6. The Contextual Method Of Biblical Interpretation
I. Its History and Development
A. Jewish Interpretation
The most consistent use of the method of Bible study known as the Historical-Grammatical-Lexical Method (in this Textbook called the Contextual/Textual method) began in Antioch, Syria, in the third century a.d. in reaction to the Allegorical Method, which had developed several hundred years earlier in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrian Method was an adaptation of the method of Philo, a Jewish interpreter who lived from 20 b.c. to a.d. 55. Philo also lived in Alexandria. He, being a Jew of the Diaspora, was not very influential among the rabbis, but had a great impact among the Hellenistic intellectuals of Alexandria, which was the seat of learning in that day. Philo agreed with the rabbis that the Old Testament was given by God. He believed God uniquely spoke through the Hebrew Scripture and the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. Therefore, every aspect of the text had meaning—every sentence, clause, word, letter, and even the smallest embellishment or idiosyncrasy of the text.
The rabbis’ interpretation is characterized by a focus on “how to,” especially in relation to the Law of Moses. Philo, although using some of the same idiosyncrasies of grammar and spelling, found hidden meanings in the text as it related to Platonism. The rabbis were interested in applying the Mosaic Law to daily life, while Philo wanted to reinterrpet the history of Israel in light of his Platonic world view. To do this he had to totally remove the Old Testament from its historical context.
“In his mind many of the insights of Judaism, properly understood, do not differ from the highest insights of Greek philosophy. God reveals Himself to the chosen people of Israel but He revealed Himself in no radically different way from the way in which He reveals Himself to the Greek” (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53-54).
His basic approach was to allegorize the text if:
1. the text spoke of that which seemed to be unworthy of God (physicalness of God)
2. the text contained any perceived inconsistencies
3. the text contained any perceived historical problems
4. the text could be adapted (allegorized) to his philosophical world view (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53)
B. The Alexandrian School
The basics of Philo’s approach to interpretation were continued in the Christian School of Interpretation, which developed in this same city. One of its first leaders was Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 150-215). He believed that the Bible contained different levels of meaning in order to make the Scriptures relevant to different kinds of people, cultures, and periods of time. These levels were
1. the historical, literal sense
2. the doctrinal sense
3. the prophetic or typological sense
4. the philosophical sense
5. the mystical or allegorical sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 55-56)
This basic approach was continued by Origen (a.d. 185-254), who probably was the greatest mind of the ancient church (Silva 1987, 36-37). He was the first textual critic, apologist, commentator, and systematic theologian. A good example of his approach can be found in his interpretation of Pro. 22:20-21. He combines it with I Thess. 5:23. In this way every passage in the Bible has three levels of interpretation.
1. a “bodily” or literal sense
2. a “soulish” or moral sense
3. a “spiritual or allegorical/mystical” sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 59)
The hermeneutics of Alexandria held sway over most of the Church in the area of interpretation until the time of the Protestant Reformation. It can be characterized in its developed form by Augustine (a.d. 354-430) in his four levels of interpretation.
1. the literal—teaches historical events
2. the allegorical—teaches what you should believe
3. the moral—teaches what you should do
4. the mystical—teaches what you should hope
For the church as a whole, the non-literal (#2,3,4) contained the purist spiritual insight. However, the abuses of the non-historical, non-grammatical method led to the formulation of another school of interpretation. The Historical-Grammatical textual-focused school of Antioch of Syria (third century) accused the allegorist of
1. importing meaning into the text
2. forcing a hidden meaning into every text
3. putting forth fanciful and far-fetched interpretation
4. not allowing words and sentences to bear their obvious, normal meaning (Sire 1980, 107)
5. allowing human subjectivity to dominate the plain message of the original author
Allegory, when done by a well-trained, godly interpreter, can have great value. It is obvious that Jesus (Matt. 13:18-23) and Paul (I Cor. 9:9-10; 10:1-4; Gal. 4:21-31) both set a biblical precedent for this approach. However, when used as a tool to prove one’s pet theological doctrine or to defend one’s inappropriate actions, it becomes a great stumbling block. The major problem is that there is no means to substantiate the meaning from the text itself (Silva 1987, 74). The sinfulness of mankind has turned this method (and all methods to some extent) into a means to prove almost anything and then to call it biblical.
“There is always the danger of eisegesis, reading into the Bible the ideas which we have received from elsewhere and then receiving them each with the authority with which we have come to surround the book” (World Council of Churches Symposium on Biblical Authority for Today, Oxford, 1949).
“Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer back of the letter, there lurks deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculation which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine…with approbation the licentious system gradually attained such a height, that he who handled Scripture for his own amusement not only was suffered to pass unpunished, but even attained the highest applause. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations. Scripture, they say, is fertile, and this produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning” (John Newport dissertation, N.D., 16-17).
C. The Antiochian School
It is obvious that the Alexandrian school was justifiably open to the charge that its interpretations relied more on the cleverness of the interpreter than on the intent of the original inspired author. One could, and can, assert any interpretation and “prove” it from the Bible by using this method. The Antiochian method focuses on the plain, obvious meaning of the text of Scripture (Cole 1964, 87). Its basic focus is understanding the message of the original author. This is why it is call the Historical-Grammatical approach of hermeneutics. Antioch insisted on both a historical context and the normal use of human language. It did not eliminate figures of speech, prophecy, or symbols, but forced them to be linked to the purpose, historical setting, and style of the original author, along with the original author’s choice of genre.
“The school of Antioch insisted on the historical reality of the biblical revelation. They were unwilling to lose it in a world of symbols and shadows. They were more Aristotelian than Platonist” (Grant and Tracy 1984, 66).
Some early leaders of this school of interpretation were: Lucian, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and John Chrysostom. This school became involved in an over-emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. This has been labeled the Nestorian Heresy** (Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human)—and it was a heresy (cf. I John 4:1-3). For this reason the school lost its influence and many of its followers. Its headquarters moved from Syria into Persia so as to be beyond the discipline of the Roman Church.
