Principles of Interpretation --Part 1

Principles of Interpretation
Part 1

J. Boyd Nicholson


Many thinking people today are coming to realize, as they look out on a world reeling from one problem to another, that the human race is being catapulted toward some cataclysmic event. Nations of opposing ideaologies have perfected weapons of mass destruction. The balance of nature is being upset by the careless and selfish misuse of its resources. There is a world-wide disintegration of morals in every level of society. This is inevitably accompanied by disease, drug addiction, and disasters. The forces of law and order, and the institutions of justice, are being scorned and denuded of necessary powers essential to the safety of citizens.

Never has peace been eulogized so articulately, symbolized so frequently, and agonized for so pathetically. Well might these thoughtful people ask, “Where is it all going to end?” Can we know anything with certainty? How, then, can we know?

There is a reliable source of information from which we may discover where we are in history, why we are where we are, and where we are inevitably going. Most importantly, we may also discover from this infallible source how we may prepare for the future, right here and now. That source is the Bible, the Word of God.

Three Evidences

Can we be sure that the Bible in its original form is the Word of God? Yes, we can.

It appears to be by external evidence. Consider its super-natural production. This collection of books was penned by about forty writers, covering a time span of over 1,500 years. The men used to inscribe the words came from all walks of life. Peasants and gardeners, kings and commoners, schooled and unschooled, and in most cases with no knowledge that their writing was ever to be included in a collection of inspired writings. Yet, “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21b). These men of distinct personalities were not used by the Lord as machines, but as the instruments of an orchestra, under the direction of the leader, blend their different sounds into one harmonious symphony, so the Word of the Lord under His direction was made to pass through these various instruments of inspiration to form one Volume, with one Central Theme, and all in concord and harmony. Yes, it certainly seems to be more than just another great book. But more than seeming to be Divine—

It claims to be by internal evidence. In the Pentateuch the words, “The Lord spoke…,” appear about 700 times, and in the books of the prophets, many times we read, “The Lord said” or “Thus saith the Lord.” But there is still a third evidence that the Bible is Divine.

It proves to be by human experience. Prophecies recorded in it have been fulfilled in detail. Promises made have been realized. Guidance given has proven to be accurate. The most telling experience is, of course, that of salvation made real in the hearts and lives of those who have believed the Gospel contained within the sacred page. Students and scholars who comb the Scriptures daily cannot help but be amazed at the beauty of its language, the symmetry of its design, the clear logic of its arguments, and the powerful authority of its declarations.

While it must be acknowledged that there are areas in the Bible which are difficult to understand, yet the sweep of its truth, the broad avenues of its doctrines, and the clarity of its Gospel are not beyond the ordinary man in the street, when enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

Any intelligent and fruitful examination of this Book demands at least three things. (1) Divine inspiration—it must be accepted unquestioningly by the student as the inspired Word of God. (2) Accurate interpretation—it must be interpreted by set principles. (3) Personal application— it must be examined with a view to obedience.

This series of studies will consider the second of these, that is, accurate interpretation according to set principles.

Five Fundamentals

As we approach a study of the Bible, certain facts must be acknowledged. First, since these writings are “God-breathed,” we know that the spiritual truths they contain cannot be discerned by the unaided natural mind (see 1 Corinthians 2:14). Secondly, since the student is dependent on the Holy Spirit to enlighten and instruct him, then He must not be grieved, and sins against Him, like all other sins, must be confessed. Thirdly, there is no class monopoly on knowledge of the Word, since the Holy Spirit indwells every believer. All have the capacity to discover truths from the Word. There are some, of course, to whom the Holy Spirit gives special gifts for the work of studying the Word and expounding it.

Fourthly, while intellectual capacity and academic discipline may be sanctified to the Lord for the study of the Word, the knowledge of God is not dependent on these things. The knowledge of God comes by revelation. While some of us have not had the privilege of college or university training, we must not use this as an excuse for lazy and careless study. Conversely, many among us today are college graduates, but this, even though it be a Bible college, does not assume the knowledge of God. A technical knowledge of the Bible as to its structure and doctrines is not the same as the apprehension of God Himself in and through His Word. Some of the richest ministry I have ever had the privilege of hearing has come through the instrumentality of Scottish coal miners and fishermen. They were profound students of the Word; men who truly knew God.

Fifthly, God does use consecrated capacities and abilities. Therefore, it is our responsibility to develop by discipline and maintain by constant application those faculties which God has given to us. For instance, when we read Peter’s letters, we are encouraged that God could take a rough Galilean fisherman and inspire and instruct him to such a degree as to pen the words we find there.

It is an interesting sidelight that in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, each man was given a talent, or talents, “according to his several ability.” God, who formed us to begin with, harmonizes our spiritual gift with our natural abilities, though the one must not be mistaken for the other.

A bricklayer I once knew, when he became a Christian and had an exercise to minister God’s Word, went to night school to learn English grammar better, since he felt that the ministry of the Word demanded the finest form of expression.

In the accurate interpretation of Scripture, certain factors must be considered. As in God’s Work in creation there are set laws in the universe, so too in His work of revelation there are laws or principles, that when recognized and used, unlock a rich storehouse of truth to the student. For instance, there is the law of first mention. That is, we are to take special note of the first time a thing occurs in Scripture. This is fundamental and introductory, and it often proves a key to the whole teaching of the matter. As a case in point, Genesis 3:15 is the fountainhead of prophetic truth from which the ever growing stream of prophecy flows, until it pours at last into the river of life on the one hand and the lake of fire on the other. Likewise, Matthew 16:18 can be considered the fountainhead of Church truth in the New Testament, pouring into the tumultous rapids of the book of Acts and on into the deep waters of the epistles.

There is, however, a human element to the study of Scripture. That is the interpretation of its truths. This may be influenced by our environment, our early training, or our personal preferences. It is such differences of interpretation that divide schools of thought between, for instance, the millenialist and the amillennialist, the rapturists and the selective rapturists, and so on. We can see, then, that it is essential that we settle our minds on a proper set of interpretive principles and apply them consistently in our study.

It is a lack of this that has spawned the various heresies and cults on every hand, and indeed the many divisions which, sadly enough, exist among the people of God.

In our next study we shall endeavor to consider some of these principles.