Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. It is a term derived from the name of the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes (in the Roman pantheon, Mercury). Hermeneutics helps you figure out the message from God in Holy Scripture.
You might think hermeneutics is as simple as figuring out the literal meaning of the text, but then you would be missing that translation is already an exercise in hermeneutics. In my youth, the Living Bible was one man’s paraphrase of Scripture based upon his own theology. More recently, Eugene Peterson’s The Message was also a much better paraphrase based upon Peterson’s knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, but it still reflected Peterson’s own interpretation of how you might put the author’s thoughts in everyday language. A lot of guys liked reading The Message, because Peterson spoke in down-to-earth guy talk, but it was still Peterson’s informed interpretation.
If you have taken a Bible course or two at a college or university level, your instructor or professor has his or her own interpretive lens through which he or she reads the text. Like the introduction to most Bible translations, if you read or listen closely, the teacher is telling you how he or she reads Scripture. More often than not, your teacher has placed him- or herself as the center of all.
No one comes to the Holy Scriptures as a blank slate. All of us bring our own biases, experiences, and intellectual history with us. The key is always to understand with what lenses you are looking at the text of Scripture. Many of us have not examined our biases honestly. For many scholars, their training and research are so geared to the academy, that they fail to see how their own personal hurts, ambition, or bondage to ideas like progress and novelty affect their reading of texts to the point of obscuring the text rather than to aiding others to understand it. The Bible is the Church’s book and not the academy’s!
The history of Christian biblical interpretation is already evident in the way the New Testament writers read what Christians call the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible or Greek Septuagint). The organization of the canon of the Old Testament by the early Church is already an interpretation of its message. The use of Old Testament texts by all the New Testament writers is already an interpretation through the lens of the death and resurrection of God’s Incarnate Son Jesus. He is the enfleshed Word of God, already present in the first verses of Genesis, Whom the early Church later calls the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. His innocent suffering and death for sinners and His bodily resurrection from the dead on the third day are the heart of the Christian kerygma (proclamation). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, from the God whom Jesus calls Father and through His Son Jesus is essential to the metanarrative (the grand over-arching story) as Christians understand the Bible.
Media darlings from the academic world routinely present themselves as better scholars, more learned, and even more honest than those who are self-consciously passing along the Christian faith as summarized by the Nicene Creed (and, for some, also the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds). For those from a non-creedal background: the creeds are hermeneutical keys to reading the Scriptures! These are basic statements of what must be said to pass along rightly the Christian faith to the next generation.
The history of the Christian Church also impacts how one reads the Scriptures. For Roman Catholics, the teaching office of the Church, as represented by the Pope and his bishops, is the only reliable interpreter of Scripture. For the Orthodox East, the witness of the Orthodox fathers (bishops and theologians) is the key to reading Scripture in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The East does not agree that the Bishop of Rome has greater authority than the union of Orthodox hierarchs, hence the Great Schism of the 11th century. They say Rome created the problem at that time, and Rome must mend the breach. Both the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the other. They have only been praying together again since the 1960s!
In this 500th year of the Lutheran (and not Protestant) Reformation, many are paying lip service or attention to Martin Luther’s contribution to (or further destruction of) Church unity. Many people, including pastors, who call themselves Lutherans have no real understanding of what it means to read the Scriptures like Martin Luther. If one picks up his somewhat drunken ramblings recorded by somewhat drunken students in “Table Talks,” one may well be disgusted by some of Luther’s more scatalogical remarks. If reading a sermon, a commentary, or a treatise by Luther, one needs to know who is Luther’s intended conversation partner or perhaps target. When arguing with Rome, he increasingly sounds like a total protestant. When arguing with the left wing of the Reformation, he is most definitely a son of the Roman Church. The Lutheran Reformers know the Church’s tradition.
Self-consciously Lutheran pastors and lay people read the Holy Scriptures, as Luther did, through the lens of the death and resurrection of God’s beloved Son Jesus. Luther’s question, “Was treibt Christum,” (what urges or necessitates Christ) famously (or infamously) becomes the hermeneutical key to Scripture. If one can read a text in such a way that it implies one can save oneself from sin, death, and the power of the evil one, then one has just wasted the death of God’s Son (a sub-Christian reading of the text). This, of course, lies at the heart of Luther’s argument against the sale of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica, not because he was opposed to a new basilica, but because the implication was that forgiveness had to be purchased with money. Many a protestant televangelist today is another John Tetzel selling forgiveness for a new private jet or a bigger TV worship center. Don’t waste Jesus’ death!
Luther’s young associate Philip Melanchthon, author of the Augsburg Confession and its defense (the Apology), systematizes this key to say that all of Scripture may be divided either into law or promise, God’s No or God’s Yes. In Jesus Christ, God says “No” to sin, death, and the devil, but God says “Yes” to sinners, both Jews and Gentiles. This does not mean that real Lutherans are antinomians (although some who call themselves Lutherans most certainly are). Neither reason or good works are proscribed, as some Lutheran detractors slanderously maintain. Rather reason and good works are captive to God’s Word and, as such, are unable to save. Only God’s Incarnate Son saves. Reason is subject to the mind of Christ, the Living Word of God, and good works are the way we give God thanks.
Many Christian folks find self-consciously Lutheran Christians to be aggravating in the extreme. We point always to the death of God’s Beloved Son as the heart of the Christian message and the key to reading Scripture. Holy Baptism saves, because we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Holy Communion offers forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, because we receive Jesus’ true Body and most Precious Blood in the Host and the Cup. In both instances, we trust God’s Promise is true!
We Lutherans will always point to the death of God’s Son Jesus and explain you waste His death if you suppose you can cooperate in any way with God. We are, unlike many if not most Christians, monergists not synergists. We believe God’s Holy Spirit does the work of saving always through the Gospel, which includes bringing those born dead in our trespasses (everyone) from death to life by joining us to the death and resurrection of God’s Son in Baptism; by creating trust in us through God’s promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation; by keeping us united to Jesus through Word and Sacraments; and by promising to raise us and all the dead and give to us and all believers in Christ eternal life in resurrected bodies. It’s all God’s Work if we say “Yes.” It’s nobody’s fault but our own if we say “No!”