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The historical-grammatical method is a Christian hermeneutical method that strives to discover the biblical authors' original intended meaning in the text. It is the primary method of interpretation for many conservative Protestant exegetes who reject the historical-critical method to various degrees (from the complete rejection of historical criticism of some fundamentalist Protestants to the moderated acceptance of it in the Roman Catholic tradition since Pope Pius XII), in contrast to the overwhelming reliance on historical-critical interpretation, often to the exclusion of all other hermeneutics, in liberal Christianity.
The Orthodox Church primarily employs a spiritual, allegorizing hermeneutic heavily dependent on typological connections drawn by New Testament writers and the church fathers of the first several centuries of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church divides hermeneutic into four senses: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical; however, interpretation is always subject to the Church's magisterium. The process for determining the original meaning of the text is through examination of the grammatical and syntactical aspects, the historical background, the literary genre as well as theological (canonical) considerations. The historical-grammatical method distinguishes between the one original meaning of the text and its significance. The significance of the text is essentially the application or contextualization of the principles from text.
Original meaning of texts
The aim of the historical-grammatical method is to discover the meaning of the passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. The original passage is seen as having only a single meaning or sense. As Milton S. Terry said, "A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture."
Many practice the historical-grammatical method using the inductive method, a general three-fold approach to the text: observation, interpretation, and application. Each step builds upon the other, which follows in order. The first step of observation involves an examination of words, structure, structural relationships and literary forms. After observations are formed, then the second step of interpretation involves asking interpretative questions, formulating answers to those questions, integration and summarization of the passage. After the meaning is derived through interpretation, the third step of application involves determining both the theoretical and practical significance of the text and appropriately applying this significance to today's modern context. There is also a heavy emphasis on personal application that extends into all aspects of the practitioner's life. Theologian Robert Traina, in his 1952 Methodical Bible Study, wrote that "the applicatory step is that for which all else exists. It represents the final purpose of Bible study."
Technically speaking, the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is distinct from the determination of the passage's significance in light of that interpretation. Together, interpretation of the passage and determining the meaning define the term "hermeneutics."
Comparison with other methods of interpretations
In the reader-response method, the focus is on how the book is perceived by the reader, not on the intention of the author. Those who regard the text as divinely inspired and seek to determine the intention of the divine author tend to stay away from this method because of the many interpretations, often contrary to scripture, arising from a reader response of the text without any formal foundation of the text.
The historical-critical method is used by many academic Bible scholars in universities, including many Roman Catholic and Protestant institutions. The method uses higher criticism, in an attempt to discover the sources and factors that contributed to the making of the text as well as to determine what it meant to the original audience. Scholars who use the historical-critical method treat the Bible as they would any other text. Historical-critical scholars as such are also typically less interested in determining what the text means for people today. For those reasons, some traditional scholars and conservative Christians tend to reject the method, but even many of them use aspects of it that naturally overlap with the historical-grammatical method, such as attempting to determine what was meant when the passage in question was written.
- Elwell, Walter A. (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. ISBN 0-8010-3413-2.
- The Biblical Commission's Document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" Text and Commentary; ed. Joseph A. Fitzmyer; Subsidia Biblica 18; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Bibllico, 1995. See esp. p. 26, "The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts."
- See T. G. Stylianopoulos, "Scripture and Tradition in the Church," in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (eds. M. Cunningham and E. Theokritoff; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 21-34.
- Johnson, Elliott. Expository hermeneutics : an introduction. Grand Rapids Mich.: Academie Books. ISBN 978-0-310-34160-4.
- Terry, Milton (1974). Biblical hermeneutics : a treatise on the interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. page 205
- Traina, Robert (1952). Methodical Bible study : a new approach to hermeneutics. Ridgefield Park? N.J., New York: [distributed by] Biblical Seminary in New York.
- Hendricks, Howard G. (1991). Living by the Book. Chicago: Moody Press. p. 349. ISBN 0-8024-0743-9.
- Traina, Robert (1952). Methodical Bible Study: A New Approach to Hermeneutics. New York: [distributed by] Biblical Seminary in New York. p. 217.
- Elwell, Walter A. (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. ISBN 0-8010-3413-2. p. 565
- Coogan, Michael D (2005). The Old Testament, a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513911-9.