Principles of Basic Biblical Interpretation

Hermeneutics is the philosophy of interpretation. It’s called a “philosophy” because it begins with self-evident truths and applies those truths in a logical manner. This is only a survey of the subject. A complete discussion of hermeneutics would include specific issues in the interpretation of every literary genera included in the Bible. While the principles covered here should be sufficient for many students of the Bible, more advanced interpreters will need to consult dedicated works on hermeneutics.[1]

Some of the points we will consider are merely principles; that is, they are usually, but not always, true. Other points should be considered laws because they are true in all circumstances. The Law of Language, the Law of Meaning, the Law of Context, and the Law of Consistency (non-contradiction) are always true, and thus are rightly regarded as laws. On the other hand, the Principle of First Mention is generally true, but exceptions do occur; it is therefore regarded as a principle rather than a law.  The proper application of these concepts is essential to the correct understanding of the biblical text.

The application of hermeneutics is not intended to be a separate step in the interpretive process because hermeneutics impinges on every step in some way. That is to say that hermeneutics provides the guiding principles that underlie the entire process of biblical interpretation.

Underlying hermeneutical assumptions

Biblical interpretation is always based on some set of assumptions, and the following is a good set of assumptions with which to start. (Just so you know, all of the following, except for number five, are based on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

  1. The Bible is the authoritative Word of God; as such, it is the supreme authority in all matters of truth upon which it speaks.
  2. The Bible is a revelation from God, and is inspired by him, and thus inerrant in the original autographs, from beginning to end, including the very words and grammar of the original documents.
  3. The Bible is infallible.
  4. The Bible is a unity, having been inspired in all of its parts by the same Holy Spirit, and therefore its teaching is thoroughly consistent. That is to say that when the Bible in its original wording is correctly understood, it contains no real internal contradictions.
  5. Any passage has a single meaning that is best understood by the grammatical, historical, and dispensational method of interpretation.

It is imperative that every interpreter understands and remains faithful to his or her interpretive assumptions; failing to do so is illogical. The first step in that process is to state one’s assumptions in writing. It is not necessary to restate these assumptions for each new study, but it would not be a bad idea to review them from time to time. I have adopted the assumptions stated above; you must adopt your own. However, you should not proceed until you have done so.

The place of logic in interpretation

Language is the expression of logical relationships. To say “God is,” is to declare an affirmative relationship between God and reality. All categorical statements (i.e., statements of fact) express logical ideas, whether correctly or not. That being the case, it is correct to say that the meaning of all ideas expressed in language must be understood in accordance with the immutable laws of logic; hence, no statement that is illogical can be true. If you are tempted to think that miracles and the supernatural might somehow be exceptions to this rule, they are not. In fact, we couldn’t assert the existence of the supernatural, or distinguish its features from the natural realm, apart from logic. Because the real world is defined by logical relationships, there can be no exceptions to logic. For the interpreter of the Bible the recognition of this truth has profound implications. While we might not understand the relationships of supernatural ideas, including miracles, they cannot be exceptions to logic. To suggest that they are exceptions to logic is to suggest that they are unreal. What is the practical importance of this? Simply that any interpretation that asserts what is illogical cannot be true; to think otherwise leads to intellectual nihilism.

Laws

As stated above, laws describe logical relationships that have no exceptions; hence laws are always true. The following four laws are the “pillars” of biblical interpretation.

The Law of Language

Only when the language of a passage is understood in the manner intended by the original author is the correct meaning clear.

The Bible’s message is conveyed in language. The starting point in the interpretation of any passage is to determine what the passage says. What the passage means is totally dependent upon what it says. What a passage says is determined by the words (lexicography), how the words are put together to form sentences (syntax and grammar), and the presence of special literary features, such as figures of speech, parables, etc.

Corollaries:

  1. One can only exegete what a passage actually says. A passage cannot mean more, or less than what it says.
  2. Meaning and application are not the same. The meaning is the biblical truth; whereas the application is the practical use of the truth.
  3. While a passage might have numerous applications, those applications are all based on the passage’s singular meaning, and that meaning is the grammatical, historical, and dispensational meaning. Passages have a single meaning, which is the meaning intended by the author. If there is a deeper, hidden meaning in some passages than what the human author could have intended, that meaning can only be known through subsequent divine revelation, and that revelation would have to have its own distinct interpretation.

The Law of Meaning

The meaning of a passage is the meaning intended by the source (i.e., the author or speaker); thus, it must be assumed that in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, a passage means exactly what it says. In other words, unless sound reason dictates otherwise, the best interpretation of a passage is how it would have been understood by the writer’s (or speaker’s) contemporary audience.

  1. Corollaries:
  2. The goal of interpretation is to expose the author, or speaker’s, intended meaning.
  3. Allegorical interpretation is subjective in that the author’s language is interpreted against the interpreter’s predisposing ideas, rather than the author’s intended meaning. In essence, the allegorical interpreter highjacks the passage, bending it to his or her own ideas. Such a process is eisegetical (i.e., reading meaning “into,” rather than “out of” the passage). There is no place for eisegesis in legitimate biblical interpretation. Sadly, many Bible commentaries, and innumerable sermons, contain a great deal of eisegesis.

