Chapter 10 - Interpretation
The term hermeneutics refers to the set of principles or rules
that govern one's interpretation of a piece of literature. The
term exegesis refers to the actual practice of getting the meaning out of the
text. Thus, hermeneutics is the theory; exegesis is the practice.
Hermeneutics applied becomes exegesis, which we also call “discovery”. This
chapter and the next two chapters briefly discuss hermeneutics and exegesis.
As you recall from chapter 7, an observation differs from an
interpretation, which differs from an application. An observation is a statement
regarding something factual which is indicated directly in the
An interpretation is based on observations and is a statement of the
of the text. However, an application is not a statement, either
what the text says, or about what it means, or about how it can be used
to change one's life. Rather, an application is the use
the Bible (the Bible's teachings, principles, etc.) in one's life based
on the proper interpretation.
Discovery in the Bible has much in common with discovery in other
However, response to the Bible has little in common with response to
literature. It is this second fact that causes some people to
generalize and claim that one's entire experience with the
(both discovery and response) must be quite different from one's
with all other literature. Thus, some claim that you should not
to study the Bible in the same way you study other literature.
claim is an oversimplification and is quite misleading.
|Observations state what the passage says
||Interpretation states what the passage means
||(Statement of practical implications or possible applications)
||Application uses the passage to change my life pattern
Consider the three main phases in the diagram above: observation,
and application. Concerning the first phase, observation of a
from the Bible is done nearly identically to observation of passages
other literature. Observation is the most objective and concrete
of the three phases. It involves simply finding out what the text says,
and this is done practically the same way for both biblical and
literature. This means that the skills, operations, and practices
used in observing a biblical text are very similar to those used in the
careful study of any piece of literature.
However, concerning the second phase, there is only some
between interpretation of the Bible and interpretation of other
This is true because of two unique facts about the Bible. First,
the Bible is inspired (2 Timothy 3:16a; 2 Peter 1:21). In other
the Bible is a completely reliable record that says exactly what God
it to say. Everything that it records is recorded accurately,
the false statements of Satan and unbelievers. The Bible's
reliability is one of its differences from all other literature.
Thus, in interpreting the Bible, we must respect its content in a way
respect no other book. With other books we can often use our own
experience, common sense, and logic to judge that a statement in a
book is incorrect. But we can never act as a judge of the content
of the Bible. Our interpretation of the Bible, although it will
full use of our minds, will never set our minds or our experience above
the Bible. That is, as a person interprets a Bible passage, he
rightfully say, “I know what it says and I know what it means, but what
it says and what it means are wrong.”
Second, some Bible teachings run counter to our own good opinion of
ourselves. Thus, at times its message is unacceptable to
Since we cannot welcome the Bible's message, we will tend very strongly
to interpret (actually misinterpret) its message in a way that
our good opinion of ourselves. Such interpretation, of course, is
extremely poor, since we are allowing the Bible to say only what we
it to say. Apart from the Holy Spirit we are unable to correctly
understand the spiritual teachings in the Bible (1 Corinthians
So, because the Bible is a spiritual and moral book, and we are by
antispiritual and antimoral, we will tend to misinterpret many of the
teachings. It is very important to note, however, that it is
one's attitude toward the Bible and its teachings (including
assumptions about one's own nature) which causes the problems.
it comes to the skills, etc., used in interpreting the Bible, these
basically the same as one would use with other literature.
Concerning the third phase, there is very little similarity between
the application of the Bible and the application of other literature in
our lives. Because of the Bible's complete reliability and its
on spiritual and moral matters, and because of our own antispiritual
antimoral tendencies, we are under obligation to use the Bible to
our lives, as we are under obligation to no other book. (We say
about application in chapter 14.)
In a nutshell: we can expect that Bible study will use many of
the same observational skills, hermeneutical rules, and exegetical
as we would use in the interpretation of other literature.
our attitude toward the Bible (the respect we hold for it and the
we owe to it) is unique.
The remainder of this chapter and chapters 11 and 12 contain a very
brief introduction to the general rules and principles of Bible
There is much excellent material written on this subject that you
read carefully. We recommend several sources at the end of this
Many general principles discussed in these chapters are principles
you are already using on other writings, such as letters from your
novels, and textbooks. When it comes to Bible study, we do not
out these principles that we use by common sense on other literature
there is something different about the nature of the particular
passage that demands a different approach.
Many things that we read are relatively easy for us to interpret
because we know the writer and the circumstances surrounding the
or because we know the culture. This is true, for example, when
receive a letter from a friend or when we read an American newspaper,
However, the Bible was written by men whom we have not known
in cultural settings and circumstances that we have not experienced,
in languages that are not our mother tongue. Thus, our most
task in interpreting the Bible is to comprehend the mind of the
and the original readers. This involves the writer's and original
readers' language, their historical and cultural setting, their
backgrounds, and the immediate circumstances, which along with the
message (passage) being written all go together to comprise the mind of
the writer and original readers. The interpreter's task is not to
find an interpretation that fits the passage according to our
and ways of thinking. Rather, his task is to reach back and grasp
the mind of the writer and original readers — the
that fits the passage according to their times and ways of thinking.
