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We've all heard the
following response when we have tried to share a truth from Scripture - "Well,
that's just your interpretation!" This retort begs the question of whether
there are in fact many valid interpretations or whether there is only one
interpretation intended by the author (and the Author). While there is no doubt
that genuine believers will differ in their interpretations on a number of
difficult passages, the truth is that every passage has only one valid, correct
interpretation. God did not stutter nor did He speak in ambiguities. He said
what He said and meant what He said, regardless of whether we as finite
creatures can agree on what He said. Biblical truth is the ultimate objective
truth (Ps 119:160-note,
Pr 30:5) for it is God's inerrant, plenary (complete in every aspect) inspired
Word (2Ti 3:16-note).
It therefore behooves all sincere believers to be very careful in our approach
to handling and interpreting His precious truth (cp 2Ti 2:15-note,
Paul in Acts 20:27, 2Co 4:2, He 5:14-note;
Pr 30:6, Re 22:18-note,
Dt 4:2, 12:32 Jas 3:1). The apostle Peter issued a stern warning to those who play "fast
and loose" with the Scriptures, noting that Paul's epistles contain
things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do
also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2Pe 3:16-note;
cp Paul's parting warning to the Ephesian elders - Acts 20:29, 30 where "perverse" =
twisted, distorted, perverted)
interpretation as explaining or telling the meaning of
something and presenting it in understandable terms. In Biblical interpretation you are
seeking to place yourself in the writer's "sandals", setting aside any
preconceived ideas, with the ultimate goal being to understand the writer's original
intent, and God's intent which sometimes goes
beyond even the understanding of the human writer (as pointed out by Peter --
1Pe 1:10, 11, 12-notes).
A synonym for interpretation
is hermeneutics which is derived from the name of the pagan god Hermes who brought
messages from the pagan gods to mortals, "translating" them as it were. The
related Greek verb
(click Greek word study)
means to bring someone to an understanding
of what is conveyed in another language, making it clear and intelligible and
thus in a sense "translating" it. Hermeneutics is the science (and
interpretation, in this case the interpretation of the Bible. The comments and
"steps" below will enable you to practice good "hermeneutic" technique, but
clearly cannot substitute for more in depth training and instruction in this
area. If you want more (a whole lot more) on hermeneutics then I would highly
recommend downloading (free) the 152 page Pdf by Dr Stephen R Lewis which is the
"class handout" for "Bible 405: Hermeneutics: The Study of the Interpretation of
Scriptures" offered at Chafer Theological Seminary. (Hermeneutics - Study of Interpretation of
Axioms for Interpretation)
Listen to the wise warning
from Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones...
is nothing so dangerous as to come to the Bible with a theory, with preconceived
ideas, with some pet idea of our own, because the moment we do so, we shall be
tempted to over-emphasize one aspect and under-emphasize another. (from chapter
1 of "Studies in the Sermon on the Mount", a modern day classic)
Dr. Howard Hendricks reminds us that...
"Meaning” (of the Scriptural passage) is not our subjective thoughts read into
the text but God's objective truth read out of the text. As someone has well
said, the task of Bible study is to “think God’s thoughts after Him." The
miracle is that He used human authors to do so. Working through their
personalities, their circumstances, and their concerns, the Holy Spirit
superintended the crafting of a document. And each of the human authors—God's
coauthors, we might call them—had a specific message in mind as he recorded his
portion of the text. That’s why I like to refer to the step of Interpretation
as the recreation process. We’re attempting to stand in the author’s shoes and
re-create his experience—to think as he thought, to feel as he felt, and to
decide as he decided. We’re asking, What did this mean to him? before we ever
ask, What does it mean to us?" (Under "Step 2" - The Value of
Living By the Book - Wordsearch) (Living
By the Book The Art and Science of Reading the Bible - Logos)
Hendricks goes on to remark that
in Observation we excavate. In Interpretation we erect. And
buildings are always determined by their foundations. The more substantial the
foundation, the more substantial the superstructure...In the same way, the
quality of your interpretation will always depend on the quality of your
observation. It is impossible to understand what a writer means until you notice
what the writer says. Therefore, to observe well is to interpret
well. You always need to observe with a view to interpreting (and
eventually to applying) the Scripture. Observation is never an end in
itself but always a means to an end. (Ibid) (Bolding added)
interpretation of Scripture has long been a source of debate because many
people consider the process too subjective. We've all heard remarks like "Doesn't
everyone have their own view?" or "Aren't there many ways to interpret
that passage?" The answer in fact is "no" there are not many
ways to interpret the Bible. The Bible is not some abstract Picasso painting
where everyone weighs in on their opinion as to what message the artist might
have meant to convey. In contrast to the relativity so common in our world, it
is comforting to know that God offers absolute truth and it follows that every passage of Scripture has only one
intended meaning and only one correct interpretation.
On the other hand, the
passage may have many
applications, but it always has only one intended meaning.
Therefore the next time you hear the objection, "There are so many
interpretations of the Bible I don't think we can be sure of what it means. So
why study it?", ask the objector to interpret a verse like John 3:16. You
and (they) will usually find that they can
understand the passage and that God's one intended message is very clear.
Perhaps the obvious meaning of verses like John 3:16 is what lead the well known
agnostic Mark Twain to quip...
It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I
can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do
Avoid arriving at an
interpretation of Scripture based on your personal opinion, popular consensus,
gut feelings, the persuasiveness of an argument, and even what you have been
taught by other respected teachers (including a specific "brand" of systematic
theology). Sometimes the most difficult aspect of
interpretation is to "unlearn" prior faulty, flawed interpretations!
interpretation is the bridge between observation and application.
Accurate interpretation is not only possible but it is crucial lest we
inappropriately apply the Bible (click
here for a sad example). Acting on what God has said
(application) assumes that you understand what He has said.
Is your approach to the
interpretation of Scripture like a person casting lots? Do you prayerfully
open your Bible to see what happens to catch your eye or even worse do you close
your eyes, open your Bible, and insert your finger on the page, supposing that
the passage you are pointing to is God’s will and word you?
The renowned preacher,
G. Campbell Morgan, told of the man who followed this method and came up
with “Judas went out and hanged himself.” (Mt 27:5) Finding these words unhelpful, he did
it again and this time got “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Lk 10:37) In desperation he tried
once more and this time the words that jumped at him were, “What thou doest, do
quickly.” (Jn 13:27) The point of this humorous example is that even though this practice
shows vast reverence for Scripture as God’s means of communicating with us, it
is essential mystical, superstitious and even dangerous.
J I Packer adds
misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of God's
way rather than in it. (Truth
and Power The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life)
Because we are human and now see in a mirror dimly (1Cor 13:12), there will always be Bible
passages on which sincere Bible believers (even those who hold to literal
interpretation) will not arrive at complete agreement. On the other hand, most of God’s
Holy Word can be confidently
and accurately interpreted.
THE WORD OF TRUTH
The goal of inductive Bible study is to understand what God meant by what He
said through human authors. Paul spoke to this point in exhorting young
Be diligent (make every effort -
= commands diligence and effort to be one's immediate response and can even convey a sense of urgency) to present
(includes idea of yielding, surrendering to the disposal or service of another)
yourself approved (tried as coins were assayed for purity and found to pass the
test) to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (making
a straight cut - of a craftsman cutting a straight line, a farmer plowing a
straight furrow, a mason setting a straight line of bricks, workmen building a
straight road!) the word of truth (Truth is the correspondence between a reality
and a declaration which professes to set it forth. Whatever God says is Truth.
Truth is also a Person, Jesus). (2Ti 2:15-note)
From this verse, it is clear that accurate
interpretation takes some "holy sweat" so to speak. And why make this effort?
What's the goal? To stand unashamed before our Lord someday. And how can we be
certain we will be unashamed? Because during our life on earth, we handled (and
lived out) God's Word of Truth with integrity and accuracy. Accurate
interpretation therefore is an imminently worthwhile goal.
In this same passage in 2 Timothy, you may
have observed that the Greek word for rightly dividing literally means to cut straight and
was used in ancient times to describe a craftsman cutting a straight line, a
sewer sewing a straight seam, a farmer plowing a straight furrow, a surgeon
dissecting a straight line (we all hope so!), a mason laying bricks in a straight line or a
workman building a straight road. Figuratively the key point is that whatever
the endeavor, careful attention is given to performance of the task to assure
The well known Christian speaker and writer
Charles Colson sounds a similar caution as Paul does to Timothy writing
The longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m in
fear of misinterpreting the Bible. It's an awesome responsibility.
Every devout Christian can understand the
Bible for as Martin Luther wrote
There is not on earth a book more lucidly
written than the Holy Scripture (Exposition of the 37th Psalm).
So how does someone without a seminary
background rightly divide the Scripture? As you apply the simple principles
discussed in the next section, you will learn how to cut the Scriptures
straight. Crooked cutting of the Scripture can result in anything from minor
errors to total chaos and confusion in the church (click
example) or at worst a cult.
Some people want to have their ears tickled
and therefore try to make the Bible say what they want to hear. We must align
ourselves with the Bible, never the Bible with ourselves. Beloved, every time we
go to the Scriptures, we need to treat them as a priceless gift from God and...
Rightly dividing the Word
of Truth (Interpretation) is vital if we are going to
walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing
fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Application)
Mark it down - the accuracy
of your interpretation is directly proportional to the amount of time and
effort taken to carefully observe the text.
The more time you spend in
observation of the Scriptures, the less time you will have to spend on
interpretation and the more accurate will be your interpretation.
The less time you spend
observing the text, the more time you will have to spend in
Interpretation, and the less accurate will be your result (at least
potentially). And without accurate interpretation of the text, there can be no
valid application of the Word to your life.
Accurate interpretation is
possible but does require effort. Paul exhorted Timothy to
Think over these things (Ask "What things" for
see 2Ti 2:1,2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7-
notes) I am saying [understand them and grasp their application], for
the Lord will grant you full insight and understanding in everything." (see
2 Timothy 2:7,
Dr Roy Zuck observes
In recent years we have seen a great surge of
interest in informal Bible study. Many small groups meet weekly in homes or in
churches to discuss the Bible—what it means and how it applies. Do people in
those groups always come away with the same understanding of the passage
studied? Not necessarily. Some may say, "To me this verse means this," and
another person in the group may respond, "To me the verse doesn't mean that; it
means this." Studying the Bible in this way, without proper hermeneutical
guidelines, can lead to confusion and interpretations that are even in direct
conflict. Did God intend for the Bible to be treated in this way? If it can be
made to mean anything we want, how can it be a reliable guide?... "You can make
the Bible say anything you want," some argue. And yet how many of the same
people say, "You can make Shakespeare say anything you want"? Of course it is
true that people can make the Bible say anything they wish so long as they
disregard normal approaches for understanding written documents.
