Where the world comes to study the Bible

Practical Procedures For Interpretation

I. The Spiritual Aspects

Bible study is a combination of dependence on the Holy Spirit and the sharpening of your God-given abilities of reason and analysis. The spiritual aspect of Bible study is difficult to discuss because of the vast array of differing interpretations affirmed by godly, educated, sincere believers. It is a mystery why there is so much disagreement, even hostility, among believers, all trying to understand and affirm Scripture. The Spirit is crucial, but all believers have the Spirit. The following is simply my attempt to address the needed spiritual attitude of every interpreter.

A. Prayer should be “priority one” in interpretation and application. Prayer is not an automatic link to true interpretation, neither in its quality or quantity, but it is the first indispensable step. To go into Bible study without the Spirit is like going swimming without water. Again, this does not mean to imply that prayer is directly related to the quality of our exegesis—that is determined by additional factors. But one thing is for certain—a person unaided by God cannot know spiritual truth (Calvin). Prayer is not overcoming some reluctance on God’s part to open His book to us, but it is a recognition of our dependence on Him. The Spirit was given to help us understand God’s Word (John 14:26; 16:13-14; I Cor. 2:10-16).

B. Personal cleansing is also significant. Known, unconfessed sin blocks our relationship with God. He does not require sinlessness in order to understand the Bible, but the Bible is spiritual truth and sin is a barrier to spiritual things. We need to confess known sin (I John 1:9). We need to open ourselves to the Lord for inspection (Ps. 139:1,23-24). Many of His promises are conditional on our faith response, so too, our ability to understand the Bible.

C. We need to develop a desire to know God and His Word (Ps. 9:7-14; 42:1ff; 119:1ff). When we become serious with God, He is able to draw near to us and open His will for our lives (Zech. 1:3-4; James 4:8).

D. We need to immediately apply the truth gleaned from our Bible study (put into practice what we believe to be true) into our lives. Many of us already know much more biblical truth than we are living (I John 1:7). The criteria for more truth is that we walk in the truth we already have. Application is not optional, but it is daily. Walk in the light you have and more light will be given (Rom. 1:17).

“It perceives that no merely intellectual understanding of the Bible, however complete, can possess all its treasures. It does not despise such understanding, for it is essential to a complete understanding. But it must lead to a spiritual understanding of the spiritual treasures of this book if it is to be complete. And for that spiritual understanding something more than intellectual alertness is necessary. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and the Bible student needs an attitude of spiritual receptivity, an eagerness to find God that he may yield himself to Him, if he is to pass beyond his scientific study into the richer inheritance of this greatest of all books” The Relevance of the Bible, H. H. Rowley (p. 19).

II. The Logical Process

Read the Bible! One cannot know what it means if he does not know what it says. Analytical reading and outlining are the keys to understanding. In this step several cycles (four) of reading the entire biblical book in one setting are involved.

A. Read in several translations. It is hoped that you will read translations that utilize different theories of translation.

1. formal correspondence (word-for-word) such as

a. the King James Version

b. the American Standard Version

c. the New American Standard Bible

d. the Revised Standard Version

2. dynamic equivalence translations such as

a. the New International Version

b. the New American Bible

c. Good News for Modern Man (Today’s English Version)

d. the Jerusalem Bible

e. the New English Bible

f. Williams translation

3. concept for concept translations such as

a. the Amplified Bible

b. Phillips translation

c. the Living Bible

Your personal study Bible should be from category (1) or (2). Also, a parallel Bible which utilizes several translations on the same page is very helpful.

B. Read the entire book or literary unit in one sitting

1. When you read, allow yourself a prolonged period of study time, a scheduled or regular time and find a quiet place. Reading is an attempt to understand another person’s thoughts. You would not think of reading a personal letter in sections. Try to read complete books of the Bible in one sitting.

2. One key to this non-technical, textually-focused methodology is reading and re-reading. It will amaze you how understanding is related to familiarity. This Textbook’s practical method is focused around these procedures.

a. seven interpretive questions

b. four stages of reading with assignments

c. use of research tools at appropriate places

C. Write down your textual observations (i.e., good note taking)

Take notes of what you read. There are several steps in this section. They are not meant to be burdensome, but we must control our desire for instant Bible knowledge by depending too heavily on the interpretations of others. Personal Bible study takes prayer, time, training, and persistence.

It is not an easy road, but the benefits are outstanding.

1. Read the book that you want to study one time through. I recommend that you choose a shorter New Testament book first. The study of an entire book is best. It is better stewardship of your time and it is easier to retain background information and context between study times. Book studies, over a period of time, will give you a biblical balance. It will force you to deal with difficult, unfamiliar, and paradoxical truths.

