Interpreting the Bible

Here are 17 principles of hermeneutics (the system we used to interpret Scripture) which I have found helpful. If you have additional principles please mention them in the comments.

Scripture interprets Scripture

Often, we find that Scripture interprets itself! In some instances, another biblical writer interprets another biblical passage. So, you should compare Scripture with Scripture. (Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23; Revelation 1:12-20; Daniel 2)

Context interprets Scripture

The surrounding verses, chapter and book of the Bible provide immediate context to any Bible verse, as does the historical, cultural, and grammatical/linguistic context of a verse.

[Authorial] Intent interprets Scripture

All Scripture has an intended meaning. It is therefore true that a Scripture has one correct interpretation while it may have many correct applications. The ultimate meaning of any passage of Scripture is that which the author intended. We believe the author’s MIT can be discovered through the careful study of the words (semantics), grammar (syntax), and style (genre) that the author used to write his text, as well as through our understanding of the cultural, historical, geographical, and theological contexts that influenced his life.

The Clear interprets the Obscure

No verse of Scripture should be interpreted to contradict the overall message of Scripture. When we are faced with an obscure verse, we find a clear verse to help interpret it. There are no contradictions or discontinuities in Scripture.

Don’t let the Obscure contradict the Plain

Never let an obscure passage of Scripture contradict a passage which has a plain and apparent meaning.

Language Matters

The Bible communicates via human languages; therefore, it must be interpreted
linguistically.

Employ Logic

The Bible communicates God’s thinking; therefore, it must be interpreted logically.

Go Literal

When possible employ a literal hermeneutic. I call this contextual literalism. You interpret Scripture in a literal manner unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.

Hermeneutics has a famous axiom: “If the plain sense makes good sense,
seek no other sense.” When we speak about the literal meaning of a text, we
are referring simply to the natural interpretation of the words as they are
joined together into sentences and paragraphs. The writers were normal,
rational people who communicated in the same basic ways that we do, only in
different languages and historical contexts. So, when you are interpreting a
biblical text, if the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense. This
observation does negate the intriguing issues of sensus plenoir or
Christological hermeneutics.

Now, if the literal sense is confusing, you may be encountering figurative
language. We all do this, because we can say what we want to say more
vividly and forcefully by figures of speech than we can by saying it directly.
Figurative language helps make the “abstract concrete.” When a writer
incorporates figurative language, often he is using the “connotation” of a word
or words in order to provide a broader understanding of the concept he is
addressing. The connotation of a word is what it suggests beyond what it
expresses: its overtones of meaning. Connotation is especially important to
poets. It allows them to explore and enrich their content, and to do so with an
economy of words.

So when Christ says “I am the door” (John 10:7), it shouldn’t be interpreted that He is a literal door made of wood. Whereas when Paul says “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9), he means that literally works play no role in our salvation. Jesus and Paul both used a literal hermeneutic (Genesis 1; Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 5:12ff).

Scripture is different than other literary works

The Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant word of God. As such it should be treated with due care and attention when interpreting. Scripture, rather than our personal experiences, must be our starting point in hermeneutics. In other words, we must begin by asking “What does this text mean?” rather than “What does this text mean to me?” We must set aside any presuppositions which would hinder us from hearing the biblical texts as anything but what they are-the very words of God. Our failure to do this will affect our ability to discern the author’s MIT (Main Idea of the Text). We must allow revelation to shape our theology rather than basing our theology on personal opinion. We must approach the Bible with a very clear understanding that it is a unique, divinely-inspired, divinely-preserved book. As a result, we will strive to teach it “correctly,” knowing that it contains “everything required for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3).

Context is King

The author’s intended meaning is conveyed through the different
layers of context. The resurgence of expository preaching has resulted in the development of numerous resources to assist with the process of interpretation. Many of these resources emphasize the study of Hebrew and Greek, which is essential for becoming skilled in the practice of hermeneutics, exegesis, and homiletics. However, this emphasis upon the original languages has led some interpreters to place a greater importance upon the individual meanings of Hebrew or Greek words than upon the context in which they are found. Indeed, some pastor-teachers interpret entire texts based upon the meaning of a single word. This type of “word-driven” interpretation is flawed and even dangerous. It is important to understand this principle: the individual words of biblical texts have meaning within sentences, paragraphs, and books. A word’s meaning is determined by its relationship to other words within the context of sentences and paragraphs. The author’s choice and combination of specific words becomes his vehicle for delivering content.