When many people approach the Bible, they
jump from observation to application, skipping the essential step of
interpretation. This is wrong because interpretation logically follows after
observation. In observing what the Bible says, you probe; in interpretation, you
mull. Observation is discovery; interpreting is digesting. Observation means
depicting what is there, and interpretation is deciding what it means. The one
is to explore, the other is to explain. (Basic Bible Interpretation
- this book is highly recommended if you would like to read more on the vitally
important topic of hermeneutics - it is authoritative, readable and very
practical.) (Also available on
Wordsearch Bible Software)
To those detractors who
say that Inductive Bible Study is too tedious, too technical, too demanding,
R C Sproul would say...
The Word of God is deeper than a flannelgraph
It demands the closest possible scrutiny. It calls for the most excellent
scholarship. It makes the finest point of technical analysis worth the effort.
The yield of such effort is truth.
Finally, the attitude with
which we approach interpretation is vitally important. In Isaiah we read of the
importance of a trembling heart, God declaring...
My hand made all these things, thus all these
things came into being," declares the LORD. "But to this one I will look, to him
who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.
(Is 66:2, cp Is 66:5, Ezra 9:4, 10:3)
As Vance Havner
It is always easier to understand what the
Bible says than to understand what somebody thinks it meant to say.
Many resources are
available to aid your study of Bible interpretation. Below are a few
recommendations some available online at no charge.
to Study Your Bible by Kay Arthur - succinct, straightforward
synopsis of inductive Bible study.
Living by the Book: by Dr Howard
Hendricks - classic on inductive study. - -
Living By the Book - Wordsearch
Living By the Book The Art and Science of Reading
the Bible - Logos
Basic Bible Interpretation
by Dr Roy B. Zuck
- authoritative, well written, easy to understand textbook on hermeneutics
Wordsearch Bible Software)
Basics of Bible Interpretation by Bob
Smith - well written book available free of charge online. Excellent guidelines on
and practical guidelines on how to utilize the original languages,
Hermeneutics - Study of Interpretation of
Dr Robert Lewis. Online 152 page Pdf compilation of sound material
in outline form. Used in a seminary course on hermeneutics.
AXIOMS OF HERMENEUTICS
Rules of interpretations are based upon Corollaries formed from
AXIOM 1: THE BIBLE IS A BOOK
WRITTEN BY PEOPLE TO BE UNDERSTOOD BY PEOPLE.
1. Each Biblical writing was written by
someone to specific hearers or readers in a specific historical-geographical
situation for a specific purpose.
2. Each Biblical writing was couched in
the cultural setting of the times in which it was written.
3. Each Biblical writing was recorded in
a written language and followed normal grammatical meanings including
4. Each Biblical writing was accepted or
understood in the light of its context.
5. Each Biblical writing took on the
nature of a specific literary form (genre = category of literature
characterized by a particular style, form, or content - History, Poetry,
Narrative, Wisdom, Gospels, Prophecy, Letters/Epistles).
6. Each Biblical writing was understood
in account with the basic principles of logic and communication.
AXIOM 2: THE BIBLE IS A DIVINE BOOK
1. The Bible contains MYSTERY
Only supernatural can answer: Prophecy,
Parables, Miracles, Doctrine
2. The Bible contains UNITY
It will not contradict itself (all fits
It often interprets itself (study all of it).
Its obscure and secondary passages are to be interpreted in light of clear
and primary passages.
3. The Bible contains PROGRESSION
Progressive revelation (from partial to
(Source: Clinton Lockhart, Principles
of Interpretation, 2nd ed. Fort Worth: S. H. Taylor, 1915)
We all need the reverent attitude of
Charles Colson who once said...
The longer I'm a Christian, the more I'm
in fear of misinterpreting the Bible. It's an awesome responsibility.
PRINCIPLE: Read the Scriptures
prayerfully, open to communication either direction (to Him or
from Him) at any and all times during your inductive study.
"But we've already prayed." That's great, but remain in a
prayerful attitude throughout your study, ever alert to your Teacher's
voice. Don't fall into the trap of performing inductive Bible study as
an intellectual exercise, but be open and alert to the heart
transformation that is the ultimate goal of your study.
Be like the psalmist who prayed...
Give me understanding, that I may observe Thy
law, and keep it with all my heart.
- see Spurgeon's note)
The Westminster Catechism (prefix) adds that the...
understanding is the pilot and guide of
the whole man; that faculty which sits at the stern of the soul: but as the
most expert guide may mistake in the dark, so may the understanding, when it
wants the light of knowledge.
The prince of preachers, C H Spurgeon once said that when he
encountered Biblical passages he could not
understand, it seemed to him as though God had set a chair there for him to
kneel down and worship. He added that...
I have always found that the meaning of a text can be better learned
by prayer than in any other way.
OBSERVE WITH A PURPOSE
Click discussion of
PRINCIPLE: Practice reading the
Scriptures actively (not
passively), repeatedly, interrogatively, acquisitively and purposefully.
J C Ryle (1816-1900 -
read a short biography)
put it this way...
We must read our Bibles like men digging for hidden treasure.
The value of careful observation cannot be overemphasized. Weak
and inaccurate interpretation inevitably results from superficial or
careless observation. We must immerse ourselves in the book we are studying
by repeated readings of the whole book. If we are reading about the coming
of the Holy Spirit in
Acts 2 on Pentecost, we need to "put our
sandals on", so to speak, and imagine ourselves as bystanders to the
incredible scene in Jerusalem. Now you're reading with your mind actively engaged!
Think of the passage you are
reading as analogous to one of the center pieces from the jigsaw puzzle depicted
above. How do handle one of the odd-shaped puzzle pieces? Don't you usually
search carefully for the more obvious pieces...the corner pieces and
straight edges? Well, that's the same approach you are going to take as you
begin to observe a book or a chapter. You observe with a Focus On
(F.O.T.O.) If you remember the old television program,
Dragnet, Jack Webb's
famous line was "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts!" That's
the approach we want to take in inductive study as we are seeking to establish
If you have ever
consulted one of Dr. Warren Wiersbe's commentaries (if you haven't then
you need to check them -- but only have your own inductive study!), you know that he invariably has
incredible insights. How did he arrive at such insightful interpretations? Well, before he writes a commentary on a passage, Dr.
Wiersbe carefully reads and re-reads the entire book (up to 50 times) before he
feels competent to even begin interpretation of the text! He may not refer to his approach
as inductive Bible study, but that is in fact what he is doing as he
repetitively and carefully observes the text and begins to understand the
overall context (the corner and straight pieces of the puzzle). The great
Bible expositor G Campbell Morgan was known for his powerful sermons. When asked
for the secret of his insightful exposition, he replied that he made it a habit
to read the chapter or section of Scripture on which he was preaching some 30-40
times before he preached the sermon.
In a similar way, as you read and
observe with a purpose you are in essence reading and re-reading
the passage. For example in an epistle, you might read through the chapter or
book, observing and marking the author. The next time you might re-read
and mark the recipient(s). The third time you might read observing and
marking key words and/or key phrases (including synonyms). Each
time you mark the text, you should pause and ask as many as the 5 W's or H
note) as possible. As you practice this style of
prayerful, purposeful reading, you are becoming familiar with the
content of the text and you are beginning to establish the
context (see next principle).
It takes some practice to
make the interrogative mindset a habit, but over time you
will become more comfortable with the 5 W's and H questions. You will
be amazed at how competent the Scripture is at answering your
questions, especially as you hone your interrogative skills! You will also
begin to experience the joy of discovering Truth on your own in a
way that you had previously thought possible only for those who had been to
seminary. You will also notice that as you
observe and interrogate the text, the interpretation (and
application) begins to "flow" naturally from your observations and
especially as you ask questions.
Martin Luther alluded to the practice of careful observation noting
I study my Bible as I gather apples. First, I shake the whole tree that
the ripest may fall. Then I shake each limb, and when I have shaken each
limb I shake each branch and every twig. Then I look under every leaf....Pause at every verse of Scripture and shake, as it were, every bough of
it, that if possible some fruit at least may drop down.
mind that although careful
always precedes accurate interpretation,
observation does not inevitably lead to correct interpretation as shown in the humorous illustration
The Cow (Click
Vance Havner wrote
Speed-reading may be a good thing, but it was never meant for the Bible. It
takes calm, thoughtful, prayerful meditation on the Word to extract its deepest
A T Pierson adds
Partial examination will result in partial views of truth, which are necessarily
imperfect; only careful comparison will show the complete mind of God... (He
once wrote) When I read this passage for the
hundreth time, the following idea came to me.
Andrew W Blackwood
has recognized the necessity of this absorbing process in Bible study in
preparation for the ministry of preaching. He writes:
Before man dares to preach much about the Christ of the Fourth Gospel, he ought
to live with this book for a number of months. In case of difficulty he should
consult a first-class exegetical commentary....But the main stress ought to fall
on reading the Bible book itself, as it was written, and on dealing with each
paragraph as a unit' (from Irving Jensen. Independent Bible Study)
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE:
for an exercise on
observing with a purpose
KEEP CONTEXT KING
for more on
Context always rules in interpretation, whether you are studying a
single word, one verse or a larger section of Scripture. Always check
to see who the "neighbors" are!
Context is the setting in
which something "dwells". If you take a fish out of
doesn't function well! This principle holds for any passage of Scripture
which is taken out of
In simple terms, context is that which goes with the text, the "neighbors" so to speak -- that which comes before and after.
Webster says that "context"
the parts of a discourse that
surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.
The English word context is
derived from com = with and texere = to weave or braid, and
thus means woven
together! This interesting word picture is depicted below...
What happens when you remove a
piece of thread from a garment? It doesn't function well and it does
not fulfill the weaver's intended purpose! It was woven together with
other threads in order to make a garment, even as a specific Biblical
passage is woven together with other verses to make a context. Any
time we break into the middle of a book, a chapter or a paragraph, we
need to look at the surrounding
context. When you interpret Scripture, whether it is a single word, a
verse or a paragraph, you must always consider the Scripture in light
of the surrounding verses, chapters and book in which it is found
and finally in the context of the entire Bible. Your interpretation should
never contradict the
context of the book, chapter or paragraph you are studying. If
you ignore context, the accuracy of your interpretation will suffer
and may even be "spiritually dangerous." Remember that a
text taken out of context
potentially can become a
pretext (a fictitious or false reason given in order to conceal the real one
or given in order to justify an action -
Example = "He gave plausible reasons for his conduct, but these
were only a pretext to conceal his real motives."
