This is part five of a series on how to study the Bible. We will now look at the third installment concerning the field of hermeneutics, which is defined as the science of Biblical interpretation.
The Historical/Grammatical Approach
The proper meaning of a text is synonymous with the author’s intended meaning. How do we determine how a writer intended for his words to be originally understood? The best way of deciding this is by observing both the facts of history and the rules of grammar as they apply to the text in question. Let’s first study the “Historical” in the Historical/Grammatical approach.
When examining a text, we should always keep in view the historical context underlying the passage. For example, when reading the Old Testament prophetical books, it is important to consider the timing of the book—before exile, during exile, or after exile. Information pertaining to the historical background can usually be found in the prologue section of exegetical commentaries.
A second part of the “Historical” in the Historical/Grammatical approach is to investigate the cultural background that pertains to a portion of Scripture. Depending upon the writer and his purpose for writing, one might need to delve into Jewish, Roman, and even Grecian culture. As an example, the story of the Samaritan woman found in John four takes on new meaning when connected with the fact that the Jews had no dealings with the despised Samaritans during the time of Christ.
Transcultural Applications of Biblical Commands
A point of consternation concerning cultural background is the application of Biblical commands across diverse time periods and cultures. Two aspects of Biblical commands need to be differentiated: the behavior specified and the principle expressed through such behavior.
Several times in the New Testament Paul commands the reader to “Greet one another with an holy kiss.” The holy kiss is the specified behavior while the specified principle is brotherly love.
In making transcultural applications of Biblical commands, the Bible student has several options to consider:
- Maintain both the principle and its behavioral application.
- Maintain the principle but acknowledge the behavioral application is different for our present-day culture.
- Believe that both the principle and its behavioral expression were bound to a specific culture and are therefore not applicable for today.
Most scholars would choose option two when interpreting the “holy kiss” command. The principle of brotherly love holds true for present society but the behavioral application has changed.
Since God’s nature never changes (immutable), the Bible student should treat most Biblical principles as transcultural unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
Next time we’ll examine the “Grammatical” in the Historical/Grammatical approach.
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Bro. Oxendine serves as the Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at Golden State Baptist College. He has been teaching at GSBC since 2001. He also teaches the College Sunday school class at NVBC.