Basic Principles of Biblical Interpretation
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An important skill to acquire as a believer is the ability to accurately interpret Scripture. This proficiency enables a lifetime of rich, nourishing meals and brings great honor and glory to Jesus Christ.
An understanding of Scripture based on good principles of interpretation should refine what we believe, affect how we live our lives, and what we teach others. The benefits are profound.
There are many job vacancies in the “Berean” department of interpretation (Acts 17:11). The positions are full or part-time. The earnings are eternal in duration.
Good Biblical interpretation is performed with the belief that there is true meaning found in God’s Word. The book, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, states, “to engage in Biblical interpretation assumes that there is, in fact, a proper meaning for the text and that care must be taken to not misinterpret the meaning” (Robert Plummer; 2010; 79).
There are two primary methods of biblical interpretation that you should know: eisegesis and exegesis. Eisegesis means, “reading into Scripture something that is not there” (Basic Bible Interpretation, Roy Zuck, 1991, 216-217). This involves assigning a different meaning than the author intended. An interpretation dominated by a predefined theological arrangement (Calvinism, Dispensationalism, or Free Grace Theology, etc.) has potential to include eisegesis.
In contrast, exegesis is defined as “the determination of the meaning of the biblical text in its historical and literary contexts” (Zuck, 19-20). This definition involves seeking the author’s intended meaning. This is written with the belief that the exegetical method of interpretation is superior to all others and its implementation brings great honor and glory to Jesus Christ.
The book, Grasping God’s Word (Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays, 2005, 20), lists five barriers that separate us from biblical times. Four of these are “time,” “language,” “culture,” and “covenant.” These gaps are significantly reduced with good principles of interpretation.
This writing will focus on core principles of Biblical interpretation that are accepted by most Christians. The principles covered are fundamental; there remains more to learn.
Paul instructed Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15; ESV). Paul wanted Timothy to do his “best” to meet God’s approval. Failure in this area results in being “ashamed.” God’s fellow workers stand approved by “rightly handling the word of truth.” By way of deduction, since Timothy was told to “rightly” handle (“handling“) “the word of truth,” there is a wrong way to handle God’s Word.
The Word of God is spiritually discerned.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). This means that those who don’t posses the Spirit of God cannot understand God’s Word.
Paul wrote: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). To think over means to give thought and consideration to what is written. God gives these believers understanding.
A psalmist wrote, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). This should be our prayer. By implication, God can open our eyes by asking Him. We can “behold wondrous things” out of God’s Word.
God’s Word only has meaning in context.
This is the most abused principle of biblical interpretation. While this principle is fundamental, it often goes undetected and/or unchallenged.
Believers can easily be led astray because false doctrine is taught using Scripture. Satan loves to twist Scripture out of context and did so when Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). The Apostle Peter warned about the “ignorant and unstable” who “twist” the Bible (2 Peter 3:16).
There is no limit what can be taught using Scripture out of context. It states in Job, “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). But within context, this wicked instruction came from Job’s wife and was not to be followed.
A consideration of context includes both near and far contexts. The immediate context are verses near and related. The distant context can include a book or other books of the Bible. For example, the crucifixion account in Matthew should not be understood independent of the crucifixion accounts found in the other Gospels.
As an exercise, let’s consider John 3:16. This verse is regularly quoted in isolation of the near context to promote a one-time belief as a “hell fire” insurance policy. According to the context, what kind of belief did Jesus require (“believes“) while speaking to Nicodemus (John 3:16)? Is this belief a one-time action, or is progressive (ongoing) belief necessary?
To answer this question the near context should be considered (John 3:1-21). Jesus did not present John 3:16 in a vacuum and walk away from Nicodemus. In verse 3, Jesus states, “… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the “Kingdom of God.” Jesus begins the conversation by introducing a spiritual birth that Nicodemus needed for entrance into the “Kingdom of God.” Because Jesus spoke more on this subject that any other subject, additional passages on the “Kingdom” (far context) should be consulted.
