Guidelines for Basic Scriptural Interpretation

How to properly interpret the text of the Bible

I. Scripture is the WORD of GOD (reverence for scripture is reverence for God) 2 Tim 3:16-17--- 16 "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."

It is vitally important that every Christian be equipped. We are fighting a battle. We are fighting against our own sinful flesh, a sinful world, and Satan. It would not do to send troops into battle with either the wrong equipment and weapons, no weapons or equipment, or faulty weapons and equipment. Therefore, the goal of this particular study is to equip you with the proper tools in which to engage and hopefully overcome these things which press us so tightly on every side. Our prayer is that in providing this information, you will be armed with the proper tools and to be equipped to serve the Lord with excellence and gladness, bringing our fellow brothers and sisters as well as ourselves into a deeper knowledge of God and Christ, and leading others into "True Truth", that through us God might save their souls from eternal punishment and help then also to grow into mighty men and women of God.

A. Inspiration in the Greek literally means "God Breathed".
The Bible is the only book in all of creation that is Gods own words conveyed through human authors. Not the early church writers, the church through the centuries, any other living being, nor writing can make this claim. It has 66 books written by over 30 authors over 2,000 years, yet contains one single theme: What man needs to know of God and what God requires of man. The word "inspiration" in 2 Timothy 3:16 literally means "God breathed". Theopneustos, the Greek word for inspiration in this passage states this principle. That was the Old Testament you say..... They weren't speaking of the New Testament. Well, hopefully a few other scriptures used in conjuction with these very principles below will help show you that this is not necessarily the case. 2 Pet 1:19-21 "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.21 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."

In this context, Peter is speaking of the developing canon of the NT. The Gospel of Christ is that more sure word of prophecy, and that has become codified in the pages of the NT, the apostles' teaching.

B. Scripture is authoritative.

Being God breathed, scripture holds authority over any other church writing.

What is the ultimate authority to appeal to in matters of life and faith? Here's how Paul opens a verse from Galatians: 4:30 "Nevertheless what saith the scripture? ". Here Paul appeals not to tradition, but to scripture. Tradition is good mind you, as long as tradition is in its proper place as subject to scriptural verification and authentication. It holds authority due to the fact that it was written by men with Apostolic Authority. With the advent of the death of the last Apostle, biblical revelation ceased. There was no new revelation in that sense to add to the canon of scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter one says this about the authority of Holy Scripture: IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.[9]

9. II Peter 1:19-20; II Tim. 3:16; I John 5:9; I Thess. 2:13; Rev. 1:1-2

The point is that Scripture, Old and New Testament, is authoritative, relevant and God breathed. Let's follow that through...

C. Both the New Testament and the Old Testament are perfectly relevant today.
The law is as Paul says written on our hearts, and is still applicable to us today (Romans 2:14). Luke 10:26 shows Christ appealing to the law as authority. The phairsees are asking him how to achieve eternal life and Christ immediately asks "what does the Law say?". Look also in Luke 16:17, Christ says that it is easier for the heavens and the earth to pass away before one jot or tittle of the law passes away. The law is in place to show us our sin and bring us to a state of repentance, it is Christ as the fulfillment of the law that provides recompense for us and justifies us before God the Father, taking upon himself the wrath that was due us. Scripture, therefore in it's individual parts as well as it's whole is perfectly relevant and applicable to us today, just as it was thousands of years ago.

D. Why interpret scripture?

1. To apply its truths to our lives (so we may be sanctified)
Sanctification is the process by which we are made holy in God's eyes. It is a lifelong process.

2. To lead others by the Spirit into true Truth (so that they may be either saved or sanctified).
This fulfills Christ's great commission to us in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples (not converts). As we apply God's truths to our own lives, we are better empowered to minister to others.

3. It must be studied in so that we may set our lives in order.
Examination of our own hearts should be constantly before us. Psalm 51 shows a wonderful picture of this where David says "I acknowledge my transgressions, my sins are constantly before me", and "create in me a clean heart". He asks that he be "purged with hyssop", a ceremonial cleansing that represents remission of sins. In examination of our hearts and our sinful motives, we come to terms with the lack of perfection and the blemishes on our spirit. We bring them before God and repent.

4. So we may be able to serve God properly, by knowing him properly.
True knowledge of Christ allows us to serve in more purity. It enables us to move more freely in Grace and Mercy towards not only ourselves, but also our brothers and sisters. It is true freedom, in which our growing knowledge allows us to present an ever more pure Gospel to both ourselves and others.

