5: Interpretation of Scripture
There is nothing "afresh" about the contents of this page which
is simply noting the rules that scholars through the ages have formulated
to help keep us on the right tracks when we are interpeting the Bible.
We include it simply because every generation needs to be aware of these
things if they are to avoid diverging from the teaching of the Bible.
have not created a contents list or links to parts of the page because
there would be too many (There are 16 'rules' below and a number of them
= the study of biblical interpretation
we come to the Bible we need to :
OBSERVE it - note what we are reading
INTERPRET IT - find what it means
CHECK it - relate it to the rest of Scripture
APPLY it - consider how it applies to my life today.
of Interpretation might be said to be
General Principles - dealing with the overall subject
Grammatical Principles - understanding words & sentences
i.e. the text,
Historical Principles - political, economic, cultural settings
i.e. highlighting the background
Theological Principles - about the formation of Christian
doctrine and beliefs.
the following we will start from the general and then move on through
grammatical, historical and finally doctrinal. Because the divisions are
sometimes unclear we will not divide up the rules of interpretation.
Assume the Bible is authoritative
We let the Bible decide, not tradition.
We believe it is the inspired word of God - God breathed - 2 Tim 3:16
Every Christian has the right to interpret Scripture for themselves
Once in history the church maintained it alone had the right to interpret
Scripture to avoid error. The reformers of the Reformation challenged
this and said every man's conscience had to be free to believe what
However when private interpretation leads counter to historic meaning
that men through the centuries have concluded, a warning light should
Faith is required for understanding
The unsaved person will not understand fully [1 Cor. 2:14].
Only the saved person, with the indwelling Holy Spirit, can come to
God will help us understand as we turn to Him for help.
The purpose of Scripture is to change us not just increase our knowledge
The purpose of Scripture is to teach, rebuke, correct and train us to
be righteous [2 Tim 3:16], to do good [2 Tim 3:17]
Scripture can show us the way to go [Psa 119:105] but for it to have
value it is imperative that we obey it [Matt 7:24]
In seeking to apply Scripture we need to become aware of development
of Scripture, cultural applications etc.
Sacrifices were commanded in Leviticus for Israel [e.g. Lev. 7:1,2]
but Jesus became THE sacrifice so we no longer have to do that [Heb.
Read the Bible like any other Book
Read the language in the same way you would any other book
Words are to be translated literally to mean what they normally mean
in the English language, except when the writer is using them in a particular
way to convey a particular meaning.
temple in Jn 2:19-21: temple means the building, but Jesus also uses
the term to mean his own body.
This is not to say that we always take the meaning literally, e.g.
where figurative language is used (see later).
Let Scripture interpret Scripture
Understanding of a verse or passage is to be checked by meaning of the
Bible as a whole.
No passage to be interpreted so as to be in conflict with what taught
If two interpretations are possible, and one is in harmony with rest
of Scripture and one goes against the rest, ignore the conflicting interpretation.
If two passages appear to conflict, study to see the harmony.
Interpret Personal Experience by Scripture not the other way round
Faith says we believe what God says, then check our experience against
Again and again “God said” and therefore we are to believe
We don't believe because we work it out by experience but because God
Narrative (history) is authoritative only when supported by a command
Doctrine is not to be formed by narrative alone.
Narratives only can be used to form doctrine if they are confirmed by
Behaviour is not necessarily example to be followed and
much behaviour is not to be followed.
David committed adultery - we are not to
Solomon got cynical in old age - we are not to
Some behaviour is a good example but we aren't necessarily to
Jesus, the perfect man, walked everywhere but when he rode used a
donkey - perfectly good for his times, but we're not called to follow
Jesus remained single, God's will for him, but we're not all called
to follow that or there would be no next generation!
Example can be a help if you feel God is leading you that way
If we feel God is calling us to remain single, Jesus' example indicates
that that is a viable lifestyle (but not for all).
Reading Jesus' getting up early to pray, may lead us to feel God is
calling us to follow that example (but not make it into a rule for
Where Scripture doesn't bring a command, we are not to lay a rule on
We are not to turn narrative example into a general rule for all unless
the narrative example simply backs up or confirms teaching passages.
The believer is free to do anything that the Bible doesn't prohibit,
i.e. all things are lawful unless specifically prohibited
starting up a Sunday school
build a new church building
Yet we need to observe that although that is true, not all things are
helpful to others [1 Cor 8:9,13]
Interpret words in harmony with their meaning at the time of the author
Background knowledge of the original can be helpful
“love” in the Greek could mean “wholesome, complete love”, the love
of God (agapao Jn 3:16), or “friendship or brotherly love”
or “tender affection” (phileo Jn 12:25). There is also eros
love or sexual love.
