Bible Interpretation Principles and Methods for Understanding the Bible
This page is part of our Bible Study Guide. If you are new to the Bible, you should read our The Basics page first. In this section, we’ll address general Bible Interpretation principles and issues. See our Book-by-Book Study Guides for additional interpretation principles which apply to the specific books.
While the Bible itself is without error, our interpretations are not. We have been given a great privilege in that God chose to reveal Himself through His Word. With this privilege comes our responsibility to interpret it as accurately as possible. While we’re incapable of totally accurate interpretations at all times, we’ll discuss some basic interpretive methods and principles to help minimize our interpretive errors.
Written 2007, 2008.
Table of Contents
- Scope of this Study
- Initial Approach to Biblical Interpretation
- Author’s Intent & Patterns of Meaning
- Context, Context, Context
- Some Basic Interpretation Principles
- Questions to Ask
- What to Look For
- What’s Next
- Additional Related Articles:
- Overview of the Process of Bible Study
- Figures of Speech
- Genre Analysis
- Literalism (in relation to the various Genres)
Scope of this Study
This study is intended for all levels of Bible students. The beginner should read this page without getting too “hung up” on any technical details. The main focus at this point is in reading the Bible, along with some basic background material (see our Bible Basics page). Once you’re comfortable with a basic knowledge of the Bible, you’ll be ready to go deeper.
For more advanced students, we obviously can’t provide the level of detail that can be found in many good books; however our intent is to provide a good overview of Bible interpretation principles and methods. We hope to pass on some basic knowledge that will greatly enrich your Bible studies and provide a firm foundation for those who are interested in further study of interpretation techniques.
Developing proper Bible interpretation skills involves careful and diligent work. It requires an understanding of the original languages, the historical background of Biblical times, a working knowledge of theology, grammatical aptitude, and a grasp of the whole context of Scripture.
That said, please don’t panic or get discouraged. We’re all at various stages of understanding, and the important thing is to begin, or to continue consistently in our progress. Focus on the process rather than the end results. Actually, we never reach the end until we quit or die. Even the most brilliant scholars never truly master the Holy Scriptures. For example, the vast majority of advanced Bible students, including most pastors, simply don’t have the time to perform detailed word studies of the original languages from scratch, so we often depend on lexicons, commentaries, word-study books etc. There are also many other great resources to help us along, so we are never alone in our studies. Pastors and teachers should however, develop a basic working knowledge of proper methodology in order to determine if the commentator has done his homework or just a quick background study in determining his conclusions.
There are very few things in life more rewarding than a study of God’s Word. So enjoy your studies and do your best to present yourself as one approved of God by rightly handling the Word of Truth (2Tim 2:15). As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions regarding this study.
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Initial Approach to Biblical Interpretation
I’ll mention the most important Bible study principle first. The Word of God should be approached very carefully, with humility and much prayer. What better person to consult than the Source Himself. Because the Bible's authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret it. We mentioned a few resources above bit in reality, the Holy Spirit is our greatest aid in studying the Bible (or in any other activity).
The goals of Bible interpretation are to determine the author’s original intended meaning, how it applies to us today, and how to proclaim its truth to others. Interpretation must be done in that exact order! We cannot accurately proclaim the truth to others if we don’t know what it means to us. Likewise, we cannot properly apply the Scripture to our lives without understanding the author’s original intent.
Caution: Bible students should familiarize themselves with the contents on this page; however, we recommend reading an entire book (the entire Bible is even better) before getting “bogged down” trying to determine the meaning of a particular part or verse. The individual parts cannot be properly interpreted without a proper grasp of the whole text. Unfortunately, modern scholars and commentaries tend to overemphasize word studies and dissection of isolated passages (which can yield valuable information) but apart from the whole, the parts can easily be misinterpreted. Since many of the words from the original language can be translated into several different words in the destined modern language (each of which may have multiple potential meanings), we must look at how it is used in context to determine the correct translation which conveys the author’s intended meaning. See the sections on “Context” and “Word Study Methods” (in progress) and the article Approaching Bible Study for more information.
Therefore, we recommend you approach your Bible study from the “forest to the trees”, that is getting a good grasp of the whole prior to tackling the individual parts in light of the whole. We have attempted to structure our Bible Study Guide to do just that.
