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10 Things You should Know about Interpreting the Bible

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Today we look at 10 things we should know about how to interpret the Bible (or conversely, how not to interpret it). But before we begin, it’s important to remember that the Bible is not an answer-book that provides ready-made explanations for all problems or solutions to puzzling questions. When I run into a problem with my computer, I click the Help button and find a topically organized list of solutions to virtually every difficulty I may be facing. But the Bible did not come to us with an Index of topics or a Table of Contents. With that in mind, we begin. Continue reading . . . 

Today we look at 10 things we should know about how to interpret the Bible (or conversely, how not to interpret it). But before we begin, it’s important to remember that the Bible is not an answer-book that provides ready-made explanations for all problems or solutions to puzzling questions. When I run into a problem with my computer, I click the Help button and find a topically organized list of solutions to virtually every difficulty I may be facing. But the Bible did not come to us with an Index of topics or a Table of Contents. With that in mind, we begin.

(1) We should never forget the incredible privilege and responsibility that falls on every Christian to interpret the Bible for himself/herself. This is the principle of private interpretation, based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. But don’t misconstrue what it means. Private interpretation does not mean that we should rely solely on our own judgments, ignoring the insights and research of others. Private interpretation does not mean that we have the right to "distort" the Bible in accordance with our own conceptions. And private interpretation does not mean that we can ignore the history of interpretation in the church.

(2) Although the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us. The challenge we face is to determine how something written directly and personally to someone else in a different historical and cultural context has meaning and application for us who live so far removed from that original audience.

(3) As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart have said, “A [biblical] text cannot mean what it never meant.” Thus the primary task of interpreting the Bible is to determine, as best as possible, what the original author intended by his words.

However, this does not require us to believe that the Bible can never mean something of which the original human author was not consciously aware when he first wrote it. When the NT is allowed, as it always must be, to interpret the OT, we discover that there is often a fuller or thicker meaning to OT statements that the original author may not have been consciously aware of. Some refer to this principle as sensus plenior (lit., the fuller sense or more complete meaning).

(4) Be very careful and cautious about seeking guidance from God through random words or verses taken out of context. Often people will encounter a particular word in a verse that corresponds to something in their present experience, a word they believe is God’s way of instructing or guiding them in the making of an important decision. But every “word” in the Bible means what the original author intended within the specific context in which it is found. Likewise, a single “verse” is often wrenched out of its original context and applied to some situation in the present day that has no relation to what the original author intended.

(5) Contrary to what many think, not every command in the Bible is meant to be obeyed. Some commands are conditioned by or bound to the particular biblical covenant in which they are found. Other commands are uniquely governed by the historical, cultural, or theological context in which it first appears. Robert Plummer reminds us:

“The Bible is not a policy book, with each page giving equally timeless instruction. Yes, ‘every word of God is flawless’ (Prov. 30:5). Nevertheless, the Bible is more like a multivolume narrative, in which the later chapters clarify the ultimate meaning and sometimes the temporary, accommodating nature of earlier regulations and events (e.g., Matt. 19:8). Old Testament commands that are repeated in the New Testament (for example, moral commands, such as the prohibition of homosexuality [Lev. 18:22; 1 Cor. 6:9]) or not explicitly repealed (as are the civil and ceremonial laws [Mark 7:19; Heb. 10:1-10]) have abiding significance in the expression of God’s Spirit-led people” (40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, 169).

(6) We must be careful to differentiate between what is descriptive in the Bible and what is prescriptive. That is, some passages merely describe events, actions, and words as they occurred (or were spoken), without necessarily endorsing the truthfulness or expecting others to emulate their behavior. A good example would be the speeches in Job of his purported “friends and counselors” or certain narrative descriptions of early church life in the book of Acts.

(7) The Bible is not to be read as one would read and study Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. The truth of Scripture comes to us primarily through a variety of literary forms (genres), cultural circumstances, diverse personalities, and at different times in history. Biblical revelation is progressive and situational. Scripture did not descend to earth by means of a parachute, fully formed. It is organic (as the seed produces the stem which in turn produces the fruit or flower).

(8) Many appeal to what they call the principle of first reference to govern all interpretation. They argue that the meaning of the first occurrence of a word in the Bible should determine the meaning of all subsequent uses of the word. Although valid in many instances, even more important and determinative of meaning is the final appearance of the word in the fully formed canon of inspired Scripture. This is simply another way of saying that the NT must always be viewed as the standard by which the OT (and its many individual words) is interpreted.

(9) One of the more common problems we encounter is when someone quotes a passage out of context and claims they have authority to determine its meaning and application because God has “revealed” it to them. When this happens we must keep in mind what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21. There we are told that any claim to having received a “revelation” must be judged or weighed or assessed by Scripture itself.

Here is the principle: “No one has the right to short-circuit our responsibility to evaluate his/her claim from Scripture by insisting on a ‘revelation’ about Scripture’s meaning which others cannot evaluate by studying the Bible for themselves.” “Otherwise,” notes Craig Keener, “anyone could claim that Scripture means anything! Any view can be supported based on proof-texts out of context; any theology can make its reasoning sound consistent; Jehovah’s Witnesses do this all the time. We dare not base our faith on other people’s study of the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.”

(10) One of the most important principles for properly interpreting and applying God’s Word is to ask the question: Where is this text (or where are these people) in the storyline of God’s redemptive purposes in history? Thus when Jesus told his disciples that they were to tell no one about him (Mark 8:30) we must not wrench this out of its unique historical context and apply it universally to all Christians in all times.

There is certainly more to interpreting Scripture than these ten points, but no one should approach the biblical text without keeping these fundamental truths in mind.

5 Comments

Great piece. Love it!

Approaching the Bible text in an attitude of prayer also should not be neglected or overlooked.

Sam, thanks for this article and your great book about Packer. Looking forward to your new book! Dave

John, I'm sorry for giving you an answer for which you must wait, but I have a book coming out the first week of February, 2017, that addresses all of these questions. It is titled, Practicing the Power, and will be published by Zondervan. So, if you can wait about 3 months, I think it will answer your questions.

This was helpful. I am struggling with clear definitions for illumination, prophecy and revelation. I am a member in a non denominational "reformed Baptist" church who is open to the spiritual gifts. I believe we often talk past each other by not being clear on the meaning of words. I think we have made some progress with the following definition of illumination:

The illumination of the Holy Spirit is "[t]he process by which God's Holy Spirit enables us to understand His word and apply it to our lives." [1]

I have not been able to find practical useful definitions for prophecy and revelation. We need help. If we can't discuss what the Spirit is illuminating to us for fear of being judged or misunderstood how can we be a spiritual community? J. Boice says that the Bible without the Spirit's illumination is a closed book. But I get suspicious with someone says that have prophecy or revelation. I don't have the tools/questions to discern what they mean.

Can you help us?

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