**Site Editor's Note: To clarify, the Nestorian heresy not only said that Jesus had two natures, but that they could be separated into His human person and a divine person. i.e. that He was two persons. Orthodoxy, in the Chalcedonian Creed, on the other hand teaches that "our Lord Jesus Christ is...One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ:...". Orthodoxy does not separate Jesus into two persons, but rather sees His divine nature and human nature as being inseparably mixed in one person through the incarnation.
D. The Antiochian School’s Basic Tenets
Although the basic tenets of the Antiochian School were continued in isolated places, it burst forth again in full bloom in Martin Luther and John Calvin, as it had been in bud previously in Nicholas of Lyra. It is basically this historically and textually-focused approach to hermeneutics that this Textbook is attempting to introduce. Along with the added emphasis on application, which was one of the strengths of Origen, the Antiochian approach clearly distinguished between exegesis and application (Silva 1987, 101). Because this Textbook is primarily for non-theologically trained believers, the methodology will focus around the text of Scripture in translation rather than the original languages. Study helps will be introduced and recommended, but the obvious meaning of the original author can, in the vast majority of cases, be ascertained without extensive outside help. The work of godly, diligent scholars will help us in areas of background material, difficult passages, and seeing the big picture, but first we must struggle with the plain meaning of the Scriptures ourselves. It is our privilege, our responsibility, and our protection. The Bible, the Spirit, and you are priority! Insight into how to analyze human language on a non-technical level, along with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, are the twin pillars of this contextual/textual approach. Your ability to be somewhat free to interpret the Bible for yourself is the primary goal of this Textbook. James W. Sire in his book Scripture Twisting makes two good points.
“The illumination comes to the minds of God’s people—not just to the spiritually elite. There is no guru class in biblical Christianity, no illuminati, no people through whom all proper interpretation must come. And, so, while the Holy Spirit gives special gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual discernment, He does not assign these gifted Christians to be the only authoritative interpreters of His Word. It is up to each of His people to learn, to judge and to discern by reference to the Bible which stands as the authority over even those to whom God has given special abilities.”
“To summarize, the assumption I am making throughout the entire book is that the Bible is God’s true revelation to all humanity, that it is our ultimate authority on all matters about which it speaks, that it is not a total mystery but can be adequately understood by ordinary people in every culture” (pp. 17-18).
We dare not naively trust any other person or denomination with the interpretation of Scripture, which affects not only life, but also the life to come. The secondary goal of this Textbook is gaining the ability to analyze the interpretations of others. This Textbook desires to provide the individual believer with a method for personal Bible study and a shield against the interpretation of others. Scholarly helps will be recommended, but must not be accepted without proper analysis and textual documentation.
II. Interpretative Questions
Our discussion of a historically informed and textually-focused methodology will revolve around seven interpretive questions which one must ask in the study of every Scriptural context.
1. What did the original author say? (textual criticism)
2. What did the original author mean? (exegesis)
3. What did the original author say elsewhere on the same subject? (parallel passages)
4. What do other biblical authors say on the same subject? (parallel passages)
5. How did the original hearers understand the message and respond to it? (historical application)
6. How does this truth apply to my day? (modern application)
7. How does this truth apply to my life? (personal application)
A. The First Interpretive Question
1. The need to read Hebrew and Greek to interpret Scripture.
The initial step is establishing the original text. Here we come face to face with the subject of the original languages of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Must one know these languages, and all of their textual variants, before one can adequately interpret Scripture? Let me share my presuppositions about the Bible again.
a. God wants mankind to know Him (the very purpose of creation, Gen. 1:26-27).
b. He has provided us with a written record of His nature, purpose, and acts.
c. He has sent us His supreme revelation, His Son, Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament contains His life and teachings as well as their interpretations.
d. God speaks to the common person. He wants all humans to be saved (Ezek. 18:23,32; John 3:16; I Tim. 2:4; II Pet. 3:9).
e. The vast majority of the world will never know God’s revelation except in a translation (Sterrett 1973, 28).
f. We must not see scholars as infallible interpreters. Even scholars must rely on other scholars. Even scholars within the same field do not always agree (Triana 1985, 9).
g. Scholars can help us. Christian scholars are gifts of God given to the church (I Cor. 12:28; Eph 4:11). Yet, even without their help believers can know the plain, simple truth of the Scriptures. They will not have complete or exhaustive knowledge. They will not see the wealth of detail that a biblical scholar might perceive, but believers can know enough for faith and practice.
2. Use of modern translations
Modern translations are a result of scholarly research. They use differing philosophies in translation. Some are very free in translating concepts (paraphrasing) instead of words (word for word) or clauses (dynamic equivalent). Because of this wealth of research and effort, believers, by comparing these translations, have a variety of technical information available to them, even if believers do not understand the technical process or theories behind them. By comparing modern translations they are able to more fully understand the message of the original author. This is not meant to imply that there are not dangers.
“The person who reads the Bible only in English is at the mercy of the translator(s), and translators have often had to make choices as to what in fact the original Hebrew or Greek really intended to say” (Fee and Stuart 1982, 29).
“The Bible student can overcome this handicap (not knowing originals and having to use translations) by an educated use of the better commentaries. Above all, everyone must be aware of the dangers. The student should compare the translations as he studies the passage, and should take none of them for granted” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 53).
I hope you have been encouraged by the above discussion about the adequacy of English translations. I would suggest that for the purposes of Bible study that you use at least two different translations which vary in translation theory. Primarily you will want to use one that is very literal (i.e., word for word) and compare it with an idiomatic translation (dynamic equivalent). By comparing these two types of translations, most of the problems in word meaning, sentence structure, and textual variants become obvious. When major differences occur, refer to technical commentaries and research tools.
3. Hebrew and Greek manuscript variants
Another thorny problem to be dealt with in the area of “what did the original author say?” concerns original manuscripts. We do not have any of the original writings of the biblical authors (autographs). As a matter of fact, we are removed by hundreds of years from those originals (autographs). Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, our oldest Old Testament manuscript was from the ninth century a.d., called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who placed the vowels (vowel points) into a consonantal, Hebrew text. This project was not completed until the ninth century a.d. The Dead Sea Scrolls allow us to verify this Hebrew text back into the b.c. era. They confirmed the accuracy of our Old Testament based on the MT. This enables scholars to compare Hebrew manuscripts with their Greek translations: the Septuagint, and those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian. The point of all this is that there are many differences among all of these copies.