Discover the Intended Meaning

The author’s intended meaning in every biblical text is always discovered within its own unique context. When we think about the context of a text, we are focusing our attention upon a number of factors that existed when the author recorded his particular content for a particular audience. Biblical authors did not write in a historical vacuum. They addressed the specific needs of their own day. As a result, understanding the significance of the author’s personal context, as best as we can, is important. Understanding the culture, history, geography, and theology of the writers and their audiences is helpful for discovering the historical particularity of biblical texts.

Grammar Matters

The biblical author’s intended meaning in every biblical text is always
discovered within its own unique grammatical content. Eisegesis is one of the results of poor exegesis. Eisegesis is the practice of reading one’s presuppositions and opinions into a biblical text, rather than allowing the text to reveal its own meaning. Interpreters may fall into this trap for a number of reasons. First, they may lack training. Second, some interpreters may have been exposed to a steady diet of topical preaching.

This type of preaching often allows personal preference to drive sermon
development at the expense of the meaning of a biblical text. Third, some
interpreters may be driven more by personal ideology than biblical theology.
These interpreters may use individual verses or parts of verses to support
their pet positions, despite a lack of biblical support. This type of
interpretation, and the preaching it produces, is damaging both to the
scriptures and the Church.

We, on the other hand, want to be interpreters who are committed to “correctly
teaching the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).” We are committed to allowing the text
to reveal the author’s intended meaning by applying the principles of
hermeneutics to the process of exegesis. For this to happen, we must be
committed to understanding both the content and the context (near and far) of
every biblical text.

When we think about the grammatical content of a passage, we are focusing
our attention upon the literary elements that the author chose to frame his
discussion. These elements include the author’s choice of specific words and
the way he combined them into sentences and paragraphs, as well as the
literary genre he selected (i.e., prose, poetry, historical narrative, wisdom,
epistle, apocalyptic). When we consider this, we can see the dangers of lifting
individual clauses or verses out of their specific literary and grammatical
construction-it almost insures that the interpreter will misunderstand the
content of the passage.

Multiple Passages can inform your interpretation of a Passage

The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text should be
informed by the writings of other biblical authors on the same concepts.
As we study the totality of scripture, we will encounter many reoccurring,
theological concepts. This makes sense when we remember that the Bible is
a progressive revelation of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. As a
result, we should expect to encounter these theological concepts as they are
revealed and developed in the Scriptures. Be prepared to let other biblical
texts inform our understanding when they share the same theological
concepts. This is what we mean by inner-canonical. In other words, we begin
with a presupposition that there is a unity of theological concepts within the
Scriptures, and we must be prepared to allow our understanding of those
concepts to influence our interpretation of individual texts. As a result, it is
important to adopt the following guidelines to help us understand and teach
theological concepts.

First, the interpretation of brief texts is always influenced by our interpretation
of longer texts that share the same theological concept. Sadly, many an error
in doctrine has resulted from an interpreter who built a whole theology on a
brief text (often taken out of its context), while ignoring the clear teaching of a
lengthier text on the same concept.

Second, interpreters must distinguish between “descriptive” and “prescriptive”
texts in Scripture. Fee and Stuart state, “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we
must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a
normative way-unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the
author intended it to function in this way.”

Third, the interpretation of obscure biblical texts should be influenced by texts
on the same subject that are more fully developed.

The Whole should be used to interpret the Part

The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text may have a
fuller meaning, but that meaning can only be determined on the basis of
subsequent biblical revelation and the whole canon.