You've never done that have you?).
It follows that using Scriptural pretext
is a major "tool" of the cults or non-Biblical systems of belief about life,
death, eternity, etc (click
example). If you fail to read (hear) the verse in context
it's like the all too typical experience with cell phones where you
may hear every other phrase or word which can lead to a completely
inaccurate understanding of what the other person has said which can
potentially have dire consequences!
One of the early reformed
theologians Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) emphasized the importance of
context, declaring that pulling a passage from its context "is like
breaking off a flower from its roots."
never divorce one part of Scripture from another, but we must
always “compare spiritual things with spiritual” (1Cor 2:13).
We can prove almost anything by the Bible if we isolate texts from the
contexts and turn them into pretexts...
You can prove anything by the
Bible, provided you twist the Scriptures out of context and reject the
witness of your own conscience. The Bible is a book of
literature and it must be interpreted according to the fundamental
rules of interpretation. If people treated other books the way they
treat the Bible, they would never learn anything....
Most heresies are the perversion of
some fundamental doctrine of the Bible. False teachers take verses out
of context, twist the Scriptures, and manufacture doctrines that are
contrary to the Word of God...
Beware of taking promises out of
their context...Few passages in the Bible are more misunderstood and
misapplied than the Sermon on the Mount (see
notes). Often people
will take single verses or phrases from Matthew 5-7 and disregard the
context. It’s important that we have a total view of this important
sermon (Ed: cp
before we attempt to study the various divisions of this passage." (Wiersbe,
W: Bible Exposition Commentary. 1989. Victor
Arthur emphasizes that when...
you seek to know what something
means, ask yourself,
"Is my interpretation of a
particular section of Scripture consistent with the theme, purpose,
and structure of the book in which it is found?".
"Is my interpretation consistent
with other Scriptures about the same subject or is there a glaring
"Am I considering the historical
and cultural context of what is being said?"
How to Study Your Bible:
this reference is highly recommended especially if you are new to
inductive Bible study)
context this way...
Remember the old spiritual...
The knee bones connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bones connected to the hip bone,
The hip bones connected to the tail bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord!
That's primitive physiology but
good methodology. It recognizes the connectedness of the body, that it
all hangs together. There's unity. So it is with Scripture. The Bible
is a sixty-six-book collection, but it hangs together as one Book. Its
a unified whole. And that's the principle on which (context) the
second key of biblical interpretation depends. (Hendricks,
Howard: Living by the Book. Moody Publishing. 1993)
Skip Heitzig notes that...
There are two levels of context
to keep in mind—immediate and remote (Ed: Some
have more than 2 and illustrate using successively enlarging circles). Immediate
context refers to the sentence in which a word is found or the
paragraph in which a sentence is found. Remote context refers
to the entire progression of thought leading up to the verse. Let's
take a look at a familiar passage to get a feel for this
Therefore, since we have so great a
cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every
encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run
with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on
Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before
Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the
right hand of the throne of God.. (Hebrews 12:1-note
, He 12:2-note)
The immediate context is found here
in the first two verses of Hebrews 12, which refer to a race of faith
that is to be run with endurance. The author speaks of how to run that
race and who to keep our eyes on while we run. The remote context,
on the other hand, is suggested by the first word of chapter 12, "therefore,"
which draws our attention back to Hebrews 11. There we find several
examples of faith as portrayed by various saints down through the
ages. The word therefore informs us that what is said in
Hebrews 12 is "as a result of" what has been revealed in chapter 11.
In that context, then, we know that the "cloud of witnesses"
refers to the list of faithful people in chapter 11. The passage is
couched in terms of an athletic event, which was a common point of
reference in ancient Greece and Rome. The faithful saints of old are
presented as "witnesses" to our present "race." Warm-up
weights are representative of sin, which is to be laid aside in the
serious competition of life. In its context, the verse is saying that
the life of faith is like a race in which we are
required to "run with endurance," just as others have
successfully run before us. (How
to Study the Bible and Enjoy It)
HISTORICAL & CULTURAL
We are prone to interpret
everything we read in terms of our modern Western culture, since the
"here and now" is where we live. The Historical and Cultural Context answers questions
did the specific passage mean to the people to whom it was spoken or
• What were the times like?
• What was the attitude toward
is this taking place?
else was taking place in the world at this time?
were some of the social and political influences on the writer and on
those to whom he was writing?
You have to understand the historical
setting to best understand the writer’s original intent. In other words, try to put yourself into
the historical and cultural context of the author and the audience he was
addressing (see offsite article on importance of
in interpretation). The epistles for example were written to a particular group (e.g.,
churches at Philippi, Colossae, etc) at a particular time in history (first
century in case of the churches), both factors which will contribute to the
accuracy of one's interpretation. Although you can discern various aspects of
the historical and cultural context from careful observation of the
book, you will probably have to use secondary resources to discover
other aspects of historical or cultural context that might help your
interpretation. Although William Barclay's commentaries are not
always thoroughly conservative and evangelical, Barclay
frequently gives excellent historical/cultural descriptions that are
not readily available elsewhere. (click
for more thoughts on Barclay).
Never attempt to interpret a verse by itself but at the very minimum
take a moment and examine the paragraph in which it is found. Not only is the immediate context
(paragraph, chapter and book) surrounding a verse important,
but the context of the entire Bible is also crucial in understanding
the meaning of a particular passage. Why? Because Scripture
never contradicts itself, so if we arrive at an interpretation in
one passage that contradicts truth in another passage, we have an
inaccurate interpretation. In short all Scripture is the
context in which any Scripture is to be considered and applied, for
God always agrees with Himself!
A A Hodge helps us
understand why any Scripture should be interpreted in
light of all Scripture explaining that...
The doctrines of the Bible are not
isolated but interlaced; and the view of one doctrine must necessarily
affect the view taken of another.
R B Kuiper adds that...
Scriptural paradoxes are seeming,
not actual, contradictions. Scripture is its own infallible
interpreter and every part of it must be interpreted in the light of
the whole of it....The Bible is a self-consistent unit. What it
teaches in one place it does not contradict elsewhere.
As J I Packer put it...
Truly, the inner unity of the Bible
is miraculous; a sign and wonder, challenging the unbelief of our
Bob Smith reminds us that...
we must always view a passage or
verse (1) in its immediate setting; (2) in the larger context of the
chapter or book in which it stands; and (3) in the light of the total
context of biblical revelation. Remember that though we see it in its
parts and divisions, God wrote ONE Book, not sixty-six. (Basics of Bible Interpretation)
J. I. Packer wrote that...
The Bible appears like a symphony
orchestra, with the Holy Ghost as its Toscanini, each instrument has
been brought willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes
just as the great conductor desired, though none of them could ever
hear the music as a whole.… The point of each part only becomes fully
clear when seen in relation to all the rest (from God Has Spoken)
C H Spurgeon (in a sermon on
Hebrews 11:16) made this comment...
Now let us come back to the
Scripture; we cannot do better than keep close to it, for our text is
only to be understood by the context. Scripture is the best
interpreter of Scripture. The locks of Scripture are only to be opened
with the keys of Scripture; and. there is no lock in the whole Bible,
which God meant us to open, without a key to fit it somewhere in the
Bible, and we are to search for it until we find it. (The
Have you ever been misquoted because your quote was yanked "out
of context"? Then you understand how significant context is to accurate communication.
Read the simple illustration below to understand the crucial role
context plays in accurate interpretation:
If I said "I saw the trunk" how
would you interpret the meaning of the word "trunk"? It could refer to
a tree, a car, an elephant, a piece of luggage, athletic wear, etc.
How can one determine the correct meaning? Clearly, the context
determines how one interprets the meaning of "trunk". So if we were at
the zoo, you would most naturally understand that this is a reference
to the trunk of an elephant, etc, etc. You get the point - a Scripture
taken out of context can easily lose God's (and inspired human
author's) intended meaning. Don't misquote God by taking Him out of
It is surprising that although we use "context" in
everyday communication, we often tend to disregard this crucial role of
interpreting in context when studying
the Scriptures. We need to discipline ourselves and make a habit of always
consulting the verses before and after that
favorite verse, so that we can be sure we don't take the passage out of context.
See an illustration of
context from Our Daily
Bread. See also "Quote
cannot find a safer guide to follow
Than precepts from the pages of God's Word;
But if we twist and misapply the Scripture,
We make its sacred teachings seem absurd. --Hess
Even experienced Bible students are
often surprised to see what a familiar Bible quotation means when
understood in light of its immediate setting. Difficult problems of
understanding often evaporate simply by determining how a text is
framed by the main idea running through that section of Scripture.
As alluded to earlier, reading one passage in the Bible by itself can be like looking at a
piece of a jigsaw puzzle. As you analyze it, you see elements of form
and color, but you realize that it is only one essential part of the
"big picture". Because the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27
books of the New Testament are all "chapters" of one Book, those who
live by the whole counsel of God will increasingly be enabled by the
Holy Spirit to see each individual part in light of the whole.
Nelson's New Illustrated
Dictionary emphasizes that...
The primary rule of biblical
interpretation is “context.” This cannot be emphasized too
strongly. If the Bible student would merely let a passage speak for
itself within the context of the paragraph, chapter, or book, the
majority of all errors in interpretation would be avoided. The problem
is our bias, or our subjectivity. Many times we approach a passage
thinking we already understand it. In the process we read our own
meaning into the passage. This is called eisegesis. (Eis is a Greek
preposition meaning “into.”) But interpreting the Bible correctly
demands that we listen to what the text itself is saying, and then
draw the meaning out of the passage. This is called exegesis. (Ex is a
Greek preposition meaning “out of.”) If we let a passage be defined by
what it and the surrounding verses say, then we have taken a large
step toward interpreting the Bible properly. Only by watching the
context carefully and by letting the passage speak for itself do we
give Scripture the respect it deserves. Of course, it is impossible to
dismiss totally our own bias and subjectivity. Our interpretation will
always be colored by our culture and our opinions about the passage,
or perhaps by our theological beliefs, which are partially based on
the passage. But this should not discourage our attempt to let the
passage speak for itself as freely as possible, without being weighed
down with our personal opinions and views.
