How To Read and Correctly Interpret the Bible
READING THE BIBLE
Q: How should you go about reading the Bible?
A: The Bible is to be read like any other book--keeping with the rules of reading literature. The Bible should be interpreted according to its literal sense---literally.
The Bible is like any other book as to its literary composition, but there the similarities end. It is God’s only written communication with man. It is completely trustworthy—it makes fantastic claims and predictions and still it remains trustworthy because its writers were inspired by God as they wrote its contents. It is like a mine of treasures, infinitely deep, always inviting the reader to a second chamber after he has spent time in the first. It is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in doing what is right in God’s eyes.
Like no other piece of literature, it has successfully withstood repeated vicious attacks and intellectual criticisms from every direction possible only to come out more affirmed than ever. One such critic, Josh Mc Dowell, an atheist at the time, set out to prove it false only to become convinced of its veracity and accuracy. He subsequently wrote,
The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict that answers all questions challenging its veracity. (ISNN 0-7852-4219-8).
The following will answer many of your questions concerning how to read and study the Bible so that you will correctly know what it says.
HOW TO KNOW THE CORRECT MEANING OF THE SCRIPTURES
The correct interpretation of Scripture is not subjective like feelings or the interpretation of modern art. For example, have you ever asked an artist what he wanted to convey to his viewer only to have him answer, “What it means to you is what I want to say”? Many people say that about the Bible, but it is definitely not the case.
Have you ever heard someone say, or perhaps you, yourself have said – “Well, that’s just your interpretation” . . . Or how about this one – “What it means to you is fine for you, but that’s not what it means to me” . . . Or how about this one – “Different experts say that theirs is the correct interpretation and many do not agree with what the other says is correct. How can I know what is correct?” as if to imply there are multiple correct meanings, simultaneously opposing, yet simultaneously true. Contradictions such as these cannot be true. If we have two interpretations of the same passage which are different, then at least one, and possibly both, must be incorrect. However, while there is only one correct interpretation of Scripture, each truth has many applications for our lives.
The Bible was written by persons in their own style and in their own words. However, since they were inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, what they penned was the Word of God.
The Bible is God’s written Word. In it He addresses us in understandable human terms. He chose this form of revelation to communicate to us and He wants us to be comfortable as we approach it. He also enlightens us in the process of understanding it.
God is not interested in hiding or distorting His message. On the contrary, it is only thoughts like – “I won’t understand it” … ‘It’s an awfully thick book written too complicated for me to understand” . . . “You can make it anything you want it to” . . “Why read it if so many people interpret it in so many different ways?” – that keeps one from opening, reading, and studying the Bible.
Many who are unfamiliar with the contents of the Bible think it only says that bad people go to hell and good people go to heaven. That would be bad news indeed. But the Bible is good news; it says much, much more than that! It tells us God’s plan for our salvation, and His principles for all of life. Therefore, it is critical for this lifetime and for life throughout eternity that we know for certain what God’s Word says. In order to believe and live in conformity with its teachings, the truths of the Bible must be studied and correctly interpreted.
In inspiring the writers of Scripture, God inspired specific truths which He wanted conveyed. It is our task to seek to learn that meaning through careful study and proper interpretation, which is the science of “hermeneutics.”
We can get into trouble by interpreting Scripture to make it say what we believe. For example, we might read into a passage prophetic content that was never meant to be there. So let us approach Scripture to learn from it God’s plan for salvation, not to find support for our own ideas and philosophies.
Fortunately for us, in our religious communities we have excellent scholarly, Biblical resources to guide and help us understand and interpret the Word of God correctly. To ignore these available sources in preference to our own individual private interpretation would be a gross error. However, not to know the basic rules of interpretation would be an equivalent mistake, as we are called to privately read, study and know God’s Word and through that to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Let us take a look at these rules and see how, after reviewing them, the fear of opening our Bible has been allayed.
RULES FOR INTERPRETING SCRIPTURE
- The Bible is to be read like any other book. The natural meaning of a Biblical passage is to be interpreted according to the usual rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.
- Ask and answer these questions about the passage you are studying:
- Who wrote it?
- To whom was he writing?
- When was it written?
- What is the background of the characters involved in the passage and what are they doing?
- What literary form was used in writing the text? (see Rule 12)
- How did the writing apply to that period of time?
Draw the meaning out of the text (called exegesis) rather than
reading meaning into the text (eisegesis). Exegesis is the application of the principles of hermeneutics to arrive at the correct understanding of the text. We wish to allow the text to speak for itself (“ex” means “out of” or “from”).
- Interpret an unclear passage in light of clearer passages.
