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What Christians Should Know (#WCSK): How to Interpret the Bible

Updated on August 3, 2016

Introduction

Having an intelligent understanding of how to interpret the Bible impresses upon all Christians. Why? Because the Bible makes clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to be disciplined,[1] to read and study the Bible,[2] allow it to guide them,[3] to memorize it,[4] obey it,[5] and be able to clearly share the Word with other people.[6] In order to do these things, it becomes necessary to know how to interpret the Bible.

I will begin this lesson with one simple rule. So, if you extract nothing else from this hub, this is the key take home point.

[1] I Timothy 4:7

[2] Luke 2:46-52

[3] Psalm 119:105.

[4] Proverbs 22:17-19

[5] Hebrews 4:15

[6] Luke 19:10, John 4

The Rule for Biblical interpretation
The Rule for Biblical interpretation

How to interpret the Bible: Scripture interprets Scripture

So what does this mean? It means that the Bible contains more than 31,000 verses and all of these verses are inspired by God. So, whether you are reading one verse or ten, you cannot interpret one of them out of context of everything else. Why? Because Scripture interprets Scripture, and the whole interprets the part. This rule is validated in II Timothy 3:16 when Paul writes to Timothy the following:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (c.f. Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2).

This verse says all Scripture not some Scripture. This verse says all Scripture not just the one you hold close to your chest. This verse says all Scripture not just the one verse a person may find controversial. And, if we think about this logically, the Bible represents the full breadth of God’s revealed Word to us. God purposefully gave us His whole Word for a reason: to be taught, to correct false teaching and to train in righteousness. Shining a light on one part of the Bible while keeping everything else in the dark selectively examines a part of God’s Word while ignoring that same Word that instructs us to consider the whole.

And, as I already stated in my other hub on the Bible, not only is Scripture "inspired" or "God-breathed," but our interpretation of it is mediated by the Holy Spirit (c.f. II Peter 1:20-21) who imparts genuine understanding. So of course, a person who despises God will not receive this "inspiration" and gain profitable wisdom from the Scriptures.

Understanding what the Bible says is like putting a puzzle together: we study the parts but also have to look at the top of the puzzle box in order to know what the big picture is and how everything fits together. We cannot “force” puzzle pieces to fit where they do not belong—we have to follow the designed arrangement. We should study both the pieces and the finished picture. The fact of the matter is we ought not to shy away from embracing the whole counsel of God (c.f. Acts 20:27). The unifying theme of Scripture is Jesus Christ and God’s plan for redemption.

The trees (the puzzle pieces) make up the whole big picture that is the forest.
The trees (the puzzle pieces) make up the whole big picture that is the forest.

How to interpret the Bible: Scripture interprets Scripture (cont’d)

Indeed, there are some parts of the Bible that are not as clear as others. The apostle Peter tells us that some parts of the Bible are “hard to understand.”[1] Scripture interprets Scripture informs us that the more difficult passages have to be interpreted in light of clearer ones. The servant of God finds confidence in the harmony and internal consistency of Scripture when they allow God to interpret His own words with His other words. Truly, the Bible tells us that God is not the author of confusion (I Corinthians 14:33) so if there is a verse or a passage that seems confusing at first, the first place one ought to look are the Scriptures to obtain clarity and meaningful answers. In many situations, when the truth is hard to process many people unfortunately resort to two options: reject that truth outright as non-truth[2] or recognize the truth as such but suppress it.[3]

In many ways, although the Bible is a single book, it can often be considered a catalogue of many smaller books. That is, within the pages of the Bible we find many diverse authors (c.f. Hebrews 1:1), each of whom has a distinct personality, and these traits penetrate the words that are divinely inspired. So, for example, while the physician Luke (the author of Luke and Acts) writes using very technical and precise Greek and is detailed-oriented, David writes many Psalms (e.g. 51) using poetic and figurative language, and many of these Psalms are meant to be sung in adoration of God. The book of Isaiah is prophetic but is also very poetic. Clearly then, the way a person interprets an eyewitness account of what Jesus said and did will be interpreted differently than a poetic song of praise.

[1] II Peter 3:15-16

[2] Romans 1:18-19

[3] Romans 1:18-19

Scripture can also interpret our view of reality. Discover the power of God's Word that persuades your perception principle.

How to interpret the Bible: Exegesis vs. Eisegesis

A wise seminary professor of mine said that Biblical interpretation is about life, and your life invariably affects the way you interpret and “read” the Bible. That is, the life experiences that you have had subconsciously persuade what a Scripture will mean to you. So, if you are a revolutionary fighting for economic equality in South America, you may be persuaded to interpret the Bible through the lens of “liberation” with a preferential option for the poor. Or, if you are a woman reading the Bible and live in a country with oppressive gender rules, you may be persuaded to interpret the Bible through the lens of a “feminist.”

What all interpreters of the Bible must keep in mind is that there is a distinct difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis means extracting meaning from the text; eisegesis involves putting your own meaning into the text. Proper Bible interpretation never involves eisegesis as this is explicitly prohibited (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:19).

For those who seek more in-depth analysis on how to approach the Bible, consider the books at the end of this hub in "For Further Study."

Where do you go when you have a pressing Bible question?

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How to interpret the Bible: Literally or not?

