Basic Bible Interpretation Helps
Although Thrive 316 is intended primarily for spiritual and personal growth rather than deep theological study, it is still important to remember sound principles of Bible interpretation. Thus, we have provided some simple guidelines to help you as you seek to understand the meaning behind various Bible passages.
- This is not intended to sound dismissive or trite, but it is much easier for committed Christians to understand the Bible. Jesus promised in John 16:13, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” When it comes to the truth of scripture, there is no greater guide for honest and sincere believers than the Holy Spirit. It is important to approach all texts prayerfully and reverently as you seek to discern God’s truth.
- Remember that scripture is inspired by God, inerrant, and meant to be understood. God gave scripture to communicate with his people, and most scripture is plain and obvious in its interpretation. Simply reading and reflecting on most texts (in context) will lead to conclusions obvious to most reasonable people.
- Interpret scripture with scripture.
- Compare scriptures with other scriptures dealing with similar themes and ideas. Seek consistency, harmony, and resolution between passages. How do they reflect on one another? How do they reinforce one another? How do they build on one another?
- Seek larger themes, narratives or movements within scripture. This is really the business of theology, and especially orthodoxy. The guidelines of orthodoxy are important, not because someone arbitrarily decided what is orthodox, but because the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the incarnation, the atonement, salvation by grace through faith, the inspiration of God’s Word, and the return of Christ all represent established and broadly recognized grand narratives of scripture. Thus, to deviate from orthodoxy is to ignore major biblical themes, and violate a primary principle of Bible interpretation.
- Use clear passages to interpret unclear passages. Sometimes we come across a text that is not clear and may seem to support a variety of interpretations. For example, James indicates that “Faith without works is dead.” Does this mean that our works save us? The passage is not really clear. However, when held up to Ephesians 2:8-9, among other texts, we can better understand what James was intending to say and not to say.
- Understand the concept of progressive revelation. The Old Testament is best understood in light of the New Testament. The coming of Christ is a fulfillment of Old Testament promises and enables us to better comprehend key ideas and doctrines in the Old Testament.
- Context is key for sound interpretation.
- Textual context – How does the passage fit within the flow of the chapter and book? Read the verses before and after. How does the text work within the logic and movement of the larger textual context? What is the genre of the book in question and how does that genre impact how it is to be read? Who is the author, what is he like, and why did he write this book? Who is the audience, what is their circumstance, and why was this book written to them?
- Theological context – How does the passage fit within the testament and entire Bible? What themes and/or larger narratives does it address?
- Historical and cultural context – What is happening within the nation and people in the passage at this time? How do the politics and events of the day reflect on the passage? How do period views on gender, family, religion, power, politics, etc. influence the reading of the passage? Does the passage refer to any customs or practices or values or worldviews? Remember, this passage was written in a different place, in a different time, in a different culture, in a different language, and in a different worldview than ours. Understanding the differences unlocks our understanding and provides great insight.
- Linguistic context – What words are used and what do they mean in their original languages. Does the grammar or structure of the text give insight to its meaning? For example, 1 Peter 1:3-12 is one sentence in the original Greek. However, 1 Peter uses a very formal Greek that is difficult to translate with regards to structure and its possessive relationships. Our English language translations have made it simpler for us to digest, but it’s critical to understand that these things can impact how a text is meant to be read.
- Finally, remember there is a difference between truth and application; although, they are undoubtedly related. People today often infer that interpretation is arbitrary. We often hear, “Well that’s your interpretation,” implying that my take is a good as yours because all interpretation is arbitrary anyway. This position is naïve and dangerous because it not only denies the intent and power of God’s Word, but it denies accountability and allows for the misuse of scripture. Mutually exclusive ideas cannot be true about the same scripture, and to insist this is so is to fall into the trap of relativism. God intends for scripture to communicate truth, and that truth is accessible. As honest and humble Christians we should seek to discover the intent and truth of God’s reveal word.
While the truth of a particular scripture may be singular, its application may be varied. This is how a pastor can teach on several different themes using a single text while still holding to one interpretation of the text. Likewise, two people may read the same text, both having a correct understanding of the text, and take away completely different applications. This is evidence of the Holy Spirit using the text to guide individuals in unique and personal ways. This is one of the premises of Thrive 316: the Holy Spirit can and will use scripture to convict and guide individuals towards Christ and Christlikeness.