- Be very careful not to interpret something into Scripture. Do not allow your imagination to create a spiritual truth or a plural meaning.
- Be sensitive to the implied meaning; however, the implicit meaning (that which is seemingly stated) is always subordinate to the explicit (that which is clearly stated).
- Watch for idioms (figures of speech) which, like today’s idioms, need Cultural insights to understand.
- Parables are to be considered in a special way. A parable is a simple story that conveys a spiritual truth. Jesus used them to illustrate His teachings. Parables are introduced by a statement such as, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Care must be taken not to make every single detail of the story mean something special. When kept intact, the parable will convey its central truth.
- When a passage of Scripture, or any other book, contains a figure of speech, these are not to be taken literally. Watch for the following:
- A metaphor expresses something by direct comparison, direct similarity, or direct parallelism. (e.g., you are the salt of the earth,” Matt. 5:13)
- A simile functions like a metaphor, using the words, “like” or “as” (e.g., I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” Matt 10:16)
- Hyperbole means that some idea or event is stated in an exaggerated manner to indicate its importance. (e.g., Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Luke 6:41)
- An analogy is a comparison of two things with one explaining the other.
(e.g., “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” Matthew 19:24
- Hypo catastasis is a comparison of two things by implication (e.g., Ps 22:16) – “dogs” are evil men).
- Zoomorphism is applying animal qualities to God (e.g., “shadow of your
wings” in Psalm 63:7)
- Synecdoche takes a part for the whole (e.g., “the gates” , in Jeremiah 14:2 refers to the city itself, not just the gates).
- A euphemism is a way of politely speaking about something considered
unmentionable (e.g., death as “sleep” in John 11:11).34
- Just as we do, the Bible uses round numbers (e.g., “five thousand were fed”). It also uses numbers symbolically.
- The Bible contains phenomenal-logical language (the language of appearance). When it says “the sun rises” or “the sun sets,” it would be a mistake to conclude that the earth is the center of the universe. It is perfectly proper to use phenomenal-logical language to describe the movement of the sun, as does our weathermen.
- There are different literary rules which apply to the various forms of literature. Thus it is important to be aware of the type of literature we are reading. Is it historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, Apocrypha, didactic (teaching) or apocalyptic?
- It is generally correct that the didactic epistles interpret the narrative Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
- Note the presence of parallelism, which is often used in the Bible verses set in close proximity to one another in parallel fashion.
- Synonymous parallelism, sets forth the same idea twice but in different words. (e.g. Psalm 131:1 and Luke 1:46-47).
- Antithetic parallelism is the same except that the second idea contrasts sharply with the first (e.g. Luke 1: 52, 53.
- Synthetic parallelism is the same, except the second verse (combines, expands, develops or explains the thought of the first (e.g., Psalm 126:1, 3)
- Determine the meaning of words. Look up a word in a concordance and find the other verses in Scripture that use the same word, in the same context, and especially by the same writer. This practice will provide a clearer sense of the meaning the writer intended.
- By reading the passage several times and in various translations, the meaning may become more clear. Sometimes reading in The Living Bible or Good News for Modern Man, which are paraphrased, is easier. However, it is best to study a precise translation such as the New International Version (NIV), New American Bible (Catholic), New American Standard (Open or Ryrie Study Edition) or Revised Standard (RSV).
- Regularly make use of the many wonderful guides and aids that are at our disposal today, such as concordances, commentaries, Bible dictionaries, topical Bibles, word study concordances, Bible atlases, and Bibles with cross references.
- Finally, we need to read and study the Bible holistically so that we can arrive at a coherent understanding of all its teachings.
A PROFOUND RULE OF THUMB
Pride is the main reason for arguments, divisions and alienations among all peoples. I believe that if the following Biblically-based “rule-of-thumb” was followed in interpreting and applying Scripture, Christ’s church on earth would be as He intended it to be – glorifying His Father, and building-up, edifying and loving each other.
Here is that “rule-of-thumb” that I believe is universally applicable:
When we seemingly have a choice in interpretation, choose that which gives the credit and glory to God instead of ourselves.”
Stated another way – if we are potentially in a posture of erring, make our choice in God’s favor.
The Bible is Complete
It is critical to understand that the Bible is complete. No supplementary book has ever been given by God! To believe that another supplementary book is necessary is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Scripture.
Now brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.” (I Corinthians 4:6)
The Bible warns against adding or subtracting:
“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” (Deut. 4:2)
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18,19)
“Every word of God is flawless . . . do not add to His word, or He will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (Proverbs 30:56)
MAY GOD BLESS YOU AS YOU
CORRECTLY READ AND STUDY HIS WORD!