalism that doesn’t allow for figures of speech. Understanding language in its plain, normal sense allows for someone to interpret a metaphor as a metaphor, hyperbole as hyperbole, sarcasm as sarcasm. If I say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” you shouldn’t start looking for a really big grill. But neither should you conclude that I have very inimical feelings toward all things equine. Given the conventions of language, you should understand that I’m using a common, agreed-upon figure of speech to emphasize my hunger.
And so, when Micah prophesies that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), we don’t need to find some symbolism about Messiah being Yahweh’s provision of spiritual nourishment from the “house of bread” (HT). We understand that that was a prophecy about the literal birthplace of Messiah. And yet at the same time, when Jesus says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), we understand that this was a figure of speech that pictured a greater reality (Lk 22:19–20).
Now, some of you—hopefully most of you—might be sitting there saying, “Tell me something I don’t know!” And you’d be right to feel that way. I haven’t said much that sound Biblical interpreters of various theological stripes would disagree with. At least, they wouldn’t disagree with it on paper. But when the implications of these principles get fleshed out, a lot of toes start to get stepped on. Especially in texts like Genesis 1–11, Ezekiel 40–48, and Revelation 6–20. But we’ll leave those issues for another time.
The main take-away from the above discussion is that, based on the conclusion that Scripture is God’s communication to man (Heb 1:1-3), one’s default approach to understanding any passage of Scripture is to understand it in its plain, normal sense. And if we were ever to deviate from that default sense (which is certainly sometimes warranted), the burden of proof is on us to show why that’s a legitimate move. And such evidence must be presented from the text and context of Scripture itself.
God has spoken. What a remarkable truth! And He has spoken to us. What a breathtaking reality! And He has spoken to us clearly. What a marvelous gift! How unfortunate it would be to take an infallible, inerrant, clear text of Scripture and preach error from it because we’ve sought to make it more complicated than it is.
Update: Click here for a sort of Part 2.
 John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 45.
 As quoted in Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 291.