Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Pr. Emmanuel P. G.
Pulpits witness funny, baseless, mysterious, strange, and even totally unacceptable interpretations at times and it is not unusual to see churchgoers coming out from churches with their hands on their head, wondering “What kind of an interpretation of the scripture is this?”. Hence the devout Christian needs to know the basic principles that warrant sound interpretation.
I would like to quote an example for such interpretation from the parable of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke 10: 25-37.
The typical interpretation - the Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ; the cleansing wine is the Word of God; the oil is the Holy Spirit; the donkey is the Bible; itsfour legs are the four gospels; the inn is the Church and the innkeeper is the pastor; the two coins are the Old Testament and the New Testament that is enough to keep the salvaged until the 2nd coming. The man fell into the hands of the robbers as ‘he was going down from Jerusalem to Samaria’ –i.e. going down from the spiritual heights to the valley of sin results in falling into the hands of Satan and wicked men. Symbolism and allegory here has eclipsed the true meaning.
Actually this was an eye opening parable Jesus used to illustrate how the love of God must be practically applied in the love for the needy. So, the above interpretation is absolutely wrong, according to interpretational principles.
Some of the exegeses/devotional interpretations would prove a pragmatic success. Some allegorize almost everything and it may bring in results of repentance and transformation. Some use typology and it may impress much more than a historical and grammatical exposition. Therefore, the ‘success ‘ of preaching and ‘success’ of interpretation are to be viewed differently. Public applause is not the criteria to rate success of interpretation. Preaching in the ordinary sense is people oriented and can be scripture based or even without the scripture, but interpretation of the scripture is purely text and scripture based.
There are literal interpreters, historical interpreters, traditional interpreters, allegorical interpreters, rational interpreters, liberal interpreters, existential and postmodern/subjective interpreters.
Evangelical stance does not support scripture interpretation in exclusive compartments like Text- based, author-based and reader-based but rather emphasize that each approach is important as just part of the whole. Likewise, the evangelical view respects reason but gives no room for pure rationalism, which approves reason as the only criterion that validates an interpretation. The purely historical critical method often kills the soul of the scripture, while at the same time in the historical approach not everything can be negated as bad. Liberalism is unacceptable as long as it does not honor the inspiration and infallibility of God’s Word. Pure subjectivism/postmodernism attaches no fixed meaning to the text and does not honor the idea of ‘the good deposit of faith entrusted with us’ in the scripture. The Bible repeatedly points to interpretations “fitting to sound doctrine”, need for ‘verifying the teachings with the scriptures’, warning the distorters of the word, and the need for’ contending for the good deposit of faith once for all entrusted with us’ etc. The New Testament applies various methods like literal, allegorical/spiritual, typological, symbolic, and theological methods in the interpretations of Old Testament passages. So, we cannot write off any of these models as unbiblical. Typology, mysticism, allegories are all to be put to the litmus test of the literal and theological sense.
LITERAL AND THEOLOGICAL Interpretation
In Jesus’ interpretations of the Law, the Sabbath, the temple etc. we see him explaining them literally and at the same time going to the theology / the spirit or the true sense of these concepts. This is how the Holy Spirit guides a person into all truth. So, in the light of the Inspiration, unity and infallibility of the Bible; and the ultimate revelation of God’s will in Jesus Christ we see the basic type of interpretation a Christian should follow is the LITERAL AND THEOLOGICALone.
Now the support for literal interpretation should not be mistaken with the blind literalists who, like the Pharisees, would insist that everything must be interpreted and applied purely literally as the Bible is verbally inspired. Jesus has condemned it as the concern for the external and neglect for the internal; and filtering the gnat and swallowing the camel. The limitation of such a stance will be clear if one tries to interpret the statement -eating Jesus’ flesh/body and drinking Jesus’ blood (John 6:53 ff.). Similarly there are certain passages that apply contextually and not for all times – multiply and fill the earth, killing all the inhabitants of Jericho, or praying a prayer as in retributive psalms (e.g. 109, 137), or food rules, stoning to death of a person caught in adultery; etc. Literal interpretation and literal application in such cases are biblically unwarranted.
