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Basic Principles of Bible Interpretation
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THE NEED FOR HERMENEUTICS
The very foundation of our faith is the Word of God. We believe that all scripture is inspired by God [God-breathed] and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and instruction in righteousness. (3) However we are compelled by practical observation to admit that though there is one God who has given His word into this world, there are many diverse "interpretations" leading to many and varied "faiths" and "practices". In the face of facts three questions naturally arise:
How can two people reading the same book come to totally diverse understandings of the same passage?
Could it be that both people are right at the same time?
Has the infinite God revealed His word in such a way that finite man can understand what He has said and meant?
In answer to the third question, it is clear that God holds man accountable for believing and doing the things that He has spoken in His word. "Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:" Luke 24:25
"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:" Matthew 7:24
"And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:" Matthew 7:26
In answer to a various questions put to Him by the Pharisees, 7 times Jesus responded with the words "Have ye not read..." (Matthew 12:3, Matthew 12:5, Matthew 19:4, Matthew 22:31, Mark 12:10, Mark 12:26, Luke 6:3) It is clear that He considered the Pharisees to be both able and responsible to have studied and understood what the Old Testament writers had written in the scriptures. In a debate about the resurrection with the Sadducees, He said, "Ye do err not knowing the scriptures or the power of God." Matthew 22:29
In answer to the second question the same verses just quoted can be used to show that Jesus believed that the way scripture is interpreted is not a matter of one's own opinion. (More will be stated on this subject later.)
But what about the first question. Why are there so many differing
interpretations of the same book? There are several answers. First, it is
clear that some deliberately twist scripture to suit their own purposes.
(2 Corinthians 2:17 (4), 2 Peter 3:16 (5))
Second, it is clear that some do not accept
the scriptures as the final authority for faith and practice. The Roman
Catholic Church claims that the Bible is a "primary" authority among
other authorities such as the Fathers, the ancient Creeds, the decisions
of various councils, oral traditions, certain proclamations of the Popes,
etc. The Charismatic movement views the Bible as "the most
important" authority but considers independent "revelation" as also
coming from God. It is clear that if the Bible is not considered to be the
"sole" authority for faith and practice, its interpretation will be
influenced by other considerations. It is clear that Jesus Christ held to
the scriptures as the only reliable guide for faith and practice. (Matthew
15:3 (6), Mark 7:8-9, Mark 7:13 (7))
It needs to be admitted that simply knowing the principles of hermeneutics does not make a person a "good interpreter". Factors such as desire, experience, diligence, honesty, preconceived biases, access to basic Bible study tools, time available for study, memory capacity, knowledge of the original languages, among other factors also affect the interpretation process. The most important qualification is a regenerate heart. Paul makes it clear that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." 1 Cor 2:14 A second important qualification is our knowledge of God Himself. The more we understand the God of the Bible, the easier it is to understand the Word of God. It is plainly true that all the knowledge in the world cannot make up for deficiencies in our spiritual relationship with the Bible's Author.
TWO OTHER DEFINITIONS
Before looking at rules of interpretation it is helpful to know the difference between exegesis and eisogesis. Exegesis means to lead the meaning out of the text. Eisogesis means to bring your preconceived meaning into the text. Luther said, "The best teacher is the one who does not bring his meaning into the Scripture but gets his meaning from the Scripture." (8) The best interpreter comes to the scripture with an open mind and heart to determine what God has honestly said-- not to prove his own theological bias.
Inspiration is God's superintending of 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. The Bible has been translated into many languages since the last words of the Bible were penned by the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation. However it is necessary to state that inspiration only extends to the original autographs-- not to copies or translations. No translation of the scripture is as accurate as the original autograph penned by the inspired apostle. God has promised to preserve His word-- and He has. But He has not promised to extend inerrancy to any or all translations.
We can be thankful to God if there exists an excellent translation or translations into whatever language we speak. Most interpretation can be accurately accomplished using a good common language translation of the Bible. However detailed questions of interpretation must be decided by an honest look at the original languages of the scripture. Many excellent reference works dealing with the original languages are available today to help laymen accomplish levels of detailed Bible study that formerly were only possible for those competent in the original languages.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF BIBLE INTERPRETATION
Webster defines literal as: "...the natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical." By literal we mean normal. The meaning of the words and phrases used in scripture meant something to the writer. It is that meaning that we are seeking in interpreting the Bible.
