Adapted From The Writings Of Bernard Ramm*

The Distinction

General hermeneutics is that set of rules employed in all materials which stand in need of interpretation.  Biblical hermeneutics is the study of those principles which pertain to the interpretation of Holy Scripture.

Some Principles on Biblical Hermeneutics

 1.  Biblical hermeneutics is both a science and an art.  It is a science in that it can reduce interpretation within limits to a set of rules; it is an art in that not infrequently elements in the text escape any treatment by rules.

 2. Hermeneutical principles are distilled from the activity of exegesis itself.  Therefore, ‘divisions’ between exegesis and hermeneutics are somewhat artificial.  The practical issues of exegesis are what drove scholars to formulate a hermeneutical theory.

 3.  Biblical hermeneutics, exegesis, and teaching form one continuum.

A.  The greatest responsibility of a pastor-teacher is the ministry of the Word to his congregation. 

B.   His teaching must be centered and grounded in the interpretation and application of the Bible-- the Word of God!

C.   When this is the case, his messages will be Biblical, exegetical, and expository.

D.  The Word of God is his Source; exegesis, the scientific ascertaining of its meaning; and exposition, its ‘application in proclamation.’

E.   The Bible is the written Word; exegesis is the Word understood; and teaching is the Word made relevant to time and place.

 4.  Exegesis and exposition bear a special relationship to one another.  Exposition grows out of exegesis.

A.  In exegesis the P-T concentrates on the meaning of the text historically understood.

B.   In exposition his main concern is with its relevance and application for the here and now.  Two principles:

1)  Exegesis without application is mere academics-- the ‘paralysis of analysis.’

2)  Exposition that is not grounded in exegesis is superficial, misleading, or both.

C.   There must be no separation of exegesis and application.  Application is not a secondary thought, a dispensable activity after exegesis; exegesis should lead, inevitably, to application.

 5.  If the Word of God is the focal point of his ministry, then the P-T must deal with his text exegetically before he deals with it homiletically.

A.  To be a responsible exegete demands a responsible working theory of Biblical hermeneutics.

B.   To be a faithful steward demands a mature working theory of Biblical hermeneutics as the basis of homiletics.  Textual criticism is followed by a study of isagogics-- i.e., authorship; date of writing; place of writing; recipients; and conditions which prompted the writing.

Principles of General Hermeneutics that Carry Over into Biblical Hermeneutics

 1.  Literary Genre.  The material of literary genre must be settled.

A.  It is the literary genre of the text which determines the frame of reference in which words are used; and therefore, the frame of reference logically precedes the words themselves.  This is simply a recognition of the fact that some Scripture is written as poetry, some as proverbs, some as history, sermons, parables, etc.

B. Determining the literary genre of the text determines the interpreter’s mood and viewpoint.

 2.  Word Study.  Exegesis usually begins with a study of words, because the word is the ultimate unit of meaning.  Words can be studied in a variety of ways.

A.  Etymologically--  its formation and derivation may unlock its meaning and give you new insight; or e.g., breaking down the components of a compound word.

B.  Comparatively--  tracing a word through many passages of Scripture is basic homework for thorough exegesis.  Studies of synonyms have merit as well.

C.  Historically--  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT is the classic example of this in-depth research.  This moves from Classical Greek usage to the Hebrew Bible; from there to the LXX; from the LXX to the inter-Biblical period {Aramaic}; then a comprehensive treatment in the Greek NT.

 3.      Grammatical Exegesis.  The study of words alone is helpful but limited.  It is grammatical exegesis which moves forward into the interpretation of the sentence in all its parts, and the paragraph where the sentence is found.

A.  Grammatical exegesis is sometimes called ‘literal exegesis.’  By the literal meaning of words and phrases is meant their normal, natural, customary sense in their language.

B.  Allegorical exegesis is the virus to which literal, historical, grammatical exegesis is the cure!

C.   Literal exegesis is the ‘check’ upon all irresponsible exegesis, whether it be found in the history of the Church or in some contemporary cult.

D.  In grammatical exegesis context is paramount!  It has been said, and rightfully so, that “A text without a context is nothing more than a pretext!”  Context begins with the accepted Canon of Scripture itself, then moves down to the Old or NT; the individual book; a ch. within the book; a paragraph in a ch.; the sentence within the paragraph; and finally, each word within the sentence.

E.   The next stage in grammatical exegesis is to recreate the political and sociological environment of antiquity.  This takes into account the cultural elements in the text; e.g., references to people, events, social practices, geography-- cities, towns, rivers, mountains-- flora and fauna.  Two principles of hermeneutics.

1)      Good hermeneutics is the thorough use of good resources; bad hermeneutics is their neglect.

2)      Critical and grammatical commentaries will be more rewarding to a teaching ministry over the years than popular and devotional ones.

