Approach to Interpretation


I. Supernaturalistic
II. Naturalistic
III. Existential
IV. Dogmatic



1). God is the Author of the Bible

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (2 Ti 3:16+)

2). The Bible is a supernatural Book

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12+)

For example, the Gospel writers treated the OT as prophecy (Matthew 2:14-15+) by showing Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy (Related resource Messianic Prophecies)

3). The Bible is a "human" Book

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2Pe 1:20,21+)

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McQuilkin writes that…the supernaturalistic approach interprets all Scripture from a supernatural point of view. The interpreter's task, consequently, is to seek several meanings or hidden meanings, which are to be uncovered through intuition and spiritual experience. The "natural" meaning of the text is downgraded or totally ignored. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

This approach is synonymous with the…

Allegorical method - allegory searches for a hidden spiritual meaning that transcends the literal sense of a sacred text and the respected commentator Matthew Henry plainly states Song of Solomon "is an allegory" and goes on to add

that after the title of the book (Song of Solomon 1:1+) we have Christ and his church, Christ and a believer, expressing their esteem for each other.

Clearly, Henry's interpretative approach does not seek the literal, natural meaning of the Song of Solomon but represents the allegorical approach.

Mystical approach - Webster defines "mystical" as

having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence.

In other words this approach seeks a divine significance that surpasses natural human apprehension.

In the supernatural approach

The interpreter seeks to reveal a hidden meaning.

Hidden meaning rules in the author's approach to interpreting the Scripture

This method at first glance looks and sounds quite "spiritual"

The problem is that the obvious (literal) meaning of the passage is often ignored and thus the interpreter does not take the Author's meaning and purpose seriously

The upshot of this approach is that the Bible is not allowed to be its own authority but the authority rests in the hands of the interpreter and unfortunately the result is that the interpretation "adds" to God's intended meaning of the passage.

A notable example of a commentator who approaches the Scriptures leaning heavily on the supernaturalistic approach is Arthur Pink. Pink frequently discusses "types" (other than those the Bible itself specifically designates as "types") in which he uses an OT event, personage or institution and associates it figuratively with some truth in the NT. Much of Pink's work is now freely available on the internet and often has very insightful comments on the Scriptures. However in consulting his works, the reader is strongly advised to be aware of his supernaturalistic approach to the Scriptures lest one take away from a passage a meaning that God never intended. Remember that the most efficacious application of Scripture is predicated upon an accurate interpretation, lest one be misapply the Scriptures to their own detriment. Here is an example of A W Pink's interpretation of passages in Joshua…

Israel's capture of Jericho unmistakably pre-figured the victories achieved, under God, by the Gospel. The priests blowing with the trumpets of rams' horns pictured the servants of God preaching his Word. The forbidding of "the people" to open their mouths signified that the rank and file of Christians are to have no part in the oral proclamation of the Truth—they are neither qualified for nor called to the ministration of the Word. Nowhere in the Epistles is there a single exhortation for the saints as such to engage in public evangelism, nor even to do "personal work" and seek to be "soul winners." Rather are they required to "witness for Christ" by their daily conduct in business and in the home. They are to "show forth" God's praises, rather than tell them forth. They are to let their light shine. The testimony of the life is far more effectual than glib utterances of the lips. Actions speak louder than words. (Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Joshua)

Can you discern where Pink has taken considerable liberty in interpreting the Scriptures in Joshua? As Peter writes as saints we are to…

sanctify (aorist imperative - See discussion of the Need for the Holy Spirit to obey NT commands) Christ as Lord in (our) hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks (us) to give an account for the hope that is in (us), yet with gentleness and reverence (1Pe 3:15+)

Robertson McQuilkin commenting on A W Pink's approach as illustrated in the preceding quote writes…

It will not do to excuse that way of handling the Bible by saying that there is only one meaning but many applications. It is true that a passage may be applied in many ways to contemporary settings. But to handle Scripture in that way, deriving a message that is far from the intention of the author, provides a model for interpretation that does not take the author and his intent seriously. In such an approach, the Bible is not its own authority, free to make its own point and to demand obedience to its own teaching. Rather, it is used to make some other point the commentator has in mind through the process of spiritualizing—finding a hidden meaning in the text.

