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PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION - A SUMMARY

An overview of the subject by Bob Hirst. For detailed study, he recommends the book, Protestant Biblical
Interpretation by Baptist scholar Dr. Bernard Ramm that is available new or used at Amazon.com.

The study of principles of Biblical Interpretation is for the purpose of making plain and
interpreting Scripture. This study is called Hermenutics from the root word “hermenuo,” a
Greek word used in Luke 24:27-37 where Luke reports that Jesus made plain or explained the
Old Testament Scriptures to two disciples on their way to Emmaus after the resurrection. The
principles are considered as reasonable ways found helpful in discovering the meaning of the
Scriptures. Isaiah said, “Come now let us reason together.”

Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:15). Although spiritual Christians may
study the same Bible, they can come to conflicting interpretations when they do not use the same
principles of interpretation. In the Old Testament (OT) book of Ezra 7:10 we see the different
characteristics needed to discover truth. These characteristics are a “prepared heart” (spiritual),
“seeking” (intellectual), “to do it” (the will) and “to teach” (the practical).

Many Bible students who are familiar with the original languages of Greek and Hebrew
believe that Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 describes a decided difference between the work of the
Spirit of God in revelation, inspiration and illumination. They believe that . . .

Revelation is the work of God’s Spirit in communicating facts and knowledge directly to
a person in a vision or a dream [v. 10, compare to Numbers 12:6).

Inspiration is the work of God’s Spirit in guaranteeing the infallible transference of


God’s knowledge to the prophet (v. 13).

Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit that enables the listener or reader to
understand the message of God that has been revealed and preserved by inspiration. This Greek
term is used eleven times in the NT. The natural or unconverted man does not welcome truth (v.
14) nor can he “know” or appreciate it. Yet those who believe may have this knowledge (Jn.
16:13-15; 1 Cor. 2:12; 2 Cor. 4:6, Eph. 1:17, 18; 1 John 2:27) and spiritual discernment.

Paul exhorted teachers to “preach the Word” and not their own opinions. Their message
was to be given to the church and the world (Matt. 28:19,20; 2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 17:2; 20:26-30).
When believers err from God’s path it may be because they either do not know or understand the
Word of God or aren’t following the leading of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 22:29). Each believer’s
subjective experience is to be guided by a knowledge of the objective standard of the Word of
God, the Bible.

1. THE REASONS AND NEED FOR PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

The true object of interpretation is to apprehend the exact thought and meaning of the author.

A. The true object of language is the imparting of thought.


B. Language can be a reliable medium for communicating thought and inspiration. We
believe God’s thoughts are adequately expressed for his purpose in words of Scripture.

There is only one true interpretation of a passage of Scripture and that is the thought in
the author’s mind at the time he wrote it. It is therefore the task of a believing Christian to seek to
understand what the writer wrote and meant. Once we understand what the writer intended to say
and mean, we may make many applications of the author’s thoughts to our contemporary life
situations.

Since thousands of years have passed since the books of the Bible were written in
languages foreign to most of us today and since there is an even greater difference in culture,
morals and the meaning of words in our time compared to Biblical times, faithful and diligent
Bible students will be humbled by their inadequacies and open to the possibility that they could
be wrong in their interpretations.

It is the novice student who doesn’t understand the complexities of the task of
interpreting the Bible who can afford to be dogmatic about unclear, incidental and figurative
passages. However the more a Bible student knows about the difficulty in understanding unclear
or figurative passages, the more likely it is he will become modest and tentative about his
conclusions. As we come closer to God, the more open we will be to discover facts previously
unknown and to admit when we see we were wrong and therefore ready to change our minds.
The sign of a truly educated person is their eager desire to learn and their hesitancy in being
dogmatic in their opinions.

We should not be like the preacher who wrote in his notes, “Argument weak. Shout
loudly!”

2. GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION.

A. Since spiritual truth is spiritually discerned, to understand the thoughts of God the
interpreter must be “born again” by the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:9-3:4 and John 3:3).

B. The priority of the original languages. Exegesis is a Greek word that means to take
a meaning from the words. Eisogesis is to read a meaning into the words that were not in the
author’s mind when it was written. In order to read the meaning of the original language of the
Scripture, the student should study Greek and Hebrew. If the student is unfamiliar with Greek
and Hebrew, he may use an interlinear Bible and a Young’s Concordance and do all in his power
to understand the passage in question - particularly when it is a disputed or figurative passage.

