From the archives...
Understanding Scripture is an exciting and crucial way to mature as a Christian, grow in discernment (being able to more readily spot aberrant theology), and equip oneself with the Word for witnessing. We all know we need to read God’s Word to be fed spiritually, but have you ever given thought to how you can read it to best glean the intended meaning from the text? Theologians call this science of biblical interpretation “hermeneutics”.
By following a few important principles when reading even the hardest of passages, we can usually get a more accurate picture of what God is saying through the inspired writers than by just taking the text at “face value”. While entire seminary courses are taught on proper interpretation, we don’t need a degree in systematic theology to read the Bible with clarity. However, there are principles we can consider when reading to help us understand the passage in its proper context. While there are several more literary principles Bible scholars consider, I would like to touch on the five most important ones we folks in the pews can use as tools to help us rightly divide the Word.
The first one is the Literal Principle. Much of what is written in the Bible is written in normal, non-metaphorical language. This normal speech (“Usus Loquendi” in Latin) indicates we are safe in understanding the text as any other ordinary use and needn’t read more into the passage than is written. No obvious figures of speech or idioms are used; the words simply mean what they say. Conversely, when ‘the trees clap their hands’ in Isaiah 55:12 and ‘the earth is glad’ with the ‘distant shores rejoicing’ in Psalm 97:1, we instantly recognize it as anthropomorphism. Jesus’ command to cut off the hand that leads one to sin is an obvious case of hyperbole; He also routinely employed metaphor (as when He referred to Himself as the door and as the bread of life). God’s anguished accusations against Israel allegorize the nation as a prostitute. The parables of Jesus are readily understood as such – simply hypothetical stories told to make a spiritual point. There are many such figures of speech used in Scripture, but where none is apparent in the text, we just assume literal, straight-forward language.
The second principle to keep in mind is the Historical Principle. This refers to the many terms and descriptions that would have meant something specific to certain people at a certain time, and the writer (or speaker) took this for granted when addressing given audiences. For example, the Samaritan protagonist of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10 would have had special poignancy to a first-century Jew. Hated because of their “mongrel” religion (a blend of Judaism and paganism incorporated during the Assyrian exile), Samaritans were so reviled by the Jews that they would not touch or associate with them for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean. Likewise, the Lord’s comparing the Pharisees to ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matt. 23:27) was in reference to the custom of painting graves white in order to make them stand out (and prevent observant Jews from inadvertently breaking the Levitical prohibition on touching a tomb or corpse).
There are thousands of such nuggets in Scripture, where although the intended meaning is self-evident from the passage, an added insight into the historical significance sheds additional light. Note, for instance, the detail given to inheritance rights in the Pentateuch. This indicates how closely guarded property was in clan-based agrarian society, and how codified the law needed to be (especially where there was no male heir, as in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27 and 36). Even without knowledge of ancient Near Eastern property laws, we may still appreciate the passage for the care and concern God evidences for His children and His desire for justice in all personal matters. At the same time, considering that the Bible covers 4,000 years of history and mentions many cultures, learning to apply the Historical Principle will help us gain additional understanding of the text.
The third principle a student of the Word needs to consider is the Grammatical Principle. This is the study of syntax, or how the words “relate” to one another. Studying the structure of language is not only useful for learning a foreign language (remember sentence diagramming?), it is indispensable for Bible scholars. Of course, most of us will never need to go as deeply as a seminarian into deconstructing the Hebrew and Greek etymology, but often the writer’s main idea is contained in a key verb. Modifiers in the passage support what is being conveyed, and understanding the entire sentence structure in context helps prevent eisogesis (reading one’s own interpretation into the passage). The Grammatical Principle is at the heart of expository preaching, as pastors prepare sermons by discerning grammatical construction and exegeting difficult passages verse by verse (and clause by clause). John Macarthur writes: “This [the Grammatical Principle] requires that we understand the basic grammatical structure of each sentence in the original language. To whom do the pronouns refer? What is the tense of the main verb? You'll find that when you ask some simple questions like those, the meaning of the text immediately becomes clearer.”1
Knowing something about original word choice can sometimes illuminate passages where nuance is not readily apparent, as well. Several years ago, I was quite surprised to learn that Jesus and Peter were using two different words for “love” in the post-Resurrection beach scene recorded in John 21. When the Lord asked, “Simon….do you truly love me more than these?”, the first two times the verb “agapaos” is used. From the noun “agape”, this speaks of God’s love and is best described as an all-consuming, commitment love with no thought of personal gain or reciprocation on the part of the giver. Jesus here is asking about Peter’s complete and total allegiance – not an emotion-based affection or mere friendship. Peter, memories of his denial of Christ still fresh in his mind, responds with the Greek term “phileo”; best translated as a friendship love. A second time Christ asks, “Do you agapaos [have a committed and enduring, selfless and loyal love for] Me?” and Peter (in essence) responds, “Lord, You know that You are my dear Friend.” The third time He asks, however, Jesus also uses the term phileos – He most likely realizes that in his humanity, it was the best Peter could offer at that time. This key to understanding the exchange – the difference between (limited) human love and the love God expects from His Spirit-indwelt disciples – is completely missed in the English rendering, as we only have one word for all types of love. In Greek, there are four words, and they all have different meanings.