Verse 21 states, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” The belief that Jesus requires (John 3:16) is a genuine, active faith that produces works. While our works do not save us, the Bible is clear that workless faith is dead and is not saving faith (James 2:14-26).
Finally, the grammar should be examined. What kind of belief does the Greek present tense participle require in John 3:16 (“believes”)? This involves a consideration of grammar, which is principle #11.
We are after the author’s original intended meaning.
In the respected book, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (2014), authors Stuart and Fee teach that the interpretation process should commence with the “then and there.” They write, “First, one has to hear the word they heard; we must try to understand what was said to them back then and there (exegesis)” (page 27). This determination involves placing ourselves in their culture and reading with their eyes, and seeking their understanding.
Once the historical meaning is found, the interpreter can make application. Application should not violate the author’s intended meaning. A few examples may be helpful.
“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1). Historical meaning: Thousands of years ago, people used balance scales (some are used today) that had a weight on one side, balanced with mechanize on the other. The use of false weights to deceive was an abomination to God.
Application: While most no longer use balance scales, the principle being taught is that it is “an abomination” to falsely misrepresent something for what it is not. In contrast, an honest, accurate transaction delights the Lord.
“…Nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). Historical meaning: this was a commandment applicable to Israelites living under the Mosaic Law. The church is no longer under the Old Testament law (principle #9). Therefore, no direct application should be made.
The interpreter’s goal is to draw meaning out and not read meaning into the text (eisegesis).
We should approach the text in neutral, objectively, and independent of what we may think it means and allow it to define meaning for us.
If God’s Word were a well, we should draw pure water out and not contaminate it with presuppositions. We should not read a theological view into a passage. This practice is the opposite of drawing truth out.
According to Jude, the early church had, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This is the faith we seek to draw out as found in God’s Word.
Our goal as Christians is to find the plain meaning of scripture.
This principle emphasizes seeking the obvious meaning. We should interpret words literally subject to genre (principle #12). Interpretations that are mystical or allegorical are to be avoided.
Western Christians are more likely to interpret Scripture based on learned theology (Calvinism, Dispensational, or Free Grace Theology, etc.). These theologies easily become authoritative and can hinder the plain meaning.
As an exercise, what meaning should be assigned to the 153 fish that Peter caught? “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21:11).
The Apostle John who wrote the account was a fisherman by trade (Mark 1:19). The quantity of fish was important for him to record. John describes a conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter related to these fish (John 21:9-19).
In the apparent peak of excitement, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loved Him more than these fish. By way of application, Jesus asks us if we love Him more than anything that is meaningful to us.
There is nothing mystical, nor a hidden meaning surrounding the 153 fish. By recording the exact number, John emphasized the quantity. This is the plain meaning we are after.
Scripture should be compared with other Scripture.
It’s been said, “Scripture is the best interpreter of itself.” An entire theology shouldn’t be supported by one verse. It’s highly unlikely that one verse contains the entire teaching of a topic. A proof text that doesn’t harmonize with the entire cannon of Scripture is invalid for church doctrine. It has also been said, “the Bible correctly understood does not contradict itself.” Major doctrines like salvation by faith, the sovereignty of God, etc., are all confirmed by multiple passages.
As an exercise, please consider this verse: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).
Some use this verse as a proof text that the unsaved will leave our churches while genuine believers won’t. Should this doctrine be true, every Christian would be obligated to stay in the same church for a lifetime. This view is not confirmed by other passages and contradicts the teaching that the unsaved will be in our churches and are not guaranteed to leave (Matthew 13:24-30; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Acts 20:30).
John is writing to a local church that knew additional details related to this departure that we don’t know. It’s doubtful that John intended to introduce a new doctrine for the church. Additionally, verse 19 is sandwiched between verses that describe the antichrist (18, 20-23). The departure of the unsaved from this church may be connected to a false christ.
Different translations should be consulted.