C. Scripture interprets Scripture. (1 Cor. 2:13; Isaiah 28:10, 13).


We must not distort the main emphasis of Scripture to support an interpretation.
Tradition cannot interpret Scripture.
Use a modern well accepted standard translation like the RSV, NRSV or NIV.

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The obvious literal interpretation should be chosen unless it is clearly figurative.
Passages that are parallel or correspond to one another can aid in interpretation.
Example: Synoptic Gospel parallels can help in understanding a text.

D. Clear systematic teaching passages should interpret shorter incidental passages.


Example: the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ is taught clearly
in Romans and Galatians. These should interpret shorter or incidental
passages on the same subject. The book of James deals with practical
religion but does not deal with justification by faith as a doctrine and
therefore James must give way to Romans and Galatians on this subject.

E. God’s truth has been progressively revealed through the ages.


Sound interpretation takes into consideration the culture, moral conditions and
historical situation of the times when the passage was written.

F. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament for the purpose of doctrine.
The Old Testament was shadowy and only partially revealed God to Israel. The
New Testament is full and complete and God fully reveals himself in his Son.
(Heb. 1:1,2; John 1:16; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Acts 20:27).

G. Correct interpretations consider the context and this might be the whole book.
“Neglect of this principle is a common cause of erroneous interpretations and
irrelevant applications.” Michelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Zondervan, p. 99.
Reading whole books of the Bible and becoming familiar with the main themes
will help the reader hold the context clearly in mind. The chapter and verse
divisions do not necessarily mark out the limits of a writer’s thoughts. The
reader should especially notice the verses before and after the text in question
and ask himself - What did the author try to communicate to his audience in this
text?

H. If a passage is clearly not literal but figurative, determine what form does the
passage exhibit and follow special principles of interpretation for each one.
Common forms are word figures, thought figures, poetry, types, symbols and
prophecy.

I. Word figures.
1. Metaphor is an implied comparison. (Luke 13:32; Psalm 18:2)
2. Metonymy is representing a thing by one of its attributes. (Gal 6:17, Lu 16:29)
3, Synechdoche is putting a part for the whole or a whole for a part. (Rom 5:18)

J. Thought figures
1. Simile is a comparison between two different objects using the words “as” or
“like.” (Isa. 55:10, 11; 56:3; Jer. 23:29; Psalm 1:3).

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2. Parable is putting one thing beside another for comparison. Is is an extended
simile, narrative in form and conveys a single truth.
3. Allegory is a description of one thing under the image of another. It is an
artificial story created by the author with each detail bears a distinct and
important meaning.
4. Personification is describing inanimate objects or abstract ideas as animate.
(Psa. 85:10; Matt. 6:34).
5. Interrogation is raising a rhetorical question to provoke thought. (Rom. 8:31)
6. Irony is saying the opposite of what is intended, sarcasm. (Job 12:2; 1 Kings
18:27).
7. Hyperbole is exaggerated overstatement. (Deut. 9:1; Gen. 22:17).
8. Ellipsis is omission of a word or words necessary for the complete construction
of a sentence. (Exodus 32:32)
9. Euphemism is substituting a less offensive word for the accurate word.
(Acts 7:60).

K. Poetry.
About 40% of the Old Testament is poetry. In addition to whole poetic books of
Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, the Song of Solomon and Job - there are large
sections of other books that also are poetry such as Isaiah chapters 40-66 and
Genesis 1. Poetry in the Old Testament is characterized by a consciousness of
God’s power and activity for man and his creative power in nature. It is a rhyme
of thought, not a rhyme of words. This parallel construction of thoughts may be
in like or corresponding thoughts, or it may be in parallel contrasting thoughts.

L. Types
Types may be events, persons or things in history that look forward to a larger
ultimate reality. Be careful not to read types into everything. Don’t press typical
teaching to the point where you endanger historical facts. Never build a doctrine
on a type unless there is New Testament authority for doing so. The danger that
awaits an interpretation of types is that the interpreter may introduce foreign,
peculiar or hidden meanings without a basis in the text or the context.
1. A type may be known by a name change between the OT and the NT. (Jn. 1:29;
1 Cor. 15:45).
2. A type may be known through an explicit statement or inference in the NT.
(Rom. 5:14; Heb. 10:1; 1 Cor. 10:11).
3. Events that are types. Creation sabbath = salvation rest in Christ (Heb. 4:9)
Flood = Judgment at the end of the world (Matt. 24:37).
Annual feast days in Jewish year = saving activities of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:7;
1 Cor. 15:20, 20; Rom. 3:5 - atonement is translated from word for “mercy seat”)
4. Persons that are types.
Adam = Christ (Rom. 5:14)
Abraham = believers in Christ (Rom. 4:11)

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Isaac = Christ (Heb. 11:17-19)
Elijah = Christ (Matt 11:14).
Moses as Law Giver = Christ as Law Giver (Matt 5-7)
Jonah’s burial at sea for 3 days = Christ’s burial and resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41)

M. Things that are types


Moses’ brazen serpent = Christ on the cross (John 3:14)
Sanctuary or temple in OT = Jesus Christ’s body temple (John 2:19).
Temple veil rent = Christ’s flesh torn at his death (Heb. 10:19,20)
Direct access to God (pictured as in the Most Holy Place) has been open to
all believers since the death Jesus (Compare Rev. 21:22).

