Principles of Interpretation --Part 4

Principles of Interpretation
Part 4

J. Boyd Nicholson


Since the Bible is a revelation of God, Who is infinite, and deals with eternal and spiritual things, it is easy to see that the vast scope of such things goes far beyond the limits of plain language. God has thus been pleased to use various literary devices to convey His revelation to the sons of men. All resources of language are pressed into service to make things clear to the human mind and spirit, and to more fully convey truth that otherwise could not be readily discerned.

Of these many forms and styles, there are certain main ones. These are: Typology, Symbolism, Parable, Allegory and, of course, Plain Language.


Because of some extravagant claims and fanciful interpretations on the part of some with regard to types, this form of presentation has fallen into disrepute in certain areas. However, it must be established that typology is a valid means of Biblical interpretation.

Types are God’s “object lessons” whereby He makes clear His profound ideas and “deep things.”

What then is a type? An examination of the New Testament usage of this word will give us some help. The word tupos is translated in nine ways: “ensample, example, fashion, figure, form, manner, pattern, print, type.”

Certain happenings are types, as “samples.” We see this from 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened unto them for examples (types), and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come.”

Certain people are types as “patterns” to follow. This is seen from 1 Peter 5:3. There, elders are exhorted to be “ensamples” to the flock.

Certain objects can be types, insofar as they represent visible what is invisible. An illustration of this is found in Acts 7:43: “… the tabernacle of Molech, and the star of your god, Rephan, figures (types) which ye made to worship .…”

The whole body of doctrine is a type of God, being a revealed impression of the invisible God. “… ye have obeyed from the heart that form (type) of doctrine which was delivered you.”

If we may try to define a true Biblical type, perhaps we might say: A true Biblical type is a person, event, or institution which has a designed correspondence with its antitype, and by which we more clearly apprehend the truth concerning the latter.

A word of caution is necessary in the use of typology to interpret Scripture. The type must have more than a resemblance or suggestion; it must have been designed to typify. For example, hymnology has formed ideas that are sometimes hard to shake. Canaan is frequently sung of as Heaven. Yet, for Israel, there was conflict with more enemies in Canaan than there ever was in the wilderness. No, in Heaven, the enemy will not be there.


Many kinds of symbols are used. Certain persons, offices, events, actions and things are seen to be symbols. The names of the symbols are to be understood literally, and from this their first import is to be sought. The nature of the symbol is to be appreciated as well. For instance, the nature of a lion as a symbol is clearly distinct from that of a lamb.

There are at least three things to which we should pay particular attention with respect to a symbol. First, resemblance. There is some resemblance between the symbol and what it symbolizes. For example, Jezebel and the false church. Second, references. Other references to the same symbol should be examined, since generally each symbol has one significance throughout the entire Bible. Third, revelation. We are not left to our own imagination nor ingenuity in the interpretation of symbols. Usually, if not in every case, the meaning of the symbol is found somewhere in the Word of God.

Parable and Allegory

Since these are almost interchangeable terms, let’s consider them together for the present. The object of each is similar. Each is a narrative constructed or related to convey spiritual truth. Many false notions have been hatched by misinterpreted parables, forcing them to mean what the Lord never intended. Details are pressed into prominence to vindicate a subjective opinion. This is very dangerous ground. Interpretation of parables should be consistent with certain principles.

Every parable is used to communicate one central truth. All details are to be considered subservient and consistent to that. The details, while interesting and sometimes very suggestive, must not be pressed to mean more than was intended.

Parables have two senses: the literal and the spiritual. To understand the latter the first must be explained. Furthermore, parables have three parts: the external, the explanation, and the extent. Parables are windows to the structure of truth in order to let in light, not footings on which to base doctrine.

Allegory is “saying something otherwise.” It is a narrative which to its literal meaning a more spiritual one is added. A difference must be noted between plainly interpreting a Scriptural allegory and the error of allegorizing plain Scripture. The great dangers of the allegorical method of interpretation are numerous. This method speculates; it does not elucidate. It makes the interpreter his own rule of what is .truth, throwing him back on his own ingenuity and not upon the Holy Spirit.

Plain Language

Since the Bible is a revelation, then we can be sure that God intended us to discover its meaning. Therefore, we can be confident that wherever Types, Symbols, Parables and Allegories are used they will never contradict that which is stated in plain language in other places throughout the Scriptures.