The New Testament is also involved in the same difficulty. We do not have the writings of the Apostles, as a matter of fact, our copies are several hundred years removed from them. The oldest manuscripts available of the Greek New Testament are fragments of certain books written on papyri. These date from the second and third centuries a.d. and none have the complete New Testament. The next oldest group of Greek manuscripts comes from the fourth through sixth centuries. They are written in all capital letters with no punctuation marks or paragraph divisions. After this comes thousands of manuscripts from later centuries, mostly the 12th - 16th (written in small letters). None of these agree completely. However, it needs to be strongly emphasized that none of the variants affect major Christian doctrines (Bruce 1969, 19-20).
This is where the science of textual criticism comes onto the scene. Scholars in this area have analyzed and classified these different texts into “families,” which are characterized by certain common errors or additions. If you would like more information on this subject read
a. The Books and the Parchments by F. F. Bruce
b. “Texts and Manuscripts of the Old Testament,” Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 683ff
c. “Texts and Manuscripts of the New Testament,” Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 697ff
d. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism by J. H. Greenlee
The problem of textual criticism is not solved, but the work thus far has surely helped to clear up much of the confusion in this area.
“Rarely will one repeat the labors of the textual critics, unless an alternate reading is mentioned as a footnote in the version commonly used” (Liefeld 1984, 41).
I have found that these manuscript problems can be readily found by noticing the marginal notes in our modern English Study Bibles. The Revised Standard Version and The New English Bible provide many interesting alternative translations. All modern translations provide alternate readings to some extent. Another helpful resource at this point is the new Twenty-Six Translations of the Bible edited by Curtis Vaughn, published by AMG Publishers. This three volume set provides the King James Version in bold print and three to five alternate translations from a pool of twenty-six translations. This tool quickly shows the textual variations. These variations may then be adequately explored in commentaries and other research tools.
4. The limits of human language
Still another factor involved in the question, “what did the original author say?” involves the ambiguities of human language. When human language, which is basically a set of analogous relationships between words and concepts, is forced to describe God and spiritual things, major problems arise. Our finitude, our sinfulness, our corporality, and our experience of time (past, present, future) all affect our language as we attempt to describe the supernatural. We are forced to express these concepts in human categories (Ferguson 1937, 100). One type of these metaphorical categories is anthropomorphisms (man-form). These categories were one reason why the rabbis, Philo and Origen (Silva 1987, 61), began to use allegory. In reality, our description and understanding of God and the supernatural is analogous only (i.e., negation, analogy, and metaphor). It can never be complete or exhaustive. It is presuppositional, but by faith Christians believe it is adequate.
This problem of human language is further complicated when put into a written form. So often the inflection of the voice or some bodily gesture helps us understand the subtleties of human communication, but these are not present in a written text. Yet, even with these obvious limits, we are still able, for the most part, to understand each other. Our study of the Bible will be limited by these ambiguities, as well as the additional problem of translating three separate languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). We will not be able to know for certain the complete meaning of every passage. A good book in this area is God’s Word in Man’s Language by Eugene Nida. With the help of the Holy Spirit we will be able to understand the plain sense of most Scripture. Maybe the ambiguities are there to humble us and cause us to be dependent on God’s mercy.
B. The Second Interpretive Question (for a sheet on exegetical procedures, see pp. 96 and 97)
1. Outline the literary units
One way, possibly the best way, to understand a written document is to identify the author’s purpose and the major divisions (i.e., literary units) in his presentation. We write with a purpose and goal in mind. So too, did the biblical authors. Our ability to identify this overarching purpose and its major divisions will greatly facilitate our understanding of its smaller parts (paragraphs and words). A key to this deductive approach (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 21) is outlining (Tenney 1950, 52). Before one tries to interpret a paragraph within a biblical book, he needs to know the purpose of the literary unit of which it is a part in light of the surrounding passages and the structure of the whole book. I know that this procedure seems overwhelming at first, as far as putting it into practice, but it is crucial as far as interpretation is concerned.
“From the standpoint of the Bible or literature, the simplest error of reading is the failure to consider the immediate context of the verse or passage in question” (Sire 1980, 52).
“The principle of contextual interpretation is, at least in theory, one of the few universally accepted hermeneutical guidelines, even though the consistent application of the principles is a notoriously difficult enterprise” (Silva 1983, 138).
“The context does not merely help us understand meaning—it virtually makes meaning” (Silva 1983, 139).
“How the passage fits within that—what it contributes to the entire flow of that book and what the structure of that book contributes to it—constitutes a paramount interest of the literary context step in exegesis” (Stuart 1980, 54).
This task can be accomplished in a very simple way. One can do several steps of interpretation at one time. It is obvious that if one wants to interpret a passage in light of the original author’s intent, they need to read and become familiar with the author’s whole message (the book). As one reads the biblical book several times in order to gain familiarity with its contents, he should take notes of his observations. On the first reading look for the major purpose of the book and its genre. On the second reading note the large blocks of related material, which we call literary units. An example from the book of Romans reveals major themes.
a. Brief introduction and theme (1:1-17)
b. The lostness of all men (1:18-3:21)
c. Justification is a gift (4:1-5:21)
d. Justification affects our lifestyle (6:1-8:39)
e. The Jews’ relationship to justification (9:1-11:36)
f. Practical section of living out justification on a daily basis (12:1-15:37)
g. Greetings, farewells, and warnings (16:1-27)
“Try to construct an outline that genuinely represents the major units of information. In other words, the outline should be a natural, not artificial, outgrowth of the passage. Note which components are included within each topic (quantitative) and also the intensity or significance of the components (qualitative). Let the passage speak for itself. When you see a new topic, subject, issue, concept, or the like, you should start a new topic for your outline. After outlining the major divisions work on the more minor divisions such as sentences, clauses and phrases. The outline should be as detailed as you can make it without seeming forced or artificial” (Stuart 1980, 32-33).
Outlining to paragraph level (and beyond) is a key in allowing the original author to speak. It will keep us from majoring on minors or going off on tangents. Your finished outline can then be compared with a Study Bible, such as the NIV Study Bible or NASB Study Bible, a Bible encyclopedia, or a commentary, but only after you have read the book several times and developed your own tentative outline.
