PRINCIPLES OF BIBLE INTERPRETATION
2008 John H Mattox

Introduction

  1. God's plan for interpretation is that the knowledge of his word be handed down from one person to another. See II Timothy 2:2.
  2. All men have not the same gift for interpretation. The Ethiopian eunuch could not understand Isaiah 53 until it was explained by Philip. See Acts 8:26-40.
  3. Some men have a special gift for understanding and interpreting the Word of God. See First Timothy 4:14.
 
I. The Necessity for Interpretation

  1. Definitions of Interpretation
    1. Spiritualizing (rejecting the literal meaning) is not interpretation.
    2. The dictionary states that the word interpretation means to make known the meaning of.
    3. Interpretation is allowing the Bible to speak in easily-understood language.
    4. Interpretation is delivering the exact message the writer intended to convey.
  2. Difficulties Encountered in Interpretation
    1. The Bible was originally written in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek that were used at the time of writing. These are now dead languages and our knowledge of them leaves much to be desired. Especially is this true in the case of Hebrew and Aramaic. Our knowledge of New Testament (Koine) Greek has been considerably advanced in the past century. We have none of the original manuscripts of either the Old Testament or the New Testament and must therefore depend on copies (all of which contain inaccuracies) for our basic text. This text must then be translated into English.
    2. The English translation (or version) in common use by non-Catholics is the 1769 Oxford edition of the King James Version (which was originally completed in 1611). It is an excellent translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts which were available at that time. However, there are many inaccuracies in the King James Version from the present-day standpoint for the following reasons:
      1. Many English words have changed their meanings since 1611. Examples: Conversation originally meant conduct; prevent meant precede; charity meant love. Such changed meanings either puzzle or mislead the modern English-speaking reader.
      2. The rules of grammar for Koine Greek were not (fully) understood until the discovery of the so-called Egyptian Papyri in the latter part of the nineteenth century - too late for the King James translators.
      3. Many words have become obsolete and are no longer understood by the average reader. Examples: contemn, leasing, rereward.
      4. Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of both the Old and New Testament dating back to approximately the fourth century are now available. Some of these manuscripts were unknown in 1611. Others were available but were not used to any great extent. The earliest Greek MS upon which the New Testament of the KJV was based was a copy made around 1000 AD. It was to eliminate these errors that the Revised Version of the Bible was published around the turn of the century. In this country the RV is known as the American Standard Version (ASV). In September of 1952 appeared the Revised Standard Version (RSV) which is a revision of the ASV. Other more recent translations are the Smith-Goodspeed translation, the Moffatt translation, Weymouth's translation of the NT, among many others. (Editor's Note: More recent translations include the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible). All of these translations embody the corrections which were seen to be necessary upon the discovery of such manuscripts as Codex A, Codex B, and Codex Aleph.
      5. English syntax has changed considerably and the involved grammatical constructions so common in the King James Version are difficult for the average reader to understand.
    3. The easy interpretation of the Bible is further complicated by the use of types, symbols, figures of speech and references to habits of living which are not familiar to the Western mind.
    4. Finally, the very scope of the Bible is baffling to our finite minds. Such concepts as God, Heaven, Hell, Eternity, etc., are extremely difficult for our minds to cope with.
    5. True interpretation is largely a matter of removing the above mentioned difficulties and thereby allowing the Bible to speak its message clearly in words easily understood.
  3. Need for Constant Study of Interpretation.
    1. We are continually learning more about the Bible and its meaning for us. Even the expanding findings of science, far from discrediting the Bible, actually add to our knowledge about and of it. Between the Bible, rightly understood, and true science, there can be no conflict.
    2. The constantly changing meanings of words make necessary periodic translation of the Bible so that the man in the street may have the Word of God in language which he understands.
    3. Fulfilled prophecies also cast light on the interpretation of the Bible. Constant vigilance is necessary to revise our sometimes outmoded interpretations.

