When some leaders questioned Jesus about a topic from the Scriptures, Jesus chastised them, saying that they were mistaken, that they were not understanding the Scriptures or the power of God (Matthew 22:29). Jesus’s words remind of us how important it is to base our thinking, our understanding, and even our questions on the proper understanding of the Scriptures and the power of God. If we are to understand well, we need to know how to interpret the Bible.
First, we recognize that the Bible is God’s God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) communication to humanity through specific men whom God’s Spirit moved so that they would write God’s words (2 Peter 1:20-21). These men wrote in specific contexts, during particular historical times, and they used specific languages – namely Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. God used people and languages to give us the message He wants us to hear and to heed. God used nouns and verbs, and the basic tools of language. He used words and relationships of words (grammar), literary devices, figures of speech – and many tools to help us understand His message. By using these tools God showed that they were suitable vehicles for His communication to humanity. Because He used the tools of normal human communication, our task of interpreting the Bible is not that different from understanding any other communication. The unique challenges that interpreting the Bible presents is that it was written long ago, in languages we don’t normally use today, and to people with very different cultures who lived in different times. Because of these gaps (language, historical, cultural, etc.) we have to be very cautious to interpret the Bible carefully so that we aren’t making mistakes like reading our own opinions or ideas into the text. The task of the person who seeks to properly interpret the Bible is to understand what the Author intended by His communication. We need to draw out (exegete) the meaning of the text and not read into (eisegete) the text the meaning that we think might or should be there. The Author determines the meaning of the message, and it is our job to understand that message as He intended it. To interpret the Bible well, we need to be willing to receive what the Author has said. We also need to recognize our responsibilities. God communicated to the original audience and they were responsible to take action. What actions ought we to take? And how do we determine how our actions might be different from that of the original audience? How can we be doers of the word, and not just hearers only (James 1:22)? How to interpret the Bible is not only about understanding it well, it is about practicing it well. Let’s start with a simple scientific method for interpreting the Bible. Let’s cover the basics first.
How to Interpret the Bible: A Scientific Method
In order to understand the Bible, of course we first need to read it. We ought to be immersed in it. If it is truly God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21), and if it is a light to our path (Psalm 119:105), and if it is how we discover the wisdom of God (Proverbs 2:5-6), then we ought to read it…a lot. Paul tells us we ought to let the word of Christ richly dwell in us (Colossians 3:16). If we aren’t in His word, and His word isn’t in us, it will certainly be much more difficult to interpret well.
Step #1: Observe (Ask Questions, Accumulate Data)
As we are reading the entire context, we need to observe. Ask questions. In particular, the who, what, where, when, how, and why questions are very helpful. Who wrote it? Who is talking? To whom? What are they saying? What are the topics? What words and phrasing are being used? What are key ideas? Where is being talked about? Heaven? Earth? Hell? Somewhere else? When is it being written? Is it talking about past, present, or future? How are things described? Is methodology discussed? Why is the author writing? Why is the message important or needed? Why are particular details included or excluded? These are just a few of the questions we ought to be asking as we observe what the text says. We are being good detectives, asking questions and accumulating data. We need to observe everything we can in the context and then begin to arrive at a hypothesis or theory of the passage’s meaning.
Step #2: Interpret (Arrive at the Hypothesis)
Once we have read the passage in its context and asked as many questions as we can think of about the passage, we need to consider the data (from the text) that we have accumulated and arrive at a hypothesis about the meaning of the text. Following normal communication principles, we should expect to arrive at a single, contextual meaning (if there are multiple meanings, then there isn’t really a discernible meaning, because who could ever determine how many other meanings there are and what they might be). Based on the nouns and verbs, and the data we have observed, what is the Author saying? What is the basic meaning of what is said? What is communicated in the context and in the individual passage we are considering? In answering these questions we are doing the work of interpreting the Bible.
The key is to interpret the Bible well, which means we are recognizing what the Author intended the reader to understand. This approach to understanding and interpretation is often referred to as the grammatical-historical (or the literal grammatical-historical) approach. It is literal in the sense that it recognizes normative or literal communication, and it is grammatical-historical in the sense that it recognizes the communication through the rules of the languages used and in the historical context in which the communication was accomplished. There are, of course, some disagreements that may arise about what the interpretation should be in a given passage. However, as long as we are allowing the text to drive our interpretation and as long as we are not reading our own ideas into the text (eisegesis) we have a much better opportunity for a correct interpretation of understanding of what the Author has communicated. And that is the ultimate goal of interpreting the Bible: understanding what God has said through the human authors who did the writing. Once we have our theory on the meaning of the passage, we need to test that theory.