The word should be interpreted in relation to its sentence and context.
faith in Gal 1:23 means “the doctrine of the Gospel”
faith in Rom 14:23 means “conviction that this is God's will for you”
world in Jn 3:16 means “all human beings”
world in Acts 17:24 means “all of natural creation”
world in 1 Jn 2:15,16 means “the system of godless human thinking”
Interpret a passage in harmony with it's context
Any particular passage comes in a flow of either history (narrative)
or of teaching.
We therefore need to ask:
how does the passage relate to what is before it and what follows
how does it relate to the rest of the book?
how does it relate to the Bible as a whole?
how does it relate to the culture and background in which it was written?
Mt 5:15 Jesus speaking about a lamp
the context shows he's talking about outward behaviour
Lk 8:16 Jesus again speaking about a lamp
the context here is about responding to the word of God
the lamp here is Jesus himself bringing truth
the truth is there to be heard & received v.16,17
whoever receives truth, receives more v.18
When an inanimate object is used to describe a person, consider it figurative
This happens again and again and we need to see what characteristic
is being attributed to the person.
Jesus: “I am the… bread of life (Jn 6:35)…light of the world (Jn 8:12)
… door of the sheep (Jn 10:7)
The opposite is where life and action are attributed to inanimate objects,
the statement may, again be considered figurative.
Psa 114:4 The mountains skipped
Isa 35:1 the wilderness will rejoice
Similarly when an expression is out of character with the thing described,
the statement may be considered figurative.
Phil 3:2 beware of the dogs - not literal dogs
Lk 13:32 go and tell that fox (Herod) - not a literal fox
Jn 1:36 behold the lamb of God - describes Jesus' role
With figurative language we should note
a word cannot have a figurative and a literal meaning at the same
where possible interpret literally unless sense indicates it should
With parables only the principle parts and figures represent realities
Only those parts or figures should be taken into account when drawing
conclusions. i.e. in parables don't take every minute detail and try
to apply it
Don't try to make it say more than was intended
Lk 8:4-15 parable of the sower - the principle parts are the seed
(the word of God) and the types of soil (different hearts that receive
the word). The sower is incidental to the story.
In parables look to see if an interpretation is given in the text.
Lk 8:4-15 divided into parable (v.4-9) and then Jesus' interpretation
of it (v.10-15)
Each parable has one main point being made, but there may be secondary
points, but don't go beyond these.
Prophecy has its own set of rules
Interpret literally as usual, but figuratively where that makes sense
Fulfilment may be in instalments, over a period of time
Look for a fulfilment first of all for the people to whom it was spoken,
or at least soon afterwards
Isa 7:14-17 The Immanuel sign - to be fulfilled very soon
Yet such prophecies can often have a secondary (and even more important)
Mt 1:22,23 Matthew applies this prophecy to Jesus' coming
Sometimes the prophecy can have a figurative rather than
Malachi 4:5 promise of Elijah to come
Mt 11:13,14 Jesus says John was the “Elijah”
Mt 17:3 Yet Elijah came and met Jesus on the mountain
Mt 17:12,13 Yet Jesus still identifies John with Elijah
Lk 1:17 The angel Gabriel declares John to be the fulfilment
Sometimes an apparently non-prophecy in the O.T. can be
seen by N.T. writers as prophetic
Hos 11:1 a simple reference to Israel coming out of Egypt
Mt 2:15 Matthew applies that to Jesus coming from Egypt
Sometimes a prophecy will only be partially fulfilled in
one generation, to be completely fulfilled in a later one
It is like the prophet looking into the future and seeing several ranges
of hills that seem one from where he is.
Joel 2:28-32 promise of the pouring out of the Spirit
Acts 2:15-21 Peter says this is Joel fulfilled - yet there were not
wonders in the sky which will be fulfilled in the last of the last
days (Mt 24:29)
Isa 61:1,2 the Spirit of the Lord on the Messiah
Lk 17-21 Jesus declaring the Isaiah prophecy being fulfilled yet without
the “day of vengeance” which comes at the end.
Understand the Scripture in the historical context
Narrative occurred in history
Letters, reports etc. were written with particular readers in mind
Letters etc. were written in an historical context
Paul wrote Galatians after he had established the church there, and
many Jews tried to hang on to their Jewish foundations to prove their
Old & New Testaments, although progressive form a single unit
Unchanging God: the O.T. does NOT portray
God as angry & harsh (e.g. see the many times he warns and pleads
through Jeremiah) and the N.T. as loving and gracious (Jesus spoke more
about hell and judgement than anyone else in the Bible!)
The revelation about God does increase as the Bible progresses but this
does not mean that He changes, just our understanding of Him increases.
Historical Flow: N.T. life was a simple flow
on in the cultural history of Israel and therefore to understand much
of what happens and is spoken about in the N.T. you need to understand
The letter to the Hebrews is all about O.T. being applied to Jesus.
You cannot understand it without understanding the O.T. context.
