Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. The Protestant emphasis on biblical authority made hermeneutics an essential task for church leaders.
   The dominant Christian hermeneutics of the Middle Ages, developed by Origen, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, used allegorical interpretations of the Bible to support various Catholic notions and practices. The pope retained final authority as to how any passage should be interpreted.
   Early in his career, Martin Luther found the allegorical method inadequate, as it could be used to make Scripture say anything. He suggested instead that Scripture had a simple meaning conveyed by the historical and grammatical context of the passage under discussion. He came to believe that Scripture was accessible to the common believer - an idea called the perspicuity of Scripture.
   Luther recognized that some passages were less clear than others; he believed they could be interpreted in light of the clearer ones. He also advocated that the Bible be read in light of one's faith, believing that the Holy Spirit would confirm the meaning for the individual and allow its personal appropriation.
   Luther's readings relied in part on the new Greek text of the New Testament prepared by Erasmus, and the effort of Hebraicist Johann Reuchlin and others to make the Old Testament text readily available as well. Their work allowed him to ignore the Latin translation then used by the Catholic Church. His hermeneutics also suggested that the Bible should be translated into the language(s) of the people. John Calvin basically agreed, and like him supported new Bible translations.
   in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, the promulgation of creedal statements by the various Protestant groups tended to reduce the scope of permissible biblical interpretation. in some situations, adherence to a creed became more important than an individual's appropriation of the Bible's teachings. in reaction, supporters of Pietism such as Methodist founder John Wesley revived the Lutheran idea of the perspicuity of the Bible.
   During the 18th century, the Pietists' desire to understand and apply scripture to their lives was confronted by a new trend: rationalists began to set up reason as a judge of Scripture. A rational search of the Bible, they said, should yield a set of basic religious affirmations. in its more skeptical form, the approach reduced Christianity to a deis-tic affirmation of God, the need for prayer, the existence of an afterlife, and the centrality of the moral life. it jettisoned much of Christian orthodoxy, especially the teachings on Christ and salvation, and denied God's role in history and the existence of miracles.
   science buttressed this rationalist approach in the 19th century. The findings of geology and biology in particular led many Christians to doubt the accuracy of the Bible on matters of history, the origin of the earth, and the nature of humanity. Whereas previously Protestants had differed on their interpretation of specific passages of scripture, this new approach tended to challenge the basic Protestant consensus about the authority of the Bible.
   Some Protestants now started with the assumption that the Bible can be read, as any other text, in light of its historical context and with its stated purpose. Scholars began to read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) as a set of independent documents that had been edited together to create a single narrative. This approach became known as the Documentary Hypothesis, and it became the foundation for modern biblical criticism.
   Today, the great majority of biblical scholars treat other biblical books the same way. Thus, they say, the Gospel of Matthew was created by blending material from the Gospel of Mark, a supposed text called "Q" (which contained the material common to Matthew and Luke), and an additional source (or sources) unique to Matthew. Such an understanding yields a very different interpretation of the Bible than the more traditional Protestant understanding, though it is by no means incompatible with a high view of the authority and inspiration of the Bible.
   More conservative Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals among them, have tended to reject the modern critical methods in favor of a more traditional literal reading that emphasizes historical context and purpose. They tend to affirm the integrity and unity of each book and respect the traditional authorships. in their view, the authority of Scripture is greatly compromised if St. Paul did not write the letter to Titus, for example, or if the book of Genesis was compiled from separate and contradictory texts.
   Some Evangelicals have used the language of Princeton Theology to affirm their opinion of Scripture. They suggest that the Bible is infallible (relative to moral and spiritual matters) and inerrant (relative to other matters such as history and science). They affirm that every word of the Bible is inspired.
   conservative scholars have developed a sophisticated hermeneutic of their own, usually termed the historical-grammatical approach: the text should be interpreted in light of its historical and cultural context and its language and syntax. Without compromising the integrity or authenticity of the text, such an approach has greatly expanded the possibilities for interpretation, and has been able to incorporate insights from new methodological tools such as form criticism.
   Some conservative Protestants have used dis-pensationalism as a hermeneutical tool, accepting its division of history into different ages or dispensations of divine and human action. Dispensationalism is compatible with another hermeneutical approach, the typological, in which the Old Testament characters and stories are seen as foreshadowing the New. Thus, the priest Melchizedek becomes a type of Christ. These and other additional hermeneutical principles allow for a further expansion of the believer's ability to appropriate the text.
   At the other extreme, a more radical use of biblical criticism has been adopted by the group of scholars who organized the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s. They attempted a rigorous use of the critical tools to discern how much can be known about the historical Jesus.
   Further reading:
   ■ Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1950)
   ■ Gerald L. Burns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992)
   ■ Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1993)
   ■ Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner/Polebridge, 1996)
   ■ Norman L. Geisler, Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (oakland, Calif.: International Council on Biblical inerrancy, 1983).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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