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What are the Assumptions, Warnings and Principles of Biblical Interpretation?

Assumptions in Interpreting the Bible:

1. The Bible is Authoritative – Since God is the author (inspired), the Bible is authoritative (infallible).  It is absolute in its authority for human thought and behavior because God himself provided us the Revelation. 

2. The Bible is Trustworthy – Since God is the author the entire Bible is wholly trustworthy.  That means it is inerrant – without error in all its parts.  Nowhere does Jesus Christ or any Biblical writer leave room for error.  To be sure, Christ and the Apostles presented a revelation of God and His will that went far beyond what was revealed in the Old Testament.  But there is not the slightest hint of error because of the author. 

Warnings for Interpreting the Bible:

1. Naturalistic Approach – Only natural, no supernatural in the Bible.  Some believe the Bible only appeals to the mind, thus it is only rationalistic.  The rationalist sets his or her own understanding as authority.  This person has a hard time believing the Bible is wholly trustworthy.  They reject the supernatural, miraculous, passages that seem morally unworthy of God like taking vengeance on enemies in David’s prayers and so-called contradictions in Scripture.  The bottom line: there is no sure word from God.  Scripture has no independent authority.  Human reason is the final authority. 

2. Supernatural Approach – All supernatural, very little natural in the Bible.  Many Biblical Scholars in the post-first church tended to follow the Jewish and Greek allegorizers.  Scholars in Antioch sought to know the authors intended meaning, but Clement and Origen sought practice of interpreting Scripture as allegory (figurative symbols).  Although Clement held that there could be both a literal and a spiritual meaning to every text, Origen held that everything in the Bible had a figurative meaning.  The Reformers took a firm stand against that kind of interpretation.  Sola Scriptura was the chant of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli who all held that we should find the author’s intended meaning of the text and that is the authority for faith and practice. 

“To handle the Bible in the [supernatural ] way, deriving a message that is far from the intention of the author provides a model for interpretation that does not take the author and his intent seriously.  In such an approach, the Bible is not its own authority, free to make its own point and to demand obedience to its own teaching.  Rather, it is used to make some other point the commentator has in mind through the process of spiritualizing -finding a hidden meaning in the text” (41). –Robertson McQuilken, Understanding and Applying the Bible

Christlikeness is not accomplished by making God and His Word relevant to us, but by making us relevant to God and His Word (i.e. We align to God by trusting and obeying).

3. Existential Approach – Reacting to rationalism, existentialism put our emotions above our thoughts.  Karl Barth (died 1968) and Rudolf Bultmann (died 1976) did not see the Bible in its orthodoxy – infallible and inerrant.  They like to say the Bible is not “the Word of God”, but “becomes the Word of God” as the human engages in study.   The existentialist does not think we can objectively interpret the Bible with steps, but thinks he or she is stuck looking at the Bible through their own worldview.  

The Bible, however, is the communication from God, and the inspired human language of the text is backed up by His truthfulness and unchangeableness.  It is objectively true, independent of anyone’s interpretation of it.  We don’t create the meaning, but only discover the intended meaning and respond to the meaning with obedience.

4. Dogmatic Approach – Many traditions and doctrines of the Bible are True and stand the test of time.  A less defensible dogmatic approach to interpretation occurs when one accepts uncritically the teaching of another individual teacher of the Bible.  We can’t allow someone else to establish dogma of interpretation without taking personal responsibility for the interpretation (i.e. we need to study it using proper interpretive principles).   There is a fine line between humble learning from the learned and allowing the learned to establish dogma.  It may not always be easy to discern, but each believer is responsible to do this.  Finally, personal experience can be another form of dogma.  We must interpret our experience by the Bible and not interpret the Bible by our experience.  The Bible comes first, not the experience.

Basic Principles for Understanding the Bible

1. Context of Author – Since the Bible is God moving in the hearts of man to write down Revelation in human language, it must be treated in the same way as any other communication.  The goal is to determine the author’s intended meaning.  This requires we understand the culture by which the author writes and the context of the passage.  There are two contexts to consider: historical context (physical, geographic, cultural, ideology of the author and people to whom they wrote) and literary context

(language, type of literacy form, immediate context of passage). 

2. Truth of Scripture – Since God is the Author behind the authors, Scripture must be interpreted as True in all its parts and Unified in all its parts too.

Since Scripture is true in all its parts, it will not do to distort ones interpretation of Scripture or disallow a portion of Scripture because it might seem to be in conflict with a scientific theory, a historical source, or some contemporary theory in psychology, etc.

A true unity must be sought by the one who would understand Scripture.  Scripture must be compared to Scripture because Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture.  For example, sometimes the New Testament provides fuller commentary on the Old Testament (i.e. Jesus gives a new commandment).

3. The Authority of the Bible – The Bible and only the Bible is the absolute authority for faith and life.  All principles and techniques for deriving the meaning of a Biblical passage must conform to the principle that the Bible itself is the final authority, not man.  Are systems, tips, and tactics for studying the Bible is not the authority, but the Bible is the authority.

Primary Purpose of Divine Revelation – God revealed Himself in the Bible for the purpose of human salvation.  It is about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To say that salvation is the purpose of Scripture means that Revelation is limited.  The Bible is not given to teach all there is to know about an infinite God, all about the universe or every part of life on earth or heaven.  The purpose of God’s Revelation is not biology, psychology, or sociology.  The purpose is to reconcile people to God and restore people to where they were meant to be.

John declared this as the direct purpose of his Gospel:  Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” ( John 20:30-31).

Goal of Biblical Study – Determine the author’s meaning first in light of God pointing to salvation.  Next, is to apply that meaning to the contemporary setting for faith and obedience.  Remember, God’s first purpose for giving us the Written Word is for salvation.

Secondary Goals – Growing in holiness for the Believer, understanding the character of God, and growing in faith are some secondary goals of Biblical interpretation.

Extent of Authority – God’s authority does not rest upon our fallible interpretation of Scripture, but only upon Scripture itself.  Scripture covers the words and the concepts.  Some commentators affirm the concepts, but think that some words are in error.  Also remember that all Scripture is from God and thus trustworthy, but not all Scripture is of equal authority for obedience of Christians in the church age.  The Scripture itself lets us know which parts have more authority for us today.