Holy Spirit Interactive
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Inside Holy Spirit Interactive

Direct Bible Discovery

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 text. An interpretation is based on observations and is a statement of the meaning of the text. However, an application is not a statement, either about 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 of 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 literature. However, response to the Bible has little in common with response to other literature. It is this second fact that causes some people to over generalize and claim that one's entire experience with the Bible (both discovery and response) must be quite different from one's experience with all other literature. Thus, some claim that you should not try to study the Bible in the same way you study other literature. This claim is an oversimplification and is quite misleading.

Discovery Response
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, interpretation, and application. Concerning the first phase, observation of a passage from the Bible is done nearly identically to observation of passages from 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 nonbiblical 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 similarity between interpretation of the Bible and interpretation of other literature. 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 words, the Bible is a completely reliable record that says exactly what God intended it to say. Everything that it records is recorded accurately, even the false statements of Satan and unbelievers. The Bible's complete reliability is one of its differences from all other literature. Thus, in interpreting the Bible, we must respect its content in a way we 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 particular 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 make 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 cannot 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 us. Since we cannot welcome the Bible's message, we will tend very strongly to interpret (actually misinterpret) its message in a way that saves our good opinion of ourselves. Such interpretation, of course, is extremely poor, since we are allowing the Bible to say only what we want it to say. Apart from the Holy Spirit we are unable to correctly understand the spiritual teachings in the Bible (1 Corinthians 2:14). So, because the Bible is a spiritual and moral book, and we are by nature antispiritual and antimoral, we will tend to misinterpret many of the Bible's teachings. It is very important to note, however, that it is primarily one's attitude toward the Bible and its teachings (including one's assumptions about one's own nature) which causes the problems. When it comes to the skills, etc., used in interpreting the Bible, these remain 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 focus on spiritual and moral matters, and because of our own antispiritual and antimoral tendencies, we are under obligation to use the Bible to change our lives, as we are under obligation to no other book. (We say more 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 practices as we would use in the interpretation of other literature. However, our attitude toward the Bible (the respect we hold for it and the obedience 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 interpretation. There is much excellent material written on this subject that you should read carefully. We recommend several sources at the end of this chapter.

Many general principles discussed in these chapters are principles that you are already using on other writings, such as letters from your friends, novels, and textbooks. When it comes to Bible study, we do not throw out these principles that we use by common sense on other literature unless there is something different about the nature of the particular biblical passage that demands a different approach.

The Interpreter's Task

Many things that we read are relatively easy for us to interpret simply because we know the writer and the circumstances surrounding the writing, or because we know the culture. This is true, for example, when we receive a letter from a friend or when we read an American newspaper, respectively. However, the Bible was written by men whom we have not known personally, in cultural settings and circumstances that we have not experienced, and in languages that are not our mother tongue. Thus, our most fundamental task in interpreting the Bible is to comprehend the mind of the writer and the original readers. This involves the writer's and original readers' language, their historical and cultural setting, their personal backgrounds, and the immediate circumstances, which along with the particular 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 times and ways of thinking. Rather, his task is to reach back and grasp the mind of the writer and original readers — the interpretation that fits the passage according to their times and ways of thinking.

Granted, according to 1 Peter 1:10-12, there are some prophetic passages 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 seen 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 considered 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 saw it before we can properly fill in the final details. Furthermore, in such cases, it is this partial picture that is properly called the interpretation of the passage. The complete picture is better called the fulfillment, or actualization, or satisfaction of the passage.

The interpreter's task in all cases is to get back to the mind of the writer, to grasp his thought and intent within his time and setting.

Preference for the Original Languages

Since the books of the Bible were inspired in their original languages (mainly Hebrew and Greek), and since no translation can completely reproduce the thought, intent, idiom, and mood of the original, we prefer to study the Bible in the original languages. This is why Bible scholars endeavor to master Hebrew and Greek.

While many groups of people still do not have the Bible in their native language, we are very fortunate to have many good translations of the Bible in English. But whenever possible we prefer to study the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, the ideal goal would be to fully master both Greek and Hebrew, but even a little knowledge of these languages can be helpful. For example, merely learning the 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 unfamiliarity of Greek that mystifies many people. Second, by learning the sound of each letter you will be able to pronounce Greek words when you see them. This will help you remember Greek words that you find in a commentary or Bible dictionary, and will help you recognize them when you hear your pastor 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 definition(s) of any Greek word in a Greek-English lexicon (dictionary). So although you may think that you will never master Greek or Hebrew, you should learn something 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 of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. For further study of Greek see J. Gresham 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, edited by John J. Owens, or Thomas O. Lambdin's An Introduction to Biblical 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 to correct Bible interpretation or replaces other rules of interpretation. Even the full mastery of Greek and Hebrew does not replace other rules of interpretation and the principles and procedures of proper Bible study. 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 that lead to incorrect interpretations in the Greek that he can make in English. Knowledge of Greek is no guarantee of proper interpretation of New Testament passages. Nearly all of the principles explained in this book must 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 principles and study procedures as he studies a good English translation will nearly always arrive at a better interpretation of a given passage than the person who studies the original text but ignores proper principles and procedures. This means that a person should work hard to learn and apply the correct Bible study approach whether or not he knows the original languages. 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 principles as you study the Bible in the original languages. (We say more about English translations and their use in chapter 16.)

