Lesson 13: InterpretationRelated Media
After observing Scripture—considering what it says—one must interpret what it means. The science of Bible interpretation is called biblical hermeneutics. People may think that understanding the Bible is something mystical, but it is not. Hermeneutics is something we do every time we read a newspaper, article, or letter. We are simply using interpretation principles to discern what the author meant when writing to a specific audience. A text generally has one meaning (interpretation), though it may have many applications. The primary difference when interpreting Scripture as compared to secular writings, is the fact that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore is without error. Consequently, when confronting seemingly conflicting texts or ideas in the Bible, the interpreter must find out how the texts or truths work together or harmonize without contradicting one another.
Below are hermeneutical principles which will help us understand the meanings of biblical texts:
1. The Literal Principle (Or KISS)
Possibly, the most important hermeneutic principle is to read Scripture “literally”—according to the plain or normal sense. It’s been said that “if the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest one make nonsense.” Or, a humorous way to memorize this principle is with the acronym KISS—Keep It Simple Stupid! When the text is symbolic or meant to be a figure of speech, it is clear by the context. For example, poetry (like the Psalms) commonly employs symbols and figures of speech. Apocalyptic literature (prophetic literature about the end of the world) like Revelation, Ezekiel, or Daniel also uses symbols. However, historical literature and epistles do not. In general, stick to the plain sense unless the context demands otherwise.
Here are a few ways to identify symbols. (1) Often the writers of Scripture will introduce a symbol and then provide the literal meaning of it. For example, Revelation 1:16 says, “He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth…” Revelation 1:20 tells us that the stars refer to churches. (2) Sometimes, the context necessitates a symbolic or metaphoric interpretation by contradicting other Scriptural truths. For example, Psalm 91:4 says this about God, “He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall.” God having wings is clearly a metaphor because Scripture tells us that God is spirit and, therefore, has no physical body (John 4:24, cf. Lk 24:39). (3) Other times the symbolism is clear because of the impossibility of a literal reading. For example, Psalm 98:8 says, “Let the rivers clap their hands! Let the mountains sing in unison.” The author is obviously using symbols of fantastic joy over God and his works (cf. Ps 98:1)!
At times throughout history, interpreters carefully sought hidden, spiritual meanings behind every text—rendering the Bible almost impossible to understand. For example, a tree represented obedience, a river represented the Holy Spirit, and fruit represented evil. Be wary of these types of interpretations, which are not clearly supported in the immediate context. Hermeneutics protects against these types of readings, just as it does with all literature. Again, when interpreting Scripture, keep it simple by using the literal principle, unless the context necessitates otherwise.
2. The Historical Principle
Each portion of Scripture must be understood in its original historical setting, including the author, audience, cultural background, place, and the situation that prompted the writing of the text. Many errors in interpretation occur simply because the reader interpreted according to his or her own experiences and cultural understanding. However, proper Bible interpretation seeks to understand Scripture in the way the original audience would have understood it. Consequently, interpretations that the original audience would not have concluded are likely incorrect. At times, the Holy Spirit, through a different author, reveals to us that a historical person, event, or object was a type of Christ or had some deeper meaning which the original audience wouldn’t have discerned. Generally speaking, the historical and cultural setting is key to proper interpretation.
For example, in Matthew 5:29-30, Christ said this about defeating lust:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.
How would the disciples have understood Christ’s words about tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand? Are there historical equivalents that might help with interpretation? In that historical setting, Christ’s words were war terminology. For victors, it was common practice to take prisoners of war. Typically, the prisoners would be maimed or blinded so they could never attack the victors again. That is why the Philistines blinded Samson after defeating him. By blinding him, they aimed to guarantee that Samson would never be able to attack them again. The Babylonians also did this with the Jewish king, Zedekiah; they blinded him and kept him imprisoned until his death (Jer 52:11). However, since tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand would not keep a person from lusting (what about the other eye and hand?), it is clear that Christ’s words were metaphoric. Christ taught that believers should get rid of anything they were looking at (symbolized by eyes) and anything they were doing (symbolized by hands) which provoked them to lust. Understanding the historical/cultural context helps with interpreting Christ’s words.
Another example of the importance of the historical principle is seen in the story of Jonah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and call the Assyrians to repent. However, Jonah rebelled against God’s Word and fled in the opposite direction. To better understand the narrative, knowing the history between Israel and Assyria is crucial. These nations were bitter enemies. In fact, Assyria would some decades later conquer the Israelites and force them into exile. The nations’ histories show us why Jonah despised the Assyrians so much and longed for their destruction. Additionally, understanding their histories also makes Assyria’s repentance at Jonah’s preaching even more miraculous.