“This is the crucial task in exegesis, and fortunately it is something one can do well without necessarily having to consult the ‘experts’” (Fee and Stuart 1980, 24).
Once the large literary blocks have been isolated, then the smaller units can be identified and summarized. These smaller units of thought may be several paragraphs or even a chapter or more. In most literary genres the paragraph is a key (Liefeld 1984, 90) to interpretation. One should never attempt to interpret less than a paragraph. As a sentence forms the context for words, paragraphs form the context for sentences. The basic unit of purposeful writing is the paragraph. In high school we were taught how to isolate the topical sentence of a paragraph. This same principle will help us tremendously in biblical interpretation. Every paragraph has one major purpose in the author’s overall presentation of truth. If we can isolate this purpose and summarize its truth in one simple, declarative sentence, we can complete our outline of the author’s structure. If our interpretation is alien to the purpose or thrust of the original author, we are abusing the Bible and have no biblical authority!
“Do not trust the chapter and verse divisions. They are not original and are often completely wrong” (Stuart 1980, 23).
“Decisions about paragraphing are sometimes subjective, and you will find that the various editors’ groupings of contents do not always agree. But if you decide to start your passage where no editor has begun a paragraph or end a paragraph where no editor has ended a paragraph, then it is your responsibility to explain fully for your decision” (Stuart 1980, 45).
2. Note the historical and cultural setting
The previous discussion of literary units is valuable, not only for the first question, “what did the original author say” (textual criticism), but also for the second, “what did the original author mean?” (exegesis). These questions are related, but distinct. The first focuses on the words of the original author (textual criticism). The second focuses on three very significant aspects of interpretation which are related to meaning.
a. the historical background of the author and/or the events of the book
b. the type of literary form (genre) in which the message is given
c. the basic grammatical and linguistic aspects of the text
One of the characteristics of allegory is that it completely separates the interpretation of a text from its historical setting. It is a major tenet of the contextual/textual or Antiochian Method that one establish the historical context. This principle was reemphasized by Martin Luther. This emphasis on background material in interpretation has come to be called, in a broad sense, “higher criticism”; whereas the information about the original text has come to be called “lower criticism.” In higher criticism one tries to ascertain from both internal (the biblical book itself) and external (secular history, archaeology, etc.) the following items.
a. information about the author
b. information about the date of writing
c. information about the recipients of the writing
d. information about the occasion of the writing
e. information about the writing itself
(1) recurrent or unique terms
(2) recurrent or unique concepts
(3) basic flow of the message
(4) the form in which the message appears (genre)
“World view confusion…occurs whenever a reader of Scripture fails to interpret the Bible within the intellectual and cultural framework of the Bible itself, but uses instead a foreign frame of reference. The usual way in which it appears is for scriptural statement, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning or set of related meanings within the biblical frame of reference to be lifted out and placed within another frame of reference. The result is that the original intended meaning is lost or distorted, and a new and quite different meaning is substituted” (Sire 1980, 128).
This type of information is often (but not always) helpful in interpreting the writing. This historical aspect of interpretation, like outlining, can be done to some extent without the help of the “experts.” As you read the biblical book, write down the historical background information from the Bible itself and it will amaze you the amount of information you have gleaned. As a matter of fact, most of this information is available only from the biblical book itself (usually the first few verses). There will often be many theories expressed in the commentaries which are actually presuppositions with little biblical or historical evidence. Once you have gathered all the information that is obvious to you from the biblical book, it is time to expand your insight by using one of the following types of research helps:
a. introductory books usually divided into separate books on the Old and New Testaments
b. articles in Bible encyclopedias, dictionaries, or handbooks, usually under the name of the biblical book
c. the introductions found in commentaries
d. the introductions found in Study Bibles
These types of research tools are meant to give you the historical setting in a brief amount of study time. Most often these materials will be relatively brief because we simply do not have much information about many aspects of ancient history. Also, this type of material will usually be written in non-technical language. Again, as is obvious to you, my basic approach to interpretation is to see the big picture first and then to analyze the parts in detail.
3. The type of literature (genre)
The next area of interpretation related to the meaning of the original author is related to the literary genre. This is a French term which means a specialized category of literature characterized by style, form, or content. This is significant because the style in which one chooses to write affects how we are to understand it. Often ridiculous interpretations of prophecy or poetry have been propounded on what one calls “the literal” method of interpretation. However, the “literal” method from Antioch means that we interpret human language in its normal meaning. If it is apocalyptic literature, it was not meant to be interpreted literally. This is also true of poetry, idioms, and figures of speech.
The basic unit of thought, which in prose is normally the paragraph, is modified by the genre. Some examples of this significant factor in the identification of capsuled units of thought for the purposes of interpretation follow.
a. For poetry the basic unit is the strophe or stanza, which is defined as a series of lines arranged together as a patterned unit (see Appendix Six).
b. For a proverb the basic unit is the central or summary theme of the verse in its relation to the same theme located within the same book, another book by the same author, or other wisdom literature. Here, the thematic subject, more than the isolated proverb, is the key to interpretation. Not only synonymous themes (the same), but also antithetical themes (opposites) or synthetical development (additional information) of the same theme are crucial to a proper interpretation of Hebrew wisdom literature (see Appendix Seven).
c. For prophecy the basic unit must be the entire oracle. This can vary from a paragraph, a chapter, several chapters, to an entire book. Again, the basic theme and style will isolate the prophetic unit (see Appendices Four and Five).
d. For the Gospel parallels the basic unit will relate to the type of literature involved. Usually the unit will relate to one event, one teaching session, one subject, etc. This could involve an event or a series of events, parable or a series of parables, a prophecy or a series of prophecies, but all focusing on one main theme. It is usually better to look at the literary flow of each Gospel instead of going to the parallel passages in other Gospels.
e. For letters and historical narratives the basic unit is usually the paragraph. However, several paragraphs usually form larger literary units. These must be identified and characterized as a whole literary unit before the smaller parts can be properly interpreted. Some examples of these larger literary units follow.
