Theology

Doctrinal Basics: Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutics

Justin Puckett

Often when engaging in conversations, discussions, or debates surrounding theological issues, we’ll hear the term “grammatical-historical hermeneutic” used to justify or oppose a particular position. Put plainly, a grammatical-historical hermeneutic is a method of interpreting scripture (hermeneutic, from a Greek word meaning, “interpreter”). Approaching scripture in a “grammatical” way considers a text’s structure in its interpretation.Likewise, a “historical” hermeneutic approach takes into account the specific context in which a particular book, passage, or verse was written.

This includes the genre. In Scripture, we find many genres of literature including Historical Narrative (Genesis-2 Chronicles), Wisdom Literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), Poetry (psalms, Song of Songs), Prophetic Literature (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets, Revelation), Epistles (Romans-3 John), Apocalyptic Literature (Parts of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jesus’ discourses).

In thinking about the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, it helps to go back to 8th-grade English class and identify the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, etc., and their relationship to one another. We then ask questions: Who is the author? Who was the original audience? When was it written? Where does it fall in the redemptive plan of God? Was it before or after the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, the first Temple, Babylonian exile, the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ?

Applying a Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic

As we read through scripture, generally we understand the plain meaning of the text because God has made the plain things plain. Each book is not rigidly set in one genre, as there are mixtures.

For example, in Exodus 15, Moses sings a song. Exodus falls into the genre of Historical Narrative yet because of God’s mighty work against Pharaoh, Moses breaks out in a song of praise. Within that song, we find parallelism, metaphors, and hyperbole, characteristics we do not associate with Historical Narrative, but rather Poetry.

As we read through Exodus this brief shift in genre is naturally apparent (Exodus 15:1 indicates that this passage is a song that Moses is singing). Most Bible translations also change the format to separate the text from the surrounding narrative to show it is poetic.

This becomes the most crucial when dealing with a single verse. It’s easy to take a verse out of its context and make it say whatever we want, which is unfortunately a very common practice. It’s also difficult to understand the meaning of a text when it is outside of its context, its genre, and its historical setting. Typically, knowing the genre of the book, and reading a paraphrase before and after the text will help clear up any misunderstanding. If not, help from a qualified pastor/teacher and good biblical commentaries (see Five Favorite Biblical Commentaries by Zachary Garris) are sure to bring clarity.

Implications

Much bad theology and even the formation of cults typically arise because of the abandonment of these basic interpretive principles. We do not interpret 1 Kings the same way we interpret Song of Songs, or Proverbs the same way we do Revelation.

Each genre has unique characteristics that help us understand what is written. Poetic literature uses metaphors and hyperbole. Historical narrative is the chronological telling of historical events. Apocalyptic/Prophetic literature uses dramatic visions and symbolic language. Wisdom literature uses parallelism to contrast righteousness and wickedness, wisdom and folly.

Not identifying the genre and its characteristics can lead to seriously faulty interpretations of scripture, for example:

  • God took billions of years to create the universe (believing Genesis 1-3 is poetic)
  • The bread and wine are the literal flesh and blood of Christ
  • Jesus is an archangel
  • David literally acted like a sheep and had God set a table before his enemies
  • Jesus is a literal door
  • The Apostles committed cannibalism
  • John ate a papyrus scroll
  • The mark of Cain being dark skin, and therefore a general curse upon dark skinned people

In Short

When studying the Bible, remember to do so in context. Beware of novel interpretations – if you are the first one in Church history to discover a particular reading of a passage, there’s a good chance it isn’t correct. In addition to the basic who/what/where/when/how questions about a specific passage, here are some other questions worth asking:

  • What genre is this book/passage/verse?
  • Who is the passage addressing specifically?
  • Is what the passage describes prescriptive or descriptive? (In other words, when Judas hangs himself in the gospels, this is describing an event, not telling anyone to copy him.)
  • If a passage is prescriptive, is it describing wise behavior (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.) or addressing a sin issue (Jesus in the Gospels, Paul’s epistles, etc.)?
  • What grammatical structures are at work (parts of speech)?
  • Does the text give imperatives (what you should do) or indicatives (how you should to be)?
  • What doctrine is being taught?
  • What argument is being made?

For Further Reading and Specific Examples:

Red Letter Nonsense by Tom Rush

Does Beliefe in a Worldwide Flood Matter? by David Harris

Is Jeremiah 29:11 About Personal Prosperity? by Troy Skinner

The Ten Theological Resources That I Find Helpful (And One More) by Dr. Russell Fuller

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