Bible Study Skills: Interpreting the Text
Interpreting the Text
After observing Scripture—considering what it says—one must interpret what it means. The science of Bible interpretation is often called biblical hermeneutics. Often people think that understanding the Bible is something mystical, but it is not. Hermeneutics is something we do every time we read a newspaper, article, or letter. We are simply using principles to discern what the author meant when writing to a specific audience. A text, generally, has one meaning (interpretation), though it may have many applications. The primary difference when interpreting Scripture, in comparison to regular writings, is the fact that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore is without error. Consequently, when confronting seemingly conflicting texts or ideas in the Bible, the interpreter must find out how the texts or truths work together or harmonize without contradicting one another.
Below are hermeneutical principles which will help us understand the meanings of biblical texts:
1. The Literal Principle (or KISS)
Possibly, the most important hermeneutic principle is to read Scripture “literally”—according to the plain or normal sense. It’s been commonly said that “if the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest one make nonsense.” Or, a humorous way to memorize this principle is with the acronym KISS—Keep It Simple Stupid! When the text is symbolic or meant to be a figure of speech, it is commonly clear by the context. For example, poetry, like the Psalms, commonly employs symbols and figures of speech. Apocalyptic literature (prophetic literature often about the end of the world) like Revelation, Ezekiel, or Daniel also commonly employs symbols. However, historical literature and epistles do not. In general, stick to the plain sense unless the context demands otherwise.
(1) Often the writers of Scripture will give a symbol and then provide the literal meaning of the symbol. For example, Revelation 1:16 says, “He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth…” Revelation 1:20 tells us that the stars refer to churches. (2) Sometimes, the context necessitates a symbolic or metaphoric reading by contradicting other Scriptural truths. For example, Psalm 91:4 says this about God, “He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall.” God having wings is clearly a metaphor because Scripture tells us that God is spirit and, therefore, has no physical body (John 4:24, cf. Lk 24:39). (3) Other times the symbol is clear because of the impossibility of a literal reading. For example, Psalm 98:8 says, “Let the rivers clap their hands! Let the mountains sing in unison.” The author is obviously using symbols of fantastic joy over God and his works (cf. Ps 98:1)!
At times throughout history, interpreters commonly sought hidden, spiritual meanings behind every text—making the Bible almost impossible to understand. The tree stood for obedience, the river for the Holy Spirit, and the fruit for evil. Be careful of these types of interpretations, which are not clearly supported in the immediate context. Hermeneutics protects against such readings, just as it does with most literature. Again, when interpreting Scripture, keep it simple by using the literal principle, unless the context necessitates otherwise.
2. The Historical Principle
Each portion of Scripture must be understood in its original historical setting including the author, audience, cultural background, place, and the situation that prompted the writing of the text. Many errors in interpretation occur simply because the reader interpreted according to his or her experience and cultural understanding. Therefore, Bible interpretation essentially is seeking to understand specific portions of Scripture in the way the original audience would have understood it. Consequently, interpretations that the original audience would not have come to, most likely, are incorrect. At times, the Holy Spirit through a later author shows us that a historical person, event, or object was a type of Christ or had a deeper meaning which the original audience probably wouldn’t have discerned. Generally speaking though, the historical and cultural setting is key to proper interpretation.
For example, in Matthew 5:29-30, Christ said this about defeating lust:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.
How would the disciples understand Christ’s words about tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand? Are there historical equivalents that might help with interpretation? In that historical setting, Christ’s words were war terminology. For victors, it was common after winning a battle to take prisoners of war. Typically, the prisoners would be maimed or blinded, so they could never attack the victors again. The Philistines practiced this when they blinded Samson after defeating him. By blinding him, they hoped to injure Samson in a way that he never could attack them again. The Babylonians also did this with the Jewish king, Zedekiah—they blinded him and kept him in custody until his death (Jer 52:11). In addition, since tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand would not keep a person from lusting (what about the other eye and hand?), it is clear that Christ’s words were metaphoric. Christ taught that believers should get rid of anything they are looking at (symbolized by eyes) and anything they are doing (symbolized by hands) which leads them into lust. Understanding the historical/cultural context helps with interpreting Christ’s words.