A consultation of various translations can clarify a passage. One reason that translations vary is because of the different philosophies of translations. According to the book, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart, 2003, 41), there are three categories of translations: “literal,” “functional equivalent,” and “free.”
Literal translations such as the NKJV, ESV, etc., attempt to translate all words from the Old and New Testament manuscripts as literally and accurately as possible. The word order and number of words per verse may not be retained because of difference in how languages are grammatically constructed. But the words themselves are translated as literal as possible within the limits imposed by the target language.
The advantage of this philosophy of translation is that the users can confidently read knowing it’s nearly identical to the original manuscripts within the limits imposed by languages.
A disadvantage of literal translations is that some sentences can be misunderstood because of limits imposed by the receptor language. There are words in the underlying Hebrew and Greek languages where there is no exact equivalent in English. Also, because differences in culture and customs, when we read literally, our understanding may not mirror the original recipients.
The second general category of translations is functional equivalents. These could be classified as “middle of the road” translations.
Functional equivalents describe a translation philosophy where the original Hebrew and Greek words are usually translated literally unless it becomes necessary to change some “words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” (How to read the Bible for All its Worth, 41).
Functional equivalent translations have been well received by most Christians in the English language. A footnote is sometimes provided with an explanation when the English language does not match the underlying language. An example of dynamic translations is the NIV.
The last general category is free translations. They come from a philosophy of translation where words and phrases do not need to be translated literally. These types of translations are sometimes called paraphrases. Young children through adults usually find this style of translation more readable and understandable. An example of a paraphrase is the New Living Translation.
There are some disadvantages to free translations. They are not intended for serious Bible study without consultation of more literal translations. The words used may not match the underlying Hebrew or Greek language. Translators wrote what they thought the original author intended but possibly at the expense of accuracy. Some Bible scholars believe that free translations are “very close to being a commentary” (How to read the Bible for All its Worth, page 43).
Doctrinal beliefs should not be based on man-made arguments and opinions.
A hot button topic for many Christians is the timing of the rapture. There are committed Christians who strongly believe that Christ will return before the tribulation. But there are probably as many Christians who would disagree. If one view is correct, it’s because of explicit, contextual utterances that substantiate it and not external arguments.
Sadly, justification for a pre-tribulation rapture is often presented using external arguments. One such reasoning is that Christ will not allow His bride to experience the wrath that will be present in the tribulation. While this argument is appealing and comforting in light of Christ’s love for His church, it’s not explicitly stated.
For biblical proof of this argument, some point to Revelation 6:17 where the word “wrath” is used. But the context is the wrath in the tribulation directed at the unsaved (not Christians). They say, “for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:17). Secondly, this occurrence appears to be past the midpoint of the tribulation. So this doesn’t prove a pre-tribulation rapture.
Another argument read into Scripture is that the doctrine of eminence proves that the rapture will occur before the tribulation. For the sake of argument, if there is true eminence, how does this prove Christ will return before the tribulation? He could come before, during, or after the tribulation.
While most believers prefer to be spared the tribulation, doctrine for the church must come from multiple passages within context and not man-made persuasions.
The church is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life.
We are not the nation of Israel living under the law before the cross. The Old Testament is God’s Word to us, but we should read the law realizing its application to us is limited (Romans 6:14, 7:1-6; Galatians 2:19, 3:1-10). We are under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-8, 13, 9:15; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6). While God has not changed, how He wants us to relate to Him has changed.
Rules made for the sole purpose to impose or influence an interpretation have no place in biblical interpretation.
Because of theological presuppositions, some teachers intentionally introduce custom rules to force a predetermined interpretation. For example, in the Book, “Seven Key Questions About Water Baptism, (2013), author Dennis Rokser claims that Romans 6 is not about water baptism because, “notice, these Roman believers were said to have been baptized into Christ not into water baptism” (Location 370). Mr. Rokser purposely introduced a rule to throw out water baptism. When this rule is applied to other baptism passages in the New Testament, no passages describe water baptism. Man-made rules created to force a particular interpretation should be discarded.
