Principles of Bible Interpretation
Louise, I don't need to
tell you that the Bible is the most important book in the world for us. It
reveals the God who created us and tells us how he wants us to live. It is
a book reflecting the love of God telling us how to have the greatest joys
life can know and feel the deepest fulfillment of life and achieve the great
potential that God has put in us. We Baptists believe that each person must
interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That is scary, but letting
someone else tell us what to believe is scarier. How important it is, then,
that we have principles of interpretation, guides for understanding God’s
The meaning in a verse
or passage often is not on the surface in the words we are reading, for
usually there is a great deal behind the words of the passage that we need
to understand. Words are vehicles for expressing thought; it is the thought
we want to capture. My great theology professor, W. T. Connor, expressed it
simply: "The Bible doesn't mean what it says, it means what it means." Upon
reflection, we realize that is true of everything ever written or spoken.
Here are a few principles of interpretation that help us find the meanings
Understand the writer's purpose for writing.
what the writer wanted his readers to know comes best from
understanding why he wanted them to know it. Discerning that
purpose may be the most important thing about our understanding the
Lev. 18:22 and 20:13
say, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an
abomination." The writer says "Don't" because it is an
"abomination." In the Old Testament "abomination" describes practices
that interfere with a pure worship of God, particularly idolatrous
practices. The writer's purpose was to address the need for undivided
devotion in worship; his focus was not on moral values.
Understand what the writer wanted his readers to understand.
The words of the
Bible are not directed to us. Do we read and with great
earnestness ask What is Paul saying to me? The answer: Nothing. He was
not writing to us. We need to know what Paul was saying to his readers,
what he wanted them to understand. From that we can learn what principles
God wants us to understand and live by.
New Testament scholar
H. E. Dana, in Searching the Scriptures, says, “The ultimate
object which we seek in interpretation is the thought in the mind of the
New Testament writer which sought expression in the written text. We
should seek to discover the one meaning which the writer had in mind, and
then apply that meaning to our moral and religious experience.”[i]
This is a basic fact about the whole Bible, and it involves several
(a) The writer’s
meaning comes out of his background. The "inspiration" of the Bible
does not mean God dictated the words. He let the authors of the books write
out of their own consciousness and experience, using their own words (for
example, the Greek of some NT writers was atrocious. Isn’t it wonderful how
unimportant that was for God’s using them!). The Biblical author can write
only out of his own culture, understandings and presuppositions.
Application: In the
century when the Leviticus rules were given, the writer knew nothing of gays
or lesbians, unknown until the 19th century. He was writing about the only
kind of people his culture knew about – we would call them heterosexual.
(b) The writer’s
meaning is determined by the background and situation of those to whom he
wrote. Paul’s letter to Philemon is an obvious illustration of this.
Everything written to people who lived thousands of years ago had in mind
their culture, circumstances and needs.
Leviticus 18 and 20 were written the Children of Israel were preparing to go
into the Promised Land where the heathen practiced same-gender sex in their
religious rituals. God wanted his people to be free of anything that
adulterated their worship of him, and the selfish lust of (heterosexuals)
practicing same-gender sex was antithetical to devotion to God (See Lev.
18:24,25). Principle: our worship must be in undivided devotion to God.
(c) Our understanding
of the writer’s meaning is colored by our own culture, experiences,
understandings, presuppositions, etc. If you and I read the same thing, not
just the Bible, our interpretations will often be different just because of
our different backgrounds and experiences. So many times I have stood in
the vestibule after a service to speak to people as they left the church and
had someone comment on something I had said in the sermon, only to think to
myself, Where in the world did they get that? I didn’t say anything like
that! We must try to keep our own background and culture out of our
interpretations and to be objective.
immorality (lust) in the Bible is in lists along with greed, envy, lying and
gossip and is apparently neither better nor worse than those sins. For
many, it is our culture’s influence, not the Bible, that makes same-gender
sex far the worst of those sins. (Now, does the list mean that lust is not
very bad or that greed, envy, lying and gossip are just as evil in God’s
sight as lust? That is a serious question: How does God judge sin? The way
we do? Appendix C below attempts to say a word about this.)
the context. Nothing should ever be taken out of its whole
Dr. Dana says, “No
single sentence or verse should ever be interpreted independent of its
logical connections. Interpretation should deal with whole sections, each
section being considered from two angles: its connection with… and its
contribution to the general progress of thought.”[ii]
verses in Leviticus are in a section of the book called the "Holiness
Code"; it is rules for the Children of Israel to follow to be uniquely
God's people, in contrast to their idolatrous neighbors. The verse is to
be understood as a part of this Holiness Code. (a discussion is in
Understand a verse or passage in the light of the Bible as a whole.