Step #3: Correlate or Verify (Test the Hypothesis)
We have read the context and passage, we have asked questions and accumulated data, we have formulated our theory of what the passage is communicating. Now we need to test our theory to see if it is a good one or not. The best way to test an interpretation is by comparing our understanding of the passage with what is said in the immediate context, then in the broader context, and then in more distant contexts. For example, let’s say we are studying Ephesians 2 and we are trying to understand what Paul means by saying we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). We might look at what Paul said in the rest of his letter about these topics. Then we might look at his other letters and see what he discusses there, and then we might look beyond that to other New Testament writers and see what they have to say. Then we might examine the Old Testament writings to see if they offer a similar or dissimilar conclusion. It is worth noting that the New Testament writers do some of this work for us as they constantly reference the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) in order to show the unity of Scripture, and to demonstrate the origins of the ideas about which they are writing.
If this contextual correlation or verification process shows some flaws in our theory, then we start over: read, observe, revise our hypothesis, correlate and verify again. Rinse and repeat until we arrive at an interpretation consistent with the data in the passage and the context.
Step #4: Apply and Contextualize
Once we are confident (by contextual correlation and verification) that we have arrived at an accurate interpretation of the passage, we need to understand how to put the passage into practice. If all Scripture was given so that we might be equipped (2 Timothy 3:17), then we need to make sure we are using the equipment correctly.
It is important then that we recognize that there is a distinction between us and the original audience. For example, when the time was approaching for Jesus to meet with His disciples during the Passover, He commanded two of them to go get a donkey and its colt (Matthew 21:1-2). Are we likewise supposed to go get a donkey and a colt and bring them to Jesus? Of course not. There are often different applications for the original audience and for us. For this reason, we will use the distinguishing terms primary and secondary application. The primary application was what the initial audience did or was expected to do. The secondary application pertains to how we ought to put the passage or principle in the passage into practice.
The meaning of the passage does not change – we have already recognized what the passage means. But there can be many ways a passage can be applied, particularly in secondary application. Some call this contextualization – the idea of bringing a passage or principle into our contemporary setting in order to apply it correctly to our situation. Contextualization is very helpful as long as we don’t read our current situation back into the meaning of the passage. We ought to contextualize the passage as part of our applying the passage, not as part of understanding the interpretation or meaning of the passage.
Some recognize the difference by using the terms meaning and significance. Meaning is what the passage said and the Author intended. Significance pertains to how the passage should be applied. In other words, it is important to find the single contextual meaning of a passage and then look to apply it well. Asking what a passage means to me is a recipe for error. The passage means what it means whether I take it that way or not. Meaning is based on nouns and verbs (and the other data observed in the passage). Significance, on the other hand can be different for different audiences. Each audience might contextualize the passage in order to understand how the principle(s) in the passage might be put into practice in their own context. Regardless of which terms we might prefer to identify these distinctions, we do need to recognize that the distinctions are there. The Author communicated to an original audience, and then allowed us to read that communication. We need to put that communication into practice, as He intended, and not go beyond that.
God has so graciously communicated to us in His word. We ought to cherish that communication and desire to learn from it more than we want anything else (e.g., Proverbs 3). While it is important for us to want to know what God has said, He designed it so that understanding requires diligent and careful attention to His word. That is not to say that only elite scholars can understand it – that is not the case at all. On the contrary, God revealed Himself in the common languages of the day, using normative human communication tools. Therefore, we can understand what He said by recognizing and understanding those communication tools. We need to be diligent in our observations of what His word says. We need to interpret the Bible carefully based on those observations of what is in the text. We need to correlate and verify carefully to be certain of what the Bible is actually saying. Finally, we need to diligently apply the text properly, putting into practice what He intends for us to do. We need to be faithful doers of the word. To be that, we need to be like Ezra, who sought to learn what God said, to do it faithfully, and then to teach it (Ezra 7:10).