Another example of the importance of the historical principle is seen in the story of Jonah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and call the Assyrians to repent. However, Jonah rebels against God’s Word and goes the opposite direction. To better understand the narrative, knowing the history between Israel and Assyria is crucial. These nations were bitter enemies—in fact, Assyria would some decades later conquer Israel and take them into exile. The nations’ history shows us why Jonah hated the Assyrians so much and desired for their destruction. Likewise, understanding the nations’ history also makes Assyria’s repentance at Jonah’s preaching even more miraculous.
A good Bible student by necessity must be a good historian. Commentaries and other tools will help with this, but also, the more one is familiar with the whole counsel of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation), the more the ancient culture becomes familiar—leading to more accurate interpretation.
3. The Contextual Principle
The contextual principle means we must interpret Scripture in its literary context. This is extremely important because without considering the literary context of a verse, one can make it mean essentially anything.
For example, Philippians 4:13 says, “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” If taken without considering the context, this verse could mean that we can do anything we desire including hitting a homerun, dunking a basketball, winning the lottery, etc. And, this verse is commonly taken to promise such things. However, what is the context Paul said this in? Philippians 4:11-12 says:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing
Paul is not saying he could break out of prison, conquer the Roman army, or anything fantastical like that. He is saying, through Christ he could be content in every situation—specifically any economic situation, whether “well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Certainly, this is true for us as well. We can have joy in the Lord in any situation. In fact, we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil 4:4) and “in everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:18). This is a discipline we must practice, which is only possible because of Christ. However, it would be wrong to interpret the passage as a blank check—we can do anything we want through Christ.
Here are some tips to help with applying the contextual principle:
1. Discover the immediate context of the surrounding verses or paragraph. This is done by reading the surrounding verses several times and asking questions like, “What is the main thought or purpose of this section?”
2. Discover the broader context of the chapter. Likewise, this is done by reading the chapter several times to discover the overarching theme. For example, the main theme in 1 Corinthians 12 is spiritual gifts. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 13 is love. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 14 is order in the church—specifically dealing with tongues and prophecy. The main theme in 1 Corinthians 15 is the resurrection. Some chapter themes are harder to discern but knowing the chapter theme will help guide interpretation.
3. Discover the overall context of the book. Again, after reading the book, ask questions like, “What was the reason the book was written or the major theme(s) of the book? Are there any clear theme verses, which show the author’s intent (cf. John 20:31, 1 Tim 3:14-15, 1 John 5:13)? The answers to these questions can often be more quickly discovered in the introduction of a study Bible, Bible survey book, or commentary.
As the context of the surrounding verses, chapter, and book are discerned, it will help guide and protect one’s interpretation.
4. The Compatibility Principle
The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. We must always interpret Scripture by Scripture. If we come to an interpretation of a certain text that contradicts what the Bible says as a whole, then that interpretation must be wrong.
A great example of using the compatibility principle is seen in how Christ corrects Satan’s abuse of Scripture when tempted in the wilderness. After Satan took Christ to the top of the temple, he said:
… “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
Satan interpreted Psalm 91:11-12 as a promise of God’s protection in every situation including a person intentionally trying to hurt himself. Essentially, Satan said to Christ, “Jump off this building because God has promised to protect you!” Psalm 91 certainly describes the blessing on the person who “lives in the shelter of the sovereign one” (v. 1) and makes his “refuge in the Lord” (v. 9); God often protects them in special ways. However, the Psalm does not tell the follower of the Lord to intentionally try to hurt himself. Christ corrects this misinterpretation, not by appealing to the immediate context of the Psalm, but by comparing Satan’s interpretation to what Moses taught in Deuteronomy 6:16. In Matthew 4:7, Christ said, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’” Christ used the compatibility principle to prove Satan was twisting Psalm 91. We must do the same both to find out what a verse means and what it does not mean.
The compatibility principle is especially important when considering, what seems to be, contradictory texts. Here a few rules to help with using the compatibility principle:
Rule 1: Use clear passages to interpret less clear passages.
For example, 1 Corinthians 15:29 says, “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them?” What does being “baptized for the dead” mean? Mormons have interpreted this to mean that one can be baptized in place of a dead person, and that baptism will fulfill his or her requirements for salvation. Whatever that passage means, it cannot mean that baptism saves anybody, whether they are dead or still alive. This would contradict the compatibility principle. Scripture clearly teaches that people are saved by faith and not works, including baptism (cf. Eph 2:8-9, John 3:16). Also, Scripture doesn’t teach that our works or faith can save others. First Corinthians 15:29 is a difficult passage and the compatibility principle helps protect us from error. One possible explanation for this unclear passage is that Paul was referring to a pagan cult who lived just north of Corinth in a city called Eleusis, who practiced baptisms for the dead.[i] That is why Paul says why are ‘they’—not ‘we’—baptized for ‘them.’ Since some were questioning the resurrection, Paul might have been saying, “Even pagans believe in the resurrection! Why are they baptizing people for the dead just north of Corinth?” as a challenge to the Corinthians lack of belief. To properly interpret this unclear passage both the compatibility principle and the historical principle (what was happening historically in and around Corinth) are needed to properly interpret.
