15 Principles of Biblical Interpretation
FIFTEEN PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION (HERMENEUTICS)
l) We work with a translation.
Since we work with a translation, the translation is only accurate as long as it expresses the truth as recorded in the original languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a small part in Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Greek. We must be able to work with the original languages, or have help to, so that we may discover the deeper meaning of certain words and passages. An understanding of the original languages will aid us to answer questions on interpreting difficult passages.
Pastors must be sure that the chapter, paragraph, and verse studied give the essential message that the Spirit wants to convey. In true Lutheran tradition we try to have as many of our pastors as possible have a working knowledge of Greek and if possible of Hebrew.
A study of certain words in the original language yields a wealth of insight and information. For instance ‘chesed’ in Hebrew is a jewel which has many facets to it. It can be translated: mercy, pity, steadfastness, loving kindness, steadfast love. If we did not know the Hebrew we would miss part of the wealth of this word.
2) God speaks in human language.
God has given us the Holy Scriptures so that we may all hear in our own languages the wonderful words and works of God. He uses our human language and terms to reveal to us His will. He speaks to us as a loving Father does to His dear children.
At times the imagery is rich with “streets of gold” and “gates of pear.” In this use of precious gold and pearls, the Lord in Revelation would have us treasure heaven and look forward to our eternal life there.
God speaks to us anthropomorphically, that is He describes Himself in human terms. The “face of God” and the “arm of the Lord” are two such terms. God is a Spirit and has no face. We mean by this term that God knows all and sees all. The ‘arm of the Lord’ describes His great strength and even in certain passages refers to Jesus who won the victory for us through His great power and might.
The Holy Spirit used the language of the different writers. Amos was a farmer and livestock man. When he describes Israel as a “stubborn heifer”, it is the Holy Spirit using the human language of the writer. Illustrations and idioms of the times of the writer are freely used.
3) The Bible uses various literary forms.
There are poetical books of the Old Testament. In these, a type or poetry called Hebrew parallelism is used. The same thing is repeated in the same way or a little different or even in the opposite way. In Is. l:18 we find this with “sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; …red like crimson, they shall become as wool.”
In the Old Testament we have many historical sections in which the Lord has narrated for us what occurred at certain times. He does not necessarily condone or condemn actions by interrupting the narration. Some have condoned polygamy by misinterpreting the Word in saying David and Solomon did it, so I may also. Elsewhere in the Word we have condemned or condoned what we read of in the narrative or historical sections of Scripture.
There are portions of Scripture such as the epistles which are didactic or have teaching sections which tell us God’s will for us. These we also call instructional or exhortations.
There are also many figurative portions of Scripture. The Lord’s parables are some examples. The prophetic books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah have large sections of symbolic or figurative language.
There are other portions of Scripture which we must take literally, as in the creation account, since the sense there is literal.
Fables are even used in the Word to teach. Consider Judges 9:7-15 and II Kings 14:8-10.
4) Consider the time and setting in interpretation.
Every book of the Bible needs to be interpreted in the light of the time in which it was written, the circumstances which brought it about, the problems and needs that occasioned it. If you know to whom, by whom and for what purpose the epistle to the Hebrews was written, you have a better understanding of the message of the letter.
If one understands that a woman with braided hair and such was considered loose woman, then one understands what Paul is saying to the Corinthians and to us.
When our Lord speaks of new wine in old wineskins, if we understand the method of keeping wine and that the skins are brittle if old, then the meaning of what He says comes across. Mt. 9:17
5) The Bible is unfolding revelation.
As we read from Genesis to Revelation, we find that the Scriptures reveal more and more of what God wants man to know. The Old Testament is the “shadow of the substance” Col. 2:16-17. Old Testament history, types, symbols, rules, and promises give way to New Testament realization.
Both the Testaments are clear and present God and His will. The Old Testament was like the sunrise, while the New Testament is like the blazing sunlight at noonday.
6) Keep the Scripture’s purpose in mind.
It is not a book of science, but it is correct on anything it says in the line of science. For instance in Joshua 10:12-23 what the Word says is true no matter what men may say. Whenever the Scripture speaks about history, or archeology or any subject, it is correct because it is God’s Word. It is reliable in everything.
But THE reason for the Bible is the story of salvation. The Word reveals God’s grace and loving concern for the salvation of all mankind. It tells the story of redemption in great breadth, all the way from Genesis to Revelation. This is the aim of Scripture.
7) The two great teachings of Scripture are Law and Gospel.
The Law tells us what we should do and condemns us for sinning. The Gospel tells us what Jesus has done and gives us forgiveness of sins and deliverance from death and the devil. Both Law and Gospel are found in both the Old and New Testaments.
Law and Gospel must not be confused. What is the Law should not be turned into Gospel , and Gospel must not be made into a new Law. “Luther taught that we must carefully distinguish Law and Gospel in the Bible, and this was one of Luther’s principal hermeneutical rules. Any fusion of the Law and Gospel was wrong (Catholics and Reformed who make the Gospel a new law), and any repudiation of the Law was wrong (antinomianism). The Law was God’s Word about human sin, human imperfection, and whose purpose was to drive us to our knees under a burden of guilt. The Gospel is God’s grace and power to save. Hence we must never in interpreting the Scriptures, confuse these two different activities of God or teaching of Holy Scripture.” (from “Protestant Biblical Interpretation”)
8) Christian doctrine must be based on clear passages.
Everything necessary to salvation is clearly set forth in the Word. We can readily understand the resurrection from I Cor. 15; the deity of Christ from John 5 and many other passages; justification by faith in Rom. 3, Gal. 2; eternal life from John 3; etc.