II. Methods for interpreting Holy Scripture:

A. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically.
1. During the medieval period, the church had strayed from interpreting scripture literally to interpreting it spiritually (quadrigal approach). They interpreted it allegorical. In other words, we need to interpret it in the literal literary sense it was intended to be in.

2. In other words, there is a natural, grammatical, intended meaning in scriptures that holds the intended meaning.

3. True scriptural exposition is through examination of the structure of the passage and the intended meaning of it. (I.e.: John 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.)

4. There is a difference between interpreting an allegorical portion of scripture and interpreting scripture as an allegory. This is important to remember as more and more churches are slipping back into this with the advent of pluralism and liberalism creeping back in. To protect the purity of the church, we must constantly be applying these principles.

B. Interpret it consistently and harmonistically
1. If scripture is God's word, then it is the expression of a single divine mind. All it says **must be true**, and there can be no real contradiction in either its parts or its whole.

2. To harp on apparent contradictions is to show irreverence.

3. If the above is true, then the infallible rule of interpreting scripture is scripture itself (scripture interprets scripture). Two principles follow off this rule:

a. What is obscure must be interpreted in light of what is plain.

b. Secondary/peripheral ambiguities must be interpreted in harmony with fundamental certainties. This is called "the analogy of faith".
The above rules (A-B) deal with the form of scripture, the following 4 deals with its matter and content.

C. Interpret it doctrinally and Theocentrically
1. Scripture is a doctrinal book: it teaches us about God and created things in their relation to him. For example: Take the scripture from James of Scripture being a looking glass (mirror); When you look in a mirror you see 3 things. You see the glass, yourself, and all other things, persons, or items that are in the room. If scripture was the looking glass, you see the truths contained therein concerning Christ and God. You see Christ and God first and foremost, but you also see yourself. You see your dirty face, and the other creatures in the room with you and you see their emptiness.

2. Scripture also teaches a theocentric standpoint: whereas fallen man sees himself as the center of the universe (anthropocentric view), the Bible shows God as the center. It puts man and the rest of creation in its proper perspective - That is, existing through God and for God. One of the most important aspects of faith that we need to recover is a God centered standpoint of scripture. The modern church has more and more fallen into a "self-help", "fast-food" type of mentality where Christianity is only about us as individuals and what we can get here and now. There is no eternal perspective that Paul wrote about over and over again in the scriptures.

D. Interpret Scripture Christologically and Evangelically
1. Christ is thetrue subject matter of scripture: all was written to bear witness to him. He is the "sum"; of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in almost every leaf, almost every line, the scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.* Therefore:
a. Christ is the substance of all types and shadows

b. Christ is the substance and matter of the covenant of grace, and all administrations thereof; under the Old Testament, Christ is veiled. Under the New Testament or covenant, Christ is revealed.

c. Christ is the center meeting place of all the promises; for in him all the promises of God are yea and amen (2cor. 1)

d. Christ is the thing signified, sealed and exhibited in the Sacraments of the Old and New Testaments.

e. Scripture uses genealogies to lead us on to the true line of Christ.

f. Scriptural Chronologies are to show to us the times and seasons of Christ.

g. Scripture's laws are our schoolmasters to bring us to Christ. The moral law; by correcting, the ceremonial law by directing. Gal. 3:24

h. Scripture - the Gospel, is Christ's own light whereby we hear and follow Him; Christ's chords of love that bind us, whereby we are drawn into sweet union and communion with Him. It is in short the very power of God unto salvation for all men that believe in Christ Jesus; and therefore think of Christ as the very substance, marrow soul and scope of the whole of scriptures.*

2. This is a rich evangelical principle of exegesis (drawing meaning out of scripture) that can only be appreciated by those who dig into the depths of scripture and good expository authors of scripture. Dig in!! The ground becomes more and more soft as you continue to work it. It is fertile and willing to yield it's gain to you! The more you draw from scripture, the deeper you will be able to go.

E. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically

1. The Bible is from one standpoint a book of spiritual experience. For example, we can see from John Bunyan's "Pilgrims Progress" a practical pictorial index to scripture: we see despair, faith, doubt, temptation, fear, hope, joy, the dry waste of spiritual desertion, and the fight with sin and the eventual triumph of Satan in our lives by Christ who holds us and sustains us through all things.* So in this respect also, we see:

2. Scripture is practical. It meets our needs in today's society without having to find a "new" interpretation. Scriptures truths are applicable in all times, places and situations. There is nothing useless in scripture. It is sufficient in and of itself to deal with the issues of Christians in all ages without need for omission (leaving parts out) or revision. In line with this, we need to...

F. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application

1. The application comes out of scripture. It is applying doctrine to our lives. In order to faithfully expound on scripture, we must first know what our doctrine (teachings) are, and then be able to show in scripture how to realistically apply them to our lives. If we fail to appraoch scripture realistically, then we will end up with either dissapointment of it not having produced what we were looking for, or we will end up with fantastic ideas about God and man (a good example of that is there was one evangelist I heard say that before the fall women gave birth from under their armpits!!! He failed to approach scripture both faithfully and realistically and assumed some ridiculous doctrines).

2. We must be faithful in our interpretations of scripture. In our faithfulness in drawing the doctrines of scripture out (exegesis) and not reading our own proposed meaning into them (eisegesis), we can then faithfully establish a scriptural doctrine to apply it to our lives. 2 Timothy 3:16 show the practicality of scripture and its application and result in our lives. It states that all scripture is given from God. That it is profitable for reproof, correction, instruction, and thoroughly equipping the men and women of God for righteousness and to do good works. It is "practical theology". It calls us to self-examination, to repentance, to be instructed, to instruct. It gives us the guidelines for correcting others and that and also ourselves we should be open to correction and how we should respond to it when it comes (and it will!).

3. Our application should be realistic. There is no "hidden" meaning in scripture, only that which we have not yet plumbed. What I mean is that we cannot come in with a pre-supposed idea and hope to find it in scripture. We may or may not find it, and if we do, it likely is by doing violence to the scriptures rather than seeking what the scriptures really say on such a subject. Scripture in this aspect is primarily a call to assess our own spiritual condition in light of the doctrines set forth therein. A good example is this: A man is thinking about taking a job several hundred miles away, and he opens scripture up to the narrative of Abraham being called away to a foreign country and concludes "God is calling me to forsake everything and go, and he will prosper me!". Now, what if he had opened to the book of Ruth and saw that by going he was going to invite disaster and hardship?". Was this man reading scripture wisely? No. He has misapplied scripture with unrealistic expectations. Instead, he should have opened for example to the book of Proverbs and read that there is wisdom in the counsel of many. He should have prayerfully considered the many other scriptures that encourage men to seek advice in big things and small so that they may make a better decision. See the pattern here?

4. To apply scripture realistically, one must know what is in men's heads as well as what's in their hearts. A well trained person will study people as well as scripture. If applied, there is no discipline more rewarding, and no labor so exciting!!

5. If we follow these six basic questions while reading scripture, we can keep ourselves on the right track:

a. What do these words actually mean?

b. What light do other scriptures throw on this text? Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?

c. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

d. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the Gospel of Christ throw upon them?

e. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in scripture?

f. How do they apply to others and myself in our own actual situation? What human condition do they speak to, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

III. Commentaries

Commentaries are great. They allow you to read often times a more educated view on particular books. The men who write commentaries often spend years reading, studying and researching the texts of a particular book. Historic commentaries also provide you with wonderful glimpses into what was going on in the church during those times.

IV. Concordances

A good concordance is a terrible thing to waste! They are very useful for those hard to understand passages and can help those of us who have not had formal Greek or Hebrew training to grasp the meanings of words and understand their true applications and intentions. A good concordance (Strong's is fairly good) has nearly every word in scripture indexed in an easy to find format. It also not only gives you the original language's meaning, but also all the other scriptures using the same words.

V. Dictionaries

Get a good Bible dictionary as well as a good modern dictionary. You'll find that the more you dig into the deep stuff, a good dictionary is a wonderful help. I use an older dictionary in hopes of learning what the intended meaning of some words are. A theological dictionary is good if you start reading some more technical commentaries as well. They define a good number of the more theological terms (like infralapsarianism!)

VI. Miscellaneous

Sermons, outlines, bible studies and books... There are tons of these published and on the web. They are great for enhancing your knowledge and understanding of different aspects of Christian life. Also good is a set of church history and maybe an overview on the Fathers of the Early Church. It provides a wonderful insight on the state of the church from the close of the Apostolic age until the present, and allows you to view some of the thoughts of great thinkers over the centuries.

In closing, I just wish to say that I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it and developing it. The majority of the text is taken from the writings listed below. God Bless you in your studies!

Information was gathered from various sources: *J.I. Packer-The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, **R.C. Sproul-Knowing Scripture, ***Thomas Aquinas-Summa Theologica, ****St. Augustine-On Christian Doctrine, *****Pastor Mark Caulk- True Truth, and various other sources.
(c)2000 Liam Galligan and The Foolish Cross. You are welcome to distribute this freely provided credit is given and the materials are not sold either in and of themselves or as a part of any other package in either electronic form or in printed media.