A truth overemphasized out of proportion so that it is unchecked by other equally important truths can lead us to a false premise. Goldsworthy Graeme
Next we need to see the foundations for this approach, the Biblical qualifications of the interpreter, and the basic principles for interpretation.
Bible as Divine Human Book -The Axioms for Interpretation
A. Bible is a Human Book
Written by human writers, in human language, in particular historical, geographic and cultural contexts, using particular literary forms.
B. Bible is a Divine Book
“Written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in particular spiritual contexts, for particular spiritual purposes, and conveying theological truths “said, Roy B. Zuck,
Thus there are four basic dimensions to be considered for interpreting the scripture: the Theological, the Historical, the Literary, and the Anthropological.
Literal Interpretation requires bridging the gaps
To properly understand the original and literal meaning one requires studying the text in its original contexts – literary, historical, geographic, cultural and theological. Similarly the interpreter needs to distinguish between the literary devices – like narrative, parable, uses of figures of speech, symbolism etc. in order to rightly perceive the meaning.
Some biblical passages are clearly written as poetry.Jesus made extensive use of parables; the people and incidents that he described may or may not have been fictional. Some other biblical verses must be interpreted figuratively. For example, when Jesus is reported to have said in John 15:1 "I am the vine, ye are the branches..." Jesus is obviously not a vine, and his followers are obviously not branches. He was speaking metaphorically.
“What we need is a Christ-centered and Gospel-centered approach in our interpretations”, said Graeme Goldsworthy.
Augustine says the scripture is its own interpreter. He calls it the analogy of faith (Roy B. Zuck, Basic Biblical Interpretation . p. 39)The high anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament, symbolic and figurative usages, and seemingly contradictory statements are to be interpreted in the light of the larger context of the whole Bible. Here the old testament is viewed and interpreted also in the light of their new testament teachings because the Bible is one unit and teaching from one part should not contradict with the teaching from another book (e.g. Law and Grace). In the light of the statement the letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6) the interpreter must see the spirit of each passage and book and in alignment with the whole Bible. This is sound doctrine.
Faithful to the Text and Relevant to the Context
Thus the interpretation must be true to the given text. For this the passage must be studied in the meaning of its immediate literary context and understanding the meaning in the larger context of the book. This message he/she expounds in the context of the present readers in a manner that is relevant to them.
Personal Qualifications of the Interpreter
1. Must be regenerate, spiritual and God fearing. The carnal/natural man does not understand or accept the spiritual message (1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 8:5ff; 2 C04. 3:6; 2 Cor. 4: 4-6). What right has the wicked to recite God’s laws (Ps. 50:16; cf. Lev. 10:1ff)?
2. An Interpretation must originate from faith and must lead to faith. The priesthood of all believers (I Pet. 2:5) and the doctrine of the Bible and the gift of the Holy Spirit who guides the believer into all truth (John 16:13) supports the view that every regenerate Christian has the access to read, understand, and interpret the scripture.
3. Approach the ministry with awe and reverence. Since the Word itself is the body of God any wrong interpretation of it is a grave offence against God Himself. So, interpreting must be done with enough care. The doctrine of the scripture warrants one to handle it with utmost care as it is forever written in heaven, even a jot or title of it is important and anyone who adds to it or deducts from it will be cursed Mt.5: 18, 19..; Rev. 22:18,19. Anybody who distorts the scripture will be doing it for their own destruction 2 Pet. 3:16.
4. The interpreter must be prayerful and guided by the Holy Spirit to understand the deeper meanings. E.g. Daniel fasts and prays seeking to know the meaning of the 70 years (Dan. 9:2).
5. An interpreter ought to be to be a good communicator too – In interpretation communicating the truth is equally important as comprehending
Before attempting to interpret God’s Word one must read the following advice given by Apostle Paul.
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – with the help of the Holy Spirit in the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me, says Paul to Timothy. (2 Tim. 2:13, 14). Paul repeatedly warns his workers top avoid godless chatter, foolish and stupid arguments and myths and stories (Timothy, 1, 2, Titus, Colossians). For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine, Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths, But you, keep your head in all situations… (2 Tim 4:3-5)