(1) Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
(2) Romans 9-11 (what about unbelieving Israel)
(3) I Corinthians 12-14 (spiritual gifts) [or I Corinthians 11-14 guidelines for public worship]
(4) Revelation 2-3 (letters to churches) or 4-5 (heaven)
Analysis of literary types is crucial to their proper interpretation (Fee and Stuart 1982, 105). As in outlining, and to some extent, the historical background, this can be done by the average reader with the help of a translation which identifies poetry and paragraphs (Fee and Stuart 1982, 24). The reason that classification of literary genre is so important is that besides the general guidelines for interpretation, there are special needs of each literary type. This is only logical. If each type represents a different mode of human communication, then it is obvious that there needs to be special treatment in order to arrive at the author’s intent. It is just as condemning to add to the biblical author’s intent as it is to detract from it.
4. Special interpretive procedures related to genre
Let me summarize some of the specific guidelines involved in these special genres.
(1) Structure is important. Ancient Hebrew developed its poetic structure or pattern around thought (expressed in beats per line), not rhyme.
(a) synonymous (the same thought)
(b) antithetical (an opposite thought)
(c) synthetic (the development of thought)
(2) Poetry is usually figurative, not literal. It attempts to speak to our common human desires and experiences. Try to identify figures of speech (Sterrett 1973, 93-100) and understand their function or purpose.
(3) Try to get an overall impression of the literary unit and do not push the details or figures of speech in doctrinal formulations.
(1) Because they deal with daily life, look for the practical application.
(2) Parallel passages will be much more helpful here than context or historical setting. Try to compile a list of proverbs with the same practical application, as well as other passages which might modify or develop this same, opposite, or developed truth.
(3) Try to isolate the figures of speech and identify their purpose in the proverb.
(4) Be sure that you do not interpret the proverbs in a particularistic manner, but in the sense of a general truth.
(1) This type of genre must first be seen in light of its own historical setting. It is primarily related to its own day and the immediate history of that day. The historical setting is crucial in this genre.
(2) One must look for the central truth. To focus on a few details which might fit our day or the last days and ignore the overall message of the oracle is a common mistake.
(3) Often prophets do speak of future settings, possibly several. Because of the abuse of prophecy I feel it is best to limit the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy to the specific accounts recorded in the New Testament. New Testament prophecy must be interpreted in light of
(a) its OT usage or allusions
(b) the teachings of Jesus
(c) other NT parallel passages
(d) its own contextual setting
(4) Remember that most biblical prophecy, especially Old Testament Messianic prophecy, has two focuses: the Incarnation and the Second Coming (Silva 1987, 104-108).
d. The Four Gospels
(1) Although we have four Gospels and we are able to compare them, this is not always the best method in trying to find the purpose or meaning of one particular Gospel writer. We must look at the way he uses the material, not how other Gospel writers use it or develop it. Comparison will be helpful, but only after you have determined the meaning of a particular writer.
(2) The literary or historical context is crucial in interpreting the Gospels. Try to identify the literary limits of the general subject being discussed and not its isolated parts. Try to see this subject in light of first century Palestinian Judaism.
(3) It is important to remember that the Gospels record the words and acts of Jesus, but it is the Epistles which interpret them into specific church settings. Check the parallels in the Epistles.
(4) Jesus said some ambiguous and difficult things, some of which we may not fully understand until we see Him. He also said much that is plain and obvious—start there. Act on what you do know and often the rest will be made clear to you. If not, the message is possibly not for us, for our day (Dan. 12:4).
(5) In connection with parables
(a) Be certain of the context. Notice (1) who Jesus addressed the parable to; (2) Jesus’ purpose for telling the parable and (3) how many parables are told in a series. Read further to see if He interprets it.
(b) Do not push the details. Major on His major point(s). Usually there is just one central truth per parable or main characters.
(c) Do not build major doctrines on parables. Doctrine should be grounded on extended clear teaching passages.
e. The Letters and Historical Narratives
(1) Compared to the other types of literary genres these are the easiest to interpret.
(2) The contextual setting is the key, both historical and literary.
(3) The literary unit and the paragraph will be the key literary unit.
These special hermeneutics linked to literary types are discussed in detail in the following excellent books.
1. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
2. Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm
3. Linguistics and Bible Interpretation by Peter Cotterell and Max Turner
4. Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation by Tremper Longman III
5. Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson
6. Plowshares and Pruning Hooks by D. Brent Sandy
7. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein
5. Syntax and grammatical features
Another aspect in obtaining the author’s original intent or meaning is called syntax or grammatical structure. This is often difficult because of the idiomatic and structural differences between the biblical languages and our own mother tongue. However, it is a fruitful area in interpretation and needs to be dealt with in some detail. Usually a comparison of modern translations and a basic knowledge of grammar will help tremendously.
“Grammar may not always show us the actual meaning, but it will show us possible meanings. We cannot accept any meaning that does violence to it. This grammar is important in understanding the Bible. This is not strange. Essentially it means that we understand the Bible according to the normal laws of human language” (Sterrett 1973, 63).
Grammar is something that the common person knows in usage, but not in technical definition. We learn grammar when we learn to speak. Grammar is forming sentences to communicate ideas. We do not need to be experts in grammatical relationships in order to interpret the Bible, however, we do need to try to understand why the original author said it the way he did. Often the structure of a sentence will show us what the author is emphasizing. This can be ascertained in several ways.
a. As you read the passage in several English translations notice the word order. A good example of this is in Heb. 1:1. In the King James Version the subject of the sentence, “God,” appears first, but in the Revised Standard Version the descriptive phrase, “in many and various ways,” appears first. This is significant because it reflects the true intent of the author. Is the major thrust of this text that God has spoken (revelation) or is it how God has spoken (inspiration)? The latter is true because the Revised Standard Version reflects the Koine Greek word order (use an interlinear). Also, a technical commentary will help on these word order and grammatical issues.
b. As you read the passage in several English translations note the translation of the verbs. verbs are very important in interpretation. A good example is I John 3:6,9. When one compares the King James Version with modern translations the difference is obvious. This is a present tense verb. These verses are not teaching “sinlessness,” but “sinning less.” At the conclusion of this Textbook a brief definition of Hebrew and Greek grammatical terms is included (see Table of Contents).
c. As you read the passage in several English translations note the thought connectives. Often these help us know the purpose of a clause or how sentences and contexts are related. Notice the following connectives (Traina 1985, 42-43).
