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V. Interpreting the Bible

“There are hundreds of ways of interpreting the Bible--what makes you think that yours is correct?” While it is true that Christians disagree over a number of issues (e.g., the meaning of Genesis 1-2, the fulfillment of prophecy, the justifiability of war), there is far more agreement over the cardinal doctrines of Christianity than most people think. Almost all denominations share the foundational truths about God, man, sin, and salvation (what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”). The vast majority of Christians, for example, concur with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

When interpretive disagreement occurs, it is usually because of faulty or inconsistent methods of interpretation (hermeneutics). Some people, for instance, impose their own preconceived notions upon the pages of Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself. But when the basic principles of interpretation are put into practice, most difficulties disappear. Here are fifteen principles along with specific exercises that will sharpen your skills in interpreting the Bible:

The Principle of Biblical Authority

Do not regard the Bible as a textbook; it is not merely an object to be observed but an oracle to be obeyed. Approach it with a proper attitude of reverence, care, and receptivity. It is alive with the Spirit of God, and it has the power to change the lives of those who respond to it. It is trustworthy and inexhaustible. There are always fresh truths within its pages, and the more deeply we mine, the more insight we will gain. It can transform our thinking and gradually move us from a human to a divine perspective.

Exercise: Inspiration has been defined as “God’s superintendence of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs” (Charles C. Ryrie). Read the following passages and briefly describe how each aids your understanding of inspiration: Jeremiah 30:2; Matthew 5:17-18; 15:4; John 10:35; 17:17; Acts 28:25; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; Revelation 22:19.

The Extent of Biblical Authority

The authority of Scripture is not limited merely to matters of religious faith; it extends to all that it affirms, including historical events, geography, chronology, and the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible has been challenged in many ways--for instance, Daniel did not write the prophecies in the book of Daniel; Jesus did not feed the multitudes but inspired them to share their lunches. But if the Bible is not trustworthy in matters like these, how can we be sure that it is reliable in other areas? Either we place ourselves under the authority of Scripture or we do not. To fully understand its message, we must submit to it.

Exercise: According to John 7:17, what condition must be met to recognize Jesus’ true authority?

Scripture, Tradition, and Experience

The Word of God should be our final court of appeal for authority. As valuable as tradition and experience are, we must interpret them in light of Scripture. The church does not decide what Scripture teaches; Scripture determines what the church teaches. Tradition is an important authority, but it is not the ultimate authority. Many traditions, true and false, have surfaced throughout the history of the church. If a tradition or personal experience is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture, it is not of the Lord. On the other hand, experience supports the validity of biblical truth; if Christianity is true, it should be practical enough to change lives.

Exercise: A person decides to increase his giving over a period of several years and discovers that he is better off financially than when he began. Is he justified in teaching that the same thing will happen to others when they increase their giving?

Why or why not?

Scripture and Human Reason

Like tradition, reason is a significant authority. But it, too, must be placed under the dominion of Scripture. The Bible affirms a number of truths that seem impossible to resolve. How can Jesus Christ be fully God and fully man? How can the three Persons in the one Godhead be fully and completely God and not each other? These matters are not ultimately contradictory, but they do go beyond the limits of human comprehension. There are only two choices: submit our reason to the authority of Scripture and accept the tension, or submit Scripture to the authority of our reason and resolve the tension (e.g., play down the deity or humanity of Christ). Exercise: The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all, but man is responsible for his decisions. Compare Romans 9:6-21 with Romans 10:9-15. What do you do with the tension between these passages?

The Principle of Biblical Unity

This principle counsels us to treat the Bible as a complete book, since it is a unity in diversity. We should seek to relate each book we study to the central theme of Scripture: God’s loving plan to redeem and restore imperfect people through the perfect work of His Son. The better we grasp the big picture, the better we will be able to see the details in proper perspective.

The New Testament builds upon the Old, and requires a familiarity with the history and imagery of the Old Testament. Without this, many New Testament passages would be extremely difficult to understand. Hebrews 9, for example, assumes a knowledge of the structure and function of the tabernacle.

Exercise: How would you answer the charge that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and judgmental, whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful?

