The Difference Between Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Published on October 18, 2019

Many people get confused with fancy words often thrown around in the field of biblical studies. Honestly, sometimes the people using them do not always use them correctly, which of course makes things even more confusing. Within Christian theology, there are all sorts of complicated words such as soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and hamartiology. Fortunately for theologians, while these subjects might interact with each other, they are totally separate and distinct. This is not the case in biblical studies with exegesis and hermeneutics; the two are so extremely interconnected that the terms are sometimes misused.

One of the biggest problems with exegesis is how different it is depending on the person. This can be influenced by the person’s religious background, their view of the scriptures, their worldview, and even where they are from. For example, when I first moved to Germany, my supervisor explained to me how American exegesis and German exegesis were different. To make matters even more complicated, the definition of exegesis and hermeneutics seem to have evolved over the last century. For example, Milton S. Terry’s 1890 book Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament states that, “Exegesis is the application of these principles and laws, the actual bringing out into formal statement, and by other terms, the meaning of the author’s words. Exegesis is related to hermeneutics as preaching is to homiletics, or, in general, as practice is to theory.”[1] However, the most common modern understanding of the terms is described by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in the book How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth. They define exegesis as referring to what the text originally meant and hermeneutics referring to the meaning of the original text in a “variety of new or different contexts of our own day”[2]

So what is the difference between the two? Well, some would argue that the difference is that of theory versus application. Yet I find it best to think of exegesis as the process of uncovering the message that the original author was trying to convey to the original audience. This is crucial because the goal is to understand “what does the Bible say.” Hermeneutics, on the other hand, is the process of applying the biblical text to a modern situation. This is necessary for application, which is sometimes difficult due to cultural and generational gaps apparent from the original writing of the biblical text and the modern reader. The concept here is, “what does the Bible say to us today.”

As you can see, both exegesis and hermeneutics are of great importance in studying the Bible and applying the biblical text in our daily lives. Both are vitally necessary. In order to apply the biblical text to a modern application, it is important that you understand what the original message and intent of the passage was; essentially, good hermeneutics first requires good exegesis. And what good is knowing what the Bible says, if we don’t know how to apply it to our lives today? Therefore, it doesn’t matter how good your exegesis is if you don’t have good hermeneutics.

The difference in exegesis and hermeneutics comes down to the intended goal of the one doing the study and if they are simply trying to know what the text says or if they are trying to apply it in a modern application. The truth is that we all do exegesis and hermeneutics whenever we are reading or telling others what the Bible says. It may not be good exegesis or proper hermeneutics, but we do it nonetheless. This is why all Bible believers who truly desire to understand and apply the Word of God should learn how to do both properly.


[1] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, ed. George R. Crooks and John F. Hurst, vol. II, New Edition, Thoroughly Revised., Library of Biblical and Theological Literature (New York; Cincinnati: Eaton & Mains; Curts & Jennings, 1890), 19.

[2] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 12.

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