Learning how to correctly and faithfully interpret God’s Word sounds like a daunting and near impossible task. However, learning a few basic principles will make the job a little easier. One of the worst things anyone can do is twist Scripture while you are teaching God’s Word. This leads to error, heresy and possibly cultism. No one who loves God and His Word wants to be guilty of any of these blunders. Consider what I am going to call “The Ten Commandments of Interpreting Scripture.” These ten principles will be enough to get you started in faithfully and rightly dividing the Word of God.
1. Thou shall interpret based on the genre of thy text.
When you are trying to determine the meaning of a word, phrase or verse the best place to begin looking is at the surrounding verses. Then expand to the chapter then entire book where your text is found. This ensures you are in the same biblical genre. Pauline epistles are best interpreted by looking at other Pauline epistles. Old Testament historical books are best interpreted by looking into other Old Testament historical books.
This does not mean that a verse in Psalms has no value in interpreting a verse in Romans (Psalm 69:22-23, Romans 11:9). But make sure the biblical author is pointing you in that direction. You run the risk of all kinds of error by trying to interpret an apocalyptic passage found in Revelation by going immediately to the wisdom literature of the book of Proverbs. Genre is important in interpreting Scripture.
2. Thou shall interpret Scripture using Scripture.
The Bible is the best interpreter of itself. One of the sayings of the Reformers during the Protestant Reformation was, “the rule of faith,” or “the analogy of faith.” These phrases mean that Scripture should interpret Scripture. If you are studying a text containing the word “lovingkindness,” the best way to discover what the word means is another text with the same word. Locate a multitude of texts with the words and phrases in the one you are studying. Compare Scripture to Scripture to learn the meaning and nuance.
Another way that Scripture interprets Scripture is to see how New Testament writers used an Old Testament text. For instance, in Luke 21:42-43 Jesus quotes Psalm 110. A simple check shows that Psalm 110 is also quoted directly in Matthew 22:43-45, Acts 2:33-36, Hebrews 1:13. This does not include the times that Psalm 110 is casually alluded to. All of these Scriptures must be taken into account when studying Psalm 110 or when looking at the New Testament texts that quote it.
3. Thou shall interpret using the redemptive, historical, grammatical method.
Scripture must be interpreted based on where it is placed in the Bible as it relates to the story of redemption. An old phrase is, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” This idea is also known as progressive revelation. Abraham did not know as much about salvation by grace through faith as the Apostle Paul did. Noah did not know as much about living by faith as the writer of Hebrews did. Scripture must be interpreted based on where it is in God’s grand story of redemption.
Closely related to the idea of progressive revelation is history. God worked inside of history, particularly the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the history of the life of Christ in the gospels and the history of the church in the rest of the New Testament. History includes nations, kings, princes, rulers, dignitaries, wars, land and progress. Scripture must be seen within the context of the surrounding historical events.
I have already discussed the importance of grammar and literary devices in Scripture in another post. Words have meaning. Verb tenses are important. Adverbs are important to verbs. Nouns and personal pronouns are essential. A biblical text must be interpreted by examining its words. Just like you read and understand Moby Dick as a whole by reading the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters so it is with the Bible.
4. Thou shall use clear texts to interpret difficult texts.
Dr. Alistair Begg with Truth for Life is one of my favorite preachers. I regularly hear him say, “Let the main things be the plain things and let the plain things be the main things.” Scriptures that are easy to read and understand should interpret those that are harder to understand. The majority of biblical texts can be read, interpreted and understood with just a little effort. Let easy to understand texts shed light on those that may be more difficult.
5. Thou shall check thy interpretations with Christians throughout church history.
Dr. Begg also has stated, “If it is new it is not true, and if it is true it is not new.” You will not interpret a text and come up with a different meaning than any other born-again, Spirit-filled Christian in the last 2,000 years. If we take into account the Old Testament, learned men and women have been studying God’s Word for more than 2,000 years. These same men and women have been using the methods that I outline in this post.
When you think you have discovered the meaning of a text, cross check your results with the writing of men throughout church history. See what some of the church fathers like Tertullian said about the text. Maybe see what some of the Reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther or John Knox had to say. Or godly preachers like Charles Spurgeon and Martyn-Lloyd Jones may have preached a sermon on the text.
6. Thou shall not spiritualize the meaning of thy text.
Alexandria, Egypt gave birth to a method of biblical interpretation known as allegory in the third century. According to St. Augustine, allegory is a mode of speech in which one thing is understood by another. Allegorical interpretation is an interpretive method which assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning and tends to focus on the spiritual sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense as opposed to the literal sense.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is no longer a story about helping my neighbor (Luke 10:29). It becomes a story with hidden meaning. The two pence given by the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper has the hidden meanings of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There is only one problem with allegorical or spiritual interpretation; you cannot prove your interpretation is right by the use of Scripture. There are types in the Bible but the Bible is always clear about types. For instance, the serpent raised up on the staff in the wilderness is a type of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9). We know this is a type of Christ because Jesus Himself said so (John 3:14).
7. Thou shall not look for “the hidden meaning” in thy text.
I am constantly amused at the books published that claim to have uncovered some hidden meaning or code in the Bible. The whole idea that God hid the meaning of the Bible or He covered the meaning so as to be hidden is an indictment on His own character. Christianity is not a secret society with a secret handshake, passwords or signals and neither is the Bible. Quit looking for some hidden meaning. Truth is in the text and some digging is necessary to find it. God has not hidden meaning in biblical texts like and Easter eggs.
8. Thou shall not make anyone other than Christ the “hero” of a text.
Christ said in Luke 24:27 and John 5:39 that He is the divine focus and centerpiece of the Word of God. Therefore, every interpretation must have a Christ-centered focus. Daniel is not the hero in the lion’s den, God is the hero because He closed the lions’ mouth. David is not the hero for slaying Goliath, God is the hero because He won the victory over Goliath by using David (1 Samuel 17:45). I do not deny that the Bible contains “how to” principles such as how to have a God-honoring marriage (Ephesians 5:22ff). However, the overwhelming majority is about the glory and works of God through His Son Jesus Christ. Make sure your interpretation points to Christ more than it pointing to humanity.
9. Thou shall not make the text have multiple meanings.
I want to shrivel up when I hear someone say, “The Bible has all kind of meanings.” I want to respond with this question, “How do you know you have got the right meaning when you do get a meaning?!” God does not speak out of both sides of His mouth. The text cannot have one meaning to the original audience and another meaning for the 21st century audience. The original meaning and interpretation is the same for the ancient audience and the contemporary audience.
However, there are many applications of a biblical text. James 3 speaks of the uncontrolled tongue. I can apply what James 3 states about my speech in a multitude of situations: work, family, community, recreation, church. I can apply the meaning in numerous areas of my life.
10. Thou shall not take a text out of context.
“A text taken out of context is a pretext.” I remember a humorous story about a lady reading the story of Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22-23. She finished reading it and said, “God told me as I read this story that I run my mouth too much.” The biblical text is a historical narrative about a false prophet being hired by one of Israel’s enemies to pronounce a prophecy of doom over Israel. The context is not about behavioral imperatives related to knowing Christ. Context, context, context. Did I mention context? Texts taken out context have given rise to destructive doctrines such as baptismal regeneration and salvation outside of Jesus Christ.
With a little practice biblical interpretation will become second nature. It seems like a lot to remember but practice makes it easier. Pick a reasonably easy biblical text and start studying. Anyone who knows Christ can learn to interpret God’s Word.