The word Hermeneutics means "the art or science of the interpretation of literature." In our case, Biblical literature is what we are interpreting. Most everyone understands that there are ways of figuring out what someone means by their words when they speak with you. For example, if you walk in on a conversation and hear one person say to another "I really hate it when you do that", you don't really know what it is that the person hates, do you? However, chances are you will have ways of figuring this out, or interpreting what was said. Your first thought might be to wonder what the rest of the conversation was about, or who is on the other end of the phone. This is called context. You know that if you can figure out what the context was, you might be able to figure out what it is that this person hates. It's clear that without knowing the context of the conversation you wouldn't have a clue about how to figure out what was being discussed.
You probably don't view this kind of occurrence as being a rule of interpretation, but in practice it is a rule that you and I use every day. Hermeneutics is just a fancy way of describing a set of rules that we use for interpreting the written word. The fact that we need rules is not debatable, since we've all seen what happens when someone's comments are taken out of context. The question is over what rules to apply to the Bible, and how to apply them in specific cases.
We believe the very early church fathers used a literal method of Bible interpretation. The New Testament was written in their time, so they understood the background of the New Testament books. However, as the church began to grow, heresies came into the church, and to protect the church some of the church fathers had to begin to put together more exacting guidelines for Bible interpretation, or Hermeneutics. The early church was battling some key issues.
Some of the early church fathers that dealt with these heresies were...
Unfortunately, many of the early church fathers were influenced by Greek philosophy which caused them to take an allegorical approach to interpreting the Bible. Origen with his allegorical approach helped the early church win debates against heresy, but in the long run it stopped the church from correctly understanding prophecy. The Alexandrian school, and Philo, who tried to merge Hellenism with the Old Testament, adopted a very allegorical method of interpretation. From the list above this includes Clement and Origen. This was later put in check by scholars from the Antiochene school, Lucian and later Chrysostom. In the end a more literal approach was used, except in the case of Eschatology. Unfortunately, leaders like Augustine continued to use a very allegorical method of interpretation when it came to prophecy. Augustine had a huge impact on the church in this regard. This continued through the dark ages, and all the way up to the reformation. During the Protestant Reformation the literal method began to be used for prophecy, which opened the door for a system of theology that we call Dispensationalism, which holds to a literal return of Christ, and a literal 1000 year Millennial kingdom with Jesus sitting on the throne of David in Jerusalem. Without a literal interpretation of prophecy these beliefs would not have come about. One needs to interpret Revelation 20:1-6 literally to believe in a literal 1000 year millennial kingdom, and this is at the heart of current debates between Bible believing Christians. (More on this in other articles)
If you are a Christian that believes in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ it should be interesting for you to know that this truth was basically hidden for over a thousand years before the reformation because of a decision made early on not to interpret Bible prophecy literally.
Some might wonder whether or not something that is thought to be new can be valid, or why no one thought of this earlier. One of the answers to this question can be found by looking at history. The church has gone through important stages in understanding the word of God for the last 2000 years. Issues were debated through the years, starting with the key issues of the faith. It's no coincidence that the first issue was the Deity of Christ. It's more important to know who He is before worrying about when He's coming back, isn't it?
Along side this debate was the debate over scripture, Old Testament vs. New Testament. These are foundational issues that had to be dealt with first. Some of these debates were revisited over the first 500-600 years, and beyond. It seems perfectly natural that issues over the Rapture or Endtimes in general weren't being discussed. Don't forget that since all prophecy was by this time being spiritualized, there was no literal understanding of prophecy, and therefore not as much interest in looking for the literal fulfillment of prophetic passages. Secondly, we have evidence from the writings of the early church that the understanding of dispensations was nothing new, and that some believed in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth. There was recognition that God had worked in different ways during different periods, and the New Testament Church was a hidden part of God's plan. The system of theology called Dispensationalism that we have now was developed between 1700's and the present by different Bible scholars, including Darby, Chafer, Scofield, Ryrie, Walvoord, and others. It was during this time after the reformation that the doctrines of future things were being worked out.
Some early church methods of Bible interpretation (Some taken from Jewish scholars)
The Literal Grammatical-Historical is the method that we will use. This method holds to a belief in a 'God breathed' Bible, or inspired. We start there because the Bible writers themselves understood, and declared that their writings were inspired. Jesus Himself also supported the view by quoting from books of the Bible, and never questioning the correctness of their words. Secondly, this method supports the Christocentric approach, that the OT is Christ centered, and also allows for figures of speech, and symbolic interpretation when the context clearly supports it. The literal method on the whole does not support the Allegorical view practiced in the 2nd and 3rd century. Each verse does NOT have a literal historical meaning, and a secret meaning that only the super spiritual can understand. This leads to multiple interpretations where interpreters can't prove that their interpretation is correct. It also leads to a division amongst Christians by creating groups of haves and have-nots.
Follow the link to the Literal Grammatical-Historical to get a definition and reason for using this method.