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A Brief Introduction

to Bible Interpretation
(Hermeneutics)

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Hermeneutics, Second Edition


Copyright 1998-2005 by Glenridge Church International
Revision: 10 February, 2005
Print Date: 10 February, 2005
This manual may be duplicated whole, or in part, in any form
(written, visual, electronic or audio) without express written
permission, providing it is not used for commercial purposes.
Printed by Glenridge Church International
+27 31 304 8841
info@gci.za.org
Set in Book Antiqua (print) or Arial (screen).
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW
INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984
by International Bible Society. Used by permission of
Zondervan Publishing House. Scripture taken from the North
American Edition of the NIV Bible, unless otherwise indicated.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

BIBLE BOOK ABBREVIATIONS


Ge
Ex
Lev
Nu
Dt
Jos
Jdg
Ru
1Sa
2Sa
1Ki
2Ki
1Ch
2Ch
Ezr
Ne
Est
Job
Ps
Pr
Ecc
SS
Isa
Jer
La
Eze
Da
Hos
Joel
Am
Ob
Jnh
Mic
Na
Hab
Zep
Hag
Zec
Mal

Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Ezekiel
Daniel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obediah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi

Mt
Mk
Lk
Jn
Ac
Ro
1Co
2Co
Gal
Eph
Php
Col
1Th
2Th
1Ti
2Ti
Tit
Phm
Heb
Jas
1Pe
2Pe
1Jn
2Jn
3Jn
Jude
Rev

Matthew
Mark
Luke
John
Acts
Romans
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Titus
Philemon
Hebrews
James
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John
Jude
Revelation

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

BIBLE TRANSLATION ABBREVIATIONS


ASV or ASB
CEV J
ESV
GW
HCSB J
JB
JBP or PME J
KJV or AV
LB
NAB
NASB
NCV
NEB
NiRV
NIV
NJB
NLT J
NRSV
NWT X
REB
RSV
TEV or GNB
TMSG J
TNIV J
WEB or ASV97
NKJV

American Standard Version


Contemporary English Version
English Standard Version
Gods Word
Holman Standard Christian Bible
Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic)
J B Phillips Translation1
King James Version or Authorised Version
Living Bible
New American Bible (Roman Catholic)
New American Standard Version
New Century Version
New English Bible
New International Readers Version
New International Version
New Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic)
New Living Translation
New Revised Standard Version
New World Translation (Jehovahs Witnesses)
Revised English Bible
Revised Standard Version
Todays English Version (Good News Bible)
The Message
Todays New International Version
World English Bible
New King James Version

Bibles marked have been replaced with updated


editions (NLT replaces LB, TNIV replaces NIV,
NRSV replaces RSV, REB replaces NEB, NJB
replaces JB, NASB replaces ASV/ASB, NJB
replaces JB, KJV replaced by RSV [UK] and ASV
[USA] [NKJV is a modern-language update of the
KJV and is not a proper updatethe faulty texts
still remain in it even though the translation teams
1

This is available as two books, the New Testament in Modern


English and Four Prophets. The entire Bible wasnt completed.
It is sometimes called the PME (Phillips, Modern English).

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

are aware the KJV was translated from the poor


TR1551 etc.]), although the older editions are
often still available if popular. Bibles marked J are
pleasant to read and considered true to the
original meaning (not saying that others are not,
but these are very good). The Bible marked X is
purposefully mistranslated. The above list is not
exhaustive.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Hermeneutics
The Bible is both easy and difficult to interpret. On
the one hand, unlike many of the writings of men,
especially the obtuse mystical and religious
writings of men trying to be profound, the Bible is
simple, accessible, concrete and vivid. On the
whole it can be understood and enjoyed by
ordinary men.
On the other hand there are some parts
difficult to understand or to reconcile with other
parts: religious worldviews, cultural practices and
literary conventions many times removed from us
can be confusing. Certainly almost every part is
capable of being misinterpreted and misused
when sound hermeneutics are not employed.
Every imbalance, heresy and cult that has
appeared in the course of Church history owes its
origin, or at least its self-justification, to the
misinterpretation of one or more biblical texts.
That the Bible is in some places difficult to
interpret and in many places easy to misinterpret
(whether intentionally or unintentionally) should
not surprise us: not only are we seeking to
apprehend divine truth in finite language and with
a finite (and fallen) mind but we are seeking to
understand a collection of books written by over
forty human authors, living in different ages and
places, belonging to difficult cultures, speaking
different
languages,
possessing
different
personalities and backgrounds, writing with
different purposes, and employing a large range of
linguistic devices and literary genres and forms,
most of which are unfamiliar to us.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Conner and Malmim in their foreword to their


book, Interpreting the Scriptures, state the
following:
It is recognized by Christians around the world
that God has spoken in his Word, the Sacred
Scriptures. However, what is not so clear is what
he meant by what he said. One of the root causes
of theological differences lies in the field of
hermeneutics. Since all proper doctrine arises out
of the interpretation of Scripture it is logical that at
the root of doctrinal differences lies hermeneutical
differences. Hermeneutics and its application
becomes, then, the central issue of doctrinal
divisions. Bible-believing Christians are united in
accepting the facts of revelation and inspiration.
The problem is not over revelation and inspiration
so much as it is over interpretation and
application.2
Kuzmic states it simply:
You cannot apply the Scriptures to yourself or
your hearers unless you understand them and
there is no understanding without interpretation.3
For all of these reasons, sound and consistent
interpretation of the Bible is vitalfor godly
discipleship, the preservation of truth and the
prevention of heresy.

2
3

K J Connor and Malmin, Interpreting the Scriptures, page ix.


P Kuzmic, Hermeneutics: A Study Guide, page 14.

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Contents
I: An Introduction _______________________11
A. Biblical Hermeneutics____________________11
A.1. The Context of the Bible ___________________
A.1.i Amongst other Christian Revelation _______
A.1.ii The Claim to Inspiration ________________
A.1.iii Infallibility, Inerrancy and Authority________
A.1.iv Characteristics of the Bible______________
A.2. The Context of Hermeneutics _______________

11
11
12
13
14
16

B. The Need to Interpret Scripture ____________18


B.1. The Reader as an Interpreter _______________ 19
B.2. The Nature of Scripture ____________________ 21

C. A Good Translation: the Basic Tool ________24


C.1. The Source Documents ____________________
C.1.i Old Testament Texts___________________
C.1.ii New Testament Texts__________________
C.2. Overview of Translations ___________________
C.2.i Date and Availability of Manuscripts _______
C.2.ii Objective of the Scholars _______________
C.3. Choosing a Translation ____________________
C.4. Exercise ________________________________

24
25
26
27
27
29
29
37

D. The Process of Interpretation _____________37


D.1.
D.2.
D.3.
D.4.

Application of Principles____________________
Interpretation of the Spirit __________________
Approach of Heart ________________________
Insights of Others_________________________

37
38
39
40

E. Schools of Interpretation _________________41

II: Interpretation Part One ________________44


A. The Plain, Natural Meaning _______________44
A.1. Defining the Plain, Natural Meaning Principle ___
A.2. Heretical Methods of Interpretation ___________
A.2.i The Allegorical Approach _______________
A.2.ii The Mystical Approach _________________
A.2.iii The Devotional Approach _______________
A.2.iv The Rationalistic Approach______________
A.2.v The Excessively-Rigid, Literal Approach ___
A.3. Exercises _______________________________

44
47
47
49
50
51
52
54

B. The Historical Background _______________55

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B.1. Defining the Historical Background Principle____


B.2. Invisible Historical Factors __________________
B.2.i The Covenantal Principle _______________
B.2.ii The Breach Principle __________________
B.2.iii The Ethnic Principle ___________________
B.3. Exercises _______________________________

55
57
58
60
62
63

III: Interpretation Part Two________________64


A. Self-Interpretation of Scripture ____________64
A.1. Defining the Principle of Self-Interpretation _____ 64
A.2. The Value of Topical Study _________________ 67
A.3. Exercises _______________________________ 68

B. Literary Context_________________________69
B.1. Defining the Principle of Literary Context ______ 69
B.2. The Value of Textual Study _________________ 71
B.3. Exercises _______________________________ 72

C. Comments on Theological Tools___________72


C.1.
C.2.
C.3.
C.4.
C.5.
C.6.
C.7.
C.8.

Strongs Exhaustive Concordance____________


Youngs Analytical Concordance of the Bible ___
The NIV Exhaustive Concordance____________
Vines Complete Expository of OT/NT Words ___
The Hebrew/Greek Key Study Bible __________
The Amplified Bible _______________________
Bible Dictionaries _________________________
Computer Bible Software ___________________

72
73
73
74
74
75
75
75

IV: Literary Styles _______________________76


A. Wisdom Literature_______________________76
A.1. The Nature of Wisdom_____________________
A.2. Principles for Interpreting Wisdom Literature ___
A.2.i Ecclesiastes and Job __________________
A.2.ii Proverbs ____________________________

76
77
77
78

B. Poetry _________________________________80
B.1. The Nature of Poetry ______________________
B.2. A Note on Parallelism _____________________
B.3. Principles for Interpreting Poetry _____________
B.3.i Dont Extract a Truth from Each Line ______
B.3.ii Do Not Allegorise _____________________
B.3.iii Be Aware of Compound Parallelism_______

80
81
82
82
82
82

C. Prophetic Literature _____________________82


C.1. The Nature of Prophetic Literature ___________ 83
C.2. Principles for Interpreting Prophetic Literature __ 84

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D. The Epistles ____________________________88


D.1. Occasional Nature ________________________
D.2. Context Peculiar to the Epistles______________
D.2.i Rule 1: Use Common-sense_____________
D.2.ii Rule 2: Check the Original Understanding __
D.2.iii Rule 3: Examine Comparable Particulars___
D.3. Four Areas Requiring Specific Attention _______
D.3.i Extended Application __________________
D.3.ii Particulars That are Not Comparable ______
D.3.iii The Problem of Cultural Relativity ________
D.3.iv The Problem of Task Theology __________

88
90
90
91
92
92
92
94
94
96

E. Biblical Narratives _______________________97


E.1. The Nature of Narratives ___________________ 97
E.2. Old Testament Narratives __________________ 98

F. Narratives and Biblical Precedents _________99


G. The Gospels __________________________102
G.1. The Nature of the Gospels_________________
G.2. The Nature of Parables ___________________
G.3. Principles for Interpreting Parables __________
G.3.i What was Originally Understood?________
G.3.ii What is the Main Point? _______________
G.3.iii Examine the Required Response________

102
103
104
104
105
105

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

11

I: An Introduction
A. Biblical Hermeneutics
General hermeneutics is the science of
interpreting the communication of man to man.
Biblical hermeneutics is the science of interpreting
the communication of God to man (through man,
since man wrote the Bible).
This divine
communication has come to man in the form of
sacred literature: the Bible.
It is certain that God has spoken to man in his
Word: Jesus (the living Word) and the Bible (the
written Word). But what has he said? The
primary purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to
ascertain what God has said in the Scriptures and
to determine its meaning. We derive no benefit
from the fact that God has spoken unless we
understand what is meant by what he has said.
Before looking at how to interpret is
necessary to know why we need to interpret the
Bible and, preceding that, what the Bible is and
what we believe about the Bible (its attributes and
characteristics).
A.1.

The Context of the Bible

A.1.i
Amongst other Christian Revelation
Scripture and the Bible are not synonymous
with revelation or the word of God. The Bible is
only one of Gods words4 (that is, message,
communication or his revelation to us). When we
4

That it why the Bible is the word of God.

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BIBLE INTERPRETATION

use the term, revelation, as opposed to words


like knowledge, learning, illumination or discovery,
we are referring to that which we could not and
would not know had God not, in his sovereignty,
chosen to reveal it to us.
In Christian theology, Gods means or channels of
revelation are normally divided into two groups:
general revelation and special revelation.
General revelation refers to Gods revelation of
himself through creation, conscience and secular
history. General Revelation is partial and fallible.
Special revelation refers to Gods revelation of
himself through Israel (as recorded in the Old
Testament), Jesus Christ and (the rest of)
Scripture. Special revelation is complete and
infallible.
Jesus and the Bible are Gods supreme
revelations: the living and the written Words. But,
since we only know of Gods revelation through
Jesus (and of that through Israel) by means of the
inspired, trustworthy records of these revelations
found in Scripture, the Bible becomes the
normative5 revelation of God by which all other
revelations are measured.
A.1.ii
The Claim to Inspiration
Perhaps the most important fact about the Bible is
that it is inspired. By this is not meant inspiration
in the vague sense of elevated wisdom or unusual
beauty.
Nor does it refer to an inspiration
5

By normative we mean it is the one-and-only, definitive


standard.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

grounded in the subjective experience of the writer


(I felt inspired from without) or the reader (It
inspired me). The Bibles inspiration is grounded
in the objective fact that God has inspired it,
whether we believe it to be inspired or not.
The Bible, over and over again, makes this
claim of itself and nowhere more powerfully than in
2Ti 3:16: All Scripture is God breathed6. The
difference between the Bible and other inspired
Christian writings is like that between the image of
God in Jesus (complete and perfect) and other
men (partial and corrupted). See: The Doctrine
of Revelation, of the Glenridge Doctrine Survey
as well as Lecture 1 of the Glenridge Bible
Survey for a complete treatment of this material.
A.1.iii Infallibility, Inerrancy and Authority
We now consider the consequences of inspiration.
There
are
two
particularly
important
consequences of the fact that Scripture is inspired:
Infallibility (inerrancy): Because the whole Bible
is wholly inspired it follows that it is infallible
(cannot be proved false) and inerrant (without
error).
It is thus also wholly reliable and
trustworthy as a revelation of the true God and of
the true way of salvation.
Authority: Because the Bible is Gods word to us
it is authoritative: we must listen and obey. The
Bible represents absolute truth, value and
rightness. It is our final authority for all matters of
life and doctrine, against which everything else
must be measured. The Scriptures therefore have
6

Greek: theopneustos.

