Seven Principles for Interpreting the Bible

Seven Principles for Interpreting the Bible

1. Recognize and account for the dual authorship of Scripture.  

Jesus was fully God and fully Man; he had a divine nature and a human one.  In an analogous way, we can understand the authorship of the Bible. It was written by humans in particular times and places, addressing specific issues.  Yet the final author of the Bible is God – the human authors were inspired to write with a transcending purpose for all time. Given the human authorship of Scripture, we must take seriously the historical context, theological perspective, and literal style of each author in our interpretation.  Given the divine authorship of Scripture, we must take seriously its authority (it is the Word of God), necessity (it is essential for salvation and life), and sufficiency (it contains all we need to be right with God and live for him). (See Acts 1:16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 1:20-21.)

2. Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.  

While we should not minimize the hard work of biblical interpretation, we also must maintain the principle of Scripture’s clarity.  All believers can read and understand the Word of God. The message of the Bible is clear to those who have an open heart. However, we should also recognize that not all passages of the Bible are equally clear, and so less clear passages of Scripture should be interpreted by relying on more clear passages of Scripture.  Individual parts of the Bible should always be understood in relation to the whole. (See Psalm 119:130, Matthew 13:9-16, and 2 Peter 3:15-16.)

3. Follow the basic hermeneutic method of observe, interpret, apply.  

The basic principles of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) are 1) Observation: What does the text say?  2) Interpretation: What does the text mean? 3) Application: How should it affect my life? In our excitement to bring the Bible’s power to our personal life, we should never skip over the critical steps of observation and interpretation.  In observation, we need to slow down and read it again for the first time. Notice how the passage is organized. Look for repeated words or themes. As we unpack the meaning with our interpretation, we need to take into account both the literary context and the historical context.  Then, we are ready to see how the original meaning relates to our contemporary context, and we can make powerful application of God’s Word to our lives.

4. Passages must be understood within their context.  

Context is essential when it comes to biblical interpretation.  We should be very careful of using a single verse to defend a point without understanding the original context.  The best way to determine the meaning of a word in the Bible is to see how it is used in the sentence. We should also consider that different authors may use words differently.  Each sentence must be interpreted in the context of its paragraph; after that, each paragraph must be understood in the whole book’s larger framework and overall purpose. 

5. Different literary genres must be interpreted differently.

As with any piece of literature, the genre must affect how it is read and interpreted.  The books of the Bible fall into four main categories:

  • History: The historical books are not just recording facts of history, they are telling the story with a purpose – to teach something about God had his redemption.  Be careful to discern what in the story is descriptive (i.e. describing what happened) and in what way it is prescriptive (i.e. prescribing how we should live). 
  • Poetry: When reading poetry, we must consider how the frequent use of imagery, repetition, and parallelism affects the meaning.  
  • Prophecy: Old Testament prophecies may have an initial fulfillment in the historical setting, but also a future, final fulfillment in the work of the Messiah.  Understanding this progressive nature of prophetic fulfillment means that all prophecy is in some sense Messianic. 
  • Epistle: When reading the epistles, we must remember that these letters were written to specific audiences dealing with specific circumstances.  In a real sense, we are simultaneously reading someone else’s mail and God’s Word to us! 

6. The Old Testament must be interpreted in light of fulfillment in Christ.  

We cannot fully understand the New Testament without the Old Testament.  Furthermore, the Old Testament is not just interesting history with some good moral lessons thrown in.  It is the story of God’s people that reaches its climax in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. We should follow the instruction and example of the New Testament authors and read the entire Old Testament in light of Christ.  To do this, we must first identify the meaning behind the central themes, characters, and symbols of the Old Testament. Then, we must discover how they are fulfilled in Christ. Finally, we can unpack how these truths relate to us because we are in Christ.  We should not take a shortcut from the passage to our lives without going through Christ! (See Luke 24:25-27, 24:44-47; Acts 3:22-24, 26:22-23; Romans 15:4; 2 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:15; and 1 Peter 1:10-12.)

7. Scripture must be interpreted under the Spirit’s guidance in the context of Christian community.  

The Bible must be studied with an open heart, eager for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Additionally, we should not try to interpret and apply the Bible in isolation. We should seek to humbly learn from the generations of believers that have come before us and those in our own community.  When, by God’s grace, we properly read, study, interpret, and apply the Word of God, it can change our lives! (See Luke 24:45; John 16:13; Acts 8:30-31, 18:26; 1 Corinthians 2:11-13; and Hebrews 4:12.)