I am trying to learn more about Biblical Hermeneutics, including the different philosophies Christians have about how Scripture should be interpreted. So far I have heard a wide variety of different claims about "the right way" to interpret Scripture. There are the major disciplines and methods, such as Historial-Grammatical, Sensus Plenior (etc.) Then there are the minor divisions, such as "each word is a shadow" vs. "words don't have meaning, people have meaning".

Often these differences lead to debates, but in the end I often see both sides coming to an agreement. This makes me wonder, are each of these Christian principles of Biblical Hermeneutics "correct," but "different," like the proverbial elephant which is viewed from different angles? (One says it's like a wispy reed [tail], one says it's like a tree trunk [leg], they are just seeing it from different, equally valid angles.)

So my question is, are all principles employed by Christian hermeneuticians compatible?

  • If the answer is "no", please provide an example or two of hermeneutical principles employed by Christians which are incompatible. (E.g. "Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.)

  • If the answer is "yes", please provide two or three examples which attempt to explain some common, alleged incompatibilities.

  • i think that an edit that includes the specific hermeneutical principles that you're seeking to compare and contrast would be helpful.
    – swasheck
    Commented Jul 8, 2012 at 21:47
  • @swasheck I am intentionally leaving the list of principles open-ended. I do not know enough about Biblical Hermeneutics to make an exhaustive list for the readers to consider anyway. (I just learned about "Sensus Plenior" this week.) The only knowledge required for a "no" answer would be knowledge of a set of principles which are obviously mutually exclusive, and are in use by Christian hermeneuticians. For a "yes", one would have to have a bit more understanding, and be able to explain some of the alleged 'contradictions' within the set of principles used in BH.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 1:56

5 Answers 5


In my first post I was trying to argue from a wider angle of the meaning of hermeneutics. For example an Arminian hermeneutic and a Calvinist hermeneutic may converge on the same truth and compliment one another when both are men of God, but may do the reverse when each is carnally minded. However, the more I think about it is more accurate to restrict the answer to a more technical meaning of hermeneutics and say that different hermeneutical principles are often not compatible. In other words Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.

(Note: I do not plan to delete my other answer as it still argues a point that is not altogether wrong but I place this one as my more thoughtful answer).

There are many examples like this. (Group A says X, but Group B says Y, and Y = not X.)

Case 1: (Sensus Plenior to what degree does it exists)
A – There is a hidden meaning behind every verse in the ‘sensus plenior’.
B – There is not a hidden meaning behind any verse accept those that have been made known by other verses.

B might spend much effort understanding the literal meaning and A may hardly care leading to extravagant and even meaningless imaginative claims that have no bearing to what B is trying to understand. A and B tend to diverge more and more, therefore they are not equal.

Case 2: (Typology – How much did the human author understand)
A – The author of scripture understood nothing about the overall typology that God was designing to be revealed at a later time in history.
B – The author had a spiritual gift to see nearly everything that the typology was predicting.

B will interpret individual verses much differently than A because B will assume so much more understanding to the original author. This will cause A and B to diverge therefore they are not equal.

Case 3: (Context)
A – It is not necessary to account for initial context of prophecies but when they are fulfilled they finally have meaning.
B – One must never twist any verse outside its original meaning, not matter how a new fulfillment has widened its original sense.

A may completely disregard the essential meaning of scripture as understood by B. These methods are not equal.

Case 4: (Can we use Jewish exegetical methods popular at the time of Christ)
A – God used the exegetical methods of the time through humans to reveal truths in the Old Testament, so we can uncover those methods and do the same things.
B – God inspired New Testament authors to see truth in the Old Testament without using some of the ‘wild’ Jewish exegetical methods of the time and only appears to be undisciplined at times but actually never breaks the true literal meaning of scripture as it was written. We cannot try to use ancient methods to give more creative latitude in our exegesis of the Old Testament. We can only use rational reasons with what has been revealed and argue from the historical literal.

A can create whatever meaning of the Old Testament he wants, B will oppose A. They are not equal.

Case 5: (Allegory)
A – Paul used allegory to describe the Law has Hagar therefore we can allegorize anything for its spiritual meaning.
B – Paul used allegory in a very limited sense and even said he was doing so, but as He was inspired by the Holy Ghost his allegory was not like ours would be.

'A' can again say whatever he wants with many verses of the Bible and B will often oppose those results. A and B are not equal.

Conclusion – Although I do not deny that there is meaning in scripture beyond the knowledge of the human author, I personally lean heavily (keep primary) the literal historical and feel alarmed by any hermeneutic that would ignore that focus, or worse, even oppose its actual meaning. There are, therefore, such a thing as 'incompatible hermeneutical approaches' especially those extremes that confront or virtually ignore the focus of the literal meaning.

