HOW TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE
(EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW HEBREW OR GREEK)
This is a book about Bible interpretation. It is primarily for the average person who may or may not have the responsibility of teaching a class or instructing others in the Scriptures but who has a desire to rightly divide the word of God for himself/ herself. It is written on the premise that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, commonly known as the Bible, are the very words of God. I believe, in the original manuscripts, the words of God were recorded exactly as God would have them written, and that the human authors were kept from all error. To the young preacher, Timothy, the Apostle Paul said these words:
But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. KJV 2 Timothy 3:14
In the phrase "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..." the word "inspiration" literally means "God breathed." God actually exhaled all Scripture. That is the biblical claim and I accept that at face value. I say that so there will be no mis-understanding as we learn how to interpret the Bible.
Bible interpretation has been a mystery for most laymen for a many years. This is so even though there are many good books available on the subject. I think there are several reasons for this situation. Through the years a professional church mentality has tended to leave the understanding of the Bible up to those who are seen as professional teachers. The seminaries and Bible schools cater to those whose life calling is teaching and preaching the Bible (and so they should). And there seems to be the mentality among some "professionals" that they are the only ones who should be trained in Scripture interpretation. I beg to differ. It is obvious to me that a biblically astute laity is needed if there are to be godly homes and spiritual churches. Godly men and women grow spiritually as they learn to feed on the Scriptures for themselves. It is my prayer that many who have been mystified by much of what the Bible says will read the words in this little book and be invigorated to study the Bible anew and will be equipped to do it with a great degree of satisfaction.
A Short History of Bible Interpretation
(You may skip this part or come back to it later if you are really itching to get on with your studies. However there will be some who will be interested in early Bible interpretation and how it has developed over the years. To get straight to the principles of Bible study go to page 9 now.)
The first professional interpreters of the Scriptures of the Old Testament were Jewish scribes. They arose in the days of Ezra and were determined to give the truth of the Scriptures they had. They gave the sense of the written Scriptures so that the common people could understand their meaning.1 A document called The Midrash housed the interpretations of the rabbis, the teachers to Israel. The scribes put the first Misrash together in the 4th century B.C.2 The term ‘midrash’ comes from a Hebrew root which means ‘to explain, deduce, ferret out.’3
Some of the early scribes and rabbis thought that the Scriptures had a deeper meaning that was not obvious on the surface. It was a deeper and mystical meaning. One writer quotes a Rabbi Akiba, who was a leader of a school for rabbis at Jaffa, Palestine as saying , ". . . every repetition, figure, parallelism, synonyme [sic], word, letter, particle, pleonasm, na, the veryshape of a letter, had a recondite meaning, just as every fiber of fly’s wing or an ant’s foot has its particular significance."4
This philosophy carried over into the early Christian church. According to Roy Zuck, Origen, an early church father believed that "Noah’s ark pictured the church and Noah represented Christ. Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant means we must daily come to the Scriptures to meet Christ. In Jesus triumphal entry the donkey represented the Old Testament, its colt depicted the New Testament and the two apostles pictured the moral and mystical senses of the Scriptures."5 This kind of interpretation nearly ignored the literal meaning the authors of Scripture had in mind. Because of this disregard for the literal meaning of the Scriptures in Alexandrian Church Fathers, several leaders in Antioch of Syria put their emphasis on the historical, literal interpretation. "They stressed the study of the Bible’s original languages (Hebrew and Greek) and they wrote commentaries on the Scriptures." " For them, literal interpretation included figurative language."6
The trend to allegorize and give fanciful meanings to the Scripture continued in the Western church however. Interpreters left the historical, literal and contextual meanings of the Scriptures and developed all kinds of unwarranted interpretations. McQuay says: "Collections of allegorical interpretations showed, for example that the word sea could mean a gathering of water, Scripture, the present age, the human heart, the active life, heathen or baptism.7 For a thousand years the allegorical method of interpretation of the Bible held sway. I do not think it is a coincidence that this is the period of time dubbed the dark ages by the historians.
The Protestant Reformation beginning in the 16th century saw the move back to the literal interpretation of Scripture. The reformation established two main principles that led in this return. The first one was called "the analogy of Scripture" and simply said that all Scripture must be interpreted by other Scripture. It denied the right of the Catholic Church, the pope or any other human institution to lock in any particular Scripture interpretation. The second principle was the principle of literal sense. The Bible was to be interpreted literally where possible. This eliminated the whole system of allegorical interpretation that had held sway during the dark ages. Men began to exegete the Scriptures on a new plane and the original languages were used to find the first author’s literal meaning.8 This method of interpretation came to be known as the Grammatical-Historical method of interpretation.
A group of critics that became very destructive came forth in the 19th century. These men were controlled by naturalistic pre-suppositions that denied anything that could not be empirically proven. The super-natural was simply dis-believed. This has led to much confusion concerning true biblical interpretation. My answer is that we need to go back to the simple principles of the analogy of faith and a literal interpretation. If God is super-natural then we should not limit Him to acting in only natural, humanly explainable ways.
Neo-orthodoxy arose in the latter 19th century to combat the liberalism spawned by the higher critics mentioned above. It was a way of trying to interpret the Scriptures as God’s word while holding on to the naturalistic pre-suppositions of the liberal higher critics. It failed miserably.
In the early 20th century a movement arose that was known as "Fundamentalism." It was characterized by men who believed the Bible, super-natural events and all, and who said that the Scriptures should be interpreted literally and in their historical context. Conservatism, the step-child of fundamentalism holds, for the most part, to the position of a literal interpretation of the Scriptures but does not embrace the legalistic tendencies of many of the early fundamentalist leaders. The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements seem to hold to a literal and historical interpretation of Scripture but with the danger of going beyond Scripture and confusing the teaching of certain men with the teaching of Scripture. We will deal with this phenomenon more at length later.
That is a very abbreviated overview of the history of Bible interpretation. If the student is interested whole books have been written on each aspect of that history and it would be well worth the work to investigate each period in depth. From here we will go on to an explanation of the Grammatical-Historical approach to Bible interpretation.
The Grammatical-Historical Approach To Bible Study
I intend to discuss seven different principles that are necessary if the Bible is to be understood correctly. They are as follows:
1. Historical and Cultural Matters.
2. Literary Genre Matters.
3. Contextual Matters.
4. Doctrinal Matters.
5. Figurative Language Matters.
6. Meditation Matters.
7. Commentary Matters.
Each of these subjects will be dealt with under their prospective headings.