Thy Words were found and I did eat them; and Thy Word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart. Jeremiah 15:16
Principles Of Biblical Interpretation
Unreliable Methods of Interpretation
While we advocate an historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation, it is well to acquaint oneself with other methods in order that we avoid the inaccurate.
The allegorical method: This method sees narratives, descriptions, and historical events as similes and emblems of deep spiritual truths. This method is sometimes called “spiritualizing”. For example, there are those who see in Jacob’s stonepillow an accusing conscience; in Joseph’s coat of many colours (pieces) the numerous virtues of good character, etc. By allegorizing the Scriptures one can make them mean anything that occurs to a fertile imagination.
An experienced minister of the Word asked a young man who was to share a gospel service with him of what he intended speaking.
“Of Jacob’s efforts to appease Esau,” replied the young brother.
“I suppose in Jacob you see a picture of a sinner,” said the senior brother. “Yes,” was the reply, “and his gifts as the attempts of men to appease the wrath of God by their good deeds and religious observances.”
“I see,” said the man of experience, “but do you think that Esau makes a very good picture of God?”
The young man’s allegorical sermon was never preached. We must seek out
the true meaning of the Word of God and not rely upon our own imagination.
While this illustrates the danger of allegorizing the Word of God, we should
nevertheless admit that there are passages of the Bible which lend themselves to allegorical preaching, but the speaker should intimate the literal meaning of the passage and then state that he is using it during his sermon in an allegorical manner.
The mystical method: There are persons who claim to possess what is called an inner light (We must not confuse this with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.): They disregard all principles of interpretation and are guided by their own feelings. A mystical interpretation of the Bible means that one takes from it any meaning suitable to the reader.
A brother who was not feeling very well decided that he would open the Bible at random and take whatever words his eyes fell on as a message direct from God to him. The Bible opened at Isaiah 38 and the first words he saw were, “Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.” The brother immediately made an appointment with a physician.
Another brother who advocated this mystical method of biblical interpretation used to open his Bible at a passage predetermined in mind. He would read from the predetermined chapter and verse, and consider that verse a direct message to him from the Lord. Some young brethren thought they too would try this. One was ready with the Bible and read as the others chose different passages. One young brother with a rather superior attitude chose Proverbs 7:7. The brother with the Bible read slowly and deliberately, “I … beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding.” Some found it difficult not to snicker for they thought the passage appropriate.
The moral method: The moral method of biblical interpretation reasons that while the Bible was given by inspiration of God, it was given for the moral improvement of man, and that therefore the literal and historical sense of Scripture is secondary to a moral meaning that may be imposed upon it. In 1 Corinthians 10 the Apostle Paul does not attach some strange moral significance to the events in Israel’s history, but he does draw moral lessons from those events. The literal sense of Scripture is used in an illustrative manner to teach moral lessons to God’s people.
The naturalistic method: This method is the product of rationalism, and of course is a tool of the liberal theologian. It attempts to explain the Word of God by ignoring, if not refuting, its supernatural qualities. The naturalistic interpretation explains away the miraculous from the miracles of Christ. For example, the boy with the five loaves and the two fishes, by giving up his lunch to Jesus, shamed others to do likewise and so there was more than enough for all. We need not discuss this method further for as genuine believers we categorically reject it.
The apologetic method: This has also been called the dogmatic method. This method attempts to defend in every possible manner the genuineness of Holy Scripture, but does so by stressing and straining the meaning of the words and the statements of Holy Scripture beyond what is reasonable and natural. Doctrinal concepts are frequently forced upon irrelevant passages with the result that an imposition in place of an exposition is given. This method has brought unnecessary ridicule upon evangelical Christians, and has resulted in the false charge that evangelicals are not scholarly. An example of the dogmatic, apologetic method may be given by a reference to Jeremiah 31:22, “The Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man.” Into these statements the Virgin birth of Christ is forced. Surely, the doctrine of the Virgin birth of our Saviour can be defended from the historical data given without resorting to word manipulation in a remote text.
We need not discuss any other erroneous method of biblical interpretation, but proceed with the principles in the historical-grammatical method.
The Historical-Grammatical Method
The historical-grammatical method endeavours to gather from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intend to convey to their original readers. Let us consider this method in a step-by-step procedure.