When encountering an unclear passage, find what the Bible clearly teaches to help with interpreting the unclear.
Rule 2: Remember the Bible cannot contradict itself since God is the ultimate author and he cannot lie (cf. Titus 1:2). Therefore, Scripture, in its original manuscripts, is without error. If two passages contradict, this means our interpretation is wrong (possibly from not understanding the historical or literary context), the translation, or the ancient copy used.
To help compare Scripture with Scripture, studying the cross-references to a verse in a study Bible, looking up key words in a Bible concordance to find similar verses, or studying a corresponding doctrine in a systematic theology or Bible encyclopedia are helpful.
5. The Grammatical Principle
The grammatical principle is simply recognizing rules of language, which include grammar and sentence structure. One must be able to recognize the subject and verb of a sentence—whether the verbs are past, present, or future tense. One should recognize when nouns or pronouns are singular, plural, possessive, or non-possessive. One should recognize adjectives, adverbs, dependent and independent clauses. It is particularly important to recognize conjunctions, as they connect words, sentences, phrases, and clauses. We will consider a few of them:
“Therefore” instructs the reader to look back at what was previously talked about (a topic, verses, or even chapters) to properly understand what follows. It has often been said, “When you see the conjunction ‘therefore,’ you must look back to see what it is there for.” For example, Hebrews 12:1 says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The conjunction “therefore” points the reader back to Hebrews 11, the Heroes of the Faith chapter. The author is telling the reader that the great faith of these Old Testament heroes should inspire us to be faithful in our own spiritual journeys.
“And” simply means “in addition to.”
“But” or “however” provides a contrast with what was previously said.
“That,” “then,” “for,” “so,” and “because” are used to introduce a purpose or reason.
For example, Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, ‘so that’ you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.” This verse hinges on the conjunction “so that.” “So that” tells us that if we don’t conform to the world and instead renew our mind, we will have the ability to discern God’s will. Consequently, those who are living in sin and not living in God’s Word will have problems discerning God’s will for their lives and others. If we don’t recognize the conjunction “so that,” we will miss the logical flow of the author’s statement.
“If” provides a condition.
Without recognizing the grammar in a sentence, paragraph, or chapter, it is impossible to truly understand the meaning.
6. The Genre Principle
Since the Bible is a work of literature, it includes different literary styles called genres. To interpret verses in various genres, we must understand each genre’s unique rules of interpretation. Thinking of the various genres as sports with different rules is helpful. For instance, in basketball, a person can’t kick the ball like in soccer. And, in soccer, one can’t tackle like in football. Each game has its own rules; if those rules are broken, one will get a foul and possibly removed from the game. Likewise, each genre has rules we must abide by to properly interpret. The primary genres are:
Psalms are poetic, Hebrew prayers and songs. Since they are poetic, they will have many figures of speech, symbols, and parallelism. A common feature of Hebrew parallelism is stating something in two ways: In synonymous parallelism, the author says one thing and then repeats it with different words. For example, Psalm 50:1 says, “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts!” In antithetical parallelism, the second line provides a contrast with the first. For example, Psalm 1:6 says, “Certainly the Lord guards the way of the godly, but the way of the wicked ends in destruction.”
Proverbs are wise sayings about godly living presented in a short, memorable format. They should not be taken as promises but as general truths or common realities. For example, Proverbs 12:11 says, “The one who works his field will have plenty of food, but whoever chases daydreams lacks wisdom.” In general, the person who works will have plenty of food, but this is not always true for various reasons (famine, drought, etc.). Like the Psalms, the Proverbs will commonly have figures of speech, symbols, and parallelism.
