Hermeneutics is technically defined as the science and art of biblical interpretation. Henry Virkler says that:
Hermeneutics is considered a science because it has rules and these rules can be classified into an orderly system. It is considered an art because communication is flexible, and therefore a mechanical and rigid application of rules will sometimes distort the true meaning of communication. To be a good interpreter one must learn the rules of hermeneutics as well as the art of applying those rules.
It is true that there is a realm of hermeneutics that is specialized and requires greater interpretive skill in dealing with difficult passages and specific genres. But there is also a general set of hermeneutical principles that apply to all of Scripture and can be readily embraced by the average layman. In fact, most modern interpretive errors in mainstream evangelicalism can be easily detected (and solved) by a plain reading of the text and its surrounding verses.
It is also important to make a clear distinction between hermeneutics and exegesis when we make the leap from interpreting a text to explaining that text. Professor Matt Waymeyer explains this distinction when he describes hermeneutics as:
The set of underlying principles which guide the process of arriving at an accurate interpretation of the Word of God.
Waymeyer then goes on to contrast this with exegesis which he defines as:
The application of those principles in which the interpreter actually draws out of the text the meaning of Scripture.
In short, hermeneutics is the principles of interpretation while exegesis is the practice of interpretation. Since all Christians are called to be heralds of the gospel then all Christians are called to practice a certain degree of hermeneutics in order to understand this gospel rightly, and all Christians are called to practice a certain degree of exegesis in order to proclaim this gospel rightly.
In the book of Acts we see an encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian where Philip’s hermeneutical skills are called upon to bring illumination to the Ethiopian who desires understanding:
And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:27-35 ESV emphasis mine)
At the pastoral level, hermeneutical principles are the foundation of a faithful and powerful preaching ministry. They are the foundational building block from which good biblical exegesis is derived. This, in turn, becomes the necessary platform on which to build systematic theology, expository preaching, and pastoral ministry.
Accurate Interpretation à Faithful Proclamation à Authoritative Exhortation
This pattern is laid out biblically in the book of Ezra where it says:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel (Ezra 7:10 ESV).
Ezra was determined to study God’s Word in order that he could apply and live in accordance with God’s Word in order that he could teach God’s Word. We would all do well to emulate Ezra in this area.
Interpretation is an active part of our everyday lives. Just driving here today you probably practiced hermeneutics when you saw a diamond shape painted onto the left hand lane of the freeway to discern whether you were allowed to drive there or not. How much more important is it for Christians to rightly discern the written revelation God gave to us. Hermeneutics might be a scary name, but it is a faithful and necessary friend.