During the last three Dividing Line broadcasts, I made my way through teaching 18 rules of biblical interpretation. For those who wish to see them in a written form, here now is the full listing:
1. Consider the Author – who wrote the book? (what was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?)
2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)
3. The Meaning of Words (this has become a lot easier in our day with all the information and technology at our disposal. The computer program Bibleworks is especially recommended).
4. Historical Setting (avoid anachronism – trying to understand the past while viewing it wearing 21st century glasses – will not help toward understanding the original meaning of the author).
5. Grammar – (how things are being expressed – imperative is a command, a subjunctive would be “would you like to do this?” – two quite different meanings result)
6. Textual Issues – (are there any questions about the earliest or most authoritative manuscripts in comparison with others of a later date – and how does this influence our understanding of what was originally written)
7. Syntax – this refers to words and their relationship with one another. For example, Romans 5:1 says “Having been justified (a past tense action) by faith, we have peace with God.” It would be incorrect to think that we have to gain peace with God before justification takes place. The syntax is clear that it is a result of first being justified that peace ensues. Correct syntax is a vital component of sound interpretation.
8. Form of Literature (we should interpret the Bible literally, but that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that parables are parables, and that to interpret them correctly, we interpret them as literal parables! Historical narrative is historical narrative, nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, analogies are analogies)
9. Immediate Context (a text out of context becomes a pretext. It can be made to say something not intended by the author). Always check the immediate context of a verse or passage to determine the correct interpretation.
10. Document Context (in Romans, there is a certain argument Paul is pursuing, and this helps us to determine what is meant in isolated verses when we know the purpose for what is being written. Always keep the author’s broad purpose in mind when looking in detail at the meaning of texts). This, like the others, is a very helpful rule.
11. Author’s Context (this refers to looking at all of a person’s writings – John’s writings, Paul’s writings, Luke’s writings, etc.).
12. Biblical Context (the broadest context possible, the entire Bible; allowing us to ask if our interpretation is consistent with the whole of Scripture. Scripture is never contradictory to itself.
13. Understand the difference between prescriptive and descriptive statements in the Bible. Is the verse telling us to do something, or does it describe an action someone does?
Matthew 24:13 “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”
Question: Is this verse prescriptive or descriptive?
If prescriptive, (if it telling us something to do) then no one can be sure of their salvation, for the simple reason that no one presently reading or hearing the statement has, as yet, endured until the very end. If prescriptive, it would negate the wonderful assurance of salvation that the Holy Spirit wishes us to know (1 John 5:13).
Certainly, this is a descriptive statement – as it describes the actions of a truly saved person – such a one will endure, for the nature of the kind of faith God gives to His people is one that endures to the end. A saved person is one who endures to the end – a principle made clear in other passages such as 1 John 2:19 – “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
14. Build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. A necessary inference is something that is definitely taught by the text. The conclusion is unavoidable. It is necessary. A possible inference is something that could or might be true, but not something actually stated by the text.
This is often a lot harder than it might first appear because it means we have to take a step back and analyse exactly why we think a verse teaches something. In other words, it means testing our traditions and doing a lot of thinking. Yet this is something we should do constantly. Paul exhorted Timothy to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (2 Tim. 2:7)
All of us should be prepared to hold up our preconceived notions to the light of Scripture to see if these assumptions are valid or not. The result of this process often involves the killing of some sacred cows, but that’s a good thing, if what we have held to be true cannot actually be supported by the biblical text. We all have our blind spots and traditions but we are not always aware of them. Therefore, the serious Bible student asks questions of himself and of the text constantly in order to determine what the sacred text actually says and then he builds his thinking on that.
Here’s one text as an example: John 20:19 says, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Many people read this text and conclude that Jesus walked through the locked door in order to present Himself to His disciples. But does the text actually say that? No, it does not. The text might be teaching that. It is certainly a possible inference drawn from the text, but by no means a necessary one. There are other possible explanations.
Concerning this verse the ESV Study Bible says, “Some interpreters understand the doors being locked to imply that Jesus miraculously passed through the door or the walls of the room, though the text does not explicitly say this. Since Jesus clearly had a real physical body with flesh and bones after he rose from the dead… one possibility is that the door was miraculously opened so that the physical body of Jesus could enter, which is consistent with the passage about Peter going through a locked door some time later (see Acts 12:10).”
To state the principle again: we should build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. All else is speculation.
15. Interpret the unclear passages in Scripture in light of the clear. Though all Scripture is God breathed, every passage is not equally clear (easy to understand). Even the Apostle Peter struggled with Paul’s writings at times, as he found some of it “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)
When determining what the Bible teaches on a particular topic, find the passages which CLEARLY address the issue at hand and make this the starting point of your doctrine, rather than an obscure (or less than clear) passage. Once that which is clear is firmly grasped and understood, then proceed to study the passages which at first seem to be unclear, using the above rules.
16. Build doctrine on didactic (teaching) statements in Scripture rather than possible inferences from narrative passages.
17. Think for yourself but not by yourself. We are not at all wise when we isolate ourselves. God has gifted others with tremendous insights, not only in our own day, but throughout the history of the Church. These teachers are Christ’s gifts to His people (Ephesians 4:8-12). Use their help.
Here are four helpful quotes in this regard:
“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.” – Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?”
“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” – C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries
“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” – J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today.”
“Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.” – R. C. Sproul
18. Avoid hyper allegorical interpretations.
Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (354 AD to 430 AD), known more commonly as simply Augustine, taught a hyper allegorical method of interpretation, which was very highly speculative.
Augustine’s Commentary on the Good Samaritan – Luke 10:29–37
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead. The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come. The innkeeper is the Apostle (Paul). The supererogatory payment is either his counsel of celibacy, or the fact that he worked with his own hands lest he should be a burden to any of the weaker brethren when the Gospel was new, though it was lawful for him ‘to live by the gospel.’” – Quaestiones Evangeliorum, II, 19 –slightly abridged as cited in C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1961), pg. 1-2.
Who is to say which interpretation is true?