|A16 : by Tony Garland |
You have hit the nail on the head. Hermeneutics (how to interpret Scripture) is perhaps the most important subject of all. It is the "bedrock foundation" upon which all else rests when it comes to understanding what God has said. It is also the central issue which separates the different interpretive schools (premill, amill, postmill, pretrib, midtrib, posttrib, etc.). You are correct in understanding its importance and that the only way an interpreter can place any confidence in his understanding of the text is by a knowledge of (and strong commitment to) sound principles of interpretation. There is a great deal of "interpretive sleight of hand" which takes place in bible teaching. Not only that, but we ourselves often fall prey to interpretive inconsistencies of our own—and often are not aware of it. (Another reason why fellowship is so important—so that others whom we fellowship with can see our inconsistencies and bring them to our attention.)
Here are some recommended books on interpretation (in order of increasing sophistication):
The first two can often be found used, either at www.amazon.com or at www.bookfinder.com. You can also check www.bestbookdeal.com to find sources and prices of newer books.
The last book, by Robert Thomas, is perhaps the most comprehensive recent work and sounds the alarm on recent trends which are causing a drift in some areas of theology. But it assumes an understanding of the basic principles.
When I began attending Tyndale Theological Seminarye, the very first course they require is "prolegomena" (Greek for "to say beforehand") which plunges the student immediately into issues of interpretation. Until we can agree on how to interpret a text—especially the biblical text—we can't make much progress on anything else. You will find that the core issues that make a person fall into a particular interpretive camp are driven by the their belief about how to interpret the text. The reason that I am a dispensational, premillennial, pretribulational, young-earth, six-day creationist is found in my beliefs about interpretation. When I apply what I believe are sound interpretive principles to Scripture, the text itself "forces" me into this position—assuming I'm willing to bow to it's authority! ;-)
Also note that everyone employs some form of "hermeneutic" (interpretation). For many, their approach to interpretation is implicit: they don't consciously think about what they are doing or notice when they change horses midstream. The study of interpretation is not only valuable from the point of view of understanding why or why not to interpret a certain way, but it immediately increases one's awareness of how one previously approached understanding the text and what, if any, inconsistencies we've been harboring in our unconscious techniques.