II. The Bases of Interpretation

  1. An Accurate Text
    1. Neither the KJV nor any other translation gives us the literally inspired form of God's Word. The Original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts were inspired, but the English versions which we have were translated by men and are therefore subject to error. It is highly important to remember that the time-hallowed KJV, in particular, contains a great many errors (as has already been pointed out) and one must know how to compensate in one's study for these errors.
    2. It has also been mentioned that there are several translations available which reflect more accurate Greek and Hebrew texts than does the KJV. The Bible student need not discard the KJV, but he should constantly compare it with other, more accurate translations so that he will not make the mistake, for example, of basing a sermon on a passage which has been shown to be spurious.
    3. Many other fine books and sets of books throw considerable light both on the text and on its translation. We should not scorn to enter into the labors of scholars who have devoted years of inquiry and research to such details.
  2. A Comprehensive Knowledge of the Bible Narrative
    1. A basic knowledge of the Bible stories is absolutely essential. No student can hope to interpret the Bible accurately without knowing the facts of the Bible as a whole.
    2. It should be kept in mind that although the Bible is made up of sixty-six different books, it is actually one book. From Genesis to Revelation it bears witness to the One God. Those interpretations of the Bible which are based only on the Old or New Testaments are worthless. A thorough knowledge of both Testaments is essential to the understanding of either.
    3. No passage of Scripture can be rightly interpreted except in relation to its context and the rest of the Bible's teaching on the subject. See II Peter 1:20-21. By taking a passage out of context, by putting two or more unrelated passages together or by taking only a portion of a verse, we can prove almost anything we desire. The entire light of revelation must be brought to bear on a given passage in order to determine its true meaning.
    4. Spiritual things must be compared with spiritual things. "The best commen-tary on the Bible is the Bible itself." (Sparkman). Although commentaries when used judiciously are very helpful, nothing can take the place of comparing Scripture with Scripture.
  3. Awareness of the Bible's Central Message
    1. Jesus Christ is the main Personage of the Bible. All revolves around him. With Christ as the key, the Bible becomes an open book. Without him there is no understanding it: Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, 0 God. (Heb. 10:7). In Luke 24:44, Jesus declared that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were written concerning him. These three classes of writings comprised the entire Old Testament. The Law included all the historical books; the Prophets included all the prophetic writings and the Psalms covered the poetical books.
    2. The Bible's major theme is Redemption, which denotes the restitution of all things which were affected by the Adamic curse, particularly man and his dwelling place - the earth. This redemption is effected by the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ in the sinner's stead. This sacrifice was clearly fore-shadowed in the O.T. by the numerous sacrifices and offerings which are described therein.
    3. In addition to recognizing the major theme of the Bible as a whole, it is important to know that each book has its own special message which fits into the whole. For example the special message of Genesis is the origin of things; that of Exodus is redemption, that of Leviticus worship, that of Numbers walk, etc.

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Principles Of Bible Interpretation (cont)

III. Requisites for Interpretation

  1. Possession of the Holy Spirit
    1. The Author is the best interpreter of his own works. Since the Holy Spirit is the Author of God's Word (II Peter 1:21), the possession of the Spirit is vital to a true understanding of the Bible.
    2. Paul tells us that the natural man (without the Spirit) cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God because they are spiritually discerned (i.e. by the aid of the Spirit). See I Corinthians 2:14.
    3. Spiritual truths are revealed by the Spirit. See I Corinthians 2:9-10.
  2. Faith in God's Word
    1. ... for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Hebrews 11:6.
    2. One should pray for Spiritual insight and then believe that God will grant it.
    3. The student's attitude toward the Word of God should be the same as the Apostle Paul's: Sirs, I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Compare also the faith of Abraham: Abraham believed God and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.
  3. An Open Mind
    1. There must be, on the part of the student, a willingness to accept the truth no matter how distasteful it may seem.
    2. Preconceived ideas and opinions, however dear, must not be allowed to cause the student to reject the truth. The object in studying the Bible is to learn God's will for us, not to try to justify our own ideas and opinions.
    3. Doctrinal convictions should be supported by a thus saith the LORD.