Observation: A passage of Scripture must be read very attentively in order to ascertain its meaning. Keen observation will notice such particulars as the following: First, the style of writing: This involves the peculiar style of the individual writer, whether written in prose or poetry, and whether it contains symbols, metaphors, parables, quotations, etc. Second, the atmosphere of writing: By atmosphere is meant the influence of the emotional state of the author at the time of writing. His state may have been one of fear, of joy, of indignation, of disappointment, etc. To sense the atmosphere of a passage helps considerably in its understanding.
Jude wrote his Epistle in a spirit of indignation. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in a spirit of grief and disappointment. John wrote the Revelation in a spirit of awe, and one can sense his wonderment throughout the entire book. Try and sense the atmosphere of the passage that you are studying and that will help in the discovery of its meaning. Third, the structure of writing: While the punctuation of the King James Version is ancient, pay attention to it. If you have a version that indicates, as does, for example, the Revised Standard Version, each paragraph, pay strict attention to the paragraphs. Read and reread each separate paragraph until you are sure of its exact meaning. This requires that one understand each sentence, each clause, each phrase and term in the entire paragraph. Fourth, the terms used: One should take nothing for granted, but by the use of an English Dictionary find the meaning of each English word. Furthermore, when possible one should discover the meaning of biblical terms by the use of such works as Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and Young’s Analytical Concordance. The more one can find out about the terminology and usage of a word, the more light will he have on the passage under his consideration. One should look into every different shade of meaning of any one term and then choose the one that fits best the context.
Investigation actually is the effort of an inquiring mind to answer certain logical questions. The method and value of investigation are better demonstrated than they are abstractly stated.
Investigation involves: first, the immediate context and then, in the second place, the remote context.
For the purpose of demonstration let us select the verses about hope in Romans 5:2b-5a.
The immediate context: The steps of investigation within the immediate context may be set forth as follows:
First: particularization: Particularization answers the question, what? What is the major topic of these verses? Sometimes it is necessary to read the passage several times and to determine the meaning of certain terms before we can be sure that we have discovered the major theme. In this case the answer is apparent; it is hope.
Second: modification: Modification answers the question, which? Which hope are we reading about? Again the answer here is obvious; it is hope in the glory of God.
Third: motivation: Motivation answers the question, why? Why do Christians hope in the glory of God? The passage explains that they hope in the glory of God because of tribulations now. Such tribulations result in the development of patience, but they also result in hope in the glory of God.
Fourth: realization: Realization answers the question, how? How do Christians with trials and difficulties now hope in the glory of God? They rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Fifth: occasion: Occasion answers the question, when? When do Christians in spite of trials hope in the glory of God? The tenses of the verbs in the passage show that it is now, in their lifetime.
The remote context: An examination of any topic in the remote context involves comparing and contrasting its usages in different passages of Scripture.
Comparison: By comparing hope in Romans 5:2b-5a with hope as mentioned in other passages, we learn that it is: first, a good hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16); second, a blessed hope (Titus 2:13); third, a better hope (Hebrews 7:19); and fourth, a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).
A review of these references indicates that the Christian’s hope is morally good because its source is in God; it is a blessed hope because it provides joy and gladness now as well as realization hereafter. Furthermore, it is a better hope than anything that rests upon the law for it assures complete access to God both now and in the life to come. In conclusion, the Christian’s hope is a living hope. The disciples of our Lord lost hope because they expected the immediate coronation of the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. The hope of the Christian rests upon the resurrection of Christ, He who lives in the power of an endless life; it, therefore, has life in itself and has life as its objective.
It is after that we have engaged in our own personal studies that we consult the writings of others. In our lesson on How to Study the Bible certain types of reference books were recommended; here other works are suggested.
First: Each student of the Bible should try to obtain the use of sound expository and doctrinal works. If he can build up a library of his own, that gives him a sense of independence. If unable to do this, he should belong to a library where such works are available.
Second: These books should be used only after personal work has been completed. If we follow first the writings of others, we become slaves to their thinking and conclusions, and the more closely we follow them the stronger will be the mental bondage in which they hold us. Studies should be done with reliance upon the Divine Anointing, the Holy Spirit, (1 John 2:27) and then the works of men may be used as guides over difficulties. The ancient question and answer seem appropriate at such times: “Understandest thou what thou readest?” “How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31).
An article published in Food for the Flock was severely criticized; the writer’s objection read, “The author has too much of the Pulpit Commentary in his article.”
Third: After diligently and thoroughly studying a passage, we may use the writings of others to either confirm or correct our own work. If after consulting the work of another we sense that our logic is poor and our deductions are wrong, we should correct our procedure and with this new guidance develop our studies.