As interpreters, we are searching for the author’s intended meaning in every
Old and New Testament text. Since God’s revelation is progressive, we must
acknowledge that the Old Testament writers did not have the benefit of New
Testament revelation. Granted, God allowed certain Old Testament authors
like Daniel and Isaiah to have glimpses into the future outworking of his
redemptive plan, but they did not have all of the particulars. Paul describes
this truth in Ephesians 3:1-7. Paul stated that the mystery of the gospel, and
its global application, was revealed to him following the ascension of Jesus.
We cannot of our own accord, therefore, force New Testament revelation
upon Old Testament texts.

However, the Bible is one book with one divine author. It does tell one great
story framed in a “grand redemptive narrative.” All the “little narratives” have
their place in the “big narrative.” Further, there are Old Testament passages
that are specifically declared in the New Testament to have some level of
“fuller meaning.” In the field of Hermeneutics, we refer to this as the sensus
plenior of the text. Now to be clear: it is not a different meaning but a more full
meaning with implications and significance the human author did not fully
know or grasp.

Second, these fuller meanings are not the result of allegorical interpretation,
but they are revealed by subsequent revelation. Individual texts must be
interpreted within the larger context of the entire canon. This is especially true
when studying the Old Testament. As interpreters, we study the Old
Testament from a New Testament context. We do not read the Old Testament
like Jewish rabbis! We read the Bible, all of it, as Christian Scripture. As a
result, we are able to see a foreshadowing of New Testament teaching and
theology within the texts of the Old Testament.

Revelation is progressive, and so we find that the New Testament informs the
Old Testament and reveals legitimate instances of sensus plenior. However,
we also recognize that the Old Testament informs the New Testament,
something some expositors miss or neglect too often. Bryan Chapell provides
helpful insight for us. He states, “Christ-centered preaching rightly understood
does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to
disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ.”

Author will not contradict himself or the rest of Scripture

The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text will never be
in contradiction to his own writings or the rest of the canon.
Despite the individual nature of the parts, we affirm that the Scriptures
comprise a single whole that can never contradict itself. At the core of this
conviction is an even greater conviction about God, who is the ultimate
“Author” of the canon. Because God is the ultimate Author of scripture, we can
expect to find unity in the immediate, sectional, book and canonical contexts
as well.

See the Purpose

The author’s intended meaning in every biblical text has a
theocentric/Christological purpose, and as a result, it has significance
for all people, in all places, at all times.

Once the interpreter has discovered both the content and the context of a
biblical text, his final task is to verbalize his understanding of the author’s
intended meaning. This is the goal of hermeneutics and the moment of truth in
exegesis. The author’s intended meaning will always be theocentric-it will
reflect the great truths about God and His Christ. After all, the Bible is first and
foremost a record of God’s redemptive plan for the world, through Messiah
Jesus.

In recent years, the Church has experienced a significant increase in man-
centered preaching. This type of preaching, which places its primary
emphasis upon the “felt needs” of the listener, often substitutes psychology for
exposition. Greidanus states, “In contrast to anthropocentric interpretation,
therefore, theocentric interpretation would emphasize that the Bible’s purpose
is first of all to tell the story of God. In relating that story, the Bible naturally
also depicts human characters-not, however, for their own sake but for the
sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.” Our awareness
of the theocentric nature of Scripture will help ensure that our interpretation
and preaching are God-centered with a Christological focus (cf. John 5:39).
These ten principles serve as the foundation for our exegesis. It is important
to keep them in the forefront of our thinking when we study the Bible.

7 responses to “Interpreting the Bible”

  1. We should not rely on our intelligence, but on the gift of the Holy Spirit. Special prayers before starting to interpret the holy scriptures, “O heavenly King comforter, the spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, treasury of good things and giver of life; Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.” Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light of thy divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of thy gospel teachings; implant in us also the fear of thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing unto thee; for thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, P Christ our God, and unto thee we ascribe glory together with thy Father who is from everlasting, and thine all-holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages  Amen. Besides we need to read the writings of the holy fathers of the desert.

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s very interesting, Zak, that the New Testament builds on the Old Testament, that the Bible is God’s word! That it’s very important to remember that preachers can’t get too personal, because it’s really not geared to an individual. It’s all part of the bigger story, interpretation of the Bible should be based on the historical context and values of the time!

    Liked by 1 person

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