R. F., Bruce, F. F., Harrison, R. K., & Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary)
President Lincoln was once misquoted as
saying that he would rather live in Russia than in America. What
President would make such a remark? It was said by the Great Emancipator,
Abraham Lincoln. But he's being quoted out of context. He actually said, "I
shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving
liberty--to Russia, for instance." Lincoln wrote these words while expressing
regret about a dangerous trend he saw in America. He feared that many wanted to
change "all men are created equal" to "all men are created equal, except
non-whites." If that were to happen, Lincoln suggested, he would be more
comfortable in a land where the government didn't pretend to stand for liberty.
The context makes all the difference, for it tells us exactly what Abe meant to
say. Similarly, if the immediate and wider contexts are not considered, a
person can make the Bible say anything he wants it to say. See some Biblical
examples in topic Context
of Immediate Settings.
Roy Zuck comments: The lack of proper
hermeneutics has also led to the Bible being highly abused and maligned. Even
some atheists seek to support their position by referring to Psalm 14:1, "There
is no God." Obviously they are overlooking how those words are introduced: "The
fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Basic
A woman entered the Democratic primary for
governor of Texas because she was convinced God had told her in the Bible that
she would win. When she saw on the official list of nominees that her name
was last, she read Matthew 19:30 "Many that are first will be last, and the last
first" which convinced her she would win, but she did not win. Scripture
interpreted (and applied) out of context can be twisted to mean just about
anything we want it to mean. The cults are masters of the deceptive craft of
taking passages out of context, which is why believers need to continually be
and remember that "Context is King".
A man dissatisfied with his life decided to
consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and
pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his
finger. It read, "Then Judas went away and hanged himself" (Matthew 27:5b)
Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read,
"Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'" (Luke 10:37b)
Respected expositor John MacArthur emphasizes that...
In Bible study, get the right message
from the right passage. Don’t “proof text” your bias or opinions by making
the Bible say what you already know you want it to say. (MacArthur, J., F.
How to get the most from God's word. Dallas, TX: Word Pub. 1997).
Telescopic reading is
based on this principle (of examining the text in the broader context). It
never settles for close-ups alone; it always demands the wide-angle lens of
perspective. It always asks, What is the big picture?"
Hendricks goes on to
comment that evaluation of
the passage in light
of the book as a whole... is the ultimate extension of checking the context.
It’s like flying a plane over some land in order
to evaluate distances and relationships. (Hendricks, H. G. Living by the
book. Chicago: Moody Press)
Remember context is king in interpretation and a text out of context is at
best a "pretext" (definition) and even worse may be a "proof text"
or a text of Scripture quoted to prove, defend or support a specific
doctrine or belief. Every major cult is founded on a violation of this
principle of failing to handle in context as illustrated in the following exercise.
Milton S. Terry explains the
importance of taking into account historical context, including the
setting, and circumstances in which the words of Scripture were written
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. (Milton S. Terry, Biblical
Hermeneutics. NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976,
IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
WHEN PERFORMING WORD STUDIES
Remember that when you are doing Greek Word studies
synopsis of Greek Verbs)
(similar warning applies to Hebrew), many Greek
words have more than one meaning as determined by the context.
A word can only mean one thing at a time so we must make every
effort to determine the writer's single intended meaning. The diligent student needs to to be
cautious when looking up definitions of a specific word in Greek
lexicons and using the definition to amplify or interpret the meaning
of that word in a specific verse. If the
definition you choose makes the verse more difficult to understand,
then you have probably chosen a definition that is not "compatible
context of the verse you are studying. Let
me give you an example of how context affects the meaning of the Greek
word. In Mark God the Father speaks out of a cloud at the
transfiguration of His Son and declares to Peter, James and John
This is My beloved Son.
(akouo in the
= not a suggestion but a command to make listening one's continual practice) to Him (Mk 9:7, cp Mary Lk 10:39
versus Martha Lk 10:40, 41,
The Greek Verb (akouo) normally
means simply "to hear" but in this context conveys the sense
of "Hear Him and obey Him" and in fact is so translated by the
Amplified Version ("Be constantly listening to and obeying Him!"
DON'T FORGET THE
As an aside when doing "Word
Studies" don't forget to occasionally look up words in the English
dictionary (and the same caution applies - be certain that it "fits"
the context of the verse under study). Let's look at an example in Php
4:6 Paul commands believers to "Be anxious for nothing...". A
study of the Greek word for anxious (merimnao
- see word study) uncovers an interesting origin from the
Greek verb merizo which means to divide and gives us a vivid
word picture of the effect of anxiety on most of us! When we look up
the word anxious in Webster's dictionary we read "Anxious:
Characterized by extreme uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about
some contingency: worried." Does that help amplify what Paul is
saying? And don't forget to note the origin of the English word, in
this case anxious being derived from Latin angere = to
strangle, to distress, to torment, to choke! What a picture of the
potential effect of anxiety! Some Bible Versions translate Php 4:6
with the verb "worry"... take a moment and look up "worry"
in an English dictionary - you may be surprised what you discover (note
especially Webster's origin and definitions #1-4!)
(The earlier versions of Websters frequently use Scripture to
illustrate the use of a word -
Webster's Dictionary - 1828 and 1913 Editions)
Greek Word Studies
- this list is added to continually
Hebrew Word Studies
How To Do A Greek Word Study on the
How To Do Word Studies - Offsite
The growing numbers of
sermon-sippers and seminar-sitters who flit from one doctrinal dessert
to another like helpless hummingbirds are deceiving themselves unless
they are choosing to heed the truths they have heard (cp Jas 1:22, 23,
J. I. Packer adds these comments on
the "Interpretation" out of context:
We cannot arrive at a true
understanding of God’s Word by detaching texts from their contexts to
find personal meaning in them and be feeding them into the world of
our private preoccupations and letting that world impose new senses on
old phrases. A theological student whom later I knew as a senior
friend had committed himself to starting his ministry in the north of
England when he received a very attractive invitation to join a
teaching institution in South Wales instead. He did not feel able to
withdraw from his commitments, but one day he read in Isa 43:6
(Authorized Version), “I will say to the north, Give up”, and
concluded that this was God telling him that he would be
providentially released from his promise and so set free to accept the
second invitation. No such thing happened, however, so he went north
after all wondering what had gone wrong. Then he reread Isa 43:6 and
noticed that it continued, “…and to the south, Do not withhold.” At
this point it dawned on him that he had been finding meaning in the
text that was never really there. Instead, the concerns which he
brought to his reading of the text had governed his interpretation of
it. To impose meaning on the text is not the way to learn God’s Law.
Yet we constantly do this, and it is one chronic obstacle to
Basic Basic Bible
Interpretation: Understanding the Setting of a Bible Passage
How Do You Approach
Interpretation of God's Word? Supernaturalistic, Naturalistic,
Robert Girdlestone on
importance of "Context"
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE:
for an exercise on the value of
context in accurate interpretation.
LITERALLY IF POSSIBLE
the plain sense of the Scripture you are studying makes good
sense, then do not seek to make some other sense out of it or the
final interpretation could be complete nonsense and totally unrelated
to God's intending meaning. Take every word in its primary, ordinary,
usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied
in the light of related passages and self-evident and fundamental truths,
indicate clearly otherwise.
This preceding principle is my paraphrase
from David Cooper's widely quoted statement that...
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. (David L. Cooper, The
World’s Greatest Library Graphically Illustrated. Los Angeles: Biblical
Research Society, 1970)
Notice the important phrase,
studied in the light of related passages. This is the biblical
equivalent of a "safety net." In the same way that trapeze artists
performing on the high-wire are protected by a net below which catches
them in the event of a fall, comparing Scripture with Scripture (Principle
#5) provides a
doctrinal "safety net" which serves to prevent the interpreter from "falling" into an
inconsistent understanding or interpretation.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF
You might be asking yourself "Why is
there so much emphasis on literal interpretation, for it seems so
logical that the safest interpretation is that which remains closest to
the original text." To answer this important question would require a
review of the church's approach to interpretation over the past 2000 years
which would require much more time than can be given in this brief
overview. In lieu of a more in depth explanation, the highly respected
evangelical author Dwight Pentecost offers the following succinct
analysis of the history of Biblical interpretation...
It is to be noted that all
interpretation began with the literal interpretation of Ezra. This literal
method became the basic method of Rabbinism. It was the accepted method
used by the New Testament in the interpretation of the Old and was so
employed by the Lord and His apostles. This literal method was the method
of the ("Early") Church Fathers until the time of Origen (ca. 185-254 AD)
when the allegorical method (Ed: Refers to a method in which one
looks for hidden or secret meaning, rather than accepting the plain
meaning of text), which had been devised to harmonize Platonic philosophy
and Scripture, was adopted. Augustine's influence brought this
allegorizing method into the established and brought an end to all true
exegesis (Ed: primary concern in exegesis is an understanding of
the text). This system continued until the Reformation. At the Reformation
the literal method of interpretation was solidly established and, in spite
of the attempts of the church to bring all interpretation into conformity
to an adopted creed, literal interpretation continued and became the basis
on which all true exegesis rests. It would be concluded, then, from the
study of the history of interpretation that the original and accepted
method of interpretation was the literal method, which was used by the
Lord, the greatest Interpreter, and any other method was introduced to
promote heterodoxy (quality of holding to unorthodox doctrines). Therefore
the literal method must be accepted as the basic method for right
interpretation in any field of doctrine today. (Pentecost, Dwight: Things
to Come, page 32-33) (See also
Rise of Allegorical Interpretation)
Interestingly, Pentecost goes on to add
the caveat that just because one holds to a literal approach does not
necessarily guarantee that they will arrive at an accurate interpretation.
For example, witness the Rabbinical teachings that espoused a literal
approach and yet were far removed from accurate interpretation in many
Scriptures, not to mention the writings of many of the otherwise
"literalist" reformers who often approached apocalyptic (uses
symbols that communicate absolute truth) or prophetic
literature (the four fully apocalyptic books are Ezekiel, Daniel,
Zechariah, Revelation) with an allegorical approach, reasoning that the prophetic
genre called for a non-literal approach.
William Tyndale who was martyred
for translating the Bible into English wisely wrote...
Thou shalt understand, therefore, that
the Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And
that literal sense is the root and ground of all and the anchor
that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave thou canst never err nor go
out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not
but go out of the way.
J Gresham Machen wrote...
I hold that the Bible is
essentially a plain book. Common sense is a wonderful help in reading it.
