“If the Bible is indeed God’s Word written, we should spare no pains and grudge no effort to discover what he has said (and says) in Scripture” John R.W. Stott.
So how do we interpret the Bible accurately, so that it’s not just our opinion? What are the basic hermeneutical guidelines? Here are three teachers, three principles, three questions, and three rules:
- The Holy Spirit. The best interpreter of any book is its author. The Holy Spirit is the only One who can reveal and illuminate truth (cf. Psalm 119:18, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Matthew 11:25-25).
- The Church. God reveals truth (from the past to the present) to and through the community of faith (cf. Ephesians 3:18-19, Colossians 3:16).
- Personal We must also teach ourselves, yet do so in full dependence and humble submission to the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 12:57, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, 10:15, 2 Timothy 2:7).
- Natural Sense (the principle of simplicity). Look first for the obvious and natural (figurative or literal) meaning of the text. Consider the intention of the author/speaker.
- Original Sense (the principle of history). The message of Scripture can only be understood as it relates to the circumstances in which it was originally written.
- General Sense (the principle of harmony). There is an organic unity to the Bible. Approach the Scripture believing that God doesn’t contradict Himself.
- What did it mean to the original audience? The Bible was written for us, but not originally to us. Pay attention to the first life setting (sitz im leben).
- What type of literature is it? Each genre of biblical literature must be interpreted on its own terms (the different genres of literature in the Bible includes history, narrative, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, law, parables, gospels, and letters/epistles).
- Where does it fit in the Bible’s overall story? Read with the meta-narrative in mind. Track the trajectory of the passage in relation to the major ‘acts’ within the ‘drama’.
- Use several good translations so that you are not committed to the exegetical choices of a single translation (e.g. NIV, ESV, NRSV, GNB, NLT).
- A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his/her readers.
- When we share similar life situations to the first hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as it was to them.
And a vital closing comment from Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, “The Bible contains its own hermeneutic … In a word, Jesus is the thread that holds all Scripture together … The Bible has no real meaning unless it is grounded in Christ.”
Have your say. Share three things about interpreting the Bible.
Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Zondervan, 2003.
John R.W. Stott, Understanding the Bible, Zondervan, 1999.
© Scripture Union Canada 2017