A good Bible student by necessity must be a good historian. Commentaries and other tools will help with this, but the more one is familiar with the whole counsel of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation), the more the ancient culture becomes familiar, leading to more accurate interpretations.
3. The Contextual Principle
The contextual principle means we must interpret Scripture in its literary context. This is extremely important because without considering the literary context of a verse, one could interpret it to mean essentially anything. For example, Philippians 4:13 says, “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” If taken without considering the context, this verse could be misinterpreted as being able to do whatever we desire, including hitting a home run, dunking a basketball, or winning the lottery. This particular verse is often misconstrued as a promise for such things. To properly understand what Paul said, we must consider the context in which Paul said it. Philippians 4:11-12 says:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.
It is incorrect to interpret this passage as a blank check, as if we can do anything we want through Christ. Paul was not saying he could break out of prison, conquer the Roman army, or anything like that. He was emphasizing that, through Christ, he could be content in every situation—specifically, any economic situation, whether “well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Certainly, this is true for us as well. We can experience the joy of the Lord in any situation. In fact, we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil 4:4) and “in everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:18). These are disciplines we must practice, which are only possible because of Christ.
Here are some tips to help with applying the contextual principle:
- Discover the immediate context of the surrounding verses or paragraph. This is done by reading the surrounding verses several times and asking questions like “What is the main thought or purpose of this section?”
- Discover the broader context of the chapter. Likewise, this is done by reading the chapter several times to discover the overarching theme. For example, the main theme in 1 Corinthians 12 is spiritual gifts. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 13 is love. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 14 is order in the church—specifically dealing with tongues and prophecy. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 15 is the resurrection. Some chapter themes are more challenging to discern, but knowing the chapter theme will help guide interpretation.
- Discover the overall context of the book. Again, after reading the book, ask questions like “Why was the book written?” or “What are the major theme(s) of the book?” “Are there any theme verses which clearly show the author’s intent (cf. John 20:31, 1 Tim 3:14-15, 1 John 5:13)?” The answers to these questions can often be more quickly discovered in the introduction of a study Bible, Bible survey book, or commentary.
As the context of the surrounding verses, chapter, and book are identified, it will help guide and protect one’s interpretation.
4. The Compatibility Principle
The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. We must always interpret Scripture by comparing it to Scripture itself. If we come to an interpretation of a certain text that contradicts what the Bible says as a whole, then that interpretation must be wrong.
A great example of using the compatibility principle is seen in how Christ corrects Satan’s abuse of Scripture when he tempted Christ in the wilderness. After Satan took Christ to the top of the temple, he said:
… “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
Satan interpreted Psalm 91:11-12 as a promise of God’s protection in every situation, including a person intentionally trying to hurt himself. Essentially, Satan said to Christ, “Jump off this building because God has promised to protect you!” Psalm 91 certainly describes the blessings on the person who “lives in the shelter of the sovereign one” (v. 1) and makes his “refuge in the Lord” (v. 9); God often protects them in special ways. However, the Psalm does not tell the follower of the Lord to intentionally try to hurt himself. Christ corrects this misinterpretation, not by appealing to the immediate context of the Psalm, but by comparing Satan’s interpretation to what Moses taught in Deuteronomy 6:16. In Matthew 4:7, Christ said, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’” Christ used the compatibility principle to prove Satan was twisting Psalm 91. We must do the same, both to find out what a verse means and what it does not mean.
The compatibility principle is especially important when considering what appears to be contradictory texts or doctrines. Here are a few rules to help with using the compatibility principle:
- Rule 1: Use clear passages to interpret less-clear passages. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:29 says, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them?” What does “baptized for the dead” mean? Mormons have interpreted this to mean that one can be baptized in place of a dead person, thereby fulfilling the dead person’s requirements for salvation. Whatever “baptized for the dead” means, it cannot mean that baptism saves anybody, whether they are dead or alive. This would contradict the compatibility principle. Scripture clearly teaches that people are saved by faith and not works, including baptism (cf. Eph 2:8-9, John 3:16). Also, Scripture does not teach that our works or faith can save others. First Corinthians 15:29 is difficult to interpret and the compatibility principle helps protect us from error.