Hermeneutical Principles Unique to Scripture

 1.  The Spiritual Factor.  It was Calvin who noted-- and the apostle Paul who stated in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15-- that the Word of God is spiritual, and therefore, can only be perceived and discerned by the spiritual man.

A.  The Bible can very clearly be understood when:  [1] We are born again-- personal faith in the Son of God; [2] we are empowered and enabled by the Spirit of God-- ‘not grieving, not quenching, and walking by means of the Spirit’-- Eph. 4:30, 1 Thes. 5:19, and Gal. 5:16; and [3] we approach with an attitude of humility, in simple child-like faith.

B.   For those who reject the teaching ministry of the Spirit as a purely subjective phenomena, which it is, I say:  Human nature being what it is, there is not a scholar alive that is completely free from presuppositions-- right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate-- and from emotionally and culturally rooted dispositions which influence his interpretations.

What this tells us is that the subjective aspect of Biblical exegesis-- that is, the mentorship of the HS-- is of immense importance.  In fact, it’s absolutely indispensable.

 2.  The Unity of the Bible.  The unity and harmony of Scripture is Jesus Christ, and the redemption and revelation centered in Him.

A.  The one theme of both is the Person of Jesus Christ and His redemption of a human race bound in the slave market of sin; His reconciliation of that sinful race to a righteous God, and His propitiation of God’s righteous demands concerning sin!

B.   For the Body of Christ in the Church Age the focus and priority of the Scriptures is the NT and especially the Epistles, for it’s here that we find the Incarnation, the impeccable life of the Son of God, His saving work in the Cross, His resurrection, and the impact of His Person and Work on the Spiritual Life.

 3.  Progressive Revelation.  From the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden to the apostle John on the Island of Patmos, the concept of progressive revelation is based upon the conviction that revelation and redemption were moving along an historical line.  The most obvious division of this line is between the OT period and the NT period.  In the NT we find a division in the Gospels and the Epistles-- from the life and ministry of Christ in Hypostatic Union leading up to the Day of Pentecost, and the dispensation of the Church which began on the Day of Pentecost.

There is a definite progression in Scripture, and unless this principle of progress is recognized there can be no clear exegesis of Scripture.  Progressive revelation means that as the timeline of history unravels, the plan and purpose of God becomes fuller and clearer; the meat is slowly being put on the bones, if you will.  Basically, this means two things to the interpreter.

A. If there is tension or conflict between the older revelation and the newer, the older must give way to the newer.  I.e., our theology as Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the CA, must build its ‘final formula’ on the mystery doctrines of the CA.

B. It means, once again, that not all Scripture is as important to our daily faith and practice as others.  Here, we’re dealing with its theological significance.  Many times, both past and present, a proof text is cited without regard to its location in the Bible.  E.g., a passing reference to something in the Psalms is given as much weight as a v. in Romans.  Note this principle:  The location of a text in the Canon of Scripture determines to some extent its exegesis and the theological weight behind it.

 4. Scripture’s Self-Interpretation.  Around the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church insisted that it was ‘gifted with the grace of interpretation,’ and therefore, it knew instinctively the interpretation of Scripture.  The Reformers rejected this erroneous claim and set in its place the rule that Scripture is its own interpreter-- Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres.

A.  What raised this issue was the problem created by difficult passages.  The Catholics appealed to their ‘gift of interpretation’ to lead the way; the Reformers appealed to the principle that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’  We need to understand that the Bible is its own greatest commentary.

B.   The term ‘Scripture’ is used two ways in this principle.  What it means, very simply, is that the Bible as a whole interprets the various parts, and hence no single aspect of the Word can be so interpreted as to destroy the teaching of the whole.  I.e., what are minor and incidental references in Scripture cannot be made the foundation of our doctrine or the basis of our theology.

One of the characteristics of sects and cults who name the name of Christ, or make some claim to Christianity, is this kind of exegesis.  They major in the minors to the exclusion of the foundational and fundamental truths of the Spiritual Life.

C.   The principle of ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ is called the ‘hermeneutical circle.’  The whole of Scripture can only be discerned through interpreting it part by part.  This is part of the reason why we should study the Bible word by word, v. by v., dealing with categories of information-- the doctrines-- as they come along.  No man’s attention span is so great or intellect so highly developed that he can ingest the entire Bible at once.  Yet no part stands alone; there is nothing in Scripture which stands totally and completely by itself, isolated from the rest.

D.  The ‘Bultmann Circle’--  In order to understand it the exegete asks questions of the text, which in turn asks questions of him.  This gives him deeper insight, which leads to deeper questions; and on and on and on and on it goes.

 5.  The Supernatural in Scripture.  Simply put, the evangelical expositor accepts, he believes, what he sees concerning the supernatural in the text.