A grammatical examination should be performed.
God chose written language to communicate His Word. The first level of a grammar examination involves reading the text and making basic observations. How is the sentence constructed? What are the verbs in the passage? Are they past, present, or future? Who are the “them” and “we,” etc. What words are repeated? Which verses are conditional? What key words are emphasized, etc.?
Airline pilots must follow rules for public safety. If a pilot ignores the instructions from the tower, a tragic accident could occur. Similarly, rules of grammar can help us safely arrive at the author’s intended meaning. When established rules of grammar are sidelined, the theological conclusions reached may be different than the author intended.
“In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 3:14). Who are the “we” in this verse? Because we don’t get to assign meaning, a grammatical examination is necessary. By backtracking, we can determine who the audience (“we“) is. In verse two,”…to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (Colossians 1:2). Armed with this information, verse 14 means: “in whom we [“the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae“] have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14).
Do the words “have redemption” describe a past event or an ongoing, present tense reality? It’s an ongoing reality (“have”). This verse does not comment on our past redemption. This verse declares that “faithful” believers “have” in the present ongoing redemption through the blood of Christ and ongoing forgiveness of trespasses according to the riches of Christ. Here is a similar verse: “But if [conditional] we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have [present tense; right now] fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
A second level of grammar examination involves a deeper examination of key words. This engagement can include Greek or Hebrew lexicons and grammars, exegetical commentaries, and a consideration of verbal action, etc.
Interpret words and sentences literally subject to literary genre.
The Bible is a treasure trove containing a variety of literature. A few genres are poetry, proverbs, narrative, romance, parables, prophecy, law, and epistle.
According to the website, http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=31435 the following are the basic genres found in the Bible:
“History or Narrative: There are stories and the epics and include Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jonah, and Acts.
Law: These are the instructions and precepts of God given to us through Moses, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Wisdom: These are the literature of maxims and sayings such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
Poetry: These are the prose and rhymes such as Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations.
Prophecy: These include both major and minor prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Apocalyptic: These are combinations of narrative and prose written in vivid imagery and poetic phrases that are intended to exaggerate for a purpose such as Daniel and most of Revelation.
Parable: These are the sayings of Jesus that are narrative and instructional, contained in the Gospels.
Epistle: These are the letters written to a specific audience that are practical for us today such as Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, Peter, John, and the first three chapters of Revelation.
Romance: These are narrative, written also as love stories, such as Ruth and Song of Solomon.”
© 1985, 1989, 1998, 2006 R. J. Krejcir Ph.D. Into Thy Word Ministries www.intothyword.org
The Bible is the final authority above learned doctrine.
Few believers elevate “rightly divided biblical truth” above learned doctrine, biases, and comfort zones. Anyone can say the Bible is his or her authority for faith and practice. Yet few allow it to refine and dominate their doctrinal framework.
Biblical interpretation that honors God requires humility. It admits past errors and humbly acknowledges that the refining process of our beliefs will continue until called home. While our interpretation can contain error, God’s Word properly understood never does.
Biblical interpretation that God delights in, has no bounds of doctrinal understanding outside of itself. The Bible properly understood is the doctrine of the church. All our cherished doctrines and held beliefs should be open to challenge from God’s Word.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
When we place all our doctrines at the feet of Jesus, then the Word of God become “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12b).
Pure, refined theology is found in God’s Word by investing hours in careful study. This practice should be performed without being dominated by Bible commentaries and theologies.
While commentaries (especially exegetical) can be useful, God’s Word is the believer’s authority for faith and practice. Those trained in detection of counterfeit currency spend much time studying genuine currency. Only when God’s Word is our primary intake of truth can we spot errors in commentaries and theological systems.
If one’s church’s doctrinal statement is their authority, God’s Word probably is not. If one’s favorite theologian is their inspiration, God’s Word is not. We should guard our hearts from doctrines of men not drawn and verified under the microscope of Scripture.