The Law of Context

Every communication, no matter what the mode, is context sensitive; therefore, Every biblical passage has a context that must be taken into account to properly understand the passage.

The following are elements of context: historical situation, the broader statements of scripture, and the historio-theological (dispensational) context. Failure to take any one of these elements into consideration can result in an incorrect understanding of a passage. The application of the Law of Context requires that the interpreter be able to understand, as much as possible, the language of the passage, the general historical period of the passage, and the particular circumstances surrounding the production of the passage (who wrote the passage to whom, and for what reason), the biblical context (how the passage relates to the larger context of the book and the rest of the Bible), and the dispensation context i.e., under what divinely appointed economy the passage falls, e.g., during innocence in the Garden, under the Law of Moses, under grace in the current age, in the coming millennial kingdom, etc.

The application of the Law of Context requires that the interpreter become proficient in the knowledge of the appropriate languages, biblical history, the specific historical circumstances of the book and passage, the biblical context in which the passage is set, and the dispensation to which the passage pertains. Ideally this law should be rigidly applied; however, most, if not all interpreters fall short of the ideal due to limitations in knowledge, skills, and/or resources. Nevertheless, it is important to know for what one should be striving. In practice, interpreters often find that they need to revise interpretations as their knowledge, skill set, and resources expand.

The Law of the Consistency of Scripture (i.e., Non-Contradiction)

In all things the Bible asserts to be true, there can be no real contradictions; therefore, every scripture is to be interpreted in a manner consistent with every other scripture as understood in its proper grammatical, historical, and dispensation context.

God, being omniscient and immutable, is incapable of contradicting himself. This does not mean that there are no contradictions in the Bible. In places, the Bible records the statements of those who do not speak for God; such statements are often in contradiction to God’s pronouncements. For example, the book of Job is largely composed of statements made by Job’s three friends, which God condemns toward the end of the book. Nevertheless, when the Bible is understood in context there is no inconsistency in that which it asserts to be true.

Principles

Unlike laws, which have no exceptions, principles are usually, but not always true. In dealing with principles the student of the Bible must be aware that exceptions do occur, and they are usually not difficult to detect.

The Principle of Progressive Revelation

Because the Bible is a progressive revelation (i.e., God revealed truth little by little as history progressed) early revelations of a truth tend to be general, with more specific information given later. The recognition of this fact helps to identify several circumstances the interpreter should take into consideration.

  1. While the biblical authors do not contradict each other, when correctly understood, we should not assume that all of the biblical writers, living at different times, were equally aware of the same truths. The interpreter should not read later, more highly developed truths, back into earlier passages as if the earlier authors were aware of that information.
  2. Where earlier and later aspects of a truth seem to be in conflict, we must understand the apparent differences as owing to the progressive nature of revelation (i.e., some passages, usually later ones, may be more highly developed and thus more specific).
  3. Using earlier, less specific truths in such a way as to conflict with later, more specific revelations of truth would be inconsistent with the Principle of Progressive Revelation.
  4. Later truths should not be interpreted in such a way as to contradict earlier truths. Later truths may be more highly developed, and thus more specific than earlier truths, but they should never be interpreted in such a way as to contradict earlier truths. The concept of progressive revelation differs significantly from the principle of negation as found in Quranic interpretation, where a later statement might be viewed as negating an earlier one. In progressive revelation no prior statement is ever negated, though later statements might reveal new, or more detailed information, which must be understood in a manner consistent with prior scripture.

The Principle of First Mention

Often the first mention of a truth contains important information needed to understand that truth elsewhere. When studying a doctrine one should begin with the first mention of that truth and work forward in time (i.e., in subsequent revelation) to see how the truth was developed. Remember that the biblical books are not in strict chronological order. (This is particularly true in the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament epistles.) Also interpreters should remember that chronological Bibles might not present all of the biblical text in strict chronological order; dates for many books are still in dispute.

The Principle of Literary Expression

Figures of speech are common in all languages. The presence of figurative speech is not a reason to depart from normal, objective interpretation. Figures of speech simply convey an idea in a more forceful, or memorable way. Thus, figures of speech enhance the communication value of passages in which they are found. Most figures of speech are intuitively understood; that is to say, we innately understand their meaning because we use them frequently ourselves. We should not think that the presence of figures of speech in a passage means that the author did not intend for the reader to take what they said at face value. Below are some of the more common types of figures of speech.

Hyperbole –an exaggeration for the sake of emphasis
Irony –stating the opposite of what one means
Metaphor –using one thing to describe another thing
Simile –comparing one thing with another thing using a comparative term such as “like” or “as”
Apostrophe –an interruption addressed to an imaginary audience
Chiasmus –two expressions in which the second is the reverse of, or parallel to the first
Inclusio –repeated bracketing using the same expression to mark the beginning and end of a segment (copse)
Metonymy –when a thing is referred to by something closely associated with it
Personification –ascribing human qualities to something that is not human
Synecdoche –when a part is used to represent the whole
Allusion –a veiled reference
Parody –a distorted imitation for the sake of ridicule or comment

The proper interpretation of any figure of speech is how the writer’s contemporary target audience would have understood what was said. Note that although parables are extended similes, their interpretation is treated separately below.