The opposite of this is to spiritualize or allegorize scripture. This is a trick of cults. For example Revelation 7:4-8 says that 144,000 were sealed of "all the tribes of Israel. Of the tribe of Judah were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Reuben were..." The Jehovah's witnesses say that this 144,000 are Jehovah's witnesses in heaven. The Bible simply states they were Jews on earth during the tribulation period. They say this passage must be "understood" spiritually and that this was "revealed" to their officials at the New York City headquarters.
Allegorical or "spiritual" interpretations make the mind of the interpreter the authority--as opposed to the Bible being the authority. If the Bible means what it says then rules of language, meanings of words, study of the context, etc. will help us come to the meaning. If the words do not mean what they say, how could we obey God's command to "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." 2 Tim 2:15 What would you study?--the Watchtower magazine? Who would decide which person to believe since anyone could say the text meant anything. If God is no respecter of persons, surely He has recorded His word in such a way that any honest person through diligent study could come to the same conclusion.
Literal (normal) interpretation is similar to the way you read the newspaper. If it says that two officers investigated a collision happened at the corner of Main and Governor at 11:50 p.m., that is what we believe happened assuming the report was accurate. We would not expect that the writer intended us to allegorize the account as having a meaning behind the words. Surely he does not expect us to see the account as fictional but teaching deeper "truths". Could he mean that Main Street represents the bulk of society and Governor Street represents the governmental leaders who are in opposition and on a collision course. Or that 11:50 p.m. reveals how little time is left to turn things around? Or that the officers were not policemen but newspaper reporters who represent those in society who are nobly trying to investigate solutions to the coming societal collapse. How could we know what he meant if the words do not mean what they say?
Unfortunately many Bible believing people fall into the same trap. Recently a man was arguing that the King James Version of the Bible is the only truly inspired translation. He quoted, "The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Psalm 12:6) as proof of his argument. His argument was as follows. There were 6 English translations of the Bible before the KJV which was the seventh. Therefore it is the word of the Lord that has been purified seven times and is totally pure. The problems with such an interpretation are numerous. Why couldn't the cults say the same thing about their translation that had gone through seven revisions? Was David really prophesying about an English translation of the Bible 2600 years later? Why not a Spanish translation or a German? In context David is saying that his enemies are trying to destroy him but God has promised to deliver him. He is sure that God will keep His word because God's word is pure and trustworthy.
Literal interpretation is the only control we have against false and deceptive interpretations of scripture.
Words are the basic building blocks of thought and communication used in scripture. To really understand a passage it is necessary to understand what the original writer meant by the words that he chose to use--especially the "non-routine terms" or the key words of a passage.
A word study first begins with how that writer used the word in the same chapter and book. Then a study of how he used the word in other books he had written. If that author has not used the word in other places or in such ways as to shine a light on its meaning, the search should be expanded to the rest of the New Testament, then to the Koine usage, then the Septuagint, then to Classical Greek. A word may be studied etymologically--that is by the way it is formed. (10) For example "inspired of God"--theopneustos (2Ti 3:16). The word is made of two words, theos--"God", and pneuma--"breathe or wind". Giving the understanding that the scriptures are perfect because they are "God-breathed". B.B.Warfield found that when the Greeks ended words in -tos that the emphasis was on the finished product, not the workman. (11) Thus a study of the word leads one to conclude that God meant to convey that the Bible is a perfect God-breathed book that is profitable for doctrine... The word "baptize"--baptizo is another example. The clear meaning of the Greek word is "immerse, dip, or plunge." A simple study of the word clears up much debate.
This method of study can be used dishonestly to twist meanings out of words that God never intended. As always the interpreter must be honest and let the scripture speak naturally.
It should be noted that a good dictionary is an essential tool to Bible study. Much of our interpretation problems can be solved by understanding our own language better.
3. Scripture must be interpreted culturally.
"The Bible should not normally be given any meaning that would not have been obvious to those to whom it was written in history. (It is usually wise to ask of any interpretation, 'Would those to whom this was originally given understand this particular approach?'" (12)
When 2 Cor 5:10 says that we shall all stand before the "judgment seat"--(bema) of Christ, we may naturally think of something akin to the great white throne judgment of Rev 20:1-15. However a study of the word reveals that the bema was the judge's stand in the Greek olympic games where the judges sat to determine prizes. Likewise the "crown"--(stephanos) that Paul says we are striving for in 1 Cor 9:25 is not a kingly crown but a victor's crown given out to the winner of a race. When Jesus returns in Rev 19:12 He will be wearing many "crowns"--(diadema), which the crown worn by a king.