Bernard Ramm says
We use the word 'literal' in its
dictionary sense: '...the natural or usual construction and implication of
a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of
words; not allegorical or metaphorical' (Webster's New International
Dictionary) (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, page 119.) (Bolding added)
Charles Ryrie reasons
If God be the originator of
language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His
message to humanity, then it must follow that He, being all-wise and
all-loving, originated sufficient language to convey all that was in
His heart to tell mankind. Furthermore, it must also follow that He
would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal,
normal, and plain sense. The Scriptures, then, cannot be regarded as
an illustration of some special use of language so that in the
interpretation of these Scriptures some deeper meaning of the words
must be sought.
We must correctly hear God's Word,
Or we will be misled;
We must give careful thought and prayer
To what the Author said. —Hess
As Andy Woods explains...
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, Gihon, Tigris, and
Euphrates (Ge 2:11, 13, 14), represent the body, soul, spirit, and mind (One need only
examine the works of Philo to find numerous examples of such a
hermeneutical methodology.). 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. (Paper
by Andy Woods)
Unless the immediate
clearly indicates otherwise, one should always seek to interpret the text
literally, in its straightforward, natural, ordinary, usual, normal,
meaning, just as you would any other writing, accepting the words at
face value without the imposition of hidden or symbolic meanings.
is not intellectually honest or consistent to simply classify the book of
Revelation as "prophecy" (which of course it is) and based on that
classification to change the rules of interpretation from literal
to allegorical/symbolical as does the following
A failure to take full account of
[the apocalyptic or prophetic] feature has led to some of the most
outlandish teachings on this book by some whose rule of interpretation is
"literal, unless absurd." Though this is a good rule when dealing with
literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact opposite in the
case of apocalyptic literature, where symbolism is the rule, and
literalism the exception. (Gregg, S: Revelation Four Views: A Parallel
Commentary. Page 11. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997)
Some attack the principle of literal
interpretation by stating that this method denies the Bible's use of
figurative language (including types, symbols, figures of speech, etc).
Ryrie counters such
fallacious arguments noting specifically that literalism
not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations,
apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal
interpretation… (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.
E R Craven adds that...
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
literal being regarded as literal, that which is manifestly figurative
being so regarded. (Lange,
J. P., Schaff, P., Moore, E., Craven, E. R., & Woods, J. H. (2008). A
commentary on the Holy Scriptures : Revelation NY: Scribner, 1872 - now
available on Logos Bible Software)
Apocalyptic literature does not
that one dismiss normative interpretation
in favor of "symbolic
Why is this critical? Because the symbolic approach always
raises the question "Whose symbolic interpretation is correct?" The
answer of course is that no one knows who is correct because there are so
many symbolic interpretations to choose from - a veritable "interpretative
quagmire" ("soft miry land that shakes or yields under the foot; a
difficult, precarious, or entrapping position" - Webster)!
allegorical/symbolic commentators hold the same interpretative position except in a handful of
areas, resulting in a frustrated student who walks away discouraged and
even more confused then before reading the commentary. This fact alone
disqualifies a non-literal approach because it has factually demonstrated
its bankruptcy in conveying a reproducible message from God. In effect,
the symbolic or allegorical approach literally (pun intended) makes
the book of Revelation unknowable.
Perhaps you are still asking why
should one insist on a literal or "normal" interpretation of all of
Scripture? Couch explains that there are at least three reasons
offered by who are committed to a normal reading of Scripture:
First, the obvious purpose of language is to enable effective
communication between intelligent beings. Words have meaning and in
their normal usage are intended to be understood. . . . God is the
originator of language. When He spoke audibly to man, He expected man
to understand Him and respond accordingly. Likewise, when God speaks
to man through the inspired writings of His apostles and prophets, He
expects man to understand and respond accordingly. . . .
A second reason for a normal reading of Scripture concerns the
historical fulfillment of prophecy. All the prophecies of the Old and
New Testament that have been fulfilled to date have been fulfilled
literally. . . . Thus, . . . all prophecies which are yet to be
fulfilled will be fulfilled literally.
A third reason concerns
logic. If an interpreter does not use the normal, customary, literal
method of interpreting Scripture, interpretation is given over to the
unconstrained imagination and presuppositions of the interpreter.
(Couch, M: Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics. Page 36-37. Grand
Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications) (Bolding added)
LESS IS BETTER
Another key advantage of literal
interpretation is that it is minimal interpretation and
thus superimposes the barest "interpretive layer" or
"interpretative bias" on the inspired communication from God.
As the highly respected literalist
commentator Henry Morris has well said...
The best interpretation of a
historical record is no interpretation but simply letting the divine
Author of the record say what He says and assuming He says what He
means. (Quoted from one of the few well done, literal, non-confusing
commentaries on the Revelation entitled "The
The greater an author's
interpretative bias, the greater the danger that the commentator will
add to or subtract from the meaning originally intended by God, a grave error John warns against writing:
I testify to everyone who hears
the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them,
God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book and if
anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy,
God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy
city, which are written in this book. (See
22:18-19, cp Pr 30:5, 6,
Dt 4:2, 12:32)
Literal interpretation is
occasionally criticized as leading to "ridiculous" conclusions.
Bernard Ramm addresses this accusation leveled at those who
adhere to the literalist
approach, writing that...
To interpret Scripture literally is
not to be committed to a "wooden literalism," nor to a "letterism,"
nor to a neglect of the nuances that defy any "mechanical"
understanding of language. Rather, it is to commit oneself to a
starting point and that starting point is to understand a document the
best one can in the context of the normal, usual, customary, tradition
range of designation which includes "tacit" understanding. (Ramm, B:
Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. Page 11. Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1970)
In other words Literal
interpretation does pay attention to variations in the style of
the text and thus maintains a consistency of interpretation which is
driven by the text itself, not the interpretative bias of the
commentator: For example it is often stated that evangelicals
who hold to a literal one thousand year reign of Christ based on
Revelation 20, also demand that every single passage is to be interpreted
literally without exception. This is an unfair and weak attempt to
discredit the literal approach, because in fact even strict
literalists clearly accept that if the language of a given passage is
clearly symbolic, it is to be governed by the laws relating to
symbols. If the passage is clearly figurative, it also must be
interpreted based on the laws dealing with figures of speech.
It is also interesting to note that
even those who espouse a symbolic/allegorical approach to the
Revelation clearly rely on a normal literal approach in many if not
most passages in John's great apocalyptic work. For example, when John writes that he "was on the
island that is called Patmos" (Revelation 1:9) virtually all
commentators, symbolic and literal, agree that John was literally on
an island named Patmos! When the symbolic/allegorical authors
encounter other passages that are not so easily interpreted, they
jettison the literal approach in favor of speculation.
As Tony Garland
This "dual hermeneutic" is employed
much like the gearshift in an automobile. On the major "freeway" of
the gospel text, they generally stay in literal gear. But when a
prophetic "off-ramp" or doctrinal "mountain" looms ahead, they shift
into a non-literal gear. This inconsistency leads to all manner of
confusion and allows for the most amazing conclusions which are often
in complete contradiction to the plain meaning of the text! (A
Testimony of Jesus Christ - Interpreting Symbols)
Smith adds that
Much Bible study is done to
verify men's preconceptions, since all of us bring our personal
opinions and biases with us...
If God has really spoken through the
pen of the human author, let's not try to rewrite the script. Proof-texting, i.e., quoting only those biblical texts which are
useful to prove our own preconceived opinions and theological biases,
is a favorite trick of the cultists and only succeeds in confusing the
We should view the Scripture just as we would any
other writing, accepting the words at face value without the
imposition of hidden meanings. This is the general rule, to which
there are notable and recognizable exceptions, such as allegory (see
Rise of Allegorical Interpretation) and
Typology). Figures of speech are to be interpreted in the literal
significance that the figure conveys. (Ed note: Read that sentence
When the Scripture says, "Rejoice
in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in
Christ Jesus for you" (Red
= command to do this continually; 1Th 5:16, 17-note;
we don't have a problem of interpreting the language, but rather one
of how to apply the truth. We accept the literal meaning of the words.
How we can do what it commands we must discover in the
"Do not quench the Spirit,"
[for he is our strengthener to enable] "do not despise prophesying,"
[for preaching and teaching are the vehicle he uses to encourage us]
"but test everything;" [for our thinking is askew and we are being
fooled by an enemy if we are defeated on these issues] "hold fast
= command to do this continually) what
is good," [for that is what will save the day] "abstain from every
form of evil" (1Th 5:19, 20-note,
1Th 5:21, 22-note).
Abstain, because indulging in evil gets us into trouble.
line is 1Th 5:24,
"He Who calls you is faithful, and He will do it." (note)
This assures us that the Lord is active in our behalf to enable us to
do all He commands. So we take language in its literal sense when it
is used like this. But when we read, "I am the vine, you are the
branches" (Jn 15:5), we recognize figurative language and seek the
literal meaning of the figure. As we observe the
we read also, "Abide in me,
and I in you" (Jn 15:5)
and easily recognize that our Lord is talking about a shared life,
since a branch is a living part of the vine, receiving the flow of
life from it. (Basics of Bible Interpretation)
Horatio Bonar echoed
the plea for adherence to literal interpretation writing...
I feel a greater certainty as to
the literal interpretation of the whole Word of God-historical,
doctrinal, prophetical. "Literal, if possible," is, I believe, the
only maxim that will carry you right through the Word of God from
Genesis to Revelation.
John Peter Lange has an
interesting explanation of a literalist (normal, plain
language) versus a spiritualist (mystical) writing that...
The Literalist is not one who denies that
figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he
deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position
is simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e.,
according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances
are interpreted-that which is manifestly literal being regarded as
literal, and that which is manifestly figuratively being so regarded.
The position of the Spiritualist is not that which is properly
indicated by the term. He is one who holds that certain portions are
to be normally interpreted, other portions are to be regarded as
having a mystical sense. The terms properly expressive of the schools
are normal and mystical." (Lange, John Peter: A Commentary on the Holy
Scripture: Revelation, p. 98) (Bolding added)
In short, the wise reader is
advised to look for the clear teaching,
not some mystical or "hidden" meaning or special "code"
which needs to be deciphered!