One possible explanation for this unclear passage is that Paul was referring to a pagan cult who lived just north of Corinth in a city called Eleusis, who practiced baptisms for the dead.1 That is why Paul said why are ‘they’—not ‘we’—baptized for ‘them.’ Since some were questioning the resurrection, Paul might have been saying, “Even pagans believe in the resurrection! Why are they baptizing people for the dead just north of Corinth?” as a challenge to the Corinthians’ lack of belief. To properly interpret this unclear passage, both the compatibility principle and the historical principle (what was happening historically in and around Corinth) are needed. When encountering an unclear passage, consider what the Bible clearly teaches to help with interpreting the unclear.
- Rule 2: Remember the Bible cannot contradict itself since God is its author and he cannot lie (cf. Titus 1:2). Scripture, in its original manuscripts, is without error. If two passages contradict one another, this means our interpretation of those passages is incorrect (possibly from not understanding the historical or literary context) or the translation of those passages is incorrect (possibly from wrongly translating the original language or even an error in the ancient manuscript used).
To successfully compare Scripture with Scripture, analyzing the cross-referenced verses in a study Bible, looking up key words in a Bible concordance to find similar verses, or studying a corresponding doctrine in a systematic theology or Bible encyclopedia are helpful.
5. The Grammatical Principle
The grammatical principle is simply recognizing rules of language, which include grammar and sentence structure. One must be able to recognize the subject and verb of a sentence—whether the verbs are past, present, or future tense. One should recognize when nouns or pronouns are singular, plural, possessive, or non-possessive. One should recognize adjectives, adverbs, dependent and independent clauses. It is particularly important to recognize conjunctions, as they connect words, sentences, phrases, and clauses. We will consider a few of them:
- “Therefore” instructs the reader to look back at what was previously talked about (a topic, verses, or even chapters) to properly understand what follows. It has often been said, “When you see the conjunction ‘therefore,’ you must look back to see what it is there for.” For example, Hebrews 12:1 says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The conjunction “therefore” points the reader back to Hebrews 11, the Heroes of the Faith chapter. The author is telling the reader that the great faith of these Old Testament heroes should inspire us to be faithful in our own spiritual journeys.
- “And” simply means “in addition to.”
- “But” or “however” provides a contrast with what was previously said.
- “That,” “then,” “for,” “so,” and “because” are used to introduce a purpose or reason. For example, Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.” This verse hinges on the conjunction “so that.” “So that” tells us that if we do not conform to the world but instead renew our mind, we grow in our ability to discern God’s will. Consequently, those who are living in sin and not living in God’s Word have problems discerning God’s will for their lives and others. If we don’t recognize the conjunction “so that,” we will miss the logical flow of the author’s statement.
- “If” provides a condition.
Without recognizing the grammar in a sentence, paragraph, or chapter, it is impossible to truly understand the meaning.
6. The Genre Principle
Since the Bible is a work of literature, it includes different literary styles called genres. To interpret verses in various genres, we must understand each genre’s unique rules of interpretation. Thinking of the various genres as sports with different rules is helpful. For instance, in basketball, a person can’t kick the ball like in soccer. And in soccer, one can’t tackle like in football. Each game has its own rules; if those rules are broken, one will get a foul and possibly be removed from the game. Likewise, each genre has rules we must abide by to properly interpret a text. The primary genres are as follows:
- Psalms are poetic Hebrew prayers and songs. Since psalms are poetry, they use figures of speech, symbolism, and parallelism. A common feature of Hebrew parallelism is stating something in two ways: In synonymous parallelism, the author says one thing and then repeats it with different words. For example, Psalm 50:1 says, “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts!” In antithetical parallelism, the second line provides a contrast with the first. For example, Psalm 1:6 says, “Certainly the Lord guards the way of the godly, but the way of the wicked ends in destruction.”
- Proverbs are wise sayings about godly living presented in a short, memorable format. They should not be taken as promises but rather as general truths or common realities. For example, Proverbs 12:11 says, “The one who works his field will have plenty of food, but whoever chases daydreams lacks wisdom.” In general, the person who works will have plenty of food, but this is not always true, for a variety of reasons (famine or drought, for example). Like the Psalms, the Proverbs often include figures of speech, symbolism, and parallelism.
- Prophecy, as a genre, includes God’s speaking through prophets in both a foretelling and forthtelling fashion. Foretelling includes telling the future—speaking about the coming of the messiah, judgment, the day of the Lord, etc. Forthtelling is simply applying Scripture prophetically to God’s people. Often the prophets shared how Israel broke God’s law and called them to repentance. Most prophecy is forthtelling, not foretelling. A subgenre of prophecy is apocalyptic literature, which focuses on the end of the world by using symbols. Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation are prophetic/apocalyptic in nature.
