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Hermeneutics Summary - Key Principles for Interpreting the Bible

A.  Principles to Follow

1. The Foundational Principle

The most basic principle for the interpretation of the Bible is this: Interpret the Bible like any other serious literature.  Of course, there are Christian distinctives and there are certain unique aspects of the Bible, which are described in the next section.  Nevertheless, there are basic principles that, being derived from the very nature of human language and communication, apply to all literature including the Bible.  It would be a mistake to adopt some esoteric set of rules to interpret the Bible, different from the rules used to interpret all other serious literature.

2. Three Christian Distinctives

a.  The inspiration of Scripture.  The term "inspiration" can be rather misleading because it is used often of the works of poets, musicians, and artists. But the biblical notion of inspiration comes from 2 Timothy 3:16 which states that "All scripture is God-breathed."  In other words, even though human authors were involved, the ultimate source is God.  Because of its inspiration, the Bible is completely reliable, indeed, infallible.  That is, everything the Bible records is accurate, and everything the Bible affirms is true.

b.  Our fallen nature, the moral requirements of Scripture, and dependence upon the Holy Spirit.  Because of our human depravity, we do not want to hear what the Bible says about us, and we do not want to do what the Bible requires.  The Lord graciously enlightens, convicts, and draws the nonbeliever. When he becomes a believer, he must not think that his salvation gives him an automatic key to unlock the meaning of every passage in the Bible. We who are saved are still so ignorant, selfish, and morally weak that we must remember the importance of prayer and depend on the Holy Spirit's guidance in the interpretation of the book he wrote (2 Peter 1:20-21).

c.  The purpose of special revelation.  Special revelation includes both the Living Word (Jesus Christ) and the Written Word (the Bible).  Jesus' teachings were given to be understood, and the Bible was written to be understood.  God's pattern is to reveal what can be understood, and to withhold what cannot (Deuteronomy 29:29;  John 16:12;  2 Corinthians 1:13;  and Daniel 9:23).  While these passages do not guarantee that every individual will understand every passage in the Bible, they do indicate that the Bible is given to reveal the truth to us, not to hide it.

3. General principles for all types of literature, including the Bible

a.  Prefer the original language.  If you are not able to read the original Hebrew or Greek, you should still learn as much as you can about these languages.  When you choose a translation, be sure to read the introduction to find out the translator's philosophy of (approach to) translation.  For survey reading use a literary translation such as the NIV.  For detailed study, add several other more literal translations such as Marshall's Interlinear, the American Standard Version 1901, and The New American Standard Bible.

There is a pitfall to be avoided in connection with the original languages.  It is possible to elevate the use of Hebrew and Greek to such an extent that other principles of hermeneutics are ignored. Keep in mind that it is just as easy to violate the various principles of interpretation while using the original languages as it is while using an English translation.

b.  Go directly to the Bible first.  Wait until later to use interpretive aids, such as study Bibles and commentaries.  The direct approach guarantees that you are studying the Bible, rather than merely studying about the Bible. This is not meant to devalue commentaries and other interpretive aids, but it is meant to remind us of their place. They are not inspired; the Bible is.  While interpretive aids can be helpful, we should not become dependent on them.

c.  Use an inductive approach rather than "extending" your prior assumptions into the biblical text.  In other words, do exegesis, not eisegesis.  As much as is humanly possible, become aware of all of your mental baggage (including your doctrinal statement!) so you can temporarily set it aside for evaluation while you let the Bible speak for itself.  Proof-texting (searching for verses that prove your point) is a dangerous practice.

d.  Use a literary approach.  A literary approach is one that recognizes the nature of literature.  Thus, it starts with the literal, but gives proper place to the figurative whenever it is found. 

The distinction between literal and figurative is merely a distinction between different modes of expression.  It is not a distinction between truth and error, because a truth can be stated literally, and a falsehood can also be stated literally.  Similarly, a truth can be stated figuratively, and a falsehood can also be stated figuratively.

e.  Don't over-spiritualize or allegorize the text.  Don't try to look past the text to find some hidden, deeper meaning.  The clear and straight-forward statements of the Bible are the truth, they are not a cover for some so-called truth supposedly hidden below the surface.  Such seeking for hidden truth always produces, not the truth, but fanciful and misleading error.

f.  Seek a singular interpretation.  In other words, look for the interpretation rather than for an interpretation.  Look for the flow of thought (the "argument") especially in prose passages such as the epistles.  Certainly, each passage can have many implications, and many applications, but it's meaning will be singular.

g.  Observe thoroughly, then interpret.  Interpretations must be based on careful observation of the text.  All too often we rush to judgment on the meaning of a passage, instead of withholding judgment until we have thoroughly studied the exact wording of the passage.  A careful, thoughtful reading of a passage is the place to start.  Use several literal translations.  Then examine the context. The details of the passage must be thoroughly and methodically studied.  Many questions should be asked of the passage.  Perhaps it should even be outlined and diagrammed.  Don't make the mistake of trying to figure out what a passage means before you are thoroughly familiar with what it says.

h.  Study the context.  The passage's context is your single best clue to the meaning of the passage.  Read the verses or paragraphs before and after the passage.  Find out what overriding thought the author is trying to convey.  Determine who is speaking to whom.  Examine the background of the passage and the historical setting.