Commentaries, such as those found on Blueletterbible.com, can be very helpful in digging into terminology and grammatical structure, especially in cases of verses that have been interpreted in more than one way by theologians. Most study Bibles footnote key terms in the original languages where meaning is significant.
The fourth principle to consider when reading the Bible is the Synthetic Principle. Simply put, we must always interpret Scripture in light of other Scripture. The Reformers put it this way: "Scriptura Intra Pratatum" – Scripture is it’s own interpreter. Any given doctrine will have support elsewhere in Scripture, as God never contradicts Himself. As a pastor I know once used to warn his congregation, “Be careful of basing a doctrine on one verse.”
Most of us would grasp by what we call ‘common sense’ that Mark 16:18 is not encouraging us to go out and pick up deadly snakes or drink strychnine: “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” First, by applying the Literal Principal, we can take the Lord’s statement at face value. It does not appear metaphorical or a case of hyperbole from context. Next, the Historical Principal doesn’t lend us any new information – poison in the first century was still deadly; vipers still bit people and they died. Also, the same principle must be applied evenly throughout the whole passage – which also talks about laying hands on the sick for their recovery. While we are certainly to pray for the sick, Christians still sicken and die.
Grammatically, the Lord is speaking futuristically – He is prophecying that certain miraculous signs (which are for the benefit of unbelievers, 1 Cor. 14:22); would follow believers in the Early Church. Now we come to the Synthetic Principle – is there any other passage in Scripture that would seem to advocate picking up snakes or drinking poison? No. The verse stands as a literal and true statement, (we know of one instance, from Acts 28:5, where Paul was spared by God when a viper attached itself to his hand), but nowhere does the Bible indicate that this is normative in the lives of all believers. There is no harmony with other passages; no new doctrine can be formed or inferred from Scripture about the Christian’s immunity to poisonous snakes. One common mistake in interpreting such ‘odd sounding’ passages is to attempt to allegorize them, but this is dangerous as it detracts from the Bible’s literal meaning. The continuationist (charismatic) position on certain verses is often the result of misapplying the Synthetic Principle.
Where the Bible seems to have contradictions, it is because either we are interpreting the passage incorrectly, or we are not looking at it in context. A general rule for understanding the context of a given reference is to look at the verses immediately preceding and following it. Usually, cross-references are given in the margins of Bibles, which may refer the reader either to individual words or to similar teachings and statements elsewhere in the Bible.
One “contradiction” to which many skeptics point in an attempt to discredit the Bible is the apparent dichotomy between Jesus’ teaching to “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, given in all three Synoptic Gospels, and the Levitical penal code that demanded “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20). The claim is that Christ represented a more ‘evolved’, kinder, gentler religion than the so-called “God of the Old Testament”. In reality, this is a false dichotomy. First, we know that the Triune God is immutable (unchanging) and He describes Himself as all-loving, compassionate, forgiving and gracious throughout the Old Testament. Second, Christ was actually quoting Leviticus 19:18 when He admonished His followers to love their neighbors as themselves. This was the entire spirit of the law from God’s Sinai covenant with the Israelites. Third, the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” expression was a measure to prevent excesses in retributive justice. The context was judicial – penalty was to be appropriate to the nature of the crime; it was never intended as a rationale for personal vengeance. Studying out difficult passages keeping the Synthetic Principle in mind will help us see how they complement each other, even if at first glance they seem at odds.
The last principle in the hermeneutic process is the Practical Principle. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the question “What does this verse mean to me?”, it is only relevant after looking at the passage in its original context and applying all four of the previous principles. The reason for this is self-evident: we don’t want to be putting our own interpretations or twists on Scriptures and miss the full meaning. Worse, cults have been started by misconstruing key doctrines and reading one’s own agenda into given passages. The Word of God has an objective, intrinsic meaning which is not open to subjective interpretation (which is why studying and rightly dividing it is so important). However, this does not mean that God doesn’t offer us a very personal application of specific passages to our lives. Of course He does, and this is the area of our study where the Holy Spirit “quickens” the words on the page to our spirits. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” It has the power not only to inform, but also to convict, instruct, encourage, exhort and ultimately transform our lives.
1 “How to Enjoy Bible Study”, Grace to You, 2006 http://www.gty.org/Resources/Articles/2429