Dungan’s Hermeneutics Good Bible Study Habits For Young Preachers

By Chris Reeves

Hermeneutics, D.R. Dungan, $11.50 hardback, $9.50 paper.

Solomon tells us that there are many books written by men, but the “words of the wise” are the important words that provide guidance for all mankind.’ The “words of the wise” are God’s words contained in the inspired Scriptures, the Bible. There is no substitute for the book of books, the Bible. This special issue of Guardian of Truth reviews some good books for young preachers to have in their library. But keep in mind that no book, no matter how good, can take the place of the Bible.

The book reviewed and recommended in this article is Hermeneutics: A Textbook, by D.R. Dungan.’ David Roberts Dungan was born in Noble County, Indiana, May 15, 1837.3 He was baptized into Christ on March 31, 1858 and preached his first sermon one year later. He preached regularly thereafter throughout Nebraska and Iowa, teaching school during the week to support him-self. He was politically active in these two states, he found time to debate the cause of Christ with various denominations, and he was also well published with a number of tracts and books. A biographical sketch of Dungan writ-ten in 1884 said: “He does solid work only. His style is plain, scriptural and argumentative. His manner is that of a teacher, rather than what is known as a pulpit orator.” It is no wonder that Dungan would go on to write on the subject of Bible interpretation in 1888. His work was used as a textbook at Drake University, where he taught in the Bible Department 0 Hermeneutics: A Textbook, is certainly a good book for a young preacher to have in his library because it teaches him how to develop good Bible study habits.

God’s workman must know how to use his main tool, the Bible. Paul thought it necessary to remind the young preacher Timothy about the value of sound Bible study and interpretation.’ In a similar way, Dungan’s Hermeneutics, written many years ago, but still useful today, reminds the young preacher of the value of sound Bible study and interpretation. Hermeneutics simply means “the science of interpretation.” God’s word must be inter-preted,’ and sound principles of interpretation must be used by each Bible student in order to avoid twisting the Scriptures to his own destruction.’ In an age where a person can get many things quickly, conveniently and without any work, the young preacher needs to be reminded that good Bible study and interpretation cannot be gotten at the “drive through” or “quick stop.” Good Bible study habits and sound Bible interpretation are built on long hours of hard work.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of sound Bible interpretation. Dungan introduces his book with a discussion of the meaning of hermeneutics, and the possibility of each Bible student rightly understanding and interpreting God’s word (Chapter 1). The Bible is inspired  God breathed  but our interpretation of it is not, so we need to be very careful in our Bible study. Faulty interpretation can cause many problems, three of which are: religious division, supposed contradictions, and a lack of hope. The Bible is not at fault. Man’s interpretation of the Bible is to blame for the present religious division among denominations (and the Lord’s body), the supposed contradictions offered by skeptics, and the doubt and uncertainty in people who don’t know whether or not they are saved, or what to do to be saved. Proper Bible study, understanding, interpretation and teaching will remove these problems. A young preacher must take heed to his study so as not to cause one of these problems.

Young preachers need to be rereminded of the value of a proper attitude toward Bible study. Dungan begins his work on hermeneutics with a helpful reminder about attitudes which either help or hinder proper Bible interpretation (Chapters 2 and 3). A young, inexperienced preacher may forget a good attitude, or bring a bad attitude into his Bible study. Even Jesus spoke of our attitude toward Bible study.’ Attitudes actually help our Bible interpretation. Common sense, faith in the divinely inspired word, mental industry, a desire to know, understand and practice the truth, and, spiritual purity all help toward proper Bible interpretation.9 In addition, a good Bible translation, a good knowledge of Bible backgrounds,10 and prayer to God for wisdom” are also helpful. On the other hand, there are bad attitudes which hinder a correct interpretation. A desire to please the world, a clergy-only Bible, proof texting, mysticism, mere curiosity, reading without intending to understand and obey, personal gain or prejudice, self-exaltation, and, at-tempting to harmonize science with the Bible are attitudes that hinder interpretation. A young preacher may sit down with careless and indifferent thoughts toward his Bible lesson. This is wrong. He may also be tempted to look for some quick fix solution or short cut to Bible study. There is none.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of using a correct Bible study method. Dungan moves from a discussion of attitudes to one of methods (Chapter 4). A Bible study method12 is fundamental. All of God’s word is laid down in an orderly arrangement, so the study of it must also be done with some kind of order. Dungan provides a helpful discussion of wrong methods,13 and then a true, Bible-based method.14 Some preachers have no method of study at all, others use improper methods. “What Bible study method will I use?” should be one the first questions each young preacher asks when he sits down to his study.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of rightly dividing the word of God. Dungan moves forward to the subject of God’s many covenants and the need for discriminating between them (Chapter 5). Dungan begins Chapter 5 this way: “No one can understand his duty with-out knowing to what law he is amenable.” God has made many covenants, to many people, over many years.16 Some are similar, others very different. There is a great need to-day for people to be taught what their duties are before God, and a great challenge faces the young preacher to rightly divide the word of God so as not to misapply some text in the 66 books of the Bible.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of studying the background of each Bible text. Dungan lists some very important background questions that each Bible student should ask before he begins his study (Chapter 6). These questions have sometimes been called “the five w’s and h.”16 Who was the writer, and to whom was it written? Who are spoken of in the book? What kind of writing is it? When was it written? Why was it written? Where was it written? The young preacher must not be too anxious to jump into a passage and offer his interpretation without first answering these preliminary background questions so necessary for a proper interpretation of the passage.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of rules used to interpret the words and sentences of Scripture. Dungan outlines the basic rules for interpreting words and sentences (Chapter 7). The Bible has 66 books. These books are made up of “chapters,” and the “chapters” contain paragraphs, which in turn have sentences full of words. If a young preacher is to understand an entire book, he is eventually going to have to tackle the job of understandingeach word in the book. There are several rules to keep in mind. Let me list four important ones:

