How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 1: Principles for Understanding God’s Word


God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. It is crucial that we interpret properly to determine the intended meaning rather than forcing ideas into the text.


A popular seminary professor recently wrote the following about the creation of Adam and Eve:

Any evils humans experience outside the Garden before God breathes into them the breath of life would be experienced as natural evils in the same way that other animals experience them. The pain would be real, but it would not be experienced as divine justice in response to willful rebellion. Moreover, once God breathes the breath of life into them, we may assume that the first humans experienced an amnesia of their former animal life: Operating on a higher plane of consciousness once infused with the breath of life, they would transcend the lower plane of animal consciousness on which they had previously operated—though, after the Fall, they might be tempted to resort to that lower consciousness.1

So according to this professor, Adam and Eve were animals before God breathed the breath of life into them. At that point, they experienced “amnesia of their former animal life” so that they would no longer remember their animal past.

How does this line up with the Word of God, which states that God made Adam from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22)? Has the professor made a plausible interpretation of God’s Word? Is his interpretive work what Paul had in mind when he advised Timothy to be diligent in his efforts to accurately interpret the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?

The example above highlights the importance of being able to properly interpret the Bible. In this postmodern age, bizarre interpretations are accepted because people believe they have the right to decide for themselves what a passage means. In other words, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so you can decide truth for yourself.

This ideology flies in the face of Christ’s example. He routinely rebuked those who twisted the words of Scripture or misapplied them. The Bible is God’s message to man. We can have perfect confidence that God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. As such, it is crucial that we learn how to interpret properly so that we can determine the Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM) rather than forcing our own ideas into the text. A given document means what the author intended it to mean. The alternative would make communication futile. There would be no point in writing anything if the readers are simply going to take what they want from the passage, rather than what the writer intends. All communication is predicated on the presupposition that language conveys the author’s or speaker’s intention (unless, of course, the person is trying to deceive us, which is something God does not do since He wants us to understand His Word).


Hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuo, which means to explain or interpret) is the branch of theology that focuses on identifying and applying sound principles of biblical interpretation. While the Bible is generally plain in its meaning, proper interpretation requires careful study and is not always an easy task. Consider that the Bible was written over a period of roughly 2,000 years by 40 or more authors using three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). The authors wrote in different genres and had different vocabularies, personalities, cultural backgrounds, and social standings. The Holy Spirit moved each of these men to produce His inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), but He allowed their various writing styles and personalities to be expressed in its pages. It was written in a culture very different from our modern world and has been translated from its original languages. These are just some of the factors that must be taken into account as we interpret.

In fact, Bible colleges and seminaries often require their students to complete a course in hermeneutics. Numerous books have been written to explain these principles, and while Bible-believing Christians may disagree over particulars, there is general agreement about the major rules required to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

This is not to claim that only the scholarly elite can correctly interpret the Bible. Various groups have wrongly held this position. William Tyndale lived in the early sixteenth century when only certain people were allowed to interpret the Bible, which was only available in Latin, not the language of the common man. He sought to bring God’s Word to the average person by translating it into English. Tyndale is credited with telling a priest that he could make a boy who drove a plough to know more of the Scripture than the priest himself.2 The Bible was penned so that in its pages all people, even children, can learn about God and what He has done so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.

We must also battle against our pride, which tempts us to think that our own views are always right or that the beliefs of a particular teacher are necessarily right. We must strive to be like the Bereans who were commended by Luke for searching the Old Testament Scriptures daily to make sure that what Paul taught was true (Acts 17:11).

God desires for His people to know and understand His Word—that’s why He gave it to us and instructed fathers to teach it to their children in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). However, we must keep in mind several important points.

We need the Holy Spirit to help us to think correctly, lest we distort the Scriptures.

First, Christians must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit while studying the Bible. It’s not that the Bible requires any “extra-logical” or mystical insight to understand it. But we are limited in our understanding and often hindered by pride. We need the Holy Spirit to help us to think correctly, lest we distort the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).

Second, a person can spend his or her entire life and still never come close to mining the depths of Scripture. The Bible is written in such a marvelous way that a child can understand the basic message, and yet the most educated theologians continue to learn new things from the Bible as they study it. There is always so much more to learn, so we must humbly approach the Word of God.