N. Symbols
In contrast to types that are rooted in history, symbols have no time referent and
may represent something in the past, present or future. A symbol takes something
abstract and makes it concrete. It is helpful to understand the cultural background
in which the symbol was used. It is important to know when and under what
circumstances the symbol is first mentioned in Scriptures in order to understand
its meaning. (Examples: Israel / Genesis 32:28; Rev. 7:1-7). The nature of the
symbol may give a clue to its meaning. Numbers and colors can also be symbols.

O. Prophecy
Of all the forms we have discussed, understanding and interpreting prophecy is
probably the most difficult books for Bible students untrained in Biblical
languages and the customs of the first century. In prophecies we may have a
many layered series of forms like symbols, types, poetry, thought forms and word
forms being used simultaneously. Like many separate transparencies, each with
it’s own message, they appear to be laid on top of one another on the face of an
overhead projector. When viewed on the screen they appear to be one picture
when in reality they are a combination of pictures - a collage of events or situation
without a clear time referent.

In addition to the differences that exist in time, culture, language and thought
forms, there are also the problems of questions of authorship, purpose in writing,
and inclusion in the canon. [Was the book accepted as inspired within the church
soon after it’s appearance and thus worthy of inclusion in the Biblical canon?].

Apocalyptic mysterious prophecies like Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation have been
books that innocent and well meaning Bible students have become caught up in a
frenzy of excitement over the end of the world and lost sight of growing in grace.
The end-time road is strewn with the wrecks of disappointments of those who
preached and believed with certainty their own schedules of end-time events they
believed would take place. (i.e. Wm. Miller, Jonesville, Waco).

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Apocalyptic and eschatological prophecies are not unique to the Bible. Typically
they are characterized by a belief the world will end in a great battle in the
immediate time [when the book was written]. The Dead Sea scroll now in the
state museum in Jerusalem called “Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness” is such a
document. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/scrolltranslation.html

1) Examples of different kinds of prophecies.


A prediction of the destruction of Babylon fulfilled. Daniel 5:1-30.
A prediction of a flood by Noah. Genesis 6 and 7
A conditional prophecy given without conditions. Jonah 3 and 4
A prophecy blending an immediate application with a future fulfillment.
Words of Jesus - Matt. 24:1-44; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-38.

2) Clear and extended apostolic teaching passages of Scripture must always


interpret figurative passages that are unclear and not vice versa.

We should remember that prophets rank second to apostles in the lists of


gifts of the Spirit. Apostles were eye witnesses and based their teachings
on personal conversations and daily contact with Jesus Christ. This
gave them an objectivity unavailable to prophets who did not have this
contact. Eyewitnesses were considered of first importance. (Eph. 4:11, 12).

The New Testament writers under the influence of the Holy Spirit
interpreted OT prophecies to show that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.
It was the apostles experience with Jesus that caused them to believe he
was the Messiah and not their previous understanding of those Scriptures.
Therefore it is important that the NT eyewitnesses must have a priority in
understanding what Revelation might have to say to Christians today. We
must not be swept away by speculation about “end times” if the NT clear
teaching and our historical experience shows this is fruitless and foolish
pursuit. God would have his people grow up spiritually into Christ and not
be swept this way and that way by every wind of false teaching.

3) The principle of first mention can be helpful in understanding a prophecy. Note


when the term was first used in Holy Scripture and under what
circumstances.

4) Once St. Peter was inspired to apply a fulfilled OT prophecy to show how God
was at work then. It is an example of making a secondary application to a
prophecy previously fulfilled. It happened on the day of Pentecost when
he quoted the prophet Joel about the outpouring of the Spirit on God’s
people and applied it to the demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power on
the church’s birth. Compare Acts 2 with Joel chapters 2 and 3.

