Principles Of Bible Interpretation (cont)
III. Requisites for Interpretation
- Possession of the Holy Spirit
- The Author is the best interpreter of his
own works. Since the Holy Spirit is the
Author of God's Word (II Peter 1:21), the
possession of the Spirit is vital to a true
understanding of the Bible.
- Paul tells us that the natural man (without
the Spirit) cannot understand the things of
the Spirit of God because they are
spiritually discerned (i.e. by the aid of the
Spirit). See I Corinthians 2:14.
- Spiritual truths are revealed by the Spirit.
See I Corinthians 2:9-10.
- Faith in God's Word
- ... for he that cometh to God must believe that he
is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently
seek him. Hebrews 11:6.
- One should pray for Spiritual insight and
then believe that God will grant it.
- The student's attitude toward the Word of
God should be the same as the Apostle
Paul's: Sirs, I believe God, that it shall be even
as it was told me. Compare also the faith of
Abraham: Abraham believed God and it was
imputed unto him for righteousness.
- An Open Mind
- There must be, on the part of the student,
a willingness to accept the truth no matter
how distasteful it may seem.
- Preconceived ideas and opinions, however
dear, must not be allowed to cause the
student to reject the truth. The object in
studying the Bible is to learn God's will
for us, not to try to justify our own ideas
- Doctrinal convictions should be supported
by a thus saith the LORD.
IV. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
- Old and New Testament Periods and Peoples
must be kept distinct.
- The careful student of the Bible will soon
discover that three classes of people are
recognized therein, viz. Jews, Gentiles,
and Christians (or believers in the Lord
Jesus Christ). It is important to know
what portions of Scripture are applicable
literally to each of these classes.
- The Old Testament is applicable literally
to the Jews and typically to Christians.
See I Corinthians 10:1-11. Gentiles enter
into the Old Testament's scope not only to
be condemned for their idolatry and
wickedness but also to receive prophetic
promises of great blessings to come to
them through the Jewish people.
- The teachings of the New Testament from
the Cross onward are literally applicable
to Christians and prophet-ically applicable
to Jews. Much of the teachings of Jesus
(especially the Sermon on the Mount) is
an exposition of Judaism and should not
be literally applied to Christians.
- The Natural Divisions of Each Book Should Be
Located and Analyzed.
- The chapter and verse arrangements in
our Bibles are not a part of the inspired
record but are man-made methods
adopted for convenient reference.
Unfortunately, these arbitrary divisions do
not always reflect the natural divisions of
- These natural divisions must be discerned
and studied as a whole if a sensible
interpretation is to be reached. A notable
example is the 17th chapter of Matthew,
where the chapter heading has been
misplaced. The last verse of the 16th
chapter belongs with the first verses of the
- The natural divisions will usually follow
the paragraphing. Many of the recent
translations make it very easy to locate
and analyze these divisions. (The Scofield
Reference Bible both locates and analyzes
them for the reader.)
- The Context Must Be Understood.
- Three questions should be asked by the
reader concerning any passage to be
- Who is speaking? God is not the
spokesman in every passage of Scripture,
therefore such passages cannot be
considered a divine revelation. Even the
words of Satan (as well as those of
uninspired men) are recorded. It is
therefore necessary to inquire as to who is
speaking in any passage under
- To whom is the speaker speaking?
That is, to which of the three above-mentioned
classes is he speaking? For
example when God, speaking in the 31st
Chapter of Exodus to the children of
Israel, tells them that the Sabbath is to be
a sign of the covenant between him and
Israel forever, it is highly presumptuous
for Gentiles or Christians to suppose that
they, too, should observe the Sabbath day.
- Of whom (or what) is he speaking?
Much erroneous exposition would be
avoided if the subject of the passage under
consideration were clearly held in mind.
- The grammatical structure should be
carefully analyzed. This rule is especially
important in the New Testament. The
Greek language (in which the N.T. was
written) is highly exact in its use of
grammatical forms and the serious student
should make use of such reference books
as will bring out the niceties of the Greek
- Distinction Must Be Made Between Literal,
Symbolic and Figurative Language.
- Many passages of Scripture are literal in
content. That is, they say exactly what
they mean. For example See First
- Other passages are figurative. That is
they contain figures of speech such as
similes, metaphors, personifications,
hyperboles, etc., which enrich the language
and make it more expressive. The twenty-third
Psalm is a beautiful example of
- Both literal and figurative language may
contain types or symbols which point to
antitypes and substances to be revealed at
a later time.
- Rules for distinguishing between literal
and figurative language.
- A passage is considered to be literal
unless otherwise indicated by the context.
- A passage is considered to be figurative
only when a literal reading would be
absurd, or where the figure is plainly
- "If the plain sense makes good sense,
seek no other sense."
- Prophecy always has a literal fulfillment.
This fact is indicated by the previous
fulfillments of prophecy. Many prophecies
are couched in figurative or symbolic
language, but when reduced to their literal
meaning or content, they will be found to
be literally fulfilled.
- Types and Symbols Must Be Correctly Identified.
- Types and symbols are persons, places,
things or incidents which point to and
illustrate other persons, places or things.
For example, crossing the Red Sea is said
to be a symbol of baptism. That which
the type points to is called its antitype.
Symbols point to substances.
- Dispensations and Covenants Must Be
- Dispensations are periods of time during
which God deals with men according to a
certain plan or purpose. Most scholars
- Human Government
- A covenant is an agreement or contract
(either conditional or unconditional) which
God makes with men. Eight covenants
are usually recognized:
- The First and Second Comings of Christ Must Be
- The prophets wrote about the two comings
of Christ as if they were only one event.
The Jews thereby made the mistake of
accepting only the passages that spoke of
the glory and exaltation of the Messiah.
- To observe how Jesus himself
distinguished between his first and second
comings in reading the Old Testament,
compare Luke 4:16-21 with Isaiah 61:1-2.
Notice that Jesus stopped reading at a
comma because the rest of the verse had
reference to his second coming.
- Interpretation Must Be Distinguished From
- The interpretation of a passage is what the
passage actually says. There is only one
interpretation of a passage of Scripture.
(There may be many misinterpretations).
A possible exception to this rule is
prophecy which usually has both a near
and far fulfillment. The two fulfillments
however always supplement, never
contradict, each other.
- Permissible application is an application of
the principles of the passage to persons
other than those for whom they were
- Literal application is applying the
teachings of a passage to the persons they
were actually intended for.
- Application in principle is taking the
principles of a passage and applying them
to other persons in similar circumstances.
- The Test Questions.
- Does this passage apply to me?
- To what group was it spoken?
- Do I belong to that group?
- If not, do I belong to a group living
under similar circum-stances?
- If the passage does apply to me, is its
application literal or one in principle?
NOTE: The writer's aim has been to systematize the principles of Bible
study that have long been known to Bible scholars. No claims
as to originality or thoroughness are made. The writer's belief
is that this outline, faulty as it may be, can be a real aid in
teaching young ministers and other Christian workers the
essentials of Biblical interpretation.
John H Mattox
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