It is truly remarkable what we can discover when we let God say what
He has already said and He gives us eyes and ears to see and hear
Unless the Scripture calls for you
to do so (e.g., in Ga 4:24
Paul says "this is allegorically speaking" clearly allowing for
an allegorical interpretation), strongly resist any attempt to
(symbolic and non-literal representation of truth) or spiritualize
the meaning of the passage. (Click
interesting discussion on literal interpretation)
Webster has some interesting
thoughts on the meaning of "literal" especially as it
relates to accurate interpretation, noting that the meaning is "not
figurative or metaphorical", " free from exaggeration or embellishment
(the "literal" truth)", "characterized by a concern mainly with facts"
and "reproduced word for word, exact, verbatim".
The Pocket Dictionary of
Theological Terms writes that...
literalism generally attempts to understand the author’s intent by
pursuing the most plain, obvious meaning of the text as judged by the
interpreter. In translation, the attempt is made to convey with utmost
accuracy through the words of another language the actual meaning of
the biblical text." (Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F. Pocket
Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, Ill.:
Learn to recognize figures of
speech (especially common in poetic and prophetic passages) and to
interpret them in the same way they are used in normal speech. In
other words, interpret figures of speech in the literal significance
that the figure conveys. If Jesus calls Himself a "Vine", interpret
the meaning of the passage in light of the specific meaning of the
figure of a "vine".
Listen to the great reformer ("Sola
Scriptura") Martin Luther who insisted that the literal
alone holds the ground in trouble and trial, conquers the gates of
hell [Mt 16:18] along with sin and death, and triumphs for the
praise and glory of God. Allegory, however, is too often uncertain,
unreliable, and by no means safe for supporting faith. Too frequently
it depends upon human guesswork and opinion; and if one leans on it,
one will lean on a staff made of Egyptian reed (Ezek 29:6]. (Luther wrote) When I was a monk, I was an expert in
allegories. I allegorized everything. But after lecturing on the
Epistle to the Romans I came to have knowledge of Christ. For therein
I saw that Christ is no allegory and I learned to know what Christ
(Luther wrote that) 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 with Scripture... Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere
monkey game.... Allegories are awkward, absurd, invented, obsolete,
loose rags." (Needless to say this great reformer did not like
allegorical interpretation after experiencing his new birth!)
John Calvin (1509-1564)
known as "one of the greatest interpreters of the Bible" like Martin
Luther also rejected allegorical interpretation describing these works as
"frivolous games" and declaring that the early church father, Origen
(and many others) were guilty of "torturing the Scripture, in every
possible sense, from the true sense". Calvin stressed the
Christological nature of Scripture, the grammatical-historical method,
exegesis rather than eisegesis, the illuminating ministry of the Holy
Spirit, and a balanced approach to typology
(See discussion of
John MacArthur gives the following
example of non-literal interpretation from a conference
he was attending...
where one of the speakers talked
the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This was his interpretation:
“Lazarus is a symbol of the church, and what we have here is a vivid
picture of the rapture of the believers. The resurrection of Lazarus
is the church going through the rapture.” Afterward, this speaker came
up and said, “John, did you ever see that in the text before?” I tried
to be honest but diplomatic: “You know, I doubt that anyone has ever
seen that in the text before. You are the first.” There are passages
in Scripture that are symbolic. There are passages that give us types
and pictures. But beware of interpretations that read symbols and
pictures into the text that simply are not there. (MacArthur, J. How
to Get the Most from God's Word. Dallas, TX: Word Pub. 1997)
John Calvin exhorts us to
that the true meaning of Scripture
is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it
resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside
as deadly corruptions those pretended expositions which lead us away
from the natural meaning.
M R. DeHaan of Our Daily
Bread fame admonishes saints to...
Be on guard against any tampering
with the Word, whether disguised as a search for truth, or a scholarly
attempt at apparently hidden meanings.
The principle of reading the Bible
literally is brought out be the following interchange between Mary
Queen of Scots and John Knox.
The Queen asked Knox
“Ye interpret the Scriptures in one
manner, and they in another; whom shall I believe, and who shall
To which Knox replied
“Believe God, that plainly speaketh
in His word: and further than the word teacheth you, ye shall neither
believe the one nor the other. The word of God is plain in itself; and
if there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, which is
never contrarious to Himself, explains the same more clearly in other
Martin Luther (1483-1546) arrived at an
interesting conclusion declaring...
I have observed that all the
heresies and errors have arisen not from Scripture’s own plain
statements, but when that plainness of statement is ignored, and men
follow the Scholastic arguments of their own brains.
William Tyndale (1492-1536)
who was best known for his translation of the New Testament into
English (for which he was murdered!), stressed literal
interpretation writing that...
Scripture has but one sense, which
is the literal sense.
John Wesley adds that...
The general rule of interpreting
Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if
it be not contrary to some other texts. But in that case, the obscure
text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly...Try all
things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You are in
danger of fanaticism every hour, if you depart ever so little from
Scripture; yea, or from the plain, literal meaning of an text, taken
in connection with the context.
As a general rule if you or someone
arrives at an interpretation on a text that no one has ever described, you need to consider that interpretation suspect.
A few more thoughts on the literal
approach in prophetic passages:
In interpretation of prophecy, the
safest, simplest and most sane approach is take the text as saying
what it means and meaning what it says. In a sense the literal
approach assumes that the best interpretation is no interpretation.
For example, in the prophesy of the Revelation, one assumes that John
desired to communicate to his reader and therefore wrote plainly,
saying exactly what he wanted to say (under the inspiration of the
Spirit of course) and what he believed to be the most effective manner
of communicating that truth to all generations. As alluded to above, the
literal plain sense approach does not ignore the fact that prophecy often uses
symbols and figures of speech. The point to emphasize is that the
interpretation of such figures and symbols is not to be left up to the
reader's imagination or ingenuity.
(Click for an example of a somewhat imaginative, non-literal
Revelation 20) Figures of speech
must be defined and explained unambiguously, either aided by the
context, the broader context or comparison with other
similar passages. If one determines to approach a prophetic book such
as the Revelation with a literal mindset, they will find that much of
the difficulty in understanding is effectively eliminated. As someone
has well said
"The book of Revelation isn't hard to
understand--it's hard to believe!"
One of the main reasons why so many
commentaries resort to an allegorical interpretation of prophecies
like the Revelation and Daniel is that they find the literal meaning
of the prophecies difficult to accept and attempt to explain them in
some less offensive manner!
Tony Garland in his excellent,
highly recommended commentary on the Revelation (free online at:
A Testimony of Jesus
writes that there are two main
approaches to interpretation as they relate to prophecy, (Quoting
Among evangelicals there are
generally two major camps regarding how prophetic passages should be
read. Amillennialists will generally allegorize large portions
of the prophetic Word, especially passages that speak of the Second
Advent of Christ and the establishment of the one thousand year
literal Davidic kingdom. In contrast, premillennialists,
following the teaching of the early church, treat the Second Coming
with the same literal hermeneutic as they would the First Coming of
Jesus. They hold that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, should be
understood literally from a normal reading unless typology
Typology) or poetry
is used. And even then, premillennialists believe that "literalness"
is implied behind the figure of speech or illustration used. (Bernard
Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1970, page 119) (Bolding added)
The most serious charge that can be
leveled against non-literal interpretation is that of
perverting the promises of God. God's promises, both in the OT and NT,
were given to specific recipients using words which they understood in
the context in which they lived and in which the promises were given.
When a nonliteral view of these passages is adopted, this robs the
original recipients of the promises as God gave them:
Adopting a nonliteral view of the
Old Testament kingdom prophecies raises some disturbing questions:
What did those prophecies mean to
those to whom they were addressed?
If prophecies seemingly addressed
to Israel really apply to the church (which did not exist at that
time), did God give revelation that failed to reveal?
And if those prophecies were meant
to apply symbolically to the church, why were they addressed to
What meaning could such prophecies
have in their historical settings?
Ironically, many who spiritualize
Old Testament prophecies reject the futurist interpretation of
Revelation because it allegedly robs the book of its meaning for those
to whom it was written. Yet they do the very same thing with the Old
Testament kingdom prophecies. (MacArthur, John: Revelation 12-22: The
MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2000)
God's promises involve both ends of
the communication channel: the things God said and what those who
received His promises understood them to mean in the original context.
It is not permissible, after the fact, to make what God said mean
something different which would have been entirely foreign to those
who originally received His word. Allegorization and spiritualization
do just that. (Garland, Anthony:
A Testimony of Jesus
Mal Couch adds that...
A normal reading of Scripture is
synonymous with a consistent literal, grammatico-historical
hermeneutic. When a literal hermeneutic is applied to the
interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given
the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage. Proponents of a
consistent, literal reading of Scripture prefer the phrase a normal
reading of Scripture to establish the difference between literalism
and letterism. (Mal Couch, General Editor, An Introduction to
Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002)
Many depart from the simplicity of
the "plain sense" rule of literal interpretation reasoning something
If the plain sense does not fit my
theological system, then I will seek some other sense, lest I should end
up agreeing with the literalists!
And thus one reads an avowed
amillennialist (interprets 1000 in Revelation 20 figuratively/allegorically not
literally) named Hamilton who states...
Now we must frankly admit that a
literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just
such a picture of an
earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialist pictures (Charles
Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, Neptune, New Jersey:
Loizeaux Brothers, 1981)
Or it's like the husband busily
perusing his Bible and obviously annoyed with his wife's attempts to
converse, to which he finally exclaims in frustration...
Don't bother me. I'm looking for a
verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions!
Are you a "literalist"? See
the interesting "test" at Middletown Bible Church website -
You Interpret the Bible Literally? Six Tests to See if You Do
(Not listed in order of
importance - Be a Berean - Acts 17:11-note)
Hermeneutics - Study of Interpretation of
Scriptures - Pdf by
Stephen R Lewis -
Excellent Material - Highly
the Pdf to your desktop so you can refer to it easily in the future,
as the 150+ pages are filled with solid material that relates to
accurate interpretation of the Bible.
Includes an interesting synopsis of
the history of how Scripture has been interpreted since the first
century AD, I would recommend the synopsis by Dr Stephen R Lewis (see
You may be surprised at what you discover about the so called Early
Church Fathers and their slide into allegorical interpretation which
even such highly regarded men as Augustine (354-430 AD) et al championed
and which sadly led to the allegorical method becoming the favored method
of Scripture interpretation for almost 1000 years (the "dark ages" - perhaps
herein lies a clue as to why they
were so "dark"!) As one writer has said "the Middle Ages was a vast
desert so far as biblical interpretation is concerned" (Mickelsen).