- History tells the stories of the Bible. They detail redemptive history—how God brings about salvation through the messiah. They are descriptive in nature—showing us what happened—not prescriptive—showing us what to do. Throughout biblical history, we encounter the use of both negative and positive examples that warn and encourage us in our faith (1 Cor 10:6-11, Heb 12:1-3).
- Parables are symbolic stories with a spiritual meaning. It’s important to remember that parables typically have one major point; therefore, significant meaning should not be applied to every detail of parables.
- Epistles teach us Christian doctrine, as written by the apostles and their associates.
It is important to identify the genre of specific writings so we can properly interpret them. Again, history is primarily meant to show us what happened, not to develop doctrines from. Throughout history, cults have taken the stories of polygamy (having multiple wives) in the Old Testament and made doctrines out of them—meaning they start to believe it is acceptable for men to have multiples wives. The narratives weren’t meant for developing doctrines—that’s what the epistles are for and the doctrinal aspects of the narratives, such as Christ’s teachings in the Gospels. Similarly, with wisdom literature such as the Proverbs, if we make them promises, we will misinterpret and misapply them. They are simply general principles for wise living.
God did not reveal all his truths at once. There is a continual progression of revelation throughout Scripture. To properly interpret, we must take into account the then-current state of revelation. We must ask, “What had God revealed to those people during that historical period?” When considering God’s rejection of Cain’s offering, it would be wrong to read into the narrative a full-blown understanding of the Mosaic law and its stipulations for offerings. At the time it happened, God hadn’t made those known yet. Similarly, when reading the stories of Job and the Patriarchs, we must remember that no Scripture had yet been written, though God had certainly been speaking to them. Understanding how the original readers would perceive something is foundational for proper interpretation. Again, it is wrong to accept an interpretation of Scripture that the original audience would not have understood. This is only acceptable when later biblical authors reveal a deeper biblical meaning of a certain OT passage. For example, in John 3:14, Christ taught that when Moses instructed the dying Israelites to look at the bronze serpent to be healed, the bronze serpent was an Old Testament typology representing Christ. Christ would one day be put on a cross and those who looked to and believed in him would be saved. Though the original audience of Israelites wouldn’t have understood that the bronze serpent had a deeper meaning, the Gospel of John tells us it does. As a general principle, we should not accept an interpretation that the original audience would not have naturally come to.
8. The Christological Principle
Christ is the major theme of Scripture, and therefore we should look for references to him throughout it and come to know him in a deeper way through our study. In John 5:39-40 and 46, Christ said this to unbelieving Jews:
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me.
Similarly, Jesus said this to his disciples after his resurrection, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). The law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms were one of the ways the ancient Jews referred to the whole Old Testament. All the Old Testament pointed to and was fulfilled in Christ.
In what ways is Christ seen throughout the whole Old Testament? (1) Christ is seen in prophetic references—prophecies about his birth, life, death, resurrection, and future reign. (2) He is seen in typologies—images of Christ throughout the Old Testament. Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days—these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!” New Testament authors often alert us to OT pictures of Christ. Adam was a type of Christ (cf. Rom 5:14-15, 1 Cor 15:45). As Adam led the world into sin, Christ leads the world into righteousness. Moses was a type of Christ (cf. Dt 18:18, Acts 3:22). As Moses instituted the Old Covenant, Christ instituted the New Covenant. As mentioned, the bronze snake in the wilderness was a type of Christ (John 3:14). When the dying Israelites looked to the bronze snake on a pole for healing, it was a foreshadowing of how the world would look to Christ, who died on the cross, for salvation. (3) We also see Christ in the Old Testament law, not just in types, but also in the fact that the law ultimately demonstrated people’s need for a savior. Galatians 3:24 says, “Thus the law had become our guardian [or tutor] until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.” By giving the law to Israel, God taught them their inability to keep God’s law and that ultimate salvation could only come through the prophesied messiah. (4) In addition, genealogies often point to Christ. Many of them include members of Christ’s lineage, as demonstrated in his genealogical records in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.
However, not only is Christ promised in the Old Testament, he is revealed throughout the New Testament. The four Gospels tell his story. Acts details the building of his church through his disciples. The Epistles share his teaching through the apostles. Revelation teaches about his return, including his wrath, victory, and kingdom.
