How to Interpret the Bible

Harking back to our first episode, today we revisit how to build a proper hermeneutic and interpret the Bible.

How to Interpret the Bible

her·me·neu·tics
the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.

When attempting to understand the scriptures, we need to build rules of interpretation or a hermeneutic. This keeps us honest about how we are interpreting. Our understanding should not dictate the meaning of the passage instead, it should dictate our understanding. To do this we must be humble in our approach. This is one of the tenets Augustine expressed when talking about Biblical interpretation. When you begin to read a book of the Bible, here are just a few questions to build your hermeneutic upon:

  • Who was the writer?
  • To whom were they writing?
  • Is the choice of words, wording, or word order significant in this particular passage?
  • What is the cultural, historical context?
  • What was the author’s original intended meaning?
  • How did the author’s contemporaries understand him?
  • Why did he say it that way?

These will help guide you in understanding the passage. They may actually lead you to some extra-biblical sources to find some history and cultural norms. However, the search is very worthwhile. Once we have this established be sure to bear in mind some of the general guidelines which are often used in all hermeneutics:

One original interpretation – This doesn’t mean a text can’t have deep underlying meanings. It means the author had an intention behind the text and usually a singular one. Finding this design is the ultimate goal in understanding the passage.

Understand the genre – There are multiple genres of passages in the Bible. Legalistic, narratives, poetry, proverbial writings, logical discourse, or prophecy, each having specific guidelines for proper interpretation. Don’t get them overly confused. The Book of Proverbs is not there to provide commands for a legalistic system of religion. It is there to guide you in knowledge and wisdom by applying sound principles of practice. Etc.

Figures of Speech – Various forms of Hebrew poetry, simile, metaphor, and hyperbole need to be recognized if the reader is to understand the passage’s meaning. Knowing when a passage is figurative and when it is literal can often be tricky, but it is worthy of our efforts to make sure we follow the author’s signs and symbols when intended to be allegorical.

Keep it simple – Sometimes we want to allegorize things that shouldn’t be or make a passage more difficult that it should be. Always look for the obvious and simplest reading of a passage first. Allow the easy to understand, clearly spoken passages help to interpret the difficult ones… not the other way around.

Progressive revelation – The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. Don’t let a dogmatic understanding of the Old Testament drive New Testament theology. Remember the Old Testament was designed to be revealed in Jesus Christ. This goes back to letting clear passages interpret shadowy ones. The writers of the New Testament have a clearer understanding of justification, sanctification, grace, and salvation because of what was revealed in and through Jesus.

Harmony of Scripture – Remember that the Bible is not contradictory. Your understanding of a passage might contradict another passage, but that should be an incentive to reevaluate your interpretation with a better hermeneutic.


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