How Should One Interpret the Bible?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


How many times have you been in a discussion with someone over a Bible passage, or discussing some doctrinal or ethical subject, when an impasse is reached, and the other person participating in the discussion says, “Well, that’s just your interpretation?”  On the one hand maybe it is your interpretation, and it has nothing to do with the text.  On the other hand, maybe the other person just does not like your conclusions, and instead of conceding to them, they use the expression as a thought-stopper to prevent you from further proving your point.  Such a tactic is seen regularly in the cults, as well as among those who rarely ever study the Bible, much less interpret it correctly.  But, just in case the former situation is the problem, and you have arrived at a faulty interpretation of Scripture, just what steps can be taken to arrive at not only a more precise interpretation of the Bible, but a better understanding of it as well?  Although several volumes have been written on the subject of biblical hermeneutics—the science and art of interpreting the Bible—the concept of observation is the key to proper interpretation.  Yet, the elements involved in observation, things such as the kind of material being dealt with—whether narrative, prose, poetry, or prophecy—the linguistics or grammar and syntax, and especially historical background or context, all become important factors in arriving at an interpretation that accurately represents what the author intended when he sat down to write.

Observing the kind of biblical text under consideration is the first step in accurately interpreting and understanding the message behind the words.  For the Bible was written by 40 different authors over a period of 1,500 years, and not all of them wrote in exactly the same manner.  Some wrote poetry (Psalms), while others are of a prophetic nature (Daniel and Revelation), while still others are historical (1 & 2 Kings) and narratives (the Gospels).  Moreover, since the biblical writers wrote to different people on differing occasions, that must be taken into account as well.  To miss the kind of literature being read can only lead to a misunderstanding of the writer, coupled with confusion, and eventually to a poor interpretation and eventual misapplication of the text.

Commensurate with knowing the kind of literature is the goal of understanding the Bible in the literal sense, unless the text warrants that it is to be taken allegorically.  The reason this is important is that it provides the reader with the incentive to seek the meaning the writer intended when he wrote, while preventing the reader from interjecting his contemporary notions into the Bible.  In other words, the reader wants to exegete what the Bible says, or garner meaning from it, rather eisogete it, which is to force meanings into it that were never intended by the author.  Of course arriving at a literal interpretation will sometimes require dealing with figures of speech, allegory, metaphors, and the like, all of which are intended to point to a literal meaning.  To fail to recognize the author’s intent and use of language will result in an interpretation that is relativistic and ultimately meaningless in the overall context of any discussion.  Godly truth will have been thwarted and devilish error is destined to take its place.

Closely related to observing the literary genre is the observation of the grammatical and syntactical style in which each book of the Bible was written.  The reason why this is so important is that without using proper grammar and syntax communication would be impossible.  In fact, reading this article would be impossible unless the placement of nouns, verbs, adjectives, et cetera, were placed where they were supposed to be.  Moreover, given that the Greek language in which the New Testament was written is much more precise than the English, that so many people speak, it becomes that much more imperative to at least familiarize oneself with the biblical languages in order to properly interpret just what the biblical writers were saying.  That does not mean that one must become a Greek or Hebrew scholar.  What it means is that in a day and age where so many are subjectively arriving at opinions about the Bible and its contents—many of which are erroneous at best, and some of which resort to abusing the biblical languages to do it—one of surest ways to check those opinions for accuracy is by appealing to the grammar and syntax where the opinion was given birth.  It is rigorous work to have to sit down with a foreign language and study the Bible, but the dividends definitely pay off with not only a deeper understanding of what God is saying, but also in the satisfaction of knowing that when an error is being propagated in a linguistic manner, it can be spotted, and then dealt with accordingly.  And given that there are so many linguistic helps available today, that a person may use in his study habits, that were not available only a few years ago, becoming familiar with the languages is more a matter of the will than anything.

Lastly, one would be remiss in discussing how to interpret the Bible and not include the absolute necessity of observing the historical background of a given text.  Questions such as who is being addressed and where the address is taking place, along with what is the historical context of phrases, comments, and questions, all need to be asked.  What were the cultures, customs, and practices like in which certain books and letters were written, and did those cultures, customs, and practices add any particular shade of meaning to a statement of thought?  Moreover, should any of those nuances have any bearing on how we interpret those expressions today?  These and a multitude of other questions dealing with historical context must be explored in order to arrive at a decision of how to interpret the words that the writer chose to use to convey a particular principle, concept, or fact.  To ignore history, especially when it comes to interpreting it, is to foist upon it a meaning that was never intended.  It is creating and/or revising history in light of contemporary thought, as fueled by whatever specious whim or errant theology that is in existence at the time, thereby making the creator of the fiction the authority of biblical history and not God Himself.

Therefore, for one to correctly interpret the Bible is going to take some effort.  First, he is going to have to put on his thinking cap and do some investigative work.  He is going to have to learn how to observe what is being written in the text.  He is going to have to learn to recognize just what kind of literature that he is reading, and then learn to seek out the literal interpretation of the literature, given the style in which is was written.  That includes even times when an allegory comes into view, such as in Galatians 4:24.  Second, those seeking to interpret the Bible correctly must give the grammar and syntax serious consideration.  Again, one does not necessarily need to become a Greek or Hebrew scholar, but as with any written language, the better one understands the language itself, the better one is going to understand the message written in that language.  One will always be better off understanding German, French, or Spanish literature when able to read it in its native lanague, than merely reading a translation.  The same principle applies to biblical hermeneutics and the Bible.  Finally, one must remember context, context, context, especially as it pertains to biblical history, culture, and customs.  To disregard the historical context of the Bible is to replace it with something of one’s own contrivance.  The end result is not a biblical interpretation, but a fanciful fabrication whose sole authority is not the person of God, but the person doing the fabricating.

If one will simply keep these few principles in mind when attempting to do biblical interpretation, one will be well on their way to not only interpreting God’s Word as He intended it when He authored it, one will also be on their way to developing a sound response the next time someone comes along and says, “That’s just your interpretation!”

Suggested Reading

Carson, D. A.  Exegetical Fallacies.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr.  From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Fee, Gordon D.  New Testament Exegesis.  Louisville: Westminster, 2002.

Hendricks, Howard G., and William D. Hendricks.  Living by the Book.  Chicago: Moody, 1991.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.  W Publishing Group, 1993.

Ramm, Bernard.  Protestant Biblical Interpretation.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970.

Scalise, Charles J.  From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey Into Hermeneutics.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stuart, Douglas.  Old Testament Exegesis.  Louisville: Westminster, 2001.

Traina, Robert A.  Methodical Bible Study: A New Approach to Hermeneutics.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

Virkler, Henry A.  Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.

Zuck, Roy B.  Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth.  Wheaton: Victor, 1991.