The Principle of the Analogy of Scripture

Because the Bible is the product of a singular mind, all of its parts, when seen together, form a unified picture of God’s dealings with man. The more of the picture one comprehends, the easier it is to see how the individual parts relate to the whole. Consider a picture puzzle. If one were attempting to assemble a picture puzzle without the benefit of knowing what the picture is supposed to look like, the first pieces would be the most difficult to align, but as the picture gradually took shape, the remaining pieces would become easier to fit, since they must fit the pattern already established. While the shape of some pieces might allow them to be put in more than one place, there is only one arrangement in which every piece will be in right relation to every other piece to form a coherent whole. This is an overly simplistic illustration, but it demonstrates that every passage of scripture must be understood in relation to the overall pattern of scripture. You might ask, Isn’t this simply the Law of Context by another name? The answer is, “No.” While the analogy of scripture draws on the larger context of the Bible, it comprehends the two at a higher level by seeing not only how the context illuminates the passage under study, but also how the passage under study and the larger context interrelate to form a more complete picture of truth. The Principle of the Analogy of Scripture is one of the most difficult hermeneutical concepts for the beginning interpreter to grasp, simply because it can take many years of in-depth study before one begins to see the larger patterns that comprise the singular picture woven into the tapestry of the Bible.

Principle: Scripture is its own best interpreter

In some cases the Bible is self-interpreting; that is to say, if one looks within the pages of the Bible many truths taught in one place are expounded or alluded to in another place. Thus, when studying a truth the interpreter should become familiar with what the rest of the Bible, particularly subsequent statements, say about the subject. Concordances, topical Bibles, and even theologies can be invaluable in locating this kind of information.

Principle: Usually the simplest explanation that fits the grammar, history, dispensational context, and the broader context of scripture is the best

The Bible wasn’t written just for intellects; it’s basically composed of many simple truths combined to form a comprehensive picture. The simplest explanation that fits all of the facts is usually the best explanation.

A word of caution: Never base a doctrine on a statement made in only one passage. While it is true that something only needs to be mentioned once to be true, doctrines, especially important doctrines, are usually broadly taught in the Bible.

Principle: Any passage has only one meaning, and hence, only one correct interpretation

Students of the Bible have debated the question of whether there is a fuller meaning to some passages than what the human authors may have been aware. After all, if the ultimate author of scripture is God, why could he not have infused within it a deeper meaning than even the human authors were aware? Of course, he could have, and undoubtedly did in some cases. However, in such cases the deeper meaning cannot be determined directly through the exegetical process; it must be identified by a subsequent revelation from God, the meaning of which must then be determined by the normal/objective method of interpretation (i.e., the grammatical, historical, and dispensational method). Whether there is in some biblical statements a meaning beyond the obvious normal/objective meaning only God knows, and only God can reveal. Unless subsequent scripture identifies a hidden meaning, the interpreter should not seek one. If God subsequently reveals a hidden meaning to a previous passage, that is a revelation concerning the prior passage, not an interpretation of the prior passage, and we must be careful to distinguish between revelations about a passage and the interpretation of a passage. In the absence of a subsequent revelation concerning the meaning of a specific passage, the only legitimate interpretation is what the passage says, as determined by the normal/objective method of interpretation. In keeping with this, a passage can have only one correct interpretation, even if God subsequently reveals a hidden meaning. Again, in such a case, the subsequent revelation would have its own distinct interpretation.

The interpretation of parables

A parable is an extended simile, usually in the form of a story; thus, parables convey a truth through the medium of an analogy. Several things should be kept in mind when seeking to interpret parables:

  1. One should not try to find significance for every detail of the parable. Some details are only given to complete a similitude to make the story intelligible. Even when Jesus interpreted his own parables, he did not assign significance to every detail.
  2. As an extended figure of speech, and like all figures of speech, parables generally teach a central truth; the goal is to identify that truth.
  3. Some parables are interpreted within the context of the passage; one should look for the interpretation to see if it’s supplied. When interpreting parables from the gospels, always check the parallel material in the other gospels. The gospels are highly condensed reports of Jesus’ life and teaching, and each writer condensed that material differently. It’s not unusual to find details or explanations in one gospel that do not appear in others.
  4. Even if the interpretation is not given, the context may contain clues as to why the parable was spoken and what it means.

[1] For excellent works on Biblical hermeneutics see: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Hermeneutics, By: H. Wayne House and Forrest S. Weiland, Lampion Press, 2015; and Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, second edition, by Milton S. Terry, WIPF & Stock, 2003.

(Adapted from How to Study the Bible: A Guide to Systematic, Exegetical Bible Study, by Sam A. Smith, 2016. For the print edition of the above book click of tap here. For the abridged PDF edition click or tap here.)