Granted, according to 1 Peter 1:10-12, there are some prophetic
that can be more clearly understood after a predicted event has
taken place. But this fact does not mean that we should approach
these or any other Bible passages from our own perspective rather than
the writer's perspective. Even these prophetic passages must be
first from the eyes of the writer. Although the picture might be
more complete or more concrete after the predicted event has occurred,
that completed picture must start with the partial picture in the mind
of the writer. Pieces which finish a puzzle are not even
part of the same puzzle unless they fit what is already there. So
we must know what is there first. We must see it as the writer
it before we can properly fill in the final details. Furthermore,
in such cases, it is this partial picture that is properly called the
of the passage. The complete picture is better called the
or actualization, or satisfaction of the passage.
The interpreter's task in all cases is to get back to the mind of
writer, to grasp his thought and intent within his time
the Original Languages
Since the books of the Bible were inspired in their original
(mainly Hebrew and Greek), and since no translation can completely
the thought, intent, idiom, and mood of the original, we prefer to
the Bible in the original languages. This is why Bible scholars
to master Hebrew and Greek.
While many groups of people still do not have the Bible in their
language, we are very fortunate to have many good translations of the
in English. But whenever possible we prefer to study the Greek
Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, the ideal goal
would be to fully master both Greek and Hebrew, but even a little
of these languages can be helpful. For example, merely learning
names, appearances, sounds, and order of the letters in, say, the Greek
alphabet has several advantages. First, by learning the names and
appearances of the letters you will begin to break down the total
of Greek that mystifies many people. Second, by learning the
of each letter you will be able to pronounce Greek words when you see
This will help you remember Greek words that you find in a commentary
Bible dictionary, and will help you recognize them when you hear your
or a Bible teacher refer to them. Third, by learning the order of
the letters in the Greek alphabet you will be able to find the
of any Greek word in a Greek-English lexicon (dictionary). So
you may think that you will never master Greek or Hebrew, you should
about these languages, then continue to learn as much about them as you
can. You can find the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in many English
dictionaries by looking up the word alphabet, and in the back
Exhaustive Concordance. For further study of Greek see J.
Machen's New Testament Greek for Beginners or Ray Summers' Essentials
of New Testament Greek. For further study of Hebrew see Kyle
M. Yates' The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, revised edition,
by John J. Owens, or Thomas O. Lambdin's An Introduction to
Hebrew, or Menahem Mansoor's Biblical Hebrew Step by Step.
A caution is necessary, however, in connection with the use of Greek
and Hebrew. A little knowledge of one or both languages can be a
dangerous thing, if one thinks that that knowledge is the key
correct Bible interpretation or replaces other rules of
Even the full mastery of Greek and Hebrew does not replace other rules
of interpretation and the principles and procedures of proper Bible
The person who knows Greek and Hebrew but neglects the other principles
is on very flimsy ground. He can make many of the same mistakes
lead to incorrect interpretations in the Greek that he can make in
Knowledge of Greek is no guarantee of proper interpretation of New
passages. Nearly all of the principles explained in this book
be used in a study of the Bible in the original languages, just as they
must be used in a study of the Bible in an English translation. A
person who carefully and prayerfully follows proper interpretation
and study procedures as he studies a good English translation will
always arrive at a better interpretation of a given passage than the
who studies the original text but ignores proper principles and
This means that a person should work hard to learn and apply the
Bible study approach whether or not he knows the original
Of course, everything else being equal, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is
a decided asset in Bible study. What is preferred is to have both
a good knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and to use all the other
as you study the Bible in the original languages. (We say more
English translations and their use in chapter 16.)
Messages can be written in either a direct or an indirect
On the one hand, if we want someone to be sure to get the point, we
try to write out our idea in clear, explicit language that is directly
on the subject. On the other hand, we might merely imply the idea
indirectly, but then we run the risk of having the reader miss the
altogether. Furthermore, even our explicit statements may convey
ideas that we do not consciously intend to express.
All of this points up how dangerous it would be for an interpreter
focus his attention on implicit or unconscious meanings. It is
to assume that the biblical writers wanted their readers to get the
and to focus their attention on explicit messages. Our task,
as interpreters is to find that single, central message. Of
the exploration of several possible meanings for a given passage will
be part of the discovery process, but our goal is to find the
Even when we detect additional significance implied in the passage (as
illustrated in the discussion of Paul's trip to Macedonia in chapter
that additional interpretation must not be allowed to replace or
the single, explicit teaching of the passage.
