Interpreting the Bible
Before we can interpret the writings of the Bible’s authors we need to define “interpret”. According to the dictionary interpret means: 1) to give or provide the meaning of; explain; explicate; elucidate, 2) To construe or understand in a particular way and 3) To bring out the meaning of (a dramatic work, writing, music, etc.) by performance or execution. To interpret the Bible, we want to provide the meaning of the passage, to understand it and to bring out its meaning.
First, in our daily devotionals we seek to define the meaning to the text. Then we need to understand what the author’s intent is in the passage. Finally, we bring out the meaning of the Scripture to ourselves and to others through the use of Bible study principles.
Hermeneutics – Principles of Bible Interpretation
Bible interpretation, or hermeneutics, is the branch of theology that identifies and applies principles of biblical interpretation.
The Bible’s meaning is plain, the proper interpretation is not an easy task and requires study.
The Holy Spirit moved each of the writers of Scripture to write God’s inspired, inerrant and infallible Word (2 Timothy 3:16) from different languages, personalities, cultural backgrounds and social standing.
There are eight basic rules that are the center of all grammatical interpretation. They have been the accepted practice used by scholars for centuries. They apply today as much as they did in the time of Socrates. We can use these rules “to rightly divide the word of truth” of the Bible.
We find in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not the author of confusion, but peaceful as in all churches of the saints.” God is not the author of confusion as we interpret the Bible and explain its meaning.
There are eight rules that will help us come to the truth of what God says in His Word.
- What does the word or passage mean? Study of Scripture begins with a study of the words, defining words and terms abiding by the plain meaning of the words. This might need the research into the Greek or Hebrew to make sure that we understand the English translation.
- We need to remember that the Old Testament was written by, to and for the Jews. The words and idioms were meaningful to them – just as the words of Christ surely have been to them. They wrote the New Testament in Greco-Roman culture and as we study it we must refrain from imposing modern usage in our interpretation, refraining from applying our pre-conceived culture and notions.
- The meaning of the passage must come from the context. We must understand every word by first looking at what Scripture that came before says and that which follows. Often it will be impossible to understand Scripture correctly without the help of context.
- As we seek to interpret Scripture, we must have knowledge of the life and society of the times when the passage was written. The spiritual principle will remain timeless, but cannot be understood without the knowledge of the background.
If we can keep what the writer of the Scripture had in mind without adding information from our own culture and society an correct interpretation will result
- Laws of logic are the rules of correct reasoning. They show the way God thinks and the way we must think if we are to think correctly. It also calls the laws of logic “rules of inference.” Correct reasoning can never violate a law of logic. There are many laws of logic. But three are considered the most basic or primary. Let’s examine these three and how they stem from the mind of God.
- We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent.
Just as a judge’s chief occupation is the study of earlier cases, so must the interpreter use precedents to find whether they support an alleged doctrine.
- Each part of scripture we are studying must be constructed about the whole not just a small part. Interpretation must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
- Inference is a fact implied from another fact. We derive a conclusion from a known fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition with another proposition. The inferred facts or propositions are sufficiently binding in truth to establish competent and satisfactory evidence.
These rules guide us as we examine the text, assuming when properly applied the text will show its meaning.
FIND THE GENRE OF THE SCRIPTURE
There are six genres (types of literature) in the Bible: exposition, narrative and biographical, parables, poetry, proverbs and wisdom literature, and prophecy and apocalyptic.
To understand Scripture reader needs to know the author’s intent. What kind of literature he was writing? What literary form did he use. Unless you know what types of literature, each part of Scripture is taken from we are in no position to decide the meaning.
Genre of Scripture is important because it gives us parameters in which we determine the meaning. In fact, knowing the genre of Scripture often helps us to understand the meaning of the passage.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
A study of words is an important aspect of Bible study. This is more than just looking up a word in the dictionary. It involves understanding how the word fits in a part of the context and how the author used the word in his other writings. Look at Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (nasb). The word in the Hebrew is ha’arets, which has been translated to the word “earth” in English versions of the Bible. The Hebrew word is the word used when the Bible talks about the Promised Land (Genesis 50:24; Exodus 12:25). It would seem that Genesis 1:1 could be translated: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the land.” Here a problem arises, does this mean that God didn’t create the whole earth, but only the Promised Land? We may be able to understand why Moses used this word if we consider the context immediately following and how used the word throughout his writings. The next verse says the land was “uninhabitable and empty” and there was nothing except the deep waters. The creation account (Genesis 1:3-31) tells us of the work of God to form the earth into an inhabitable place.
Moses used the word “land” to connect with his audience between the fact that God was the Creator of the heart (the land) and that God would bring Israel into the land he had promised. God being able bring order out of chaos when he created the earth (the land) out of nothing, then He could bring order out of the chaos in the land He promised to give Israel
PLAIN AND OBVIOUS MEANING
The myth exists that the Bible’s clear meaning is hidden beneath the surface of the message. Even with its use of symbolism and figurative language most of the Bible is clear to the reader. Even not knowing the people, places and events mentioned in a passage we can grasp the main point of the text.
“Why do you complain about the splinter in your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 NIV) This passage with figurative language enhances the true plain meaning of the text. We have no trouble understanding what Jesus meant use of a metaphor makes it clearer.
“All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV)
The Bible’s writers had specific purposes in mind for specific audiences. As we read and study Scripture, it is important to determine who the author is, who his audience was and what was his message to his audience.
Each of the Bible’s authors wrote to correct, teach, inform, challenge and explain things to the people of that time period. Discovering the writer’s original message is the goal of interpretation. When we discover the meaning of the original text, we can bridge the historical and cultural gap of over 2000 years and apply it to today’s world.
The people at the time the Bible was written had different languages and cultural practices than we do. Our worldview is even different. If we try to frame the text into our own culture and do not look at the original audience, we misled ourselves. Though the author may use words or phrase that have a double meaning each passage of Scripture has only one meaning. Discovering the original meaning and applying it to our present situation is our goal. As we read a passage we need to ask: What happened? Who was there? Why did it happen? When did it happen? Where did it happen? How did it happen?
All we have from the writer’s thoughts are his words and had he not written them, we would have no way of knowing what he was thinking. Examine each word carefully for the part it plays in the writer’s message. Study how the words and phrases connect with each other and the structure of each sentence. Though you may not feel it necessary to study the Greek and Hebrew an understanding of these languages will open new insights that will make Scripture clearer.
As we look at Scripture, considering what it tells us about God and His dealings with creation. This is a theological interpretation and is God’s way of making himself known to us. The central theme of every passage tells about God and how the people either served Him faithfully or denied Him.
The people’s responses were not centered on the message. God’s will and involvement with creation are. Even the passages given as instruction show the nature of God.
Our most gracious Heavenly Father as we seek to better understand your direction for our lives through interpretation of Your Word we ask for your guidance. May each word bring a better understanding of Your direction and desires for our lives. Amen