IV. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  1. Old and New Testament Periods and Peoples must be kept distinct.
    1. The careful student of the Bible will soon discover that three classes of people are recognized therein, viz. Jews, Gentiles, and Christians (or believers in the Lord Jesus Christ). It is important to know what portions of Scripture are applicable literally to each of these classes.
    2. The Old Testament is applicable literally to the Jews and typically to Christians. See I Corinthians 10:1-11. Gentiles enter into the Old Testament's scope not only to be condemned for their idolatry and wickedness but also to receive prophetic promises of great blessings to come to them through the Jewish people.
    3. The teachings of the New Testament from the Cross onward are literally applicable to Christians and prophet-ically applicable to Jews. Much of the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount) is an exposition of Judaism and should not be literally applied to Christians.
  2. The Natural Divisions of Each Book Should Be Located and Analyzed.
    1. The chapter and verse arrangements in our Bibles are not a part of the inspired record but are man-made methods adopted for convenient reference. Unfortunately, these arbitrary divisions do not always reflect the natural divisions of the Bible.
    2. These natural divisions must be discerned and studied as a whole if a sensible interpretation is to be reached. A notable example is the 17th chapter of Matthew, where the chapter heading has been misplaced. The last verse of the 16th chapter belongs with the first verses of the 17th chapter.
    3. The natural divisions will usually follow the paragraphing. Many of the recent translations make it very easy to locate and analyze these divisions. (The Scofield Reference Bible both locates and analyzes them for the reader.)
  3. The Context Must Be Understood.
    1. Three questions should be asked by the reader concerning any passage to be interpreted.
      1. Who is speaking? God is not the spokesman in every passage of Scripture, therefore such passages cannot be considered a divine revelation. Even the words of Satan (as well as those of uninspired men) are recorded. It is therefore necessary to inquire as to who is speaking in any passage under consideration.
      2. To whom is the speaker speaking? That is, to which of the three above-mentioned classes is he speaking? For example when God, speaking in the 31st Chapter of Exodus to the children of Israel, tells them that the Sabbath is to be a sign of the covenant between him and Israel forever, it is highly presumptuous for Gentiles or Christians to suppose that they, too, should observe the Sabbath day.
      3. Of whom (or what) is he speaking? Much erroneous exposition would be avoided if the subject of the passage under consideration were clearly held in mind.
    2. The grammatical structure should be carefully analyzed. This rule is especially important in the New Testament. The Greek language (in which the N.T. was written) is highly exact in its use of grammatical forms and the serious student should make use of such reference books as will bring out the niceties of the Greek Syntax.
  4. Distinction Must Be Made Between Literal, Symbolic and Figurative Language.
    1. Many passages of Scripture are literal in content. That is, they say exactly what they mean. For example See First Thessalonians 4:16-17.
    2. Other passages are figurative. That is they contain figures of speech such as similes, metaphors, personifications, hyperboles, etc., which enrich the language and make it more expressive. The twenty-third Psalm is a beautiful example of figurative language.
    3. Both literal and figurative language may contain types or symbols which point to antitypes and substances to be revealed at a later time.
    4. Rules for distinguishing between literal and figurative language.
      1. A passage is considered to be literal unless otherwise indicated by the context.
      2. A passage is considered to be figurative only when a literal reading would be absurd, or where the figure is plainly indicated.
      3. "If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense."
        (Pettingill)
    5. Prophecy always has a literal fulfillment. This fact is indicated by the previous fulfillments of prophecy. Many prophecies are couched in figurative or symbolic language, but when reduced to their literal meaning or content, they will be found to be literally fulfilled.
  5. Types and Symbols Must Be Correctly Identified.
    1. Types and symbols are persons, places, things or incidents which point to and illustrate other persons, places or things. For example, crossing the Red Sea is said to be a symbol of baptism. That which the type points to is called its antitype. Symbols point to substances.
  6. Dispensations and Covenants Must Be Thoroughly Understood.
    1. Dispensations are periods of time during which God deals with men according to a certain plan or purpose. Most scholars recognize seven:
      1. Innocency
      2. Conscience
      3. Human Government
      4. Promise
      5. Law
      6. Grace
      7. Kingdom
    2. A covenant is an agreement or contract (either conditional or unconditional) which God makes with men. Eight covenants are usually recognized:
      1. Edenic
      2. Adamic
      3. Noahic
      4. Abrahamic
      5. Mosiac
      6. Palestinian
      7. Davidic
      8. New
  7. The First and Second Comings of Christ Must Be Kept Distinct.
    1. The prophets wrote about the two comings of Christ as if they were only one event. The Jews thereby made the mistake of accepting only the passages that spoke of the glory and exaltation of the Messiah.
    2. To observe how Jesus himself distinguished between his first and second comings in reading the Old Testament, compare Luke 4:16-21 with Isaiah 61:1-2. Notice that Jesus stopped reading at a comma because the rest of the verse had reference to his second coming.

V. Application

  1. Interpretation Must Be Distinguished From Permissible Application.
    1. The interpretation of a passage is what the passage actually says. There is only one interpretation of a passage of Scripture. (There may be many misinterpretations). A possible exception to this rule is prophecy which usually has both a near and far fulfillment. The two fulfillments however always supplement, never contradict, each other.
    2. Permissible application is an application of the principles of the passage to persons other than those for whom they were literally intended.
    3. Literal application is applying the teachings of a passage to the persons they were actually intended for.
    4. Application in principle is taking the principles of a passage and applying them to other persons in similar circumstances.
  2. The Test Questions.
    1. Does this passage apply to me?
      1. To what group was it spoken?
      2. Do I belong to that group?
      3. If not, do I belong to a group living under similar circum-stances?
      4. If the passage does apply to me, is its application literal or one in principle?

NOTE: The writer's aim has been to systematize the principles of Bible study that have long been known to Bible scholars. No claims as to originality or thoroughness are made. The writer's belief is that this outline, faulty as it may be, can be a real aid in teaching young ministers and other Christian workers the essentials of Biblical interpretation.

John H Mattox

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