By Diane Bucknell
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”2 Timothy 3:16-17
William Tyndale (1494-1536), the first man to ever print the New Testament in the English language taunted a papist contemporary saying, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do”.
Today the average person can adequately study the Bible without knowing Greek and Hebrew or having a seminary education. God's word is sufficient for all of our spiritual needs but there are a few essential prerequisites we need in order to fully benefit from it.
- First, we must know the Author. That is, we must have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Understanding the deep truths presented in Scripture can’t be accomplished by mere intellectual muscle. If you're not sure that your sins have been forgiven click HERE.
- It is essential to believe that the Bible was inspired by God and is without error in the original autographs (manuscripts) . For a better understanding of how we got the Bible and why we can trust it check out our 5 part series on "How We Got Our Bible"
- The Bible must be read carefully, prayerfully, and obediently.
Studying the Bible
Part 1 (HERE) of this series suggests some helpful study tools we can use and most of them can be found online.
If you haven't done it yet, memorize the books of the Bible – and if you’re as forgetful as I am you’ll need to refresh your memory periodically. There are many reading plans - some read the whole Bible every year while others like me don’t like to read that fast. Some suggest reading through the Old Testament yearly alongside a thorough study of a New Testament book. Whatever plan you choose, the aim is to develop a habit of studying that will deepen your relationship with Christ. When it comes to interpretation however, there are some important principles that we must abide by if we’re to get the correct meaning, and this is the art and science called hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics: Rules For Interpreting the Bible
We believe in the grammatical-historical-contextual method of interpreting Scripture which is based on a set of hermeneutical principles. When we talk about grammatical we’re referring to the words, their meanings, the sentence structure, the interaction with the original language, ect. By historical we’re speaking of things like: Who wrote it? Why did they write it? When did they write it? Who did they write it to? What was the cultural context? Was it written to Israel or the Church? By contextual, we mean the context the word or verse is used in as it relates to both the immediate passages surrounding it and also to the whole book.
Since this article focuses on hermeneutics and some might be confused about the differences between Hermeneutics, Exegesis and Homiletics, here are some brief definitions.
- Hermeneutics: The rules for interpreting Scripture.
- Exegesis: The actual process of interpreting Scripture in order to produce exposition.
- Exposition: Is the result of your exegesis. Expository preaching and teaching usually consists of identifying the theme of a passage and then demonstrating it by several lines of reason from that passage.
- Homiletics: The crafting and presentation of the exposition.
Hermeneutics can be further defined as the rules for interpreting Scripture while Exegesis is the actual interpretation of Scripture. Simply put, exegesis would be like “playing the game” and hermeneutics would be equivalent to the “rule book” for playing the game.
“As a theological discipline hermeneutics is the science of the correct interpretation of the Bible….It stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game. …The rules are not the game, and the game is meaningless without the rules. Hermeneutics proper is not exegesis, but exegesis is applied to hermeneutics” (1) Bernard Ramm
Robert L. Thomas explains some of the confusion over definitions of hermeneutics brought about by “revisionist” hermeneutics which began in the 1970’s.
“Changes in hermeneutics have coincided with changes in evangelicalism. … Recent hermeneutical trends have forced evangelical interpreters to choose between two hermeneutical systems that oppose each other in dramatic ways. The two systems are incapable of meaningful dialogue with each other because they use differing rule books. It’s as though the [LA] Lakers basketball team were to meet the [LA] Dodgers baseball team in an athletic event. Rules for the two sports differ so profoundly that no meaningful competition could result. Utter confusion would ensue. The same happens when evangelicals gather to discuss hermeneutics. There is utter confusion because they share no commonly accepted hermeneutical procedures among themselves.” (2)
On that note here’s a list of some essential rules for sound Biblical interpretation:
1. Scripture Must Be Interpreted Literally
We’ve always abided by the principle, “If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” We want to read the Bible the same way we would read a letter from a friend. We’re looking for the writer’s intended meaning and don’t want to draw out of their words some ridiculous allegory such as John MacArthur humorously illustrated in his "Little Bo-Peep Method" .
Ramm points out that to interpret Scripture literally is to
“understand a document the best one can in the context of the normal, usual, and customary, tradition” (3)
2. Doctrinal Unity
This principle protects us from false doctrine. When we come to difficult passages we go with the whole teaching of Scripture on the subject. For instance, passages such as Philippians 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and James 2:17 “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” are used by cults to teach a works based salvation. But the principle of Doctrinal (or Theological) Unity takes into consideration the fact that the entire body of Scripture combined overwhelmingly teaches otherwise, therefore there must be another meaning to these passages.
3. Scripture Is Its Own Authority
The authority of interpretation does not come from ourselves. The popular trend of asking "What does this passage mean to you?" is a sure prescription for doctrinal disaster. Equally dangerous is the belief that religious institutions have the final authority in interpreting Scripture. Rather, it is from within the Scriptures themselves that we have the means to interpret them.
“obscure passages in Scripture must give way to clear passages….The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it possessed the mind of Christ and the mind of the Spirit in its teaching magisterium so that it could render obscure doctrines clear. The Reformers rejected the claim of the [RCC] that it had the gift of grace and illumination to know what the Holy Scripture taught. In place of an appeal to the teaching magisterium of the Church, the Reformers proclaimed that Scripture interprets Scripture” (4)
That is, the words and sentences must be properly understood. This is where the use of words studies such as Strong’s and Vines come in . (See Part 1)
A. What are the verses before and after it saying?
This is so important because we can easily assume popular evangelical interpretations. For example: Matthew 18:20- “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” is often interpreted to mean that there's a special kind of presence of God whenever 2 or more Christians get together, as though His presence is somehow diminished when we're alone . But the context (vs 15-20) is speaking of church discipline wherein God's authority is present in the mutual action taken by the church to discipline the unrepentant brother. Similarly, I Corinthian 16:9 states: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” which if often taken to mean that we should take good care of our physical bodies because the Holy Spirit lives in it, but the context is really referring to fleeing sexual immorality.
Other questions include - What is the book and its theme? Is it Old or New Testament? How does the verse or passage relate to the entire Scripture? etc.
B. Cross referencing
“grammatical interpretation takes into consideration parallel passages or cross references…what is said in one part of Scripture may illuminate what is said in another part of Scripture.” (5)
The best Bible study tool for this is The Treasury For Scripture Knowledge.
C. Historical and cultural
When was it written? Where did this take place? What were the issues being addressed? What was the cultural setting of the time? etc. Reference tools that are helpful would be Bible maps and encyclopedias and the works of early historians such Eusebius and Josephus.
Once the ground rules are established we’re ready to begin the actual exegesis of the passage. This process includes reading the passage numerous times, outlining, identifying primary and secondary clauses, identifying important words to look up in the original language, identifying doctrinal teachings, consulting commentaries, etc. But, this is a post for another time.
Acknowledgement: I want to thank my husband Robert Bucknell for assisting me with this article as he has with many of my posts.
1. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Texbook of Hermeneutics by Bernard Ramm; Baker Book House; 1970; pg 11
2. Evangelical Hermeneutics by Robert Thomas: Kregel; 2002; Pg 17, 19
3. Ramm: ibid: pg 121
4. Ramm: ibid: pg 104-105
5. Ramm; ibid. pg.14