Prophecy, as a genre, includes God’s speaking through prophets in both a foretelling and forthtelling fashion. Foretelling includes telling the future—speaking about the coming of the messiah, judgment, the day of the Lord, etc. Forthtelling is simply applying Scripture prophetically to God’s people. Often the prophets shared how Israel broke God’s law and called them to repentance. Most prophecy is forthtelling, not foretelling. A subgenre of prophecy is apocalyptic literature, which focuses on the end of the world by using symbols. Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation are prophetic/apocalyptic in nature.
History is stories in the Bible. They detail redemptive history—how God brings about salvation through the messiah. They are descriptive in nature—showing us what happened—not prescriptive—showing us what to do. However, throughout biblical history, we see both negative and positive examples that should both warn and encourage us in our faith (1 Cor 10:6-11, Heb 12:1-3).
Parables are physical stories with a spiritual meaning. It’s important to remember that parables typically have one major point; therefore, significant meaning should not be applied to every detail of parables.
Epistles teach us Christian doctrine, as written by the apostles and their associates.
It is important to identity . Again, history is primarily . Throughout history cults have taken wives as well. The narratives weren’t meant for developing such as Christ’s teachings in the Gospels. Similarly, with . They are simply general principles for wise living.
7. The Progressive Revelation Principle
Throughout biblical history, God didn’t reveal all his truths at once. There is a continual progress of revelation throughout Scripture. To properly interpret, we must take into account the then-current state of revelation. We must ask, “What had God revealed to people during that historical period?” When considering God’s rejection of Cain’s offering, it would be wrong to read into the narrative a full-blown understanding of the Mosaic law and its stipulations for offerings. God hadn’t given that yet. Similarly, when reading the stories of Job and the Patriarchs, we must remember that no Scripture had yet been written—though God had certainly been speaking to them. Understanding how the original readers would understand something is foundational for proper interpretation. Again, it is wrong to accept an interpretation of Scripture that the original audience would not have understood. This is only acceptable when later biblical authors share that a certain passage had a deeper biblical meaning. For example, in John 3:14, Christ taught that when Moses had the dying Israelites look at the bronze serpent in the wilderness to be healed, it was an Old Testament typology of him. Christ would one day be put on a cross and those who believed in him would be saved. Though the original audience of Israelites wouldn’t have interpreted the bronze serpent having a deeper meaning, the Gospel of John tells us it did. However, as a general principle, we should not accept an interpretation that the original audience would not have naturally come to.
8. The Christological Principle
Christ is the major theme of Scripture, and therefore, we should look for references to him throughout and come to know him in a deeper way through our study. In John 5:39-40 and 46, Christ said this to unbelieving Jews:
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me.
Similarly, Jesus said this to his disciples after his resurrection, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). The law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms was one of the ways the Jews referred to the whole Old Testament. All the Old Testament pointed to and was fulfilled in Christ.
In what ways is Christ seen throughout the whole Old Testament? (1) Christ is seen in prophetic references—prophecies about his birth, life, death, resurrection, and future reign. (2) He is seen in typologies—images of Christ throughout the Old Testament. Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days—these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!” New Testament authors often alert us to OT pictures of Christ. Adam was a type of Christ (cf. Rom 5:14-15, 1 Cor 15:45). As Adam led the world into sin, Christ leads the world into righteousness. Moses was a type of Christ (cf. Dt 18:18, Acts 3:22). As Moses instituted the Old Covenant, Christ instituted the New Covenant. As mentioned, the bronze snake in the wilderness was a type of Christ (John 3:14). When the dying Israelites looked at the bronze snake on a pole to be healed, it was a picture of how the world would look to Christ who died on the cross to be saved. (3) We also see Christ in the Old Testament law, not just in types, but in that the law ultimately demonstrated people’s need for a savior. Galatians 3:24 said, “Thus the law had become our guardian [or tutor] until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.” By giving the law to Israel, God taught them their inability to keep God’s law and that ultimate salvation could only come through the prophesied messiah. (4) In addition, genealogies, often point to Christ. They often include members of Christ’s lineage, as demonstrated in his genealogical record in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.
However, not only does Christ fulfill the Old Testament, he is revealed throughout the New Testament. The four Gospels tell his story. Acts details the building of his church through his disciples. The Epistles share his teaching through the apostles. Revelation teaches about his coming, including his wrath, victory, and kingdom.
The Christological principle doesn’t mean we should allegorize Scripture (making every detail a symbol of him) or think that every verse directly points to Christ in some way. What it does mean is that while studying Scripture, we should be aware that there are often references to Christ throughout and take note of them. In addition, studying Scripture should ultimately make us know and love Christ more.