God’s Word is to be taken literally, yet in that literal Biblical interpretation, there are figurative, descriptive, and prescriptive passages. Figurative passages use metaphor to illustrate a point (like Jesus telling a parable), descriptive passages tell what happened but don’t necessarily make a positive or negative command (like what happened during Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13), and prescriptive passages explicitly prescribe behavior (like the command not to covet; Exodus 20:17).

How to interpret the Bible: Context

So not only does the whole interpret the part, but context determines meaning. As the saying goes, “A text out of context is pretext.” When reading the Bible, one ought to ask what was said before it, what was said after it, and what is the meaning of the text in the context in which it was said. For example, it is true when I say that in the Bible the following statement appears: “There is no God.” But what is the context in which this is said? The full sentence of Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.” This whole verse exists in the context of Psalm 14 which speaks about the destructive thinking and harm “evildoers” demonstrate and how God is the righteous author of salvation. All of this coincides perfectly in the grand arc of the Bible.

How to interpret the Bible: Principles vs. Methods

I’ve always liked how Mark Driscoll (On the New Testament, 2008) explains principles versus methods. He writes:

How to interpret the Bible: Progressive Revelation

Progressive revelation basically means that “In the beginning” God did not reveal everything He had to say all at once. Rather, He did it progressively. What this means for the topic of Bible interpretation is simple: latter revelations supplant prior revelations. For example, the Book of Leviticus is filled with explicit prescriptions on what people should do if they violate a part of God’s Law. Typically, the penalty for doing something wrong (sin) involved a form of atonement—for example, animal sacrifice or something drastic like death of the offender. Leviticus is located in the Old Testament, which contains the “Law” or the 600+ plus rules given to the Israelites to follow. And what happens in the New Testament? Christ revealed that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Jesus then died on the Cross and paid the final, ultimate price for all sin for everyone.[1] So, as far as sin is concerned, the New Testament revelation supersedes the prior revelation in the Old Testament. So, because of Jesus, there is never a reason for any person to atone for their own sin or force someone else to atone for theirs. This point is crucial because if there ever was a huge misunderstanding of what the Bible aims to reveal, it involves what in the Old Testament is supplanted by the New. Typically, when skeptics and critics pick verses to demonize the Bible, they quickly jump to the Old Testament not cognizant that many of the stipulations have already been fulfilled through Christ.

How to interpret the Bible: What happens when the Bible contradicts itself?

Nothing happens because the Bible does not contradict itself. Allow me to explain.

The great theologian Augustine once said[2] (see graphic below):

[1] Hebrews 10:11-14

[2] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Anti-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956).

How to interpret the Bible: What happens when the Bible contradicts itself?

God is not only truthful, but is unable to lie, and therefore never contradicts Himself because the words He reveals to us are refined and tested.[1] God never says anything hastily without thought nor is He divergent from His reliable character.[2] Furthermore, God is all-knowing (omniscient) and His “mind” transcends ours.[3] Hence, God knows many things that we do not.[4] Our human perception is finite and thus unable to see what is infinite. The apostle Paul describes this reality as if we are looking into a dim mirror.[5] My point is that what may seem contradictory on a superficial level entices the Bible reader to keep investigating and dig deeper. With more profound understanding, a verse, an idea, or statement that seemed to originally be in opposition will be revealed for what it truly is, thereby eradicating the apparent conflict.

A reasonable approach to use when it comes to resolving apparent Bible dilemmas is a scientific one. In the arena of science, not having an answer to a problem or having seemingly divergent evidence persuades further investigation, not to throw science away. This is why when a patient comes into my office and has a problem that seems complicated, the responsible solution isn’t to kick the patient out or to deny that the patient really has symptoms. It’s to start asking more questions and pursue more intensive investigation. If a scientist “quit” whenever he or she encountered something they didn’t “get,” we would all still be in caves. When it comes to resolving Bible difficulties, we ought to follow the same approach—that which is difficult or mysterious is not irrevocably an inconsistency or utterly unexplainable, but is the prompt to faithfully seek, study, and learn. It is through this process that faithful students of the Word will be rewarded with knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

[1] II Samuel 7:28, Hebrews 6:18

[2] Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 30:5-6

[3] Isaiah 55:9

[4] Deuteronomy 29:29

[5] I Corinthians 13:9

For Further Study

Henrietta C. Mears, What the Bible is All About (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2007).

J. Scott Duvall and John Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995).

Walter Bruggemann, The Bible Makes Sense Revised Edition (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003).

Share your insights with others on reliable sources that have helped you get through tough Bible questions.

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    • Dr CHE Sadaphal profile image
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      CH Elijah Sadaphal 16 months ago from New York, NY

      I am glad what you have digested is having positive impact. It's always very comforting to hear about all those diligent believers who take Bible study seriously. The fact is, most people nowadays do not read the Word for themselves. Please consider visiting wcsk.org. There you will find even more in-depth Bible study lessons and the WCSK podcast. The lessons there are much more in-depth and I adopted (simplified) a select few of them for Hubpages. All the best.

    • The Stages Of ME profile image

      The Stages Of ME 16 months ago

      Love Love Love your writings and listened to your video. I have one main comment, Thank You for responding to God's call to share the good news. I just completed a year long study in revelation through Bible Study Fellowship, it was so refreshing to study God's word within its complete context. I was poured into and it assist in my then pouring into others. I feel your work will do the same for many.