Bible Q&A - What Is Hermeneutics?

In this series, Dr. Dane Ortlund, Senior Vice President for Bible Publishing at Crossway, answers readers' questions about the Bible.

Q: What is hermeneutics and why is it important?

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11).

How do you interpret that sentence? The answer reveals your hermeneutic.

What’s Your Lens?

Think optometry. Hermeneutics is the pair of glasses. It’s what you wear when you interpret something. The lens. Not what you look at but what you look with. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. It is taking a text and asking—what does this mean? Specifically, how am I as a contemporary person, hundreds of years removed from this utterance, supposed to read this ancient text? What is the bridge between that world and mine?

That’s what it is. Why does it matter? Because you need your glasses to be the right prescription. The wrong lens skews reality.

So take Jeremiah 29:11, probably written in calligraphy somewhere in your kitchen. What does it mean? How would you put it in your own words, for today?

Here are two quite different readings. Some might interpret this promise as only for the original hearers. God has a good plan for ethnic Israel. After all, he was talking to the nation of Israel, not modern Westerners, in this statement. Others might interpret it without any awareness of the original context. God has a good plan for me, Dane Ortlund, in the 21st century. Israel who?

Guidance for Grinding Your Lens

Neither is really a wise hermeneutical approach. Why? Here are a few basic guidelines that inform the lens with which we should read any Bible text.

  1. Read with the assumption that Scripture is coherent. God doesn’t lie (Num. 23:19), knows all things (Isa. 46:10), and is unerringly consistent (Heb. 13:8). I speak untruths, know less than all things, and am inconsistent. Conclusion: If I find something in the Bible that is difficult to understand or seemingly contradictory, I assume there is something defective in me, not the Bible.
  2. Read any given text with an awareness of where it fits in the story. You wouldn’t plunk down in the middle of a novel and expect to understand a sentence without awareness of what’s happened before and interest in what will happen after. So why would we do that with the Bible?
  3. Read the way Jesus did. He said the whole Old Testament is about him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46). And the New Testament is obviously about him (the Gospels biographically, the epistles theologically). So the whole Bible is about him. The climax of the redemptive-historical story is Jesus (Gal. 4:4).
  4. Read with a prayer for the Spirit to illumine the text. Paul tells us that believers have been given the Spirit “that we might understand” divine truth (1 Cor. 2:12). Reading the Bible without the Spirit is like stumbling around an art exhibit with the lights off. There’s beauty there, but it can’t be seen and felt.

So: read humbly, redemptive-historically, Christocentrically, and Spiritually. Grind your lens in those four ways.

Reading an Ancient Promise Wisely

What then of Jeremiah 29:11?

We read it humbly, knowing Scripture is coherent. So even if God gave this particular promise to ancient Israel (his people then) we know that he will act in the same benevolent way toward Christians today (his people now). We see the heart of God in this statement—a heart that delights in prospering, not punishing, his fickle people. That was his heart for them. That is his heart for me.

We read it redemptive-historically. We remember Eden, the fall into sin, the calling of Abraham, and so on down through the centuries. So we consider that earlier in the story God had always been seeking to bless his people but that they have persistently rebelled. And we remember that later in the story God will one day come back down to earth and really give them “welfare” and “a future” in the new earth—only then God’s people will be from every tribe and nation and people, not just from ethnic Israel. Jeremiah 29 is part of a Story into which I have been swept up.

We read it Christocentrically. Jeremiah 29:11 is ultimately about Jesus. He himself said that “everything written about me in . . . the prophets . . . must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). So we remember that the supreme “plans for you” God had in mind was Jesus. God promised welfare not evil for his people because his Son bore evil though he deserved welfare. And we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection—what God calls “a hope” in Jeremiah 29 is “a living hope” because of Jesus by the time Peter was writing (1 Pet. 1:3).

We read it Spiritually. We ask for the Holy Spirit’s illumination, because otherwise the beauty of this promise will not be truly seen and felt.

Everything Is at Stake

What is hermeneutics and why is it important? It is reading the Bible rightly, so that we see who God is and become human again.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11).


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