9. The Church Witness Principle
Jesus taught that his sheep hear his voice and that they would not follow the voice of another (John 10:4-8, cf. 1 John 2:20). God has uniquely gifted his followers with the ability to understand his Word. Second Corinthians 2:12 says we have received God’s Spirit “so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God.” In addition, God has given gifted teachers to the church to help believers come to a unity of the faith (Eph 4:14). Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, there is great wisdom in finding out how believers (present and past) have interpreted certain passages or looked at certain doctrines. Proverbs 24:6 says, “for with guidance you wage your war, and with numerous advisers there is victory.” “Victory” can also be translated “safety” (KJV).
We get a picture of this in Acts 15. There were false teachers in the early church declaring that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and practice the Mosaic law (v. 1, 5). In response to this, Paul and Barnabas traveled from Antioch to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church. After discussion, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, definitively declared that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised nor practice the Mosaic law (v. 19-20).
Similarly, there has been significant attacks on specific doctrines throughout history, leading the church to bond together and wrestle with Scripture to discern what it truly says—often leading to a general consensus. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture, have all been wrestled with and agreed on by the majority of the church throughout history. Therefore, there is great wisdom and protection in studying the conclusions of the ancient and contemporary church.
With that said, simply because the majority of the church believes something (or has believed something), doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct. It does mean that we should give great consideration to their conclusion. This is where cults have often failed. Though the church has largely accepted the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity/humanity of Christ, or salvation by faith alone, they ignore those conclusions—thinking that God has given them special revelation that the majority of the church has missed. There is safety and victory in the multitude of counselors. Christ has uniquely given his church the ability to understand his Word; therefore, we must consider the historical conclusions of other saints. This can be done by studying commentaries, systematic theologies, etc.—both contemporary and ancient ones.
What are some tips for applying the church witness principle?
We must be humble. Pride often leads to false interpretation, but a wise person is humble and seeks the insight of others.
We must be resourceful. It often takes hard work and diligent study to research problem passages or doctrines; however, there is great fruit in it, as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
We must, at times, be willing to break from the majority or what is familiar to us. Even though the majority agrees, or we were raised in a denomination or church that believes a certain doctrine, doesn’t mean it is right. Throughout history, there have been seasons where the majority fell into serious error, and certainly, no church, denomination, or individual is not vulnerable to this. We must recognize this and therefore be committed to God’s Word more than a denomination, church, or individual.
What are some hermeneutical principles to help us properly interpret Scripture?
1. The Literal Principle. We should read Scripture according to its plain sense. If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest we make nonsense.
2. The Historical Principle. We must understand the historical background including the author, audience, ancient culture, and setting, to properly interpret.
3. The Contextual Principle. We must consider the literary context of the surrounding verses, the chapter, and ultimately the book in which a verse is found to properly interpret. Without context, a verse can mean anything.
4. The Compatibility Principle. Since Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture, we must consider a verse in comparison to what the rest of Scripture says. Scripture cannot contradict itself, and we should use clear verses to interpret less clear ones.
5. The Grammatical Principle. We must recognize and understand proper grammar including sentence structure to properly interpret.
6. The Genre Principle. Each genre has different rules, and if we don’t recognize them, it will lead to misinterpretation. A proverb is not a promise; it is a general principle. We should not add significance to every detail of a parable. Historical narratives are descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive.
7. The Progressive Revelation Principle. Understanding how the original audience would understand a verse is crucial to interpretation; therefore, we must recognize the revelation that the original audience had.
8. The Christological Principle. Christ is the major theme of Scripture. The Old Testament points to him and the New Testament is the fulfillment. As we study, we should recognize references to him and seek to know Christ more through our study.
9. The Church Witness Principle. How has the church throughout history understood a certain text or doctrine? This will often help us properly understand a text and protect us from grievous errors, which people often repeat.
Which principle stood out most to you and why?
What are some good tips for applying the literary contextual principle?
What are some of the different genres in Scripture and rules for properly interpreting them?
In what ways does all of Scripture point to Christ?
How can we apply the church witness principle when studying difficult passages or doctrines?
In what ways have cults commonly rejected the church witness principle throughout history?
What other questions or applications did you have from this study?
[i] Accessed 9/3/2019 from https://carm.org/mormonism/baptism-for-the-dead-in-1-corinthians-15-29