The information on this page is based on Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul. I highly recommend this book for further reading on the subject of studying and understanding scripture. You can purchase this book from local Christian book stores, Amazon.com or from the Ligonier Ministries website at www.ligonier.org.
There are many aspects to studying God's Word with the primary goal being to arrive at an objective meaning of Scripture and to avoid distortions caused by letting interpretations be governed by subjectivism. Subjectivism isn't easy to avoid. You may have heard, "What's wrong for you is right for me." Or, "That's your interpretation of that verse!" However, contrary and contradictory interpretations simply cannot both be true. The fact is, there is only one correct interpretation for any verse in the Bible. The number of applications for that verse is another story.
Although each verse has only one correct interpretation, the applications are nearly limitless. A verse may have numerous possible personal applications, but it can only have one correct meaning. It is our job to first determine what the Bible is saying and then to determine how that should be applied to our lives. Both are equally important tasks.
Before we get into some details about how to interpret and understand God's Word, it's probably best to lay a groundwork of what God's Word actually is. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. It was inspired (God-breathed) by God Himself and written by the hands of men. The men were not "robots" but God provided the precise thoughts to the human authors, and they then wrote them down in terms of their own vocabulary, culture, education, and writing styles. Since we believe that God inspired (breathed) the Scriptures and He is not a God of confusion, we therefore conclude that the Bible is written in an orderly manner. It contains no contradictions. This is the reason we can study God's word and come to accurate interpretations and understandings of it.
Another point I should mention is that we believe in the perspicuity of scripture. This simply means that the essential teachings of the Bible are clear. The Bible is simple enough for a child to understand salvation, yet complex enough to keep a scholar busy for a lifetime.
Terms You Should Know
exegesis — to explain what scripture says; to get out of the words the meaning that is there, no more, no less.
eisogesis — reading into the text something that isn't there at all.
hermeneutics — guidelines and rules of interpretation of a written work, especially the Bible.
implicit — capable of being understood from something else though unexpressed.
explicit — fully revealed or expressed without vagueness, implication, or ambiguity; leaving no question as to meaning or intent.
perspicuity of scripture — the Bible is clear.
General Rules of Biblical Interpretation (hermeneutics)
1. Analogy of Faith (Scripture is to interpret Scripture)
No part of Scripture is to be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is already taught elsewhere in Scripture.
For example, if there are two interpretations of a passage and one of them goes against the rest of Scripture, then the harmonious interpretation should be chosen.
2. Literal Interpretation of the Bible
The Bible should be interpreted according to it's literal sense. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.
Part of this process is called "genre analysis" whereby a passage of scripture is identified as a particular type of writing. The word "genre" simply means, "a category of artistic, musical or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form or content." Examples of literary genre are: poetry, narrative, history, etc.
Another part is understanding figures of speech such as hyperbole, personification and metaphor. Here are some examples of each. See if you can identify the figure of speech in the passage (feel free to look up these figures of speech in a dictionary or composition book).
Personification: Isaiah 55:12
Metaphor: John 10:9
3. Grammatico-Historical Method
This method focuses attention on the grammatical constructions and the historical contexts out of which Scripture was written. This can be a difficult process because it often requires some knowledge of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek).
One benefit of this method is that we can avoid reading into Scripture our own ideas drawn from the present. If we get an understanding of the historical period, it helps us properly interpret the Bible.
Practical Rules for Biblical Interpretation
These are specific, practical guidelines that are derived from the three general rules of hermeneutics mentioned above. I've placed a * by the particularly important rules. If you can get a handle on these, you'll go a long way with accurate Biblical interpretation.
1. The Bible is to be read like any other book.
The Bible isn't a "magical" book and should be interpreted like any other written work. That's not to say it isn't a very unique and special book – it is! It's just that some people treat the Bible like a "magic 8-ball." You may have done this yourself: You have a problem or difficult situation. You pray, "God, please show me the answer," close your eyes, open your Bible to a random location and put your finger down on a random verse. This isn't a good practice.
2. Read the Bible existentially.
Not to be confused with "existentialism!" The point of this rule is to make yourself thoroughly familiar with the scene that you're reading about. Get passionately and personally involved in what you read. "Crawl into the skin" of the characters you are reading about to gain additional understanding and personal application. For example, read the epistles as if they were written specifically to you!
