Rules of interpretation govern how we interpret any communication. When we speak of the laws governing correct interpretation, we are not referring to a list that varies from person to person or even from secular to inspired writings. We are referring to rules people have used for thousands of years in understanding and relaying all forms of interpersonal communication. Generaly, we apply these rules to interpretation automatically and unconsciously as we try to communicate.
However, as communication becomes increasingly complex, controversial, or removed from its source, specific rules of interpretation must be used consistently to correctly understand the transmission. Such rules, applied specifically to the interpretation of the Bible, are called biblical hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is the science that teaches us the laws and methods for interpreting communication. It also refers to the "art" of interpretation since these rules cannot be applied mechanically. The ancient Greek word hermeneutics is derived from the name of Hermes, the messenger of mystical Greek gods, who delivered and interpreted "divine" messages to mortals.
This word, or a form of it, is used 14 times in the New Testament to refer to "explaining" or "interpreting" communication. One clear example is found in Christ's conversation with the two men on the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us that "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself" (Luke 24:27). The word translated here as "explained" is diermeneuo, a form of the word that is translated as hermeneutics in our language.
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There are two major types of biblical hermeneutics. One, knows as general hermeneutics, refers to the rules that apply to all biblical literature. The other type, known as special hermeneutics, refers to rules that apply only to distinctive forms of biblical literature such as parables, allegories, apocalyptic literature, prophecy, and poetry.
Each set of rules is unique but not mutuallky exclusive (both can be used to study a passage). Any passage of Scripture can be studied by means of the general rules of hermeneutics, but some passages cannot be understood completely without the help of the special hermeneutical rules which relate specifically to that type of literature as well.
For example, knowing that Psalm 23 is a poetical form of literature written in figurative language enables a student to determine quite easily that God is not encouraging believers to lie down on the grass in green pastures. Rather, He is encouraging them to trust Him for every personal need.
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Two other terms directly associated with the study of hermeneutics are exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis comes from a greek word meaning "to guide out," and eisegesis comes from a word meaning "to guide in." Exegesis is the profess of going to the text to determine what it means, to bring out the interpretation. Eisegesis occurs when one approaches a text with prejudices and twists the Bible's message to make it say what one wants it to say.
Eisegesis usually occurs when a interpreter ignores the rule of interpretation because it conflicts with his or her preconceived notions. For example, one young man determined that this partial verse excused his sin: "you are not under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
Actually he missed the true meaning of the phrase by interpreting it apart from its context. He ignored a basic rule of hermeneutics which states that a verse cannot be interpreted in a manner that contradicts the flow of thought of the context in which it appears. The succeeding verse obviously contradicts the young mans excuse to sin. It explains, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" (Romans 6:15).
One more distinction that will benefit your study of hermeneutics is the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis.In spite of the difficulties in getting used to their foreign appearance, the meaning of these words can be simplified like this: Hermeneutics is the study of the fules of biblical interpretation, while exegesis refers to the implementation of those rules.