Try to put into your own words, in one concise, precise sentence, what the author’s overarching purpose was for writing the book. Also, try to isolate this central theme in a key verse, paragraph, or chapter. Remember that the purpose is often expressed by the type of literary genre that is used. If books are made up of other genres than historical narrative, consult the special hermeneutical procedural section concerning literary genre (See How to Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart).

2. Read it again in the same translation. This time notice the major divisions (literary units) of the author’s thoughts. These are identified by changes in subject, time, topic, tone, place, style, etc. At this point do not try to outline the structure of the book, only its obvious subject changes. Do not base your divisions on the chapter and verse of your English Bible. These are not original and are often misleading and incorrect. Summarize each of your divisions by using short, descriptive sentences which characterize the subject or topic of the section. Once you have isolated sections, see if you can link them together into related topics, contrasts, comparisons, persons, events, etc. This step is an attempt to isolate and relate the large blocks of seemingly unrelated material, which in reality, are the literary units of the author’s overarching structure. These literary units show us the flow of the thoughts of the original author and point us toward his original intent.

D. At this point it is helpful to check your outline and overarching purpose with other believers.

“When your private interpretation leads you to a conclusion different from the historical meaning men of God have given to the passage, an amber light of caution should flash in your mind” (Henricksen 1973, 38).

“In order for the exegesis to be your work and not merely a mechanical compendium of other’s views, it is wise to do your own thinking and to arrive at your own conclusions as much as possible prior to this step” (Stuart 1980, 39).

“Constantly cross checking our grasp of Scripture with:

1. our pastor

2. our fellow Christians

3. the historic understanding of Scripture by orthodox Christians” (Sire 1980, 15)

Often your Study Bible will have an outline at the beginning of each book. If not, most have the subject of each chapter at the top of the page or somehow positioned in the text. Never look at theirs until you have written your own. You may have to modify yours, but shortcuts at this step will cripple your ability to analyze the literary units for yourself.

Not only do Study Bibles contain outlines of biblical books, but also

1. commentaries

2. books of introduction to the Old or New Testament

3. Bible encyclopedias or dictionaries under the name of the biblical book

E. Re-read the entire biblical book and

1. on a separate sheet of paper, write down the paragraph divisions of your Bible under the literary units (different topics) that you have isolated and outlined. An outline is nothing more than recognizing the original author’s thoughts and their relationship to each other. Paragraphs will form the next logical division under literary units. As you identify the paragraph under each literary unit, characterize the context in one sentence as you did earlier to the larger division of the book. This simple outlining procedure will help keep you from majoring on minors.

Up until this point you have worked from only one translation. Now, compare your divisions with other translations.

a. the larger units

b. the paragraph divisions

Make a notation at the places of divergence.

a. subject divisions

b. paragraph divisions

c. word choice

d. sentence structure

e. marginal notes (This usually involves manuscript variations. For this technical information consult commentaries)

2. At this point look for verses in the biblical text to answer these questions (the historical setting).

a. who wrote the passage

b. to whom was the passage addressed

c. why was the passage written to them

d. when was the passage written

e. what historical circumstances were involved

This type of material can be gleaned from the book itself. Often all we know about the historical setting of biblical books is found within the book itself (internal evidence) or within parallel biblical passages. Certainly it is quicker to consult a “professional” commentator at this point, but resist doing it. You can do this for yourself. It will give you joy, increase your confidence, and help you remain independent of the “experts” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 139; Jensen 1963, 20). Write down the questions you think might be helpful such as: Are there repeated words or phrases? Is there a noticeable structure? Is there a series of parallel passages from one other specific biblical book? With your questions before you, re-read the entire book. When you find an item in the text that relates to any of these questions, write it down under that section. With practice and careful reading it will amaze you how much you can learn from the text itself.

F. Check your observations

Now it is time to check your observations of the biblical book with those of God’s gifted men and women of the past and present.

“Interpretation is a social process. The best results can be achieved only by the cooperation of many minds. The results of scholars in one age are the natural and rightful heritage of those who labor in the same field in succeeding ages, and should be used by them. No interpreter of the New Testament can wisely ignore the results wrought by past generations and strike out for totally independent and original conclusions on all points. He should become familiar as far as possible with what has previously been accomplished…The commentaries which have been produced by the scholarship of the past form a very essential part of the materials for interpretation” (Dana 1946, 237).

“Charles H. Spurgeon…‘It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them should think so little of what He revealed to others’” (Henricksen 1973, 41).

“This stress on the primacy of firsthand study does not imply that an examination of commentaries is not recommended. On the contrary, when done in the proper place, it is recognized as an indispensable step in a methodical approach. Spurgeon rightly indicates that ‘two opposite errors beset the student of the Scripture: the tendency to take everything second hand from others, and the refusal to take anything from others’” (Traina 1985, 9).