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Author’s Intent & Patterns of Meaning
In our Bible Study Guide, we make many references to determining the author’s “original meaning” or “intended meaning”. This is the first and one of the principle goals of Bible interpretation, so I think it is important to explain what we mean. First, we must understand that the ultimate author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit (2Tim 3:16, 2Pet 1:20-21). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the human authors used their own writing styles to relay God’s message to us, exactly as God intended. So, when we speak of the author’s meaning, we refer to the message that the Holy Spirit deliberately intended to affirm through the human author.
Because the meaning and implications of the Bible text belongs to the author and not the reader, a text cannot mean anything that contrasts with what it meant to the original author. The meaning intended by the author cannot change (it's locked in past history); however, there can be additional “patterns of meaning” of which the human author may or may not be unaware. We must emphasize that these are not separate meanings that are added to the original, but additional applications due to the changing cultures throughout history, including our own modern times. These patterns can never alter nor contrast with the original meaning. A good example is Paul’s prohibition of getting drunk on wine (Eph 5:18). A study of the context reveals the intention to be that the reader be controlled by the Holy Spirit rather than by a foreign substance, so we can conclude that this passage’s pattern of meaning includes a prohibition against getting drunk on any other kind of alcohol and being under the influence of mind altering drugs (see our Drugs and Alcohol article for additional discussion). So, our application of the term “author’s original intended meaning” (or variances thereof) includes both the original intended meaning of the human author and the pattern of meaning as purposefully willed by the Holy Spirit. We must however, keep in mind that we are merely illuminated by the Holy Spirit to interpret the author’s meaning from the Scriptures, not inspired by the Holy Spirit to read our own meaning into the Scriptures. We also retain the responsibility not only to properly interpret the Scripture, but to also apply it accordingly to our lives.
A similar principle to pattern of meaning is sensus plenior, or “fuller meaning” of a passage of Scripture. This term is applied to a NT writer’s practice of further amplifying and revealing a fuller patterns of meaning to a writing by an OT writer. A good example of this is Paul spiritualizing Moses drawing water from the rock during the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings (Ex 17:6, Nu 20:11) by writing that the spiritual rock was Christ (1Cor 4:10).
Unlike our ability to find additional patterns of meaning by drawing out principles when studying the context in which the original subject was delivered, we must take additional precautions when we think we've found sensus plenior within Scripture. The NT authors sometimes drew connections or conclusions that the reader would not have otherwise derive, but they were divinely inspired and kept from error by the Holy Spirit and as we’ve noted, we are not! Although we can propose allegorical meanings after careful study, we should not push our deductions as dogma unless we have clear evidence elsewhere in the Bible.
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Context, Context, Context
Scripture must be interpreted in context. This is so important that I’ve heard of seminary professors telling their students, that if they doze off during a question, they will have a fifty percent chance of being correct by answering “context”. The word “context” refers to the background, the situation, and the interrelated conditions surrounding a passage that can throw a light on its meaning. Statements (Biblical or otherwise) simply have no meaning apart from their context.
I can’t stress this rule enough. You can make the Bible say almost anything you want by taking certain verses out of context with the rest of scripture. Violation of this rule has birthed many cults. All apparent contradictions can be resolved by properly understanding the context.
Context is traditionally divided into two categories, historical (situation surrounding the events) and logical (thought development).
The historical context provides us with the author, date, original audience, purpose and theme, and other important information about the historical or background setting of the book. Probably the best source to consult for this info is the introduction sections of the better commentaries. Choose one that is up-to-date and contains the latest archeological discoveries. Also check out introductions to the Old and New Testament, and sections such as the Pentateuch, Epistles etc. Other sources are dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, and books on Biblical culture and customs. Remember, we’re looking for broad outlines rather than fine details at this point.
We must also note that these extra-biblical materials are preliminary only (not inspired like Holy Scripture), and must be subject to correction as we study the actual Scriptures. We must never force the meaning of Scripture to comply with these resources. One of their primary purposes is to get us out of our twenty first century mindset, mentally transporting us back to Biblical times, and helping us to ask the right questions and apply the appropriate rules of interpretation.