The Christological principle does not mean we should allegorize Scripture (making every detail a symbol of him) or think that every verse directly points to Christ in some way. What it does mean is that while studying Scripture, we should be aware that there are often references to Christ throughout and take note of them. Studying Scripture should make us know and love Christ more.
9. The Church Witness Principle
Jesus taught that his sheep hear his voice and that they would not follow the voice of another (John 10:4-8, cf. 1 John 2:20). God has uniquely gifted his followers with the ability to understand his Word. Second Corinthians 2:12 says we have received God’s Spirit “so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God.” In addition, God has given gifted teachers to the church to help believers come to a unity of the faith (Eph 4:14). Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, there is great wisdom in finding out how believers (present and past) have interpreted certain passages or looked at certain doctrines. Proverbs 24:6 says, “for with guidance you wage your war, and with numerous advisers there is victory.” “Victory” can also be translated as “safety” (KJV).
We get a picture of this in Acts 15. There were false teachers in the early church, insisting that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and practice the Mosaic law (v. 1, 5). In response to this, Paul and Barnabas traveled from Antioch to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church. After discussion, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, definitively declared that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, nor practice the Mosaic law (v. 19-20).
Similarly, there has been significant attacks on specific doctrines throughout history, causing the church to bond together and wrestle with Scripture to discern what it truly says—often leading to a general consensus. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture, have all been grappled with and agreed upon by the majority of the church throughout history. There is great wisdom and protection in studying the conclusions of the ancient and contemporary church.
With that said, simply because the majority of the church believes something (or has believed something), doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct. It does mean that we should give great consideration to their conclusion. This is where cults have often failed. Though the church has largely accepted the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity/humanity of Christ, or salvation by faith alone, cults choose to ignore those conclusions—believing that God has given them special revelation that the majority of the church has missed. As Scripture tells us, there is safety and victory in the multitude of counselors. Christ has uniquely given his church the ability to understand his Word; therefore, we must consider the historical conclusions of other saints. This can be done by studying commentaries and systematic theologies, both contemporary and ancient ones.
What are some tips for applying the church witness principle?
- We must be humble. Pride often leads to false interpretation, but a wise person is humble and seeks the insight of others.
- We must be resourceful. It often takes hard work and diligent study to research problem passages or doctrines; however, there is great fruit in such efforts.
- We must, at times, be willing to break from the majority or from what is familiar to us. Just because the majority agrees on some point, or because we were raised in a denomination or church that believes a certain doctrine, doesn’t mean either is right. Throughout history, there have been seasons where the majority fell into serious Scriptural error, and certainly no church, denomination, or individual is immune to this. We must recognize this and therefore be committed to God’s Word more than a denomination, church, or individual.
What are some hermeneutical principles to help us properly interpret Scripture?
- The Literal Principle. We should read Scripture according to its plain sense. If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest we make nonsense.
- The Historical Principle. We must understand the historical background including the author, audience, ancient culture, and setting, to properly interpret.
- The Contextual Principle. We must consider the literary context of the surrounding verses, the chapter, and ultimately the book in which a verse is found to properly interpret. Without context, a verse can mean anything.
- The Compatibility Principle. Since Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture, we must consider a verse in comparison to what the rest of Scripture says. Scripture cannot contradict itself, and we should use clear verses to interpret less clear ones.
- The Grammatical Principle. We must recognize and understand proper grammar including sentence structure to properly interpret.
- The Genre Principle. Each genre has different rules, and if we do not follow them, our interpretations will be inaccurate. A proverb is not a promise; it is a general principle. We should not add significance to every detail of a parable. Historical narratives are descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive.
- The Progressive Revelation Principle. Understanding how the original audience would comprehend a verse is crucial to interpretation; therefore, we must recognize the revelation that the original audience had.
- The Christological Principle. Christ is the major theme of Scripture. The Old Testament points to him, and the New Testament is the fulfillment. As we study, we should recognize references to him and seek to know Christ more through our study.
- The Church Witness Principle. How has the church throughout history understood a certain text or doctrine? This will often help us properly understand a text and protect us from grievous errors, which people often repeat.
- In the reading, what principle stood out most to you and why?
- What are some good tips for applying the literary contextual principle?
- What are some of the different genres in Scripture and rules for properly interpreting them?
- In what ways does all of Scripture point to Christ?
- How can we apply the church witness principle when studying difficult passages or doctrines?
- In what ways have cults commonly rejected the church witness principle throughout history?
- What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?
Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown
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