Confusion in Christian teaching is largely traceable to the unscholarly use of Scripture passages to support human speculation or interpretations. We are encouraged to do our best to present ourselves as workmen who know how to rightly handle the Word. II Tim. 2:15
It is true that there are less clear passages in the Word. Most of the time the obscurity is in man’s mind and not in the Word. In those difficult passages that are difficult in themselves, we await our Lord’s disclosing of the meaning, if not on this side of time, then in eternity.
9) Don’t carry your meaning into Scripture.
We are to be discoverers and not inventors. We are not to practice the deductive method, but the inductive method of investigation into Scripture. Through the inductive method we gather the facts and let Scripture supply the conclusion. We do not go to Scripture to prove our already arrived at deduction. We must remain objective and as much as possible remove preconceived notions.
10) There is a Christian use of Scripture.
In II Tim. 3:15-17 we see the proper use: for instruction in salvation, for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. Scripture calls us to repentance with its Law and restores us to newness of life with its Gospel.
Today among some the Gospel has been replace by the ‘social gospel’ which is no Gospel at all. They teach that the most important duty of man to man is to alleviate his earthly woes with hospitals, schools, food supplies, etc. The most important need for man is rather a spiritual one. Man is a wicked sinner and needs salvation from death, sin, hell, satan, and punishment.
Yet others have adopted the so-called ‘liberation theology’ of the Marxists. This theology makes of the church a social unit for land reform. The economic philosophy of this theology is pure Marxism which fails to take into account the sinful heart of man.
All should be warned that those who twist Scripture to suit their whims and philosophies twist it to their own destruction. II Pet. 3:15-16
11) We are to interpret Scripture grammatically.
We are to look at the very sentence structure and word meaning of the words of the Bible. For instance the “so’ of John 3:16 tells us that God loves us very much. In John l:l we know from “was” that Jesus is the eternal God. In Matthew’s account of the temptation of our Lord we know he has the chronological order because he uses “then.”
We must differentiate between figurative and literal passages. The literal sense is basic. Only on compelling evidence in the context should we interpret in a figurative sense. The “day” in the Genesis account of creation is clearly literal, a 24 hour day. When the Psalmist says that “a day in Thy courts is like a thousand years”, we know from the context that the “day” there is used in a figurative sense. Also, when Christ calls us the “light”, the “salt” of the earth and the “leaven” of society, He obviously is speaking figuratively.
Every passage has one intended meaning, but may have many applications.
Take a word of Scripture in its normal, literal, and grammatical sense to find its intended meaning, unless context dictates a figurative sense.
12) Scripture interprets Scripture.
II Pet. l:20-21,Mt. 15:3, Col.2:8
To understand Scripture one easy method is to use cross- references. There are parallel passages which shed light on other passages. Sometimes the same word or wording is used elsewhere. Other times there may be a thought parallel with the use of different words.
A word parallel is Rom. 5:1 and Heb. ll:l. A thought parallel is Luke 21:33 and I Pet. l:25. There are also parallel sections of Scripture like Phil. 2 and Heb. 2 There even parallel books like Ephesians on the Church considering its body and Colossians on the Church considering its head, Christ.
It must always be a case for us of the less clear being interpreted by the clearer passages. We interpret Rev. 20 in light of Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and I Thess. 4. An interpretation given to a passage also must stand in the light of the whole of Scripture.
13) Observe the law of context.
Context is the total setting of a verse or paragraph. One investigates the preceding and following verses. One looks at the preceding and following paragraphs to see the meaning. There is an immediate context of the verses and paragraphs around the passage. One even considers the remote context of the book and historical setting. One even considers the relationship of the book to other books and to the Testament.
Interpret the part in the light of the whole; and interpret the whole in the light of the part. Never tear a passage out of its connection. What a word means in any given sentence can only be determined by its immediate context in that sentence.
For instance, some today have ripped words and passages from the context of I Cor. 7 to teach that malicious desertion is also desertion of responsibilities. But the context indicates that there is a physical leaving or abandoning.
For instance, if we separate Phil.2:12 from 2:13 we do a disservice to Scripture and have misunderstanding.
14) Interpret Scripture in harmony with itself.
The Old Testament is to the New as the mold is to the medallion. They fit together as a hand in a glove. The rites, symbols, prophecies of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the New.
To interpret the Bible in harmony with itself means that no passage should be interpreted contrary to clearly revealed doctrines of the Word, or to put it another way, no interpretation is correct which contradicts a fundamental teaching of the Bible. This is called the ‘rule of faith’ or ‘rule of Scripture.’
Scripture is complementary and not contradictory. Consider I Jn.l:8-10, 3:9,3:23,3:10. And also Rom.8:38-39 with Heb. 6:4-6.
15) We need to understand figurative parts of Scripture.
A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. An allegory teaches a moral lesson in terms of an historical incident, Gal. 4:21-31. A type is for instance an Old Testament person or thing that represents someone or something in the New Testament. Jesus is represented by so many types: Melchizedek, Old Testament sacrifices, Moses (Deut.18:15),scape goat, etc. A parable uses the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ in comparison. The parables compare the Kingdom of God. A metaphor is a comparison using the word ‘is.’ Jesus says He is the door. A paradox is an assertion which seems contradictory, Is. l:18. A hyperbole is an exaggeration for an effect, Mt. 19:24. A synecdoche uses a part for the whole or the whole for the part, Mt. 4:4 or in the 4th petition we mean more than just “bread” using a part for the whole. In prophecy we have: Messianic prophecies of the Messiah and His Kingdom as in Is.53, 60 and 61, of the end of the world positively in Ez. 37 or negatively in Rev. 6:1-8.
What we have considered are only some basic principles and that briefly. The Word explains itself and in that we rest.