Explain Hermeneutics in Simple Terms

Explain Hermeneutics in Simple Terms

Hermeneutics is a term we can trace back to Ancient Greece. The origin appears to have come from Greed deity, Hermes. The ancient Greeks attributed the invention of language to him. Additionally, the philosopher Aristotle used the term ἑρμηνεύω, or hermeneutice, in On Interpretation. In it, Aristotle discusses the relationship between language, logic, and meaning. To explain hermeneutics, you should understand there are different approaches. A philosophical approach is concerned primarily with the nature of meaning and how we understand and interpret things. So, hermeneutics is basically an approach to understanding the world, in it’s various fields of study. This includes both philosophy (and by extension the various sciences) and also theology, the study of God.

Explain Hermeneutics to Me Like I’m 5

Explain hermeneutics in philosophy

The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions. As a theory of interpretation, the hermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy. In the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hermeneutics emerges as a crucial branch of Biblical studies. Later on, it comes to include the study of ancient and classic cultures. [1]

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains hermeneutics of philosophy this way:

“Philosophical hermeneutics takes as its object of inquiry the interpretive process itself and seeks interpretive practices designed to respect that process (Dostal 2002; Malpas 2014; Wachterhauser 1994). Philosophical hermeneutics, then, can be alternately described as the philosophy of interpretation, the philosophy of understanding, or the philosophy of meaning.”

Explain hermeneutics in theology

Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It is part of the broader field of hermeneutics which involves the study of principles of interpretation for all forms of communication, nonverbal and verbal.

Lexical-syntactical analysis: This step looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.

Historical/cultural analysis: The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of the Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.

Contextual analysis: A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.

Theological analysis: It is often said that a single verse usually doesn’t make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poor interpretation.

Special literary analysis: There are several special literary aspects to look at, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry have more figurative and allegorical language than does the narrative or historical writing. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.[2]

Dane Ortland explains hermeneutics of theology in this way:

“Think optometry. Hermeneutics is the pair of glasses. It’s what you wear when you interpret something. The lens. Not what you look at but what you look with. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation.”


1. Mantzavinos, C., “Hermeneutics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/hermeneutics/>.

2. Wikipedia contributors, “Biblical hermeneutics,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Biblical_hermeneutics&oldid=791349982 (accessed August 2, 2017).

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Kerry Baldwin
B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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