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BIBLE INTERPRETATION

a higher authority than any individual leader, group


of believers, church, Christian organization or
government.7
A.1.iv Characteristics of the Bible
Having asserted, against Rome, that Scripture and
not the church hierarchy was the final authority for
any matters of life and doctrine, the Reformers
(A.D. 1517-1600) went on to assert five further
characteristics of Scripture.
Inherent trustworthiness: Rome held that the
Bible was trustworthy (only) because the Church
said it was so. The consequences of this position
are that Scripture derives its authority from the
Church (not vice versa) and that accordingly the
Church can introduce ecclesiastical tradition as
another authority alongside (and even over)
Scripture. Against this the Reformers asserted
that the Bible is inherently trustworthy, that is,
trustworthy in itself, because it contains within
itself the evidences for this. It is, moreover, a
trustworthiness attested to by the witness of the
Spirit, who convinces us that it is Gods word when
we read it.
Necessity (indispensability): Rome asserted
that the Church, as the able custodian of truth,
was all that was necessary to bring men to
salvation. At the other extreme, Spiritism asserted
that spiritual experience (particularly revelation via
the gifts of the Spirit) was all that was needed for
us to know and dispense saving truth. Against
7

It was the work of the Reformers that restored Scripture to its


correct place of authority.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

both, the Reformers contended that Scripture


alone reveals and preserves the truth without
corruption, and therefore that without the Bible
men cannot be saved.
Sufficiency (completeness): Rome asserted that
the Bible did not contain everything we need to
know
for
salvation
and
discipleship.
Consequently, the Church was free (indeed, duty
bound) to impose teaching concerning faith and
morals as binding on her people and necessary
for salvation, even if these did not have warrant
from Scripture.
Against this, the Reformers
asserted that Scripture gives a complete
revelation of everything required by God for
salvation and discipleship. The Church cannot
impose any belief or practice as an obligation of
faith without direct Scriptural authority.
Clarity (perspicuity): Rome held that the
meaning of Scripture was obscure and
inaccessible to the layman.8 The layman needed
the Church, particularly its trained clergy, to
interpret it to him. Indeed, he was not to be
allowed access to the Bible because he might
distort its meaning to his and others damnation.
The Reformers did not deny the existence of
difficult passages but did deny that these
dominated. It would be self-defeating, they rightly
argued, for God to give man an incomprehensible,
saving revelation! They asserted that the main
thrust of Scripture is plain and clear to every

Some of these views have now changed in Roman Catholic


circles.

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genuine reader and therefore claimed that the


Bible could be read by everyone.
Relevance: Rome also justified its keeping of the
Bible from the laity with the argument that the
Bible dealt with issues theological, the realm of the
Churchs theologians, and not everyday matters
that concerned the people.
The Reformers
argued that the Bible was gloriously relevant to the
common man meeting the spiritual, mental,
emotional, physical and social needs of every man
in every place in every time!
A.2.

The Context of Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, being the science of interpretation


of the Scriptures (Bible), obviously assumes the
existence and finality of the work to be interpreted.
The process of determining the standard to which
the contents must be measured, (and the
subsequent evaluation of candidate writings
against that standard) is called canonology and
falls outside the scope of this course (see the
Glenridge Bible Survey for more details).
There are a further two disciplines that are
applied to the texts that measure up to the
required standard: historical and textual criticism.
It is thereafter that hermeneutics is positioned: the
books have been chosen (canonology), their
authenticity been verified (historical criticism) and
their original wording determined as accurately as
possible (textual criticism). Having determined the
principles necessary to interpret the Scriptures
(hermeneutics) we begin the process of exegesis
(expounding and explaining a text) from which we
build our biblical theology.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

We can thus define these words as follows:


Canonology: This science has to do with
determining which sacred books measure up to
the standard of divine inspiration.
Historical criticism: This science deals with the
authorship, date, authenticity of contents and
literary unity of the books.
Textual criticism: This science has to do with
determining as accurately as possible the original
wording of the inspired text.
Hermeneutics: The science of determining the
principles by which the books must be interpreted.
Exegesis: This science involves the application of
the rules of hermeneutics. From exhegesisthai
(Greek) meaning to guide or lead out.
Biblical theology: The compilation and
summarisation of biblical doctrines. From theos
(God) and logos (word).

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For further information on these topics consider


Answers to Tough Questions or Evidence that
Demands a Verdict, both by Josh McDowell,
Hermeneutics by Virkler and How to Read the
Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart.

B. The Need to Interpret Scripture


Why is there a need to interpret Scripture? Why
not just read it and do what it says? Isnt the root
of the problem often that preachers and teachers
dig around so much that they muddy the waters
causing what used to be clear and straight forward
to be not so clear anymore? Isnt it true that God
can even bless a poor exegesis of a bad
translation of a doubtful reading of an obscure
verse of a minor prophet?
There is a lot of truth in these protests.
Christians should learn to read, believe and obey
the Bible, and the latter should certainly not be an
obscure book if read and studied properly. It must
be stated that the aim of a good interpretation is
not uniqueness but to get at the true (plain and
natural) meaning of the text with the most
important ingredient being enlightened common
sense.
John Calvin stated it admirably:
Let us know, then, that the true meaning of
Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and
let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us
not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside
as
deadly
corruptions,
those
pretended

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expositions which lead us away from the natural


meaning.9
So, if plain meaning is the goal of interpretation
then why interpret? Why not just read? Surely the
plain meaning comes from simply reading? In a
sense, yes, this is true. However, the literal
meaning is not necessarily the plain meaning.
There are two factors that cause this
difference in meaning, and render an argument in
favour of just reading both nave and unrealistic:
the nature of the reader and the nature of the text.
B.1.

The Reader as an Interpreter

Whether one likes it or not every reader is at the


same time an interpreter. Most of us assume that
as we read, we also understand what we read
and, further, that our understanding is the same as
the Holy Spirits intent (or the original human
authors intent). The reality is that we bring to the
reading of the text our experiences, culture and
frames of reference (for example, education,
reading habits and methods, grammar and
colloquialism). These influences can often lead us
astray (either seriously astray or not-so-seriously
astray). Consider this example:

What does the word cross mean to you? Was


Jesus crucified on the first cross or the second?
9

Comment on Galatians 4:22, William Pringles translation


(Calvin Translation Society), 1854, page 136.

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Many may think the first yet he quite possibly was


crucified on the second cross in the above
diagram.
What does the word flesh mean to you (from
Ro 13:14, KJV)? Does it mean body? Does it
mean (legitimate) bodily appetites and needs?
Does it mean sinful nature?
Every reader of an English Bible10 is already
involved in interpretation because translation is in
itself a necessary form of interpretation. Whatever
translation you are using, which is your beginning
point, is the end point of much scholarly work by
others. The decisions taken by the translators
with regard to choice of words affect your
understanding. For example, the KJV and NASB
use the word flesh in Ro 13:14 but the NIV and
TEV use the term sinful nature, assisting you in
understanding what is meant.
The differences in the contemporary Church
clearly demonstrate that not all plain meanings
are equally plain to all. Consider 1Co 14:5 and
1Co 14:34-35 from the TNIV:
I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,
but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who
prophesy are greater than those who speak in
tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church
may be edified.
Women should be silent in the churches. They
are not allowed to speak, but must be in
submission, as the law says. If they want to
inquire about something, they should ask their
10

Or any other translation.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a


woman to speak in the church.
Most who argue that women should be silent also
deny the validity of speaking in tongues! Why?
Consider 1Co 11:2-16. Most who affirm women
(and men) should pray and prophesy deny that
their heads should he covered! Yet the objective
of each interpreter is to be obedient to the plain
meaning of the text.
Notwithstanding these differences, the
antidote to bad interpretation is not no
interpretation, but good interpretation, based on
commonsense guidelines.11
B.2.

The Nature of Scripture

Historically, the Church has understood the nature


of Scripture much the same as it has understood
the person of Christ: the Bible is at the same time
both human and divine: the word of God given in
the words of man in history. Thus Scripture has a
dual nature:
The Bible, as Gods word, has eternal
relevance: it is absolute, relative neither to
time nor space, and therefore is applicable to

11

Out of interest, compare the above 1Co 14:5 to the translation


in The Message: I want all of you to develop intimacies with
God in prayer, but please dont stop with that. Go on and
proclaim his clear truth to others. Its more important that
everyone have access to the knowledge and love of God in
language everyone understands than that you go off and
cultivate Gods presence in a mysterious prayer language
unless, of course, there is someone who can interpret what you
are saying for the benefit of all.

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all mankind, in every age, culture and


geographical setting; but,
God spoke through human words in history,
causing every book to have historical
particularity: each document is conditioned by
the language, time and culture in which it was
originally written (and sometimes the oral
history before it was recorded).
It is crucial to the task at hand that tension be held
between the eternal relevance of Scripture and its
historical particularity. The method by which God
chose to communicate to us should be seen as a
source of hope and not frustration. The latter
could result if we desired God to merely present to
us a series of propositions and imperatives. But it
is precisely because God chose to speak to us
through the context of real human history that we
are encouraged that by these same words he will
continue to speak to us again and again in our
real history just as they (the words) have done
throughout the history of the Church.
But the human side also increases our
challenge: Gods word to us was first his word to
them. Therefore if the original bearers were going
to hear the word it must have been in the
vocabulary
and
patterns,
culture
and
circumstances that they could have understood
over the 1500+ year period that the Bible was
writtenwhich for us is at least 1900 years past!
A further challenge is that God chose to use all
sorts of available kinds of communication:
narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of
various kinds, poetry of various kinds, proverbs,
prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

sketches, parables, letters, sermons and


apocalypses.
Such is the challenge before us: how do we
move from the then and there of the biblical texts
to the here and now of day to day application?
The following diagram illustrates the problem.

(In this diagram the ovals indicate things like


religious tradition and political conviction.) This
then begs the question, Which translation or
version should be used? What is the difference
between the New Living Bible (NLT) and the King
James Version (KJV)? Why is the Good News
Bible (known as the TEV, Todays English
Version) hardly ever quoted in doctrinal study?
Why is the New International Version (NIV) so
popular today and yet it was never heard of in the
1960s?

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C. A Good Translation: the Basic Tool


The sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible were
originally written in three different languages:
Hebrew (most of the Old Testament), Aramaic (a
sister language to Hebrew used in half of Daniel
and two passages in Ezra), and Greek (all of the
New Testament). Most of us do not know these
languages (not to mention that modern Greek is
very different to ancient Greek!). The result is that
for us the basic tool for reading and studying the
Bible is a good English translation, or, as will be
suggested, several good English translations.
Remember that the very fact that you are
reading Gods word in translation means that you
are already involved in interpretationand this is
the case whether you like it or not. But to read
translations is not a bad thingit is reasonable,
sensible and simply inevitable (and it is worth
noting that the apostles themselves quoted from
the Greek translation of the Old Testament).
What this does mean, however, is that in a certain
sense, the person who reads the Bible only in
English is at the mercy of the translator(s), and
translators have often had to make choices as to
what in fact the original Hebrew or Greek was
really intending to say.12
C.1.

The Source Documents

Before looking at various translations of the Bible


it is necessary to have a brief overview of what
manuscripts were available to the different
12

Most of the Bible is relatively simple to translate. Where there


are significant disagreements they are relatively rare and do not
change the overall message of the Bible.

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translators at the time that they produced their


work. (Further information is also available in the
Bible Survey.)
C.1.i
Old Testament Texts
A text refers to an ancient copy of all or part of the
Old (or New) Testament in the original language.
Subsequent translations into other languages are
obviously based on one or more of these texts.
There are extremely few extant Hebrew texts as
the Jews always destroyed the old text once they
had copied a new one off it. This was because of
their extreme appreciation of the value of the
Scriptures: once a text got too old it had to be
copied and destroyed because the fading ink or
cracking parchment might cause the Word of God
to be lost, corrupted or distorted.
We now
examine some of these texts.
Masoretic Text: Until recently, the oldest Old
Testament manuscripts we had were A.D. ninth
century copies of the Masoretic Text: an excellent
and reliable version of the Old Testament edited
into a fixed form around A.D. 500. All the copies
of this text that we have, both from the ninth
century and later, are in remarkable agreement.
Dead Sea Scrolls: With the discovery (in 1947) of
the first century B.C. Dead Sea Scrolls (which
include a few complete books and portions of all
the others bar one) our possession of the Old
Testament was taken back 1,000 years. The
scrolls agreed remarkably with the Masoretic Text
demonstrating the accuracy of copying in ancient
times and assuring us that the manuscripts from

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which our Bibles are translated are extremely


close to the originals.
Septuagint: We also have many early copies of
the Septuagint, the second or third century B.C.
Greek translation of the Old Testament, that takes
us back to what the Old Testament looked like
over a millennium ago (although in a language
once removed from the original). Some of the
Dead Sea Scrolls are in Greek and these also
agree remarkably with the Septuagint.
C.1.ii
New Testament Texts
In contrast to the Old Testament there are over
5,000 complete or partial extant manuscripts of
the New Testament (twelve from before A.D. 500)
in Greek or the languages of very early
translations. Amongst the most important of these
are (in order of age):
Rylands Papyrus*: the book of John only, dated
A.D. 125, discovered in the early twentieth
century.
Bodmer Papyrus*: dated late A.D. second
century, discovered in the early twentieth century.
Chester Beatty Papyri*: dated early third century,
discovered in the early twentieth century.
Codex Sinaiticus: a complete New Testament,
dated fourth century, discovered in 1859.
Codex Vaticanus: the entire New Testament up
to Heb 9:13, dated fourth century, discovered in
1868.
Codex Beza**: a complete New Testament,
dated fourth century, discovered in 1581.

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Codex Alexandrinus**: a complete New


Testament, dated sixth century, discovered in
1627.
* Together, these three give us all of the New
Testament, except James and Johns letters,
within 200 years of it having been written.
** These copies are of a standardised fifth century
text on which many subsequent translations were
based but have since been rejected as containing
too many errors.
C.2.

Overview of Translations

From these texts the Bible has come down to us


through a series of translations, each translating
from previous translations and/or the original
language manuscripts available to it.
C.2.i
Date and Availability of Manuscripts
Contrary to the popular conception that the older a
translation the better (because it is closer in time
to the originals and therefore supposedly less
corrupt) the more recent translations are almost
always the superior ones. There are several
reasons for this:
Older translations tended to go back only to
earlier translations in that language (or at
most to the Latin Vulgate), whereas more
recent translations go back to original
language manuscripts;
as archaeology makes ground more and
more manuscripts are discovered and so
newer translations are able to draw on both

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more
and
older
original
language
manuscripts; and
advances in archaeology and history reveal
more and more about ancient societies,
events, customs, languages and literature
and newer translations are thus able to draw
upon knowledge not available to translators
before them.
The first noteworthy English translation, the King
James Version (KJV), was a distinct improvement
on its predecessors. By the time of this translation
in 1611 the Codex Beza (mentioned above) had
been discovered and so, apart from drawing on
the Vulgate and existing English translations, the
translators went back to the Septuagint for the Old
Testament and to this Codex for the New.
However, as we have seen, the fifth century text,
of which this manuscript was a copy, has since
been rejected as containing too many errors and
emendations.
Thus apart from its archaic
language which alienates, obscurities and distorts
(because words are used that today have a
different meaning) the KJV has against it that it
does not go back to original language texts in
translating the Old Testament and that, while it
does so for the New, it uses an inaccurate and
discredited text. And, of course, it was not able to
make use of the older and better texts discovered
since. Only translations from the second half of
this century, however, have been able to make
use of the oldest Greek (New Testament)
manuscripts we possess: the Rylands, Bodmer
and Chester Beatty papyri. It is only the New
International Version (NIV) (translated in 1978)

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and other very new translations that have so far


made use of the oldest Hebrew (Old Testament)
manuscripts we possess: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
C.2.ii
Objective of the Scholars
Bearing in mind that, by definition, to translate one
must interpret, the parameters regarding the
choice of word by the translators is of great
importance to us as the readers. The objective
(as well as the influencing theological belief) of the
scholars can produce either a conservative or
liberal translation, literal or free translation, or
anything in-between (not forgetting the third and
forth dimensions of date of translation and
discovery of source documents).
C.3.

Choosing a Translation

A great factor in translation theory is whether a


word-for-word approach is used or whether a
thought-for-thought approach is used. The wordfor-word approach is also called the literal
approach. It translates the text as closely as
possible to the original wordingit does not factor
in that you may not be aware that the sentence
being translated is actually a figure of speech that
may be misunderstood. The thought-for-thought
approach factors in these things.
A typical
example used to illustrate this is the Bibles
distributed in parts of Africa that are very hot and
tropical.
Instead of using white as snow
(meaning absolutely nothing to the readers since
they have never heard of snow) they use white as
coconut.
The thought is conveyed more
accurately by changing the wording. A word-forword (literal) approach strictly uses snow while

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the thought-for-thought approach (also called a


free or paraphrase approach) helps the reader
along. Both approaches are valuable, depending
on the application. Obviously for casual reading
by the average Christian the thought-for-thought
Bibles are more appropriate.
Now, the trouble with using only one
translation, be it ever so good, is that you are
thereby committed to the exegetical choices of
that translation as the word of God.
The
translation you are using may be correct, of
course; but it may also be wrong. For example,
1Co 7:36:
KJV: If a man think that he behaveth himself
uncomely toward his virgin.
NASB: If a man think that he is acting
unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter.
NIV: If anyone thinks he is acting improperly
toward the virgin he is engaged to.
The KJV is very literal, but not very helpful, since it
leaves the term virgin and the relationship
between the man and his virgin ambiguous. Of
one thing we may be absolutely certain: Paul, the
original author, did not intend to be ambiguous.
He intended one of the other three options, and
the Corinthians, who had raised the problem in
their letter, knew which one. Without any doubt,
they knew absolutely nothing of the other two
possible meanings that we are now faced with.
Only one of them can be the correct
translation (because they conflict in meaning).

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The problem is: Which one? For a number of


reasons, the NIV reflects the best exegetical
option here. This kind of thing can be illustrated a
thousand times over. So, what is our solution?
First, it is probably a good practice to use
mainly one translation, provided it really is a good
one (the most popular good ones are the NASB
Update, the NIV and The Message).
However, for the study of the Bible you should use
a number of well-chosen translations. The best
thing to do is to use translations that you know in
advance will tend to differ. This will highlight
where many of the difficult exegetical problems lie.
To resolve these problems you will usually want to
have recourse to your commentary.
But which translation should you use for
everyday use and which of the several should you
study from? To make an intelligent choice you
need to know some things both about the science
of translation itself as well as about some of the
various English translations.
Although the details of the problems of text in
the Old and New Testaments differ, as discussed
above, the basic concerns are the same:
No original copies (manuscripts) exist;
what does exist are thousands of copies
(including copies of very early translations),
produced by hand, and copied by hand
repeatedly over a period of about fourteen
hundred years; and
although the vast majority of manuscripts
(which for both testaments come from the
later medieval period) are very much alike
these later manuscripts differ significantly

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from the earlier copies and translations. In


fact, there are over five thousand Greek
manuscripts of part or all of the New
Testament, as well as thousands in Latin, and
no two of them anywhere in existence are
exactly alike.
Our choice of translation is influenced by the
translators choice of text. There are two kinds of
evidence that the translator considers in making
textual choices: external evidence (the character
and quality of the manuscripts) and the internal
evidence (the kinds of mistakes made by
copyists). Scholars sometimes differ as to how
much weight they give either of these strands of
evidence, but all are agreed that the combination
of strong external and strong internal evidence
together makes the vast majority of choices
somewhat routine. But for the remainder, where
these two lines of evidence seem to collide, the
choices are more difficult. Here is an illustration of
the work of textual criticism from 1Sa 8:16:
KJV: your goodliest young men and your
asses.
NIV: the best of your cattle and donkeys.
The text of the NIV (your cattle) comes from the
Septuagint, the usually reliable Greek translation
of the Old Testament made in Egypt around 250150 B.C.. The KJV follows the medieval Hebrew
text, reading, young men, a rather unlikely term
to be used in parallel to donkeys. The origin of
the miscopy in the Hebrew text, which the KJV
followed, is easy to understand. The word for

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

your young men in Hebrew was written bhrykm,


whilst your cattle was bqrykm. The incorrect
copying of a single letter by a scribe resulted in a
change of meaning.
The Septuagint was
translated some time before the miscopy was
made so it preserved the original your cattle.
The accidental change to your young men was
made
later,
affecting
medieval
Hebrew
manuscripts, but too late to affect the premedieval Septuagint.
(These relatively trivial
issues never change the overall message of the
Biblebut they are worth pursuing in the quest for
an accurate translation.)
Having chosen the text the next two kinds of
choicesverbal and grammaticalbring us to the
actual science of translation. The problem has to
do with the transferring of words and ideas from
one language to another. To understand what
various theories underlie our modern translations,
you will need to become acquainted with the
following technical terms:
Original language: The language that one is
translating from. In our case this is Hebrew,
Aramaic, or Greek.
Receptor language: The language that one is
translating into. In our case this is English.
Historical distance: This has to do with the
differences that exist between the original
language and the receptor language, both in
matters of words, grammar, and idioms, as well as
in matters of culture and history.
Theory of translation: This has to do with the
degree to which one is willing to go in order to
bridge the gap between the two languages. For

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example, should lamp be translated flashlight or


torch in cultures where these serve the purpose
a lamp once did? Or should one translate it
lamp and let the reader bridge the gap for
himself or herself?
Notice how these three terms apply to the
following basic theories of translation:
Literal: The attempt to translate by keeping as
close as possible to the exact words and phrasing
in the original language yet still make sense in the
receptor language. A literal translation will keep
the historical distance intact at all points.
Free: The attempt to translate the ideas from one
language to another with less concern about using
the exact words of the original. A free translation,
sometimes also called a paraphrase, tries to
eliminate as much of the historical distance as
possible.
Dynamic equivalent: The attempt to translate
words, idioms, and grammatical constructions of
the original language into precise equivalents in
the receptor language. Such a translation keeps
historical distance on all historical and most
factual matters, but updates matters of
language, grammar, and style.
The several translations of the whole Bible that
are currently easily accessible might be placed on
a historical-distance scale in the somewhat
arbitrary way, as shown in the next diagram.

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The best translational theory for mixing study and


casual reading is dynamic equivalence. A literal
translation is often helpful as a second source: it
will give you confidence as to what the Greek or
Hebrew actually looked like. A free translation is
also very helpful to stimulate your thinking about
the actual meaning of a text (and the meaning is
really what you want). That is why the basic
translation for reading and studying should he
something like the NIV or TNIV.
In response to the question, Which
translation, then, should I read? Fee and Stuart
respond:
We would venture to suggest that the NIV is as
good a translation as you will get. The GNB [that
is, the TEV] is also especially good. One would
do well to have both. The NIV is a committee
translation by the best scholarship in the
evangelical tradition. The GNB is an outstanding
translation by a single scholar, Robert G Bratcher,
who regularly consulted with others, and whose
expertise in linguistics has brought the concept of
dynamic equivalence to translation in a
thoroughgoing way.
A committee translation involves a team of
translators. The advantage is that a group of
translators work simultaneously on the text and

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that the work is less influenced by the opinions of


an individual. The committee has the added
benefit that there may be a difference of opinion
and then usually the majority choice will be found
in the actual translation whilst the minority choice
will be found in the margin. However, even where
a single person has completed the translation they
have usually had consultants to assist them (as in
the case of The Message by Eugene Peterson).
Some of the modern translations have their
own drawbacks.
The RSV and the NEB were translated by
liberal scholars and thus have a liberal slant.
The Amplified Bible is not strictly a translation
per se but a compilation of various individual
readings of texts (it is far better to use several
translations, note where they differ, and then
check out those differences in another
source, than to be led to believe that a word
can mean one of several things in any given
sentence, with the reader left to choose
whatever best strikes his or her fancy). That
is not to say it is not a helpful resource but it
certainly not practical to read.
The NKJV updates the language of the old
rather than actually fully retranslating.
The NASB Update is one of the better strict
word-for-word translations from the Hebrew
and Greek and is ideal for detailed Bible
study.
At the other end of the spectrum are free
translations aimed at easy reading. The New

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Living Translation (NLT) and The Message


are good.13
The NIV falls neatly between the two
translation theories and is ideal for both study
and reading if you only have one Bible (and
most Christians start out with only one
translation for practical reasons).
C.4.

Exercise

Compare this translation (from The Message) of


1Co 14:34-35 to the TNIVs translation previously
mentioned. What do you notice?
Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they
should be listening, asking questions that could
more appropriately be asked of their husbands at
home. Gods Book of the law guides our manners
and customs here. Wives have no license to use
the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.

D. The Process of Interpretation


D.1.

Application of Principles

As with the interpretation of texts in any field,


especially of texts from a different age and culture,
the true interpretation of biblical texts depends (at
least in part) on the careful and consistent
application of sound interpretative (hermeneutical)
principles. It is with this aspect of the total
13

The Living Bible is not really a translationit was not


translated from the original manuscripts: it is a rephrasing of
other English Bibles. The New Living Translation (NLT) is thus a
better choice than the Living Bible as the NLT is a real
translation.

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process of interpretation that we are chiefly


concerned in this course. The four principles to be
covered in this manual are historical context, plain
meaning, literary context and the selfinterpretation of Scripture.
This aspect of interpretation demands
sustained effort and is a skill developed only
through experience.
Nevertheless, one is
equipped immediately to set out on that road by
knowing these principles and applying them.
Initially their application is conscious and
consecutive but it quickly becomes subconscious
and simultaneousjust like riding a bicycle.
Eventually you do it without any significant effort.
Consider 2Ti 2:15: Do your best to present
yourself to God as one approved, a workman who
does not need to be ashamed and who correctly
handles the word of truth. This teaches us that it
is also possible to handle the word of God
wronglysomething none of want to do.
D.2.

Interpretation of the Spirit

However, as has already been noted, because the


Bible is not merely a human text there is more to
its interpretation than the application of scientific
principles.
Two more spiritual factors are
involved. First, we must askand allowthe Holy
Spirit to bring revelation and understanding to our
finite minds with the infinite truth of the revelation
we are reading, as well as to guide our use of the
hermeneutical principles and to continuously
change and prepare our hearts to receive the
truth. Consider:

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As for you, the anointing you received from


him remains in you, and you do not need
anyone to teach you ... his anointing teaches
you about all things. (1Jn 2:27)
The Holy Spirit ... will teach you all things.
(Jn 14:26)
The Spirit of truth ... will guide you into all
truth. (Jn 16:13).
D.3.

Approach of Heart

Second, we must approach Scripture with the right


attitude of heart, mind and spirit (that is, one of
openness,
teachability
and
submission).
Humanisms approach to truth it that we must
first completely understand (or be persuaded of
something) before we will submit to or obey that
thing. But God reverses this process: If anyone
chooses to do Gods will, he will find out whether
my teaching comes from God or whether I speak
on my own. (Jn 7:17)
Only by coming to Scripture with an attitude of
submission and obedience (already accepting it as
Gods word by faith and being prepared to obey it
whatever it says)14 can we hope to hear Gods
voice in itthat is, both know that it is God
speaking and understand what he is saying. The
critic or sceptic, indeed anyone not in relationship
with God (and so without the illumination of the
indwelling Spirit), can neither discern Gods
authorship of Scriptures nor understand what he is
14

That is not to say that we dont use our mindsindeed we do,


we love God with our minds by using our minds for his glory.
The realm of apologetics shows that it is reasonable to take the
step of faith in believing the Bible to be Gods word.

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saying in it because they do not approach it with


this attitude of submission and obedience.
In the wisdom of God the world through its
wisdom did not know him. (1Co 1:21)
The man without the Spirit does not accept
the things that come from the Spirit of God,
for they are foolishness to him and he cannot
understand them, because they are spiritually
discerned. (1Co 2:14).
Further, as we read Scripture we need to ask the
Holy Spirit to continually renew our minds, prepare
our hearts and purify our wills so that we will both
see and embrace difficult and offensive things that
we might otherwise consciously or unconsciously
close our eyes to.
D.4.

Insights of Others

Drawing on the insights of others is not, strictly


speaking, a principle of interpretation so much as
making use of others application of the principles.
However, it is like the other principles in that it is
one of the conscious steps that can be taken
when trying to determine the meaning of a text.
This important component of the overall process
of interpretation shall be discussed under in more
detail later in the course. (Additional information
and charts that will help you are available with the
You and Your Bible course and the Bible Survey.)
We can thus summarise the process of
interpretation with the next diagram.

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E. Schools of Interpretation
Christians in various church groups interpret
Scripture according to a certain pattern on the
basis of a certain approach to (belief about)
Scripture because of their theological and
ecclesiastical position in Church history. In doing
so it may seem that their approach is self-evident,
obvious and the only one. There have, however,
been various schools of interpretation over the
centuries and in different places, each one
influenced to some extent by the current secular
philosophies of their time. We briefly summarise
the most important of these.
The old Midrash, Pesher and other methods
of
interpretation
in
inter-testamentary
Judaism. (These formed a background to the
approach of Jesus and the New Testament
writers.)

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The unique approach to the Old Testament


adopted by Jesus and, following this, the
approach of the New Testament writers.15
The Antioch school: the historical-literalgrammatical method of the church at Antioch
in the early centuries (until A.D. 500).
The rival Alexandrain school: the church at
Alexandria in these centuries adopted an
allegorical method strongly influenced by
Platonic dualistic philosophy (every real
element in the material world had an ideal
counterpart in the spiritual world).
Medieval
exegesis
(A.D.
500-1500)
developed further supposed levels of
meaning in the text, all non-literal in nature
somewhat mystical. This period also saw the
interpretation of Scripture subjected to the
authority of Church tradition and hierarchy.
The fresh departure of the Reformation and
its legacy (A.D. 1500-2000) influenced by the
Enlightenment (the application of commonsense reason to texts and an appreciation of
their historical origins and setting) but also
returning to the tradition of Antioch.
Various modern approaches that have
competed with the Reformers during this
period.
Among the modern approaches we find the
following:

15

Further discussion on this topic is beyond the scope of this


course.

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Excessive historical-critical exegesis (also


called excessive higher criticism): this takes
the Enlightenments influences to extremes
and is the root of liberal theology.
Existentialist
hermeneutics
(sometimes
known as the: new hermeneutic): the
application of existentialist philosophy to the
Bible.
Marxist-Hegelian exegesis, a sociological
reading of Scripture informed by the theories
of Marx and Hegel.
Structuralist interpretation, influenced by the
philosophy and literary theory of structuralism.
(A full discussion of all these are well beyond the
scope of this courseor any other average
hermeneutics manual.)
We, as so-called
evangelicals, fall firmly within the historical-literalgrammatical tradition of exegesis adopted by the
early church at Antioch and by the Reformers.
This method is, we believe, the most sensible. It
gives greatest recognition to the nature of
scripture as a historical record on the one hand
and as an inspired, infallible and authoritative
revelation from God to man on the other.

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II: Interpretation Part One


A. The Plain, Natural Meaning
A.1. Defining the Plain, Natural Meaning
Principle
This principle is also called the principle of
simplicity.
As already mentioned in the first chapter, we
believe that the Creator, God, has chosen to
reveal himself and his salvation plan to his
creation through the Scriptures. Thus the Bible is
the inspired record of Gods revelation of himself
and his salvation plan to mankind. Since the
purpose of revelation is to be understood it would
be self-defeating for God to give us a revelation of
himself that we could not understand (or that
demanded a super-human intellect to unravel).
No, God has revealed himself in order to be
known and understood not to create confusion.
We therefore adhere to the principle of simplicity,
meaning that the Bible is a basically simple record
of the revelation of God and that it was intended to
he understood by ordinary men and women.
Bearing in mind that much of the Bible contains
sermons preached to ordinary people by ordinary
men and women (and these sermons were
recorded by scribes) we can ask, How can
ordinary sermons preached to ordinary men and
women be designed to be unintelligible?
One of the five major characteristics of the
Bible which the Reformers (A.D. 1517-1600)
fought for was its clarity, perspicuity or simplicity.

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They did not deny the existence of difficult


passages in the Bible but did deny that these
dominated. They asserted that the main thrust of
Scripture is plain and clear to every genuine
reader (and therefore that the Bible should be
read by all).
Because God used human language to reveal
himself to man in the Bible it follows that the
regular laws that guide and govern human
language would remain intact. Thus the usual
grammar and all the regular linguistic features
should be expected.
So far we have very briefly laid two very
important foundations. We have defined the
principle of simplicity and mentioned the principle
of divine revelation in normal human language.
Based on these two foundations we can build a
definition of the plain, natural meaning:
Unless linguistic features are pointing to a
figurative, non-literal interpretation we always take
the plain or natural meaning as the true and
intended meaning.
Or, even more simply put:
The text means what those words would have
meant to their original recipients.
Or, stated differently:
We read the Bible like we would any other
historical document.

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At this point it might be helpful to mention that we


must keep in mind the difference between
interpretation and application. In Jn 9:6-7 the
interpretation is clear: Jesus commanded the blind
man to go and wash in the pool. However, this
does not mean that all blind people should do the
same: this would be an unfounded application
because Jesus only intended that specific
command to that specific blind man. In the same
way, Jos 1:3 has often been applied to modern
believers without much thought given to proper
interpretation.
In application we need to be
mindful of the difference in contexts between the
text and ourselves.
This necessitates an
understanding of historical context, something we
deal with shortly.
The principle of simplicity and that of the
plain, natural meaning (as well as the context
principle) are clearly stated in the following
quotation of John Knox (the great Scottish
Reformer) during a private debate with Mary the
Queen of Scots. The Queen asked John Knox:
Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner and
they [the Church of Rome] in another; whom shall
I believe, and who shall judge?
John Knox replied:
Believe God that plainly speaketh in his Word:
and further than the Word teacheth you ye shall
neither believe the one nor the other. The word of
God is plain in itself; and if there appear any
obscurity in one place the Holy Ghost, who is

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

never contrarious to himself, explains the same


more clearly in other places.16
The plain, natural meaning principle was
powerfully stated by one of the great Reformers,
John Calvin:
Let us know, then, that the true meaning of
Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and
let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us
not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside
as
deadly
corruptions,
those
pretended
expositions which lead us away from the natural
meaning.17
Let us now overview some of the approaches to
biblical interpretation that John Calvin calls
deadly corruptions and pretended expositions
that lead us away from the natural meaning.
A.2.

Heretical Methods of Interpretation

Also called hermeneutical heresies we now


examine methods of interpreting the Bible that
lead us into error:
A.2.i
The Allegorical Approach
The allegorical approach, which originated through
the union of Greek philosophy and religion,
presumes that the true meaning of Scripture lies
beneath the plain, natural meaning. Those who
use this method believe that what the words of the
16

The History of the Reformation of the Church of Scotland


(John Knox, Book 4, page 314, 1644).
17
Comment on Gal 4:22. William Pringles Translation (Calvin
Translation Society), page 136, 1854).

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Bible literally say are only external chaff that hide


the true spiritual wheat of the Word. Thus any
passage with obvious, literal meaning is
interpreted using a point-by-point comparison that
brings out a hidden, spiritual meaning not evident
in the plain language of the passage.
This approach violates the principles of
simplicity and plain, natural meaning insinuating
that what God said in plain language is not really
what he meant. It is also dangerous because
there are no boundaries to guide its
implementation (limitless different allegories can
be drawn from any texthow do we know which
one is Gods intended revelation to us?) Basically,
the interpreter totally disregards or ignores what
the original, biblical author intended to say and
forces his own interpretation on the text.
However, heretical allegorisation must be
distinguished from the linguistic feature called
allegory (a figure of speech), which is a deliberate
figurative expression placed in the text by the
author in order to convey his point with greater
clarity and impact. This will be dealt with later in
the manual.
One example of heretical allegorisation is that
of Pope Gregory the Greats interpretation of the
book of Job:
The patriarchs [Jobs] three friends denote the
heretics; his seven sons are the twelve apostles;
his seven thousand sheep are Gods faithful
people and his three thousand hump-backed
camels are the depraved Gentiles.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

A.2.ii
The Mystical Approach
The mystical approach is so closely associated
with the allegorical approach that many scholars
view them as the same. The mystical approach
presumes that hidden beneath the plain-sense
meaning of scripture there lies a multiplicity of
meanings (going beyond the allegorical approach
which presumes only one hidden meaning). So,
any text in Scripture with obvious, literal meaning
can be interpreted to have any number of spiritual
meanings. This approach has often been called
spiritualization.
This approach violates the principles of
simplicity and the plain and natural meaning even
more so than the allegorical approach by
accepting almost any interpretation from a text.
As such it has even fewer boundaries in guiding
its implementation: any reader can apply almost
any interpretation to a text and claim it as Gods
authoritative revelation leading to any imaginable
heresy.
This approach makes the Bible a
mindless mystery wrapped in a riddle and lost in a
labyrinth.
A common example of this approach is found
in Mk 5:13 where Jesus heals the man with
leprosy. It has often been preached out of this
passage that God not only wants to heal us of
physical sicknesses but also of our spiritual
leprosy, meaning either our sin, our unrestored
soul, or our internal torment of whatever nature
which of course is true but cannot be validated by
the text under discussion!18 One would need to
18

At this point it important to differentiate between hermeneutics


and homiletics. Hermeneutics is concerned with defining what
the Bible says and what we believe. Homiletics (preaching) is

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find other scriptures which deal more directly with


the more spiritual aspects of Christs healing in our
lives to support the above mentioned truth. This
kind of spiritualization usually happens when
someone approaches Scripture seeking an
application before pausing to first find the correct
interpretation.
A.2.iii The Devotional Approach
Arising again out of an over-anxious zeal for
application of the Scriptures in their own life
situation, people who adhere to this approach
produce faulty interpretations.
Those using
devotional approach (knowingly or unknowingly)
use the Bible as if it was written exclusively for the
personal edification of every believer. They often
believe that its personalised, hidden meaning can
only be revealed by the shining of a great, inner,
spiritual light (1Jn 2:20 is used as a foundational
text for this approach). People who read the Bible
devotionally search beyond the plain, natural and
obvious meaning looking for spiritual meaning
applicable to their personal life.
The downfalls of this approach to
interpretation are first, that the interpreters motive
is often totally selfish and second, that the true
interpretation of the plain sense meaning is totally
overlooked in order to get to a personal
application. Third, the devotional approach also
about taking what we believe and conveying that truth to an
audience in a way that they will remember it. Determining
whether using texts out of context (for secondary support of a
point that can be clearly proved elsewhere in Scripture using
accepted principles of interpretation) in preaching is right or
wrong is beyond the scope of this manual. The point is that a
text may not be used to create doctrine that it is not teaching.

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falls
prey
to
excessive
allegorisation,
19
spiritualization and typology .
One example of the misinterpretation that this
approach leads to is found in Mt 10:9-10, 19
where Jesus sends out his twelve apostles on
their first journey. Some well-meaning Christians
have interpreted these verses to mean that when
we go on evangelistic outreach we shouldnt take
any material provisions. Further, they say we
should not make any preparations concerning
what to say or preach when we arrive at the
destination!
A.2.iv The Rationalistic Approach
The rationalistic approach rises strongly out of the
modern schools of higher criticism20 that
undermine the authority of Scripture.
This
approach presumes that the Bible is not the
authoritative, inspired Word, Message and
Revelation of God to mankind and thus interprets
Scripture as a purely human document in the light
of human reason. This results in an instant
rejection of all parts of Scripture that do not line up
with human reason and logic, especially the
supernatural parts (the decision of what is
accepted or rejected is left to the logic of each
19

Typology is actually a technical hermeneutical term referring


to certain things in the Old Testament being parallel or similar
to things in the New Testament. For example, some may say
that the Old Testament Temple is a type of Jesus (or, perhaps,
Church). There are recognised types and antitypes in the realm
of hermeneutics and it is generally agreed that one cannot
simply make up ones own types and antitypes. The devotional
approach is prone to this.
20
Higher criticism is beyond the scope of this manual. Not all
so-called higher criticism is a bad thing but it is often used as a
tool to undermine the authority of the Bible.

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interpreter).
It is also commonly called
rationalisation, and is the essence of what is
sometimes called liberal theology.
This interpretative approach exalts the god of
human reason above the authority of the word of
God, setting the interpreter himself up as the
standard of all truth (because he decides what to
accept and what not to accept as authoritative).
Scripture is thus only of value if it confirms his
preconceived ideas. This approach to exegesis
has very aptly been called exit-Jesus because of
the conclusions reached by this method.
One of the many examples of this
hermeneutical heresy is found in Jn 11: Lazarus is
said to have been in a coma (the rationalists claim
that the doctors of the time couldnt tell the
difference between coma and death) and that he
suddenly snapped out of it when Jesus called him
forth thus making it seem like the miracle of
resurrection!
A.2.v
The Excessively-Rigid, Literal
Approach
This incorrect approach rises out of the
misconception that the true, plain and natural
meaning of Scripture is always literal. It effectively
seeks to exclude as many figurative linguistic
features as possibleeven some of the very
obvious ones. This approach can also be called
literalism.
The weakness of this approach is that it
contradicts the natural laws of the languages in
which Gods revelation has come to us (Hebrew,
Aramaic and Greek). It is important that we
understand that God based his revelation to us on
the regular laws governing written linguistic

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

communication and thereby intending that we use


the same laws to interpret it. So, the figurative
linguistic features of allegory, typology, parable,
metaphor etc. will have a place to be expressed
and we will find them as we read. In other words,
all people use figurative language all the time so it
would be unnatural for the Bible to contain no
such languageespecially since the authors of
the Bible did not even know they were writing the
Bible, they were just communicating as normal
men to other normal men in normal language!21
An example of excessively-rigid literalism is
found in Jn 3. Nicodemus couldnt understand
how it was that Jesus could expect him to re-enter
his mothers womb in order to be born again!
So, how do we discern between the literal and
figurative interpretation of Scripture? The basic
answer is that we need to look for the plain,
natural and obvious meaning and ask ourselves
what the author initially intended to say. Common
sense will usually guide us. Consider Ps 80:5,
You have fed them with the bread of tears; you
have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
In contrast to the hermeneutical heresies
discussed above, the plain-and-natural meaning
principle stands out as the only sound, safe and
sensible approach to the interpretation of
Scripture. This is the approach we embrace.

21

Using the phrase all the time in this sentence illustrates the
point. Obviously people dont use figurative language all the
time but this hyperbole makes the point clearpeople
understand what is meant. If you think about how people speak
to you over the next few days you will see just how much
figurative language we use when communicating with other
people.

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A.3.

Exercises

Are the following interpretations and applications


true or false? Why do you say so?
1. In Ge 6-9 the story of Noah and the flood is
merely a mythical warning (without any historical
truth) that God will judge the sin of man.
2. Ge 19, Mt 10:15 and Mt 11:24 tell us about
Gods judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. It is an
example and a warning of how God will judge
those who do not repent of their sin.
3. In Lk 19:1-10 the short Zacchaeus represents
fallen mankind who cannot see the glory of God
(Christ). In order to fulfil their spiritual quest, many
have climbed the trees of various religions and
philosophies to find reality.
However, when
people encounter Christ, he calls them out of all
those things (trees) and comes into their lives
(homes) and brings true joy.
4. Jn 6:53-59 could mean any one of the
following:
Jesus expected his disciples to kill him and
become cannibals in order to get eternal
life.
Upon taking communion, the bread and
wine undergo a physical metamorphosis
and becomes a small part of the body and a
little bit of the blood of Jesus. So, we
should suck the bread gently, not chew it.
5. Jn 9:6-7: This text could mean any
combination of the following:
Sinners (the spiritually blind) need to hear
the word of God (the washing of the water of
the Word in Eph 5:26) in order to be saved
and have eternal life (spiritual sight).

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Where believers have blind spots, it is the


word of God that restores sight and
broadens perspective.
When our sins are forgiven by being
washed in the blood of Jesus our spiritual
sight (our ability to see God for who he
really is and to distinguish between good
and evil) improves.
6. How would you interpret Rev 7:14? (Robes
washed in blood will not come out white!)

B. The Historical Background22


B.1. Defining the Historical Background
Principle
Earlier we saw that the Scriptures, like Jesus
during his incarnation, have a dual nature being
both divine and human at the same time (this is
called the hypostatic union). Because the word
of God is divine it has eternal relevance and is
therefore applicable to all mankind in every age
and culture and geographic setting. However,
because God used human instruments to speak
and write in human language in their specific
historical contexts, each book in the Bible has a
historical particularity and is conditioned and
influenced by the language and historical
circumstances in which it was written.
It is crucial for us as interpreters to hold the
tension between on the one hand the eternal
relevance of Scripture (due to its divine nature)
and on the other hand its original meaning and
22

This is sometimes called the original sense principle.

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historical particularity (due to its human nature).


The principle that guides us can be stated as
follows:
Correct interpretation of any biblical text requires
that we first determine what the text meant in its
original setting to its original recipients. Only after
this primary meaning has been established can
we look at developing principles and applications
from the text for us today.
Stated differently:
The permanent and universal message of any text
can be understood only in the light of the
circumstances in which it was originally given.
This means that in order to understand the text
accurately, we need to get into the world of the
text, and recreate for ourselves the same frame
of reference that the author and recipients had. In
order to do this, we need to focus on the following
main things:
1. The Author (Who?)
Who wrote the book?
What do we know about his life, his relation
with the recipients and his situation at the
time of writing?
What was his station in society or his office in
the Church?
2. The Recipients (To Whom?)
To whom was the book written?
What was their relation to the author?

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

What was their situation at the time?


What knowledge or attributes of the
recipients problems or situation would the
author assume in his writing (without stating
them explicitly)?
3. Date (When?)
When was the book written?
What historical events would the author
assume that the recipients knew about
without explicitly having them stated?
4. Setting (Where?)
Geographical location could have a great
influence on a book since it determines the
cultural, philosophical and religious setting
into which the author spoke and wrote.
5. Purpose (Why?)
Knowing the authors intent generally helps us
to unlock all the major themes of a book.
Narrative books covering the same historical
period can have very different emphasis due
to the differing purposes of the authors.
Consider Kings and Chronicles (or the Four
Gospels): they cover the same general period
of history but emphasise different things to
make a particular point.
B.2.

Invisible Historical Factors

Beyond the above-mentioned basic historical


background questions, there are three more
issues, questions and principles that need to be
kept in mind.

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The invisible historical factors are important in


understanding the full historical background but
the problem is that they are generally left
unmentioned in biblical texts because the author
assumes that the recipients already have the
specific frame of reference. (Remember: the
authors did not know their writings would go into a
Bible that would be read thousands of years later.)
A brief overview of each principle follows:
B.2.i
The Covenantal Principle23
A covenant is a binding agreement between two
parties with mutual obligations and the Bible is a
covenantal book, because God has always
related to man according to set covenants and
agreements. In these divine covenants (between
God and man and not man and man) God took the
initiative to approach man with a set agreement
with which they could relate (for example, the law
of Moses). Man could choose either to accept or
reject Gods proposal (commands) but could
never change it. These covenants are found
throughout Scripture and are the basic backdrop
of the entire biblical text. Thus the definition of the
covenantal principle: The interpretation of a text is
determined by a consideration of its covenantal
setting.
To be aware of this principle will help the
interpreter a great deal and, the fuller ones
understanding of the major divine covenants in
Scripture is, the easier it will be to deal with the
many texts that assume a specific covenantal
understanding of the recipients.
23

Recommended reading: The Covenants, Kevin Conner and


Ken Malmin.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Neither space nor time allow for even a brief


overview of each divine covenant but simply by
naming some of them a grid will already begin to
form in the students mind. Because the authors
of Scripture assume an understanding of
covenants in the recipients they dont always
clearly name each covenant but we can discern
covenants when covenantal language and
principles are used. Of all the covenants, the
major divine covenants found in Scripture are
generally considered to be the following:

The Everlasting Covenant (Heb 13:20-21)24;


The Edenic Covenant (Ge 1:26-30);
The Adamic Covenant (Ge 3:1-24);
The Noahic Covenant (Ge 8-9);
The Abrahamic Covenant (Ge 12, 15, 17, 22);
The Mosaic (Old) Covenant (Ex 20 - 40);
The Palestinian Covenant (Dt 27-30);
The Davidic Covenant (2Sa 7:4-29; Ps 89);
and
The New Covenant (Mt 26:26-29, Heb 8-9,
Jer 31:31-34).

The interpreter also needs to understand that


each of these covenants can placed into one of
two categories:
Some are unconditional covenants where
God says, I will . Thus God commits to
fulfil his promise regardless of mans
contribution of lack thereof.
24

The other covenants are sometimes seen as a progressive


expression (or unfolding) of the everlasting covenant.

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Some are conditional covenants where God


says, If ... then . Thus God only obligates
himself to fulfil his promises as long as man
remains obedient to the conditions set forth
by him in the covenant.
Understanding the covenantal principle will help us
to understand vast portions of Scripture much
better (one could consider the Old Testament
prophets as Gods lawyers suing Israel and
Judah for breach of the conditions of the mosaic
covenant and warning them that God will fulfil his
promise stated in the covenant to punish them.)
Consider these examples:
Ro 16:20 (Adamic covenant: Ge 3:15);
Gal 3.29 (Abrahamic covenant: Ge 12, 15,
17, 22);
Gal 4:10 (Mosaic covenant: Lev 23, 25);
Jer 25:11 (Palestinian covenant: Dt 29:1-29);
and
Jer 31.31 (New Covenant: Mt 26:28).
B.2.ii
The Breach Principle
The breach principle, very closely associated with
the covenantal principle, is applicable whenever a
conditional divine covenant has been violated
(breached) by man causing God to either break
(breach) or delay (temporarily breach) his promise
and obligations to the covenant.
Examples of this in Scripture are not hard to
find:
The generation of Israel that never entered
the Promised Land. In Ex 3:15-17 God

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makes it clear to Moses that he wanted to


take the people into Canaan (the Promised
Land: Ge 15:13-21, 22:16-18, 28:13-15).
However, upon arrival at the border of the
land, the people rebelled because of unbelief
and refused to enter into the land as God had
commanded (Nu 13-14). Thus the people
rejected the covenantal promise of God
causing judgment as well as a temporal
breach (or delay of 40 years) of the
fulfilment of Gods covenantal promise.
God promised that, upon entering the
Promised Land, Israel would enjoy dominion
over their enemies (Dt 28:14, 30:10-20).
However, this was a conditional promise
dependent on Israels obedience. Thus we
find that from the time of the conquest under
Joshua right through the period of the Judges
until the reign of Solomon (when the promise
of dominion in the land was fulfilled) there are
seven breaches of this promise due to the sin
of the people. Each time as the people rebel
in their sin they are subjected to servitude by
their enemies and, as they repent, God brings
deliverance and begins to give them dominion
according to his promise until they sin again
and the cycle is repeated.
The conditional promise that Israel would
remain in the land and have it as an eternal
possession (Ge 17:8, 48:4) was broken for
about 70 years when God sent them into exile
due to their rebellion and breach of covenant
(Dt 27-30).

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B.2.iii The Ethnic Principle


The ethnic principle arises out of the question of
who the recipients were. The Bible makes a clear
distinction between three ethnic groups, namely,
Jews, Gentiles and the Church (see, for example,
1Co 10:32). God relates differently to all three
groups because of the different covenants that he
made available to each. Now, during the Divided
Kingdom Period the Jewish nation was divided
into two (the northern part of Israel called Israel
and the southern part of Israel called Judah) thus
at this point one could say that there were four
main ethnic groups. This is helpful to keep in
mind, especially when reading the prophets, since
some prophets prophesy to the Northern Kingdom
(Israel), some to the Southern Kingdom (Judah)
and yet others to Gentile nations.
God related to the Jews upon the basis of the
Abrahamic25, Mosaic, Palestinian and Davidic
covenants until, through faith in Christ, they
become participants of the New Covenant. The
Gentiles could join the Jews in the various Old
Testament covenants upon an initiation rite (such
as circumcision) but through faith in Christ both
Jews and Gentiles are united as one new spiritual
ethnic group, the Church.
The ethnic principle then is interpreting a text
with consideration of the ethnic group of the
recipients and the covenants that they were
subject to.

25

Sometimes also called the Abrahamitic covenant.

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B.3.

Exercises

1. Examine Jer 25:11. Consider the covenantal


factors that are involved here.
2. What do you notice about Dt 32:30 and Lev
26:8?
3. How does what you have learned change the
way you understand the book of Hebrews?
4. Read 1Jn 4:2-3. Does this mean that we
should ask any given spirit in manifestation
whether Jesus was incarnated, and if it says No
then we know that its a demon?

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III: Interpretation Part Two


A. Self-Interpretation of Scripture
A.1. Defining the Principle of SelfInterpretation
As we saw in the earlier chapters, the Bible, like
Jesus during his incarnation, have a dual nature
being both divine and human at the same time
(hypostatic union). The divine aspect of the Bible
is derived from the fact that all of Scripture from
beginning to end is inspired and directed by the
Holy Spirit and communicates the thoughts of God
to man without error.
Because God personally inspired the whole
Bible, and since God is not confused and would
therefore never contradict himself, it follows
naturally that different parts of the Bible cannot
contradict each other. This is called the principle
of harmony.
Positively stated we say that
because the whole Bible is inspired by God, the
different parts, when put together, form one
harmonious whole.
When certain texts seem to contradict each
other at a distant glance a closer study will
generally reveal that in reality they actually
compliment, balance or build on each other. An
example of this is the so-called gospel of grace
that Paul explains in the book of Galatians versus
the so-called gospel of works found in the epistle

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of James.26
An objective study clarifies the
confusion: Paul addressed believers who were
unnecessarily subjecting themselves to the Old
Testament law, therefore he stresses that we are
justified, we find grace by faith in Christ alone, not
by works done under the Law. James, on the
other hand, was writing to believers who were lax
in their discipline of their sinful natures and were
unconcerned about obvious sin in their lives,
therefore he stresses that our lives should display
the salvation which we have received by good
works (boldness and fruitfulness). In short, Paul is
writing into a legalistic context and stresses grace,
while James writes into a licentious context and
stresses holiness.
Stated differently, Paul
emphasises that our works do not earn us
salvation and James emphasises that if we have
been truly saved we should live it out. (Paul says
not salvation by works while James says
salvation that works). So, both Paul and James,
writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
each highlight a different aspect of our salvation
which, when brought together, gives us a clear
and balanced picture of Gods truth (thus
demonstrating the principle of harmony).
Based on this principle of harmony, we can
now define the principle of self-interpretation as
follows:

26

Due to the apparent contradiction between these two epistles,


and his own revelation of faith and grace, Martin Luther believed
that the inclusion of James in the New Testament canon was a
mistake. However, we shall see how this apparent problem is
easily solved when studied more fully.

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Let Scripture interpret scripture.27


Or,
Let the whole Bible interpret parts of the Bible.
Or, expanded further,
If the meaning of a text seems obscure or difficult
to accept then research what the rest of the Bible
has to say on that topic and interpret the first text
in the light of the whole Bible.
Also remember,
The total truth about a matter is gained only from
reading all the texts that deal with that matter.28
Three applications result:
The whole clarifies the part;
The plain clarifies the obscure; and
The new clarifies the old. (Revelation is
progressive and accumulative so Gods total
perspectivethe ideal positionis revealed
in the New Testament not the Old).
One example of the principle of self-interpretation
follows. In Dt 24:1-4 the Law states that a man
may divorce his wife if she becomes displeasing to
27

Remember, Scripture (capital S) generally means the whole


Bible while scripture (small S) generally means a portion of the
Bible, such as a verse.
28
This is easier said than done as the Bible is not a technical
reference manual and should not be used as such.

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him.29 Does this mean that God doesnt mind


divorce? Certainly not. In Mt 5:31-32 and Mt
19:1-9 Jesus shares more of the heart of God with
us about marriage and divorce (progressive
revelation).30 In the light of these texts it becomes
clear that God only tolerated divorce under the Old
Covenant because of the hardness of mans heart
but that his original and ultimate intent is that man
and woman should unite through marriage, never
to be separated. (This, again, illustrates how the
total truth about a matter is gained only from
reading all the texts that deal with that matter).
A.2.

The Value of Topical Study

Because of the principle of self-interpretation there


is great value in gathering all the texts that relate
to one topic together in order to see what Gods
complete, expressed view on the topic is. This is
called a topical study. Here is the process of a
topical study:
1. Select the topic (or word) that you desire to
study. (Let us use light as an example.)
2. List the topic, as well as any synonyms or
related words to the topic you chose (such as
brightness, shine, splendour and radiance.)
3. List all the scripture references that contain
the topic or related words. (To do this use an
29

Actually, the point of the text is that a man cant remarry


someone who he divorced if she has married some other man.
But the wording seems to endorse divorce when it actually is
clarifying remarriage. It says, When a man , not A man may
.
30
This problem can also be resolved with the principle of
harmony. See Mal 2:16.

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exhaustive concordance or computer search


engine.31)
4. Read each verse listed in its historical and
literary context. (Reading it out of context can
result in serious error.)
5. Group texts together that seem to follow
similar themes or subtopics (light and holiness,
light and salvation and, say, light and truth.)
6. Summarise what Scripture has to say on the
chosen topic and its sub-topics in your own words.
7. Embrace the truths learned and store the
study away to use as source material for a
possible future teaching.
Having done a complete topical study we now
have much of what God wants us to know on that
particular topicwe have the revelation of God on
that matter. Based on this revelation God can
illumine and re-illumine repeatedly to greater and
greater heights of personal comprehension.
A.3.

Exercises

1. Read 1Sa 15:1-3. This text seems to teach


that God doesnt mind war and people killing each
other. Is this true?
2. Read Ge 13:2. God wants all his people to
be rich. True or false? Why?
3. Consider: how does God want single guys to
go about getting married? Do we use the passive
approach of Ge 24 (Isaac did nothing to find
Rebekahshe was brought to him) or the
aggressive approach of Jdg 21:20-23 (Benjamites
31

Bear in mind that some themes are found in stories that do


not necessarily use the word you are searching for.
A
concordance cannot be a substitute for regular Bible reading.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

carried away the dancing girls kicking and


screaming to be their wives). As a topical study
consider the question, How do I find a wife or
husband?
4. Does Mt 21:22 teach, name it and claim it,
blab it and grab it and confess it and possess it.
Does this mean that whatever we ask for will be
given to us?

B. Literary Context
B.1. Defining the Principle of Literary
Context32
When we defined the historical background
principle we said that because God used human
beings to record his revelation to man each book
in the Bible has its own historical particularity.
Having established this we need to understand
that each book was written to convey the heart of
the author (and of God) to the recipients, thus
each word was carefully chosen, each sentence
meticulously constructed and each passage
purposefully planned in order to fulfil the authors
purpose for writing the book. Hence we arrive at
the definition of the principle of literary context.
Any text (or part thereof) finds its true and
intended meaning by a consideration of the
surrounding text. So, to find the intended meaning
of a word we look at the sentence in which it is
found.
To find the intended meaning of a
sentence, we look at the passage in which it is
32

Also called the scriptural content principle.

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found.
To find the intended meaning of a
passage, we look at the whole book for context.
And finally, to contextualise the book, we return to
the historical background principle.
This observation of context is crucially important
for sound interpretation, both negatively and
positively:
Negatively, it prevents us from ripping a text
out of its context and so misinterpreting it.
Positively, where the meaning of a text is
unclear, this can normally be clarified by
observing its context.
A common example of a text taken out of its
literary context and thus misinterpreted is found in
1Sa 21:18, for the kings business requires
haste. This has often been interpreted and
applied to mean that we must carry a sense of
urgency in matters relating to the kingdom of God.
However, the passage before this phrase makes it
clear that David was actually lying to the priest
while fleeing from Saul. Another famous example
of a text (in fact, an entire passage) taken out of
its context and made to mean something totally
different to what was originally intended, is Joel
2:1-11. This famous text about the army of God
is actually describing the army of locusts that was
about to descend upon the crops of Israel as a
form of judgement from God as a result of Israels
disobediencethe literary context makes this
clear (Joel 1:1-20).

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B.2.

The Value of Textual Study

Keeping in mind that the English Bibles which we


use today are translations of the original Hebrew
and Greek manuscripts, and that especially the
Greek language of the New Testament is, at
times, much richer and more expressive than
English, it is often worth the effort to dig beneath
the surface of our present-day English translations
to access the original languages. This would be
called a textual study.
In embarking on a textual study there are two
areas that could be looked at:
the richer meanings of the Greek or Hebrew
words that are not translated in our Bibles;
the grammatical construction of a sentence,
especially the original tenses that often
cannot be sensibly translated into a single
English sentence, but often clarifies the
authors intended meaning.
The process of a textual study follows:
1. Select your text.
2. Underline all the key words.
3. Look up the Greek or Hebrew dictionary
definitions of the underlined words using either the
Strongs concordance, the Vines Expository
Dictionary or some other reliable and respected
resource.
4. Rewrite the text, filling in with each underlined
word, the full original language meaning of the
word.

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5. Check the grammatical construction of the


original language, especially the tense using a
Hebrew or Greek Key Study Bible).
Having completed our textual study, we have now
captured the original thoughts of the author with
very little room for corruption through
translations. Often, using a number of different
translations achieves the same goal with less
effort.
B.3.

Exercises

1. What does Dt 32:30 mean to us today?


2. What does Lev 26:8 mean to us today?
3. Read Ro 11:26. Does this mean that all Jews
will go to heaven despite rejecting Jesus?
4. Read 1Jn 3:8. Does this mean that we all
belong to the devil?
5. Consider Gal 5:12. Did Paul want people who
agitated others (agitators) to emasculate
themselves?
6. Examine 2Co 10:3-5. Does the text teach
praying against demons floating in some spiritual
realm or does it teach apostolic ministry as
effective and powerful? Consider the context and
find what the author was actually saying.

C. Comments on Theological Tools


C.1.

Strongs Exhaustive Concordance

This is the most widely used concordance, mainly


because of its numbering system linked to
Hebrew and Greek dictionaries at the back of the
volume. These dictionaries are quite descriptive.

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Most Bible commentaries use this number system


in their exegeses. It has drawbacks: It is based on
the old KJV text so you will have to get a KJV
Bible. The print is not good in the older and
cheaper versions. This has been improved in the
New Strongs Exhaustive Concordance and is very
friendly to the eyes though the print is still very
small. Make sure you ask for the exhaustive
version of Strongs as the concise version does
not have the number system or the Hebrew and
Greek dictionaries.
C.2. Youngs Analytical Concordance of the
Bible
This is the other classic concordance, corrected
and updated. Its layout differs from the Strongs
in having the English words split up into the
Hebrew and Greek meanings so that you dont
have to go to the back of the volume to find out
the Greek or Hebrew word. Unfortunately it is also
based on the KJV. The updated version is now
cross-referenced to the Strongs numbering
system. Remember that you have to make sure
that you have the correct spelling of the Hebrew or
Greek word before you can look it up at the back
to find the Strongs number.
C.3.

The NIV Exhaustive Concordance

This is the first exhaustive concordance using the


NIV text with its own numbering system but also
converting it into the Strongs number system at
the back. It also gives different English words for
the Hebrew or Greek words catalogued in the
number system at the back of the volume. The

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description of the Hebrew and Greek words is not


as enlightening as the Strongs and the system at
the back is somewhat difficult to use and could put
people off.
C.4. Vines Complete Expository of OT/NT
Words
This dictionary is divided into two sections and the
Old Testament section is not as in-depth as the
New Testament part, which is set out
alphabetically in English. As an example, the
word love will have the different Greek words
and meanings underneath it. This too is linked to
the Strongs number system. There is a cheaper
version out called the Vines Expository Dictionary
without the Strongs system.
C.5.

The Hebrew/Greek Key Study Bible

This study Bible is available in the KJV, NASB and


NIV versions. It is an excellent aid in studying the
original meaning of the text. It has major words
underlined in the text with the Strongs number
next to it so that you can look it up at the back in
the Hebrew or Greek dictionaries and then expand
on that by then referring to the lexicon that is also
there. Unfortunately it puts across very strongly a
dispensational theology (the spiritual gifts are not
for today). But as long as you understand what
the authors stance is you can gain much from it.
It is also expensive. A significant drawback of this
Bible is that not every word that you are
necessarily looking for is underlinedwhich
means that sometimes you will still need to revert
back to the Strongs Concordance Dictionary.

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C.6.

The Amplified Bible

The Amplified Bible inserts the fuller meaning of


Hebrew and Greek words in the text of the Bible
in brackets and parenthesis. This helps one to
understand the fuller meaning of texts without
going through the laborious process of looking up
numbers and words. However, not every word
has been amplifiedonly the pre-selected themes
and words of the authors choice have been
expanded. However, especially when reading the
epistles, the inserted meanings can be extremely
enlightening.
C.7.

Bible Dictionaries

Bible Dictionaries (such as Smiths Bible


Dictionary) help a lot in providing us with clear,
comprehensive rundowns of Bible topics covering
people, places, idols, plants and trees, animals,
instruments, culture, doctrine and so on. This is a
valuable tool for any serious Bible student.
C.8.

Computer Bible Software

There are many computer software packages


available that can be of great help and save hours
of searching through books with just a few clicks
of a mouse. Many of them are free. Like all
resources, however, you need to remember that
not everything you read is truth. Many resources
contain the authors opinions. By using many
resources you are able to check the conclusions
you are reaching and find more information to fill
in the historical gaps that we all face.

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IV: Literary Styles


A. Wisdom Literature
Hebrew wisdom is a category of literature that is
unfamiliar to most modern Christians. The Old
Testament books that are most generally tagged
wisdom are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
and Song of Songs. It is worth being reminded
that a wise, Hebrew person was highly practical,
not merely theoretical: a wise persons life is
characterised by the right choices that have
helped produce the desired results in life (Jas
3:13-18).
A.1.

The Nature of Wisdom

Wisdom, as the Bible defines it, has nothing to do


with I.Q.it is not a matter of cleverness or skill in
expression or advancement in age. Biblical
wisdom is a matter of orientation to God out of
which comes the ability to please him.33 The
imparting of wisdom in the Bible is mostly in the
form of poetry and makes use of most of the
literary devices found in normal poetic writing of
the Old Testament. Key to the Old Testament
wisdom writings is the explicit emphasis on the
LORD as the origin of wisdom (see, for example, Pr
2:5-6) and the purpose of wisdom being to please
God (Pr 3:7). Remember, however, that a skill at
wisdom does not guarantee that it will be properly
used: Solomons great wisdom could not keep
him from turning away from the Lord.
33

Fee and Stuart.

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As mentioned, Ecclesiastes, Job and


Proverbs are generally regarded as the wisdom
books of Scripture. Job and Ecclesiastes are
easily separated from Proverbs in that there is a
single (unique) overall theme to each book.
Proverbs on the other hand is a collection of
practical attitudes or values and requires more
hermeneutical attention.
A.2. Principles for Interpreting Wisdom
Literature
A.2.i
Ecclesiastes and Job
These books are similar in that the bulk of both
books contain advice, at times artful and brilliant,
that contradict the teaching of the whole of
Scripture. Their structures are very different but
each demands understanding before correct
exegesis can begin.
In Ecclesiastes the Teacher presents a
monologue teaching what we would best
understand today to be modern existentialism
until the final few verses. It is at the end of much
meaninglessness that the meaning of the
author is revealed: Fear God and keep his
commandments. (Ecc 12:13-14). To stop one
verse short of chapter 12 verse 13 would he to
miss the meaning of Ecclesiastes altogether.
Ecclesiastes
nicely
demonstrates
the
hermeneutical principle of reading through the
entire book in one sitting prior to beginning a
meaningful exegesis.
The book of Job on the other hand is a
combination of dialogues and monologues and is
highly structured. However, it is only near the end

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of the book that the truth is revealed, as God


himself dialogues with Job. Up to this point,
various logical, human solutions and arguments
are offered for the situation in which Job finds
himself. Stopping short of reading the whole book
results in stopping short of God revealing his
answer to the problem at hand. Studying only the
sayings of Jobs friends results in error: part of the
point of the book is that these arguments are
wrong (see Job 42:7).
A.2.ii
Proverbs
The book of Proverbs contains prudential wisdom,
that is, rules and regulations people can use to
help themselves make responsible, successful
choices in life. In contrast to Ecclesiastes, which
uses speculative cynicism, and Job, which uses
speculative wisdom about the fairness of life in
this world, proverbial wisdom concentrates mostly
on practical attitudes. What Proverbs does say is
that, all things being equal, there are basic
attitudes and patterns of behaviour that will help a
person grow into responsible adulthood.34
These attitudes or values are conveyed in a
brief, particular expression of the truth. The more
brief a statement is the less likely it is to be totally
precise and universally applicable (unlike a
modern legal document). However, proverbs are
phrased in a catchy way so as to be learnable by
anyone. (Reading in Hebrew would obviously
reveal the fullness of rhythm, rhyme, sound
repetition and other grammar and vocabulary
richness. These are things that aid memorisation
of the proverbs.)
34

See Fee and Stuart, Reading the Bible for all its Worth.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Below are some guidelines for understanding


proverbial wisdom.
Proverbs are not legal guarantees from God.
Proverbs state a wise way to approach
selected practical goals but do so in terms
that cannot be treated like a divine warranty
of success. For example, Pr 16:3 is not a
categorical, always applicable, ironclad
promise that the desires of our selfish hearts,
when committed to God, will materialise. It is
a more general truth teaching that lives
committed to God and lived according to his
will succeed according to Gods definition of
success.
Proverbs must be read as a collection and in
the context of the rest of Scripture. Each
proverb must be balanced with the others and
understood in comparison with the rest of
Scripturethis is especially true when
considering Proverbs practical concern for
material things and the world.
Proverbs are worded to be memorable not to
be theoretically accurate apart from the rest of
the Bible. The choice of words and images
contained in the book of Proverbs makes it
what it is: knowledge that can be retained as
opposed to philosophy that will impress a
critic. Consider the contemporary idiom Look
before you leap! We are not told where or
how to look, what to look for or how soon to
leap after looking! In fact, the advice almost
never concerns the act of jumping and
leaping. Likewise, Pr 15:19 does not describe
the plants to be found growing along certain

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lazy peoples favourite routes, but points to


the principle that diligence is better than sloth.
Some proverbs need to be completely retranslated into contemporary language to be
appreciated.
A number of proverbs are
bound by the cultural and historical
particularity in which Proverbs was written.
For example, Pr 25:24 live on a corner of
the roof might best be translated, live
in the garage .

B. Poetry
B.1.

The Nature of Poetry

Much Hebrew literature, inside and outside of the


Bible, is written in poetry. Generally, poetry, in
contrast to prose, could be described as elevated
language expressing elevated ideas, rich in
imagery and other devices which heighten
meaning, and, possessing a rhythm unknown to
prose, adds to the impression on the listener (or
reader).
The Hebrew language lends itself especially
to poetic expression: it has inherent emotional and
evocative qualities and communicates abstract
ideas in concrete, sensuous images. Add to that
the fact that biblical Hebrew poetry is the
communication of great and difficult-to-grasp
truths and we have a particularly powerful literary
genre, free from any artificialities of language or
thought.
Most biblical Hebrew poetry was originally
composed, and delivered, orally. It is thus not
surprising that it more often resembles oratory

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

than modern, written poetry. Like oratory, it


employs, amongst other devices, reiteration and
rhythm, these combining to make the
communication
doubly
impressing
and
memorable. (Compare Ps 96:1-2, 7-8 and 11- 13
with Churchills We shall fight on the beaches, we
shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in
the fields and in the streets .) When reading
the Bible it is helpful to remember that Hebrew
poetry in the Bible is obviously not confined to the
five books that make up the Old Testament poetry
division.
B.2.

A Note on Parallelism

The most notable feature of Hebrew poetry is


parallelism, the structure whereby every stanza or
unit of poetry consists of two parallel parts or lines.
Every thought is expressed in two parts, the
second line repeating (Ps 15:1) or contrasting (Ps
1:6) or heightening (Ps 1:2) or illustrating (Ps 1:1-2
and 4-5) the first line so as to heighten meaning
and impact. This allows time for a thought to
penetrate and have an effect on the reader or
listener before moving on to the next thought.
This is clearly important in oral poetry where the
listener only hears every line once and does not
have the luxury of reading and rereading it on the
printed page. The second line acts as an echo of
the first, allowing the thought to linger a little
before the next thought is introduced. Further,
parallelism gives opportunity to present more than
one facet of a matter: the second line can
complement and enrich the meaning of the first by
adding subtle nuances or a different emphasis.

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Parallelism causes Hebrew poetry to lose less


power and beauty in translation than the poetry of
other languages. It is often based on imagery and
repetition that can easily survive translation and
not on complex metre or special vocabulary or
rhymes that dont survive translation. While the
latter exist in Hebrew poetry they are secondary.
B.3.

Principles for Interpreting Poetry

Parallelism can be identified in almost any


passage of Hebrew poetry. The poetical sections
of the Bible thus need almost always to be read
with parallelism in mind.
We thus need to
remember the following:
B.3.i
Dont Extract a Truth from Each Line
The poet is simply saying the same thing he said
in the previous linebut in a different way. Dont
try to get a new truth from every line of the text.
B.3.ii
Do Not Allegorise
Seek the one central truth or thought being
conveyed in that unit rather than trying to invest
each element in the poetry with a meaning.
B.3.iii Be Aware of Compound Parallelism
Different types of parallelism may be operating
simultaneously (see, for example, Ps 1) although
each unit still conveys only one thought.

C. Prophetic Literature
Prophetic literature is undoubtedly the most
complex material in the whole Bible when it comes
to interpretation.
In particular, some of the
prophetic books are apocalyptic (that is, they

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

speak of current and future events in fantasy-like


languageit is a style of writing that has not been
in use for hundreds of years resulting in it being a
more difficult style of writing to interpret by modern
readers). Apocalyptic works in the Bible include
parts of Daniel and Revelation, of which the
interpretations will continue to be hotly debated by
top theologians (as they have been for
centuries).35 This is not to say that we as novice
interpreters cannot derive helpful interpretations
from this material but it does act as a caution
against being too dogmatic and definitive about
our conclusions. The hermeneutical difficulties
presented in the prophetic books must lead us to
tentative and provisional interpretations since
differing interpretations and applications can, from
an objective point of view, seem equally correct.
C.1.

The Nature of Prophetic Literature

In order to begin to understand prophecy, we need


to have a basic background understanding of who
the prophets were, how they operated and what
their mandate was. The following is a very brief
background, simply to contextualise the prophets
and aid in interpretationit is by no means
exhaustive.
The birth of the prophetic office in Israel came
about at Mount Sinai, shortly after the Exodus
from Egypt. The Israelites encamped at the
mountain to meet with God, but when God spoke
to them they were terrified and asked Moses to be
35

The primary interpretations of Daniel and Revelation, based


on their historical contexts, are not as much of an issue: these
are fairly clear within academic circles. The primary arguments
are over application and relevance for today.

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the go-between between them and God (Ex 20:1819). So, the Israelites unwittingly brought the
prophetic office into being and later ended up
persecuting the very men that they had asked God
for. This also brings us to a basic definition of
what a prophet of God is: a prophet of God is
someone who speaks on Gods behalf, he is a
preacher of Gods message (that is, his word). A
false prophet is naturally someone who claims to
speak on Gods behalf but actually does not.
Aaron is even called Moses prophet since he
spoke on Moses behalf due to Moses speech
impediment and insecurity (Ex 4:10-17, 7:1).
The function of prophets in the Old Testament
was to speak the heart and mind of God to the
kings, rulers and people of Israelencouraging,
directing and unfortunately, often rebuking them
for breach of covenant. The rebukes of the
prophets were generally directed at three sins:
idolatry (breaking the ceremonial laws and
turning away from true worship God);
injustice (breaking the civil laws); and
immorality (breaking the moral laws).
C.2. Principles for Interpreting Prophetic
Literature
First, from the above, it is clear that the historical
context principle as well as the plain meaning
principle of interpretation needs to be applied to
interpret the primary meaning of prophetic
literature before we seek deeper and more
complex messianic or predictive interpretations
(secondary meanings). We need to remember the
historical particularity of the prophets life and

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remember that he had a very specific primary


functionto speak Gods word to his generation.
From a closer study of the prophets we will realise
that much more of prophecy is simply forth telling
(speaking Gods now-word to Gods people, that
is, preaching real and relevant messages from
God and about God) as opposed to foretelling
(speaking about future events).
Second, we also find a clear trend in biblical
history that the prophets seem to preach mostly
around crisis points in Israel (for example, at the
exile and at the return from exile). So, to gain a
fuller understanding of their sermons and
messages recorded in the Bible we need to read
the historical books of the Bible (as well as other
historical sources) that cover the crisis periods in
which they prophesied. So, to understand the
book of Jeremiah we need to understand who he
was preaching to and in what context he was
speaking. This is found toward the ends of the
books like Kings and Chronicles. In these crisis
contexts we see Gods grace, warning his people
of impending judgement (in order to avert it
through repentance) or encouraging them during
difficult times (for example, the period of the
rebuilding of the Temple after the return from
exile).
Another trend in biblical prophecy is that there
seems to be a greater amount of foretelling
(predictive prophecy) towards the end of the Old
Testament era. This is because the prophets
begin to look forward to the New Testament era
which was ushered in by the arrival of Messiah.
Third, in approaching prophetic literature and
seeking accurate interpretation, we need to keep

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in mind that the prophets mainly focus on the


following major historical events (past and future)
and issues:

Their own lifetime;


The first exile;
The second exile;
The first return from exile;
The second return from exile;
The first coming of Christ;
The second coming of Christ;
The gentiles (non-Jewish nations);
End times (eschatology); and
The kingdom of God.

In order to accurately interpret prophecy we need


to continually ask ourselves which period or event
the prophet is referring to, keeping in mind that
sometimes various events may overlap with
others. This overlapping brings us to one of the
most important features of biblical prophecy.
Fourth, prophetic double (or multiple)
reference is a feature of biblical prophecy where
one prophecy may refer to two or more subjects,
events or time periods at once or shortly after
each other. In the diagram at the end of this
section you can see this pictorially. The line is the
prophets sight (what he preached about). The
message of the time is relevant for the day in
which it was preached but speaks of the Cross,
the Church and the Kingdom all at once. In
hindsight we are able to see all of this. A good
example is the servant songs of Isaiah.
Other examples of prophetic multiplereference include:

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Isaiahs fiancs future pregnancy and Mary


the Mother of Jesus (Isa 7:14);
Isaiahs prophetic anointing and Jesus
anointing and the Churchs anointing (Is 61:13, Lk 4:18-19);
The future king of Israel and Jesus kingship
(Mic 5:1-5);
The Day of Pentecost and the Church age
(Joel 2:28-32); and
The glory of the rebuilt temple and the glory of
the Church (the New Testament temple) (Hag
2:6-9, 2Co 3:7-18).
Though prophetic literature is complex we can
comfort ourselves with the knowledge that
because we live in an age when many of the
prophecies (especially of Christ) have already
been fulfilled we understand more than even the
prophets themselves understood at the time when
they prophesied (see Da 12:8-9 and 1Pe 1:10-12).

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D. The Epistles
D.1.

Occasional Nature

The Epistles are not homogeneous: there is a


difference between Romans and Philemon for
example, not only in purpose (the one is more
personal than the other) but also in content.
There are, however, definite similarities: first, they
are all from the first century, and second, in
structure, almost all the epistles have a basic
outline36:
The name of writer (for example, Paul);
The name of recipient (for example, the
church of God in Corinth);
The greeting (for example, grace and peace
to you from God our Father);
The prayer or thanksgiving (for example, I
always thank God for you);
The body; and
The final greeting and farewell (for example,
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
you).
There is a further characteristic that is crucial and
dominant in reading and interpreting the Epistles:
they are all occasional documents (that is, they
arise out of, and are intended for, a specific
occasion or situation). The occasional nature
could, simply speaking, be called the purpose of
the book (letter). However, the occasional nature
36

Loosely speaking, an epistle is an open letter (to a particular


person or group) and the epistles of the New Testament have a
similar style to the other epistles of their day.

BIBLE INTERPRETATION

of the Epistles influences the correct interpretation


the Epistles far more than, for example, the
purposes of King Solomon influence the
interpretation of Proverbs.
The occasional nature means that they were
occasioned (needed to be written) by some
special circumstance, either from the readers side
or from the authors. Almost all of the New
Testament letters were occasioned from the
readers side (Philemon and perhaps James and
Romans are exceptions). Usually the occasion
was some kind of behaviour that needed
correcting, a doctrinal error that needed setting
right, a misunderstanding that needed further light
or a questioner seeking a perspective on an issue
not experienced before. It is this very nature that
creates most of our problems in interpreting the
Epistles: we have the answers but we dont have
the questions or even know if there was a
question. It is like listening to one side of a
telephone conversation (the problem-solvers
side) and trying to piece together the other
speakers words and questions. Without the latter
it may be difficult to know to what question our
passage is an answer.
The occasional nature of the Epistles also
means that they are not theological treatises: they
are not formal literary compositions dealing with
technical, theological issues in their entirety (that
is, when writing, the apostles were not always
trying to summarise a particular theological
issuethey were solving a problem and made
reference to theology to solve the issue). There is
theology implied, but it is what Fee and Stuart call
task theology: theology written to address the

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task at hand. Even the book of Romans, valued


as the most systematic (and complete)
presentation of Pauls theology is only some of his
theology and arose out of his task as an apostle to
the Gentiles.
We will go to the Epistles again and again for
our theology but must always keep in mind that
their origin was not to expound Christian theology
but was always theology at the service of a
particular need.
D.2.

Context Peculiar to the Epistles

D.2.i
Rule 1: Use Common Sense
Generally, we apply common sense to decide
what content of the Epistles must be left in the first
century and what must be applied to our lives
today. For example, none of us have
contemplated flying to Troas to attempt to locate
Pauls cloak with the goal of transporting it from
Carpuss house to his Roman prison (2Ti 4:13).
Yet most of us embrace enduring hardship like a
good soldier of Christ (2Ti 2:3).
But what of 1Ti 5:23s use a little wine for
your stomach or 1Co 11:14-15 (on men having
short hair and on women having long hair)? What
about the treatment of 1Cor 14? Why embrace
verses 1-5, 26-33, and 39-40, but leave 33b-35 in
the first century?
It is obvious that these
questions are beyond the realm of baseline
common-sense and require further rules to
increase our consistency in our interpretation of
the Epistles.

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D.2.ii
Rule 2: Check the Original
Understanding
A text cannot mean what it never meant to its
original author or reader. Earlier we dealt with
historical background and the need to uncover
what the text originally meant to the original
readers and hearers. This principle is reinforced
here by the rule that a text cannot mean what it
never could have meant to its original author or his
readers (exegesis, the discovery of the original
meaning, must always precede application). This
rule is especially applicable to the Epistles in their
role as one of the primary sources of New
Covenant doctrine of the Church. This rule, in
itself, doesnt always reveal what the text means
but it does help to set limits on what the text
doesnt mean.
For example, 1Co 13:10 is often interpreted
as justification for disregarding the instructions
about seeking spiritual gifts (1Co 14). The word
perfection in the text is interpreted to have come
in the form of the New Testament Scriptures and
therefore the imperfect (prophecy and tongues)
have ceased to exist. These interpreters say that
since the complete Bible as we have it today with
Old and New Testaments has come the perfect
has come, therefore there is no more tongues or
prophecy etc.. This is one meaning that this text
cannot possibly mean. Paul, let alone his readers,
did not know there was going to be a New
Testament added to their Bibles and Paul would
not
have
written
something
totally
incomprehensible to them.

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D.2.iii Rule 3: Examine Comparable


Particulars
Comparable particulars mean equal application in
the first or twenty-first centuries. Whenever we
share comparable particulars (that is, when we
have specific life situations in common) with the
first century setting then Gods word to us is his
word to them. It is still true that all have sinned
and that by grace we are saved through faith.
The obvious caution here is that we do our
exegesis well and that we are able to be confident
that our situation is genuinely comparable to
theirs.
For example, lets take 1Co 6:1-11 regarding
lawsuits between believers. Both parties are
believers, the judge is ungodly and, historical
study tells us that the hearing was in the open
marketplace in Corinth. Does the situation change
if the judge is a Christian and sits in a courthouse?
What of a Christian suing a company in presentday South Africa? Here the particulars are not the
same (although verse 7, paraphrasing Jesus nonretaliation ethic, should be considered). This
situation raises the issue of extended application,
discussed below.
D.3.

Four Areas Requiring Specific Attention

D.3.i
Extended Application
By this we mean, Is it taught elsewhere?
Consider this question:
When there are comparable particulars and
contexts in todays Church, is it legitimate to
extend the application of the original text to our

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context (or even to contexts totally foreign to its


first-century setting)?
For example, 1Co 3:16-17 addresses the local
church and presents the principle that what God
has set aside for himself by the indwelling of the
Holy Spirit is sacred and whoever destroys that
will come under Gods awful judgement. Can this
then be applied to the individual Christian who
abuses their body (for example, a smoker) that
God will judge them in the same way?
A principle derived by extended application
can only be legitimate when it is true: it must be
clearly stated in another passage where it is the
intent of the passage. If that is the case then the
question must be asked, Is what we learn only by
extended application truly the word of God?
Traditionally, what is understood by 2Co 6:14:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers? Is
marriage mentioned in the verse, paragraph or
passage? Is yoke used regularly to refer to
marriage? Why then marriage? Is there not more
reason to believe that Paul is reminding them of
his advice not to attend the idol feasts (1Co 10:1422)?
(Fortunately, there is enough teaching
throughout the breadth of Scripture to sustain the
principle that a believer should not marry an
unbeliever.)37

37

As discussed earlier, just because within the realm of


exegesis we do not use this text to prove that believers should
not marry unbelievers, this does not mean a preacher may or
may not use the text as such. This issue falls into the realm of
homiletics.

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D.3.ii
Particulars That are Not Comparable
By this we mean, What is the principle? There
are two possible scenarios that fall into this
category:
First-century issues that are without twentyfirst-century counterparts; and
Those texts that deal with problems that could
possibly happen but are highly unlikely to do
so.
What should we do with these texts? Are they of
any relevance to us if we are never going to find
ourselves in a comparable situation?
The
treatment of such texts requires, once again,
sound exegesisbut with the view of deriving a
principle from the original setting.
Of vital
importance is the application of that principle: it
cannot be applied free of the original context but
must only be applied to genuinely comparable
situations (consider 1Co 8:11: it doesnt merely
mean offend but rather destroys).
D.3.iii The Problem of Cultural Relativity
This is the question: Is the principle significant,
consistent and inherent? This is the source of
most present day difficulties and is where the
complexity of Gods eternal word having been
given in historical particularity comes most sharply
into focus.
Most of us, when reading the
Scriptures, translate what we read into new
settings without specific guidelines. The result is
that the same believer who advocates that a little
wine for your stomachs sake should be left in the
culture of the first century winces when the gay

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activist relegates homophobia to a first century


phenomena not appropriate to the twenty-first.
As the first-century culture cannot be labelled
divine the problem of cultural relativity needs to be
addressed.
Principles must be consistently
applied to distinguish between items that are
culturally relative and those that are notand
therefore transcend their original setting and serve
as normative for Christians of all time. The
following are among guidelines suggested by Fee
and Stuart:
Distinguish between the central core of the
message of the Bible and what is dependant
upon, or peripheral to, it. In other words,
Major on the majors and minor on the
minors.
Distinguish between what the New Testament
itself sees as inherently moral and what it
does not. The former are absolute and abide
for every culture while the latter will be cultural
expressions that may change from culture to
culture. An example is Pauls sin lists (1Co
6:9-10) compared to foot-washing (Jn 13:2-5).
Distinguish between what the New Testament
treats consistently and where there are
conflicting treatments of the same subject
(because of different situations). Is love as
the basic ethical response versus the role of
women in the Church an example?
Distinguish between a principle and a specific
application within the New Testament. What
is the principle behind Pauls instruction that
women should cover their heads?

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Where the result is a major (or core) message,


where it is treated with consistency and where it is
inherent to the New Testament we can safely say
that we have derived a principle or instruction that
transcends culture.
D.3.iv The Problem of Task Theology
In other words, Ask their questions. The fact
that most of the theology in the Epistles is not
systematically presented does not mean that the
theology derived from statements throughout the
breadth of all the Epistles cannot be systematically
presented. Conversely, we as believers should
constantly, after sound exegesis, be forming or
refining our theology in a systematic way. Below
are two guidelines in dealing with the task of
theology:
We must acknowledge the limitations
sometimes imposed by the occasional nature
of the Epistles. Often where a secondary or
parallel issue is raised to substantiate or to
contrast a point the former is not dealt with
comprehensivelyand beyond what is stated
is, for us, mere speculation. Consider 1Co
6:2-3s Christians will someday judge
angels. In Scripture, God has given us all we
need to knownot necessarily all we want to
know (Dt 29:29).
Ensure that we are not asking our question of
the texts that, by their occasional nature, are
answering only their questions. An example
is asking Scripture to speak directly to the
issue of abortion (our question). This is an
important social issue now but not an issue of
the first century (unlike, for example,

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adultery). The only solution is to bring a


biblical world view to the problem.
It is worth restating that all believers should be
constantly seeking to refine their theology as well
as their development of a biblical worldview. This
is achieved through the reading of the Word, the
application of sound and consistent hermeneutics
and the implementation of the truths into their daily
lives. Caution must he given not to over-focus on
the Epistlesall of Scripture is God-breathed
but at the same time to acknowledge their role as
the primary source of doctrine in certain areas,
inter alia, the Church and the family.