  • +1 However in case 1:"A may hardly care leading to extravagant and even meaningless imaginative claims" is a statement of extreme bias. I might word it: B may spend a great deal of time chasing Greek philosophical ideas, while A is concerned with seeing Christ in each detail." ;) just saying.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:12
  • Case 4: A uses a method revealed by Christ and evident from the NT authors usage, while being accused of using the methods used by his detractors in order to prevent others from seeing Christ in scripture. A's method eliminates free-for-all exegesis and provides a self-correcting methodology to exegesis.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:15
  • Case 5: A can only say that which conforms to the basic rules: It is Christocentric, metaphor must be the same everywhere it is used, and metaphor is derived from the formation of words from its constituents parts and solving riddles consistently throughout scripture.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:17
  • One who does not understand the methods of SP will always think it is free-for-all allegory since they did not bother to discern the origins and prefer to measure truth on what they already know. But it is evident that there is a great divergence.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:21
  • Case 1 neglects the other points of view as enumerated by gospelgrowth.net/articles/…
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:26

A single example of two hermeneutic methods that are definitely incompatible would answer your question simply, as you point out.

Spoiler alert: No, not all principles employed by Christian hermeneuticians are compatible.

Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians together comprise the majority of Christians in the world (Roman Catholics comprise about 53%, Orthodox around 15%). Both of these branches of Christianity hold to hermeneutic principles that require one to interpret Scripture with the "mind of the Church" (though the two branches may disagree on exactly what the "mind of the Church" is). Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and hierarch, for example, writes:

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" And the Ethiopian answered, "How can I, unless some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ - but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion - whether our own or that of the scholars - to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.1

Thus, Eastern Orthodox exegesis always requires one to understand the patristic consensus on a particular passage, if available. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) expounded on this in his Commonitory (II.5):

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,— because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Eastern Orthodox hermeneutics stand in stark contrast to what many Evangelical Christians affirmed (and continue to affirm) in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

WE DENY that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.2

as well as in the companion Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics

However, whatever prompting and clarifying of Scripture that extrabiblical studies may provide, the final authority for what the Bible teaches rests in the text of Scripture itself and not in anything outside it (except in God Himself).3

Regardless of which of the two fundamental hermeneutical principles one agrees or disagrees with, the two positions are clearly incompatible.

The fundamental incompatibility of multiple Christian hermeneutical systems is evident in the vast divides in theology between (and in some cases within) all three major Christian branches. Unless one maintains that all differences arose without exception through flawed exegesis (or perhaps complete lack of exegesis - a null hermeneutic) rather than divergent hermeneutics, such divisions attest to the fact that it is the hermeneutical principles themselves that must be in conflict.

1. How to Read the Bible
2. Article I
3. Article XX


How should the Scripture be interpreted and when using different rules can you arrive at the same or different answers?

Simple answer: The scripture should be interpreted as outlined here. When using different hermeneutics both propositions are true, you can arrive at the same answers, or different answers. The answers might very much complement each other, or they might absolutely conflict.

A biblical hermeneutic is simply a tool, like a hammer, it can be used to build a house of knowledge, or can be used to destroy the same house down, all depending on whose hands the hammer is in. The hermeneutic itself will not make two people converge to the same answer, or diverge from the same answer.

The one thing that is clear is that the answers never absolutely converge. There are no two Christians who absolutely believe the same things even when using the same tools for exegesis. On the other hand there are many under the name Christian who disagree about virtually everything, even while using the same hermeneutic tools.

Long Answer:

To make our way to the suggested rules of exegesis listed in the link above, let’s first see what biblical hermeneutics we have discarded to get there.

  1. We have discarded the belief that Scripture is just like any other writing so that an unbeliever can fully understand it using the same hermeneutic principles that one might use for understanding any text. We have discarded this because the scripture itself says this is not true.

  2. We have discarded the biblical hermeneutic assertion that says the truth within the scripture is only that truth that the person writing fully understood. Instead, for example, we have assumed that at least part of the types in the Old Testament foreshadowing Christ were not fully understood by the author, but God planted them in advance to be understood more fully later, after the great Anti-Type arrived. (I imagine many Jewish hermeneutic philosophies would not agree to this). We have also assumed that God gives light to our eyes to understand His word that we cannot explain in a scholastic hermeneutic because it is spiritual and not human.

  3. We have discarded an inordinate fixation on textual criticism that would question the validity of everything we are reading in the Bible, although not fully ignoring a concern with the identification and removal of transcription errors that may have occurred in some minor cases, depending on what manuscripts you are reviewing. As Christians we largely leave this to those publishing Bibles, but even on this site some have identified textual errors.

