Today there are home Bible studies and small group fellowships where people gather to discuss the Bible for themselves. Unfortunately, there often is disagreement about what the Bible means and what are the basic principles of biblical interpretation.
This article seeks to provide basic guidelines to help you know how to interpret the Bible for yourself. These principles serve as a “check and balance” for our tendency to interpret the Bible according to our own prejudices.
To start, let’s look at four barriers that need to be addressed to properly interpret the Bible.
4 Gaps to Bridge to Interpret the Bible for Yourself
The Bible was written a long time ago. Unlike books that are written recently, the Bible has four important gaps that need to be bridged. Without addressing these gaps properly, we cannot properly interpret the Bible for ourselves.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a few select passages in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, which is a little different from modern Greek.
You do not need to have a working knowledge of these original languages to understand and interpret the Bible. But you do need to be aware that this language gap needs to be bridged.
There are several good English translations of the Bible, but there are times when our personal understanding English word differs from the intended meaning of the words used in the original language of Scripture.
Understanding the meaning of a word or phrase in the original language can be the key to correctly interpreting a passage of Scripture.
The Bible was written in a different culture. The first five books of the Bible were written over 3000 years ago. The New Testament was written almost 2000 years ago during the time of the Roman empire.
The writers were primarily Jewish, and the authors and the original readers of these Holy Scriptures lived in a different time experiencing a different culture in their society.
This culture gap is tricky. Some people try to use cultural differences to explain away the more difficult biblical commands. Scripture must first be viewed in the context of the culture in which it was written.
Therefore, without an understanding of first-century Jewish culture, it is difficult to understand the four gospel in the New Testament. Acts and the epistles must be read in light of the Greek and Roman cultures.
Most of the events recorded in Scripture take place in a location that is still present today. Buildings and man-made structures have come and gone like Solomon’s temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The natural topography has changed (i.e. size of the Jordan River).
The relevant geography associated with the writings of the Bible is knowable, and we need to understand this to properly interpret the Bible.
Biblical geography makes the Bible come alive. One visit to the Sea of Galilee will change a reader’s visceral understanding of many of the accounts of Jesus recorded in the gospels.
A good Bible atlas is helpful to understanding the geography of the Holy Land.
Unlike the writings of many world religions, the Bible contains the records of actual historical persons and events. Monarchs and key figures are named. Major wars and nations are recorded. Important historical events are described, culminating in the historical death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
An understanding of Bible history will help us place the people and events in it in their proper historical perspective. A good Bible dictionary or Bible encyclopedia is useful here, as are basic historical studies.
Five Principles to Follow to Interpret the Bible for Yourself
With these major gaps in mind, we should follow four basic principles as we read and interpret the Bible for ourselves.
The Literal Principle
Like most books that we read, the Bible should be understood in its literal, normal, and natural sense. The Bible speaks in literal terms, and we must allow it to speak for itself.
Assume God is speaking in normal language, common everyday communication. If it says man, it means man. If it says the man went somewhere, it means he went somewhere. If it says he built a house, it means he built a house.
We should not change the rules of interpretation of the Bible. We should read the Bible just like any other book.
We do need to understand the difference between a proverb and a law. We need to identify when the author is using different literary devices.
- Figure of speech
These devices are used alongside normal, literal language to help illustrate or punctuate what the Bible is saying to the reader.
We also need to understand that there are different genres of the Bible that need to be handled accordingly. Jesus often taught in parables in the Bible. There are many narratives in the Bible, but they should be understood and interpreted by the didactic portions of the Bible. The book of Revelation contains a lot of symbolism, and they need to be understood differently.
We need to be careful of those who claim to unlock the Bible’s secrets by bending and twisting symbolic language beyond its clear intent. There is no need to extrapolate some mystical interpretation out of the text, nor insert one into it.
As a general principle to follow, the Bible speaks in literal terms, and we must allow it to speak for itself.
The Historical Principle
The Bible should be understood in its historical context. The key question we must ask is this.
What does the text mean to the people to whom it was first written?
Asking this question encourages us to develop a proper contextual understanding of the original intent of the Bible. There is tremendous value in devoting time to explore the original intended audience. Each of the four authors of the NT gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had a different intended audience.
We should seek to empathize with the different Bible characters, churches and people groups. They had unique experiences, circumstances and understanding.
Historical circumstances not only explain what is written, but often why it is written. Ignoring the historical setting often leads to missing the point of a passage.
Background research is necessary to help us understanding these unique historical characters and settings to help us understand the original meaning and intent of the Bible. This work is imperative to properly interpretation the Bible.
The Grammatical Principle
To properly interpret the Bible for ourselves, we need to understand its grammar. We trust that the Bible is inspired by God, so we need to study the grammar carefully in the original language. We need to have a basic understanding of the grammatical structure of each phrase, clause and sentence.
Few of us enjoyed learning grammar. Many of us do not remember our grammar lessons. But grammar is the key to meaning.
Here are some grammar questions we might ask:
- To whom do the pronouns refer?
- Is the pronoun singular or plural?
- What is the subject of the sentence?
- What is the noun that the adjective is modifying?
- Is the verb a main verb or a participle?
- What is the tense of the main verb?
- What is the mood of the verb? Is it indicative, imperative, or subjunctive?
- What are the conjunctions connecting?
Analyzing the grammatical structure of the Bible will often make the meaning of the text become clearer.
The Synthesis Principle
The Bible does not contradict itself. If we arrive at an interpretation of a passage that contradicts a truth taught elsewhere in the Scriptures, our interpretation cannot be correct. Scripture must be compared with Scripture to discover its full meaning.
The Bible must all harmonize. The Reformers called this principle the analogia scriptura, the Scripture all comes together. What appear as contradictions can be resolved if we have the information, because the Bible comes together as a whole.
“The Bible appears like a symphony orchestra, with the Holy Ghost as its Toscanini, each instrument has been brought willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes just as the great conductor desired, though none of them could ever hear the music as a whole. The point of each part only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to all the rest” (J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken)
The Practical Principle
As you interpret the Bible for yourself, you need to ask one final question.
Your final goal in your Bible study is to find the practical principle. Read and search to find what spiritual truth God has given that applies to you.
You cannot answer the final question until you have gone through the first four principles: literal, historical, grammatical, synthesis. Once you know what the Bible means, then you can answer how it applies to you.
Properly interpreting the Bible for yourself takes discipline, but it is also the work of the Holy Spirit. Because the Bible contains spiritual truths, we need the enablement and illumination of the Holy Spirit.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
“But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie — just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)
With prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit, Christians can be confident that we can bridge the gaps and interpret the Bible through the properly following of these five important principles.
- Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul
- How to Get the Most From God’s Word by John MacArthur
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
- Old Testament Exegesis by Douglas Stuart
- New Testament Exegesis by Gordon D. Fee
- The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Grant R. Osborne
- Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature and Theology by Andreas J. Kostenberger
How to Study the Bible
|Part 1||How We Got the Bible|
|Part 2||How to Interpret the Bible for Yourself|
|Part 3||7 Tools in a Basic Bible Study Library|
|Part 4||Personal Bible Study: My 12 Step Process|