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), and double-application.

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 and grace. 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.

9) Post-Reformation

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.

13) Liberal

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.

14) Neo-Orthodoxy

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 Hermeneutic

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