Basics of Salvation: Various aspects of O.T.
life is the same in the N.T. except now based on Jesus
people were saved in the O.T. by faith [see Rom 4:3-8]. In the N.T.
that is faith in Christ who has come [Rom 3:22,23]
Prophetic Flow: The N.T. writers see Jesus
as fulfilling O.T. prophecies. We therefore need to understand those
Practices: Some O.T. practices have ceased
because they were fulfilled.
animal sacrifices have ceased because:
a) Christ the perfect sacrifice has been offered once and for all
[Heb 9:26-28] and
b) the Jews have stopped sacrificing because the Temple was destroyed
in AD70 and has never been rebuilt.
Historical Facts or Events become symbols of spiritual truths only if
the Scriptures so designate them.
1 Cor.10:1-4: Israel's passing through the Red Sea [Ex.14:22] symbolised
their baptism. The rock from which they drank [Num.20:11] was a type
Gal. 4:22-24 Sarah & Hagar were an allegory
You must understand Scripture grammatically before you understand
i.e. you must understand what a passage says before you can expect to
understand what it means.
Rom. 5:15-21 an apparently complex passage - the sin of Adam was imputed
to you and now the righteousness of Christ was imputed to you. This
affects our legal standing, not necessarily our moral character
A doctrine cannot be considered biblical unless it sums
up and includes all that the Scriptures say about it.
Gal. 5:18 says if we are led by the Spirit we are not under the Law.
Can we conclude it releases us from living a disciplined life? No!
See Rom. 6:1-4 that says we are not to continue in sin
To counter the error of using Scriptures to mean what you want them
to mean, we need to take an idea or theme and study all the passages
we can find on that idea or theme. Such studies may be:
Word or Name Studies
“Enoch” in Gen. 5:19-24 tells of his life and the cross references
identifying him as an historical figure - 1 Chron. 1:3 / Lk 3:37 and
Heb 11:5 identifying him as a man of faith and Jude 14-16 naming him
as an early prophet.
“world” - as in 9. above, example 2
An idea encompasses more than a simple word study
“belief” could be a word study but you may want to extend it to include
what leads to belief, what hinders belief, the relationship between
belief and faith
Word studies start from that word and work outward to see what the use
of that particular word in Scripture tells us
Idea studies work more on a theme and take in other word studies that
would be encompassed by the theme.
This would be a study of a particular Christian doctrine and is a wider
version of an idea study
Examples would be: attributes of God, the nature of man, redemption,
justification, sanctification, etc.
Inductive & Deductive Reasoning
Reasoning from parts to the whole
You gather all the pieces of information together and draw a conclusion
e.g. choose a subject, find all the passages that seem to relate to
that subject, then put them all together and form a conclusion
Reasoning from the general to the particular
You look at the whole and then come to conclusions about the smaller
If we ask according to God's will He hears us [1 Jn 5:14,15]. This
is a statement of general truth. We might then ask ourselves, in what
sort of things will we be asking according to God's will so we can
be sure He hears us?
“It is God's will that you should be sanctified” [1 Thess 4:3], so
one of the things we can ask for that we can be sure God hears, is
for us to be sanctified. Consider some other things the Bible says
are God's will: 2 Tim 1:9 / Eph 1:11,12 / Rom 12:2
When two doctrines taught in the Bible appear to be contradictory,
accept both as Scriptural in the confident belief that they resolve
themselves into a higher unity.
Contradictions or paradoxes DO exist, but they are not to undermine
faith but are to be accepted in the (limited) knowledge that we have
finite minds that have difficulty in accepting some things
the Trinity - we don't serve three Gods yet each person
of the Godhead is fully and completely God.
The dual nature of Christ. Jesus Christ is all man AND all
God. He is not half man and half God. He is not two persons. He is
both man AND God.
In the case of some paradoxes we need to think through, Biblically,
to a reasoned conclusion, yet even there recognise the limitation of
The origins and existence of evil. Logically you have to
accept one of two alternatives: either God created evil or evil has
always existed alongside Him. The Bible leads us to believe neither
is true, and therefore we have a mystery. When we think this one through
more fully, we can see that “evil” is not an entity that exists in
itself, but is simply the wrong expressions of beings. God didn't
MAKE Adam and Eve (or even Satan before them) evil, for He made them
perfect, but in giving them free will, He gave them to ability to
Election of God and responsibility of man. On the one hand
we seem to have the statement that God chose who would be saved before
the world was made [Eph 1:4], while on the other hand we have statements
indicating that when man exercises his free will he can claim salvation
[2 Pet 3:9 / Rom 10:13]
Because this question of predestination versus free will has so often
be a subject of controversy the further notes are included for your
consideration in the Appendix at the end.
A Teaching merely implied in Scripture, may be considered biblical
when a comparison of related Scriptures supports it.
