How Should We Interpret the Bible?
Principles For Biblical Interpretation
We are each responsible for our own interpretation of the Bible. When
we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, we will not be able to
make excuses inferring that our pastors or bible teachers misled us.
The Christian life is a PERSONAL relationship with Jesus Christ, and we
will be held personally accountable for our own personal interpretation
of Scripture. This is one reason why it
is so critically important that we each study
the Bible on a regular basis, and continue to learn it better all of our lives.
Unfortunately, pastors sometimes use theological terms that are not
understood by the average church-attender without a seminary education.
This can tend to intimidate the individual believer, and it can even
lead to the denial of the priesthood of the believer. One such term is
"hermeneutics," but hermeneutics simply means interpretation. What
sometimes goes unstated is that there are many accepted methods of
interpreting Scripture, and there is no single source of hermeneutical
principles which are elevated by the theological world. We
will now examine some of the various schools of hermeneutical thought,
or how various groups interpret the scriptures. Much of the
following discussion is expounded in Protestant Biblical
Interpretation, A Textbook of Hermeneutics, by Bernard Ramm.
1) Greek Allegorism
The first historical school of thought is Greek Allegorism.
By this method, the Bible is interpreted in a non-literal fashion, and
great liberties are taken in treating truths as allegories. When the
Bible says "a thousand years," perhaps it just means a long
time. When it says God is sovereign, perhaps that means in
some limited context. Also, Greek Allegorism lends itself to
secret meanings in the scriptures. Sometimes it is taught
that these secret meanings are available only to a select few.
2) Jewish Allegorism
Jewish Allegorism also tends to allegorize the scriptures. The passages
that are necessarily treated as allegories include those
which seem to say something unworthy of God, those which seem
contradictory, or those where the record is allegorical in nature.
Naturally, the fallacy of this method is that one may come to the
conclusion that a passage is an allegory just because he doesn't
understand it. Much consideration is given to grammatical
peculiarities, stylistic elements, manipulation, symbols (figurative),
3) Christian and Partistic Allegorism
This hermeneutical school of thought insists that the Bible is full of
parables, enigmas, and riddles. Again, if one has trouble
understanding it, it must be an allegory. Ramm cites that to
this thinking, the Bible is merely "putty in the hand of the
exegete." Clement explained that there were five possible
meanings to every passage: historical; doctrinal; prophetic;
philosophical; or, mystical (symbolic). Origin emphasized the
difference between literal and spiritual meanings, and Jerome was a
true allegorist. Augustine thought according to a theory of
signs, where scriptures were interpreted on the basis of what the sign
causes us to think. He also attached great significance to Biblical numbers and progressive revelation.
4) Catholic Allegorism
The Catholics treat the Latin Vulgate as the authentic version of
the Bible, including the Apocrypha as listed by the Fourth Session
of the Council of Trent. The Catholic Church is the sole authority
for interpreting scriptures. All others are said to be
"without the true faith." Few of the Catholic laity recognize
the priesthood of the believer and the corresponding privileges of a
truly personal relationship with God, and the corresponding
responsibilities of personally gleaming truths from His word. The
Catholics are quick to attach spiritual and figurative interpretations
to the scriptures. For example, manna is made a type of the
Lord's Supper. From this train of thought comes such false
doctrines as salvation by a combination of faith and works.
The choices of interpretation are four-fold: literal, moral, prophetic, or analogical.
5) Jewish Literalism
Jewish Literalism interprets the Bible literally whenever possible.
Special attention is paid to each word and sentence, the grammar
used, the figures of speech, the culture, letterism, numerical values, tradition, and trivialities.
6) Syrian School of Antioch
The Syrian School of thought recognizes literalism but not letterism.
For example, "the eye of the Lord" is interpreted as omniscience rather
than a bodily organ. Much emphasis is placed upon the development of revelation.
7) The Victorines
The Victorines interpreted the Bible literally with strong emphasis upon art, history, and geography.
8) The Reformers
The Reformers had their own way of interpreting scriptures, yet
they did not all agree. Occam emphasized divine revelation
over human reason. Luther place the first emphasis on the
authority of the Bible, believing in scriptural logic. He recognized
the importance of studying the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. He
believed in the power of faith, illumination, and the leading of
the Spirit to discern the truth, and he treated the Bible differently
than all other literature. He interpreted it literally, and
he rejected the allegorical approach. He studied the history,
grammar, culture, circumstances and context of each passage.
He held to the sufficiency principle where the priesthood of the
believer is the only qualification necessary for personal
interpretation, rather than relying upon the church for discernment of
the truth. He believed in using the scriptures to interpret
other scriptures, using the clear passages to explain the obscure ones,
and always relying on faith as the cornerstone to personal interpretation.
Luther practice Christology, where the function of hermeneutics
is to fin Christ. He viewed the Bible as infallible and
inerrant. He distinguished between the dispensations of law
He did not view grace as simply a new law, and he preached justification by faith alone.
Calvin also interpreted the Bible literally rather than allegorically.
He believed in the illumination of the word, and he studied the
grammar, context, and comparison to lead him to the correct interpretation.
After the period of reformation, Ernesti popularized
the use of classical studies to interpret the Bible. This is common
practice by various schools today, learn what we can from classical literature when the Bible does not expound the details.
10) Medieval Mystics
In the Middle Ages, the Bible was sometimes interpreted in light
of one's mystical experiences. The physical delights of such
experiences seemed to lend confidence in one's discernment.
11) Spener and Francke
Spener and Francke popularized Pietism, the personal
edification of devotions and the practical bearing of the scriptures
upon one's life. They frequently read the whole Bible from cover to
cover, and they used commentaries infrequently and with great
discretion. They held that only the regenerate can understand the Bible.