Recognize the main purpose(s) of the author,” observe the context,’s let the Bible harmonize with itself, and let the Bible define its own words when possible. A young preacher must learn early on that there is no short cut to good Bible study. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, book by book, he must make his way slowly through the Bible mining the scriptures for God’s eternal truths. The young preacher’s understanding and teaching of each Bible book is only as strong as his interpretation of each word in the book.

Young preachers need to be reminded of the value of recognizing the different types of Bible language. Dungan devotes the last half of his work to a study of the various types of language used in the Bible, and the many rules for interpreting them (Chapters 8 through 11). Dungan includes the following types of Bible language in his study: figurative, figures of speech,19 figures of thought,20 and prophecy. It becomes very clear after studying the many rules that the Bible student cannot simply say, “It means what it says, and says what it means.” We cannot interpret passages the same way in all places of the Bible. The Bible is not literal all the time, neither is it figurative all the time. A young preacher must not only learn to “speak where the Bible speaks,” but he must also learn to “speak like the Bible speaks.”

Hermeneutics: A Textbook, by D.R. Dungan certainly does not cover all areas of Bible interpretation. There are other good books on Bible interpretation that should be consulted. But Dungan’s work is a good place to start. You may want to locate other older books on hermeneutics by brethren.21 One older work that is recommended was writ-ten near the turn of the century: Principles of Interpretation, by Clinton Lockhart.22 Lockhart takes a similar, conservative approach to Bible interpretation and covers the same type of material. Both works by Dungan and Lockhart are still in print. Pick them up for your library, but don’t just let them collect dust on the shelf. Learn them. Apply them. The young preacher, and all of us, should strive to be “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim.2: 15).


‘1Eccl. 12:11-12.

2 D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: A Textbook, Reprint (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., n.d.).

3J.H. Painter, ed., The Iowa Pulpit of the Church of Christ, Its Aim and Work (St. Louis, MO: John Bums Publishing Co., 1884). A special thanks to Curtis Pope at Florida College for locating this information and sending it to the author.4 Barry Jones, “Hermeneutics” in Rightly Dividing the Word, Vold (Pensacola, FL: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1990).

5 1 Tim. 4:13-16; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:15; and 3:14-17.

6 Seven Greek words, three verbs and four nouns, are used in the NT and translated “interpretation.” For example, the word “interpreted” (ASV) or “expounded” (KJV) in Lk.24:27, is translated from the Greek verb hermenuo from which we get the word “hermeneutics.” The particular Greek form used in Lk. 24:27 means “to interpret fully, to explain.” For more in-formation on hermeneutics as it is used in the Bible, and how some today in the Lord’s church want to change it into a “new hermeneutic,” see the work by Chris Reeves entitled Out With the Old and In With the New, Revised (Temple Terrace, FL: Florida College Bookstore, 1993).

7 2 Pet. 3:16.

8 Mark 4:22 and Luke 8: 18. Both “what you hear” and “how you hear” are important.

9 Mark 12:37; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 17:11; Eph. 3:3-4; and 2 Thess.2:11-12.

10 Bible languages, history, lands, peoples, customs, etc. “

11 Jas. 1:5.

12 Dungan uses “method” in the sense of “orderly arrangement, procedure or process.”

13 According to Dungan, the following Bible study methods have these problems: mystical, allegorical, spiritual, hierarchical, rationalistic, apologetic, dogmatic and literal.

14 Dungan suggests that the best method of Bible study is the inductive approach; i.e., gather all the facts before drawing a conclusion or forming an interpretation.

15 God made covenants with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Israel and Christ.

16 Who, what, when, why, where, and how.

17 The purpose(s) of the author can be found by answering the background questions in Chapter 6 of Dungan’s work.

18 There is an immediate and remote context for each Bible passage.

19 Dungan covers the following figures of speech: parable, fable, simile, similitude, metaphor, allegory, metonymy (cause, effect, the subject, the adjunct), synecdoche, proverb, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, apostrophe, personification, interrogation, prolepsis and parallelism (synonymous, antithetic and synthetic).

20 Dungan covers the following figures of thought: antithesis, symbols (miraculous, material and visual) and typology (persons, things, institutions, offices, conduct, events and places).

21You may be able to find the following works on hermeneutics as reprints or photocopies: Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, Reprint (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1956); I.B. Grubbs, Biblical Hermeneutics (Lexington, KY: unpublished class notes, n.d.); Carroll Kendrick, Rules of Bible Study, Reprint (Kansas City, MO: The Old Paths Books Club, 1946); J.S. Lamar, The Organon of Scripture (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott and Co., 1859); J.W. McGarvey, Sacred Didactics (Murfreesboro, TN: Dehoff Publications, 1954); and Robert Milligan, Reason and Revelation.

22 Clinton Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1915).

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 23, p. 20-22
December 5, 1996