3. * Historical narratives are to be interpreted by the didactic
The didactic is portions of scripture intended to teach, make moral observations and convey instructions. One application of this rule is to interpret the Gospels according to the Epistles. The Gospels are largely narrative passages about the life and teachings of Jesus (although they also contain interpretation) and the Epistles are largely interpretations of the significance of what Jesus did.
The point of this rule is to prevent us from establishing doctrine based on descriptions of what people did. For example, Jesus never married. Should we be asking, "What would Jesus do?" when contemplating marriage? No. Why? Because the Epistles have teachings that allow marriage as an option. Perhaps a better question to ask when in doubt about what to do is, "What would Jesus have me to do?" We must remember that Jesus came with a very specific purpose (to save man) that is different from our purpose (to glorify God and enjoy Him forever). The Epistles call us to imitate Christ at many points, but they help us to delineate what these points are and what they are not.
Another thing to remember is that scripture records both the virtues and the vices of people throughout history. We certainly don't want to be establishing doctrine based on the sins of the saints. For example: David's adultry.
4. * The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit.
Implicit interpretations are very easy to make. For example, in John 20:19, some have concluded that Jesus magically appeared or He walked through solid walls to enter the room. Although this is possible, it is not explicitly taught by this verse. Another possibility is that Jesus just opened the door and walked into the room. His method of entry cannot be explicitly determined from this passage.
Another thing to watch out for is interpreting two meanings: one implicit, the other explicit. Always allow the explicit meaning to take precedence over the implicit meaning of a verse. Use these phrases as you study your Bible:
|"Interpret the implicit by the explicit!"
"Interpret the obscure in light of the clear!"
5. Determine carefully the meaning of words.
The better we understand the individual words used in a Biblical passage, the better we will understand the total message of scripture. Always read verses in context with the verses surrounding it! Never attempt to prove a point with a single, isolated verse!
Also, remember than many words have multiple meanings. For example, 1 Timothy 2:15. Does this verse indicate that there is more than one way to be saved: Jesus and childbearing? Certainly not! You should immediately chant, "Interpret the obscure in light of the clear!" Then, you should do a Bible word study on "save" to attempt an understanding of what this verse means.
Sometimes you can gain an understanding of a word by its context. Other times, you may need the assistance of a lexicon to determine which word meaning best fits in the context. This can require a bit of work but is well worth it!
6. Note the presence of parallelisms in the Bible.
Parallelism is a literary technique used more in the Old Testament (all over the Psalms!), but also appears in the New Testament. There are several types of parallelism that would be good for you to become familiar with, but I'll not go into detail about them here (read the book!).
Compare James 1:13 and Matthew 6:13. The Matthew passage uses a form of parallelism, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…" We know from the James passage that, "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone."
7. * Note the difference between proverb and law.
A common mistake in Biblical interpretation is to give a proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute. Proverbs reflect moral principles of wisdom for godly living. They do not reflect moral laws that are to be applied absolutely to every conceivable life situation. (Read Proverbs 26:4-5)
8. Observe the difference between the spirit and the letter of the
The Pharisees in the New Testament are famous for keeping the letter of the law while violating the spirit constantly. There are stories of Israelites who got around the rule of not being able to travel far on the Sabbath day by cleverly stretching their own "Sabbath day journeys." Of course, the opposite can also be true: we obey the spirit of the law but ignore the letter of the law (this is called antinomianism, or "against law"). Both are wrong.
In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus said:
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (NKJ)
Christians are to note both the letter and the spirit.
9. * Be careful with parables.
Parables provide unique difficulties in interpretation. Why? There are several reasons. What was the original intent of the parable? Jesus used them to teach spiritual concepts, but He also says in Mark 4:10-12 that the parable is used to obscure His teaching from those who were "outside." Of course, we have an entire New Testament today to help us understand these things
Another issue is the relationship of parable to allegory. Should all parables be interpreted as an allegory as the Prodigal Son is? No.
The safest and probably most accurate way to treat the parables is to look for one basic central point in them. As a rule of thumb, avoid allegorizing them except where the New Testament clearly indicates an allegorical meaning. These general rules don't work for every parable, but they will help you gain a better understanding of the intended message. A good commentary is another tool that will help you in this endeavor.
10. Be careful with predictive prophesy.
Handling predictive prophesy is one of the most abused forms of Biblical interpretation. Errors range from skepticism to seeing every contemporary event as a fulfillment of a Biblical prophesy. The symbolic imagery in prophesy such as Daniel's or from the book of Revelation can be very difficult to understand. Interpreting prophesy can be very perplexing and requires special study.