The ingenuity of the Bible student is the only limitation to the exciting "interpretations" of Scripture in such an approach. When straightforward history is taken by the preacher to have hidden implications and exciting spiritual truths, it is no wonder that many evangelical Christians treat the Bible in the same way for devotional use and in seeking guidance. Many Christians who are faithful in reading the Bible devotionally feel "blessed" only when they find a surprising thought suggested to them by the text, a thought that bears no direct relationship to the intent of the author. To them, seeking to know God's will through careful study to understand the intended meaning of the author seems dry and boring. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

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In the supernaturalistic approach, the author often seeks to find a "hidden meaning" for the purpose of divine guidance. This application amounts in essence to the use of God's Word in a "magical way" to determine God's will. To be sure, God does often use His Word to reveal His will in our life, it is not through a "magical" approach. The more time one is in God's Word, and His Word is in the reader and the reader is obeys wholly and from the heart controlled by the Spirit, the more clearly one sees His will for one's life.

Jesus taught on the important relationship of knowing and doing, declaring that…

If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself. (John 7:17+)

He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him. (John 14:31+)

This relationship between walking in obedience and increasing in true knowledge is seen in Paul prayer for the saints at Colossae that they…

be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (obedience), to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col 1:9+)

In summary, the danger of the Supernaturalistic approach is that one may conclude an interpretation that was never intended by God! Scripture is God's supernatural word taught by His Spirit and is to be in its natural sense unless such sense makes "nonsense". God usually means what He says. To be sure, God does make frequent use of figurative language (such as simile and metaphor) but even figurative language is subject to rules of interpretation. For example, when Jesus said I am the door clearly He was not declaring that He was a literal door. In context, Jesus was saying that He was the only Way a sinner could approach God the Father.

The discerning reader of the Word of Truth, needs to be aware that until the 1500's the Supernaturalistic approach was the dominant approach used to interpret Scripture. This approach fell into disfavor with the onset of the Reformation and a return to "Sola Scriptura".

The Supernaturalistic approach is difficult to resist because it seems to be so "spiritual"!


The naturalistic approach limits the meaning to what one can understand. Some who espouse this approach say "I believe the Bible" but allow for nothing supernatural in the Bible! Other less strict naturalists allow for some supernatural elements in the Bible.

McQuilkin writes that…the rationalist cannot accept the miraculous in Scripture because he has not personally experienced the miraculous, and also because reports of miracles cannot be verified by experimentation. Therefore, they must be explained either as a misapprehension of natural events or as myth growing up around some historical or imagined event. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

What is rationalism? Briefly stated, in rationalism one relies solely on his or her human reasoning. And so if they cannot verify it in their experience it is not the Word of God. The Naturalistic approach became the dominant mode of interpretation in the 1600's. The authority in this interpretative approach is one's own human reasoning. The rationalist is his or her own final judge and jury on what any passage of Scripture means.

Those who hold to the Naturalistic Approach see 3 problems with the Word of God:

1). Certain things they feel are morally unworthy of God.

E.g., they have difficulty accepting David's imprecatory (invoking evil upon another) prayers, with Israel's instructions to take the promised land and to kill obliterate the original inhabitants (utterly destroy the men, women and children) from the land. Those who hold the natural approach cannot see that a loving God would command such "atrocities".

2). Miracles

3). "Seeming" contradictions in Scripture and "seeming" contradictions with science.

What is the "natural" result of the Naturalistic approach?

McQuilkin writes that…the rationalist cannot accept the miraculous in Scripture because he has not personally experienced the miraculous, and also because reports of miracles cannot be verified by experimentation. Therefore, they must be explained either as a misapprehension of natural events or as myth growing up around some historical or imagined event… The end result of the rationalistic approach to Scripture is simply this: there is no sure word from God. That is, Scripture has no independent authority, for human reasoning is the final authority for judging anything that presents itself as a word from God. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

This directly contradicts the writer of Proverbs who records that…

Every word of God is tested (refined as the goldsmith refines precious metal, the result being pure gold without imperfections or contaminants!) (Proverbs 30:5)

These individuals allow human reasoning rather than context and God's Spirit ("the Spirit of truth [Who] will guide you into all truth" John 16:13) to rules in their interpretation of Scripture.