(1) temporal or chronological connectives
(a) after (Rev. 11:11)
(b) as (Acts 16:16)
(c) before (John 8:58)
(d) now (Luke 16:25)
(e) then (I Cor. 15:6)
(f) until (Mark 14:25)
(g) when (John 11:31)
(h) while (Make 14:43)
(2) local or geographical connectives (where, Heb. 6:20)
(3) logical connectives
because (Rom. 1:25)
for (Rom. 1:11)
since (Rom. 1:28)
so (Rom. 9:16)
then (Gal. 2:21)
therefore (I Cor. 10:12)
thus (I Cor. 8:12)
in order that (Rom. 4:16)
so that (Rom. 5:21)
although (Rom. 1:21)
but (Rom. 2:8)
much more (Rom. 5:15)
nevertheless (I Cor. 10:5)
otherwise (I Cor. 14:16)
yet (Rom. 5:14)
also (II Cor. 1:11)
as (Rom. 9:25)
as – so (Rom. 5:18)
just as – so (Rom. 11:30-31)
likewise (Rom. 1:27)
so also (Rom. 4:6)
(f) series of facts
and (Rom. 2:19)
first of all (I Tim. 2:1)
last of all (I Cor. 15:8)
or (II Cor. 6:15)
(g) condition (e.g., “if,” Rom. 2:9)
(4) emphatic connectives
(a) indeed (Rom. 9:25)
(b) only (I Cor. 8:9)
These illustrations of thought connectives were taken from Methodical Bible Study by Robert A. Traina, pp. 42-43. Although his illustrations are mostly from the writings of Paul and predominately from the book of Romans, they do serve as good examples of how we structure our thoughts with these thought connectives. By comparing modern translations of both the Old and New Testaments these implied and expressed relationships become clear. Traina also has an excellent summary about grammatical structure on pp. 63-68. Be a careful Bible reader!
d. As you read the passage in several English translations, notice the repetition of terms and phrases. This is another way to ascertain the original author’s structure for the purpose of communicating his intended meaning. Some examples are:
(1) The repeated phrase in Genesis, “these are the generations of…,” (2:1; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12,19; 36:1,9; 37:2). This phrase shows us how the author himself divided the book.
(2) The repeated use of “rest” in Hebrews 3-4. The term is used with three distinct meanings.
(a) a Sabbath rest as in Genesis 1-2
(b) the promised land of Exodus through Joshua
If one misses this structure then he will probably miss the author’s intent and probably think that all the people who died in the wilderness were spiritually lost.
6. Idioms and word studies
Read the passage in several English translations, particularly a word-for-word one, such as the New American Standard Version, with the dynamic equivalent one, such as the New International Version. In this way one is able to identify idioms. Every language has its own quirks or expressions. For one to interpret an idiom literally would be to totally miss the point. A good example is the Hebrew term “hate.” If we notice its New Testament usage, particularly Rom. 9:13; Luke 14:26; or John 12:25, one sees that this idiom could be misunderstood. However if its Hebrew background and usage in Gen. 29:31,33 or Deut. 21:15 is identified, then it is obvious that it does not mean “hate” in our English sense of the word, but it is an idiom of comparison. Technical commentaries will be of real help in these matters. Two good examples of this type of commentary are (1) The Tyndale Commentary Series and (2) The New International Commentary Series.
The last aspect of this second question, “What did the original author mean?” is word studies. I have chosen to deal with it last because word studies have been so abused! Often etymology has been the only aspect of meaning that one uses to interpret a passage. The writings of James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language; D. A. Carson, Exegetical Falacies; along with Moises Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, have helped modern interpreters to reevaluate their word study techniques. Bible interpreters as a group have been guilty of numerous linguistic fallacies.
“Perhaps the principal reason why word studies constitute a particularly rich source for exegetical fallacies is that many preachers and Bible teachers know Greek only well enough to use concordances, or perhaps a little more. There is little feel for Greek as a language, and so there is the temptation to display what has been learned in study” (Carson 1984, 66).
It must be stated emphatically that context, not etymology, determines meaning!
“The root fallacy presupposes that every word has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view meaning is determined by etymology” (Carson 1984, 26).
“We must agree the obvious fact that the speakers of a language simply know next to nothing about its development; and this certainly was the case with the writers and immediate readers of Scripture…our real interest is the significance of Greek or Hebrew in the consciousness of the biblical writers; to put it boldly, historical considerations are irrelevant to the investigation of the state of Koine, at the time of Christ” (Silva 1983, 38).
“Since usage is so important, a safe rule for the interpreter is to leave etymology in the hands of the expert and to apply himself diligently to context and usage” (Mickelsen 1963, 121-122).
We must seek out original usage, or to put it another way—the meaning understood and intended by the original author and readily understood by the original hearers. Biblical terms have several different usages (semantical field). D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 25-66, is very helpful at this point—painful, but helpful. To illustrate, notice how English meanings change over time.
a. In I Thess. 4:15, the King James Version has “shall not prevent them which are asleep.” In the American Standard Version the term is translated “precede.” Notice how the meaning of “prevent” has changed.
b. In Eph. 4:22 the King James version has “put off concerning the former conversation the old man…” In the American Standard Version the term is translated “manner of life.” Notice how the meaning of “conversation” has changed.
c. In I Cor. 11:29 the King James has “for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.” In the American Standard version the term “damnation” is translated as “judgment.” Notice has the term has changed.
Most of us are prone to define biblical terms in light of our understanding of that term in our denomination or theological system. The problem with this is twofold.
a. We must be careful that we are using the definition from the original author’s intent and not our demoninational or cultural background.
b. We must be careful not to force a word to mean our technical religious definition in every context where it appears. Often the same author uses the same term in different senses.
c. Some examples of this follow.