Besides the obvious literary context, which extends out to surrounding paragraphs, chapters, whole books, etc., remember that other types of context can also be helpful, such as parallel passages, the personal circumstances of the writer and recipients, and even the historical and cultural context from non-biblical sources.

i.  Seek the mind of the writer and original recipients.  Although you eventually want to make every passage that you study relevant to your own life, that is not the place to start.  First discover what the writer was thinking when he wrote the book (and if the book has recipients, what they thought when they read the book).

j.  Take the literary genre into account.  Is this passage a historical narrative?  Is it instructional prose, such as an epistle?  Is it a legal document, such as parts of the Pentateuch?  Is it poetic?  Is it apocalyptic and highly symbolic?  There are some special rules of interpretation that apply to these and other genres which are beyond the scope of this paper.

4.  Principles for Topical studies

Remember the "analogy of Scripture."  Be sure to find and study all the passages on the topic.  Don't systematize prematurely.

As you analyze and compare the various passages, let the clear passages interpret the vague passages. By "clear passages" we mean passages that are

  1. Extended: several sentences rather than just a passing word or phrase
  2. Direct: definitely on the subject rather than having some indirect relation to the subject
  3. Unequivocal: clearly favoring a particular interpretation rather than subject to two or more interpretations
  4. Non-symbolic: narrative and prose rather than figures, symbols, or idioms

5.  Principles for Application

To apply a command or example, find the underlying principle and apply that principle.  Distinguish between

  1. Examples without approval
  2. Examples with approval
  3. Commands for particular people in particular circumstances
  4. Commands for all people of all time

B.  "Principles" to Avoid

The following so-called principles are, in reality, attempts to oversimplify the interpretation process. They appeal to those who want a shortcut so they can come up with a quick and easy answer to the meaning of a passage.  But they are pseudo principles; they do not fit the actual nature of human language and communication.

1.  Don't assume a word has the Same meaning in all passages

Many words have more than one lexical (dictionary) meaning, and some words have more than ten lexical meanings (look up such words as love, draft, book, clean, gate, world, carry, and house).  For example, compare 1 John 2:15 with John 3:16

2.  Don't trust Etymologies and word studies

An etymology traces a word's history, that is, its past usage and meanings.  Etymologies can sound impressive and scholarly.  They can give the false impression that the meaning of a word has been firmly fixed beyond all question.

What is important, however, is not a word's prior meanings, but its current meaning (at the time of the biblical writing) as determined by its current usage and its particular context.  In a sense, there is a two step process.  First, find the current lexical or dictionary meanings of a word, which provides the range of possible meanings for that word in different contexts.  Then, examine the word in context in a particular passage, which narrows down that range of meanings to one particular meaning.

Here is an English example of the danger of etymologies.  The adjective "nice" now means pleasing and agreeable, but formerly meant foolish and simpleminded.  If your friend were to state publicly that you are "a very nice person," would it be helpful to those who heard such a statement for you to explain the etymology of "nice"?  Of course not, because when your friend speaks, he selects words based on their current meanings, not on their former meanings.  That's the way language works; the biblical writers did the same.

Remember that biblical teachings are derived, not from isolated biblical words, but from biblical statements (sentences, paragraphs, etc.).  Obviously, understanding the meaning of a statement involves understanding the meanings of the words in that statement.  But you cannot merely look up the word's etymology, since many words change their meanings over decades and centuries.  Nor can you merely look up the current usage of a word in a lexicon to find its current meaning(s), and derive the doctrine from that word.  You must examine the biblical statement that uses that word in context, and derive your doctrine from the bible's statements, not from the lexicon or the etymology.

… as important as word studies are, it is very doubtful if profound understanding or any text or of any theme is really possible by word studies alone.  (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed., Baker Books, 1996, p. 64)

… the heart of the issue is that semantics, meaning, is more than the meaning of words. It involves phrases, sentences, discourse, genre, style …  (ibid.)

3.  Avoid the "first mention" principle

Some have taught that the first time a word or phrase is mentioned in the Bible, it is defined for all subsequent occurrences.  This is silly and misleading.  Language simply does not work that way.  How would you like to have your words limited to the sense they had the first time you spoke them?

4.  Don't trust the "literal by default" principle

This pseudo principle states that "If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense."  This principle is sometimes used by people who do not appreciate the wealth of figurative and idiomatic speech found in all human language.

We understand and appreciate an emphasis on the literal, for many who emphasize figurative and "spiritual" interpretations (looking for "deeper" meaning) have gone far afield.  However, don't try to avoid the mistake of spiritualizing everything by literalizing everything.  It is not good to counter one extreme with another extreme.  There is generous use of figures of speech in all human language, so we cannot solve the problem simply by insisting, "They take everything figuratively, but I take everything literally."  Interpretation of language in general, and of the Bible in particular, is not that simple.

Consider the example of those who thought Jesus spoke literally when he actually spoke figuratively. In John 2:19-21 Jesus said that he could rebuild the temple in three days.  A literal interpretation does make sense when we remember the miraculous power of Jesus.  But Jesus was not speaking about the literal temple (Herod's temple, as it was called), but was using the term figuratively to refer to his own body, which would rise on the third day after his crucifixion, as is made clear in verse 21.

We can restate this principle in a much more balanced way:  "Start with the literal sense.  But always examine the context to see if it favors another sense."

C.  Theological Procedure

The diagram below is an over-simplified and idealized representation of theological procedure.  It is intended to emphasize the fact that one's theology must ultimately be based on a careful and thorough study of individual passages in context (exegesis).
In practice, unfortunately, most people's theology starts at the end of the process.  We are taught someone else's theology, which determines our understanding of every topic, and our interpretation of every passage (eisegesis).

by Ronald W. Leigh, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2001, 2004, 2013 Ronald W. Leigh
Bible quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

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