The Principle of Progressive Revelation

The Bible is a unified book, but as we study its pages, we should also remember that it is a progressive revelation. Over the fifteen or more centuries during which it was written, its portrait of God and His redemptive program was gradually enriched and clarified. It has been said that “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”

This is not to say that the religion or ethical standards of the Bible evolved from a primitive to a sophisticated level. Rather, it means that the revelation of the person and character of God has become clearer through the course of biblical history (see Heb. 1:1-2). Since the fullness of God’s revelation is in the New Testament, we must avoid the temptation of reading the New Testament back into the Old. At the same time, we should avoid the opposite pitfall of projecting Old Testament civil or ceremonial laws into our own time (e.g., the dietary laws). Exercise: Read Hebrews 10:1-18 in light of this principle.

The Principle of Clarity

This principle tells us to let the Bible speak for itself. We should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, since it is its own best interpreter and commentator. Move from the known to the unknown by interpreting unclear passages in the light of those which are clear. When wrestling with a difficult passage, consult other verses which deal with the same subject in a simpler way. Then bring the unclear into conformity with the clear. Everything that is necessary to salvation and sanctification is clearly revealed in Scripture.

It is also wise to gain familiarity with the gospels and epistles before tackling more difficult books like Ezekiel and Revelation.

Exercise: Compare Galatians 5:4 with John 10:27-29 on the issue of salvation.

Which passage is clearer?

The Principle of Correlation

To be truly biblical, a specific doctrine must incorporate everything the Word has to say about it. We build up our understanding of theology by comparing Scripture with Scripture. It is unwise to base any doctrine on one or two miscellaneous verses or on controversial, obscure passages.

This principle tells us to correlate the teachings of Scripture by using cross references. 1. Verbal cross references compare the use of a word or expression in several passages. 2. Conceptual cross references compare similar ideas or doctrines like the resurrection or redemption. 3. Parallel cross references compare passages that recount the same incident like the feeding of the 5,000 or the life of Hezekiah in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. Correlation involves both inductive reasoning (specific passages to general conclusions) and deductive reasoning (general premises to specific applications).

Exercise: Here are some difficult verses that have been used as proof texts for unbiblical doctrines: John 15:6; Hebrews 6:4-6 are used to refute the security of the believer. James 2:24 is used to show that works are necessary for salvation. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16 are used to teach that water baptism is a necessary condition for salvation. What is the problem in each case?

Exercise: Mormons use 1 Corinthians 15:29 to justify their practice of proxy baptism for unbelievers. How do you respond?

The Principle of Context

Interpret every passage in light of its immediate context (preceding and following verses, paragraph, chapter) and broad context (book, testament, Bible). A verse lifted out of its context can become a pretext. It is not as easy to twist the meaning of a verse when it is observed in its setting.

The first level of context is the material that surrounds the passage you are interpreting. For example, to interpret the three parables in Luke 15, it is important to notice that Jesus was addressing them to the Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1-3).

Exercise: Use James 1:2-4 to discover the kind of wisdom James had in mind in 1:5. Use Philippians 4:10-12 to interpret Paul’s statement in 4:13. The second level of context is the book in which your passage appears. Your approach should be appropriate to the Testament, whether Old or New, and it should also be consistent with the theme, purpose, and style of the book. The third level of context is the Bible as a whole. Relate the passage you are considering to the broad context of scriptural teaching. What contribution does it make to God’s plan in human history?

The fourth level of context is the culture and historical background in which the passage was written. See “The Principle of Background.”

The Principle of Normal Usage

Take the text at face value and interpret it in its normal or literal sense. Do not interpret it in a symbolic or allegorical way unless the context tells you that parables, symbols, or other figures of speech are being used. It is always better to identify the plain and natural sense of a passage instead of looking for hidden meaning. It cannot be literal and figurative at the same time. For example, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7) is figurative because it uses an inanimate object to describe a living person; it cannot mean that Jesus is a wooden door. Only when the literal meaning does not fit the context, as in poetic or parabolic language, should we interpret a passage figuratively.

Exercise: How do you approach the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22:21-35? Should you understand it literally or figuratively? Why?

The Principle of Application

A passage normally has only one interpretation, though it may lead to a number of applications. This principle tells us to distinguish the single interpretation from the multiple applications.

The New Testament tells us that the events of the Old Testament have moral and spiritual applications for us today (see Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6,11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but this does not give us a license to read allegorical meanings into these events. It is true that the New Testament sometimes tells us that specific Old Testament events are symbolic of spiritual truths. For instance, Paul tells us that the rock that provided the Israelites with water in the wilderness is symbolic of Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). In Galatians, he uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory of the old and new covenants (Gal. 4:21-31). But this symbolic use of historical facts was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and as interpreters of Scripture, we cannot lay claim to the same authority. Unless the inspired writers of Scripture designate a secondary or “hidden” meaning in an event or a prophecy, we are on shaky ground when we look for such a meaning. If we try to impose more than one sense on a passage without biblical warrant, we will fall into the trap of spiritualizing, symbolizing, and allegorizing.

