Lesson 8: The Principles of Biblical Interpretation
In Lesson Seven, we learned that the Bible has both divine and human authorship. Although God is the source of Scripture, he used men to write it. In order to communicate His message to mankind, God has providentially overseen the production, compilation, and preservation of the Bible. The successful communication of any message, whether from God or man, requires correct interpretation . Interpretation is the process which allows one to understand the author’s intended meaning .
[The intended meaning is also known as “authorial intent,” that is, the message the original author intended his audience to receive. The primary task of the interpreter is to get back to this intended meaning and build his interpretation from there. Doing this is important because a text cannot mean what it never meant. That is, one should not try to get from a text something that the author never intended to be there.]
We usually do not think about the principles of interpretation because we use them naturally. We automatically understand the author’s intended meaning because we are familiar with the author’s language, customs, and circumstances. The Bible, however, was written thousands of years ago by men living in cultures much different from ours. Therefore, we must strive to consciously apply the various principles of interpretation that we unconsciously use every day.
[The rules or principles of interpretation is called hermeneutics. ]
The proper method of interpretation is called literal or normal interpretation. The consistent application of the principles of normal interpretation will yield consistent interpretations. [The normal/literal/literary approach can successfully handle every type of biblical literature. We need not switch interpretive methods when we switch to a different literary form.] Varying interpretations of the Bible’s message exist because not all interpreters “play by the same rules .” This lesson will explain the biblical principles of interpretation based on the following facts:
1. All communication has a historical context.
2. All communication has a literary context.
3. All communication has a grammatical context.
I. All Communication Has a Historical Context.
Each book of the Bible was written at a particular time in a particular place for a particular purpose. These and similar factors make up a book’s historical context.
A. Interpret every biblical text in light of its purpose .
Every author has a purpose for writing that which he writes. His audience, his theme, and his tone are some of the factors which reflect his purpose. Therefore, in order to understand a text’s meaning, one should determine the author’s purpose.
[Audience = who written to; theme = what it’s about; tone = the character of the text. Differences in authorial intent would explain some of the difference found in the Gospel accounts, for example.]
1. The purpose for a book may be stated .
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:13 [See also John 20:31]
2. The purpose for a book may be implied . [I.e., there are hints. ]
a. The purpose may be implied by statements within the book.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. Galatians 1:6 (See also 3:1 and 6:12.)
It is apparent from these and other statements within the book that Galatians was written to attack false teaching that threatened to win over the Galatian believers.
b. The purpose may be implied by what one knows about the author and recipient(s) of the book.
For example, Paul wrote two letters to Timothy. In the first, he explicitly stated his purpose:
I am writing you these instructions so that . . . you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household. 1 Timothy 3:14
Although Paul did not state his purpose in the second letter, one can easily recognize such by noting the relationship between Paul and Timothy seen in 1 Timothy (See also Acts 16:1 5.). In light of Paul’s “mentor” relationship with Timothy, the purpose for his second letter becomes clear: to prepare Timothy to assume greater leadership responsibilities as Paul’s ministry comes to an end (2 Timothy 2:1 7 and 4:1 8).
Note: This point assumes that one can determine the author and/or recipients. Often, these are stated in the text. In cases where they are not, a good study Bible and/or commentary will be helpful. Recommendations for these and other resources will be included in Lesson Nine.
B. Interpret every biblical text in light of its chronology . [I.e., time frame ]
As stated in Lesson Seven, God did not produce the Bible all at once . Rather, the Bible was composed over a period of 1,600 years. Furthermore, the last book of the Bible was written almost 1,900 years ago! Therefore, in order to recognize the author’s intended meaning, one must place a given book within the time period in which it was written. One can often determine this by statements made within the book regarding events and/or people about which dates are known. Again, a good study Bible or commentary is helpful.
[For example, when Luke tells the story about Jesus’ birth, he gives the date by saying who was governor, who was Caesar, etc. By finding the dates of these well-known people or events, we can accurately date the account. This is especially important for dating OT events.]
C. Interpret every biblical text in light of its geography .
Most of us live thousands of miles from the locations where Bible events took place. Therefore, we should become familiar with the Bible’s geography. It is also valuable to learn about the terrain of Bible lands. Bible atlases are valuable resources for this type of information.
D. Interpret every biblical text in light of its culture .
Modern thought and behavior are different from that of Bible times. Furthermore, there are cultural differences between groups of people mentioned in Scripture. For example, the Roman culture of Paul’s day was totally different from the Hebrew culture of Moses’s day. Thus, it is important to understand the culture behind a text.
[For example, several NT passages deal with whether or not it’s OK to eat meat offered to idols. This practice was a cultural issue that the early Christians had to deal with. We don’t. So we’ve got to determine whether or not something is specifically addressed to the cultural setting of the first century, or if the principle is timeless. This is often clear, but sometimes quite difficult. A book on manners and customs of Bible times and lands is helpful in this regard. ]
II. All Communication Has a Literary Context.
In addition to the historical setting, interpretation is influenced by literary factors. The Bible uses various literary forms and figures of speech which the interpreter must take into account in order to correctly interpret a text.