Logical (Inductive) Context
We can use the logical or inductive approach (beginning from the particulars uncover the universals) to determine the thought process of a book and how it influences the meaning of a particular passage. We look for parallels with other Scripture, type of literature (genre), flow of the narrative etc. Techniques within this approach include charting the book and diagramming and summarizing the paragraphs. In selecting resources, we should research other text in order of it’s importance or relationship to our subject text. We should start with verses surrounding our text, then adjacent chapters and the rest of the book. We then should check out other books by the same author and verses relating to our subject throughout the Bible. Finally, we might consult commentaries, writings of the church fathers, church creeds, rabbinic literature, and historians such as Josephus, as applicable to our subject.
Watch for the following in determining context:
- Notice the placement of the text (why the author included it here rather than elsewhere)
- A gap in time, or change in place or setting will often indicate a new context, particularly in narratives
- The author may dwell on a certain event, subject or person
- A repeated term or phrase that acts as a heading to introduce an new topic, or that acts as a summary possibly indicating that the author is about to switch subjects
- A key word or phrase may be repeated several times within the current theme (discontinued use may indicate a new subject)
- Watch for transitions (conjunctions or adverbs such as “then, therefore, and, but, so that, etc)
- A change in the tense or mood of a verb may indicate a new section
- A rhetorical question will often indicate the start of a new argument
- In a few unusual cases, the author will actually include a heading to his section
Important note: When using the inductive method, always verify your results deductively (starting with known universals or absolutes, then determining the particulars). In other words, compare your induced universals with the established absolutes of Scripture.
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Some Basic Interpretation Principles
When faced with Hermeneutical questions (the discipline or rules of interpretation), here’s a few guidelines to help us reach more consistent conclusions:
Interpret the Bible Literally where Possible
The Bible says what it means and means what it says. When the literal interpretation (also called “plain meaning") of the scripture makes common sense, this will be the correct meaning in almost all cases unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise. I must clarify that, to ”interpret the Bible literally” means to interpret the scripture based upon the ”original intent” of the author, within the genre (type of literature, see the Genre Analysis section) being used. For example, plain speech should be interpreted as plain speech, poetry as poetry, hyperbole as hyperbole etc (see the Figures of Speech page). In this sense, we interpret the Bible just as we would interpret any other writing.
Scripture is its own Best Interpreter.
The Bible will never contradict itself, therefore no part of Scripture can be interpreted in a way that will render itself in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. We should always interpret the explicit (what is actually said) in light of the implicit (what is left unsaid, but implied), never the implicit in light of the explicit.
Interpret Narratives by the Didactic.
The Bible records the vices of the characters along with their virtues, so be very cautious when drawing principles from narrative. The speaker could be speaking sarcastically, or using hyperbole or other figures of speech. You should always attempt to validate a narrative from the didactic literature (that which teaches or instructs). For example, the Epistles should interpret the Gospels in most cases (but not always) rather than the Gospels interpreting the Epistles.
Pay Attention to Paragraphs
We recommend using a Bible that separates the text by paragraphs. The original divinely inspired texts did not contain chapter and verse divisions. Chapter divisions that are in common use today were originally developed in the early thirteenth century by Stephen Langdon, an Archbishop of Canterbury. These chapter divisions first appeared in the Wycliffe English Bible in the late fourteenth century. Verse divisions were added in the mid-sixteenth century by Robertus Stephanus (aka Robert Estienne), a French publisher from Paris. The Hebrew OT had been divided in verses about a hundred years earlier by the Jewish Rabbi Nathan. Stephanus followed Nathan’s divisions for the most part, adding his own for the NT. These divisions first appeared in the Geneva Bible (the bible of the Reformers), and almost all modern translations accept Stephanus’ divisions today.
In addition, both the chapter and verse divisions were often chosen poorly (some have joked that it was performed on horseback, and the divisions were the result of the horse jostling the scribe’s pen). Therefore, the paragraph, rather than the chapter and verses, should be our starting point to proper divisions of thought. That said, we should also note that since the original text was not divided into paragraphs, we should ultimately evaluate each entry in the context of surrounding scripture and the whole.