Therefore, we should normally look for a single meaning and prefer the clearest and most obvious interpretation when there is more than one possibility. Any applications we draw from a passage should be consistent with its meaning. We may, for example, observe the way Jesus used the simple analogy of water in talking with the woman at the well and decide to look for effective analogies when we have opportunities to share the gospel with others. But it would be wrong to apply the passage by concluding that we must use the analogy of water when we tell others about Christ.

Exercise: Some people interpret the Song of Solomon as a portrait of Christ and His bride, the church. Is this a valid interpretation? Is it a valid application?

The Principle of Background

This principle tells us to consider the historical background of the portion of Scripture we are interpreting. This, along with any relevant customs and geography, provides the proper backdrop to add to our understanding of the passage. Ask the question, “What did this passage mean to the people of that time and culture?”

The historical setting includes the situation of the author and his purpose for writing the book or epistle. Who wrote it? When was it written? What was the occasion? What are the historical references in the book? Who were the recipients? Who are the main characters?

When Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he was in prison, waiting to know if he would be executed or released. Ten years before, he was a prisoner in Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). Background information like this will greatly aid our understanding of the themes and allusions in this epistle.

The physical setting includes any geographical references in the passage or book. The book of Amos, for example, begins with a catalog of judgments on the nations that surround Israel. A map will show how these catastrophes gradually spiral in on Israel herself (Amos 1:3-2:16). The physical setting also relates to references to plant and animal life.

The cultural setting includes information about manners and customs of Bible lands that would help our understanding of the meaning of a passage. Biblical and extrabiblical sources provide us with information about such things as ceremonial cleansing, idolatrous practices, wedding customs, oriental hospitality, and so forth. A knowledge of the historical, physical, and cultural settings will give us a better picture of what a passage meant to the people to whom it was written.

Exercise: How does Acts 13-15 aid your understanding of the epistle to the Galatians?

The Principle of Verbal Interpretation

We should understand words in a way that is consistent with how they were used at the time they were written.

Lexical study--Even without knowing the original languages, one can pick any word in the Bible, discover the Hebrew or Greek word from which it was translated, and learn the literal meaning of that word. This can be done with tools like Strong’s Concordance, Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, and Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. It is also helpful to compare translations. Comparative study--Using a concordance, you can determine how often a word is used and what writers used it.

Theological study--The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and the Dictionary of New Testament Theology are excellent tools for discovering the theological usage of significant words. Be sure to interpret any word in relation to its immediate context.

Exercise: In what different ways is the word “faith” used in Romans 14:23; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 5:11-12?

The Principle of Grammatical Interpretation

This principle tells us to be aware of the grammatical details of the sentences of Scripture. Sentences are units of thought that are governed by the rules of grammar. Obviously, it would be best to study grammatical constructions in the original language, but since this is not possible for most students of Scripture, much of the needed information is available in good Bible commentaries. When focusing on a particular verse, it is a good idea to see what more than one commentator says about it.

Exercise: Look up John 1:14 in two commentaries. What grammatical insight did you gain?

The Principle of Theological Interpretation

This rule tells us to discover the meaning of a passage rather than impose one upon it. Every interpreter has a theological perspective, whether he knows it or not. If we are not careful, our natural tendency will be to read our doctrinal view into Scripture by overlooking some passages and camping on others. When this happens, our theology becomes more authoritative than the Bible. Instead of interpreting a passage on the basis of a dogmatic system (eisegesis), we must be willing to modify our thinking according to what Scripture really says (exegesis).

Exercise: Read the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. How do you think people of different theological persuasions would approach this parable? What do you think is the central point of the parable?

The Principle of Literary Form

As we saw in Section IV, the Bible uses a wide variety of literary forms. As interpreters, we must take these literary genres into account, because they control the meanings of sentences. We will look briefly at short figures of speech, parables (an extended figure of speech), and prophecy.

Interpretation of Figurative Language

We saw that we must understand a passage literally unless the context indicates that figurative language is being used. When this is the case, we should enjoy such imagery, because the abundance of figures of speech in the Bible adds beauty, appeal, and persuasiveness to the written Word.