A.  Many theologians, especially since the time of the German ‘Enlightenment,’ have taken the stance that all supernatural events recorded in Scripture should be written off as ‘misunderstandings,’ that science can explain everything.  But science is governed by laws, and what are called ‘scientific laws’ and ‘laws of nature’ are really divine laws created by the Governor and Sustainer of the universe-- the Lord Jesus Christ.

B.   The Christian expositor recognizes a fundamental difference between the supernatural in Scripture and the supernatural in other literature.  There is a rationale for the supernatural in Scripture based upon the Biblical structure of revelation and redemption which is completely lacking in other ancient cultures.  We realize that the present order of the kosmos-- as it “groans,” awaiting its redemption {Rom. 8:21-22}-- is due to sin, both angelic and human.  Part of God’s revelation to sinful man, and part of His redemption in a sin-darkened Cosmic System, is His employment of the supernatural.  Therefore, when the evangelical expositor is confronted with the supernatural in the text he doesn’t rule it out ex hypothesi but accepts it as a vital element in divine revelation.

 6. Theological Exegesis.  The serious student of the Word of God is interested in the fullest reach of his Biblical interpretation, which leads to the necessary theological exegesis of the text.  Don’t confuse this with a ‘double treatment’ of the text, a grammatical interpretation and a ‘spiritual’ interpretation.

A.  Get the principle down:  Theological exegesis is the natural extension of grammatical exegesis.  There has been an abundance of ‘double exegesis’ in a negative sense in the history of Christianity.  It goes all the way back to the times of early Church fathers in the first few centuries who imposed an allegorical meaning on the grammatical meaning of a passage.  We call that eisegesis.  It’s still quite popular among pastors, scholars and theologians today.

B.  Theological exegesis extends grammatical exegesis because it is interested in the largest implications of a passage of Scripture.  Propositions imply other propositions; principle is built on principle; conclusions in one area lead to greater conclusions in other areas.  When all the facts are considered, and all those facts rightly interpreted, the student draws what is known as an inductive conclusion.

One example of theological exegesis is found in Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul’s use of the perfect tense serves to emphasize rather clearly and dramatically the doctrine of eternal security.  The passage say’s, “For by grace you have been saved through faith [‘grace’ is God’s initiation to man; ‘faith’ is man’s response to / grace of God, and faith is / sole contribution of man in salvation; ‘you have been saved’ includes / result that you now ‘stand saved forever;’ from / perf. pass. part. of sw/zw (sozo), which in / pass. voice means- attain salvation, be delivered from / 2nd Death]; and that not of yourselves, {it [eternal salvation] is} the gift of God; not as a result of works [i.e., there is nothing you or I could ever do to appropriate this, it is a gift of grace received in faith], that no one should boast.” 

C.   It’s not so much a matter of difference between grammar and theology in exegesis, as it is theology taking up where grammar leaves off and seeking to find the fuller implication, and ultimately, application of the text.  For this reason theology is forced to define concepts with terminology not used in grammar.  E.g., AOS {Adam’s original sin}, OSN {old sin nature}, total depravity of man, Hypostatic Union, etc.  You get the picture.  This accounts for the vast difference in vocabulary between grammatical exegesis and systematic theology.

D.  The outstanding theologian differs from the ordinary theologian in his ability to draw out these principles, implications, and conclusions from the Word of God.  It is in men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Chafer and Thieme that the genius of theological exegesis can be seen.

E.   The fact that theological exegesis deal with the creative extension of a section of Scripture means it is not controlled as strictly as grammatical exegesis.  Theological exegesis is more art than technique, and therefore, spiritual insight-- which the Spirit of God provides-- is more important to it than the details of grammar.

The proof is always in the finished product and the ultimate justification of theological exegesis should be its ability to make the Word come alive to the hearer, to bring the meaning out in its greatest depth.

F.   One major aspect of theological exegesis is that the Canon of Scripture is the context of every passage of Scripture.  Keep that in mind.  This is the principle of Scripture interprets Scripture in the theological sense.  The one doing the exegeting brings all the other materials that are similar to the text to bear upon the text.  Again, this is as much ‘art and insight’ as it is exegesis.  While definite care should be exercised we should not hesitate in our study as communicators of the Word to gain new insight, reach new conclusions, build one principle upon another.  This is the only way our knowledge and communication of the Word are going to remain fresh, stimulating and challenging for the sheep of our fold!

Bernard L. Ramm (1916-1992) was born in Butte, Montana and was a Baptist theologian and apologist within the broad Evangelical tradition. He wrote prolifically on topics concerned with biblical hermeneutics, religion and science, Christology, and apologetics. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

This article was compiled and adapted from Bernard Ramm’s writings on Biblical Interpretation.