Third, God has given the church learned men and gifted teachers who have devoted their lives to studying God’s Word. While these people are certainly not infallible, we shouldn’t automatically reject the work of those who have gone before us.

Finally, since the Bible consists of written data, then in order to understand it, we must follow standard rules of grammar and interpretation. We will examine these rules or principles throughout this chapter and the next, especially as they relate to Genesis.

Because people often confuse the two concepts, it must be pointed out that interpretation is different than application, although they are related. Interpretation answers the questions, “What does the text say?” and “What does the text mean?” Application follows interpretation and answers the question, “How can I apply this truth in my life today?” After all, the goal of studying the Bible is not to simply fill one’s head with information but to learn what God wants for us to know so that we can live how He wants us to live.

Which Method Do We Use?

Bible-believing Christians generally follow a method of interpretation known as the historical-grammatical approach. That is, we try to find the plain (literal) meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the book’s particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation. We seek to perform careful interpretation or exegesis—that is, to “read out of” the text what the author intended it to mean. This is in contrast to eisegesis, which occurs when someone “reads into” the text his own ideas—what the reader wants the text to mean. In other words, exegesis is finding the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the passage because its true meaning is determined by the sender of the message, not the recipient.

This hermeneutical approach has several strengths. It can be demonstrated that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in this manner. Also, it is the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure one is on the right track. As will be shown, other views allow for personal opinion to sneak into one’s interpretation, which does not truly reflect what the text means.

Finally, this approach is consistent with how we utilize language on a daily basis while interacting with others. For example, if your best friend says, “I am going to drive to work tomorrow morning,” you can instantly understand what he means. You know that he has a vehicle that he can drive to his place of employment, and that’s exactly what he plans on doing early the next day.

If the postmodern approach is accurate and meaning is determined by the recipient of the message, then perhaps your friend is really just telling you that he likes pancakes. Communication becomes impossible in such a world, and it gets even worse if your friend was talking to you and several other buddies. One friend might think he was talking about his favorite color, another interpreted his words to mean that he doesn’t believe in air, and another thought he meant that he was going to walk to work ten years later.

Words have a particular meaning in a particular context. When they are placed together in sentences and paragraphs, then a person must follow common-sense rules in order to derive the appropriate meaning. The sender of the message had a reason for choosing the words he did and putting those words together in a particular order and context. The same is true with the Bible. God had a reason for moving the writers of the Bible to use the words they did in the order they did. Our goal must be to ascertain the AIM.

Principles of Interpretation

Since the goal of interpreting the Bible is to determine the Author’s Intended Meaning, we must follow principles derived from God’s Word. The following principles do not comprise an exhaustive list but are some of the major concepts found in the majority of books on interpretation. In the next chapter, the quote from the introduction of this chapter will be examined to see if it properly applies these standard principles.

Carefully Observe the Text

It may seem rather obvious, but this principle is often overlooked. We must carefully observe what the text actually states. Many mistakes have been made by people who jump into interpretation based on what they think the text states rather than what it really does state.

As you read a particular verse or passage, pay close attention to different types of words that make up a sentence. Is the subject singular or plural? Is the verb tense past, present, or future? Is the sentence a command, statement of fact, or question? Is the statement part of a dialogue? If so, who is the speaker, and why did he make that comment? Can you note any repetition of words, which perhaps shows emphasis? What ideas are compared or contrasted? Can you identify any cause and effect statements or questions and answers? What is the tone of the passage; are emotional words used?

Failure to carefully observe the text has resulted in numerous misconceptions about the Bible. For example, many Christians have taught that Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the cool of the day. While it is possible that they did take walks with God in the garden, the Bible never claims this. Instead, God’s Word reveals that after they had sinned, Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and they hid themselves from Him (Genesis 3:8).

Carefully observing the text can also protect you from making another common mistake. Just because the Bible contains a statement does not mean that it affirms the statement as godly. For example, much of the book of Job consists of an ongoing dialogue between Job and four of his friends (Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu). Some people have been careless by quoting certain verses from this book to support their own ideas, but we have to keep in mind that God told Eliphaz that what he, Bildad, and Zophar had spoken about Him was not right (Job 42:7). This ties in perfectly with our next principle.

Context Is Key

Perhaps no principle of interpretation is more universally agreed upon than the idea that understanding the context of the word, phrase, or passage is absolutely essential. Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.”3

Critics of Scripture often take verses out of context when they attack the Bible.