(1) John’s use of “world”
(a) physical planet (John 3:16; I John 4:1,14)
(b) human society organized and functioning apart from God (I John 2:15; 3:1; 5:4-5)
(2) Paul’s use of “body”
(a) physical body (Rom. 1:3)
(b) sin nature (Rom. 8:3-4)
(3) Paul’s use of “temple”
(a) the church as a whole (I Cor. 3:16-17)
(b) the individual believer (I Cor. 6:19)
(4) James’ use of the term “save”
(a) spiritual salvation (James 1:21; 2:14)
(b) physical deliverance (James 5:15,20)
The way to proceed in determining the meaning of a word is to check several translations and to note the differences. Look up the term in an exhaustive concordance such as Analytical Concordance to the Bible by Robert Young or The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible by James Strong. Look up all other usages in the same biblical book you are studying; look up all of the uses by the same author. Try to sample the other uses in the same Testament. Walter Henricksen, in A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible, 1973, pp. 54-56, gives these steps:
a. The term’s use by the writer.
b. The term’s relation to its immediate context.
c. The term’s ancient use at the time of the writing.
d. The term’s root meaning.
Try to verify the basic meaning from the other Testament (remember that the NT writers were Hebrew thinkers writing Koine Greek). Then it is time to go to a theological word book, Bible encyclopedia, dictionary, or commentary in order to check your definition (see list VII on p. 103). I have written a sample academic guide to NT word studies on p. 98 to illustrate how much effort must be used to ascertain a word’s meaning in a specific context.
C.-D. The Third and Fourth Interpretive Questions
The next questions which the interpreter tries to answer is “what else did the same author say on the same subject?” It is closely related to the fourth basic question, “what did other inspired authors say on the same subject?” These two questions can be combined by the descriptive concept of concentric circles of parallel passages. Basically we are talking about how the word or theological concept is used elsewhere by an inspired author. This principle of interpretation has been called “the analogy of Scripture.”
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it may be reached and known by other places that speak more clearly” (Westminister Confession, chap. 9).
It is based on three suppositions.
- that all Scripture is inspired by God (I Tim. 3:15-17, compare Fee and Stuart 1982, 209)
- that Scripture does not contradict itself
- that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture (Silva 1987, 68,93,94)
If these are true, then the best way to understand a passage is the contextual concentric circles of inspired writings.
1. the same topic or term in the same immediate context (paragraph or literary unit)
2. the same topic or terms in the same biblical book
3. the same topic or terms by the same author
4. the same topic or terms in the same period, genre, or Testament
5. the same topic or terms in the Bible as a whole
The farther we move from the specific passage that we are attempting to interpret, the more general and, to some extent, tentative the effectiveness of the parallel becomes.
“Interpret according to the narrow context before the wider. It is commonly agreed that Scripture should interpret Scripture. However, it needs to be understood that a term or passage must be interpreted first in its immediate context before it is studied in light of its broader application to the Bible as a whole” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 154).
This area of interpretation can be very helpful in seeing how our passage relates to the whole of revelation (McQuilkin 1983, 43; Silva 1987, 83; Sterrett 1973, 86). Basically we are moving from
1. exegesis (number 1 above) to
2. biblical theology (numbers 2, 3, and 4 above) to
3. systematic doctrine (number 5 above)
We are moving from the magnifying glass to the telescope. We must first be relatively sure of the meaning of our focal passage before we move to systematized doctrine. This is one, though not the only, purpose of systematic theology books “see list IX Theologies p. 105). The move is necessary, but dangerous. Our backgrounds, prejudices, and denominational indoctrinations are always ready and able to intrude. If we use parallel passages (and we must) we must be certain that they are true parallels, not just the same term or phrase.
It is often true that parallel passages bring an overall balance to our interpretation. It has been my experience in interpreting that the Bible is often written in paradoxical or dialectical pairs (eastern mindset). One must recognize the biblical tension between subjects without removing it for the purpose of making simplistic statements, attempting to categorize truth, or protecting cherished theological positions. One inspired text cannot be used to negate or depreciate another inspired text! Here are some examples of the tension between biblical truths.
1. predestination versus human free will
2. security of the believer versus the need for perseverance
3. original sin versus volitional sin
4. Jesus as God versus Jesus as man
5. Jesus as equal with the Father versus Jesus as subservient to the Father
6. Bible as God’s Word versus human authorship
7. sinlessness versus sinning less
8. initial instantaneous justification and sanctification versus progressive sanctification
9. justification by faith (Romans 4) versus justification confirmed by works (cf. James 2:14-26)
10. Christian freedom (cf. Rom. 14:1-23; I Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23-33) versus Christian responsibility (cf. Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 4:1)
11. God’s transcendence versus His immanence
12. God as ultimately unknowable versus knowable in Scripture and Christ
13. Paul’s many metaphors for salvation
14. the kingdom of God as present versus a future consummation
15. repentance as a gift of God versus repentance as a mandated response for salvation
16. the OT is permanent versus the OT has passed away and is null and void (cf. Matt. 3:17-19 vs. 5:21-48; Romans 7 vs. Galatians 3)
17. believers are servants/slaves or children/heirs
Moises Silva has been very helpful in listing the tensions which exist in our understanding Scripture.
1. The Bible is divine, yet it has come to us in human form.
2. The commands of God are absolute, yet the historical context of the writings appears to relativize certain elements.
3. The divine message must be clear, yet many passages seem ambiguous.
4. We are dependent only on the Spirit for instruction, yet scholarship is surely necessary.
5. The Scriptures seem to presuppose a literal and historical reading, yet we are also confronted by the figurative and nonhistorical (e.g., the parables).
6. Proper interpretation requires the interpreter’s personal freedom, yet some degree of external, corporate authority appears imperative.
7. The objectivity of the biblical message is essential, yet our presuppositions seem to inject a degree of subjectivity into the interpretive process (Silva 1987, 36-38).
Which side of these paradoxes are true? To all of these I would answer “yes,” because they are all true. Both sides are biblical. Our task as an interpreter is to see the big picture and integrate all of its parts, not just our favorite, or most familiar, ones. The answers to interpretation problems are not found in removing the tension so as to affirm only one side of the dialectic (Silva 1987, 38). This balance can be obtained from the proper use of a concordance or from systematic theology books. Be careful not to consult only systematic theologies from the denominational perspective from which you come or with which you agree. Let the Bible challenge you, roar at you—not just whimper. It will unsettle your cherished notions.
