DISCLAIMER: THERE ARE MANY PARTS OF THE BIBLE THAT ARE TO BE TAKEN FOR WHAT THEY LITERALLY SAY. THIS IS NOT ABOUT INTERPRETING THE ENTIRETY OF THE BIBLE ALLEGORICALLY OR EISEGETICALLY (READING THINGS INTO THE TEXT). This is about being objective, and faithful, to the text.
Interpreting the Bible Literally vs. Interpreting the Bible Accurately
The problem with interpreting all of the Bible literally is that the Bible does not interpret all of the Bible literally.
Here are but a couple of examples:
“He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’” (Matthew 2:15 interpreting Hosea 1:11 figuratively/typologically)
“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” (Galatians 3:16 interpreting Genesis 12 and 15 figuratively/typologically)
Interpreting the Bible literally does not always lead to interpreting the Bible accurately, contrary to traditionally held belief. It requires a lot more work than simply glossing one’s eyes over the text to understand the “living and active Word of God” in all of its literary majesty.
A well rounded understanding of hermeneutical principles will aid in the proper interpretation of the Bible. Simply put, hermeneutics is the science of interpretation.
A few things before we begin:
1) I believe in the Verbal Plenary Inspiration of the Bible
What does this mean?
- God so moved the authors of Scripture, through the Holy Spirit, that the resulting product was the Word of God written, totally without error in the original autographs, in every area including theology, history, geography, and science.
- I allow for the fact that the interpreted versions of the Bible that we have today have multiple errors in translation and grammar none of which affect the meaning or truth behind scripture. It is still the living Word of God which He has protected in order that it could be read by us and future generations.
2) The hermeneutical model described below is called the grammatical-historical method of interpretation
3) Much of this material has been gathered from sources, edited, and reproduced. Some of these authors include R. Laird Harris, F.F. Bruce, Jim Leffel, and Dennis McCallum. Credit to whom credit is due.
Principles of the Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation
Take the normal meaning of the words, phrases and sentences unless it is impossible to do so. The interpretation must correspond to the words and grammar in the text in a reasonable way. Otherwise, there is no objective control over the interpreter. Most of the Bible can be interpreted by simply taking the language (either in the original or in translation) in the usual way. In other words,
“If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”
Allow for figures of speech
A plain sense reading should not be confused with a literalistic interpretation.
Psalm 91:4 He will cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.
Luke 22:19ff “. . . this is my body . . . Where was Jesus’ body when he said this? See his other metaphors about Himself (door; bread; etc.).
Allow for symbolism
If a passage is symbolic or contains symbols, this should be indicated in the text, either by textual cues or because symbolism is required in order to make sense of the text. The Bible itself explains most symbols.
Revelation 1:9-20 – The symbols are identified as such (“like,” “as,”) and explained. Most biblical symbols are handled this way. As another example, many more symbols in Revelation have been previously explained in Daniel.
Historical interpretation means that taking into account the historical background of the author and the recipients. This does not mean asking, “What does it mean to me?” but rather, “What did it mean to the original audience?” Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, or other sources are proper to learn more about customs, money, geography, etc. Understanding the original intent is crucial to understanding modern application.
Genesis 15:7-21 – “Cutting a covenant” solemnized a contract between two parties. It was normally bilateral (both parties walked through), but only God goes through this particular covenantal agreement.
1 Corinthians 11:4-6 – Short hair was typical of Aphrodite priestess-prostitutes; shaven heads were typical of convicted adulteresses (vs. 5).
Any interpretation must make rational sense. The entire Bible is the product of one author (God) at the same time that it is the product of many authors. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect a consistent message throughout the Bible. Some of these rules are logical implications of a belief in the verbal plenary inspiration of scripture.
FIVE PRACTICAL RULES OF CRITICAL INTERPRETATION
Interpret in light of the context of the passage (which author? book? passage?)
Never view a passage in isolation from its surroundings. The context should be considered the most important kind of evidence in the interpretation of a passage. Only when no critically feasible interpretation can be found can we claim that a break in context was intended.
Matthew 16:28 – Referring to the transfiguration (in context of passage) “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” 2 Peter 1:16- confirms that Peter was an eye witness of Christ’s “majesty.”
James 1:6-8 – The “doubter” is not simply any Christian who has occasional doubts. He is the “double-minded man,” whom James further describes in 4:8 (in context of book) as Christians who posture themselves as loving God but really love the world.
Interpret in light of progressive revelation
(Hebrews 1:1, 2) God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
Hebrews 8:13 When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
While God’s purpose for man has never changed, his strategy in accomplishing that purpose has changed. He has dealt with man under different “covenants,” or “dispensations.” Therefore, it is important to ask, “Under which program was this written?” Primary application of the passage will be to the people operating under that program, but not necessarily to others. There may be secondary applications for other programs based on principles which have universal application.
Theocracy was commanded in the Old Testament, but secular government is affirmed in the New Testament (Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:21).
Interpret scripture in harmony with other scripture
Since the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contradict itself. Therefore, never interpret scripture in such a way that it clearly contradicts other scriptures. If a passage can be legitimately interpreted in more than one way, choose the interpretation that doesn’t contradict other scriptures.
Acts 2:38 refers to baptism as an expression of faith; faith that salvation is obtained by grace alone through Christ, not through baptism.
Interpret the unclear in light of the clear
Every major, essential truth is taught clearly and many times.
1 Corinthians 15:29 “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” . . . mentions an obscure, unknown practice used in Corinth. Paul doesn’t affirm this practice; he just asks why they’re doing it if they do not believe in resurrection. Today, the Mormon Church uses this passage to elevate dead ancestors to a higher status in the afterlife.
Interpret in light of the literary style
The literary style (genre) affects understanding of a Biblical passage. For example, Proverbs should be interpreted in light of general maxims, not absolute promises
Proverbs 22:6 – Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Not every child will go in the right direction, but many will
Proverbs 15:1 – A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger
Gentle words do not always turn away wrath, but in most cases it works
Contrast these with passages like Romans 8:1, which do contain absolute promises