You may have heard someone say that a particular verse has been pulled out of context. Critics of Scripture often take verses out of context when they attack the Bible. The reason is that they can make the Bible “say” just about anything if they do not provide the context. For example, the critic might ask, “Did you know that the Bible says, ‘There is no God’?” Then he may go on to claim that this contradicts other passages, which certainly teach that God does exist.

How do we handle such a charge? We look at the context of the quoted words, which in this case comes from Psalm 14:1 (and is repeated in Psalm 53:1). It states, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, it’s true that the Bible states, “There is no God,” but it attributes these words to a foolish person. So the Bible is not teaching both the existence and non-existence of God, as the skeptic asserts.

If I asked you what the word “set” means, would you be able to provide me with the correct answer? No, it would be impossible because the word has more than 70 definitions in the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and can be used as a verb, noun, and an adjective. Now, if I asked you what the word “set” meant in the following sentence, you could easily figure it out: “His mind was set on solving the problem.” In this sentence, the word means “intent” or “determined.” But without the context, you would not know this.

The same thing is true with the Bible or any other written communication. The context clarifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, etc. With the Bible, it is important to know the context of the particular passage you are studying. It is also important to understand the context of the entire book in which the passage is found and how that book fits into the context of Scripture.

We also need to recognize where the passage fits into the flow of history. It makes a huge difference in determining the writer’s intent if we note whether the passage was pre-Fall, pre-Flood, pre-Mosaic Law, after the Babylonian Exile, during Christ’s earthly ministry, after His Resurrection, or after Pentecost. This is especially important when we reach the point of application. For example, just because God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs at Passover doesn’t mean we should do the same today. Jesus died on the Cross as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) and was the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Since the Bible was revealed progressively, there are instances where later revelation supersedes earlier revelation.

Ron Rhodes summarized these truths by stating, “No verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it. Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting, or like trying to analyze Handel's ‘Messiah’ by listening to a few short notes.”4

Clarity of Scripture

Since the Bible is God’s Word to man, He must expect us to understand it. As such, it makes sense that He would communicate His message to us in such a way so that we can indeed comprehend it if we are serious about wanting to know the truth. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians:

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2 emphasis added).

Proverbs 8:9 states that God’s words “are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge.

This principle was one of the key differences between the Reformers and Roman Catholics. The Reformers believed in the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture, especially in relation to its central message of the gospel, and they believed each believer had the right to interpret God’s Word. Roman Catholic doctrine held (and still holds) that Scripture can only be interpreted by the Magisterium (teaching office of the church).

Consider the words of Psalm 119, which is by far the longest chapter in the entire Bible, and every one of its 176 verses extols the superiority of God’s Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). God’s Word should be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, giving understanding to the simple. How could it be or do any of these things if it is not clear?

The principle of the clarity of Scripture does not mean that every passage is easily understood or that one does not need to diligently study the Word of God, but it does teach that the overall message of the Word of God can be understood by all believers who carefully and prayerfully study it. The principle also means that we should not assume or look for hidden meanings but rather assess the most straightforward meaning. Two of Christ’s favorite sayings were “It is written” and “Have you not read?” Then He would quote a verse from the Old Testament. By these sayings, He indicated that the Scriptures are generally clear.

Compare Scripture with Scripture

Another key principle of hermeneutics is that we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Known by theologians as the “analogy of faith” or “analogy of Scripture,” this principle is solidly based on the Bible’s own teachings. Since the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie or contradict Himself (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18), then one passage will never contradict another passage. This principle is useful for several reasons.

First, not all Bible passages are equally clear. So, a clear passage can be used to shed light on a difficult, not-so-clear passage. There are a number of obscure verses in Scripture, where you might wish the writer would have provided more details. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a classic example. Right in the middle of the chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers, Paul asked, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” Several ideas have been suggested to explain what Paul meant about baptism for the dead, but because this is the only verse in all of Scripture that mentions this concept, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion about its meaning.

However, by comparing this verse with other Scripture, we can reach definite conclusions about what it does not teach. We know that Paul did not instruct the Corinthians to baptize people for the dead,5 because Paul and other biblical writers unequivocally taught that salvation is only by God’s grace and can only be received through faith alone in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). We can also be sure that those who practice such a thing are not accomplishing what they hope to accomplish—the salvation of an unbeliever who has already died. Hebrews 9:27 states, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.