For those who do not have commentaries or research tools available in their language, it is possible to fulfill this step by studying the same biblical book with other mature Christians in your area and comparing notes. Be sure to study with people from different perspectives.

Be careful to notice the commentator’s theories about historical setting versus their documentation of historical circumstances, either from the Bible itself or historical sources. If one is not careful one’s presuppositions about the author’s purpose and setting can affect his/her interpretation. A good example of this would be the supposed background of the book of Hebrews. Chapters six and ten are very difficult. Often, an interpretation is proposed based solely on supposed historical circumstances or denominational traditions.

G. Check the Significant Parallel Passages

Notice the concentric circles (parallel passages) of interpretive significance. One of the great dangers in interpretation is allowing other parts of the Bible to determine what a particular text means, but also, at the same time, it is one of our greatest helps. It is a matter of timing. At what point do you look to the wider scope of biblical truth? There is disagreement at this point (Ferguson 1937, 101), but for me the point of focus must first be the original author and the contextual book you are studying. God inspired the biblical authors to say something to their day. We must first understand this message fully before we relate it to other Bible passages we know. If not, we begin reading our favorite, familiar and denominational views into every passage. We allow our personal systematic theology or denomination biases to crush and replace inspired texts! Texts have priority! These concentric circles, as I call them, move from a specific passage to the entire Bible, but only in graded, marked steps.

1. Carefully observe the logical and literary position of your passage within the biblical book. Studying an entire biblical book is crucial. We must see the whole before the significance of the parts is obvious. We must let the author speak in his setting and for his purpose. Never go beyond the particular passage and its immediate context until you have allowed it to speak with its own force. So often we want to solve all of the problems before we take seriously what is being said by a particular inspired biblical author. We often try to protect our theological bias!

2. Once we feel that we have wrestled with the text sufficiently enough to understand the basic message, then we move to the next logical step, which is the same author in his other writings. This is very helpful in twin writings, such as Ezra and Nehemiah; Mark and I and II Peter; Luke and Acts; John and I John; Colossians and Ephesians; Galatians and Romans.

3. The next concentric circle concerns different writers, but those who wrote in the same historical setting, such as Amos and Hosea or Isaiah and Micah, or Haggai and Zechariah. This concentric circle could also relate to the same type of literary genre on the same subject. An example is linking Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 with Daniel, Zechariah, and the book of Revelation. All of these, though written by different authors, relate to the end-time and are written in an apocalyptic genre. This circle is often identified as “biblical theology.” It is an attempt to allow specific sections of Scripture to relate to one another on a controlled basis. If exegesis is a bite of the pie, biblical theology is a slice. If exegesis is a solo, then biblical theology is an ensemble. We are looking for trends, themes, motifs, characteristic words, phrases, or structures of a given period, literary genre, subject, or author.

4. Since all of the Bible is inspired (II Tim. 3:16) and since our basic presupposition is that it does not contradict itself (analogy of Scripture), then we must allow the Bible to fully explain itself on a given subject. If exegesis is a bite and biblical theology is a slice, then systematic doctrine is the whole pie. If exegesis is a solo and biblical theology is an ensemble, then systematic doctrine is the full choir. Be careful, try never to say, “the Bible says…” until you have carefully advanced through each concentric circle of interpretation.

H. Eastern people present truth in tension-filled pairs

The Bible often presents truth in dialectical pairs. If we miss the balancing truth (paradox) we have perverted the overarching biblical message. Unbalanced presentation of truth is what characterizes modern denominations. We must allow the biblical authors to speak, but also the Bible as a whole (other inspired authors). At this stage of interpretation a relevant parallel passage, either confirming, modifying, or seemingly contradicting, is extremely helpful. It must be emphatically stated that it is as damaging to add to the Bible’s message as it is to take away from it. Bible truth is presented in clear, simple statements, but the relationship between these clear statements is often quite involved. The crowning glory of interpretation is the big picture, the balanced truth.

I. Systematic Theology

How does one present a doctrine systematically? It is similar to biblical theology in that we allow concepts, themes, and words to guide us to

1. other related passages (pro and con)

2. the definitive teaching passage on that subject

3. other elements of the same truth

4. the interchange of the two Testaments

The Bible speaks truly, but not always fully in a given context on a given subject. We must find the clearest biblical presentation of a given truth. This is done by using certain research tools. Again, you should try to work with the least interpretive helps first. An exhaustive concordance of the Bible can be very helpful. It will help you to find word parallels. Often this is all we need to discover the thought or concept parallels. The concordance will show us the different biblical terms which are translated into English. Concordances are now available for the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version. We need to be sure that we are not confusing English words with Hebrew or Greek synonyms. A good concordance will list the different original words and the places of their occurrence. The concentric circles (parallel passages) come into relevance again here. The order of priority will be

1. the immediate context of the literary unit

2. the larger context of the whole book

3. the same author

4. the same period, literary genre, or Testament

5. the entire Bible

Systematic theology books attempt to divide Christian truth into categories and then find all the references on that subject. Often they link these together in very denominational ways. Systematic theologies are the most biased of all reference books. Never consult just one. Always use those from other theological perspectives to force yourself to rethink what you believe, why you believe it, and where you can substantiate it from Scripture.

