Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Basics of Bible Interpretation

“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter, that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union , and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”[i]

A couple of months ago I was listening to a Bible lesson which strategically and stringently emphasized the law of first mention and its importance in understanding the Bible. I think there is value in this rule, though it can be stretched and over-emphasized.[ii] This rule got me thinking about rules that have been set forward for help in hermeneutics,[iii] studying and understanding the Bible. Below is a listing of some that I have been taught or of which I have heard. They are in no certain order.

  • The guideline of first mention – “To understand a particular word or doctrine or practice, find the first occurrence of the same in Scripture in order to get the primary meaning of that doctrine or practice.” For example, to understand marriage it is important to study the first marriage. “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?” (Matthew 19:4-5)
  • The guideline of every mention – “In addition to first mention, every mention of a doctrine and practice in the Bible must be studied to have the full import of meaning.” “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) Sometimes similarly stated as the rule of recurrence – “The repetition of the account of events, doctrines, and/or practice, giving additional details.”
  • The guideline of definition, usage, and context – “What does the word or words mean? The study of Scripture must include the study of words. The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph must be derived within its semantic range and in its usage in the context.” Who is speaking? To whom? When? Why? Biblical passages must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually. “But go ye and learn what that meaneth…” (Matthew 9:13)
  • The “golden rule” of interpretation – “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” (As stated by David L. Cooper, 1886-1965) “In other words, interpret the Scriptures literally, unless you have good reason to believe that they are figurative.”
  • The guideline of authorial intent – “Understanding is based on the author’s intended meaning and not the reader’s. No reader has the right to impose his or her own ideas on the text of scripture.” “knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:20-21) Also, understand that the Scriptures contain several different kinds of literature, such as historical narrative, poetry, parables, letters, and prophecy.
  • The guideline of comparing scripture with scripture – “We must interpret any scripture by other scripture.” “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:” (Isaiah 28:10) “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” (2 Corinthians 13:1)
  • The guideline of non-contradiction – “A correct interpretation of Scripture will always be consistent with the rest of the Scriptures. Interpret difficult passages with clear ones. The Scriptures maintain unity of truth throughout. God is true and the Bible does not contradict itself.” “...let God be true, but every man a liar...” (Romans 3:4)
  • The guideline of comparing spiritual with spiritual – “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.  (1 Corinthians 2:13; See also John 16:12-15, 1 Corinthians 2:9-11)
  • The guideline of the sufficiency of scripture – “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  • The guideline of Christian community – “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11) The goal of biblical interpretation is not to find secrets no one else has found, or to be unique in understanding different from all others. Study should not be individualistic, but as a part of a local church community. “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)
  • The guideline of faith – “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) One cannot approach God and his word without trusting God and his word.
The guidelines in this list above may furnish some help to the student of God’s word, if used reasonably within the context of scripture and leadership of the Holy Spirit. Contrariwise, they can furnish a legalistic grid applied to the Bible that overrides even the Bible itself.[iv] Approach with caution; use with care.

[i] Article I, Of The Scriptures, New Hampshire Confession of Faith
[ii] To provide something of a “buffer,” I have chosen to speak of “guidelines” rather than “laws.”
[iii] The science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures; the branch of theology that deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis. (
[iv] For example, one might stress the rule of context – “to whom is it written” – regarding Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth so as to squeeze out any many for the contemporary reader and say it only applied to the Christians at Corinth.

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