A careless reading of
the words of scripture frequently seems to show contradictory statements.
Often there are special depths of truth in such scriptures to be found in
serious study. Particularly do we need to weigh the inferences we decide
a scripture has against the entire teaching of the Bible.
say that God's command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen.
1:28) means God's plan is for every man and woman to marry and have
children. Paul appears to
reinforce this by saying, "Each man should have his own wife and each
woman her own husband" (I Cor. 7:2). But a few verses later Paul tells
the unmarried to remain single. What really does God want? The entire
Bible points to beauty in both marriage and singleness.
Distinguish between Bible principles and rules.
religion is not about following external rules in order to be judged
righteous; it is about building an inner life in the likeness of God's
greatest revelation, Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a rulebook. The
Bible as a whole is primarily a history of the Children of Israel and then
of the New Testament church. In that history the writers frequently set
out rules to help the Children of Israel and the New Testament Christians
in their thoughts and actions, but those rules obviously related to the
culture in which they were living. Those hundreds of rules in both
Testaments are seldom applicable to the 21st century because our culture
is entirely different. When we go to church, we don't "greet one another
with a holy kiss" as Paul five times told first century churches to do
(e.g., Rom. 16:16). And doesn't the Bible tell Christian women to have
long hair? No, the Bible told first century Christian women to have long
So how does the Bible
help us? We find those eternal principles that are in the history and
behind the rules, and we live by them Commentators speak of temporary
cultural rules and eternal transcultural principles. The principles are
our guides. Rules that helped one culture to follow those principles need
to be replaced for our culture. We express our love for our brothers and
sisters in Christ (the principle) by a hearty handshake and smile or a
gentle hug (a suitable rule for us today).
I must point out that
those who insist that every verse of the Bible is to be followed, which
includes many obsolete rules, always ignore scores of Bible rules they
don’t want to follow. If the Bible is a rulebook, it is a sin for a woman
to wear gold or pearls (I Tim. 2:9), and we should stone to death anyone
who eats a cheeseburger! (See below)
How do we move from the first-century Bible to today?
To begin with, we
remember that we have the Holy Spirit promised to us for this task (John
14:26, 16:13); we must always ponder the text and/or the subject in prayer
to the Holy Spirit for guidance. We will always encounter many things the
Bible does not speak of, and it is the Holy Spirit’s desire to impart
God’s truth to us in any age. Any individual’s spiritual growth through
learning more truth about God means the Holy Spirit has given a new
revelation to that person.
still follow John Wesley’s pattern for seeking God’s new revelation for
the current time: consider (a) scripture, (b) tradition—how Christian
churches have interpreted and applied scripture through history, (c)
reason—Wesley thought religion and reason went together, that any
irrational religion was false religion, and (d) experience—what produces
Christ likeness in individual lives.
All of that is looked
at through an all-encompassing test: Christ is the perfect revelation of
God, and Christ is the final and supreme criterion by which our concepts
are to be judged and shaped. The principles he taught and exemplified as
unchanging and eternal have to become our conclusions about the Bible’s
message for our lives. Commentators agree, “We must constantly hold the
interpretations … up against the person of Christ, who is the final
criterion for valid understanding.”[iii]
With great insight, Martin
Luther told us to let the whole Bible lead us to Jesus Christ and then let
Jesus Christ lead us back to the whole Bible.
We see the
relative importance of the Bible to the life of Christ when we realize
that those Christians who were said to have turned the world upside down
for Christ in the first century (Acts 17:6) did not have a New Testament.
They had only (!) a life-transforming experience with Jesus Christ
and were living like him to the best of their understanding of him. (Do
you suppose if we didn’t have a New Testament to wrangle over and had only
such an experience with Jesus Christ and were trying to become “little
Christs” that we would do better at turning our world upside down for
him?) Surely we can see that the important thing is to weigh every
understanding of revelation—scripture, tradition, reason or experience—in
the scales of Jesus Christ.
All of us have many
areas in our thinking and practices that need more understanding of the
way of Christ. We must pray to achieve and then strive to achieve more
likeness to him so the Holy Spirit can continue to give us new
revelation. And serious study of the Bible must be a priority.
H. E. Dana, Searching the Scriptures: A Handbook of New Testament