It is true that the attempt to systematize doctrine, or relate seemingly contradictory biblical material, is presuppositional and usually conforms to a doctrinal position. This should be less true for biblical theology which is primarily descriptive. This method (biblical theology) of study takes a small slice of the biblical material. It limits itself to an author, a period, or a genre. It tries to draw its theological categories only from a restricted biblical frame of reference. Often, in the act of limiting the biblical material, we are forced to take seriously the difficult statements of Scripture without explaining away their meaning by allusion to other verses. It forces us to take seriously what an author said. It is not looking for a balance, but for the vibrant, clear statement of the biblical author. It is a painful struggle to affirm both poles of biblical paradoxes. We consult all three of these concentric circles of parallel passages. One hopes to move through each stage in every context.
1. What did the author say and mean? (exegesis)
2. What did he say elsewhere on the same subject? What did others of the same period say? (biblical theology)
3. What does the Bible as a whole say on this and related subjects? (systematic doctrine)
Another potential problem in the use of parallel passages is called “the fallacy of collapsing contexts.”
“When two or more unrelated texts are treated as if they belonged together, we have the fallacy of collapsing contexts. This reading error can be especially knotty because it is the corruption of a perfectly good principle of reading: to compare Scripture with Scripture. We are responsible as good readers of the Bible to make use of every text bearing on the subject we wish to understand” (Sire 1980, 140).
“What gives interpreters the right to link certain verses together and not others? The point is that all such linking eventually produces a grid that effects the interpretation of the other texts” (Carson 1984, 140).
A good example of this problem has already been alluded to in this Textbook—Origen’s linking of a passage in Proverbs with an unrelated text in the book of I Thessalonians.
E. How did the original hearers understand the message and respond to it?
This is the fourth interpretative question. It relates to only certain kinds of genres (i.e., historical narratives, Gospels, and the book of Acts). It is very helpful if the information is available because this is our goal as an interpreter, “hear as it was heard.”
F.-G The Fifth and Sixth Interpretive Questions
Up until this point we have been looking at the interpretative questions which relate to the original author’s intent. Now we must turn to the equally significant focus concerning its meaning to my day and to my life. No interpretation is complete unless this stage is reached and adequately incorporated. The goal of Bible study is not knowledge alone, but daily Christlikeness. The goal of the Bible is a deeper, closer relationship with the Triune God. Theology must be practical.
“According to Kierkegaard the grammatical, lexical, and historical study of the Bible was necessary but preliminary to the true reading of the Bible. ‘To read the Bible as God’s word one must read it with his heart in his mouth, on tip-toe, with eager expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as the Word of God’” (from Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Ramm, p. 75).
Application is not an option (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 150). However, application is less structured than interpretation (this is where the creativity and life experiences of the interpreter and proclaimer come into focus). Ideally there is but one original intent in Scripture. This could be expanded to two (multiple prophecy fulfillment or extended parables). Often the original author’s intent was true, but not exhaustive of the Spirit’s intent. Application is often determined by one’s personal
c. level of maturity
d. desire to know and follow God
e. cultural and denominational traditions
f. current historical situation
It is obvious that the leap from the “then” to the “now” is ambiguous. There are many factors which cannot be identified or controlled. One reason for the development of the allegorical method was the desire to apply the Bible to current needs. Some would say that allegory is necessary for application (Silva 1987, 63,65), but I would deny this. The Spirit is our mandatory guide in application as He is in interpretation. Application must be integrally related to the intended meaning of the original inspired author!
2. Some Helpful Guidelines
a. Be sure to apply the major intent of the biblical author, not just minor details of the passage.
b. Do not look for every aspect of our current situation to be addressed in detail. Often biblical “principles” are our only guide. However, our formulation of these are one more level removed from inspiration. Also, their application is often very presuppositional. Some interpreters find biblical principles in every text. It is safer to limit one’s principles to extended teaching passages or else principles can become proof-texts.
c. Not all truth is meant for immediate or personal application. The Bible often records that which it does not advocate. Also, not all biblical truth is applicable to every age, every situation, and every believer.
d. Application should never seem contrary to other clear Bible passages.
e. Application should never seem contrary to Christlike conduct. Extremes in application are as dangerous as they are in interpretation.
f. Some basic application questions to ask of every biblical passage have been suggested by Richard Mayhue in How To Interpret the Bible for Yourself, 1986, p. 64
(1) Are there examples to follow?
(2) Are there commands to obey?
(3) Are there errors to avoid?
(4) Are there sins to forsake?
(5) Are there promises to claim?
(6) Are there new thoughts about God?
(7) Are there principles by which to live?
H. The Interpreter’s Responsibility
At this point it will be helpful to discuss the individual interpreter’s responsibility in relation to appropriate application of the Bible’s eternal, relevant truths. It has already been stated that this procedure is ambiguous and that the Holy Spirit must be our guide. For me a key ingredient to this area is our motive and attitude. We must walk in the light we have. I am not responsible for your walk of faith, nor you for mine. We can share our perspective in love and hopefully from our understanding of specific passages of Scripture. We all must be willing to seek new light from the Scripture, but we are only responsible for what we do understand. If we walk in faith in the light that we have, more light will be given (Rom. 1:17). We must also be aware at this point to remember that our understanding is not always superior to the understanding of others. Romans 14:1-15:13 is so crucial in this area, but I am always surprised that we usually think our group is the stronger brother and everyone who does not agree with us is a member of the weaker group and in need of our help. We all need help. We all have areas of strengths and areas of weakness in our understanding and application of spiritual truth. I have heard it said that the Bible comforts the uncomfortable and discomforts the comfortable. We must walk down the tension-filled road of spiritual growth. We are all affected by sin and we will never arrive at complete maturity this side of heaven. Walk in the light you have—within the light of the Bible. “Walk in the light as He is in the light” (I John 1:7). Keep on walking.
I. Here are some helpful books
1. Applying the Bible by Jack Kuhatschek
2. Understanding and Applying the Bible by J. Robertson McQuilkin
3. Living By the Book by Howard G. Hendricks
4. Why Christians Fight Over the Bible by John Newport