Literal Interpretation: A Plea for Consensus
3) From Tony Garland at
Art and Science of Interpretation
The Rise of Allegorical
Understanding Symbols and Figures
Issues in Hermeneutics
Woods at Spiritandtruth.org...
Grammatico Historical Method
Matter Of Genre
Basics of Bible Interpretation
by Bob Smith
Words of Life
The Goal of Bible Study
The Interpretive Process
Bible Study Approaches
Figures of Speech
The Language of Analogy (especially Parables)
Allegories and Types
The Greeks Had a Word for It
Helps on Hebrew
Getting It All Together
History of Interpretation by
Michael Patton - Audio and Video only
The Bible: Understanding Its
Message J. Hampton Keathley, III
Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics
Contemporary Problems in Biblical
Interpretation by John Walvoord
Interpreting Prophecy Today by John Walvoord
Part 1: Basic Considerations in
Part 2: The Kingdom of God in the
Part 3: The New Testament Doctrine
of the Kingdom
Part 4: The Kingdom of God in the
New Testament (continued)
SCRIPTURE WITH SCRIPTURE
Interpret Scripture with
Scripture and don't base your convictions on an obscure passage which
cannot be supported by other more easily interpreted texts.
Clear up problem areas with the clear teaching of other passages
relating to the same subject.
This guideline is based on the
hermeneutical principle known as analogia Scriptura.
According to this principle, Scripture never contradicts Scripture. In
other words God never teaches something in one passage that violates
what He teaches in another passage. "Apparent" contradictions are just
that -- apparent, not actual for God is not the Author
of confusion and never contradicts Himself!
As the great Puritan writer
Thomas Watson once wisely stated...
Nothing can cut the diamond
but the diamond; nothing can interpret Scripture but Scripture.
Luther agreed writing
that "Scripture is its own expositor."
Alexandria encouraged his readers to...
Explain the Scriptures by the Scriptures.
The Puritan writer William
Gurnall exhorted believers to...
Compare Scripture with Scripture.
False doctrines, like false witnesses, agree not among themselves.
The Westminster Confession
The infallible rule of
interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore,
when there is a question about the true and full sense of any
Scripture... it must be searched and known by other places that speak
Develop the practice of
comparing Scripture with Scripture because Scripture is always the
best commentary on itself. The beauty of using Scripture to interpret
Scripture is that when the Bible answers its own questions, then we
know the answer is correct. Why? Because the Bible is a unified whole,
and God never contradicts Himself. In other words, the great
interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. The Bible is unified in its
message. Although it sometimes presents us with paradox, it never
confounds us with contradiction.
in his excellent treatise on the
commenting on the importance of studying
Scripture "in the
light of related passages"
This is the biblical equivalent of
a "safety net." In the same way that trapeze artists performing on the
high-wire are protected by a net below which catches them in the event
of a fall, comparing Scripture with Scripture provides a doctrinal
"safety net" to keep the interpreter from "falling" into an
inconsistent understanding or interpretation. This principle is also
known as the Analogy of Scripture...the systematic study of the
Scriptures across all the books of the Bible to arrive at a
self-consistent understanding of any particular topic. This principle
is founded upon the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. That the
inspired books, being ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit (2Pe
2:19, 20, 21 -
are without error and consistent in their teaching from Genesis 1:1
through Rev 22:21. When we
encounter what seems to be an inconsistency (commonly referred
to as a "Bible Difficulty"), we must assume that the problem is
one of our own understanding and not God's Word. The experienced
student of the Word will recognize how frequently what appeared
to be contradictory turned out, upon further insight, study, and
illumination, to be by design.
A Testimony of Jesus
an excellent online commentary on
Revelation - also has an excellent 8+ hour introductory discussion
[Mp3's] on proper interpretation of the Scriptures, especially as it
relates to prophecy).
As the Puritan
"The Scripture is
to be its own interpreter or
rather the Spirit speaking in it; nothing can cut the diamond but the
diamond; nothing can interpret Scripture but Scripture."
In his work "Analogia
Scripturae" Martin Luther said that obscure passages are to be
understood in light of the clear passages emphasizing that
Scripture is its own
Where do you find
the Scriptures to compare
to the passage you are studying?
Practically speaking there are two
(1) The cross-references in the margin of your Bible.
Treasury of Scripture
TSK s a
conservative resource originally compiled by Dr. R. A. Torrey around
the turn of the 20th century and to this day remains the most
comprehensive collection of Scriptural cross references available, with over 500,000 entries.
Formerly, the only source of the TSK was a large hardbound volume.
With the advent of the computer era, the TSK is now readily
available in a variety of computer formats:
component on virtually all modern Bible software
is available on
best free Bible software available
(click for details).
is widely available on the Internet - one of the best sites
for an example of the TSK cross-references on 2 Timothy).
There are at
least 3 advantages of the TSK over your Bible's "built in" marginal
far more cross-references per verse than any other
resource currently available in any format.
references are more "relevant" to the
verse in question than most marginal references.
has more Old Testament cross references on New Testament
greatly facilitates integrating the New Testament with the Old
Testament. This is which is important because
"the Old is the New concealed"
"the New is the Old revealed."
Since Scripture is always the
best commentary on Scripture, consider making it a practice as you
perform inductive study to check the Treasury of Scriptural
Knowledge often, especially when
seeking to know the meaning of a given text.
Respected Bible expositor
John MacArthur speaks very highly of the TSK noting that it is...
The one book,
aside from the Bible itself, that I value most in my studies.
The great preacher Donald Grey Barnhouse
testified to the value of using Scripture as a commentary on itself,
You very rarely have to go outside
the Bible to explain anything in the Bible.
William Gurnall exhorted
Compare Scripture with
Scripture. False doctrines, like false witnesses, agree not among
The well-known evangelist D.
L. Moody offered a similar encouragement reminding us that...
There is no better book with which
to defend the Bible than the Bible itself.
The only way to cut a diamond
is by a diamond: diamond dust must be used if the gem is to be cut. In
like manner, the best way to understand Scripture is by Scripture
itself. One of the best commentaries; in the world is that which is “wholly
biblical.” Students of the Word, I pray you, study the Bible by the
Bible; cut the diamond with the diamond; use the light of God in God’s
light: “In Thy light shall we see light.”
Let's illustrate this principle
with 1 Corinthians 15:29 where Paul speaks
of those who are “baptized for the dead.” Based on this verse Mormon
teaching encourages their adherents to be baptized for the dead. There are
at least three major problems with this interpretation:
(1) 1Cor 15:29 is an obscure
passage (as stated earlier, the cults frequently will "major on
of the entire Word of God never
mentions baptism "by proxy"
(3) Other Scriptures clearly refute and nullify
the possibility that Paul's teaching validated the Mormon practice.
For example, the
writer of Hebrews clearly teaches that
it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb
The Use of Cross-References
Robert Girdlestone on comparing
Scripture with Scripture
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE:
a simple exercise on the importance of
comparing Scripture with Scripture in order to derive the most accurate interpretation.
After you have performed your own inductive Bible study, consult
conservative resources to check your interpretative conclusions.
The order is important -- first the
Scriptures then secondary sources for the Word of God illuminated by
the Holy Spirit of God is important than any commentary . Without the
Word there is no life, no growth, no holiness, and no acceptable
service. We should read it, study it, memorize it, meditate on it, and
above all obey it (cf
As someone has said, “Obedience is the organ of spiritual knowledge.”
McQuilkin rightly advises
Even for the experienced Bible
student it is best to consult the commentary after one has made
his own independent study. There are several reasons for that. First,
no commentator is infallible, nor is any commentator an expert on
every passage of Scripture. Often a commentator will rely on the work
of earlier commentators. Therefore, to preserve one's independent
judgment and the integrity of one's own work, it is best to do
personal study first by exegeting or drawing out the meaning of the
passage with the basic tools. On the other hand, it is never wise to
conclude one's study without referring to several of the best
commentators on a given passage. In that final stage of study, the
commentator provides a check for one's own conclusions and also
provides additional insight before one's work is complete.
Furthermore, the commentator provides appropriate background sources
that can be checked. (Understanding
and Applying the Bible) (Bolding
Consultation serves as a good
check on the accuracy of your interpretation, but use secondary
sources with caution because no single individual has a corner on all
Remember that it's amazing how much
light the Scripture sheds on the commentaries!
Be wary if you come to a conclusion
that no one else has ever "discovered" and you cannot find support
in any other conservative commentary.
REFRAIN FROM STUDYING
THE STUDY NOTES!
When you are in the process of
performing an Inductive Study, it is always tempting to see how your
"Study Bible notes" or favorite commentary interpret the section of
Scripture you are studying. Please refrain from consulting secondary
sources until you have given the Scriptures time to speak for
Skip Heitzig has some
interesting thoughts on commentaries and other ancillary resources...
I have traveled in many parts of
the world where even the best-equipped pastors have only a study
Bible, a concordance, and perhaps a Bible dictionary. Three or four
books at most—and no computer resources at all! These pastors have
learned how to study the Scriptures inductively on their own, without
relying on commentaries or other tools. It is interesting to note that
most of the church growth worldwide is currently occurring in these
third-world countries. Clearly, having a huge library of books is not
the most important factor. You can buy the best Bible study tools
available and still not be a good Bible student.
to Study the Bible and Enjoy It)
Although you may never have thought of other Bible Versions as
commentaries, you will be surprised at the insights you can glean from
reading a passage, paragraph or chapter in a different version.
However, I would offer two caveats: First, always do your inductive
study with a more literal translation before comparing other translations. Second, be
very cautious when reading translations that are predominantly paraphrases.
Paraphrased Bible versions represent a restatement of the passage with
the goal being to give the meaning in another form.
Examples of paraphrased
versions include: New Living Translation (NLT - in my opinion one of
the most trustworthy of the paraphrased versions), The Living Bible (TLB), the Message, and
B Phillip's NT Paraphrase (often very
comparing various popular translations for degree of literalness (the
more literal the closer the translation is to the original Greek or
Hebrew manuscripts) Remember that paraphrased versions
are highly interpretative and you should never base your final
interpretation on a paraphrased version. A special note of caution (cp He 5:14-note,
1Th 5:21, 22-note) is
called for when
"The Message", which is a very loose and free paraphrase. On the other
hand, the Amplified Version is an excellent, recommended resource
which can even function much like a "mini-commentary".
If you have internet access, there
is a resource that allows easy comparison of multiple passages
including the Amplified Version which functions much like a
"mini-commentary" on a given passage...