Recognize that many Words have Multiple Meanings
Many controversies have developed due to the failure to heed this warning. A good dictionary or lexicon can come in handy in determining the original intended meaning of a word. One category of words can cause particular problems, those which have become doctrine, sometimes referred to as ”technical terms”. Regarding the doctrine of salvation, for example, we sometimes tend to read the full-blown meaning into every occurrence of the word salvation or save, when the author may be speaking of a rescue from a lesser calamity than eternal death. Another case is that of ”sanctification”, which can be equated with the moment of Justification (Romans 6), and with the process of spiritual growth elsewhere.
Watch out for Idioms (slang)
Anyone with a teenager can attest to how often the nuances of language can change. The Bible contains some slogans of the day which would be unfamiliar to us. A good Bible commentary, dictionary or handbook can come in handy here.
Be aware of Cultural Differences between Biblical and Modern Times
Without intending to, we all bring our prior teaching, church backgrounds, personal experience etc to our reading of the Bible. To further complicate things, the original authors, while writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote in their own personal style using illustrations relating to their particular culture and history. We must first determine the author’s original meaning in the original historical setting before applying the intended principle to our current situations.
Distinguish between Timeless Principles and Culturally-Specific Mandates
Many of these can often be a challenge. Dealing with specific cases (such as women's head covering in church) is beyond the scope of this article, but we can offer a couple of suggestions. Generally, to find the timeless principles, look to the Bible’s core messages (those messages that stay consistent across multiple time periods and cultures), the inherently moral or immoral issues, those related to Creation, and the actions that are consistently and expressly accepted or forbidden. Those axioms that are merely acknowledged rather than affirmed are usually limited to a certain period or group of people. Isolated statements that cannot be supported elsewhere within Scripture may also be non-normative.
Topically, find the permanent, unchanging messages in Scripture, that is, the consistent messages behind a certain doctrine within all occurrences. For example, in the doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice for Salvation, the form changes from the animal sacrificial system in the OT to the Cross in the NT. The unchanging permanent message is the need for a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.
Regarding application, whenever we share similar life situations with the original audience of the Scripture, God’s Word for us should be the same for us as it was to them. When we find ourselves in a situations foreign to the original audience (one not addressed in the Bible), we should pray and apply general Biblical principles to our situation.
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Questions to Ask
Who -- Who wrote the passage? Who is speaking? Who is the audience?
What -- What does the passage say? What is the main subject? What is the immediate context. What is the overall idea the author is talking about (broader context of the chapter or book)?
When -- When was it written? When do the events occur (pay attention to verb tenses)?
Where -- Where does an event take place?
Why -- Why was this written (many authors state their purpose in the text)?
How -- How will these events take place? How do my conclusions compare with others who have studied and commented on the passage. How must I apply this to my life?
Answers to the “W” questions can usually be obtained from the historical and cultural backgrounds. The “how” question is usually answered inductively.
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What to Look For
Here’s a few things to look for when reading scripture and asking the above questions.
A Special Message from God for Today -- This will vary based upon the scripture that we're studying, and our particular situation and current needs.
A Command to Keep -- God gives these commands for our benefit. As Adrian Rogers always said, “When God says ’Thou shalt not’, He means ’Don’t hurt yourself’, and when He says ’Thou shalt’, He means ’Help yourself to a blessing’.”
A Promise from God -- We find these throughout scripture. Not every promise is for us personally. We need to check the context. Some are for Israel and some for the future. There’s also some promises that we don’t want (promises of judgment for unbelievers). We should also note whether there are any conditions attached to the promise. For example, God promises to be faithful to forgive our sins if we confess them (1Jn 1:9).
An Eternal Principle -- The Bible contains timeless principles on almost every subject to guide us in our daily living. Because God chose to communicate His eternal principles within the particular circumstances of human history, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether a particular statement is a timeless principle, or merely addresses a situation relevant to the time period in which it was written. When in doubt, I prefer to err on the side of interpreting a statement as principle rather than violating that principle by dismissing it as not relevant for today.
An Application for my Life -- After we've found a special message, command, promise or principle, we should ask ourselves, how can I apply this to an area in my life? The study of God’s Word is not just for obtaining knowledge, but it is a practical tool that, if properly applied, will change our lives.
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We should now have the basic knowledge to obtain a deeper understanding while reading and studying the Bible. You’ll probably want to refer back to this page and the Introductions to the Books and Sections of the Bible section while doing your Bible studies. Please contact us if you have any questions or suggestions regarding this page.
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