If there was a prevalent thought on “hermeneutics” today, it would be that it is a very confusing and boring friend of the lay person, indeed. Hermeneutics are the companion of every good and faithful scholar, not every good and faithful Christian. The process has, largely, been pushed away by the Church. After coming to a fork in the road, the Church has taken the route without hermeneutics and left it stranded on a path only frequented by scholars. The only vestiges of the previous friendship are statements you’ll hear every now and again that go something like, “We need to put this passage in context,” or, “We don’t want to spiritualize this text.” Make no mistake, these are wonderful truths that hermeneutics offers us. But there is a lot more to hermeneutics than merely context and spiritualization of texts. All of this, I argue, presents us with a problem. Hence, I desire to introduce you, reader, to the tool the Church ought to use once more.
When discussing hermeneutics in the context of Christian theology, we may define it as “The methodology by which one interprets Scripture.” A hermeneutic is a methodology. It is a system that one uses to read and understand Scripture. You cannot interpret Scripture without a hermeneutic. You cannot understand Scripture without an interpretation. You cannot properly read Scripture without understanding. Thus, you cannot properly read Scripture without a hermeneutic. Every time you pick up your Bible and read it, you use a hermeneutic. Perhaps it is best we don’t push hermeneutics away!
What is fascinating about hermeneutics is its age. If a hermeneutic is used every time someone reads Scripture, then hermeneutics is as old as Scripture itself. What’s more, Moses wrote Genesis before Solomon wrote Proverbs. Consider, then, that the writers of Scripture themselves used a hermeneutic when they looked at previously written Scripture! When we read the Old Testament Prophets, we can learn how the writers of Scripture understood the Law. When we read the New Testament, we can learn how the Apostles understood the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, if we are careful readers of Scripture, we can use the same hermeneutic that the authors of inspired Scripture used. How amazing!
On the flip side, since we know that the authors of Scripture used a hermeneutic, there is an opportunity for us to use a different hermeneutic than the one in the pages of inspired Scripture. This, I suggest, is dangerous ground on which to stand. It becomes important that we, as faithful students of Scripture, look to use the same methodology of interpretation that the Bible uses upon itself.
Because hermeneutics affects how we read the Bible, hermeneutics affects a number of other things as well. Our hermeneutic will affect our theology. What we believe about God, salvation, man, the Church, and the end times is culled, largely, from our reading of Scripture. If our reading of Scripture is affected by hermeneutics, our beliefs about salvation and the Church, for example, will also be affected by hermeneutics. Consider also that our reading and our theology affect our living. God gives us commands for how our lives ought to be ordered under Him in Scripture, and if we do not properly understand and interpret it, we cannot properly live our lives to God’s glory. Thus, without a solid hermeneutic, our devotion unto God may indeed be affected and not for the better.
Here is a very tangible example of how hermeneutics affects your understanding of Scripture. When you read the New Testament, you often come across a quotation derived from the Old Testament. If you started at the beginning of the New Testament and read, you would instantly run into echoes of, allusions to, and quotes from the Old Testament. Hermeneutics provides understanding to how and why New Testament authors are using the Old Testament in the way they are. Here’s Matthew 1:1: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Rather than introducing a plain genealogy, this fragment serves as a key to understanding Matthew’s intent in writing his Gospel. It is loaded with Old Testament connections. For example, the phrase “book of the genealogy” is very close to a phrase used in Geneses, “book of the generations.” Genesis can be outlined according to these books of the generations; consider the amazing structure of Genesis below:
Prologue: Genesis 1:1-2:3
Generations of the heavens and earth: Genesis 2:4-4:26
Generations of Adam: Genesis 5:1-6:8
Generations of Noah: Genesis 6:9-9:29
Generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth: Genesis 10:1-11:9
Generations of Shem: Genesis 11:10-11:26
Generations of Terah: Genesis 11:27-25:11
Generations of Ishmael: Genesis 25:12-18
Generations of Isaac: Genesis 25:19-35:29
Generations of Esau: Genesis 36:1-37:1
Generations of Jacob: Genesis 37:2-50:26
We might add:
Generations of Jesus Christ: Matthew 1:1-28:20
By using the seemingly insignificant phrase “the book of the genealogy,” Matthew has instantly connected us back to the structure of Genesis. He is continuing the account of the promised Seed of Genesis 3:15 - indeed, he is announcing the coming of the Messiah to take away the sins of His people!
This Messiah, says Matthew, is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1). God made a covenant to both David and to Abraham, and Matthew is suggesting that this Jesus will fulfill God’s covenant promises. These connections are indiscernible unless one knows the Old Testament and recognizes that the New Testament writers often allude to the Old Testament (especially a writer such as Matthew).
A hermeneutic discerns these allusions and decides that it is best to interpret the entire book of Matthew in the following light: Matthew is showing that Jesus Christ is the promised Seed from Genesis who will fulfill God’s promises to Abraham (to bless the nations) and to David (to rule forever). Thus, Matthew’s Gospel focuses on presenting Jesus as the Messianic King of the Jews. A continued study in Matthew, I would argue, supports such a purpose.
To drive the importance of hermeneutics home, consider a look at Matthew 1:1 that is less concerned about Old-New Testament connections and does not take time to carefully analyze Scripture. Such an approach may say, “Matthew 1:1 merely introduces the genealogy in verses 2-17,” as opposed to the entire presentation of Messiah. The genealogy is ‘unnecessary’ and boring - a mere pastime of old Jewish writers which won’t hurt to skip because it’s not that interesting. The story of Jesus is a great narrative about a boy who is born of a virgin and is visited by some Magi rather than the fulfillment of prophecies anticipating the Messianic King. The flight to and return from Egypt is simply drama adding to the intense story rather than an affirmation that Jesus will lead Israel out of her spiritual and physical exile. Indeed, the rest of Matthew becomes “a book about the life of Jesus” rather than the generations of the Messiah, Saviour, and King Himself.
“Hermeneutics” is no scholarly discipline. All Christians have a hermeneutic. The question is whether your hermeneutic is one derived from the pages of Scripture or one forced onto Scripture from your own imagination. The Church has too long left hermeneutics to the world of Academia, and too long has “imagination” taken the place of exegesis - it is time we take hermeneutics back into our theology and devotions.
We have also taken some time to look at links between Genesis and Matthew that hermeneutics has helped uncover. Stay tuned, for we will take time in the future to consider further links between Matthew 1-2 and the Old Testament.