Singularity of Interpretation

Messages can be written in either a direct or an indirect manner. On the one hand, if we want someone to be sure to get the point, we will 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 point 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 to focus his attention on implicit or unconscious meanings. It is best to assume that the biblical writers wanted their readers to get the point and to focus their attention on explicit messages. Our task, then, as interpreters is to find that single, central message. Of course, the exploration of several possible meanings for a given passage will often be part of the discovery process, but our goal is to find the meaning. Even when we detect additional significance implied in the passage (as illustrated in the discussion of Paul's trip to Macedonia in chapter 7), that additional interpretation must not be allowed to replace or overshadow the single, explicit teaching of the passage.

Every Bible passage has a single meaning, only one correct interpretation of its central idea, even though that one interpretation might have many different applications. After we have discovered the correct interpretation of a passage, we can apply that interpretation to as many practical situations as we like, but the interpretation of the passage remains singular.

Recording Interpretations

Once you have interpreted a passage or something within a passage, how should you record your interpretations? There is an important difference between the way observations are recorded and the way interpretations are recorded (as illustrated in chapter 8 under the section “Observations 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 says.” Interpretations, however, have varying degrees of certainty. Interpretations should be stated so as to express the actual degree of certainty present, that is, how firmly this interpretation is based on observations, and how likely it is that this interpretation is better than all other interpretations. 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.

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 ... ?

If you look back at the interpretations given in chapter 8, you will see that the degree of certainty is stated with each interpretation.


Both observation and interpretation, if done properly, require much time and hard work. If you want to have confidence in your interpretations, 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 ignorance. Rather, it is a sign of ignorance when a person announces that he knows everything about a certain Bible passage or topic. Many people are not aware of just how much they do not know. But becoming aware of an unanswered question is the first step toward answering that question. Thus, you should ask all the questions you can. Do not be discouraged if, early in the process, you have many more questions than answers.

In fact, leaving a question unanswered until you are ready to answer it is an ability you should develop. Many people, feeling uncomfortable with unanswered questions, jump to an answer mainly for the 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 gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). It is better to crawl carefully to a conclusion and be correct than to leap blindly and be incorrect. Two questions that you should continually ask yourself during Bible study are:

  1. Do I have all the relevant facts?
  2. Have I considered a wide variety of interpretations?
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 trust in Jesus Christ, etc. These and other basics are clearly and convincingly taught in the Bible. If these basics are doubted, it is not because 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 matters. Thus we do not need to fear that we will be left without the basic answers we need for our spiritual life and growth. However, we do need to be ready to suspend our judgment on some secondary issues. Several passages in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23; Hebrews 5:12 to 6:1; 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 Bible student will distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary. 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 their views on the secondary matters when they differ from his.

For Further Reading

The brief introduction to general hermeneutics found in this chapter and the next two chapters should be supplemented with further reading in this important field. If you are serious about Bible study you will want to read as much as you can about these principles of interpretation. 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 easiest ones.

Furthermore, you will often be confronted with specialized types of literature such as poetry, prophecy, parables, and apocalyptic writings. There are specialized hermeneutical rules that apply to the interpretation of each of these literature types. It is beyond the scope of this book to explain all these special hermeneutical rules. However, most of the sources listed below have long sections devoted to special hermeneutics that deserve your thoughtful consideration.

  1. Dickason, Fred. “Straight Thinking in Bible Interpretation,” Moody Monthly, February 1964, pp. 22-23, 60-65.
  2. Stibbs, Alan M. Understanding God's Word. Inter-Varsity Press, 1950.
  3. Sterrett, T. Norton. How to Understand Your Bible. Rev. ed. InterVarsity Press, 1974 (especially sections II & III).
  4. Mickelsen and Mickelsen. Better Bible Study. Regal Books, 1977.
  5. Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics. 3rd rev. ed. Baker, 1970.
  6. Berkhof, Louis. The Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House, 1950.
  7. Mickelsen, A. Berkeley. Interpreting the Bible. Eerdmans, 1963.
  8. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. InterVarsity Press, 1997.
  9. Terry, Milton S. Biblical Hermeneutics. Zondervan, n.d.

Back to Index | Next Chapter