A. Interpret every biblical text in light of its literary form .
The Bible contains various forms of literature, such as poetry , narratives , proverbs , parables , and letters . Each of these must be interpreted accordingly. For example, narrative passages describe the actions of others, while the epistles often prescribe actions for others. Thus, Acts 1:12 14 (narrative) describes the fact that the disciples went to Jerusalem. However, it does not tell others to do so. On the other hand, Paul’s letter to the Romans (epistolary) [an epistle is a letter] prescribes actions for us:
[O]ffer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. Romans 12:1
[Understanding the literary form of a text is very important because you interpret different forms in different ways. You can’t handle every part of the Bible the same way. I.e., you don’t interpret a poem (like the Psalms) in the same way as you do historical narrative (like Acts).]
B. Interpret every biblical text in light of its figures of speech .
Normal human communication often employs figures of speech such as metaphors . For example, one might say, “My mouth is on fire,” if he has just tasted something very hot. In John 10:7, Jesus said, “I am the gate.” Obviously, Jesus was using a metaphor to make a point. Just as one’s mouth is not actually in flames, Jesus is not actually a gate. Literal (or normal) interpretation takes into account those places where the Bible employs figures of speech.
[Jesus used figures of speech all the time. He said, “I am the door,” and “I am the good shepherd,” but he wasn’t really/literally a door or a shepherd. He was describing one thing in terms of something else. The literal/normal method of interpretation makes room for such figures of speech.]
III. All Communication Has a Grammatical Context.
The difference between the original language of a biblical book and the language of modern readers creates a further obstacle to interpretation. However, one can overcome this by applying the following rules of interpretation:
A. Interpret every biblical text in light of its original language .
As mentioned in Lesson Seven, the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (and a small portion in Aramaic). Since most individuals do not know these languages, one should consult a good translation which converts the original languages into one’s own language.
[To some extent, if you don’t know Hebrew and Greek, you are at the mercy of the translation you use. That’s why it’s so important to get a translation that is accurate and understandable. It may also be beneficial to compare how two or three versions translate a troublesome text. Pastors and teachers spend a great deal of effort to learn Hebrew and Greek so that they can more accurately handle God’s Word.]
An important principle to keep in mind when interpreting the language of Scripture is that a word can only mean one thing in a given context. If this were not the case, communication would be impossible because any word could mean anything.
[For example, you take it for granted that when I say “dog” I mean the four-footed hairy animal that barks. If, when I say “dog” I really mean “fruit loops,” then we have a problem. Effective communication can happen only when the speakers/writers and listeners/readers agree on the general meaning of words. Words like “run” can have many meanings, but the context generally tells you what such words mean. That’s why understanding the context is so important.]
B. Interpret every biblical text in light of its larger grammatical units .
All communication is made up of sentences . Sentences, however, are only one part of a larger grammatical chain: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books. Thus, the interpretation of a given word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph is dependent on the other larger units of which it is a part.
[So it may be necessary to understand a previous verse or paragraph before you can reach the correct interpretation of the verse you are trying to figure out.]
C. Interpret each biblical book in the light of its overall biblical context.
Since the Bible as a whole has but one author, the largest logical unit for a biblical text is the entire Bible. Overall biblical context refers to both content and time . That is, an individual book of the Bible fits into the overall message of the Bible and was written at a specific time within God’s progressive unfolding of biblical revelation.
Recap & Review
In this lesson, we have learned:
1. All communication has a historical context. Interpret a biblical text according to its purpose, time, place, and culture.
2. All communication has a literary context. Interpret a biblical text according to its literary form and figures of speech.
3. All communication has a grammatical context. Interpret a biblical text according to its original language and larger grammatical units.
Learning to Live It
You and your family have just moved to a new community and have begun the search for a new church. You are determined to find a Bible preaching church. One Sunday morning you visit a church whose pastor is an interesting and dynamic speaker. On this particular morning he is speaking from Judges 16, the story of Samson. In his sermon, he states that Samson’s compromise and loss of spiritual power represents the sin that God’s people fall into today. Each lock of Samson’s hair that Delilah cut off represented a step of compromise. The first lock of hair was his sanctification, the second was his separation, and so on. By the time the sermon is finished, each of Samson’s seven locks is made a symbol for lost spiritual strength.
[This is what we call an allegorical interpretation. Details of the text have been assigned meanings that the text does not justify. ]
Evaluate this sermon by answering the following questions:
1. Is there any indication the author of Judges meant the locks to represent these steps when the text was written? no
2. What type of literature is this text? narrative
3. Therefore, was this passage written to prescribe action for us? no
4. Whose message did this sermon communicate? the pastor’s
5. Since the pastor is preaching his own message rather than God’s Word, what should you conclude about your search for a Bible preaching church? Your search is not over.