SOME OF THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF BIBLE INTERPRETATION
© Dr John Bond 2017
Hermeneutics — the science and art of biblical interpretation.
Correct Bible interpretation should answer the question, “How can I understand what this particular passage means?” It is a science, because there are rules that govern its use. It also is an art, because knowing the rules is not enough. Practice to learn how to use the rules is also required.
The question of how to interpret the Bible is not a minor issue; it is one of the battlegrounds for our souls.
If Satan had a list of what he does not want us to do, Bible study would be at the top, along with prayer and worship. Through study of Scripture we learn who Jesus is and are enabled to become like Him. How can we become like Him, if we do not know what He is like?
Our daily devotional studies are essential, but they must be backed up by a more serious study of Scripture.
The apostle Paul prayed that the Colossians might be “filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1:9).
Knowing Scripture as well as obeying it are the twin foundations of a godly life.
A godly life produces the further desire to study God’s Word and vice versa. Understanding and interpreting our Bible takes us from study to application back to study and on to further application in a mounting spiral toward God.
Satan’s attempt to take away our desire to study Scripture is nothing less than an attempt to remove the basis of our spiritual growth and stability.
Four basic principles are at the heart of a sound method of biblical interpretation.
1. THE BIBLE IS A SPIRITUAL BOOK
The Bible is a spiritual book and because of our limitation as humans, prayer is an absolute necessity as we study the Bible.
Paul teaches that the non-Christian and the spiritually immature Christian are limited in their ability to know Christian things (1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3).
Therefore, we must pray that God will bridge the gap that separates us from understanding spiritual things, by having the Holy Spirit teach us (John 14:26; 16:13).
Without this illumination or insight from God’s Spirit, we cannot learn. This need for insight was the concept Paul referred to when he told Timothy to “reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7, NIV).
2. THE BIBLE IS ALSO A HUMAN BOOK
The Bible is also a human book and to a degree, must be interpreted like any other book. This brings us to the principle of common sense. For example, the grammatical–historical method of studying the Bible instructs us (a) to look at the grammar of a passage carefully to see what it says and (b) to understand a biblical statement in light of its historical background.
We understand any historical statement as a straightforward statement and do not change its literal, grammatical sense. This is “common sense.”
An example of the common sense principle is illustrated when Jesus says Christians can have anything for which they ask (John 15:7).
Common sense tells us that there must be some limitation on this statement because we realize that Christians in fact do not have whatever they would like (1John 5:14 confirms that the limitation is God’s will).
Using the common sense principle in this way can be dangerous because it could become an excuse for cutting out any portion of Scripture we do not happen to like. If our common sense however is controlled by God, it is a valid principle to use for interpreting the Bible.
3. A TEXT OUT OF CONTEXT IS A PRETEXT
Pretext means a ruse, something alleged, a ploy or a red herring…
Context is a primary rule of biblical interpretation…
The context refers to 2 things
(1) the setting of the verse or passage, the surrounding verses and their subject matter and
(2) the historical or social setting in which the event happened or the words were spoken.
When allowed to speak for itself within the context of the paragraph, chapter, or book, the Bible itself will prevent the majority of all possible errors in interpretation.
EISEGESIS VS EXEGESIS
A challenge at this point is avoiding our own bias, or our subjectivity. We might be tempted to approach a passage thinking we already understand it and in the process read our own meaning into the passage. (This is called eisegesis—Eis is a Greek preposition meaning “into”.)
To interpret the Bible correctly is to humbly seek the Lord and listen to what the Holy Spirit Himself has breathed into the text—to find what the text itself is saying and then draw the meaning out of the passage. (This is called exegesis—Ex is a Greek preposition meaning “out of.”)
If we allow a passage to be basically defined by what it and the surrounding verses say, then we have taken a large step toward interpreting the Bible properly.
Of course, it is impossible to dismiss totally our own bias and subjectivity. Our interpretation will always be coloured by our culture and our opinions about the passage, or perhaps by our theological beliefs, which are partially based on the passage. But this should not discourage our attempt to let the passage speak for itself as freely as possible, without being weighed down with our personal opinions and views.
4. FOUR KEY WORDS
These 4 words are at the heart of all approaches to finding out what the Bible means.
They provide the structure of what questions you ask of the text and when.
OBSERVATION: Do I understand the basic facts of the passage such as the meaning of all the words?
INTERPRETATION: What did the author mean in his own historical setting?
EVALUATION: What does this passage mean in today’s culture?
APPLICATION: How can I apply what I have learned to how I live my life?
Coming out of this we see that …
This basically means that interpreting the Bible correctly is a two-step process
We must first discover what the passage meant in the day and age of the author – Observation and Interpretation.
Then we must discover its message for us in today’s culture – this is where Evaluation and Application come in.
WHY ARE THESE TWO STEPS IMPORTANT?
1. The Bible was not actually written directly to us and it makes sense to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience if we are to understand its message properly.
2. These steps force us to understand the meaning of the passage before we apply it to our lives. Surprisingly, this step is often overlooked.
We see that the two steps separate us from the text, thereby helping to prevent eisegesis, since it separates what the text says from how it affects us today.
THE POWER OF GOD’S WORD TO TRANSFORM LIFE
When 17 year old W. P. L. Mackay left his humble Scottish home to attend college, his mother gave him a Bible in which she wrote his name and a verse of Scripture.
College was only the beginning of his lifestyle which saddened his godly mother. At one point he sank so low he pawned the Bible to get money for whiskey. His mother prayed for him until she died.
Eventually, Mackay became a doctor in a city hospital. One day a dying patient asked for his “book.” After the man died, Mackay was curious to know what book could be so precious, so he searched the hospital room. He was surprised to find the very Bible he had pawned years before.
He went to his office and gazed again at the familiar writing, noticing many pages with underscored verses his mother had hoped he would read. After many hours in that office, Mackay knelt and prayed to God for mercy.
W. P.L. Mackay, the physician, later became a minister. The Book he once treated so lightly became his most precious possession. —Moody Monthly (Tan, Paul Lee: Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers. Garland TX : Bible Communications, 1996, c1979)
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