The grammatical-historical hermeneutic is popular in western Christianity. That sounds like a lot of theological mumbo-jumbo, so let’s dissect it:
What is a hermeneutic?
A “hermeneutic” is a method of interpreting the Bible.
Some methods of interpretation are very literal, some are human-centric, others are concerned with outside subjects – like politics, social agendas, etc – and have only a loose relationship with a text. Every time we interpret the Bible we use a hermeneutic. Many times, we don’t even recognize the method we use – it just seems obvious to interpret Scripture the way that comes naturally to us based on our culture, upbringing, congregation and the pulpit we sit under.
What is the grammatical-historical hermeneutic?
The grammatical-historical hermeneutic is a “literal” method of interpretation. It seeks to understand what the original author intended to convey and how the original audience understood that message. This method asks two primary questions:
1. What was the authorial intent? What did the original author intend to convey? Why did the author choose the particular genre (narrative, poetic, epistle, etc) to convey the message?
2. How did the original audience understand the message? From what circumstances (cultural, geographic, etc) was the audience listening? How did these situational factors influence the way they heard the message?
It seems like this should be the gold standard in hermeneutics until we ask the Bible to answer those questions:
Who is the true author?
All Scripture is breathed out by God…
2 Tim 3:16
What if, in our quest to understand the historical author, we forget the true Author?
I am not saying that God dictated the Bible without the influence of the prophets. Each prophet, from Moses to Paul has a unique voice through which God inspired Scripture.
I am saying that the Bible is a cohesive unit telling one story: The story of God displaying His infinite glory by expressing infinite love and justice simultaneously on the cross.
We notice stylistic differences between authors. We see word choice distinctions. We see emphasis shifts. But in all this we see one united message: the cross. Regardless of the particular message the author proclaims, the message the Author communicates is Jesus Christ crucified. (1 Cor 2:2)
Who is the true audience?
The prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…
1 Peter 1:10-12
The original audience may not have been the primary recipients of a particular passage of Scripture.
Now that the canon is complete (Rev 22:17) we understand the fullness of the message. That isn’t to say that God ignored the original recipients of each book. It is to say that the fullness of each revelation wasn’t revealed until God manifested the cross and explained the fullness of all things.
Should we abandon the historical-grammatical hermeneutic?
I think that abandoning the historical-grammatical approach is unwise. Very often, we do not fully understand the weight of the passage unless we first recognize how it was understood. How much weightier is David’s anger towards the rich man for stealing the poor man’s sheep when we know that David was once a poor shepherd himself?
We should use the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, but in subordination to the redemptive-historical hermeneutic: Recognizing how the original audience understood a passage can help us better understand its place in God’s eternal plan of redemption in more significant and robust ways.
There is great value to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. But it can’t stand alone.
Image by Konabish