The Bible accommodates divine revelation to the human mind by using human languages, idioms, thought forms, and experience. This is why the language used to describe heaven (e.g., jewels, gold, no tears), and hell (e.g., fire) is cast in terms of human experience.

When the Bible speaks of God, one of the most common figures of speech is anthropomorphism (e.g., His hands, feet, eyes, mouth). This does not mean that God has a physical body any more than Psalm 91:4 means that He is a giant bird (“He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge”). By its very nature, figurative language should not be taken literally. However, this is not to say that there is no literal reality behind the figure. When Christ called Himself the bread of life, He did not mean that He was a baked loaf; the literal reality behind this figure is that He offers spiritual nourishment and life to anyone who trusts in Him.

When you encounter a figure of speech, first try to decide what kind of figure it is (use Section IV) and then determine the literal reality behind the figure. Be sure to interpret in light of the context.

Exercise: What kind of figure does Jesus use in Matthew 16:19? What is the literal reality behind the figure?

Some of the biblical symbols are explained by the Scriptures (e.g., the stars and lampstands in Rev. 1:20). We can use these symbols as a guide to assist us in interpreting those symbols that are not explained. Some symbols, like the lion, are used in more than one way, and we must not force them to mean the same thing. Use the immediate and broad context and exercise caution, especially when dealing with numerical, mineral, and color symbolism.

Interpretation of Parables

When working with parables, try to determine the one principal truth rather than getting caught up in analyzing the details. Normally, a parable has one major point of comparison. The purpose of the parable of the soils, for example, was to illustrate the basic responses to the proclamation of the Word. If we attempt to examine the meaning behind each of the elements (as in an allegory), we will get mired in speculation. Instead, each of the details should be related to the main point of the parable.

Another rule is to see how much of the parable is explained by the Lord (e.g., Matt. 13:18-23; 25:13), and to use the context for any other interpretive clues (e.g., Luke 15:1-3).

Exercise: What is the central point in the parable of the faithful steward in Luke 12:41-48 (cf. Matt. 24:45-51)?

Interpretation of Prophecy

As with other Scripture, we should interpret prophecy in a literal way unless the context or its use in the New Testament indicates that the language is figurative (e.g., Mal. 4:5-6 compared with Matt. 11:13-14; 17:10-13). When interpreting prophecy, give attention to the historical background and the context in which it appears. Try to correlate your passage with similar prophecies (e.g., the day of the Lord and the restoration of Israel).

A number of prophecies were completely fulfilled soon after they were made (e.g., the destruction of Assyria in Isa. 10:5-19). Other prophecies were partially fulfilled in the days of the Old Testament, with the remainder fulfilled in the New Testament (e.g., Isa. 7:14). Some were partially fulfilled in the first advent of Christ and await complete fulfillment in His second advent (e.g., Isa. 52:13-53:12). From the perspective of the prophet, one event appeared to be right after the other, since he did not see the valley between the first and second mountain ranges. It is helpful in interpreting prophecy to be aware of these distinctions.

Exercise: Compare Luke 4:17-21 with Isaiah 61:1-2. What part did Christ leave out, and why?

The Principle of Limitation

There are many difficult passages in Scripture, and scholars continue to debate over their meaning. Figures of speech, prophetic symbolism, obscure historical and cultural allusions, lexical and grammatical difficulties, and other problems mean that we cannot be sure of the correct interpretation of some texts. At times, we need to admit our ignorance and acknowledge our limitations. It is better to humble ourselves than to dogmatically cling to uncertain interpretations. There are times when we should say, “I don’t know,” or, “I lean in this direction, but I can’t be sure.” There is a hierarchy of doctrines in Scripture--some are far more important than others. The more important the truth, the clearer the biblical revelation. Central truths like the character of God, the person and work of Christ, the way of salvation, and the fundamentals of Christian living are explicitly developed in the pages of Scripture. It is wise to concentrate on the essential truths rather than major on the minors.

When in doubt, we should check our results by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. The great nineteenth-century preacher Charles H. Spurgeon observed, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

The Principle of Openness

It is essential that we approach the Scriptures with conscious dependence on the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. We must also be willing to put aside our theological bias and be open to whatever He desires to communicate to us through His Word.

For many people, the real problem is not so much in interpretation (understanding) as it is in application (moral response). Mark Twain understood this well when he said, “Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand. The Scripture which troubles me most is the Scripture I do understand.”

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Bible Study Methods

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