  4. Christians have always valued some historical criticism in their exegesis and have tried to ascertain the text's primitive or original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense. However, we reject the notion that the whole Bible can be explained upon this basis alone, for we hold that the scripture did not come from man, and can’t be derived from that historical context only. The historical context only helps understand how God spoke through a particular time, place and person. We even admit that personality itself affects the timbre of the tune that God plays through revelation - the timbre being the human the tone his voice. The four gospels, though saying the same thing, and though addressed to slightly different audiences, are clear examples of personality having an imprint on the envelope of God’s word. We reject that history or personality produced God’s word, but we deny revelation overrides the persons and events involved.

Once we have discarded anything that would deny that God’s word was infallible as originally written, or deny that the manuscripts we have in our possession are unreliable, we have basically narrowed down into a proper Christian form of Biblical Exegesis. This is the very every-day Bible believing exegesis that regular church folk apply, regardless of whether they have ever heard of the words ‘exegesis’ or ‘hermeneutics’. For instance, my wife almost understands the Bible as much as I do, but she has no clue what these two words mean.

The real hermeneutic quest:

When I approach the Bible what I am often are more concerned about: ‘What is really inside the Bible itself, strictly speaking? (Even after I have accept the rules of interpretation, including prayer and revelation) How has God communicated His mind in the literal text, so that I can take critical analysis and test what 'I think' God has revealed to me, from what may be my foolish imagination, or what my sinful nature, or even the Devil has revealed to me. Call it a fear of being deceived, or deceiving myself.

Or on a more technical note, we also often try to understand how someone in the New Testament could quote the Old Testament and apply it in the way they did. What rules of exegesis did they consider acceptable to reapply a certain verse in the way that they did?

To answer these two questions it is good to set of definitions for ease of explanation:

The ‘Symbol’ - something used for or regarded as representing something else.

The ‘Metaphor’ - a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not directly applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance.

The ‘Human literal sense’ – What a human author directly intended by his words, either literally or metaphorically, and was ‘fully aware of’ at the time of writing them.

The ‘Divine literal sense’ – What God directly intended, either literally or metaphorically, in the text itself, to the readers at that time in history or to us.

The ‘Divine typical sense’ – What God intended to foreshadow as a 'future meaning' of the original literal sense. It is actually another thing altogether, not just a metaphor. This sense may have been only vaguely understood by the human author. Note: The sensus plenior or "a fuller sense of", as far as I can tell, seems to be just a phrase for identifying aspects of the divine literal sense and divine typical sense under a Latin term. This fuller sense implies any meaning that was not fully within the grasp of the human author.

The ‘Literary genres’ - Literary technique, tone, content, specifically related to a certain kind of text, like prophecy, poetry, proverbs, history, etc. These genres may be related to cultural styles within Hebrew history and the original languages of the manuscripts.

The ‘Explicative sense‘ – This is that truth of scripture that can be directly 'argued through reason' based on absolute scripture itself, almost like just saying something the same way. This is entirely 'within' the scripture. For example, the word Trinity is not used in scripture, but it seems entirely within the scripture itself.

The ‘Consequential sense’ – This is 'potential truth' of scripture that is not fully contained within scripture but convincingly pulled out of scripture, or is a clear application of scripture, that is based on reason which seems highly convincing. Strictly speaking this may be very true, or very false, based on who is performing the reasoning.

The reason I have listed these definitions is they indicate by themselves the types of arguments different biblical hermeneutic approaches might emphasize, more than others, to try and figure out how a New Testament writer could interpret and apply the Old Testament scripture in the way it was done. For example, how did the author of the Hebrews know that Moses, when describing Melchizedek so briefly, that this the lack of attention to the literal mother and father of Melchizedek, actually 'set up the text' to represent a type of an Eternal Priest? Another thing that might be tackled is how one can identify ‘hyperbole’ in a prophecy to indicate something that could never take place without a more spiritual future sense of Messianic proportions. Once one has identified such a text, how can one ensure that the ideas drawn out of it, is not in conflict with all the literal ideas of the rest of the scriptures. My feeling is that is some ways there is no need to define such rules. Rather with these definitions anyone can argue for, or against any Hermeneutic they fancy in a manner that scholastic thinkers do.

A better method to properly learn good hermeneutic is not necessarily at university but simply by engorging ourselves in the Bible and observe how other solid teachers and Biblical commentators have done it. However, this leads to the final subject of 'a piori' because once you put yourself under a teacher you are accepting their a piori knowledge of the subject because you trust them..