Jesus argued with the Sadducees about resurrection of the dead [Mk 12:26,27]
He argued that although the Old Testament did not specifically
teach it, it could be implied from a Scripture [Ex 3:15].
This was deductive reasoning (see above).
A cult might say women should not take communion. However in 1 Corinthians,
Paul spoke to the whole church, which specifically included women [1
Cor 1:11, and 16:19] and he instructed the church on communion [1 Cor
11], from which we deduce that women partook of communion, a real breaking
free from the Jewish divisiveness of men worshipping separately from
Study : Predestination versus Free Will.
Because the subject of predestination
versus free will comes up so often in Christian discussions, we include
here, as an Appendix, the following notes for your help.
Sovereignty of God
Predestination is all about the sovereign
will of God.
The Bibles does teach that God is all-powerful,
all-knowing and all-wise.
It also shows Him as the one who constantly
takes the initiative.
It shows Him as choosing Abram, enabling
Sarai to have a child, choosing Isaac (son of faith through Sarah) rather
than Ishmael (son of human endeavour by a slave girl) [Rom 9:8,9], and
rejecting Esau but choosing Jacob [Rom 9:10-13].
It shows God hardening Pharaoh already hard
heart [Rom 9:17].
It declares that God chose us and predestined
us before the world was made [Eph 1:4,5].
Free Will of Man
The Bible again and again indicates that
God DOES give man the ability to make choices [see Ezek 18:32 & 2
Every time God gives a command to man, there
is the possibility of choice, to do or to reject the command.
Reconciling the two statements
It depends, (we would suggest) not so much
on Scripture as on our presuppositions, the ideas we start out with! If,
by our experiences in life, we have concluded that God is a hard judge,
we'll probably opt for a hard view of predestination. If we have received
and understood something of the grace of God, we may be able to suggest
a more gentle approach to the apparent paradox.
If we have a hard view of God, we'll suggest
He MAKES people make the choices they take, for His own purposes. For
example we might say that He MADE Jonah reject His instructions so He
could show His sovereign power, in the same way that He seemed to MAKE
Pharaoh reject Him, so He could show His sovereign purposes [Rom 9:17,18],
and He MADE the Jews crucify Jesus [Acts 2:23]
The clue is given in that last reference
above, Acts 2:23 - “foreknowledge”. Peter understood this and repeated
it in his first letter: 1 Pet 2:2 “who have been chosen according to the
foreknowledge of God the Father”.
It means that when God chose us before the
world it was simply that He knew then how we would respond in the future
to the news of His son, Jesus, and knew that we would come to Him.
In the Eph 1 passage the emphasis is not
so much on God's sovereign right to choose, but what He has chosen us
to be - holy and blameless [v.4] and adopted as sons [v.5]. Again [in
v.8] Paul emphasises that all this is done by God's wisdom and understanding,
i.e. God knew how to set the scene so that we would respond in a particular
way that would be salvation.
In Acts 2:23 God had planned for Jesus to
die on the Cross to take our sins (that's the “purpose” bit of that verse),
and the way He achieved it was by knowing how sinful men would react when
confronted by the sinless Christ (that's the “foreknowledge” bit of that
In Romans 9, the emphasis in those passages
is on God's right to move down whatever path He chose through His divine
foreknowledge and wisdom because of His mercy . Everyone DESERVES
to die, but God chooses to allow those who will respond to the news of
Jesus to have salvation and live. We have no RIGHT to salvation, we cannot
claim it, it is not an automatic thing, because we still DESERVE to die.
Therefore it is entirely by God's MERCY that we are not destroyed, but
God, as sovereign Lord, has the choice of the means that He will set to
determine who will be saved.
The Rom 9:17 reference to Pharaoh needs
to be understood in the context of the Exodus passages. There, in the
fourteen references to hardening, 3 are neutral, 3 say Pharaoh
hardened his heart and 8 say God hardened his heart. In context we find
Pharaoh was a godless idolater, who considered himself a God, and more
powerful than anyone else around. God knew that he was hard hearted and
therefore knew that if Moses and Aaron baldly confronted him with a demand
from God, it would simply harden his heart (or his resolve) and he would
reject God's request.
In every case of God coming to deal with
men, we see that He clearly knows His man or woman and knows their heart
and knows how they will respond - but it still THEIR choice, they don't
HAVE to respond in that way.
We see in Scripture, therefore, that God
is sovereign in that He IS all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise and
can do what He wants, yet He still works using the free will of men.
In His sovereign acts, God works according
to His eternal purpose [Eph 3:10,11] which is unchanging [Heb 6:17] and
does everything in conformity to that purpose [Eph 1:11,12], and it will
prevail over all man's plans [Prov 19:21, Isa 46:10] and will even involve
putting ideas into the minds of evil men [Acts 2:23, Rev 17:17], yet in
all these things He allows and uses man to exercise his own free will.