12) Modern Emphasis
This method emphasizes the devotional and practical method of
interpreting the Bible. It is one of the easiest methods, but
too often it distorts the real meaning of the scriptures.
Liberal hermeneutics is quick to apply rationalism to the scriptures
based on the authority of educated men. This school stresses
modern mentality, science, and ethics, and it views the Bible as merely
a human document. It rejects the possibility of miracles,
the seriousness of sin
and depravity, and a real hell. It
discounts such doctrines as folklore, myths, or poetry. It promotes the
theory of evolution, and it rejects the use of ancient terminology.
It emphasizes social conditions, philosophy, and idealism.
Karl Barth is primarily responsible for the neo-orthodoxy method
of interpretation of the Bible. He denies the infallibility
and inerrancy of God's word, as well as its inspiration and divine
revelation. He treats the incarnation and the cross as only
myths. He uses the existential principle, where the Bible is
read with the heart (emotionally), as well as the paradoxical principle
where phenomenon is not understood.
15) Bultmann and the New
This method relies heavily upon science and history in
interpreting the Bible. Much of the Bible is viewed as mythical, although credible.
16) Protestant Interpretation
The Protestant method of biblical interpretation treats the Bible as the
divinely inspired word of God. It often uses a technique of
comparison and contrast to discern the truth. It cites the
Bible as moral, spiritual, supernatural, and revelational. It
holds to detailed studies of the language of the original manuscripts,
and holds to the priesthood of the believer to allow for personal
interpretation. Perhaps the greatest single advantage of this
method over all the others is its recognition of the fallibility of the
interpreter! It knows that although God's infallible word is
studied by well-meaning men, the hermeneutical methods used are humanly
constructed, and thus subject to error. This method uses
scripture to interpret other scripture, citing the entire Bible as the
context for any passage! It holds that all essential truths,
such as salvation, are clear, but it refuses to construct doctrines
from obscure or isolated passages, such as the Witch at Endor, baptism
by proxy, or recognizing Anna as a nun. It holds to faith and
systematic unity in its discernments. It rejects allegories,
cults, and pietism such as the plurality of meanings found via daily
devotions. It cites the purpose of scripture in application to teach and reprove.
The Protestant interpreter will discern a literal meaning from the
scriptures through a painstaking study of its words and etymology
(such as prefixes and suffixes). Also important to this interpreter
are the harmony of the gospels, word order, inflection, participles,
syntax, and idioms. A passage is interpreted first in the context
of the whole Bible, then of the testament, then of the passage and
verses. It attempts to ignore the peculiarities of various
translations, and ignores chapter and verse divisions. Parallel
passages and cross references are used extensively. A clear
distinction is made between the law and the gospel. The culture,
geography, and history are considered for each passage. The
scriptures can only be interpreted by a regenerated interpreter.
Major emphasis is on the New Testament, and it is deemed critical
to stay within the scriptures. Proof texts are heavily relied
upon, as are the practicalities of the scriptures and church tradition.
Doctrine derived from unsure passages is to be avoided. The
inner spirit is trusted above the outward appearance. There
is a certain reasonableness of spirit applied to its literalism. For
example, few protestants would literally pluck out their eyes if they
caused them to sin. Also, when the scripture says that Jesus
is a door, they would hold that this means an entrance, not a wooden door.
Another reasonable understanding is that commands to individuals
are not universal. Just because God told Hosea to marry a
prostitute doesn't mean that we should! However the promises
of the Bible are held to be not only universal, but personal,
conditional, and timely. A critical rule is not to take
phrases out of their context due to attractive wording. The
objective is to explain the text, not sermonize it.
Although the literal method is used, there is careful attention to
avoid the precise literalness of numbers. In other words,
some numbers are just numbers--not necessarily signs of something.
Another sound principle is that inerrancy does not imply clarity.
By faith, one must shelve ideas not clearly understood, in the
hope that in time, through further study, they will be understood.
There are no contradictions in the Bible, only misunderstandings on the part of the interpreter!
It is also believed that doctrines are scattered across diverse
passages, not always just one. They must all be studied before drawing conclusions.
There is an interest with coordinating science with the Bible,
although, since the Bible is inerrant, any scientific theory which
discredits the Bible must be rejected. Genesis 1 is believed
to be in outline form, and attempts should not be made to reconcile it to geology.
Typology is used to find types of Christ in the Old Testament.
Types yield special interpretations for persons, institutions, offices,
events, actions, or other things. Types prefigure the future
while symbols are only representations of something. The
interpreted symbols should only be used as guidelines.
Sometimes the techniques of common knowledge and double imagery are used.
Numbers are sometimes symbolized as follows: 3 - some;
4 - complete; 7 - grace; 10 - indefinite magnitude or perfection; and,
40 - a generation. Sometimes metals and colors are treated
symbolically, such as using acacia wood to mean human nature.
Prophecy is always considered to be either predictive or didactic,
conditional or unconditional, fulfilled or unfulfilled, or sometimes as multiple fulfillment.
The literal approach is used first, then types are applied, such as
Jesus for David. The centrality of Jesus is applied such that
all things point to Christ. Parables are understood to be earthly
events teaching spiritual lessons. Also emphasized are the
need or interpretation, discretionary use of analogy, central truths,
and native meanings.
Summary of Hermeneutics
So don't be intimidated by the term "hermeneutics." Just apply the
appropriate hermeneutical principals as you learn God's Word. Learn
what the opposing viewpoints are, and then apply your own
personal interpretation through sound methods.
Owen Weber 2008