So far in this series we have looked at the reliability of the Bible, how it was put together, its authority, how sufficient it is for our lives and whether we can trust it or not. This week we turn our attention to how to interpret it. Understanding the Bible can be very confusing and can leave you in a muddle, especially with so many and varied views readily available simply by visiting the internet.
Here are 3 very good reasons why we have trouble interpreting scripture:
(1) We are living thousands of years after it was written.
(2) We live in a dramatically different culture.
(3) The Bible was written in different languages to our own.
But that doesn’t mean we should neglect trying to understand it as best as we can. The Bible itself says “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”. (2 Timothy 2:15).
The study of interpreting the Bible is called ‘Hermeneutics’ and I would like to outline a number of principals that we should think about whenever we read our bibles, especially if we struggle to understand certain sections.
The Principles of Biblical Interpretation
These principles are embedded in the Bible itself. We do not need to go beyond the boundaries of the Bible to discover these principals; it is God’s wisdom after all and we must allow the bible to interpret itself.
Principle #1: Read it literally
We take the Bible at face value. We generally take everyday things in life as literal or at face value. This is a common sense approach. The golden rule of interpretation is “when the plain sense of the scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” Therefore, take every word at its primary, usual, meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise.
Principle #2: Read it in context
Too many people take a favourite bible verse and use it out of context. We must look and consider the verses immediately before, after, and around the passage. We must consider the book of the Bible and the section of the Bible in which the passage occurs.
Principle #3: Scripture Interprets Scripture
All essential doctrines are fully and clearly explained – either in the immediate context, or somewhere else in the Bible. You need to keep two essential ‘rules’ for applying this principle:
1) The context of the two passages must be the same.
2) The plain passage must be used to guide our interpretation of a less clear passage – not the other way around!
Principle #4: Progressive revelation
Even though not all of the books in the bible are in the order they were written in, God has gradually unfolded His plans and purposes from the Old Testament to the New. He did not reveal them all at once and so the people of the Old Testament lived under a much different revelation from that which we have today. We must take this into account when applying God’s word to our lives.
Principle #5: We cannot understand an infinite God
God’s ways are so much higher than our ways; we need to understand this when reading the Bible. It is God the infinite communicating with man the finite. God is like a parent explaining things to a small child in ways that it can understand. For this reason we need to be careful when taking passages that describe God, especially ones which say that He has wings or other bodily parts. He is revealing to us truths in ways that we can understand but not necessarily expecting us to take them literally.
Principle #6: The Bible is in harmony
No part of the Bible should be interpreted so as to contradict another part of itself. We start reading and studying with the understanding that the bible is perfect and inerrant because it is God himself revealing to us His ways and His plan for salvation. Proper application of hermeneutical principles will resolve apparent conflicts.
Principle #7: Different styles (Genres)
The different books of the Bible were written in quite different styles. Some are historical books, some are poetry and wise sayings; some were for teaching and the application of doctrine and some, like Revelation, were written in a style that is not even used today called apocalyptic. And some were written in a combination of these styles. To interpret the Bible we need to take these different literary forms into consideration. Given they were written in different languages as well, the study of word meanings, grammar, and syntax of the original languages is important for a proper understanding of scripture.
Principle #8: Historical background
The Bible was written in specific cultures at particular points in time. While they are universal in application, the truths in the Bible can most fully be realised only when taking the surrounding culture and history into account.
To study the Bible properly doesn’t mean you have to study ancient Hebrew or Greek or have a detailed knowledge of ancient history and geography. A decent study bible will really help. I personally use the ESV study bible along with a few commentaries, in particular those written by Berkhoff, Grudem and Ryrie (although I don’t agree with everything in them by any stretch!!). There are a number of other tools available such as lexicons and bible dictionaries, but don’t get bogged down in these. All you need to do is read the bible, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and with a prayerful attitude hold the above principles in your mind. You will not fail to grow in your knowledge of God.
“But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)