Hermeneutics (from Greek hermeneutikos) is the interpretation of a text, particularly the text of Holy Scripture. The word literally means "interpretation" (in its basic sense, interpreting a foreign language into one familiar to the listener) but can also refer to "explanation." It is this latter sense which is meant when referring to Biblical hermeneutics. In the Orthodox Christian Church, the practice of hermeneutics is according to basic principles (presuppositions) which are manifest in the life of the Church. Following is a summary of those principles, expressed here in ten parts:
Orthodox Hermeneutic Principles
1. God is real and is incarnated in our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything pertaining to the Scriptures must be understood Christologically. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the center of all that we as Christians do, and being Himself the very Truth, He is the only gate through which we may enter into understanding of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments (though not all that is contained in the Old Testament is directly relevant for Christians). The Bible ultimately is about Christ and assists us in our union with Him.
2. Only the pure in heart "shall see God." That is, our spiritual state has a direct bearing on our interpretation of the Scriptures. As St. Athanasius said, "One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life." Because the Scripture is a book inspired by the Holy Spirit and given through holy men, one's own holiness is directly relevant to the ability to interpret the book correctly. Unlike any other book, the Bible's words are "spirit and life," and so we must live spiritually in order to drink from this spiritual well. Clearly, prayer and spiritual discipline are necessary in order to understand Scripture properly.
3. Understanding of the Scripture comes with living its contents. As the quote from St. Athanasius illustrates, one must both have a pure mind and be trying to imitate the saints' lives in order to understand their teaching, a dual principle which applies most of all to the teaching of the saints in the Bible. This life is particularly expressed in terms of living out the commandments and attempting to imitate Christ's life of the Gospel.
4. The primary end of Scriptural hermeneutics is that of the whole Christian life, theosis (deification/divinization). That is, our purpose in attempting to understand the Bible must not be merely for academic inquiry but rather must be in order to become fully divinized human beings, soaked with the life of God, participating in His divine energies, growing to the fullness of the stature of Christ. We interpret Scripture in order to become by grace what Christ is by nature, to "become god."
5. Only within the community of the Church can the Bible be understood. It was written by the Church, in the Church and for the Church. Thus, it is a "family document" which is the highest point of Holy Tradition, taken with faith alongside the writings of the Fathers, the Liturgy, the Icons, the Lives of the Saints, and so on.
6. The Scripture is a witness to the truth, not an exhaustive tome on Christian living. Nowhere in the words of Scripture itself can we find the teaching that it is all-sufficient for Christian life. What we as Orthodox Christians do must always be consonant with the Scriptures, but explicit mention of a practice or teaching in the Scripture is not a requirement for its inclusion in the life of the Church. The Apostle Paul himself mentions the reality of unwritten sources of Church Tradition being equally in force for the believer in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, that these traditions to which we must "stand fast and hold" may be "by word or by our epistle." Examples of practices not explicit in Scripture are making the Sign of the Cross, triple immersion for baptism, and having monasticism. St. Basil the Great even says that without maintaining the unwritten traditions of the Church, we "mutilate the Gospel" (On the Spirit 66).
7. We must respect the integrity of the canon of the Bible as given to us in the Church's Tradition. Searches for other texts written by apostles or prophets may be interesting and of scholarly merit, but they are not part of the hermeneutical project within the Church. Or conversely, attempts to debunk the authorship or authenticity of the books in the canon are also outside the Church's life. If we were to find a verifiable "new" work by St. Paul or to discover that Moses did not in fact write Genesis, neither finding would have any bearing on the canon. It is what it is.
8. We must use every resource at our disposal in interpreting the Scripture to bring ourselves and others to the knowledge of the truth. Certainly, there must be spiritual discernment in knowing how to use those resources, but at least theoretically, anything can be used to come to know the truth better as it is revealed in Holy Writ.
9. We must have humility when approaching Scripture. Even some of the Church's greatest and most philosophically sophisticated saints stated that some passages were difficult for them. We must therefore be prepared to admit that our interpretations may be wrong, submitting them to the judgment of the Church.
10. We may make use in a secondary fashion of the resources of academic scholarship, whether logic, archaeology, linguistics, et cetera. These resources can be helpful in terms of illuminating our understanding of Scripture, but they must always be given only secondary prominence in the project and always only in conjuction with all these other hermeneutic principles. Primary must always be our life in the Church, living, studying and knowing the Bible within that vivified and salvific Holy Tradition.
Based on notes taken in Archpriest Michael Dahulich's Fall 2004 class on the Pentateuch at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary