By Andy Woods
What makes someone a dispensationalist? While many view Dispensationalism as a mere theological system, this assessment is inaccurate. In actuality, Dispensationalism has more to do with commitment to a particular hermeneutic then it does to adherence to a theological model. The Dispensational theological system arises out of a hermeneutic rather than from a theology imposed upon Scripture. The purpose of this paper is to describe this hermeneutic and explain how Dispensationalism is its natural by-product.
First, the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic will be defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical goals will be explained. Second, it will be shown that the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it will be established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach will be briefly examined.
Literal, Grammatical, Historical Methodology
Post-reformation biblical interpretation employs what is called the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation. Let us break this phrase down into its component parts. The dictionary defines literal interpretation as that type of interpretation that is “based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning…not going beyond the facts.”1 Two concepts seem to be in view. First, according to Ram, literal interpretation encompasses the idea of assigning to every word the same meaning it would have in its normal usage, whether employed in speaking, writing, or thinking.2 Cooper’s “Golden Rule of Interpretation” incorporates such an understanding of literalism:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.3
Second, literalism resists going beyond what is written. Because literalism resists “going beyond the facts,” when interpreting a given text, literal interpreters resist the temptation to import foreign ideas from outside the text. A classic example of going beyond what the text says is the ancient interpretation that the four rivers in Genesis 2, the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris, and Euphrates, represent the body, soul, spirit, and mind.4 Such an idea is not readily apparent from studying the text in Genesis 2. One must go outside the text of Genesis 2 and bring into it foreign concepts in order to arrive at this conclusion.
It should be noted in passing that literal interpretation has been unfairly criticized on the basis that it adheres to a wooden, inflexible literalism that fails to allow for types, symbols, figures of speech, and genre distinctions.5 Such a straw man argumentation is easily recognizable by simply reading how those advocating a literal hermeneutic define the term literal. Charles Ryrie specifically notes that literalism “…does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.”6 Ryrie further explains that literal interpretation “…might also be called plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech.”7 Ryrie buttresses this point by appealing to the following quote from E.R. Craven:
The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny the great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestly figurative so regarded.8
The absurdity of the notion that a literal hermeneutic fails to encompass basic figures of speech is also illustrated by the fact that the most extensive scholarly treatment of figures of speech available today9 was completed not just by a dispensational literalist, but by a hyper dispensationalist! E.W. Bullinger, the creator of this work, was not only a literalist and a dispensationalist, but a hyper dispensationalist who believed that the age of the church began after Acts 28:28. Thomas Ice observes, “Bullinger’s work demonstrates that literalists have at least thought about the use of figures of speech in a detailed and sophisticated way and do not consider such usage in conflict with literalism.”10
Grammatical interpretation observes the impact that grammar plays in any given text. Thus, bible interpreters must correctly analyze the relationship that words, phrases, or sentences have toward one another. Such an analysis entails the study of lexicology (meaning of words), morphology (form of words), parts of speech (function of words), and syntax (relationship of words).11 Historical interpretation takes into account historical context, setting, and circumstances in which the words of Scripture were written. Milton S. Terry explains:
The interpreter should, therefore, endeavour to take himself from the present, and to transport himself into the historical position of his author, look through his eyes, note his surroundings, feel with his heart, and catch his emotion. Herein we note the import of the term grammatico–historical interpretation.12
In essence, the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation is designed to arrive at authorial intent by allowing the ideas plainly found within the text to speak for themselves.
Why should biblical interpreters employ the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation? J. Dwight Pentecost cites four dangers when such an approach is not used.13First and foremost, the authority transfers from the text to the interpreter. In other words, the basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but rather the mind of the interpreter. Early church father Jerome warns, “that the faultiest style of teaching is to corrupt the meaning of Scripture, and to drag its reluctant utterance to our own will, making Scriptural mysteries out of our own imagination.”14 F.W. Farrar adds, “…once we start with the rule that whole passages and books of scripture say one thing when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to the caprice of the interpreter.”15 Bernard Ramm observes, “The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hands of the exegete.”16 Walvoord observes:
It’s not too difficult to account for the widespread approval of the spiritualizing method adopted by many conservative theologians as well as liberal and Roman Catholic expositors. Fundamentally its charm lies in its flexibility. The interpreter can change the literal and grammatical sense of Scripture to make it coincide with his own system of interpretation.17
Thus, scripture becomes held hostage to whatever seems reasonable to the interpreter when the literal, grammatical, historical interpretive method is dispensed with. The text becomes swallowed up in the personal theology of the interpreter rather than allowing the one’s theology to be built from the text.
Second, the Scripture itself is not being interpreted. The issue becomes not what God has spoken but what the interpreter thinks. In other words, the text becomes servant to the interpreter rather than the interpreter being subservient to the text. Terry explains:
…it will be noticed at once that its habit is to disregard the common signification of words and give wing to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author’s language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire.”18
Third, one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested. When the objective standard of language’s common meaning is dispensed with, one man’s personal interpretation becomes just as valid as anyone else’s. In such an environment, there is no way to determine whose interpretation is correct because there is no longer an objective standard that personal interpretations can be compared to. Fourth, there is no mechanism to control the imagination of the interpreter. Ramm notes:
…to state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principle method of interpretation is “spiritualizing,” is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.19
Thus, literal interpretation properly constrains the dictates of the carnal imagination by allowing it to roam only so far. Otherwise, interpreters (to borrow the language of the great New York jurist, Chancellor James Kent) would be able to “roam at large in the trackless fields of their own imaginations.” In sum, traditional maxims of biblical interpretation have as their underlying goal the pursuit of authorial intent by first and foremost observing the ideas plainly presented in the text. A related goal is to shift the authority in the interpretive process away from the subjectivity of the interpreter’s ever-vacillating imagination and back toward the objectivity of the static text. In essence, the goals of the literal, grammatical, historical method is to dethrone the interpreter in the interpretive process.
Similarities to Legal Interpretation
The above-described hermeneutical philosophy should come as no great surprise. It is the same hermeneutical philosophy that is used in the everyday communication. If the above-described hermeneutic were not adhered to then everyday communication could not take place. Stopping at a stop sign, ordering from a menu, and paying taxes on time could not be accomplished if the literal, grammatical, historical method is dispensed with. The literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same method that is used to decipher any sane piece of literature.
Contracts and Other Devices
This same rationale also exists in the domain of legal interpretation. For the same reasons described above, when interpreting a contract, courts first of all observe the plain meaning of the contract language. Because courts understand that parties have a right to enter into contractual terms of their own choosing, courts understand that they are not in the business of rewriting contracts in a way that is contrary to the expressed wishes of the parties. Therefore, courts allow the authority in the interpretive process to reside in the contract language rather than in their own opinions regarding what the contract should or should not say. Justice Flaherty succinctly summarized the philosophy behind literal interpretation in contract law:
…the rationale for interpreting contractual terms in accord with the plain meaning of language expressed is multifarious, resting in part upon what is viewed as the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process: This court long ago emphasized that the parties have the right to make their own contract, and it is not the function of the court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with…the accepted and plain meaning of the language used…In addition to the justifications focusing upon the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process, the plain meaning approach to construction has been supported as generally best serving the ascertainment of the contracting parties mutual intent…In determining what the parties determined by their contract, the law must look to what they clearly expressed. Courts in interpreting a contract do not assume that its language was chosen carelessly. Neither can it be assumed that the parties were ignorant of the meaning of the language that they employed…20
Similarly, because courts desire to honor the wishes of the testator, they also allow authority to rest in the testamentary document itself by utilizing a literal approach when interpreting such documents. Moreover, because the judiciary traditionally has not desired to transform itself into a super legislature, it has attempted to follow the plain language of statutes whenever possible when interpreting legislation.
Because jurists have traditionally not desired to amend the Constitution from the bench, they have typically followed the plain language of the Constitution’s drafters thus allowing authority to abide in the constitutional text rather in their own ideological predilections. Traditional principles of constitutional interpretation recognize that the maxim of following the plain language of the text is indeed the best insulation against an overly ideological judiciary. If jurists approached these documents any other way, they would not be interpreting. Rather, they would be amending and rewriting them.
Joseph Story, who was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the leading constitutional scholar of the nineteenth century, echoed these sentiments. In his influential Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), he called for interpreting the constitution according to the intent of its authors as revealed in the plain meaning of their language. He noted, “The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments, is to construe them according to the sense of the terms, and the intention of the parties.”21 Upon informing the readers of the preface of his commentary of his own approach to constitutional analysis, he indicated:
The reader must not expect to find in these pages any novel views and novel constructions of the Constitution. I have not the ambition to be the author of any new plan of interpreting the theory of the Constitution, or of enlarging or narrowing its powers, by ingenious subtleties and learned doubts…Upon subjects of government, it has always appeared to me that metaphysical refinements are out of place. A constitution of government is addressed to the common sense of the people, and never was designed for trials of logical skill, or visionary speculation.22
Story also noted:
In construing the Constitution of the United States, we are in the first instance to consider, what are its nature and objects, its scope and design, as apparent from the structure of the instrument, viewed as a whole and also viewed in its component parts. Where its words are plain, clear and determinate, they require no interpretation…Where the words admit of two senses, each of which is conformable to general usage, that sense is to be adopted, which without departing from the literal import of the words, best harmonizes with the nature and objects, the scope and design of the instrument.23
Similarly, John Marshall, our nation’s third Supreme Court justice, noted:
To say that the intention of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance nor extended to objects not comprehended in them nor contemplated by its framers, is to repeat what has been already said more at large, and is all that can be necessary.24
Thomas Jefferson similarly observed, “The Constitution on which our Union rests, shall be administered by me according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States, at the time of its adoption.”25 Moreover, Milton Terry’s above-described definition of historical interpretation bears much resemblance to Thomas Jefferson’s admonition to return to the Constitution’s original intent. Jefferson said that we must:
Carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.26
Although there are similarities in approach when comparing maxims of legal and biblical interpretation, the similarities do not end there. The philosophy of interpretation is also shared between the two disciplines. The underlying goal of both legal and biblical interpretation is to transfer the authority away from the subjective impulses of the interpreter and instead toward the objective standard of the author’s meaning. Although many in today’s theological climate demean the literal, grammatical, historical, method, it is this very method that our judicial system and political institutions are founded upon. When dispensationalists insist upon the literal, grammatical, historical method, all they are doing is asking that the same interpretive approach routinely used in ordinary communication and in the legal system be applied to Scripture.
The Relationship of the Literal, Grammatical, Historical Method to Dispensationalism
What makes Dispensationalism unique as a theological system is not merely its emphasis upon a literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. Many theological systems selectively incorporate this hermeneutic. Rather, Dispensationalism remains unique in its insistence in consistently applying this literal hermeneutic to the totality of biblical revelation. Thus, Ryrie includes consistent literal interpretation in his sine qua non of dispensational theology when he says, “the distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation.”27 Notice that Dispensationalism does not have as its starting point the Israel/Church distinction that is then read back into the Bible. Rather it has as its starting point a consistent literal approach to Scripture. This approach causes the interpreter to recognize that Israel and the church are unique. Ryrie is clear that the system known as Dispensationalism did not originate from forcing a theological grid upon the biblical text. Rather it arose when interpreters became committed to a consistent use of the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. For example, if the same literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic that is used to interpret other sections of Scripture is applied to Biblical prophecy, then the interpreter will naturally see a distinction between Israel and the church.
Historical Rise of the Consistent Literal Approach
Let us briefly examine the historical forces giving rise to this consistent, literal approach to Scripture. This brief historical analysis will emphasize the legal background of the leading advocates of literalism. This background is important in grasping that these interpreters simply took the hermeneutical approach necessary to interpret legal documents and applied them to Scripture. Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, both students of the law in their formative educational years,28 played integral roles in rescuing the church from the Alexandrian allegorical method of interpretation that was introduced in the second century and grew to dominate the church throughout the middle ages. Luther denounced the allegorical approach to Scripture in strong words. He said: “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.” “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.” “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture.” “Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere monkey game.” “Allegories are awkward, absurd, inventive, obsolete, loose rags.”29 Luther also wrote that the Scriptures “are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids” (Luther’s Works, 6:509).30
Calvin similarly rejected allegorical interpretations. He called them “frivolous games” and accused Origen and other allegorists of “torturing scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.”31 Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on Romans “it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”32
Both reformers rejected the use of church tradition as a guide for spiritual truth and instead advocated returning to scripture alone or “sola scriptura” as the source of Christian belief and practice. To put this into legal terms, Luther and Calvin rejected the case law approach as a guide to Scripture.33 The case law method places more emphasis on studying what legal authorities have said about a given legal source than on studying the legal source itself. In addition, both reformers recognized the value of knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek due to the fact that a return to scripture inevitably required knowledge of the original languages of Scripture.
However, despite their emphasis upon literally interpreting some aspects of Scripture, Luther and Calvin did not go far enough in applying a literal hermeneutic to all areas of divine truth. Regarding Luther, Roy B. Zuck observes:
Though Luther vehemently opposed the allegorizing of scripture, he too occasionally allegorized. For instance he stated that Noah’s Ark is an allegory of the church. For Luther, Bible interpretation is to be centered in Christ. Rather than allegorizing the Old Testament, he saw Christ frequently in the Old Testament, often beyond what is legitimately provided for in proper interpretation.34
Because the reformers were primarily concerned with soteriological issues, they failed to apply the same literal interpretation that they used to interpret soteriology to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology.
Such a selective and inconsistent application of a literal hermeneutic was not rectified until the budding of the dispensational movement centuries later. Dispensationalists took the literal hermeneutic applied by the reformers in the area of soteriology and applied it to all areas of theology, including eschatology and ecclesiology. By insisting on the application of a literal hermeneutic to all of Scripture, Dispensationalism, in essence, completed the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers.
Emphasizing the legal background of the early dispensationalists is important for two reasons. First, it shows that the early dispensationalists did what the reformers did in applying the same hermeneutic used to interpret legal documents to biblical truth. The only difference between the reformers and the early dispensationalists is that they applied this method more consistently. They applied it not only to soteriological issues but also to ecclesiology and eschatology. Second, according to Charles Clough, the legal backgrounds of the early dispensationalists allowed them to see more clearly than earlier interpreters the nature of a contract or covenant as expressed in Scripture. A major ingredient of Dispensationalism is a proper understanding of the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. If this covenant is unconditional and unfulfilled, then a future for national Israel remains and the church cannot be said to have replaced Israel. Someone trained in the realties of contract law and with an understanding of contract language and the force of a contract would be more sensitive to seeing similar concepts when they occur in Scripture. Clough explains:
Both Nelson Darby and C.I. Scofield studied law in their early years, so they certainly recognized the hermeneutics of contract law. Thus, after uncovering the contractual structure in the Bible through which God governs His relationships with His creatures, these dispensational theologians insisted upon a strict literal and conservative interpretation of contractual (covenantal) terminology.35
Thus, just as Calvin and Luther, the two men most credited for introducing a literal hermeneutic to soteriological issues in the reformation era, were trained in the law, many of the leaders of the dispensational movement were heavily influenced by their legal training and thinking. For example, John Nelson Darby, the man mostly credited with rediscovering the scriptural doctrine of the pretribulation rapture, planned to enter the field of law after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin. He was called to the Irish Chancery Bar in 1822. However, after a spiritual struggle that led to his conversion he opted to give up the law in order to become a priest in the Church of England.36
Another key dispensational thinker was Sir Robert Anderson. Though more recent work may shed new light on Anderson’s prophetic calculations,37 his work The Coming Prince is considered a classic in the area of biblical chronology because of its detailed explanation of the literal fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks. Anderson, like Darby, was also heavily influenced by the legal profession. After receiving his law degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1863, he became a member of the Irish bar and worked drawing up legal briefs on a traveling circuit. He served as chief of the criminal investigative department of the Scotland Yard. After retiring with distinction, he used his investigative training and ability to think logically to study the Scriptures.38
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield was yet another influential dispensationalist who also happened to be a lawyer. Following the Civil War he studied law and received his law degree. He then entered politics in Kansas. President Grant later appointed him to the office of District Attorney. Scofield’s best-remembered contributions include his influence as a Bible teacher as well asThe Scofield Reference Bible, which advocated a pretribulation rapture, a literal return of the Jews to the homeland, premillennialism, and Dispensationalism.39 In sum, great hermeneuticalstrides have been made in church history when the same literal, grammatical, historical method that is used in ordinary communication is applied to Scripture. Application of such an interpretive approach to soteriological issues ignited the reformation. Dispensationalists finished the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers by the applying this hermeneutic to the totality of biblical truth, including ecclesiology and eschatology.
This paper has sought to explain the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. First, the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic was defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical outlook was explained. This outlook includes allowing meaning to be determined from the text and transferring authority from the interpreter to the text in the interpretive process. Second, it was shown that the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it was established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach were briefly examined. Far from being the product of reading the Bible through an a priori theological grid, Dispensationalism is the product of a consistent, literal approach to Scripture.
1 Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, unabridged, 2d ed., s.v. “literal.”
2 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d ed. (Boston: W.A. Wilde, 1956; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 89-92.
3 David L. Cooper, The World’s Greatest Library Graphically Illustrated (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970), 11.
4 One need only examine the works of Philo to find numerous examples of such a hermeneutical methodology. Philo, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge, New updated ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).
5 For an example of a work that levels this charge, see D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 2002).
6 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 86.
8 E.R. Craven and J.P. Lange, ed., Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (NY: Scribner, 1872), 98 (cited in Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 87).
9 Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
10 Thomas D. Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, gen. eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 42.
11 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 100.
12 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 231.
13 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 5-6. It is instructive to note that Pentecost begins his mammoth work on eschatology with a discussion of literal hermeneutics. Pentecost’s methodology is clear. If the interpreter applies a consistent literal approach to eschatological truths, then the other prophetic concepts found in his book will become readily apparent to the interpreter.
14 Jerome; Quoted by F.W. Farrar, History of interpretation (NY: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1886), 232.
15 Ibid., 238-39.
16 Ramm, 30.
17 John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 60.
18 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883), 224.
19 Ramm, 65.
20 Justice Flaherty; Quoted by E. Allan Farnsworth and William F. Young, Cases and Materials on Contracts, 5th ed. (Westbury, NY: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1995), 603-4.
21 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United Sates, 3rd ed. (Boston, 1858), 1:283, 400.
22 Ibid., viii.
23 Joseph Story; quoted in Edwin Meese, III, Address to American Bar Association, 1985; adapted in “Toward a Jurisprudence of Original Intention,” Benchmark Vol. II, no. 1, (January-February 1986): 10.
24 Chief Justice John Marshall in Ogden v. Saunders, 6 L. Ed. 606, 647 (1827).
25 Thomas Jefferson; quoted in John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 392.
26 Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, ed. (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 449, in a letter from Jefferson to Justice William Johnson on June 12, 1823.
27 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 40.
28 Alan W. Gomes, Reformation & Modern Theology and Historical Theology Survey Course Syllabus (La Mirada: Biola Bookstore, 1999), 23; Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985), vol. 2: 62.
29 Martin Luther; Quoted in Farrar, 328.
30 Martin Luther; Quoted by Zuck, 45.
31 John Calvin; Quoted in Zuck, 47.
33 John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 402.
34 Zuck, 45.
35 Charles Clough, “A Meta Hermeneutical Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 7 (April-June 2001): 76-77.
36 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 112; Floyd Elmore, “Darby, John Nelson,” in Dictionary ofPremillennial Theology, ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 82.
37 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 115-39.
38 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 119.
39 Ibid., 119-120.
Below is my completed and finished term paper I transcribed for my course and studies in Biblical Hermeneutics. I am indebted to Dr. Mal Couch, President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute in Ft. Worth, Texas for personally grading and editing this time consuming work. In addition, I am also indebted to the scholarly books written by both Dr. Bernard Ramm and Dr. Roy Zuck. Without these two works of literature I would’ve been unable to further understand the basics of Biblical interpretation. I hope this study will benefit others as it has me.
Hermeneutics is the science and art of linguistic interpretation, in this case, Biblical interpretation. It is a science because there exists a systematic, mechanical, and formulated approach to the interpretation process. It is an art because it involves an individual’s talent, skills, and knowledge to perform the task of interpreting the Scriptures. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek form of the god, Hermes, who was a messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology, Hermes gave and interpreted the messages sent by the immortal gods to be given to mortal man.
The primary need for hermeneutics is to understand and to know what God has said to us through His written word. The intent is to determine the meaning of the Word of God.1 The secondary need for hermeneutics is to put aside any denominational, geographical, or cultural bias’ that separate our minds from that of the writers of the Bible in order that we may better understand the Word of God. Hermeneutics is essential to the student of Scripture. Without it, we cannot properly grasp the message that God desires to convey to us.
Some may argue, “Since the Bible was written some 2,000 years ago, what use is their in interpreting these ancient, age-old scriptures?” A valid argument indeed. However, most, if not all of the scriptures we have today are as it was originally written. For example, according to Dr. Harold Hoehner, Chairman of New Testament Greek Department, Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas; we have 99% or more of the New Testament text, as it was originally written by the apostles.2 Additionally, we have probably some 96% or more of the Old Testament text as determined by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Keys to Interpretation
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Biblical interpretation process is the utilization of Bible tools. Bible tools are a must when studying the Bible. Without them, one could not know the background, or the historical, geographical, and religious settings, the social status, or customs of a particular person, place, or thing mentioned in the Bible. According to Bernard Ramm, an interpreter must have, “those works which deal with the inspiration, canon, and criticism of scripture. He should have standard grammars, lexicons, and concordances of the Hebrew and Greek languages. He should consult the learned commentaries of the past and present.”4
To show an example of the importance and usefulness in using Bible tools let’s briefly examine Paul’s letters addressed to the Corinthians:
From reading these letters, one would not know that the city of Corinth was a major cosmopolitan city in Greece located at a crossroads of travel and commerce5 between the two bustling seaports of Lechaeum and Cenchreae. Because of it’s location, it was a very ethnically diverse city consisting of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and many other people of the Mediterranean. Additionally, the city had it’s share of wealth. By day the people gathered to conduct business transactions and by evening they would conveniently patronize the many now excavated night clubs and taverns that existed throughout the city. To this day archaeologists have unearthed over 33 taverns throughout the city of Corinth.6 Historically, the city was taken as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar almost 100 years prior to the time in which Paul wrote these letters to the Corinthian church. Eventually, during the Roman occupation, the city became the provincial capital of the Roman province of Achaia therefore the residence of the Proconsul Gallio as mentioned in Acts 18:12. As stated earlier, the city had acquired much wealth, and with it came much corruption and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, the Greek verb korinthiazomai meaning “to practice fornication” is a derivative of the city’s name.7 Paul specifically addresses such issues as sexual immorality explicitly in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:9-20. Another issue Paul raises is about men who pray or prophesy with their heads covered, thus dishonoring God (1 Corinthians 11:3-5). What the scriptures don’t tell you is that it was a customary practice amongst the Romans to wear devotional head coverings during the worship of their many polytheistic gods. Apparently the Corinthian church had observed this practice and followed suit not understanding it’s spiritual implications.
Space would not allow for me to list the many more examples of additional information that can be obtained from the use of Bible tools specifically pertaining to the Corinthian letters. Many numerous books ranging from commentaries to study series have been written about 1st and 2nd Corinthians alone. Just imagine the vast wealth of information that exists and are at the disposal of our fingertips pertaining to the Bible in it’s entirety. Personally, I have enjoyed utilizing a recently developed resource in my study of God’s Word — the internet. Many seminaries, universities, organizations, ministries, and scholars have provided much information to the public about the Bible. Some sites have devoted itself to the sole purpose of teaching God’s Word and nothing else. Aside from the internet, I myself proudly boast of an extensive library consisting of many Bible references such as: Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, The (surprisingly conservative) Oxford Companion to the Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary Series, J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentary Series, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life, The NIV Complete Concordance, The Complete Works of Josephus, Halley’s Bible Handbook, The Thompson Chain Reference Bible Companion, The New Bible Atlas, and lastly, The Master Christian Library (V.5) on CD-ROM which consists of a multitude of reference works.
Aside from the utilization of Bible tools and reference books, it is also important to know and understand the original languages used in the Bible for the interpretation process. According to Ramm, “To be a competent Biblical interpreter a knowledge of the original languages is indispensable.” Additionally, Ramm notes, “It is a principle of Protestantism, the soundness of which has been confirmed by the experience of centuries, that there should always be in the churches a body of men able to go behind the current versions of the Scripture to the original tongues from which these versions were executed.”8 The Bible as we know it was originally transcribed in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, with some Aramaic. It is therefore essential and imperative for an interpreter and student of the Scriptures to learn at least one of these languages. Why? Today’s English versions of the Bible are mere translations of the original text. They have undergone many translations since the inception of the Bible itself. For example, the Septuagint in the second century B.C., the Masoretic Text of the Middle Ages, the William Tyndale translation into English in 1526, and finally the King James version of 1611, not to mention the many popular versions and translations of the 20th century alone. Please see previous study entitled, A Brief History of the Bible. One can see the necessity of going back to the original tongue to truly understand the proper and in-depth meaning of the words contained within the Scriptures. It is also important for the student to know the original tongues to truly understand the message that the authors of the books were trying to convey to the audience. With a thorough knowledge of at least one of the original languages coupled with utilizing available Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, an interpreter will get a very good idea of what the author is saying. I myself have had no linguistic training in any of the original languages of the Bible, with the exception of Spanish since Paul himself had visited Spain (Romans 15:24,28), although it is irrelevant in the interpretation process. However, because of my training, I am somewhat aware of the language barrier that Paul might have faced when he in fact did visit Spain. In conclusion, a knowledge of any or all of the original languages of the Bible is essential and imperative in attempting to fully and properly understand the message and words of the Bible.
The Interpretation Process
Within the science of interpretation there exists three essential and primary steps in the interpretation process. They are: Observation, Interpretation, and Application.
Observation is the first of three steps in this interpretation process. This step asks, “What does it say?” As the interpreter, we are to objectively observe the whole picture of what we are attempting to interpret. Figuratively, we are to act as a detective — investigating, and examining what the passage is saying. Within this process, the interpreter is to determine the background and setting of all that encompasses the passage, including that of the author himself. Additionally, he is to observe the text itself, determining what is a metaphor, simile, transitional or comparative word, etc. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who are the key figures in the book? Who is Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Cyrus, Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, Peter, John, Luke, etc.?
– What are the key dates? When was the book written? When did the author die? When did King Cyrus reign? When was the temple completed?
– What are the key verses in the book? What are the key words? What statement is the author trying to convey?
– What are the key events taking place? Pentecost? Martyrdom of Stephen? Paul’s conversion? The calming of the storm? Christ’s resurrection?
– What conclusions can be drawn from this passage? Must we observe Jewish customs and laws while being a Christian? Can we summarize the passage?
– What is the historical setting? When was Ephesus occupied by the Romans? When did Paul setup the church at Antioch?
Additionally, the interpreter will observe any key doctrines, themes, and the author’s intention in writing the book. It is within this process that the interpreter would greatly benefit by utilizing Bible tools and references. Dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, concordances, etc. It is important to interpret literally in this process and to allow the Bible to speak for itself. In the Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute’s, Hermeneutics course study notes, Dr. Mal Couch points out, “study objectively not subjectively.” It is important to not allow any preconceived conclusions to influence this vital step of interpretation. This includes denominational beliefs, personal opinions, spiritualizing or excessive allegorizing of the passage, etc. Lastly, without this first process of observation, the interpreter cannot properly continue to the next step — interpretation. As Zuck states, “Interpretation should build on observation and then lead into interpretation.”9
Interpretation is the second of three steps in the process of interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “What does it mean?” As discussed earlier, the interpreter must first perform a thorough and concise observation of the book or passage prior to continuing on with the remaining steps of the interpretation process. Within the process of interpretation, the interpreter is to determine the meaning of the passage or book, and to whom it is addressed to. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who wrote the book? Paul? Moses? Luke? David? Who in fact did write Hebrews?
– What is the overall theme of the book? About God’s grace? God’s love? The establishment of the Law? Paul’s missionary journey’s?
– Who is the third person? Me? God? Jesus? Who is the “I” referring to? Daniel? When Christ said, “God so loved the world.” Who is the world? Only those that believe?
– Can certain passages be generalized? Or must it be specified? Is it literal? Is it symbolic? The Beast of Revelation. Is it an actual man, or is it a system?
– Does the passage only refer to that particular generation? Or does it similarly refer to our generation of today?
– What does the passage mean? When Jesus said, “I am the vine.” What is the vine referring to? What does the term, “last days” mean? Was it at the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.? Or is it yet future?
As can be clearly seen, it is obvious that the interpreter will have to again consult his or her Bible references and tools during this process. Additionally, a lot of cross-referencing will be made as well. For example, in comparing similar passages that can be found throughout the synoptic gospels. How does Luke describe the account of Jesus’ miracle of calming the storm versus Matthew’s account? Or, what is the difference between the Holy Spirit of the Old Testament such as in Psalm 51:11 and that of the New Testament at the day of Pentecost, it’s first arrival after Christ’s ascension? These are but a few of the many questions that can be asked within this vital step of interpretation. It is worth noting that this crucial step of the interpretation process, “is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming of these three steps.”10 If ever there were a step that should not be avoided, ignored, or even misused, it is this one. After confidently analyzing and interpreting the applicable book or passage, the next step of the interpretation process is application.
Last and foremost is the application process. This step is the final of three steps in interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “How does it apply to me?” Without this step, the reader will not properly understand how the passage pertains to his or her life. Perhaps the most important aspect of this step is in determining who the passage is both directly and indirectly addressed to. Additionally, it must be determined if the passage can be applied directly to all, at any time, or not. These determining factors can be better labeled as: Direct, Indirect, and Generic.11 Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– To whom is the passage addressed to? Timothy? Titus? The church at Colosse?
– What is the passage about? Church government? Marriage? How to approach a brother who might be in error? Spiritual gifts?
– Who is the passage directly applied to? Me? Timothy? Anyone?
– How would it be indirectly applied? Written directly to Timothy, but indirectly to pastors? Spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 applied directly to the church at Ephesus but could it be indirectly applied to any of us today?
– How can I determine if it is a generic application? What key words are observed in determining this? For example, all, you, I, the church at Philippi.
Using Galatians 3:26-27 as an example. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We must determine to whom Paul has directly and indirectly applied this passage to. Clearly, the passage was directly written to the church in Galatia. By using the interpretation process, the student will have seen that in Roman society, a youth coming of age laid aside the robe of childhood and would put on a new toga. This represented his passage into adulthood with full rights and responsibilities. Paul combined this cultural understanding with the concept of baptism. After being baptized, the Galatian church were becoming spiritually grown up and ready to take on the privileges and responsibilities that came along with being more spiritually mature.12 Indirectly, this passage can be applied to all of us today. Some of the key words can be observed, “…all of you who were baptized into Christ“. All of us who have been baptized must recognize we too have now put on new robes and have clothed ourselves with Christ, ready to take on anything the Lord might give us. After all, we have had the honor and blessing of being called, “sons of God”.
On a personal level, I myself have struggled with this particular step in the interpretation process. Because of this, since becoming a Christian, I have purchased what is called the NIV Life Application Study Bible by Zondervan publishers. This Bible has been instrumental in assisting me in understanding the Bible and how it applies to my life today. I strongly suggest this study Bible to all who might likewise have difficulty in understanding the application of the Bible to one’s own personal life.
As with any book of the Bible it is important to know and understand the elements of the setting of the book in which you are about to study or interpret. Let’s take the book of Ephesians for example. First, in the observation process, we must present ourselves with many questions. Who are the Ephesians? Where are they located? What is their history? What are their cultural and social customs like? What spiritual problems were they faced with? What was the overall religious life like in Ephesus? Personally, one of my favorite passages and one of the most well known and commonly used verses in Ephesians is chapter 6:10-18 regarding spiritual warfare. Why did Paul write this passage? Were the Ephesians faced with hostile forces around them? Were they constantly being persecuted? Were there many opposing religious beliefs around them? It is important for us to understand these elements and to answer the questions before beginning the process of interpretation and application. Without knowing the background and setting of the book, we won’t know what the intention of the author was in writing the book and therefore not fully understand how it applies to us today.
Overall, the book of Ephesians is a letter of encouragement to the believers at Ephesus. It was not meant to address any particular heresy or problems such as in the case of other letters Paul had written. The Ephesians are a group of people who reside in the city of Ephesus located just east of Athens across the Aegean Sea. It is located in Asia Minor in what is today modern day Turkey. Historically, Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century B.C. and Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. both had left their marks on the Asiatic peoples that made up it’s population. Under Roman rule, which began about 190 B.C. Ephesus became a racial melting pot.13 Because of this, it became a point of many diverse religions and beliefs of the Roman empire. The dominating religion of the area was that of Diana worship. The goddess of fertility. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world once existed in Ephesus, the Temple of Diana. It was a splendid building of great architecture especially for it’s time. As an Ephesian Christian it would be quite common to witness legalized prostitution that was so prevalent throughout the city. These prostitutes were simply a part of the religion and worship itself and were referred to as “temple prostitutes”. Sex was a means of worship to the goddess of fertility. In addition to Diana worship, emperor worship was another major religion of the area. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero were deified by the peoples of Rome. Statues and sculptures of these Roman gods can be found throughout the Roman empire and local cities. These and many other acts of worship were against the very nature of God. The local Christians at Ephesus were faced with these issues on a daily basis and needed the comforting and encouraging words that Paul had written to them. Additionally, the passage on spiritual warfare was added ammunition for their constant spiritual battle that surrounded them. With the discovery of many Christian decorated tombs and burial sites and unearthed churches and inscriptions it’s apparent that Christianity eventually became the flourishing and dominant religion of Ephesus.14
We can clearly see now why Paul was led by the Spirit to write this book. We see what issues existed, and what the church was up against in Ephesus. More so, we can now properly understand the intention the author had in writing this book and how it applies to us today. Does Ephesus resemble America today with it’s many religions, cults, and beliefs? What about the moral dilemma we face in our country? Just like the Ephesians, we too see prostitution on our streets, and the worship of sex on television, internet, billboards, magazines, etc. The large temples constructed to worship the goddess of fertility in the form of “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, and “Cabaret’s”.
Knowing the Writer
Aside from understanding the background of a book, it is also quite important to fully know and understand the writer of the book you are about to examine and interpret. A knowledge of the writer himself will in turn give you a brief glimpse into his life and his intention in writing the book in the first place. As an example, let’s examine the one man most known for writing numerous books of the New Testament, the apostle Paul. What are some important factors about the background of this most remarkable man? Let’s examine.
Aside from Bible reference tools, we can learn quite a bit about the apostle Paul just from the Bible alone. Before becoming the apostle Paul, he was known as Saul. He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22:3). He was a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). He was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). Saul was a learned Jewish scholar under the teachings of Gamaliel where he received thorough training in the law (Acts 22:3). He knew the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages (Acts 21:40). He was a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:2-3). He was a Pharisee (Acts 26:5) He hated and persecuted Christians (Acts 22:4). He was supernaturally converted to Christianity by the Lord Himself (Acts 9:3-9, 22:6-11). His name changes to Paul (Acts 13:9). He received the gospel through direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). He partly received this revelation while in the desert of Arabia (Galatians 1:17). He undertook three primary missionary journey’s with a fourth to Rome:
– First Journey (A.D. 47-48) Acts 13-14
– Second Journey (A.D. 49-52) Acts 15-18
– Third Journey (A.D. 52-56) Acts 18-21
– Fourth Journey (A.D. 56-58) Acts 21-28
These missionary journey’s consisted of winning people to Christ, preaching the Gospel, church planting, establishing church government, defending the faith, appealing before governors, and writing numerous books of the New Testament. As a Christian, Paul is believed to have written some 13, possibly 14 books of the New Testament to various peoples and churches. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11). Paul was imprisoned many times, his last imprisonment was in Rome while under house arrest under the watch of a soldier to guard him (Acts 28:16). Lastly, the fate of his death is uncertain. The most popular tradition depicts him as a martyr in Rome, beheaded during the intense persecution of the Emperor Nero in the 60’s A.D.15 In regards to Paul’s character, we have learned several things about him. He was a very spiritual person. He was devoutly committed to his Jewish faith and even more so with his faith in Christ as a Christian. Furthermore, we know that he was a very aggressive and zealous person. From his persecution of Christians as a Jew to becoming a light unto the Gentiles zealously spreading the gospel of Christ to all men at all costs. Perhaps he was what we call today, an extrovert — outspoken, bold, involved, and always on the go. All of these factors are important in knowing more about the letters he wrote throughout the New Testament.
The Human Drama
One of the ways in further understanding the author’s intention in writing a particular book is to understand his emotions and feelings, and the circumstances that might have motivated his writing. This is called the “human drama”.
The “human drama” is the emotional expression behind the author’s writing. There is perhaps no more profound example of this drama than what can be found throughout the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is a written expression of man’s innermost heart, mind, and soul and it’s communion with God. King David is the author of a majority of the Psalms. He is attributed with writing at least 73 of them. It is easy for the reader to see David’s heartfelt emotions throughout the Psalms. One Psalm in particular touches my own heart. Shortly after David had committed the grave sin of adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:4), I visualize him flat on his face dressed in sackcloth, alone before God. He can easily be seen with tears running down his face, unkempt hair, perhaps barefoot, humbly begging and pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just listen to King David’s heart as it cries out in anguish to the forgiving and loving God:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:1-12)
The intensified emotion and drama can clearly be seen in this Psalm written and expressed by David. Knowing the background behind a particular Psalm or book can better assist the reader in understanding the author’s emotions and feelings at the time he wrote it.
There are many more examples of the “human drama” that can be found expressed throughout the Psalms, not to mention the New Testament as well. For example, many times Paul was imprisoned for various reasons. Amazingly, it was while he was imprisoned that he wrote many letters of the New Testament known simply as the Prison Letters. These letters consist of: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These were written primarily during his imprisonment while in Rome. Many times throughout these letters we can see his emotions found within the letters themselves. More times than not they were expressed positively and optimistically because of his sincere joy in Christ. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12) Additionally, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
The Audience to Whom the Book is Written
It is imperative in knowing whom the book is written to. This will impact the interpretation of any given passage of the book. In many of Paul’s epistles the titles of the books themselves are addressed to a particular people, i.e. Corinthians, Thessalonians, Hebrews, etc. Who were the Corinthians? What were they like? Were they comparable to our society today? These questions must be asked and answered by the interpreter before he is to study the book itself. This is so that he might better understand what issues are applicable to us today and how it may directly or indirectly relate to or effect us.
Hermeneutically Teaching the Word
There is a distinct difference between preaching and teaching. “Preaching” (Greek: kerusso) is to proclaim, publish, or herald the Good News. While teaching is to systematically and objectively instruct, guide, and apply others through the Word of God. With the direction of the Holy Spirit, both can ultimately lead to a person’s salvation. In general, preaching should be used for the unsaved while teaching should be used for the saved. In comparing the two, the Bible clearly places greater emphasis on teaching over preaching. Jesus himself was often times referred to as “Teacher” (Matt. 8:19, 12:38, 19:16, 22:24) or “Rabbi” (John 1:38). Additionally, many New Testament passages allude to teaching more clearly:
– “Command and teach these things.” (1 Timothy 4:11)
– “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
– “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct…” (2 Timothy 2:25)
However, we are not to neglect preaching. Jesus tells us to, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15). Paul tells us to, “Preachthe Word; be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Within our society today one can clearly see two distinct types of pastors and ministers within our churches. There are those who “preach” the Word, and then there are those who “teach” the Word. A layman who belongs to a church whose pastor might be more of a preacher rather than a teacher might not gain any additional knowledge of the Word of God. However, he or she will be well versed in knowing how to proclaim the Good News or in evangelizing. On the other hand, an individual whose loyalty lies with a teaching pastor will clearly obtain further knowledge and understanding of God’s Word but might lack the “know-how” in witnessing to others. Together, when the two means are correctly utilized can compliment one another. One is not inferior to or worse than the other. Personally, I have heard some really good preaching throughout my walk with Christ, primarily at the time of my conversion. I have also received excellent Biblical teaching as well, both of which have helped my growth in Christ.
The Point of Contact
Having once served in the military and having been inundated with multitudes of acronyms, I like to refer to it as the POC. The point of contact is simply the primary issue that connects the teacher to his/her audience. It is the central focal point that the audience can easily relate to. It’s important for the Bible teacher to determine the issue(s) that are currently affecting the audience prior to engaging in a systematic approach to teaching the Bible. He must ask himself, “How can the lesson be applied to at least a majority of the audience?”
Additionally, he must be educated in knowing how to present and apply the Bible to them while maintaining their attention and focus. For example, a Bible teacher is teaching a middle-class audience. He would want to apply the Bible to issues that affect people of that particular working or social class. Issues such as: money, family, and work. These are the points of contact. Once the teacher has determined the needs and issues of the audience, he can now begin to formulate a way of presenting the applicable passages to the audience. For instance, the teacher might want to apply the following passages to the audience.
– Money – the parable of the loaned money (Matthew 25:14-30)
– Family – the passage for Christian households (Colossians 3:18-21)
– Work – working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24)
This is only a brief example of the many verses that can be found throughout scripture that can be readily applied to this particular audience. Only the process has been explained. A good teacher will be well educated in knowing how to determine the point of contact of any audience that God might provide them. Only with prayer and practice can this be accomplished.
Determining the Social Environment of an Audience
It is important in knowing the audience you are about to teach and guide through the scriptures. This way the teacher will be able to formulate a concise way of communicating God’s Word to them in a way in which they will fully understand and comprehend.
There is clearly a distinct social difference between an audience from The Bronx, New York and that of Beverly Hills, California. Harlem, New York and Newport, Rhode Island. The West End and Plano, Texas. It can be determined by simply observing the audience before you. Mannerisms, dress, race, material possessions, can all be contributing factors in this determination process. Additionally, being aware of the occupational and educational backgrounds of the audience as a whole can be beneficial as well. You’ll get a feel as to where to begin your approach. “How much do they already know? Are they culturally biased? Will they be able to relate to this passage?” These are all questions that a Bible teacher can ask himself beforehand in determining the social environment of an audience.
Throughout history, there have been many big names in the study of hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation. Some have had a significant positive impact while others have had quite the opposite. As you will see, there have also been both liberal and conservative approaches to interpretation sometimes resulting in heresy or even pure mysticism. We will only examine the one’s who have made significant impacts, both good and bad, within the study of hermeneutics. But before I begin, I must explain allegory first since this was the primary divisive issue throughout the history of Biblical interpretation.
Webster’s dictionary defines allegory as, “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Or, “a symbolic representation.”16 Zuck summarizes allegory as, “a narrative or word picture which may or may not be true-to-life, with many parts pointing symbolically to spiritual realities.”17 Both of these definitions accurately describe allegory. There is a correct place for allegory to be interpreted in the Bible just as there is not. For example, many times Christians have suggested that the nation of Israel of the Old Testament is symbolically representative of the Church. Or, the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple is symbolic of the inner recesses of man’s mind and heart. These both have been mistakenly interpreted as an allegory. A correct example of allegory is shown in Psalm 80:8-11: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea (probably the Mediterranean), its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates or Jordan).” The “vine” in verse 8 is undoubtedly the nation of Israel and refers to it’s exodus led by Moses in 1446 B.C. “You drove out the nations and planted it.” This is referring to Israel’s many victorious battles against the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, and their geographical establishment as a nation. Verses 9-10 describes Israel’s expansion throughout the newly conquered land. In verse 11, it says, “It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.” This is referring to the nation of Israel’s outermost reaches and boundaries. These are just a few examples of correct and incorrect allegorical interpretation.
Historically, there have been many schools of allegorical interpretation. Greek allegorism – which was later adopted by both Christians and Jews alike. This particular school incorporated philosophical thinking with the prevailing religious traditions of its time. Jewish allegorism – this school of interpretation utilized three primary means of determining what should be allegorized. They are: a) if a statement says anything unworthy of God; b) if a statement is contradictory with some other statement or in any other way presents us with a difficulty; c) if the record itself is allegorical in nature. Christian and Patristic Allegorism – this school had the basic conviction that the Old Testament was a Christian document. Thus, through the allegorical method of interpretation they attempted to make the O.T. a Christian document. From this school many prominent individuals had sprung forth: Clement, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine to name a few. Catholic Allegorism – within this school there were ten primary rules and guidelines of interpretation in which the interpreter had to adhere to. For example, the Latin Vulgate was the only authorized version that the interpreter was to use. Only the Church dictated on matters of authorship and Biblical introduction. The interpreter had to accept all verses which the Church had already interpreted. Ultimately, the Catholic Church is the official interpreter of Scripture.18 Within these schools of allegorical interpretation much liberty was taken, and consequently, many abuses of the Scripture. There were those who allegorized everything and then there were those who never allegorized anything. Today, with experience, prayer, and the aid of Bible tools much of these issues of interpretation can be easily clarified and resolved.
Origen (ca. 185-254), an early church father “was a man of great learning and magnetic personality.”19 He developed many works of ecclesiastical literature such as the Hexpala, an arrangement of parallel text consisting of Greek and Hebrew versions of the O.T. Additionally, he wrote the Treatise Against Celsus and De Principiis both of which were works of apologetics. His basic thought of interpretation was allegory. He believed that there were deeper hidden messages contained within the passages of Scripture because of its vast amount of parables and symbology. He is primarily known to have taken this measure to an extreme, allegorizing everything. One writer stated, it was “fantasy unlimited.”19 In his book, De Principiis, Origen said that Scripture itself demands that the interpreter employ the allegorical method. Additionally, he observed a threefold meaning in Scripture – literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical. These were the basis of his means of interpretation. He based this theory on the Septuagint’s translation of Proverbs 22:20-21. “Do thou thrice record them…that thou mayest answer with words of truth.”In summary, his approach and method of interpretation can be explained in four primary beliefs:
1) The literal meaning of Scripture is only the preliminary level of Scripture.
2) To truly understand the Bible, we must have grace given to us by Christ.
3) The true exegesis is the spiritual exegesis of the Bible.
4) The Old Testament is the preparation of the New Testament.20
On the surface these methods don’t sound absurd. However, after examining some of Origen’s examples of his allegorical means of interpretation, one can clearly see the absurdities. Examples of some of his allegorical interpretations are as follows:
– He taught that Noah’s ark was representative of the church and Noah represented Christ.
– Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant meant we must daily read the Scriptures to meet Christ.
– In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the donkey represents the Old Testament and the newly acquired colt represents the New Testament.21
This is obviously a gross distortion of the true literal meaning of Scripture. This method was used up until the Middle Ages. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, rejected Origen’s extreme use of allegories and is quoted as saying, “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.”22 In conclusion, there is a proper place for allegory in Scripture, Origen however saw no limitations of it’s usage and at times clearly violated the true meaning of Scripture with his excessive use of allegory.
What Origen did with allegory, Luther did with literalism but not as extreme. Unlike Origen, Luther was much more rational with his interpretations. Luther denounced and opposed the allegorical schools of interpretation. Additionally, Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation (1483-1546) rejected the fourfold sense of scripture which was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Instead, he stressed the literal sense of the Bible. He held to a strong belief in the primacy of the Scriptures by going back to the original languages of the Bible in which he was well learned. In his book, Luther’s Works he wrote, “the Scriptures are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.”23 At the time, much of the Roman Catholic church adhered to the allegorical and mystical senses of Scripture. While faithfully serving within the Roman Catholic Church as a monk and eventually a priest, Luther was fully taught the Catholics interpretation of Scripture. For a good part of this time within the Church, Luther struggled with much of these interpretations. Later, as a result of his diligent studying, his emphasis on the original languages, and a literal view, he came to understand and interpret the Scriptures in a whole new light that eventually would lead to the Protestant Reformation.
Luther believed and taught that the common man can now understand the words of the Bible without relying upon the mother Church. He believed that the central focus of Biblical interpretation was centered on Christ. Rather than allegorizing Christ in the Old Testament, he instead saw Christ quite frequently throughout the O.T. Luther adopted six primary principles of hermeneutics, they are as follows:
1) The psychological principle – This principle relied on the direction of the Holy Spirit for insight into the Scriptures. In addition, the Bible was to be looked upon and treated differently than any other form of written literature.
2) The authority principle – The Bible is the final and supreme authority on all theological and doctrinal matters.
3) The literal principle – With attention to the grammatical and historical aspect of interpretation, this principle dismisses allegory and accepts the literal view of hermeneutics with the aid of the original languages of the Bible.
4) The sufficiency principle – The competent Christian was sufficient enough in interpreting the Scriptures without the aid of the Catholic clergy.
5) The Christological principle – The end and final means of interpretation is to find Christ. This is Luther’s intention of making the Bible a Christian document.
6) The Law-Gospel principle – This principle insured the interpreter to distinguish between the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. The Law exposes man’s sin, while the Gospel cleanses man’s sin.24
With his knowledge of the original languages, the guidance of the Spirit, and the literal view of the Bible, Luther was able to clearly and effectively interpret the Scriptures in the way it was intentionally written by the writers themselves.
In the days of the Post-Reformation (1600-1800), a multitude of movements developed within the field of Biblical interpretation. One of these movements was Rationalism. Rationalism allowed human intellect to determine what is true and what is false in the Bible. What corresponded with man’s reasoning was considered true. What was contrary to man’s reasoning was considered false. One of the pioneers of this movement was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher that taught human reason is free from theology. He denied the miracles of the Bible because of its lack of reasoning and believed the Bible is to be studied solely for historical interests. He did however believe in the necessity of knowing the original languages and the importance of knowing the backgrounds of each book contained in the Bible.25
Friedrich D.E. Schleirmacher
Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a 19th century liberal theologian/interpreter. He rejected the authority and primacy of the Bible and firmly believed Christianity to be a religion of “feeling and self-consciousness.” Additionally, he believed in subjectivism which holds to the view that knowledge of the Bible comes through ones own experience. A statement from his book entitled, Monologues sums up his view of Christianity, “Christianity should be viewed as a religion of emotions, not as a series of dogmas or a system of morals.”26
Like Schleiermacher, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who was known as “the father of modern existentialism” believed in the subjective experience of an individual to determine his or her true faith. Overall, Kierkegaard rejected Christianity as a whole because of its vast amount of creeds and rationalism.27 However, unlike Schleiermacher, he did believe the Bible to be the Word of God. He believed the academic study of the Bible was only a preliminary reading of it and the Bible is to be read for what it truly is, God’s Word. To cloud it with ignorance, carelessness, or professionalism will only hinder the underlying message of the Bible.28
Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) basically believed the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was penned by separate individual authors rather than the one author commonly known to be Moses. He adopted this view from Karl Graf and called it the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis consisted of four different authors: Author J – compiled the sections of the Pentateuch that invoked the name of “Jehovah”. Author E – compiled the “Elohim” sections. Author D – was the Deuteronomist, and Author P – compiled the Levitical Priestly code and law. Additionally, he held to the heretical belief that the religion of the O.T. people evolved from a polytheistic religion to animism to eventually monotheism.29
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) believed the Bible is to be interpreted existentially, meaning by one’s own personal experience. Additionally, because they cannot be scientifically proven, he also did not believe in the miracles as described in the N.T. This he labeled the “mythological principle” in his understanding of the Bible. Anything that cannot be scientifically proven is simply passed off as a myth. He attributes the miracles as poetic prose to entice the reader.
Bultmann adopted seven primary principles in his interpretation process that he called “the new hermeneutics”.30 These principles are:
1) The scientific principle
2) The critical principle
3) The mythological principle
4) The demythological/existential principle
5) The dialectical principle
6) The revelational principle
7) The law principle
The Catholic Church
Since the Catholic church was the predominant universal church for nearly 1400 years until the Protestant Reformation, I thought I would add their view on the interpretation of the Scriptures. The church in general to this day relies heavily upon it’s own historical interpretation of the Scriptures. The Catholics view of the Bible is very different from the Protestant view. For example, they only accept the Latin Vulgate as the “authentic” version. Additionally, they believe the Church is the official interpreter of the Scriptures. The priests, or Fathers, are to be guides in interpreting the Scriptures to the laity. Lastly, any passages that seem obscure or unclear, they simply refer to the unwritten traditions of the Church. In conclusion, the Catholic church does not view the Bible as the sole authority (sola Scriptura) for all matters of dispute pertaining to doctrine and interpretation. Instead, the Church feels they possess the authority to make conclusive decisions on all Biblical issues.
Revelation vs. Inspiration
Webster’s Dictionary defines revelation as, “an act of revealing or communicating divine truth.”31 Revelation simply is something that is revealed by God to man. Revelation is very much and still is abused to this day. Within some Charismatic churches today, there are many that still claim to receive revelation from God to be used as additional God-breathed scripture. It is through the supposed revelation from God that Joseph Smith received the words of what is today the Book of Mormons.
On the positive side, when the disciple John was exiled to the island of Patmos, it was there where he received direct revelation from God about future events that would take place throughout the world. He penned this revelation in the Book of Revelation. Additionally, the Apostle Paul received the gospel not by man but by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12).
The entire scriptures were written by means of inspiration. It was written by man inspired of God. In other words, God put His infallible words in written text. The words themselves are what is inspired, not the writer.
It is important for the interpreter to recognize the Bible as a wholly God-inspired work and not just some mere religious book containing words written by man. If an interpreter does not recognize this fact then he will easily find inconsistencies and find the stories rather strange or extraordinary. As Ramm notes, “The divine inspiration of the Bible is the foundation of historic Protestant hermeneutics and exegesis.”32
Other Key Factors of Interpretation
Bible Cultural Background Interpretation
As mentioned earlier, understanding and knowing the cultural backgrounds of the people contained in the books of the Bible is imperative to the interpreter. For example, knowing the Galatian culture might assist the interpreter in better understanding the book of Galatians and their livelihood. He will be able to better understand the issues effecting the Christians of Galatia and Paul’s intentions of addressing them in his epistles.
Even more so, the interpreter must take into account the cultural differences between the Galatians of the Bible and that of today’s culture. Are some of the issues addressed to the Galatian church irrelevant to us today? How does the interpreter determine what is and is not relevant to our cultural practices and customs today? Zuck further elaborates, “The issue of cultural relevance is an important one because of the two tasks of the interpreter: to determine what the text meant to its immediate readers in that cultural setting, and to determine what the text means to us now in our context.”33
The issue of head coverings is an issue that I personally have observed as being a cultural difference. It was about 55 A.D. when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. In this letter, chapter 11, Paul emphatically demands that women are to wear head coverings while prophesying and/or praying. Since a majority of these activities take place in church, I’m sure Paul also intended for women to wear their coverings while attending church or fellowship. How often do we see our Christian sisters wearing hats today in our churches? Not very often. Occasionally, I will see perhaps an elderly woman dawn her beautiful knit hat complete with white, ruffled, feathers and satin bows. But I’m quite sure she was not purposely observing Paul’s ordinance of head coverings. Why is this so? Is it because hats were in fashion 1,944 years ago and aren’t today? If the interpreter consults his tools of references, he will better understand this issue.
Contrary to our culture today, at the time I Corinthians was written it was customary in the eastern world for those that were in subjection or shame to wear some form of veil or covering 34. This is why Paul addresses this issue to women. The woman was subject to her husband while her husband was subject to Christ. By the woman wearing her head covering she is publicly acknowledging her submission to her husband and thereby honoring him. The man on the other hand is commanded to take off any head covering to give full honor to Christ. Should women therefore wear head coverings today in our churches? No. In today’s society quite the opposite is true concerning head covers. Instead, they show authority, importance, or dominion.
We can clearly see the cultural differences of yesterday versus today. This is an important and significant issue that the interpreter must sincerely contend with. He must establish what is and is not relevant to us today. If an issue is not relevant then sometimes the principle is. In which case the interpreter can apply a relevance that pertains to us today and apply it to that very same principle. This cultural understanding is vital in the interpretation process.
Grammatical interpretation is “the process of seeking to determine its [Bible] meaning by ascertaining four things.”35 These four things consist of:
a) lexicology – determining the usage and meaning of words.
b) morphology – determining word forms and how they are structured.
c) parts of speech – determining certain functions of words.
d) syntax – determining the relationship of words and how they are used together.
Grammatical interpretation is important in the overall principle of hermeneutics. Understanding the grammatical usage of words, a particular sentence, phrase, or paragraph is imperative so that the interpreter can get a fuller sense of the meaning of which the writer was trying to convey. Since the Bible is a verbally inspired work then we must truly begin to understand every single word, “jot and tittle”, so that we can grasp every meaning that can possibly be found throughout the scriptures.
Rhetorical interpretation is the process of determining the literary quality of a writing by analyzing its genre, structure, and figures of speech and how those factors influence the meaning of the text.37 In other words, it is the determining process of understanding the organizational layout and different styles of expression and words contained within a certain passage.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a form of written expression used to vividly illustrate a point by using forms contrary to normal laws of grammar. An example of such can be found in John 4:13-14 when Jesus refers to himself as “living water” with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The “living water” the woman thought of was literal water that would never make her thirst again. The “living water” Jesus was referring to was Himself, the living Word.
Do figures of speech go against literal interpretation? Generally not. In fact, figures of speech can be used to “drive home” (figure-of-speech intended) a literal point or truth. The “living water” is a figure of speech for Christ’s offer of eternal life to all who drink of it. This point is a factual, literal, and true statement. All who accept Christ into their lives will have everlasting life. Zuck gives some primary rules in determining what is figurative and what is literal:
a) Always take a passage literally unless there is ample reason not to.
b) If it is impossible for it to be literal, then the figurative sense is intended.
c) If the literal interpretation is an absurdity, then the figurative approach should be used.
d) Take note of a literal statement immediately following a figurative statement.39
Syntax comes from the Greek word syntassein, which means “to place in order together.”36 Syntax is the process of determining the relationship between words and how they are used together to form sentences, phrases, etc. The order in which words appear and how they are used relationally can make a significant difference in what it is saying. It is important for the interpreter to determine the correct usage of a sentence or phrase by examining this relationship of words.
Literary genre is a category depicting the various forms or types of literature found throughout the Bible. Some of the primary categories are: Legal/Law – consisting primarily of the Pentateuch, replete with a systematic form of rules, ordinances, etc. Narrative – consisting of a story that entails a crisis, problem, or issue that might occur in an individual(s) life with progressive problems that finally reach a climax. Ultimately, the story will end with some form of a solution or victory. Poetry – books put to song, prose, and lament with the intention to convey an important message. Wisdom Literature – consisting primarily of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes because of the vast amount of wisdom given. Gospels – the form of literature used to describe the life of Christ complete with biography, doctrine, and narrative. This form of literature consists of the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of John. Logical Discourse – these are the epistles that can be found throughout the New Testament. Two kinds of epistles exist: expository and hortatory discourse.38 Prophetic Literature – material that consists of information, revelation, and disclosures pertaining to future events. The Book of Revelation written by John is most notable for this form of literature.
A synecdoche is a phrase used to substitute a part of something for a whole or a whole for a part. The term Gentiles is used quite frequently to represent all that are not Jewish. In yet another example in the Olivet Discourse when Jesus was talking about the end-times and days of tribulation, he spoke of two men in the field, one will be taken and the other left (Matthew 24:40). He was not speaking of their being just two men, he was speaking in generalities of many men that will be taken and many that will be left. This is an example of synecdoche.
A merism is a type of synecdoche that comprises of two opposing parts signifying a whole singular concept. An example of such can be found in Isaiah 11:6: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…” Although these exact animals may in fact live amongst one another peacefully someday, the message here is that there will be a universal peace that will transcend the earth when Christ returns to forever reign. A time when all living creatures, great and small, will live peacefully with one another here in the new earth or in the kingdom of God.
A hendiadys is as Zuck states, “the substituting of two coordinate terms (joined by “and”) for a single concept in which one of the elements defines the other.”40 One example of a hendiadys can be found in I Thessalonians 3:12: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…”Here, “increase and overflow” can be used as “increasingly overflow”. May the Lord make your love “increasingly overflow” for each other and for everyone else.
Personification is the attachment of human characteristics or expression to anything that is not a human. One such example can be given in Isaiah 14:8, “Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, ‘Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.”
An anthropomorphism is the ascribing of human elements to God. Recently, on a local Christian radio station I was listening to R.C. Sproul. He asked the listening audience to close their eyes and to visualize what God looks like to them. Afterwards, he called upon certain people to describe what they envisioned. Some envisioned God as depicted in Michelangelo’s famous painting at The Sistine Chapel in Italy of the old yet muscular man reaching out to Adam. Others envisioned him as a spirit containing human emotions and characteristics. These are all considered to be anthropomorphisms.
An anthropopathism is a type of figure of speech attaching human emotions and expressions to God. Such an example can be found in Nahum 1:2a, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.” Jealousy is a component of human emotions, thus an anthropopathism.
A zoomorphism is the ascribing of animal characteristics to God.41 Shortly after the mass exodus from Egypt, the Israelites encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses then went up to the mountain to receive instruction from God. God told Moses what to say to the people. “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) “eagles’ wings” is an animal feature used to describe God’s carrying the people out of Egypt.
An apostrophe is a figure of speech describing someone speaking or talking to an object as if it were a person. Additionally, it is the description of someone speaking to an absent or imaginative person. An example of this is when Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33) Satan himself was probably not physically there. The Bible makes no reference to it. Yet Jesus addressed Satan as if he was right there amongst the disciples.
A euphemism is “the substituting of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive or personal one.”42 Euphemism comes from the Greek word, euphemismos, which means auspicious or to sound good.43
An ellipsis is a set of words to be added by the reader to better understand what seems to be an incomplete sentence or phrase. In Romans 5:13, it says, “For until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” (NASB). For until the Law what? The reader simply adds, “was given” to understand this verse more clearly.
A zeugma is a sentence containing two nouns associated with one verb, when only one noun would suffice. An example of a zeugma can be found in Luke 1:64 which reads, “His mouth was opened and his tongue.” Here there are clearly two nouns associated with only one verb. As Zuck stated, “The NIV has supplied the words “was loosed” after the word “tongue” in order to render the sentence in good English.”44
An aposiopesis is a sudden break in a sentence. This is usually due in part to the character’s overwhelming emotions. Such example can be given in I Peter 2:4-5,“As you come to him, the living Stone rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It can be speculated that Peter, the author of this book, was caught up in the emotion at the time he wrote this, thus the sudden breaks in the sentences.
A rhetorical question is a question asked by someone that does not necessarily require an answer. It’s primary purpose is to make a certain point and to allow the reader to ponder the thought or reasoning rather than providing an answer. In my own estimation there is perhaps no more profound example of rhetorical questioning as can be found in the Book of Job. Instead of God answering Job’s questions, Job is presented with a series of many questions by God, questions that no man could ever answer. Such questions as:
– “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4)
– “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?” (Job 38:8)
– “What is the way to the abode of light?” (Job 38:19)
– “Have the gates of death been shown to you?” (Job 38:17)
– “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31)
There are many more that follow. God knew that Job couldn’t possibly even begin to answer these questions. God’s intention for these rhetorical questions was to simply get Job to recognize his awesome power and sovereignty.
A hyperbole is simply an expression used to emphasize a point by using slight exaggerations. One such example can be found in Matthew 18:21-22. Peter went up to Jesus and asked him how many times shall we forgive a brother when they sin against us. Peter went on and asked, “Up to seven times?” Jesus’ response was quite amazing. “Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus obviously did not mean for us to forgive someone only 77 times and after that, that’s it no more forgiveness. He meant that we shouldn’t even keep track of how often we should forgive someone. Just as we have been forgiven we too should also continuously forgive others as long as they are truly repentant and seeking our forgiveness.
A litotes is an understatement or a negative connotation to express a positive point or affirmation. When Paul was expressing how God had given him the grace to preach to the Gentiles, he referred to himself as “the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8). Additionally, when expressing how Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners, Paul referred to himself as the “worst of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). The King James version says he was the “chief” of sinners. Nevertheless, the underlying point is that Christ can save anyone, even Paul, who as he claims, is the worst of all sinners.
Webster’s dictionary defines irony as, “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.”45 When Jesus was explaining to the religious leaders who his Father was, the leaders were responding by saying God was their Father. Jesus then responded with, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:44) At first glance it sounds as if Jesus was agreeing with them saying, “You belong to your father…”, then He equivocally continues by saying, “the devil”. He goes on to agree that they do in fact carry out their father’s desires.
A pleonasm is a repetition of words or the adding of similar words.46 Perhaps an example of a pleonasm can be given from Psalm 17:6, “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” The passage, “Give ear to me and hear my prayer” seems to be a slight repetition of words or expression. Instead, the Psalmist could’ve said, “give ear to my prayer” and the question would’ve been the same with less words.
An oxymoron is an expression containing two opposing words to make a point. The word oxymoron comes from two Greek words oxus (“sharp”) and moros(“stupid”).47 Paul gave many oxymorons when he was addressing the Corinthians about the importance of not being yoked together with unbelievers. For example:
– “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
– “Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
– “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”
– “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”
These can also be construed as rhetorical questions. However, these questions contain opposing words to enforce the issue more clearly. Another oxymoron can be found when Jesus was speaking of who will be first in the kingdom of God. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30) Here are two opposite phrases used together in the same sentence, an oxymoron.
A paradox is an expression of terms containing what might seem an absurdity or contrary to normal opinion.48 An example of a paradox can be found in Galatians 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Obviously, Paul was not literally crucified with Christ on the same day Christ was crucified on the hill at Golgotha. Additionally, the term “crucified” is not synonymous with “life” such as how Paul uses it in this passage. This is considered a paradox.
A paronomasia is better known as a “play on words”. These words sometimes contain a two-fold meaning. Webster’s defines paronomasia as, “to call with a slight change of name.”49 A good example of a paronomasia can be be found in Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus knew Peter and Andrew’s trade as fishermen. He knew they could catch fish physically. Instead Jesus chose the words, “fishers of men” so that Jesus could show them how to be productive spiritually. Like bringing fish out of the water so to were Peter and Andrew to bring men out of one element into another.
This is a word by which the sound of the word itself is also the very meaning of it. Such examples are: bang, clang, chirp, buzz, ring, etc. In the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13, Paul uses an onomatopoeia in verse 1. “If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have no love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” The word “gong” is not only a percussion instrument, it is also the sound it makes. Additionally, the word “clanging” is also the very sound a cymbal makes (clang) when struck together. These are all examples of an onomatopoeia.
An idiom is an expression used that seems strange or foreign to certain people because the expression itself is unique to another group of people. Culture seems to have a substantial influence on how idioms are used. Zuck gives an example of the differences in the expression, “He has a hard heart,” which in English means, he is stubborn, or indifferent to another’s needs or desires. However, in the Shipibo language of Peru, the expression means, “he is brave.”50 Quite the opposite of our English rendering of the expression.
How does this differ from a typical figure of speech? It differs only because the expression is unique to a certain people group or country. Whereas, a figure of speech is generally acknowledged or better understood universally and is more commonly used.
One example of an idiom used in the Bible can be found in the book of Acts. At Paul’s conversion while he was on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him.“He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) The literal Aramaic rendering of the term, “why do you persecute me?” is, “Why do you continue to kick against the goads?” This term is used later when Paul is giving his defense before King Agrippa. “About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:13-14) According to Webster’s dictionary, a goad is, “a pointed rod used to urge on an animal”.51 An oxgoad was a pointed stick commonly used in the Middle East generally to prod cattle. Saul was making a pointless effort in urging the Christians to recant or turn from their faith, ultimately he was only hurting himself. He was “kicking against the goads”.
Like figures of speech, an idiom can mistakenly be considered to go against literal interpretations or be considered as mistakes. Idioms should not be thought of as that. Zuck explains, “Idioms should not be thought of as mistakes in the Scriptures; they are ways in which the thought is conveyed in that native language.”52 When the interpreter begins to understand the underlying meaning of a particular expression, in this case an idiom, by consulting his Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, he will get a certain idea as to the true meaning of what the writer was originally trying to convey. Without referring to Bible reference books, the interpreter will be ignorant to the meaning of certain idioms and expressions used throughout the Scriptures.
I once read a story about a group of men from Wycliffe Bible Translators who were missionaries/Bible translators living in a remote village of Central Africa. In their attempt in translating the Bible to the local natives they ran across many obstacles of linguistics. One such example was their attempt in trying to translate the expression, “light of the world” found in John 8:12. The local natives had no idea what the expression meant since they themselves knew not what light was. The only light they were familiar with was the light that emitted from small contained fires, just enough to light up a small village. So the interpreters had to provide a translation into their native tongue that best describes a light unto the world. A universal light. This is an example of an idiom. “Light of the world” is an expression used that a specific group of people were simply unfamiliar with. The translators had to come up with an interpretation that the natives could readily understand.
A symbol is a depiction represented by an object or action to give a meaning or purpose. In my own opinion, there is perhaps no more profound and controversial symbol used than that of the Lord’s Supper. For centuries past, the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper/Communion has been very divisive. It was because of this symbolism, one of the reasons the Protestant church was formed. For many years the Catholic church believed in the literal partaking of Christ’s body and blood in what is called, “transubstantiation”. They believe that Christ’s body is literally transformed into the bread, or wafer. Likewise, his blood is transformed into the wine. The partaker then consumes his flesh and blood and is thus receiving Christ into his or her own body. This is in essence similar to a minor form of cannibalism.
It is apparent to us as Protestants that this is obviously a fallacy. We most certainly believe that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is symbolic of Christ’s body that was broken and His blood that was shed for us. The bread is symbolic of His broken body, the wine/fruit of the vine is symbolic of His shed blood.
How can we better interpret what is meant to be symbolic versus a literal interpretation? Zuck provides 9 essential principles in determining and interpreting symbols. Briefly, they are:
1. Observe the three elements in symbols (the object, the reference, and meaning).
2. Remember symbols have their base in reality.
3. Determine the meaning or resemblance, if any is assigned to the text.
4. If no meaning is given in the verse, check other references to it within the Scriptures.
5. Be cautious in assigning the correct characteristics to the symbol.
6. Look for major point or resemblance.
7. Realize one referent may be depicted by several objects.
8. Pertaining to prophetic literature, do not assume the whole passage contains symbolism.
9. Do not assume all future things prophetic are symbolic when it is possible to be literal.53
What is a parable?
A parable is simply a fictitious story that illustrates a religious principle or truth. The word finds it’s root in the Greek word parabole which refers to short statements and proverbs also called similitudes. There are many parables found throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famous are those told by Christ to His disciples. However, these particular forms of parables are not found in John’s gospel, they are found extensively in the Synoptics.54
The Parabolic Teachings of Jesus
The question is asked, “Why did Jesus teach in parables?” Jesus used parables primarily for two purposes. Zuck states, “One was to reveal truths to his followers and the other was to conceal truth from “those on the outside” (Mark 4:11).”55 However, these two purposes seem to contradict one another. But as you will see, there were legitimate reasons behind these purposes.
Jesus wanted to truly impart his truths and teachings to his disciples unhindered. He desired for them to learn and grow from these most profound illustrations. Jesus knew that these parables would be forever written on the hearts of men and women and would make disciples of of people for centuries to come. He employed the use of parables to enlighten, exhort, and edify the believers. On the other hand, He also knew that the ones who were plotting to kill Him, and setting out to destroy Him, such as the religious leaders, i.e. Pharisees, Saducees, etc. would be unable to understand or comprehend the true underlying spiritual meaning of his parables. They were simply blinded by the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief. To the unbeliever, on the surface these parables seemed like mere stories containing good moral principles. However, they contained much more than that, they were “meat” for spiritual growth and stories to help illustrate godly principles for living.
Jesus also knew the effectiveness of using parables. Generally, He used stories containing elements that the average person could relate to. I personally have made an observation that a majority of the parables contain some form of element relating to agriculture or farming. Such examples as the parable of: Sheep and Wolves (Matt. 7:15), The Soils (Mark 4:4-8), The Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19), The Workers in the Harvest (Matt. 20:1-6), The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), just to name a few. Unlike today, this was a common way of life for most people living at that time. Because of this, Jesus was able to maintain their attention and focus and effectively communicate to them the underlying spiritual implications of these stories.
Additionally, these parables moved the listener to think. It required much thought and effort to understand and decipher the meaning of the parable. It stimulated the mind and aroused their curiosity. It moved them to enact and apply the message to their own lives.
Jesus was obviously well acquainted with the purpose and effectiveness in using parables. Parables were commonly used in the era in which Christ lived. Even more so in the Middle East. He knew what the results would be in using His parabolic teachings. It would cause growth for some, yet blind others, his enemies.
I have demonstrated the important need for hermeneutics in it’s most basic sense. We can conclude that it is absolutely imperative for any serious student of the Bible to apply the given processes of interpretation to his or her studies. Without a systematic approach to Biblical interpretation, the translation can run amok and thus be a stumbling block to others and ultimately to oneself. The processes of interpretation, knowing and understanding the many aspects of the English literary language and figures of speech, and with a basic knowledge of at least one of the original languages of the Bible can better equip the student and/or believer to not only understand and comprehend the Word of God, but to withstand the many liberal translations and interpretations of the Bible that is so rampant in our society today.
I do sincerely hope that this article has provided a clear and concise basic overview about the system of hermeneutics. Just prior to taking this course I had absolutely no idea what hermeneutics was. It is considered a required course for all seminary students and I am glad it is. Like it has with me, I hope you as the reader can apply this knowledge of Biblical interpretation to help benefit your studies of God’s most precious Word, the Bible. God Bless.
For further reading and studies on this issue, I strongly suggest two particular books that were course requirements for me. They are:
- Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm (1970) Baker Book House
- Basic Bible Interpretation by Dr. Roy Zuck (1991) Chariot Victor Publishing
1 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970)2
2 Mal Couch, Ph.D., Hermeneutics Course Notes , 2
4 Ramm. Ibid. 16
5 Richard E. Oster, Jr., “Corinth” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)134
6 Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958)112-113
7 Oster. Ibid. 134
8 Ramm. Ibid. 15-16
9 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1991)13
10 Zuck. Ibid. 10
11 Mal Couch. Ibid.
12 NIV Life Application Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. and Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991) 2121
13 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
14 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
15 John W. Drane, “Paul” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)576
16 Noah Webster, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1974)30
17 Zuck. Ibid. 221
18 Ramm. Ibid. 24-45
19 Zuck. Ibid. 36
20 Ramm. Ibid. 32-33
21 Zuck. Ibid. 36
22 Zuck. Ibid. 45
23 Zuck. Ibid. 45
24 Ramm. Ibid. 53-57
25 Zuck. Ibid. 51
26 Zuck. Ibid. 52
27 Zuck. Ibid. 52
28 Ramm. Ibid. 75-76
29 Zuck. Ibid. 52-53
30 Ramm. Ibid. 83-91
31 Webster. Ibid. 991
32 Ramm. Ibid. 93
33 Zuck. Ibid. 90
34 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. VI “1 Corinthians (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1935)561
35 Zuck. Ibid. 100-101
36 Zuck. Ibid. 117
37 Zuck. Ibid. 124
38 Zuck. Ibid. 134
39 Zuck. Ibid. 146
40 Zuck. Ibid. 151
41 Zuck. Ibid. 152
42 Zuck. Ibid. 152
43 Webster. Ibid. 394
44 Zuck. Ibid. 153
45 Webster. Ibid. 611
46 Zuck. Ibid. 159
47 Zuck. Ibid. 159
48 Zuck. Ibid. 160
49 Webster. Ibid. 834
50 Zuck. Ibid. 165
51 Webster. Ibid. 493
52 Zuck. Ibid. 166
53 Zuck. Ibid. 1185-187
54 Dr. Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963)12
55 Zuck. Ibid. 197
This article was written and submitted by: Gregory B. Dill, who manages a Christian website called The Dill’s Family Home page. If you want good, thorough Bible studies, you need to visit this site. “This contributed article is copyright protected, and the sole property of the contributing author. The materiel may be freely used by anyone, as long as it is not sold or in any way used for monetary or property gain by the users!” Document expiration: indefinite.
For many people, trying to study the Bible tends to be a hit-or-miss activity which leads to a hit-and-miss interpretation. This leads us to the question, are all Biblical Interpretations equal? Over the years I have heard and have had people say, “well, that is your interpretation,” implying that all interpretations are equal or valid. The point of any Biblical Interpretation is not to support our opinions, but to find out what the author’s thoughts and intents were. The other problem that we face today is that most Christians don’t seem to realize that Biblical Interpretation is a science, and like all science if you don’t apply measurable standards you end up with corrupt data which leads to people misinterpreting the information – thus we end up with divisions and endless denominations and independent church groups. This is why it is important for everyone of us to handle God’s Word correctly and compare what we are being taught with what God’s Word clearly teaches.
The science of Biblical Interpretation is called “Hermeneutics.” The English word “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek verb hermeneuo (her-mayn-yoo’-o) and the noun hermeneia(her-may-ni’-ah). These words point back to the wing-footed messenger-god Hermes in Grecian mythology. He is said to have discovered language and writing and was the god of literature and eloquence, among other things. He was the messenger or interpreter of the gods, and particularly of his father Zeus. Thus the verb hermeneuo came to refer to bringing someone to an understanding of something in his language (thus explanation) or in another language (thus translation). Of the 19 times that the Greek verb and noun are used in the New Testament, they are more frequently used in the sense of translating. Interpretation involves making clear and intelligible something that was unclear or unknown. Hermeneutics, is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. Another way to define hermeneutics is this: It is the science (principles) and art (task) by which the meanings of the biblical text is determined.
In Dr. Roy Zuck’s book, Basic Bible Interpretation, he gives the following illustration to show how hermeneutics fits in with other related terms such as EXEGESIS (the determination of the meaning of the biblical text in its historical and literary contexts), EXPOSITION (the communication of the meaning of the text along with its relevance to present-day hearers),HOMILETICS (the science [principles] and art [task] by which the meaning and relevance of the biblical text are communicated in the preaching situation), and PEDAGOGY (the science [principles] and art [task] by which the meaning and relevance of the biblical text are communicated in a teaching situation).
HOMILETICS or PEDAGOGY
(Principles for communicating the content)
(Comprehending the content)
(Seeing the context) (Principles for comprehending the content)
SOME SIMPLE GUIDELINES FOR HANDLING GOD’s WORD CORRECTLY
The first thing we need to do before studying the Bible is to pray and ask God for wisdom and understanding; James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (KJV).
We have also been promised that the Holy Spirit will help us to understand God’s Word; John 16:12-15, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you” (KJV). 1 Corinthians 2:9-16, “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ” (KJV).
If there is sin in your life you need to confess that also, because according to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, our carnality can hinder the ministry of the Holy Spirit, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (KJV).
Another important fact is that those who have not accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior are not able to totally understand God’s Word; 1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (KJV).
Next apply the principles that John Wycliffe (1324-1384) gave to help us to keep everything in CONTEXT (Context is the key for a good sound Bible Study),
If Thou Mark
Not only What is Spoken or Written,
But of Whom,
And to Whom,
With what Words,
At what Time,
to what Intent,
With what Circumstances,
Considering what Goeth Before
And what Followeth.”
STEP 1: OBSERVATION (What does the passage say —- what is the context).
- Context is what drives the meaning of the passage and the word usage in the passage.
STEP 2: INTERPRETATION (What does it mean).
a. Take it at its Literal (normal or natural) meaning unless it doesn’t make sense that way.
b. Study its Historical Setting (the who, what, when, where, and why).
c. Apply the Rules of Grammar.
STEP 3: CORRELATION / INTEGRATION (How does this passage fit in with what is being taught in the rest of the Scriptures?).
STEP 4: APPLICATION (How does this get worked into and out through the way I live?).
NOTE: The important issue here is not what we think or what is our opinion about a passage of Scripture, but to know what God meant by saying it.
Next make sure that you DON’T do the following ten things because they can cause you to misinterpret Scripture,
1. Make the Bible say what you want it to say.
2. Spiritualize the text.
3. Decide on a doctrine without looking at all relevant texts.
4. Isolate texts from their contexts.
5. Apply promises made to Israel to other nations.
6. Replace Israel with the Church.
7. Pour current thinking into the Bible.
8. Use the supernatural experience of Bible men as normative for today.
9. Dismiss a text as cultural because you are uncomfortable with it.
10. Over personalize the Bible.
If you apply these basic principles to your Bible study it will help greatly with giving you a consistent interpretation of the Bible. With this said, these basic principles are only the beginning and if you really want to be able to stand firm upon God’s Word, and not someone’s opinion, then you need to study more about the science of Hermeneutics. There is some good FREE information that is available on the Internet, such as Gregory Dill‘s paper on “Basic Biblical Hermeneutics” (http://www.bibleteacher.org/con_4.htm) and “Hermeneutics: Principles of Bible Interpretation” by Mike Vlach located at Indian Hills Community Church’s web site (under Papers On Theology: http://www.ihcc.org/). You should also buy a copy of Dr. Roy B. Zuck‘s book, “Basic Bible Interpretation” (Chariot Victor Publishing, ISBN 0896938190).
Next time you are tempted to say, “well that is how you interpret it…,” bite your tongue if you haven’t applied the principles of interpretation, because there is a good chance that your interpretation is only based upon an opinion and not upon God’s Word. Not all interpretations are equal!
This Bible Study was written and submitted by: Joseph M. Willmouth, Pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Biloxi, Mississippi 39532. This contributed article is copyright protected, and the sole property of the contributing author. It may be freely copied and used provided the above credits are included. Document expiration: indefinite.
What Does the Context Include?
- It is important to understand what is meant by “context” when using it to interpret a passage of Scripture. The context of a passage includes all of the following things:
- The verses immediately before and after the passage.
- The paragraph and book in which the passage appears.
- Other books by this author, as well as the overall message of the entire Bible.
- The cultural environment of the time when the passage was written.
- The historical period (dispensation) of “Progressive Revelation” during which the passage was written.
The Immediate Context of a Passage
- Context is important because it forces the interpreter to examine the biblical writer’s overall flow of thought. The meaning of any passage is nearly always determined, controlled, or limited by what appears immediately beforehand and afterward in the text.
- “By observing what precedes and what follows a passage, the interpreter has greater opportunity to see what the writer was seeking to convey to his original readers. These readers did not plunge into the middle of the letter and seize out a few consecutive sentences. They read carefully the whole document. To treat material fairly the modern interpreter must enter into the total train of thought. No axiom is better known and more frequently disobeyed than the oft quoted: ‘A text without a context is just a pretext.‘ Faithful adherence to context will create in the interpreter a genuine appreciation for the authority of Scripture.”1 A respect for the authority of Scripture means that we will seek its meaning rather than putting ourselves in authority above Scripture as the determiner of its meaning.
- We all have a tendency to take verses out of context and use them to support points that we think are important. This is called “proof-texting” — and it is our own attempt to make the Bible say what we want it to say, rather than letting the text of Scripture say what God intended to communicate. “The most common failure in interpretation is to violate this most simple and basic principle: the context must control.” 2
Examples of Interpreting in Context
- Galatians 5:4 — Does “Falling from grace” mean that a person can lose his salvation? In the context of this passage, the apostle Paul was discussing the legalistic “Circumcision Party” and their attempt to bring the believers under the bondage of the Mosaic Law. He warned these believers that if a person seeks justification by God through human effort in obeying the Law, then he has rejected the way of salvation that God provided through the gracious gift of His Son — he has departed from the way of grace, or is “fallen from grace.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:1 — “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Does this mean that there should be no physical contact whatsoever between men and women? In what sense is a man not to “touch” a woman? This passage occurs in the context of the importance of abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1-5; 6:9-20; 7:2, 9), and that is the sense in which a man is not to touch a woman. It would be wrong to conclude that any man should never touch any woman, but sexual purity should be the goal for every man and woman.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:7 — “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.” Who is the one who restrains lawlessness? Unfortunately, the apostle Paul never directly identified the restrainer, but he assumed that the Thessalonians knew (based on his previous teaching: see 2 Thess 2:5, 15). Our study of the context of this passage indicates that whoever the restrainer is (1) he must have actively existed from the time of Paul through the period of history until the “man of lawlessness” [Antichrist] will be revealed; (2) he must have the authority to dictate, control, and direct human actions and events; (3) he must be powerful enough to hold back mighty spiritual forces — even those of Satan himself — see 2 Thess 2:9; (4) he must be able to hold back lawlessness everywhere at once on a global scale; and (5) he must maintain or uphold the standard of absolute holiness during this time period. The only plausible candidate who meets all of these requirements is God the Holy Spirit (especially through his unique ministry during the Church Age).
- 1 John 3:6-10 — “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” Does this mean that, in order to maintain his status as a Christian, a believer must never sin? In the context of the entire book of First John this interpretation would be incorrect, because John clearly states that Christians do sin (see 1 John 1:8, 10; 2:1; 5:16), and that believers have a remedy when that occurs (see 1 John 1:9). Therefore, we must seek another interpretation of 1 John 3:6-10 that is more consistent with the context of the entire message of the book.
Understanding the Overall Flow of Thought
- The purpose of the biblical writer will influence the meaning of every passage in the book. Understanding the writer’s general purpose will provide a larger context for each specific passage, and this will help to determine the author’s intended meaning. We should allow his purpose to control our interpretation. A basic rule is that each passage should be interpreted in light of the overall purpose of the biblical writer.
- An isolated passage cannot be interpreted as if it were disconnected from all of the ideas that come before and afterward. Outlines are very helpful in discerning the overall plan of a book. In order to identify and outline the flow of thought, it is important to look for changes or transitions in the text. The biblical writers normally present their messages in recognizable steps. To understand these steps, we must look at the structure and flow of the larger context. Changes in the text may provide clues to the structure of a writer’s thoughts. For example:
- The author may clearly announce a new section as he begins it.
- There may be significant “signposts” in the text. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; and 16:1 we see the transition words: “Now concerning.”
- There may be a change in literary form, for example from prose to poetry.
- There may be grammatical changes in person, number, tense, voice, or mood.
- There may be obvious changes in subject matter, logic, or thought patterns.
- The author may use regular repetition. He may compare or contrast things consistently. He may write in sequence from cause to effect (or effect to cause).
- “It is important to seek an understanding of the purpose through direct reading of the book before consulting the opinions of others. But it would be a mistake to make a final decision without consulting what specialists have concluded. If a Bible introduction book, a Bible handbook, and the introduction of the biblical book in one or two commentaries all concur as to what the purpose is, one can proceed with some confidence on that basis as he studies the book. If there is no general agreement among the specialists, it is probably because no particular purpose is altogether clear. In that case, no purpose should be used as a guideline for interpreting a specific passage, except in a general way.”3
- A study of the larger context of a Scripture passage usually shows why the author wrote to his readers the way he did. “As we understand the purpose of the original writer, we are deterred from attaching ideas to his writings that are completely foreign to his purpose or development of thought.”4 Our goal should always be to determine the intended meaning of the biblical author, rather than a meaning we impose on the text.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
- The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible !
- Sometimes parallel passages in other Bible books can shed light on the meaning of a passage which is obscure in its immediate context. When we say that a passage is parallel it may be a direct verbal parallel with similar words and phrases, or it may be a conceptual parallel where a similar idea is expressed in different words. For example, parallels exist between parts of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles, between parts of Galatians and Romans, between parts of Ephesians and Colossians, parts of 2 Peter and Jude, as well as between parts of Daniel and Revelation.
- Cross-reference resources can help locate other passages that speak about the same idea or event. But we should not assume that such reference materials are on the same level with the inspired Word of God. “Marginal references in various Bibles are famous (or infamous) for providing other materials which have a real or supposed bearing on the passage being studied. While these should be used, they should also be critically evaluated to see whether the citation is an actual parallel, merely a chance resemblance, or an apparent resemblance without true similarity of thought pattern.”5 As responsible interpreters of the Word of God, we should carefully evaluate parallel passages to see whether they help us determine the author’s intended meaning for the text we are studying.
- Guidelines for using Scripture to interpret Scripture:
- An obscure or ambiguous text should never be interpreted in such a way as to contradict the teaching of a plain or clear passage. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:29 the words “baptized for the dead” should not be interpreted to mean that substitutionary baptism can somehow bring salvation to a person who has already died. This would contradict the plain teaching of many other passages in Scripture.
- A complicated or complex interpretation should not be given preference over a simple or more natural explanation. For example, in Matthew 16:28 when Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom,” He was obviously not referring to the Millennial Kingdom because all those present would die before that time. A simpler explanation is that He was referring to the foretaste of His kingdom which was experienced six days later on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13).
A Final Challenge
- We must not ignore the context when interpreting a passage of Scripture:
“It is a shameful thing to carelessly ignore the context. To deliberately violate the context is more than shameful; it is sinful, for it is a deliberate substitution of one’s own words for the Word of God. The student of Scripture, though he may not understand the original languages, nevertheless has at his command the single most important tool — the context. Let him use it diligently!”6
Resource List for Understanding the Context of a Passage
Ranked in order beginning with the least complicated and least costly resources in each category.
Bible Handbooks provide outlines and overviews of every book in the Bible.
1. Halley’s Bible Handbook
2. New Unger’s Bible Handbook
3. MacArthur’s Bible Handbook
4. Larry Richards, The Illustrated Bible Handbook
5. Willmington’s Bible Handbook and Willmington’s Guide to the Bible
6. Book introductions and outlines in Study Bibles, Reference Bibles, or commentaries.
Bible Surveys provide helpful overviews of the entire Word of God.
- Henrietta Mears, What the Bible is All About
- Bruce Wilkinson and Ken Boa, Talk Thru the Bible
- Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament and Jensen’s Survey of the New Testament
- Bryan Beyer and Bill Arnold, Encountering the Old Testament and Walter Elwell, Encountering the New Testament
- Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament
- Robert Gundry, Survey of the New Testament
- Merrill Tenney, New Testament Survey
Comparing Scripture with Scripture
Topical indexes and cross-reference resources provide ways to locate parallel passages in Scripture.
- Nave’s Topical Bible
- The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge
- Topical Index of the Bible
- Harmony of the Gospels
- Marginal cross-reference systems in Study or Reference Bibles.
1 A. Berkeley Michelsen, Interpreting the Bible, 104, 113.
2 Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, 163.
3 McQuilkin, 156.
4 Michelsen, 105.
5 Michelsen, 100.
6 McQuilkin, 164.
Copyright 2006 Some Rights Reserved by Steve Lewis
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Source: High Peaks Bible Fellowship
More from High Peaks Bible Fellowship HERE
by Tim Chaffey
God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. It is crucial that we interpret properly to determine the intended meaning rather than forcing ideas into the text.
A popular seminary professor recently wrote the following about the creation of Adam and Eve:
Any evils humans experience outside the Garden before God breathes into them the breath of life would be experienced as natural evils in the same way that other animals experience them. The pain would be real, but it would not be experienced as divine justice in response to willful rebellion. Moreover, once God breathes the breath of life into them, we may assume that the first humans experienced an amnesia of their former animal life: Operating on a higher plane of consciousness once infused with the breath of life, they would transcend the lower plane of animal consciousness on which they had previously operated—though, after the Fall, they might be tempted to resort to that lower consciousness.1
So according to this professor, Adam and Eve were animals before God breathed the breath of life into them. At that point, they experienced “amnesia of their former animal life” so that they would no longer remember their animal past.
How does this line up with the Word of God, which states that God made Adam from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22)? Has the professor made a plausible interpretation of God’s Word? Is his interpretive work what Paul had in mind when he advised Timothy to be diligent in his efforts to accurately interpret the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?
The example above highlights the importance of being able to properly interpret the Bible. In this postmodern age, bizarre interpretations are accepted because people believe they have the right to decide for themselves what a passage means. In other words, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so you can decide truth for yourself.
This ideology flies in the face of Christ’s example. He routinely rebuked those who twisted the words of Scripture or misapplied them. The Bible is God’s message to man. We can have perfect confidence that God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. As such, it is crucial that we learn how to interpret properly so that we can determine the Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM) rather than forcing our own ideas into the text. A given document means what the author intended it to mean. The alternative would make communication futile. There would be no point in writing anything if the readers are simply going to take what they want from the passage, rather than what the writer intends. All communication is predicated on the presupposition that language conveys the author’s or speaker’s intention (unless, of course, the person is trying to deceive us, which is something God does not do since He wants us to understand His Word).
Hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuo, which means to explain or interpret) is the branch of theology that focuses on identifying and applying sound principles of biblical interpretation. While the Bible is generally plain in its meaning, proper interpretation requires careful study and is not always an easy task. Consider that the Bible was written over a period of roughly 2,000 years by 40 or more authors using three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). The authors wrote in different genres and had different vocabularies, personalities, cultural backgrounds, and social standings. The Holy Spirit moved each of these men to produce His inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), but He allowed their various writing styles and personalities to be expressed in its pages. It was written in a culture very different from our modern world and has been translated from its original languages. These are just some of the factors that must be taken into account as we interpret.
In fact, Bible colleges and seminaries often require their students to complete a course in hermeneutics. Numerous books have been written to explain these principles, and while Bible-believing Christians may disagree over particulars, there is general agreement about the major rules required to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
This is not to claim that only the scholarly elite can correctly interpret the Bible. Various groups have wrongly held this position. William Tyndale lived in the early sixteenth century when only certain people were allowed to interpret the Bible, which was only available in Latin, not the language of the common man. He sought to bring God’s Word to the average person by translating it into English. Tyndale is credited with telling a priest that he could make a boy who drove a plough to know more of the Scripture than the priest himself.2 The Bible was penned so that in its pages all people, even children, can learn about God and what He has done so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.
We must also battle against our pride, which tempts us to think that our own views are always right or that the beliefs of a particular teacher are necessarily right. We must strive to be like the Bereans who were commended by Luke for searching the Old Testament Scriptures daily to make sure that what Paul taught was true (Acts 17:11).
God desires for His people to know and understand His Word—that’s why He gave it to us and instructed fathers to teach it to their children in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). However, we must keep in mind several important points.
WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT TO HELP US TO THINK CORRECTLY, LEST WE DISTORT THE SCRIPTURES.
First, Christians must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit while studying the Bible. It’s not that the Bible requires any “extra-logical” or mystical insight to understand it. But we are limited in our understanding and often hindered by pride. We need the Holy Spirit to help us to think correctly, lest we distort the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).
Second, a person can spend his or her entire life and still never come close to mining the depths of Scripture. The Bible is written in such a marvelous way that a child can understand the basic message, and yet the most educated theologians continue to learn new things from the Bible as they study it. There is always so much more to learn, so we must humbly approach the Word of God.
Third, God has given the church learned men and gifted teachers who have devoted their lives to studying God’s Word. While these people are certainly not infallible, we shouldn’t automatically reject the work of those who have gone before us.
Finally, since the Bible consists of written data, then in order to understand it, we must follow standard rules of grammar and interpretation. We will examine these rules or principles throughout this chapter and the next, especially as they relate to Genesis.
Because people often confuse the two concepts, it must be pointed out that interpretation is different than application, although they are related. Interpretation answers the questions, “What does the text say?” and “What does the text mean?” Application follows interpretation and answers the question, “How can I apply this truth in my life today?” After all, the goal of studying the Bible is not to simply fill one’s head with information but to learn what God wants for us to know so that we can live how He wants us to live.
Which Method Do We Use?
Bible-believing Christians generally follow a method of interpretation known as the historical-grammatical approach. That is, we try to find the plain (literal) meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the book’s particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation. We seek to perform careful interpretation or exegesis—that is, to “read out of” the text what the author intended it to mean. This is in contrast to eisegesis, which occurs when someone “reads into” the text his own ideas—what the reader wants the text to mean. In other words, exegesis is finding the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the passage because its true meaning is determined by the sender of the message, not the recipient.
This hermeneutical approach has several strengths. It can be demonstrated that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in this manner. Also, it is the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure one is on the right track. As will be shown, other views allow for personal opinion to sneak into one’s interpretation, which does not truly reflect what the text means.
Finally, this approach is consistent with how we utilize language on a daily basis while interacting with others. For example, if your best friend says, “I am going to drive to work tomorrow morning,” you can instantly understand what he means. You know that he has a vehicle that he can drive to his place of employment, and that’s exactly what he plans on doing early the next day.
If the postmodern approach is accurate and meaning is determined by the recipient of the message, then perhaps your friend is really just telling you that he likes pancakes. Communication becomes impossible in such a world, and it gets even worse if your friend was talking to you and several other buddies. One friend might think he was talking about his favorite color, another interpreted his words to mean that he doesn’t believe in air, and another thought he meant that he was going to walk to work ten years later.
Words have a particular meaning in a particular context. When they are placed together in sentences and paragraphs, then a person must follow common-sense rules in order to derive the appropriate meaning. The sender of the message had a reason for choosing the words he did and putting those words together in a particular order and context. The same is true with the Bible. God had a reason for moving the writers of the Bible to use the words they did in the order they did. Our goal must be to ascertain the AIM.
Principles of Interpretation
Since the goal of interpreting the Bible is to determine the Author’s Intended Meaning, we must follow principles derived from God’s Word. The following principles do not comprise an exhaustive list but are some of the major concepts found in the majority of books on interpretation. In the next chapter, the quote from the introduction of this chapter will be examined to see if it properly applies these standard principles.
Carefully Observe the Text
It may seem rather obvious, but this principle is often overlooked. We must carefully observe what the text actually states. Many mistakes have been made by people who jump into interpretation based on what they think the text states rather than what it really does state.
As you read a particular verse or passage, pay close attention to different types of words that make up a sentence. Is the subject singular or plural? Is the verb tense past, present, or future? Is the sentence a command, statement of fact, or question? Is the statement part of a dialogue? If so, who is the speaker, and why did he make that comment? Can you note any repetition of words, which perhaps shows emphasis? What ideas are compared or contrasted? Can you identify any cause and effect statements or questions and answers? What is the tone of the passage; are emotional words used?
Failure to carefully observe the text has resulted in numerous misconceptions about the Bible. For example, many Christians have taught that Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the cool of the day. While it is possible that they did take walks with God in the garden, the Bible never claims this. Instead, God’s Word reveals that after they had sinned, Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and they hid themselves from Him (Genesis 3:8).