J. Use of Parallel Passages

If there are only a few references for the word you are studying, read all of them and also the entire paragraph in which they occur. If there are too many references, refer to the concentric circles again by reading the references that occur in the immediate context of the literary unit and the larger context of the entire book and select several to read in the other biblical books by the same author, or the same period, literary genre, Testament, or the entire Bible. Be careful because often the same word is used in a different senses in different contexts. Be sure to keep the biblical texts separate. Never allow a mixture of texts from all genres in the Bible without carefully checking the context of each one! Rather try to find parallel truths (pro and con). Some examples of this follow.

1. The use of the term “heavenlies” within the book of Ephesians. At first it seems to mean “heaven when we die,” but when all five uses are compared, it means “the spiritual realm coexisting with us now” (Eph. 1:3,20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).

2. The phrase “filling with the Spirit” is used in Eph. 5:18. This has been the focus of great controversy. The book of Colossians helps us with an exact parallel. The Colossian parallel has “let the mind of Christ richly dwell in you” (Col. 3:16).

The next source of help on locating these types of meaningful parallels is a good reference Study Bible. Like all good things, practice makes perfect. As you practice these procedures they will become easier. This is also true of research tools.

At this stage I would like to share with you a practical way to use a type of research tool that most believers do not ever use—systematic theology books. These books are usually extensively indexed by both text and topic. Check the index for your text. Write down the page numbers. Notice what “theological category” they are in. Look at the page and find your text. Read the paragraph; if it is helpful and thought provoking read the page (the whole section).

Check the index for your text. Write down the page numbers. Notice what “theological category” they are in. Look at the page and find your text. Read the paragraph if it is helpful and thought-provoking, read the page (the whole section). Find out how your context fits into the whole of Christian theology. It may be the only text on this topic or one of several. It may be the dialectical paradox to another doctrine. These books can be a great help in seeing the big picture if they are used critically and in concert with several authors, denominations, systematic theologies! A complete listing of the better ones is found at the conclusion of this Textbook (IX p. 105). These books are not for light, devotional reading, but they are so helpful in checking your formulation of the big picture. A note of caution should be given here. These books are very interpretive. Whenever we put our theology into a structure it becomes biased and presuppositional. This is unavoidable. Therefore, do not consult only one author, but several (this is also true of commentaries). Read systematic theologies from authors with whom you disagree or who are from other denominational backgrounds. Look at their evidence and ponder their logic. Growth comes with struggle. Force them to show you from the Bible what they are saying:

1. context (immediate and larger)

2. syntax (grammatical structure)

3. etymology and current usage (word study)

4. parallel passages (concentric circles)

5. history and culture of the original setting

God has spoken through Israel, Jesus, and the Apostles, and in a lesser way, He continues to illumine the church to understand the Scriptures (Silva 1987, 21). The believing community is a guard against wild, radical interpretations. Read the gifted men and women of the past and present. Do not believe all they write, but listen to them through your own Spirit-led filter. We are all historically conditioned.

III. Proposed Order for the Use of Research Tools

Throughout this Textbook you have been encouraged to do your own analysis, but there comes a point beyond which none of us can go personally. We cannot be scholarly specialists in all areas. We must find capable, godly, gifted researchers to help us. This does not mean to imply that we do not critique them and their findings. There are so many research tools available today in the English language that the wealth of these tools can be overwhelming. Here is a proposed order. After you have done all of the preliminary observations of the passage yourself then supplement your information with the following (use different colored ink for your notes and for those from the helps in each area).

A. Start with the historical background

1. Bible introductions

2. articles in Bible encyclopedias, handbooks, or dictionaries

3. opening chapters of commentaries

B. Use several types of commentaries

1. short commentaries

2. technical commentaries

3. devotional commentaries

C. Use supplementary specialized reference materials

1. word study books

2. cultural background books

3. geographically oriented books

4. archaeology books

5. apologetic books

D. Finally, try to get the big picture

Remember that we receive truth in increments; do not take shortcuts in your study—do not expect instantaneous results—stay with the program. Expect tension and disagreement in interpretation. Remember that interpretation is a Spirit-led task as well as a logical process.

Read the Bible analytically and research tools critically. Practice makes perfect. Start now. Make a commitment of at least thirty minutes a day, find a quiet place and set aside a time, choose a small New Testament book first, assemble several Bible translations and Study Bibles, get paper and pencil, pray, start.