Second, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we have a system of checks and balances to help us stay on the right track. There will likely be times when, for whatever reason, we incorrectly interpret a given passage. By studying other passages that shed light on the same issue, we can recognize our error. Many people are unwilling to change their original interpretation and hold on to contradictory beliefs. Some will even claim that the Bible contradicts itself when, in reality, they have misinterpreted one or both of the passages. It is crucial for us to humbly approach Scripture and realize that if we believe we have found a contradiction, then it is our interpretation that is flawed, not God’s Word.

Since this principle provides a system of checks and balances, it can provide us with great certainty concerning a given interpretation. If we interpret a passage and then discover that every other passage on the topic seems to teach the same truth, we can be confident in the accuracy of our interpretation.

Classification of Text

While interpreting the Bible, we must never forget to understand the genre (literary style) of the passage we are studying. The Bible contains numerous types of literature, and each one needs to be interpreted according to principles befitting its particular style. Below is a chart identifying the basic literary style of each book of the Bible. Note that some books contain more than one style. For example, Exodus is written as history, but chapter 15 includes a song written in poetic language. Also, the books are sometimes divided into more categories, but for our purposes “History” includes the books of the Law, the historical books, and the four gospels; “Poetry” includes the Psalms and wisdom literature; “Prophecy” includes the prophetic books; and “Epistles” are letters written by an apostle.

1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Song of Solomon
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John

These distinctions are important to keep in mind while interpreting the Bible. Each classification uses language in a particular way. Historical books are primarily narratives of past events and should be interpreted in a straightforward manner. This does not mean that they never utilize figurative language. For example, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:10–11). There are two obvious instances of figurative language in this passage: the ground “opened its mouth” and Abel’s “blood cries out” from it. Nevertheless, these figures of speech are perfectly legitimate in historical writing, and it is easy to understand what they mean.

Poetry, prophecy, and the New Testament epistles all have their own particular nuances and guidelines for proper interpretation. Space does not permit a full treatment here, so just remember to recognize the book’s (or passage’s) genre and interpret accordingly.

Church’s Historical View

Finally, it is important to know how those who have gone before us have interpreted a passage in question. Although our doctrine must be based squarely on the Word of God and not on tradition or what some great leader believed, we should allow ourselves to be informed by the work of others who have spent long hours studying God’s Word. Most doctrines have been discussed, debated, and formulated throughout church history, so we should take advantage of that resource.

Imagine studying a passage and reaching a conclusion only to discover that no one else in history has ever interpreted those verses in the same way. You would not necessarily be wrong, but you would certainly want to re-examine the passage to see if you had overlooked something. After all, you need to be very careful and confident in your interpretation before proposing an idea that none of the millions of interpreters have ever noticed before.

While Bible scholars and pastors often have access to resources that permit them to search out the teachings of our spiritual forefathers, this information can also be obtained by the average Christian. Consider borrowing a commentary from a pastor or taking advantage of some of the Bible software on the market, which allows you to quickly search for this information.

Conclusion to Part 1

This first chapter has explained why it is important to accurately interpret God’s Word and how to do it. Our goal is to find the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning). The six principles above will guide you as you study and interpret God’s Word.6

Remember, the goal of interpreting God’s Word is not to simply accumulate knowledge so that you can be the best at Bible trivia. The reason it is important to study and accurately interpret the Bible is so that we can know God better, know what He expects from us, and know how we can live in a way that pleases Him.

The next chapter will examine the statement from Dr. Dembski, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to see if he followed these major principles of interpretation. It will also show why Genesis 1–11 should be understood as historical narrative.


  1. William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2009), 155.
  2. Accessed January 7, 2011.
  3. Frederick C. Mish, Editor in Chief, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2008), s.v. “Context.”
  4. Ron Rhodes, “Rightly Interpreting the Bible,” from Accessed January 12, 2011.
  5. The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have developed an entire doctrine called baptism by proxy in which current members of the group are baptized in place of the dead. They use this verse to support this practice.
  6. Other helpful guidelines and principles with examples can be found in books on hermeneutics. A good lay level resource is John MacArthur’s book, How to Study the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).


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