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7 key principles for interpreting the Bible
The Bible is an ancient and complex book, yet it is God’s revelation to us. How can we be sure to interpret it correctly? Pastor Mark Driscoll explains 7 key principles of biblical interpretation in this third installment of his blog series, which provides a guided tour of topics such as what is the Bible, where the Bible came from, and misconceptions about the Bible.
Interpreting the Bible is so much fun that theologians came up with a word to describe the entire field of study: hermeneutics. The work may sound difficult—and it often is, when we encounter a challenging verse, passage, or doctrine—but there are a few key principles of hermeneutics that can make anyone’s Bible reading a more fruitful endeavor.
1. Listen for the truth
It used to be that the first thing you’d want to know when it came to interpreting the Bible was context. I’m going to put that second, because in our day the first thing you have to understand has to do with truth. If we fall into one trap of postmodern thinking, “truth” is no longer objective and, as a result, authors are no longer to be taken at their word. Truth, in this sense, becomes whatever we want to make it; in other words, relativism.
As far as the Bible is concerned, truth is what corresponds to reality. Biblical authors, and the God who inspired them, never intended for readers to twist the Scriptures into pretzels that suited them. Instead, they had a very specific meaning they wanted us to grasp. This is crucial to recognize because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to us. Revelation is about getting to know God, so it is essential that we understand the truth of what God is revealing to us in order to know him truly.
2. Understand the context
Context is a very important part of interpretation. First, there is the original context and cultural setting of the Bible. It’s important to have some understanding of this so we can grapple with passages and apply them meaningfully to our lives today. Second, there’s the immediate context of a passage. Sometimes we read a single verse in isolation, forgetting that it has an immediate context: it is part of a flow of ideas before and after it.
It is essential that we understand the truth of what God is revealing to us in order to know him truly.
Furthermore, each word is part of a sentence, which is part of an argument, which is part of a book or letter. Each book of Scripture is also written within a specific genre, and exists within the larger context of the Old Testament or New Testament, as well as within Scripture as a whole. This leads to the next principle.
3. Let Scripture interpret Scripture
The Bible is a collection of divinely inspired writings written by a number of authors, living in different geographical areas in some cases, and written over a long span of history, yet it retains an amazing unity. Because the many voices of Scripture make up God’s unified revelation, we want to let Scripture interpret Scripture. This involves examining what the Bible has to say on a topic as a whole rather than just picking stray verses here and there and coming to a conclusion.
Scripture often interprets itself. For example in John 1:1, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If we keep reading, the rest of the passage helps us interpret this verse as we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …” (John 1:14), showing us that the Word is Christ.
Another example is the parable of the sower in Luke 8. After Jesus shares the parable, we read, “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he [Jesus] said …” (Luke 8:9). In the verses that follow (vv. 10-14), Scripture interprets itself by telling us what Jesus meant.
4. Read from the text, not into it
Too often we come to the Bible with our own pre-conceived ideas. If we do that, we’ll eventually fall into the trap of trying to make the Scriptures say what we want them to say instead of drawing out from them what the author—and God—intended. The technical word for this error is eisegesis—reading into the text. What we want to do is the opposite, called exegesis, which means drawing out from the text what the author intended to communicate.
5. Trust the clarity of Scripture
We can expect that Scripture will be clear. Since theologians love coming up with obscure names for things, they call this principle the perspicuity of Scripture. This means that the Bible is clear when it comes to letting us know about essential, important teachings. It doesn’t contain secret messages that only the elite can understand (though Greek and Hebrew scholars can give us insights). It’s not that there aren’t parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand, but on the whole its key points are clearly presented and are meant to be understood.
6. Recognize literal and figurative language
The Bible uses literal and figurative language. In his book Scripture Twisting, James Sire observes that we can fall into an error of interpretation by, “Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language.” Context helps us determine whether what we are reading is intended literally or figuratively.
7. Handle interpretation disagreements wisely
While the principles I’ve outlined here are intended to help better understand and interpret Scripture, in some cases we’re still left with disagreements of interpretation. This doesn’t mean that we all get to have our own personal interpretations and go about our business ignoring other people’s interpretations. One way to handle disagreements is first to determine if the area of disagreement involves a primary (closed-handed) doctrine or a secondary (open-handed) one.
Primary doctrines include the essentials of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, Jesus as fully God and fully man, and salvation by faith in Christ. There are also secondary doctrines, such as worship style, mode of Communion, or belief in the rapture, which permit a range of beliefs providing they fall within the limits of biblical truth. If the interpretation difference is over a secondary doctrine, there is often room for some disagreement.
On the whole, Scripture’s key points are clearly presented and are meant to be understood.
If we find ourselves in disagreement over a central doctrine, then we want to make sure that we’re not holding to a view that is less than orthodox. Tradition isn’t on the level of Scripture, but we can learn from the history of the church, such as by studying creeds and other statements of faith. If it turns out we’re holding to a view that is not in line with what the church as a whole has agreed on for some two thousand years, that’s a good indication that our interpretation is probably off and that we need to revisit it.
In addition to the traditions of the church, when we find ourselves in disagreement over matters of interpretation, it’s a good idea to talk to a pastor or elder about the issue in question. In many cases a simple conversation with someone who has spent time working through issues of interpretation can clear things up.
It’s important, too, that we handle disagreements of interpretation with the love Christ wants us to display. This means we are to be kind and gracious to one another even if we find ourselves disagreeing with a fellow Christian about a particular point of interpretation.
Hermeneutics is a deep and rich subject, but these guidelines will help you get a long way in “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Most importantly, ask the Holy Spirit to guide and illuminate you as you sincerely seek to understand God’s word.
Join us next week for the fourth installment in this series.