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5) Jesus said that false prophets would teach errors and seek to deceive many
people into thinking his coming would be a secret..Luke 21:5. Matt. 24:4;
23-27. The second coming will be no secret! Every eye shall see the Lord
and Jesus gave this sign to protect believers. Compare these texts with the
promise the angels made at his ascension to heaven. Acts 1:1-11.

6) Wars, revolutions, famines, earthquakes, persecutions of believers, coldness of


faith and love in the church and an increase in wickedness were given as
visible signs by Jesus to his disciples as precursors of his second coming.
Matt. 24:9-14.

7) No one knows nor may know the day or hour when Jesus Christ will return
physically to the earth the second time but we may know that we should be
ready each day for our Lord’s return. Matt. 24:36-44. To dwell too much
on signs encourages God’s people to have false expectations of the Lord’s
return. It is counter productive and equivalent to crying “wolf, wolf” when
there is no wolf. We may live with a constant consciousness that today
may be our last day on earth and that our Lord may come or we may die
today. But to constantly point to supposed signs of the end and trying to
determine when the Lord will come is to fasten our minds on future time
rather than on the One who holds the future - even our Lord Jesus Christ.

8) Jesus said clearly that everyone would see him when he returned the second
time. Some would be ready and taken to be with the Lord and others
would not be ready and not taken. Does this suggest that the one who is
not taken does not know when the Lord has come? No, it does not for the
Lord has said emphatically that his coming will not be a secret one but
like world-wide visible lightning shining across the sky. Matt. 24:26-28

9) The cross is the terminal point in the special relationship God had with the
nation of Israel. The OT prophecies made to Israel were conditional on
Israel’s faithfulness and willingness to follow God. However when they
participated with Rome in rejecting Jesus as the Christ, they sealed their
national doom. Individually Jews can be “grafted into the body of Christ”
but no longer may we expect that God has a plan to use Israel as a nation
or group to give the gospel to the world. The Israel of the NT is the
church as the apostles repeatedly state. It’s an important point to
remember in studying Revelation for language about Israel fills the book.

10) A true interpretation of Scriptural prophecy will exalt the person, character
and holy history of Jesus Christ. (John 5:39; 20:31; Luke 24:44,45;
2 Timothy 3:15,16.) Those who study the book of Revelation to determine
the “time and seasons” of God are in direct conflict with Jesus. Acts 1:6-8.

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11) The primary purpose of Bible prophecy was to focus the minds of God’s
people on Jesus Christ during a time of crisis so they would remain
faithful under duress. It was not so they could predict the future. This
clearly means that the primary message of Revelation was for first century
listeners and readers. But it’s principles are timeless and should be applied
by God’s people in every age when conditions of persecution of God’s
people by the state occurs like it did during the end of the first and early
part of the second century.

12) The words of warning found in Revelation 22:18,19 about adding or


subtracting to “this book of prophecy”refers to the book of Revelation and
not to the Bible as a whole. The Bible did not exist as we know it today
until hundreds of years after it was first written. Although we have many
copies of books or parts of the books of the Bible, no original part of any
book of the Bible has ever been found. Before 1450 all books of the Bible
existed only as hand written documents on leather scrolls or collections of
parchments until the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press
made duplicating books possible. As separate books they were scattered
throughout the world in church and school libraries. Collectively the
present 66 books of Protestant Bibles came to be accepted as God inspired
after many years. Use in the church for over time hallowed the selections.
There were many other books that did not succeed in being a part of our
present Bible but were widely read by earlier believing Christians. The
Roman Catholic church councils and the Protestant reformers were those
responsible for deciding which books would be included in the Bibles their
churches used. Introducing new revisions and translations of the Bible to
meet changing meanings in our language has been resisted and distrusted.
___________________
*Bob Hirst is a retired ordained and licensed minister and an active member of the Fairfield Glade
Community Church in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee. He is a graduate of the Andrews University Theological
Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. There he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion and a Masters of Arts
degree in New Testament and Systematic Theology. Later he graduated with a Ph.D. in Church Growth at the
California Graduate School of Theology in Glendale, California, an interdenominational seminary. In 1970 he earned
a Master of Public Health degree from the Loma Linda University School of Health (now a part of the School of
Medicine) with emphasis in Health Education. He has been a pastor-evangelist and health educator for the Seventh-
day Adventist denomination and taught Sunday School for Southern Baptist and Presbyterian USA congregations.
He also served as a professional health educator for several hospitals, the State of Tennessee Department of Health
and as administrator for a medical office in Cookeville, Tennessee. He successfully completed a Masters of
Valuation Sciences degree at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri and worked for a decade in the field of
real estate as a self-employed broker, certified general appraiser and developer.

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