Before listing the three subdivisions of the Naturalistic Approach, you should understand that the term Biblical criticism describes the skillful evaluation ("rational") of the data (the Biblical text including the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) to determine the truth about the Scripture. The practice of "Biblical criticism" did not arise until the 1800's.

Three Subdivisions
of the Naturalistic Approach


Textual criticism is also known as "lower" criticism (in contrast to "higher" criticism below). Textual criticism seeks to compare (Greek and Hebrew) extant copies of manuscripts in order to find the most accurate texts, since we no longer possess the original Biblical manuscripts or "autographs".


One branch of "higher criticism" takes a "historical approach" and "seeks to understand the Bible in light of its historical and cultural backgrounds, that is, as a book arising out of a human context." (Grenz, S., et al: Pocket Dictionary of Theological terms. Page 59. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. 1999) The historical type of "higher criticism" can have some merit but the weakness is that it tends to downplay Scripture as a supernatural book written by God, and instead overemphasizes the humanness of the Scriptures.

Although such study can have some merit, "higher criticism" is a dangerous method in the hands of an individual who is also a naturalistic interpreter. This approach is often referred to as "destructive higher criticism".

One notorious example of this "destructive higher criticism" is the so-called "JEDP theory". In the 1800's Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German OT scholar transformed the face of OT studies with his work on the dating of the sources in the Pentateuch. Wellhausen's work led to popularization of The Documentary Hypothesis which proposes that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but that it went through a "process of composition" over several centuries, in which various sources were compiled into the final text. Wellhausen identified four sources in their historical order referred to as Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D) and Priestly (P), commonly abbreviated as JEDP. Such teaching undermines the inerrancy and authority of God's Word (Click excerpts of the 1561 Belgic and 1978 Chicago confessions regarding the authority and inerrancy of Scripture)

From this brief overview of the Rationalistic approach to Scripture, one can readily discern that it is human reasoning which rules in the interpretation.

Another example of this Rationalistic approach is found in "Harper's Bible Commentary" which states (a supposition based on "higher criticism") that

Colossians was most likely written by a pupil of Paul’s… " and that the "Petrine authorship very improbable!" (Mays, J. L., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. Harper's Bible commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row - see note of 2Peter 1:1).

Thus one can readily see how important it is to know what approach your favorite commentary takes in regard to the Word of God. The safest approach is to first, do your own inductive Bible study for only then you will be equipped to intelligently "comment on the commentaries"!

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The context of culture is important in interpreting Scripture but in this aberrant approach, one's view of culture rules in interpretation.

Culture defines the way a group of people view things or does things. The problem in this approach to Scripture is that CULTURE is over emphasized and the natural (literal) meaning of the Scripture is set aside. Modern examples include what the Scripture has to say about homosexuality. Another modern example is the comment in the New Century Bible Commentary which says that wives do not need to submit to husbands in our modern cultures but that this practice was advocated by Paul because it was part of the culture at that time.

In all 3 of these subdivisions of the naturalistic approach, the main thesis is that man's finite thoughts are substituted for God's incomprehensible, infinite wisdom!


This approach to interpretation of Scripture arose in the early 1900's as a reaction to rationalism which itself was a reaction to supernaturalism!

McQuilkin explains that…the existential approach is an attempt to combine the first two. It accepts the naturalistic approach, yet goes beyond it by locating the truth of Scripture in the encounter between the interpreter's response and the witness of the biblical author to a similar religious experience. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

The existential approach teaches that the Bible is not the Word of God but is the "vehicle" for the Word of God. They teach that the Bible becomes REVELATION only when properly mixed with truth and thus MAN is in CONTROL of the interpretation! This approach teaches that the Bible is not an independent AUTHORITY.

Existentialists use traditional words but with non-traditional meanings. For example, if one speaks of the demonic they might say it really is speaking of "evil" in society but not of a specific spiritual being. Generally however the existential approach does not deny the supernatural..

Existentialists, like Naturalists and Rationalists, give man the authority. The existential approach is very subtle and difficult to detect because it tends to speak so much about "faith".

The result of Existentialists interpretation is a mixture of belief and experience. This type of thinking is the often manifest in the approach to Scripture which asks "What does the passage mean to you?" This approach therefore tends to bypasses God's intended meaning of a given passage. This approach is a "serendipity" type of Bible study where you walk in, read a verse, and ask what it means to the group! Have you ever been to a Bible study like that? Probably most of us have.