The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 would not be nearly as clear unless it is realized that being a chief publican meant that he was universally hated, that he was a traitor against his own people, that he was dishonest, and that he was rich because his money came from overcharging taxes to his own people. When Jesus called him and went to his house, the people were astonished. The lesson is clear. Even great sinners can be saved while some of the very religious (Pharisees and priests) were far from the kingdom.
Many other examples could be given. A good Bible dictionary, a good set of commentaries, a book on Bible customs and other reference materials revealing the culture of the people are indispensable to a complete understanding of the text.
Bible geography is another important element that unlocks the understanding of many difficult passages. When Jesus passed through Samaria and met the woman at the well in John 4, it is helpful to know that He took a route that most Jews refused to take. His love for souls is revealed by the phrase, "He must needs go through Samaria." John 4:4 A Bible atlas is an excellent help in the Old and New Testaments.
Biblical history is also helpful. H.H. Rowley (not my relative) stated, "A religion which is thus rooted and grounded in history cannot ignore history." (13)
It is dishonest to interpret scripture out of context. Using this approach the Bible can be made to say anything--a verse here, a phrase there. The story is told of a man who went to the Bible to get an answer from God about a difficult problem. He decided to simply open the Bible and read the first verse that his eyes fell upon. The words read, "he went out and hanged himself." He decided to look another place. His eyes fell on the words, "Go thou and do likewise." Someone has said, "a text without the context is a pretext (14)."
A diligent study of the context is the natural impulse of any honest Bible student.
"There are many possible applications of any passage. But, there is only ONE possible correct interpretation (in short, God isn't guilty of "double-speak")." (15) The natural corollary to this principle is that where two people differ on the interpretation of a passage--one or both are wrong. It could be that both are partially right and partially wrong.
In almost every case, more time, effort, study can lead to a better statement of the true interpretation of a passage.
When someone says, "Every time I read a passage I see something new", they usually mean a new truth from the passage has come to light or a new way of applying the truth to their life or something has come to their attention that they had not observed before. The Bible does not change its meaning from day to day or century to century. It means what the original inspired writer intended it to mean when it was written. The applications of that word are ever changing to meet the needs of the present hour.
The Bible says, "thou shalt not steal." The interpretation is simple. Don't take something that isn't yours. The applications are many. To one it means not to shoplift, to another not to waste time at work (thus steal time from your employer), to another it might be not to cheat on tests (stealing the answers of another.) But, in each case the interpretation is the same.
Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of all other scripture. No passage can ever rightfully be given a meaning that is contradictory of any other passage of Scripture or out of accord with the general tenor of Scripture. (16)
A corollary of this is scripture interprets scripture. You should never use an obscure or difficult passage to establish doctrine. The clear unmistakable doctrinal passages should be used to clarify the meaning of the more difficult. Thus, parables, types, historical events can be used to illustrate doctrinal truths that are taught elsewhere, but should not be used to "prove" things.
It is a favorite tool of the cults to teach doctrine from parables and obscure and difficult passages. Another trick of faulty interpretation is to take Old Testament commands and use them to establish New Testament practices. The Mormons baptize "for the dead" on the basis of 1 Co 15:29. It is very clear from many other places that once a person dies there is no second chance, and that baptism does not save, and that there is not even a shred of evidence that any other place in scripture teaches to baptized for the dead. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament says that up to 200 explanations have been given of that verse. It is clear that he is referring to "those" not "we" and indicates that they were denying the resurrection. Whatever their practice, Paul is not including himself in it or commanding it to be done. It would be foolish to base an entire practice on such an obscure verse.
However, many take this approach to the extreme using their theology to interpret the Bible. Ramm gives the humorous illustration of how the parable of the ten virgins (five wise and five unwise) has been used by Arminians to show that Christians may fall from grace. Calvinists use it to show that there may be profession of faith without really participating in salvation. Advocates of the concept of a second blessing see here a proof of the second blessing. Others derive doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit from this passage. Others use it to establish points of eschatology. To others it is a simple lesson on spiritual preparedness, or readiness. (17) The moral of this story is to watch out for people who use parables to establish doctrine.
