HOW TO STUDY THE BIBLE
Lesson Four: How to Interpret the Bible
The study of the 'rules' of Bible interpretation is called "hermeneutics". Hermeneutics is the science of Bible interpretation. This strange theological term comes from the Greek word hermeneuo which means TO INTERPRET OR EXPLAIN. The reason for studying the Bible is to properly interpret what God is saying to us.
Two other technical terms are important here. Bible scholars often refer to the 'exegesis' of Scripture, which means "allowing the truth to come out of the text without the filter of our own ideas". The word "exegesis" is also derived from a Greek word, which means "explanation " or "to lead OUT of." This means we approach to the Scriptures to learn what they say and mean, not to prove our own point.
The opposite term is "eisogesis" which is from a Greek word meaning "to read INTO". This is probably the most common (and dangerous) error of casual Bible students. It is even the error of many (denominations and ) well-known television evangelists. This means that a person approaches the Scripture with a pre-conceived idea and uses the Scripture to prove their point, even if the Scriptures have to be "bent" to make them fit.
What we mean by Bible interpretation is the correct meaning of the passage as it was intended by the original author. In other words, we must allow the Bible to speak for itself. While this sounds simple, we must realize that we all have some pre-conceived ideas and that we must work carefully to see that we arrive at the Truth instead of seeking to prove that we are right. We must seek to understand what the original author had in mind--in his context of life and history.
The eighteenth century scholar J. A. Ernesti set the stage for what we call today "rules of Bible interpretation." For Ernesti, a correct understanding of the Bible mean discovering (1) the use of words, (2) the historical circumstances controlling their usage, and (3) the intention of the author strictly governed by his own words. (See Toward an Exegetical Theology, by Walter C. Kaiser.)
Rules of Bible interpretation:
(1) We must interpret the Bible in the light of its LANGUAGE AND HISTORY.
Language, or 'literary setting,' means that language has different meanings in different social, historical, and cultural settings. We must know what Bible words meant to the writers of the Bible. Understanding something of the meaning of the original languages is necessary for correct Bible interpretation, although you should also know that no new or novel doctrines are hidden in the Greek and Hebrew.
Second, "historical setting" means the time and place when a passage of the Bible was written.
This first rule brings up the need for Bible dictionaries and commentaries. They are helpful in obtaining background material as to the culture, setting and the history of the passage in question.
Some examples of how to apply this rule.
(a) Read carefully 2 Corinthians 12:2. What is the third heaven? The Mormons build a whole doctrine of levels of eternal reward based on this verse. But if you just understood something of ancient astronomy, you would know that the first heaven was the sky and clouds, the second heaven was the realm of the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars), and the "third" heaven, beyond the sun, moon and stars, was the realm of God. The third heaven is paradise, which Paul indicates in verse 4.
(b) Mark 1:1-21. Why did the disciples so quickly and readily leave everything and follow Jesus? Because they were so committed to him? No. Israel was under the iron yoke of Roman domination and occupation and everyone was expecting the Messiah who would liberate Palestine and rule the world. The disciples probably followed Jesus for very selfish reasons. Even later they were arguing over who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom, and who would sit at the right hand of the throne of the Messiah!
(2) We must interpret Scripture by Scripture
In other words, the whole Bible must speak for itself. We cannot build doctrines on isolated portions of Scriptures. It's easy to quote individual Bible verses to prove your point. It is a much greater challenge to see how individual verses fit into the whole picture.
(a) Does Acts 2:38 teach that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins? Yes, by itself. But many other passages about water baptism in the Bible make it clear that baptism is necessary for discipleship and Christian growth, but it is not necessary to get into heaven.
(b) Does James 2:24 teach that works are necessary for salvation? Yes, by itself. But James 2:24 must be understood in the larger context of New Testament grace.
(3) Individual verses of the Bible must be understood in the context of OTHER VERSES IN THAT PASSAGE.
Two examples which will probably ruffle your feathers are;
(a) Matthew 24:40-41 says, "Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." Does this sound like the rapture? It has been used that way for years. But look again at the verses ahead of these famous words. See verses 36 - 39, especially 39. In 39, who is taken away, the righteous or the unrighteous? And who is left? Read carefully. The rules of language apply to Scripture and dare not be bent or ignored. Just because it does not fit with what we want it to say, we must take it for what it does say.
(b) Romans 10:17 is not about building your faith by hearing the word, even though it is used by many preachers to "prove" just that. This verse is about salvation. In other words, faith in Christ unto salvation comes by hearing the Word. Just look at the context!
(An old proverb used in Bible School - "Text, without context, is pretext.")
(4) Each passage of scripture has one INTERPRETATION, many APPLICATIONS.
Interpretation is WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS. The "literal" meaning of each passage of the Bible understood on the basis of the rule of interpretation, must be our starting point for applying the Bible to our daily lives.
Application is WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS TO ME. One of the great Bible scholars of this century, F. F Bruce, wrote, "The place of the Bible in the life of the church has constanstly added to it a wealth of fresh and practical meaning which the interpreter cannot ignore."
(5) We cannot build major Doctrines on isolated or unclear verses of the Bible.
Passages of Scripture in which a doctrine is merely touched on must be interpreted by those passages where a doctrine is expressly taught. An example is 1Corinthians 11:6. Another example is the idea that the gifts of the Spirit "died out" with the Apostles. There is no Bible verse in the New Testament that teaches this very popular idea, even though some preach it as a fact.
(6) In most cases, like the rest of the Bible, parables have ONE BASIC MEANING.
A more contemporary example is Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes. You know the story. Is the lesson, or the moral of the story, that foxes actually eat grapes? No. That's just part of the story to illustrate a single moral principle. If you focus on whether or not foxes actually eat grapes you miss the whole point of the story.
Just so with the parables in the Bible. The parable of the ten virgins is a Biblical example. The parable is full of unique symbolism: the number ten, virgins, lamps, oil. But the whole point of the story is that we should "watch" or "be spiritual alert." Whatever else all the symbols mean is not clear, and to start building doctrines on this parable (like a doctrine of a partial rapture) is theological thin ice.
(7) Two guard rails along the highway of correct Bible interpretation: THE HOLY SPIRIT and THE CHRlSTIAN COMMUNITY.
We have the Holy Spirit to guide us, but this does not mean we don't need other Christians, especially well equipped and informed Bible teachers. And we have the established, historical teachings of the Church, but this does not mean we don't need the Holy Spirit!