The Bible is a treasure box. To open the fullness of the treasure within, Christians must use a certain key—hermeneutics, or the rules of interpretation. The correct interpretation of Scripture is almost as important as the doctrine of verbal inspiration itself. There is little value in being able to say, “These are the words of God,” if we then interpret them in a way God never intended.
Our goal should be to understand the text as God and the human writers of Scripture intended. To understand correctly any passage of Scripture, Christians must first ask, “What kind of passage is this?”
Different Types of Passages
Scripture contains a number of different kinds of literature: historical narrative, poetry, parable, epistles (teaching letters), and prophecy. If a passage of Scripture is clearly historical, then we must remember that its purpose is to describe things that actually happened. If a passage is poetic, then we should expect figurative language. Psalm 104, for example, says that God “makes the clouds his chariot” (v. 3), but in light of other Scriptures about God we know that the psalmist here is using a metaphor rather than stating a literal fact.
Prophecy is perhaps the most difficult type of passage to interpret. When faced with prophecy in Scripture, it is important to understand the circumstances behind the prophecy and the relevance to the prophet's own day. The most helpful guide for our understanding of Old Testament prophecy is the way it is explained in the New Testament.
Careful study of Scripture and application of the hermeneutical principles below will enable us to know what kind of literature we are examining and how to interpret it correctly.
What Is the Context?
1. The Biblical Context
It is essential to always read the passage around a verse. Who is the writer addressing—believers or nonbelievers, young or old, obedient or disobedient? What topic is being addressed in this passage? What is the unifying theme of this particular book of the Bible? How do the nearby verses help to explain this verse?
2. The Historical Context
We need to know what was happening in the world at the time the text was written or is describing. Many prophecies make little sense unless we are aware of the threats being made by nations around Israel. The psalms become more vivid when we know, for example, that David wrote some of them while he was being hunted by King Saul in the desert. The historical context is often found in the Bible itself, but a good Bible commentary or Bible encyclopedia will help. These reference books will also help us understand the local customs of the day regarding shepherds, fishing, marriage, clothing, sacrifices, etc., which help explain many passages.
What Is the Plain Meaning?
After we have identified the kind of literature and the context of the passage we are studying, it is important to figure out the grammatical sense and the meaning of the words. We should generally look for the plain meaning, not some mysterious, hidden meaning. It is sound advice that if the literal sense makes good sense, then seek no other sense. Jesus often said, “Have you not read?” He obviously thought that Scripture is basically clear.
Every language has rules of grammar, and we must interpret the Bible according to those rules.
Every language has rules of grammar, and we must interpret the Bible according to those rules. For example, many young Christians have difficulty understanding 1 John 3:9 because some translations make it appear that you are not a Christian if you commit a sin. However, the Greek verb is used in a “present continuous” tense, and it means, “No one who is born of God continually commits sin as a way of life.”
It is also important to be aware that the same word can have a variety of meanings, depending on its context. In studying the meaning of an individual word, study how the word is used in the passage, in other passages by the same writer, and in the rest of Scripture. (A concordance such as Strong's, a good Bible study computer program, or even a free web-based Bible study tool can be of great help in this regard.)
Like any other book, the Bible uses figures of speech. Recognizing figures of speech is essential to a proper understanding of Scripture. When the Bible uses a simile, metaphor, or figurative language such as hyperbole, it should be interpreted according to the normal usage of such speech. In other words, not everything in the Bible is intended to be taken literally, but the nonliteral figures of speech are plain within context. Genesis 1 is written as literal history, and therefore, it should not be interpreted to be figurative. Context is crucial.
How Does This Compare with Other Scriptures?
Another principle of hermeneutics involves the harmony of Scripture. Because the God of truth inspired the Bible, it contains no contradictions. We must, therefore, compare Scripture with Scripture to make sure that we have interpreted correctly. If our interpretation of one passage contradicts one or more other verses, we have erred; and we need to examine the text more carefully.