A priori knowledge:

The fact is we come to the scripture with a huge bias. This is a necessary part of any learning we must form a bias in some sense of the word. Once we have some knowledge we come to the scripture to get more knowledge, but our current knowledge naturally biases how we interpret the scripture on our return. As we understand more and more we are more biased by our understanding, which is a good thing for one man and a bad thing for another. I think this reality is implicit in the words of our Lord: 'Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him'. (Math 13:12)

If a man walked up to a person and was punched in the face, the next time he comes to talk to the person, he will have his fists up. This is the way knowledge works. We have a constant feedback mechanism into whatever subject we study. There is no way of escaping this ‘knowledge building’ or ‘ignorance building’ depending on the state of our heart before God.

God's word is a sword, or in modern day language a Smith and Wesson Revolver. When it fires a few bullets into your heart, you do not come back to it in full objective impassionate study?! If we do we know nothing about the Bible. Yes, it is very wise to be as objective and critical in looking at every Bible verse as possible, before allowing our dogma, or systematic theology, to wrest the literal meaning out of its context, but eventually when our knowledge is solid we will find that it helps us remove our confusion, more than it does increase it. What may appear to be an unwarranted bias to one man, is actually just comparing scripture with scripture with God’s illumination and the knowledge that He has given to another man.

From 'a piori' we have all the kinds of systematic theologies that one could ever hope for, each representing a different Hermeneutic principle in its tendency to bias for good, or evil. I tend to favor Covenant Theology, but do not ascribe, lock stock and barrel. I recommend it to help a person's Hermeneutics. I basically equate Covenant Theology with the frame work that will arise when one begins to form and understanding of the Bible. This naturally biases how I interpret everything in the Bible.

Conclusion: Faith is a form of knowledge so without faith, even a professor of hermeneutic studies can at best only argue that it is possible to understand spiritual things but never actually know what that means. I have encounter academic books like this.

In reality a biblical hermeneutic is simply a tool, like a hammer, it can be used to build a house of knowledge, or can be used to destroy the same house down, all depending on whose hands the hammer is in. The hermeneutic itself will not make two people converge to the same answer, or diverge from the same answer. These tools should be used ‘by faith ‘to build a house according to the rules outlined here.

  • 1
    @Jas3.1 - Lol - I had to theologically twist my brain into a pretzel just to form an opinion on the answer.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 5:49
  • This seems like a description of a particular hermeneutic ("The scripture should be interpreted as outlined here"). I'm not sure I saw where the question was answered.
    – user33515
    Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 21:30

Some are compatible, some are not.

In the method which is being called Sensus Plenior, there are 4 layers of meaning. As odd as that sounds, the Catholic church has believed in the Quadriga, and the Jews in Pardes, each their own version of 4 layers.

The first layer of meaning is the literal-historical and all the rules of legitimate literal-historical interpretation apply. This is the Pashat.

In the Sod, the hidden layer, there are three scopes of interpretation which are derived through methods of Pardes coupled with rules which eliminate free-for-all interpretation.

Mike's article does a good job of describing the differences between the literal and the hidden, even though he is very prejudiced and biased against SP.

The problem with the literal is that there are not prescriptive rules which prevent free-for-all exegesis or allegory. Therefore its practitioners have no bounds as Scholtz so aptly demonstrates: http://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/85594

The literal interpretations are more at odds with each other than they are with SP since SP acknowledges the existence of a legitimate literal meaning, and assists in teasing it out as well.

If compatibility is measured by the theological output of the hemeneutic rather than the details of any particular verse, SP falls within the same acceptable bounds that permit some Calvinists and Armenians to agree to agree on a subset of fundamentals and give grace where they disagree.

*formation of words (used often in answers in SEBH) is called: Notarikon - Interpretation by dividing a word into two or more parts in the 32 rules of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jose de Galili


Dr. J. Edwin Hartill, in his book, "Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics", stated,

"Biblically, Hermeneunitics is a science of interpreting the Bible."

Many noble students of the Bible persuing the truth of God's Word, have scientifically sought out and applied patterns and principles which God has conveniently placed in the Scripture for our instruction in the meaning of His Word. When adhered to, they offer great insight into the truth of Scripture. A truly scientific approach does not offend any of these Godly inspired patterns and principles.

The word, hermeneutics, is of course derived from the Greek god, Hermies. A wide variety of religions of men have adopted their own unique set of differing claimed patterns and principles to follow, labeling them as Biblical Hermeunics patterns and principles.

At the outset, Scripture shows a pattern of enforcing the principle that there is but ONE God, and that He is NOT Hermies. As a warning, there have been many bad self-proclaimed "physical scientists" as well as many bad self-proclaimed "Biblical scientists" over the years of existence of men on earth. Men who are regarded by many as scientists differ and disagree on many things. They can't all be right. It takes a truly scientific approach to arrive at the scientific truth of the matter, as demanded in Isaiah 28:9-10:

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:

Plain reading of the text is a must. Patterns and precepts arising out of that plain reading MUST take absolute preference over the necessary word twiddling of the author's text and the language intricacies used by that author.

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