Every Bible passage has a single meaning, only one correct
of its central idea, even though that one interpretation might have
different applications. After we have discovered the
interpretation of a passage, we can apply that interpretation to as
practical situations as we like, but the interpretation of the passage
Once you have interpreted a passage or something within a passage,
should you record your interpretations? There is an important
between the way observations are recorded and the way interpretations
recorded (as illustrated in chapter 8 under the section
on Mark 2:1-12”). Observations are stated with complete certainty
because they are directly verifiable in the text. In other words,
after one person states an observation, anyone else should also be able
to go to the text and say, “Yes, that is exactly what the text
Interpretations, however, have varying degrees of certainty.
should be stated so as to express the actual degree of certainty
that is, how firmly this interpretation is based on observations, and
likely it is that this interpretation is better than all other
As you state each interpretation, you should use phrases like the ones
in the chart below to express your degree of certainty — anywhere from
complete certainty to complete uncertainty.
If you look back at the interpretations given in chapter 8, you will
that the degree of certainty is stated with each interpretation.
Most certain --> | Surely ... / Certainly ... / Without question ...
| Probably ... / It is very likely that ...
| Evidently ... / It seems that ...
| Perhaps ... / Maybe ... / It is possible that ...
Least certain --> | Is ... ? / Did ... ? / Were ... ? / Why ... ?
Both observation and interpretation, if done properly, require much
time and hard work. If you want to have confidence in your
there are no shortcuts.
Do not be afraid of raising many questions that you are not able to
answer easily. Having unanswered questions is not a sign of
Rather, it is a sign of ignorance when a person announces that he knows
everything about a certain Bible passage or topic. Many people
not aware of just how much they do not know. But becoming aware
an unanswered question is the first step toward answering that
Thus, you should ask all the questions you can. Do not be
if, early in the process, you have many more questions than answers.
In fact, leaving a question unanswered until you are ready
answer it is an ability you should develop. Many people, feeling
uncomfortable with unanswered questions, jump to an answer mainly for
security of having an answer. However, you must suspend judgment
until all the facts are in, and until you have considered many possible
answers. This requires patience and diligence. “He who
an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs
It is better to crawl carefully to a conclusion and be correct than to
leap blindly and be incorrect. Two questions that you should
ask yourself during Bible study are:
Keep in mind that the basic and essential truths in the Bible are clear
and straightforward. You do not have to dig and dig and weigh and
weigh for years to discover the basic biblical teachings about whether
or not man is a sinner, whether or not Jesus died for our sins, whether
or not a positive relationship with God will be reestablished if we
in Jesus Christ, etc. These and other basics are clearly and
taught in the Bible. If these basics are doubted, it is not
the Bible is not clear on these topics; it is because people have come
to the Bible with unfounded assumptions and closed minds and thus have
clouded the abundant and explicit evidence in the Bible on these
Thus we do not need to fear that we will be left without the basic
we need for our spiritual life and growth. However, we do need to
be ready to suspend our judgment on some secondary
Several passages in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23; Hebrews 5:12 to
Luke 10:40-42; 2 Peter 3:16; 1 Corinthians 3:2) indicate that there are
some matters in the Bible that are more weighty, more elementary, more
necessary, and more clear than other matters. Thus, the careful
student will distinguish between what is primary and what is
He will work for the best answers on even the secondary issues, but he
will also show humility and love toward others and tolerance toward
views on the secondary matters when they differ from his.
- Do I have all the relevant facts?
- Have I considered a wide variety of interpretations?
The brief introduction to general hermeneutics found in this chapter
and the next two chapters should be supplemented with further reading
this important field. If you are serious about Bible study you
want to read as much as you can about these principles of
Any time spent reading the sources listed below will be well worth the
effort. The first few sources in the list are the shortest and
Furthermore, you will often be confronted with specialized types of
literature such as poetry, prophecy, parables, and apocalyptic
There are specialized hermeneutical rules that apply to the
of each of these literature types. It is beyond the scope of this
book to explain all these special hermeneutical rules. However,
of the sources listed below have long sections devoted to special
that deserve your thoughtful consideration.
- Dickason, Fred. “Straight Thinking in Bible Interpretation,” Moody Monthly, February 1964, pp. 22-23, 60-65.
- Stibbs, Alan M. Understanding God's Word. Inter-Varsity Press, 1950.
- Sterrett, T. Norton. How to Understand Your Bible. Rev. ed. InterVarsity Press, 1974 (especially sections II & III).
- Mickelsen and Mickelsen. Better Bible Study. Regal Books, 1977.
- Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics. 3rd rev. ed. Baker, 1970.
- Berkhof, Louis. The Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House, 1950.
- Mickelsen, A. Berkeley. Interpreting the Bible. Eerdmans, 1963.
- Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. InterVarsity Press, 1997.
- Terry, Milton S. Biblical Hermeneutics. Zondervan, n.d.
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