(2) In the box labeled "Enter Passage(s)" enter
"2Ti 1:1" or if you want to look at an entire chapter enter "2
(3) Drop down to the next section labeled "Select version(s)"
Click "Lookup passage(s) in
Select these versions (up to five are allowed)
(a) NASB - main version
in inductive study,
(b) Amplified Version -
relatively literal, often expands the meaning of the verse
(c) NLT - one of
the more accurate paraphrases.
(d) NIV - remember this is not as literal as the
(4) Click boxes for "Hide footnotes" and "Hide
cross-references" to minimize "clutter".
(5) Click "Lookup Passage" to display the parallel versions
To see the verses in parallel columns click "Layout:
Note: As an alternative to Biblegateway.com, consider
the best free Bible software program available. Then you can
easily and quickly compare multiple versions simultaneously
without having to be connected to the internet.
Click here to see a sample of
parallel versions displayed in
ON BIBLE PROPHECY
Special discernment is in order when referring to commentaries on
prophetic books like Revelation (click for a brief discussion of the common methods of
interpreting Revelation [preterist, historicist, idealist, futurist or
literalist] and a list of recommended futuristic commentaries and
sermons) and Daniel (click for a list of futuristic commentaries and sermons on Daniel).
Please note that commentaries on
prophetic books vary widely in their interpretative approach,
and you may not always be able to easily discern their bias (Click for a list of published Revelation commentaries
categorized by the predominant interpreter view)
If an interpreter does not use the normal, customary, literal method
of interpreting Scripture, interpretation is given over to the
unconstrained imagination and presuppositions of the interpreter thus
accounting for the widely-varying imaginative interpretations of
the non-literal interpreters.
Remember that all the prophecies of the Old and New Testament that
have been fulfilled to date have been fulfilled literally, thus there
is no precedent for anything but a literal approach to the prophetic
books containing prophecies yet to be fulfilled.
Another key advantage of
literal interpretation is that this approach results
in minimal interpretive overlay of the inspired text. Clearly the
best interpretation of a historical record is no "interpretation". One
should seek to allow God to say what He says and assume that He says
what He means. The more interpretation that is necessary to "make sense" of the text, the greater the danger one will add
to or subtract from the meaning intended by God (Rev 22:18,19-note).
Garland who advocates a literal
approach to interpretation of prophecy has an instructive note writing
the Golden Rule (of interpretation)
holds that we adhere to the plain sense of Scripture and not seek any
other sense unless there are good reasons for doing otherwise. These
reasons must be found in the immediate
of the passage under study or
related passages. It is not sufficient to simply classify the book of
Revelation as an apocalypse and therefore turn the rules of
interpretation upside-down as does this commentator:
to take full account of [the apocalyptic] feature has led
to some of the most outlandish teachings on this book by
some whose rule of interpretation is "literal, unless
absurd." Though this is a good rule when dealing with
literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact
opposite in the case of apocalyptic literature,
where symbolism is
the rule, and literalism the exception."
(Garland continues) Notice how this
commentator appeals to the apocalyptic genre in order to dismiss
(literal) normative interpretation and to assert that we should avoid
normative interpretation in favor of pure symbolic conjecture! The
easy answer to this proposal is to simply ask, "Whose symbolic
interpretation?" No real answer can be given. This is because there is
an infinite variety of interpretations possible when using symbolic
conjecture. The result is that no two interpreters hold to the same
meaning except in a handful of areas. This fact alone disqualifies a
non-literal framework because it has factually demonstrated its
bankruptcy at conveying a reliable message from God. In effect, it
makes the book of Revelation unknowable by man
(Ed note: Which is
exactly the opposite of what the title word
A Testimony of Jesus
excellent online commentary on Revelation).
If you are studying the Revelation,
one "test" is to note how the author interprets the "1000
Revelation 20. Is the approach
literal or allegorical (spiritualized or symbolic)?
Allegorize (allegory) in simple terms means to say something
different from what the words themselves mean literally.
Roy Zuck, a respected
conservative author explains that...
is searching for a hidden or secret meaning underlying but remote from
and unrelated in reality to the more obvious meaning of a text. In
other words the
is a sort of code, which needs to be deciphered to determine the more
significant and hidden meaning. In this approach the
is superficial, the
is the true meaning."
(Zuck, Roy: Basic Bible Interpretation. Page 29. Colorado Springs, CO:
Cook Communications. 1991)
If the commentary you
are consulting takes an interpretative approach that is anything other than
literal, you need to be very careful regarding their comments on
prophecy or you may likely end up more than a little confused! Once any interpreter
departs from the literal (where the literal makes perfectly good
sense), they enter into an arena where the passage could mean almost
anything and where their fanciful, false interpretations are limited only by their imagination! (Click
here for an example of a non-literal interpretation of
Revelation 20 by an otherwise respected theologian, B. B. Warfield).
For more discussion on the origin and spiritual danger of the
method of interpretation
especially as applied to prophetic books like Revelation and
Anthony Garland's analysis. He also has an interesting discussion on
Understanding Symbols and Figures,
Abuse of Numbers in
Literal Interpretation of Numbers.
If you are
interested in prophecy, I would strongly encourage you to take
the excellent four part Precept Ministries International
inductive study on the Revelation. (click the following links to
download lesson 1 in Pdf format [Adobe Acrobat Reader
needed] from each of the four parts:
Revelation - Pt1
- Chap 1-3, 10 lessons,
Revelation - Pt2
- Chap 4-22, 12 lessons,
Revelation - Pt3
- Chap 4-22, 11 lessons,
Revelation - Pt4
- Chap 4-22, 14 lessons.
transcribed lectures by Kay Arthur on Revelation Parts 2-4, but
not until you've done your own inductive study!
Click here for
Garland's excellent literal, conservative commentary on
or see Dr John Walvoord's
The Revelation of Jesus
The four part Precept course
on Revelation takes 47 weeks to
complete but when
you have finished, you will be in awe and blessed by the
illumination God's Spirit gives you into His Revelation and to
prophecy in general. You
will also be saddened by the great confusion in the
commentaries and the unfounded fear many believers express
toward this wonderful book written for overcomers.
See list of
resources on Biblical Interpretation including Prophecy
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE:
for a list of
generally conservative commentaries
but use with discretion
and only after you've studied the passage inductively.
What Does It
Your Word is a lamp
to my feet and a light to my path. –Psalm 119:105
A father was telling his son the Bible story about Lot. He said,
"God was going to
destroy the city of Sodom, so He warned Lot to take his wife and flee. But
when Lot's wife looked back, she turned into a pillar of salt."
Puzzled, the boy
asked, "What happened to the flea?"
This humorous misunderstanding points out a deeper problem some of us have
with the words of the Bible. Although we believe that every word of
Scripture is inspired, this doesn't mean we should take every word
literally regardless of its context. Some people seem to do this and
thereby miss the true meaning of many Bible passages.
The Bible is filled with images–word pictures we call similes and
metaphors. The book of James gives us a classic example, calling the
tongue "a fire" (James 3:6). We know it doesn't mean that we have a literal
flame in our mouth. Jesus used figurative language too. He said, "If your
right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" (Mt. 5:29-note). What He meant, of
course, is that we should take strong measures to keep ourselves from sin.
We need to listen carefully to what God is saying in His Word so we can
put it into practice. His Word is a "lamp" for our feet and a "light" for
our path (Ps. 119:105). –D J De Haan (Our
Daily Bread, Copyright RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted by
permission. All rights reserved)
HOW TO STUDY THE
Observation: What does the context say?
Interpretation: What does the text mean?
Application: What does it mean to your life?
A text taken out of
context becomes a pretext.
Perhaps you are thinking "There is no way I can read and understand the
Bible like the folks who have formal seminary training." Wrong!
James W. Sire counters this line
The illumination comes to the minds
of God’s people—not just to the spiritual elite. There is no guru
class in biblical Christianity, no illuminati, no people through whom all
proper interpretation must come. And so, while the Holy Spirit gives
special gifts of wisdom, knowledge and spiritual discernment, He does not
assign these gifted Christians to be the only authoritative interpreters
of His Word. It is up to each of His people to learn, to judge and to
discern by reference to the Bible which stands as the authority even to
those to whom God has given special abilities. To summarize, the
assumption I am making throughout the entire book is that the Bible is
God’s true revelation to all humanity, that it is our ultimate authority
on all matters about which it speaks, that it is not a total mystery but
can be adequately understood by ordinary people in every culture.
(Scripture Twisting, pp. 17-18)
Kierkegaard adds that...
To read the Bible as God’s word one
must read it with his heart in his mouth, on tip-toe, with eager
expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or
carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as
God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as
the Word of God. (Quoted in Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical
Interpretation, p. 75)
H. H. Rowley...
No merely intellectual understanding of
the Bible, however complete, can possess all its treasures. It does not
despise such understanding, for it is essential to a complete
understanding. But it must lead to a spiritual understanding of the
spiritual treasures of this book if it is to be complete. And for that
spiritual understanding something more than intellectual alertness is
necessary. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned (cp 1Cor 2:13, 14,
15, 16), and the Bible student needs an attitude of spiritual receptivity,
an eagerness to find God that he may yield himself to Him, if he is to
pass beyond his scientific study unto the richer inheritance of this
greatest of all books. (The Relevance of the Bible, p. 19)
You have heard that it was said, "An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." --Mt 5:38-note
In the opening chapter of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain presents an interesting
conversation that reflects human nature. Tom tries to persuade his friend
Huck to join him in his plans to form a band of robbers and to take
captives much like pirates used to do. Huck asks Tom what pirates do with
the captives they take, and Tom answers, "Ransom them." "Ransom? What's
that?" asks Huck. "I don't know. But that's what they do. I seen it in
books; and so of course that's what we got to do," explains Tom. "Do you
want to go doing different from what's in the books, and get things all
This dialog represents a way of thinking that's not much different from
what Jesus encountered. The people were also quoting and repeating things
they had found in a book--the Old Testament. But they were merely mouthing
words. The ideas had been separated from the spirit of the original
revelation. By misapplying Mosaic principles of conduct, the people were
justifying their sinful attitudes and actions (Mt. 5:27, 28, 29, 30, 31,
32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42-see
This should be a reminder to us. When we quote the Bible, let's be sure we
understand its meaning and context. Then we won't get things "all muddled
up." --M R De Haan II (Ibid)
When reading God's Word, take special care
To find the rich treasures hidden there;
Give thought to each line, each precept hear,
Then practice it well with godly fear. --Anon.
A text taken out of context can be a dangerous pretext.
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