Beware of any interpretation that seems new or novel. Someone has said, "if it is new it is not true, and if it is true it is not new." Every word of the Bible has been diligently poured over in the last 2000 years by scholars far more capable that any of us. Every passage in the Bible has been preached on, studied, debated, and had commentators write on it. It is very doubtful if we can come up with something totally new.
For this reason it is advisable to check your interpretation against a reliable commentary before teaching or preaching on a passage that you have some question about. There is safety in a multitude of counselors. Pastor Charles Wood suggests that anything unique and/or "different" ought to be held lightly until there is solid evidence to support it. He rightly says that all interpretations must be checked against the history of doctrine.
Practical observation reveals that refusing to look outside of our own "politically (doctrinally) correct" circle may result in all of us being out of the base line. We need to watch out for destructive influences from without, but once in awhile, someone from outside our group may stumble upon truth that could really help us.
Another admonition along this line is to make church history a part of your study. Understanding the path that has led us to present hour and the mistakes of others can be a genuine help in keeping us on the right path.
8. Scripture must be interpreted in harmony.
"No passage should be interpreted so as to contradict another passage. All the Scriptures related to any topic must be interpreted in harmony with each other. Any one doctrine must not be emphasized to the extent that it is made to negate or contradict another biblical doctrine." (18)
Hebrews 13:17, is an example, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you." If this verse is carried to the extreme, other verses emphasizing Christian liberty and the responsibility of each believer will be negated or contradicted. Acts 17:11 is the balancing truth. "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." Paul had authority, but each believer had responsibility to make sure Paul was preaching the truth. Balance and harmony are beautiful words in the proper understanding of Scripture.
One pastor said, beware of any real strong desire. The same is true in interpreting scripture. We need to beware of those who seem to have very strong position on matters that do not seem to merit that type of devotion from the emphasis of scripture. They usually have a motive. Numerology is such an example. Many heresies have been promoted in the name of numerology--"666", etc. There are those that are very strong on shadows and types--a few of which do exist. However much of what they are claiming to be types are simply beautiful illustrations of Christ or some Biblical truth. Beware of the "pyramidiots"--those that believe that great pyramid in Egypt gives revelation for our day. If you will notice that often their arguments involve English numbers and measures, i.e. the hall is 12 feet wide--this speaks of the twelve tribes of Israel, etc. This is foolishness. The great pyramid was constructed long before there was a measure called a foot or yard or inch. The Bible is God's revelation to man, not pyramids, modern day prophets, etc.
1. 1. The word hermeneutics is an English word derived from the Greek word hermeneuo. This word and others formed from its root are used a number of times in the New Testament and are usually interpreted, "being interpreted". See the following verses: Matthew 1:23, Mark 5:41, Mark 15:22, Mark 15:34, John 1:38, John 1:41-42, John 9:7, Acts 4:36, Acts 9:36, Acts 13:8, 1 Cor 12:10, 1 Cor 12:30, 1 Cor 14:5, 1 Cor 14:13, 1 Cor 14:26-28, Hebrews 7:2, 2 Peter 1:20
2. 2 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 1.
3. 3 1Ti 3:16,17
4. 4 2 Cor 2:17 For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.
5. 5 2 Peter 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
6. 6 Matthew 15:3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
7. 7 Mark 7:8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
Mark 7:9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.
Mark 7:13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
8. 7. Bernard Ramm, 115.
9. 9 Charles Wood, Heaven Help Our Hermeneutics, A Pastoral Epistle, Vol.3, No.43, October 5, 1989. The basic points of interpretation are taken from his outline.
10. 10 Bernard Ramm, 129.
11. 11 Ibid.
12. 12 Charles Wood, 3.
13. 13 Bernard Ramm, 154.
14. 14 A pretext is a false reason or motive put forth to hide the real one.
15. 15 Charles Wood, 3.
16. 16 Charles Wood, 3.
17. 17 Bernard Ramm, 116.
18. 18. Rick Norris, Thoughts Concerning Church Unity, Christian Liberty, and Pastoral Authority, The Biblical Evangelist, Vol.27, No.3, March 1, 1993.
edited by cpl 5/24/03 updated 01/03/16 .
Bim L. Rowley is Pastor of Truth Baptist Church, 60 Burnham Street, South Windsor, CT 06040.