E. Biblical Narratives
E.1.

The Nature of Narratives

Biblical historical narratives are stories that are


true, crucially important, often complex and have
as their chief aim the glory of God. They show
God at work, helping us to understand and
appreciate him as well as giving us a picture of his
faithfulness and consistency in his desire to
provide, protect and to purify his people.
All narratives have a plot and characters and,
in effect, are being told on three levels:
the individual narrative (bottom level) is told
within;
the major narrative of Israels history (Old
Testament);
in the world (middle level) which is in turn part
of

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the ultimate narrative of Gods creation and


redemptive plan (top levelwhich transcends
the covenants and testaments). You cannot
do justice to an individual narrative without
placing it in the context of the other two.
The awareness of this hierarchy should be helpful
in applying Old Testament narratives to our lives.
When Jesus taught that the Scriptures bear
witness to my name (Jn 5:27-29) he was surely
referring to the ultimate narrative and not the
individual narratives (implying that Davids adultery
with Bathsheba bears witness to his name)!
E.2.

Old Testament Narratives

The following points are important


interpreting Old Testament narratives:

when

Old Testament narratives are not stories


about heroic individuals but are, first and
foremost, historical accounts of one hero
Godand he is the leading character in all
narratives.
They are also not allegories or stories filled
with hidden meanings that when discovered
provide the source for new revelation or
doctrine that is not clearly taught elsewhere in
Scripture.
Old Testament narratives dont usually teach
directly but rather demonstrate the outworking
of truths taught clearly elsewhere in Scripture.
Narratives record what happened not what
should have happened so dont always
conclude whether what has been recorded

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was morally good or badthis must be


weighed up against the whole of Scripture.
All narratives are selective and incomplete but
what does appear is what the inspired author
thought important for us to know (to make
some main points).
Our task is to learn Gods word from the narratives
and not to try and do everything that was done in
the Bible. No Bible narrative was written with you
in mind: the Joseph narrative is about Joseph and
how God interacted through him. We can learn a
great deal from the Joseph account but we are not
required to duplicate his lifestyle.

F. Narratives and Biblical Precedents


Whilst the points listed above are true for all
narratives, specific attention must be given to
those of the New Testament, especially when
dealing with the book of Acts. The reason is that
most of us do not read Acts the same way as we
do Judges: few of us have searched the Old
Testament narratives for patterns of church life or
Christian behaviour yet most of us read the New
Testament narratives looking for such patterns or
precedents. The hermeneutical problem of biblical
precedent is this: do biblical narratives that
describe what happened in the early church also
function as norms, intending to teach what must
happen in the contemporary church? Is our
response to the book of Acts We must do this, or
We may do this? The basic rule here is that
unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do
something, what is only narrated or described
does not function in a normative wayunless it

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can be demonstrated on other grounds that the


author intended for it to function in a normative
way.
It is important to understand the positioning of
narrative with regard to doctrine. Generally, there
are three categories into which we divide doctrinal
statements:
Christian theology (what we believe);
Christian ethics (how we ought to behave);
and
Christian experience and practice (what we
do).
Within these categories there are two levels of
statement, the primary and the secondary. The
primary are explicit imperatives (commands) and
principles whilst the secondary level is derived by
implication (implicit) or precedent. Consider this
example:
Category
Theology
Ethics
Practice

Primary Level
Prayer
Course speech
Assemble together

Secondary Level
How, where, when?
What constitutes?
How often, where?

Almost everything derived by way of biblical


precedent is in the third category (at the second
level).
Christians should assemble together
(primary). The frequency or day of the week is
secondary. The temptation is to elevate narrative
to the first level of the first category but for the
reasons stated below, this must be resisted.
The following principles are helpful in dealing
with the hermeneutics of biblical precedent:

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Never use an analogy based on biblical


precedent to give sole biblical authority for
present-day actions. For example, Gideons
fleece is used as an analogy for finding Gods
will: God graciously condescension to
Gideons lack of trust does not provide
authority or encouragement for us to repeat
his actions.
A biblical precedent justifying present day
theology is only acceptable if the action is
explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture where
the primary intent was to teach that principle.
For example, present day speaking in
tongues is based not only on narratives in
Acts but also on the explicit teachings in 1Co
12-14.
Biblical precedents may sometimes be
regarded as repeatable patterns and
practiceseven if they are not understood to
be normative. That is, we may be fully
justified in repeating early church practices
but it is pointless to argue that every church in
every setting must repeat the pattern. An
example is the role of home groups in
present-day churches. Why must all who see
our local church as home, be integrated into
a home group?
Where the Bible sets a clear pattern and
example it should be followed even if there is
no clear command to do so. (If we dont
follow the pattern of Scripture then we can get
to a point where anything goes except clear
instructions against immorality.)
A
discussion of the issue of Kingdom cultures
and how they influence us (despite a lack of

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clear, verbally-explicit commands to develop


a Kingdom culture in the Bible) is beyond
the scope of this introductory course.
Biblical narrative is an earthly account of the
dramatic intervention of God in human history
which graphically reveals his character to man.
Narrative is a wonderful compliment to the explicit
teaching of biblical principles, enabling us to see
these principles outworked in practice.

G. The Gospels
G.1.

The Nature of the Gospels

It is of importance to note that the Gospels


surround one character, Jesus Christ, and to
contextualise the Gospel teachings fully it is of
necessity to have a thorough understanding of the
social setting and people of his timeand, more
specifically, his relationship with the different
groups (the Sadducees, Samaritans etc.).
The form of Jesus teaching is as important. Most
of us are aware that he was a master of
purposeful overstatement (see Mt 5:29-30this is
known as hyperbole) and can probably easily
recognise his use thereof. But what of our ability
to identifylet alone, correctly handlethings
like proverbs (Mt 6:21), similes and metaphors (Mt
10:16), poetry (Mt 7:6-8), questions (Mt 17:25),
parables (Mt 15:15) and irony (Mt 16:2-3)?
The fact that there are three very similar
Gospels plus a fourth does have hermeneutical
implications. We need to remember to think

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103

horizontally when reading the Gospels, that is,


look to the parallel accounts in the other Gospels.
We dont do this to fill in the gapsthis would
elevate the canonical authority of one of the
Gospels above the others. Rather, we think
horizontally for increased harmony. We should
also examine each gospel apart from the others to
find the main points emphasised by the author.
It is beyond the objective of this course to
deal extensively with the nature of the Gospels
and therefore we confine the remainder of this
section on the Gospels to those genres that by
their nature tend to be either inconsistently treated
or worse still, misinterpreted.
G.2.

The Nature of Parables

Although we cover parables here, under the


Gospels, this form of writing is also found
elsewhere in Scripture. The nature of a parable is
similar to that of a joke in that both call for a
response from the listener and, in addition, the
listener gets caught by the punch line
(unexpected turn of events). If the listener doesnt
understand the terms of reference (consider an
American hearing Van der Merwe went to a braai
and was watching the Currie Cup when ) hes
not going to understand the joke. And, having
been explained the terms of reference, he might
still find the joke amusing, but the punch has
been lost. Because of this we need to learn to
recapture the punch of the parables.
It is important to remember that a parable is
not an allegory. A true allegory is a story in which
each element in the story means something quite
foreign to the story itself. (For example, if Lk 7:40-

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42 was an allegory there would be special


meaning to the five hundred denarii, the fifty
denarii, as well as the other details in the story
each thing in the story would represent some
other thing in real life.) More importantly, because
each of the elements of an allegory have meaning,
the result of an allegory is several principles
taught through one story. This is not the case with
a parable. In a parable the points of reference are
exactly that: parts of the story that serve to draw
the hearer into, or help the hearer to identify with,
some aspect of the story. A parable almost
always has a single point, and that is to be found
in the intended response (to the punch line) by the
listener.
G.3.

Principles for Interpreting Parables

It is this nature (of having a single point) of


parables that demands the need to interpret (as
opposed to taking them literally). We lack the
immediate points of reference that the original
hearers had. The hermeneutics recommended
are:
G.3.i
What was Originally Understood?
What did the original listeners understand by the
points of reference? A thorough understanding of
the biblical context is essential to fully appreciate
the truth of a parable. Without an understanding
of the points of reference we will never fully
understand the punch making the parable of little
worth.

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G.3.ii
What is the Main Point?
What is the point, and how is it relevant to me?
Having discovered the point (meaning) of the
parable we need to translate that same point into
our own context.
G.3.iii Examine the Required Response
Note the urgency of response Jesus sought in his
use of parables. When applying parables to our
own contexts we must not lose the urgency of the
message that the Kingdom has come and is soon
to be consummated.
The hour of fulfilment has come; that is the
keynote of them all [Biblical parables]. The strong
man is disarmed, the powers of evil have to yield,
the physician has come to the sick, the lepers are
cleansed, the heavy burden of guilt is removed,
the lost sheep is brought home, the door of the
Fathers house is opened, the poor and the
beggars are summoned to the banquet, a master
whose kindness is undeserved pays wages in full,
a great joy fills all hearts, Gods acceptable year
has come. For there has appeared the one whose
veiled majesty shines through every word and
every parablethe Saviour.
Joachim Jeremais38

38

Jeremais J, Rediscovering the Parables, 1966.

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POSSIBLE ANSWERS
Chapter II
A.3.1

A.3.2

A.3.3

A.3.4

A.3.5
A.3.6

B.3.1

The context suggests that the author of


the book did not consider the Noah story
mythical. (Also, history shows there was
probably large flood of some sort in the
area a few thousand years ago.) As
such, while it may serve as a warning, it
does have a historical foundation (myth
has no historical foundation).
Again, it does have a historical
foundationbut it is also a warning.
Consider 1Co 10:11.
No, the Zacchaeus story is narrative and
is thus historical. The original author did
not intend for it to be used allegorically.
No, Jn 6:53-59 uses a figure of speech
(John, the author, clearly likes them as
he uses figures of speech often).
No, the text is historical and shows the
power of Christ to heal.
The context suggests a figurative or
symbolic interpretation.
Blood is
consistently used for death so the
context suggests that the Old Testament
picture of the 144,000 (who are the
same people as the New Testament
picture of the great multitudeall
believers) are made righteous by Christs
work on the cross.
The primary factor here is that Israel has
breached (broken) their side of their
covenant with God. God is fulfilling his

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B.3.2

B.3.3

B.3.4

107

promise to deal with them as their sins


deserve. Consider Leviticus 25 and 26.
Dt 32:30 is, in context, using a figure of
speech to show how severely Israel will
be punished for their sins. It is therefore
not to be used to create doctrine about
how powerful Christians can be together.
Lev 26:8 uses a different figure of speech
to show the favour of God in Israels
battles.
It is not teaching ratios of
productivity. While one can argue that
the basic principles of team apply, this is
not a proof text.
Hebrews is a book that is written to
people who knew the Old Testament very
well. To interpret the book you need to
know what was in their minds: the basic
outline of Israels history and the
covenants they had with God.
The apostles main point is that any
teaching that says that Jesus did not
come in the flesh is wrong. His main
point is what we are to embracetaking
his language to an literal extreme out of
context results in error. When he says,
spirit he doesnt mean, demon inside
someone.

Chapter III
A.3.1

This verse must be interpreted in the


context of Israels history. Also, God
meets people where they are at. God
has an ideal (as seen in the pictures of
heaven), but there is the real (where we

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A.3.2

A.3.3

A.3.4

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are now, in the so-called real world).


Many things that are not part of Gods
ideal must happen on earth. In short, it is
not endorsing war in general (especially
not for the Church, in the sense of
Church wars, since the New Testament
teaches that we are not fighting for
physical land). But the Bible doesnt say
that it is wrong to defend your country
with an army if necessary. (This issue is
covered in detail in other books and
cannot be covered in detail here.)
God prospered Abraham.
While
Abraham was a model for us in terms of
faith, that doesnt mean every aspect of
his life is to be imitated. If we use the
text to claim we should be rich then we
also need to live a nomadic life like he did
(and live where he did, and have as
many wives as he did )! The historical
records of great men in the Bible do not
set a normative example for us.
As above, history is not normative. We
look to the instructions of Jesus and his
apostles for how to find a wife. (A
number of sermons on how to choose a
marriage partner are available from
Glenridge.)
The verse must be interpreted in the
context of the whole Bible. For example,
we are to live like Jesus lived and he
would not have asked for constant
luxurious and pleasurable living. As such
we cant ask for that (not in faith).

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B.3.1

B.3.2
B.3.3

B.3.4

B.3.5

B.3.6

109

It shows us God is sovereign over history


(he decides what nations do what). God
does not compromise his nature out of
mere compassion.
We can learn that God honours his
covenant and word.
Nothe context teaches the opposite.
The word Israel is used in the Bible to
mean various things, such as, Gods
people, the nation of Israel, the land of
Israel, Gods true people, as so on. As
such the full number of true believers in
God, those who trust him for salvation (by
trusting in Gods only way of salvation,
Jesus) will be saved.
The apostle Johns style of writing needs
to be considered. He is highlighting the
contrast between those who sin
(habitually) and those who do not.
Paul is using a figure of speech to drive
home his point: their demand that
Christians must be circumcised for
salvation is outrageous.
The context supports the view that
apostolic ministry is effective.

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THE FINAL CHECKLIST


Plain Meaning: Consider style. What is the
obvious meaning of the text?
Historical Background: Who wrote? Why
written? Who read? Where written? Where
read? What did they know that we dont know?
What was their culture like?
Self Interpretation: What does the rest of
Scripture say?
Literary Context: Consider the meaning of the
word, sentence, passage and book within its
corresponding context of sentence, passage, book
and Bible? Read whole books of the Bible in one
sitting.39
Literary Style: Consider:
Poetry: Whats the mood?
Prophecy: Think past and present and then
future.
Wisdom: Remember attitudes not
guarantees.
Epistles: Considering their context how do
they transcend time?
Narratives: Remember the principle of selfinterpretation, is the event explicitly taught
elsewhere as normative?
Gospels: Whats the point? Consider each
gospel individually and also think horizontally.
39

This is often more easily done by using a Bible on CD.

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