The important point is that must evaluate the "system" by which you are interpreting the Word of God because whatever method you are using will have it's ultimate affect on the way you think and then the way you behave. As Paul declared…

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col 2:8+)

Be a Berean (Acts 17:11+). Don't be taken captive by philosophy, etc.


In this approach, the Scripture is made to conform to a predetermined system of doctrine or external authority. While there is a legitimate use of a system of doctrine, the problem arises when one's "system" deviates from God's intended meaning. If the dogmatic approach is carried to the extreme the problem is the independent authority of Scripture is replaced by a man-made system.

For example, in the study of the sovereignty of God, if one over emphasizes this truth, then man has no role whatsoever and is little more than a "puppet." If one follows this dogmatic approach out to its logical conclusion, than one would conclude that there is no need to send missionaries since God is sovereign in salvation and man has no responsibility.



Some tradition is obviously good (eg, the traditional teaching of the Trinity), but the problem is when the tradition sneaks in as an "interpretation" which is unsupported by the Scripture. Be very careful making statements like "I believe whatever the church says… "! The church sadly has often times been guilty of a short sighted dogmatic approach on certain issues that would be quite clear if one approached the Scriptures literally.


We make take a certain interpretative leaning because we have come to trust and respect a particular individual teacher or leader. How many times have you heard someone defend their dogmatic point of view because another well known Christian has espoused that same view.


"I don't care what the Bible says. That was not my experience."

The result of the dogmatic approach is that one aspect of truth rules in the interpretation, a practice that can ultimately lead to erroneous interpretation (and application) in this other area.

McQuilkin adds that…

some believers, with otherwise sound approaches, may err in dogmatically setting aside the plain meaning of the text to make it conform to a system of doctrine, some human authority, or even a personal experience. Few would admit to espousing this approach, yet it is all too common. All of us are subject to the temptation. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

It is interesting to note that each of these four approaches to interpretation of Scripture has an element of truth.


The Bible is supernatural


The Bible is natural


The Bible must be applied


The Bible is a coherent unit from Genesis to Revelation

The problem arises when one of the 4 areas above is emphasized to the exclusion of one or more of the other approaches. The essential error in each of these faulty approaches to Scriptural interpretation is a tendency to subjectivism and failure to rely wholly on the objective truth of the Word. It is as if "you" (or "me") as a frail, fallen man who becomes the final arbiter of the Truth of God's Word. Stated another way, when we approach Scripture subjectively, we as the interpreter become the ultimate authority for all interpretation. McQuilkin refers to Joshua 6 (see Josh 6:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21) to illustrate the diverse interpretations possible based on these four basic approaches…

The naturalist may see the account as an ancient story that was made up (since walls do not normally tumble before trumpet blasts) to teach the victory of good over evil against great odds. Since the supernaturalist is looking for a hidden meaning, he may see the marching around Jericho in silence as a mandate for Christians to witness by their "walk" in silence six days a week until the leader (preacher) on Sunday proclaims the gospel, and the walls of unbelief come tumbling down and people are converted. Existentialists might focus on the call to personal religious faith that was at the writer's center of attention. The story for the existentialist might be only a legend, the details of which hold no importance. Some dogmatists will have a problem with the slaughter of the citizens of Jericho at God's command—a loving God would never order the death of innocent people. Others might have no problem at all, believing that the people of Jericho were created for the purpose of damnation anyway. (Borrow the excellent book Understanding and Applying The Bible)

It follows that the discerning believer must have some idea of how the author or authors of their favorite Bible commentary approach the interpretation of the Scriptures. If you are unsure, the book's preface or introduction might provide some information. If not, you would be well advised to consult another trusted, mature, Biblically centered, Spirit filled believer regarding their opinion is of the particular resource you are reading or listening to.


One should let the Author's intended meaning rule in interpretation. One of the most objective methods to fulfill this worthy objective is to become a student of the inductive method of Bible Study. It is not the only method to study the Bible but is certainly one of the most tested and fruitful for lay persons and without a doubt the best material for partaking of the "solid food" of inductive study is available from Precept Ministries International.

As the writer of Hebrews declares…

solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Heb 5:14, 12, 13, see note Heb 5:14)

The believer must always have the approach of the Bereans who…

were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11, 10, 12,13, 14+)

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