Carefully observing the text can also protect you from making another common mistake. Just because the Bible contains a statement does not mean that it affirms the statement as godly. For example, much of the book of Job consists of an ongoing dialogue between Job and four of his friends (Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu). Some people have been careless by quoting certain verses from this book to support their own ideas, but we have to keep in mind that God told Eliphaz that what he, Bildad, and Zophar had spoken about Him was not right (Job 42:7). This ties in perfectly with our next principle.
Context Is Key
Perhaps no principle of interpretation is more universally agreed upon than the idea that understanding the context of the word, phrase, or passage is absolutely essential. Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.”3
CRITICS OF SCRIPTURE OFTEN TAKE VERSES OUT OF CONTEXT WHEN THEY ATTACK THE BIBLE.
You may have heard someone say that a particular verse has been pulled out of context. Critics of Scripture often take verses out of context when they attack the Bible. The reason is that they can make the Bible “say” just about anything if they do not provide the context. For example, the critic might ask, “Did you know that the Bible says, ‘There is no God’?” Then he may go on to claim that this contradicts other passages, which certainly teach that God does exist.
How do we handle such a charge? We look at the context of the quoted words, which in this case comes from Psalm 14:1 (and is repeated in Psalm 53:1). It states, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, it’s true that the Bible states, “There is no God,” but it attributes these words to a foolish person. So the Bible is not teaching both the existence and non-existence of God, as the skeptic asserts.
If I asked you what the word “set” means, would you be able to provide me with the correct answer? No, it would be impossible because the word has more than 70 definitions in the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and can be used as a verb, noun, and an adjective. Now, if I asked you what the word “set” meant in the following sentence, you could easily figure it out: “His mind was set on solving the problem.” In this sentence, the word means “intent” or “determined.” But without the context, you would not know this.
The same thing is true with the Bible or any other written communication. The context clarifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, etc. With the Bible, it is important to know the context of the particular passage you are studying. It is also important to understand the context of the entire book in which the passage is found and how that book fits into the context of Scripture.
We also need to recognize where the passage fits into the flow of history. It makes a huge difference in determining the writer’s intent if we note whether the passage was pre-Fall, pre-Flood, pre-Mosaic Law, after the Babylonian Exile, during Christ’s earthly ministry, after His Resurrection, or after Pentecost. This is especially important when we reach the point of application. For example, just because God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs at Passover doesn’t mean we should do the same today. Jesus died on the Cross as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) and was the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Since the Bible was revealed progressively, there are instances where later revelation supersedes earlier revelation.
Ron Rhodes summarized these truths by stating, “No verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it. Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting, or like trying to analyze Handel’s ‘Messiah’ by listening to a few short notes.”4
Clarity of Scripture
Since the Bible is God’s Word to man, He must expect us to understand it. As such, it makes sense that He would communicate His message to us in such a way so that we can indeed comprehend it if we are serious about wanting to know the truth. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians:
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 4:2 (emphasis added).
Proverbs 8:9 states that God’s words “are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge.”
This principle was one of the key differences between the Reformers and Roman Catholics. The Reformers believed in the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture, especially in relation to its central message of the gospel, and they believed each believer had the right to interpret God’s Word. Roman Catholic doctrine held (and still holds) that Scripture can only be interpreted by the Magisterium (teaching office of the church).
Consider the words of Psalm 119, which is by far the longest chapter in the entire Bible, and every one of its 176 verses extols the superiority of God’s Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). God’s Word should be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, giving understanding to the simple. How could it be or do any of these things if it is not clear?
The principle of the clarity of Scripture does not mean that every passage is easily understood or that one does not need to diligently study the Word of God, but it does teach that the overall message of the Word of God can be understood by all believers who carefully and prayerfully study it. The principle also means that we should not assume or look for hidden meanings but rather assess the most straightforward meaning. Two of Christ’s favorite sayings were “It is written” and “Have you not read?” Then He would quote a verse from the Old Testament. By these sayings, He indicated that the Scriptures are generally clear.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Another key principle of hermeneutics is that we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Known by theologians as the “analogy of faith” or “analogy of Scripture,” this principle is solidly based on the Bible’s own teachings. Since the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie or contradict Himself (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18), then one passage will never contradict another passage. This principle is useful for several reasons.
First, not all Bible passages are equally clear. So, a clear passage can be used to shed light on a difficult, not-so-clear passage. There are a number of obscure verses in Scripture, where you might wish the writer would have provided more details. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a classic example. Right in the middle of the chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers, Paul asked, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” Several ideas have been suggested to explain what Paul meant about baptism for the dead, but because this is the only verse in all of Scripture that mentions this concept, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion about its meaning.
However, by comparing this verse with other Scripture, we can reach definite conclusions about what it does notteach. We know that Paul did not instruct the Corinthians to baptize people for the dead,5 because Paul and other biblical writers unequivocally taught that salvation is only by God’s grace and can only be received through faith alone in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). We can also be sure that those who practice such a thing are not accomplishing what they hope to accomplish—the salvation of an unbeliever who has already died. Hebrews 9:27 states, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
Second, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we have a system of checks and balances to help us stay on the right track. There will likely be times when, for whatever reason, we incorrectly interpret a given passage. By studying other passages that shed light on the same issue, we can recognize our error. Many people are unwilling to change their original interpretation and hold on to contradictory beliefs. Some will even claim that the Bible contradicts itself when, in reality, they have misinterpreted one or both of the passages. It is crucial for us to humbly approach Scripture and realize that if we believe we have found a contradiction, then it is our interpretation that is flawed, not God’s Word.
Since this principle provides a system of checks and balances, it can provide us with great certainty concerning a given interpretation. If we interpret a passage and then discover that every other passage on the topic seems to teach the same truth, we can be confident in the accuracy of our interpretation.
Classification of Text
While interpreting the Bible, we must never forget to understand the genre (literary style) of the passage we are studying. The Bible contains numerous types of literature, and each one needs to be interpreted according to principles befitting its particular style. Below is a chart identifying the basic literary style of each book of the Bible. Note that some books contain more than one style. For example, Exodus is written as history, but chapter 15 includes a song written in poetic language. Also, the books are sometimes divided into more categories, but for our purposes “History” includes the books of the Law, the historical books, and the four gospels; “Poetry” includes the Psalms and wisdom literature; “Prophecy” includes the prophetic books; and “Epistles” are letters written by an apostle.
Song of Solomon
These distinctions are important to keep in mind while interpreting the Bible. Each classification uses language in a particular way. Historical books are primarily narratives of past events and should be interpreted in a straightforward manner. This does not mean that they never utilize figurative language. For example, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:10–11). There are two obvious instances of figurative language in this passage: the ground “opened its mouth” and Abel’s “blood cries out” from it. Nevertheless, these figures of speech are perfectly legitimate in historical writing, and it is easy to understand what they mean.
Poetry, prophecy, and the New Testament epistles all have their own particular nuances and guidelines for proper interpretation. Space does not permit a full treatment here, so just remember to recognize the book’s (or passage’s) genre and interpret accordingly.
Church’s Historical View
Finally, it is important to know how those who have gone before us have interpreted a passage in question. Although our doctrine must be based squarely on the Word of God and not on tradition or what some great leader believed, we should allow ourselves to be informed by the work of others who have spent long hours studying God’s Word. Most doctrines have been discussed, debated, and formulated throughout church history, so we should take advantage of that resource.
Imagine studying a passage and reaching a conclusion only to discover that no one else in history has ever interpreted those verses in the same way. You would not necessarily be wrong, but you would certainly want to re-examine the passage to see if you had overlooked something. After all, you need to be very careful and confident in your interpretation before proposing an idea that none of the millions of interpreters have ever noticed before.
While Bible scholars and pastors often have access to resources that permit them to search out the teachings of our spiritual forefathers, this information can also be obtained by the average Christian. Consider borrowing a commentary from a pastor or taking advantage of some of the Bible software on the market, which allows you to quickly search for this information.
Conclusion to Part 1
This first chapter has explained why it is important to accurately interpret God’s Word and how to do it. Our goal is to find the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning). The six principles above will guide you as you study and interpret God’s Word.6
Remember, the goal of interpreting God’s Word is not to simply accumulate knowledge so that you can be the best at Bible trivia. The reason it is important to study and accurately interpret the Bible is so that we can know God better, know what He expects from us, and know how we can live in a way that pleases Him.
The next chapter will examine the statement from Dr. Dembski, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to see if he followed these major principles of interpretation. It will also show why Genesis 1–11 should be understood as historical narrative.
- William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2009), 155.
- http://www.tyndalesploughboy.org. Accessed January 7, 2011.
- Frederick C. Mish, Editor in Chief, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2008), s.v. “Context.”
- Ron Rhodes, “Rightly Interpreting the Bible,” from http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Interpretation.html. Accessed January 12, 2011.
- The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have developed an entire doctrine called baptism by proxy in which current members of the group are baptized in place of the dead. They use this verse to support this practice.
- Other helpful guidelines and principles with examples can be found in books on hermeneutics. A good lay level resource is John MacArthur’s book, How to Study the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).
(To read more in this series, you may visit “Answers in Genesis.”)
The term Dispensationalism is a system of theology, which seeks to unfold the absolute truth of Scripture.
“Dispensationalism is a system of theology which views the world as a household run by God. In this household-world God is dispensing or administering its affairs according to His own will and in various stage of revelation in the process of time. These various stages mark off the distinguishably different economies in the outworking of His total purpose, and these economies are the dispensations. In this system there are usually, but not always, seven such dispensations.”
One can define Dispensationalism as: God’s distinctive method of governing mankind or a group of men during a period of human history, marked by a crucial event, test, failure and judgment. From the divine standpoint, it is a stewardship, a rule of life, or a responsibility for managing God’s affairs in His house. From the historical standpoint it is a stage in the progress of revelation.
Interpretation of Scripture:
First is the method regarding the interpretation of Scripture called the consistent literal or plain approach throughout the whole of Scripture. This approach applies the proper rules of grammatical usage of the text with appropriate deference given to the historical and contextual position of the text within the entire Scripture. In short you read Scripture as you would any other piece of literature where the author seeks to communicate with the reader.
Israel & The Church are Separate:
Second essential characteristic is a clear distinction between the purposes and promises of Israel and the Church throughout Scripture. Finally this system realizes that God’s main purpose in this world is to bring Himself glory.
God Has a Different Plan for The Nation Israel than He does for The Church
Defining a Dispensation:
During the various ages of time (Dispensations) from creation to the New Jerusalem and eternity future mankind has responsibility to respond to God according to the degree of revelation that He has provided about Himself and His requirements for mankind.
That is, mankind has a degree of responsibility to respond to God according to the level of revelation He has given him. This revelation progresses throughout time. Progressive revelation views the Bible not as a textbook on theology but, the continually unfolding revelation of God given by various means throughout the successive ages. In this unfolding there are distinguishable stages of revelation when God introduces new things for which man becomes responsible. These stages are the economies, stewardships, or dispensations in the unfolding of His purpose. Dispensationalism therefore, recognizes the unity of His purpose and the diversity in the unfolding of it.
One very important aspect of Dispensationalism is the element of time. Time and space were created according to Genesis 1:1 and man lives in time and space on this planet. The failure to recognize this realism can afford much distress to sound Biblical interpretation. Some interpreters view the bible as all spiritual. They refer to Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 18:36 where He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” According to this verse some think they have hermeneutical license to evaluate each verse in the Bible as being “Spiritual” and not literal. That is, since Christ says His kingdom is not of this world then Biblical interpretation should not have to adhere to the normative rules of recognition of time and space. So they view all scripture as timeless or spiritual and there are no real eras or times to concern themselves with. This “spiritualizing” the text leads to many private interpretations and God’s communication to us is fractured and confused because the text can mean anything the reader decides it means. Peter warns us about this in 2 Pet 1:20 This leads to the next important aspect of Classic Dispensationalism. That is, the Bible must be interpreted literally.
God Managing His Affairs:
This subject word, Dispensationalism, means the acting out or administrating, the concept of managing and the act of dispensing something to someone such as a responsibility to fulfill. The Greek word for dispensing isOikonomia, from which we get our English work economy, means to manage something, to regulate to administer or plan something out. The central idea of dispensing is to manage the affairs of a household as a steward. We see the word used in the New Testament twenty times. (Luke 12:4, 16:1-2, 3,4 3,8; Romans 16:23; I Corinthians 4:1, 2; 9:17; Ephesians 1:10, 3:2, 9; Colossians 1:25; I Timothy 1:4) Galatians 4:2; Titus 1:7; I Peter 4:10;) We see God dispensing grace for example with the present dispensation of grace and the responsibility that He has given us to respond to him through belief and walking with Him (Ephesians 3:2). This is of course a different level of responsibility to God that man has than the period of the dispensation of Mosaic Law. Some such as Scofield refer to this responsibility as a test. So therefore, we can say that man is required to respond to God as a type of test according the revelation He has provided of Himself and his requirements.
Characteristics of A Dispensation:
For each dispensation there are 7 aspects. 1) Each dispensation has a “Chief Person” 2) Each dispensation has a “Name” 3) Each dispensation has been provided a responsibility to God. 4) Each dispensation has been given a “Test” from God. 5) In each dispensation man has “Failed” the test. 6) For each dispensation God has provided a “judgment”. 7) God has provided a measure of “grace” for each dispensation. Further, a new covenant is often the basis for a new dispensation.
There is a distinction between, Israel and the Church. Prior to the incarnation there were two types of people on earth in God’s economy, the nation Israel and the gentiles (nations). Since the incarnation there are now three, Israel, the gentiles and the Church (Ecclesia). Through normative reading of the Bible we see that it clearly distinguishing the difference between Israel and the Church. They are separate entities and the Church is not Israel and Israel is not the Church.
Therefore, one may define Classical Dispensationalism as: A system of theological interpretation, which, seeks to unfold the absolute truth of Scripture. In it the world is viewed as a household over which God dispenses or manages His affairs and man has accountability to respond to God according to the degree of revelation that God has provided during each progressive dispensation. Some refer to this as a world history view as revealed in Scripture. In this system Scripture text is taken literally within appropriate grammatical rules and governance of usage. The promises to Israel and the Church are consistently distinct throughout Scripture and all the while God’s glory is paramount.
The seven dispensations:
The traditional dispensation names:
3) Human Government
Daniel E. Woodhead Ph.D