Is the Sermon on the Mount directly applicable to Christians today? Is the Sabbath commandment still in effect? Should Christians baptize their infants? How we answer these and many other questions depends on the interpretive assumptions we have before we even open the Bible. We all come to the Bible with certain ideas about how it should be read, but herein lies the problem. If we bring these assumptions to Scripture, where did we get them in the first place? Are we deriving our assumptions from Scripture or bringing them in from the outside?
When we talk about the methods and principles we use to interpret the Bible, we are talking about hermeneutics. All of us practice hermeneutics every day, but we are usually unconscious of it. If we are reading works written in our own culture, in our own native language, and in our own time period, we usually don’t have to give a second thought to the rules of interpretation. If we pick up a book that begins with the words once upon a time . . . , for example, we know that we should not read it as we would read an encyclopedia article. We automatically recognize that opening line as an indicator that this writing belongs to the genre of “fairy tale.” We are also familiar with our own culture’s way of referring to people, places, and things. If we are reading an author who says he visited “the Big Apple,” we know he is referring to New York City and not a giant piece of fruit. New York City is what the author literally means by using this figure of speech.
But what happens when we pick up a book written thousands of years ago in a different language? If we were to see this book on a fragile papyrus scroll with the original letters of the ancient language in which it was written, we might stop and realize that we will have to do some work before we are prepared to read it. We will have to learn the language. We will have to learn something about the culture in which it was written. We will have to find out what genre of literature it is. When we see an ancient scroll, we recognize that it isn’t the same kind of thing as a modern novel. What if that ancient scroll has already been translated, however? What if it has been translated and published in a modern book format with nice leather covers? What if you grew up with that book and were somewhat familiar with the contents? Such familiarity could lull you into thinking that this book is to be read with the same cultural assumptions we bring to contemporary written works.
These are some of the issues we have to think about when we read the Bible. The Bible is a collection of ancient books, originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The books of the Old Testament were written by numerous authors who lived in the ancient Near Eastern world with its own customs and assumptions. The books of the New Testament were written during the height of the Roman Empire. Those are not the worlds in which we have lived our lives. If we fail to understand the kind of books found in the Bible, we can easily misidentify genres, which leads to a misapplication of historical-grammatical hermeneutics. We can forget these things because our Bibles have already been translated out of the ancient languages. Our Bibles have also already been taught to us and read by us along the lines of certain hermeneutical systems we inherited, and some of these are more faithful to the text than others. Knowing which of these we bring to Scripture and why is important.
Over the last century and a half, two systems of interpretation, covenant theology and dispensationalism, have been the dominant alternatives among evangelical Christians. Covenant theology was in seed form in the writings of the church fathers, but it saw significant developments during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It grew out of a recognition that the Bible reveals God as dealing with His people by means of covenants. At its most basic, a covenant is a formal arrangement between two or more parties. The specific kind of arrangement depends on various factors. Every type of covenant involves obligations for one or both parties. Some covenants also involve formal oaths, some involve ritual ceremonies, and some have external signs. All covenants effect some kind of relationship between the parties.