How Does It Apply to Me Today?
Although application is technically not part of the interpretation process, it is important to note that the Bible was not given to mankind simply for intellectual stimulation, but for life transformation. Jesus indicated that trusting and obeying the Bible leads to more understanding (Matthew 13:10-13).
Beware of the Peddlers!
Jesus warned about religious leaders who use the traditions of men to invalidate the Word of God (Mark 7:5-13). Paul warned the Christians at Corinth against those who use the Scriptures to their own ends, often for material gain (2 Corinthians 2:17). Peter warned about people who twist difficult passages to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).
Christians need to guard against those who “discover” something new in the Bible. Another danger is those who embellish a Bible story and then treat their additions as if they had God's authority behind them. Christians must, therefore, learn how to “rightly divide” (accurately handle) the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).
God wants us to know and apply the treasures of His Word. We should not try to make the Bible say what we want it to mean. Rather, we must carefully apply the common-sense principles of hermeneutics to rightly understand what God actually said and what He meant. These principles are easy to follow, and they are within the reach of everyone who prayerfully and carefully uses them.
Adapted with permission from the book Nothing But the Truth, by Brian Edwards, published by Evangelical Press.
Hermeneutics in Action: A Look at Genesis 1
- WHAT TYPE OF PASSAGE IS THIS?
The writing style of Genesis 1–11 is similar to the style of Genesis 12–50, which Jews have always considered to be a historical account of the beginning of their nation. These chapters do not have the marks of Hebrew poetry (for example, parallelism). And they are not prefaced with “The creation of the world is like . . .” (simile) or clearly identified as a parable (as true parables are). See www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v16/i1/genesis.asp
- WHAT IS THE CONTEXT?
Always read a verse and the passage around it; take care not to be influenced too much by the chapter-and-verse divisions of the Bible. They are not part of the God-breathed Scripture and are often artificial. For example, some claim that Genesis 1 and 2 are contradictory accounts. Notice, however, that the account in Genesis 1 actually continues into Genesis 2 (see verses 1–4). The rest of Genesis 2 is a more detailed account of the creation of man and woman, not a retelling of the entire creation account. See http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers#/topic/genesis
Additionally, the historical accounts found in Genesis 12–50 are merely continuations of the events found in Genesis 1–11. From where came Abraham if his ancestor Adam were merely a myth? See ‘Myth-ing’ the Point
- WHAT IS THE PLAIN MEANING?
Sometimes this question is put a different way: What is the grammatical sense? What do the words mean? Although it has a variety of meanings, the Hebrew word for day (yom) primarily refers to a period of 24 hours, especially when it is used with a number or the phrase “evening and morning” (as it is in Genesis 1). The plain meaning of Genesis is that God created all things in six actual days. The rabbis and church leaders of the past understood that yom referred to actual days, not long periods of time. See www.answersingenesis.org/go/genesis
- WHAT DO OTHER SCRIPTURES SAY?
The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. In this case, Jesus showed that He understood Genesis was true history when He quoted Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (see Mark 10:6–8). God affirmed that He created in six normal-length days when He wrote the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:11). Paul points out the reality of the First Adam when he compares Adam to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45). Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Adam (Luke 3). It’s clear that other Bible writers understood Genesis as a record of actual historical events. See www.answersingenesis.org/us/newsletters/0801lead.asp
- HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO ME?
Genesis 1–2 makes it clear that God created humans in His own image, Adam from the dust of the ground and Eve from Adam’s rib. We do not share an ancestor with the apes. And God, as our Creator, has given us a standard of right and wrong. We are not free to determine morality on our own. Understanding that the first chapters of Genesis are an accurate account of the past helps us understand that the rest of the Bible can be trusted to tell us the truth in all areas that it touches on. After all, if you can’t believe the beginning of the book, why should you believe the end? See Why Does Creation Matter?