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The Principles of Biblical Interpretation

A summary extracted from the article Biblical Hermeneutics - An Introductio n (Art and Science
of Interpretation)
By Robert Hommel*
There are certain principles that will help us to accurately handle the Word of Truth.
These principles are embedded in the scripture itself. We do not need to go beyond the
boundaries of the Bible to discover these laws and maxims that are used to determine the
meaning of scripture. The Bible interprets itself (scripture interprets scripture).
Principle !" The #iteral Interpretation Principle
We ta$e the Bible at face value. We generally ta$e everyday things in life as literal or at
face value. This is a common sense approach. %ven symbols and allegories in the Bible
are based on the literal meaning of the scripture& thus the literal meaning is foundational
to any symbolic or allegorical meaning.
The golden rule of interpretation is" 'When the plain sense of the scripture ma$es
common sense( see$ no other sense'. Therefore( ta$e every word at its primary( usual(
meaning( unless the facts of the immediate context( studied in the light of related
passages and fundamental truths( clearly indicate otherwise.
Principle )" The *ontextual Principle
+.,. *arson has been -uoted as saying( ', text without a context is a pretext for a proof
text.' By 'proof text(' of course( *arson means the abuse of a single verse or phrase
ta$en out of context to 'prove' a particular view. The word 'text' is derived from the
#atin word( which means to 'weave. The context is that which accompanies the text. The
Word of .od is a perfect unit. The scriptures cannot be bro$en& they all hang together( a
perfect unity.
We must loo$ and consider the verses immediately before( after( and around the passage.
We must consider the boo$ of the Bible and the section of the Bible in which the passage
occurs. The Bible must be interpreted within the framewor$ of the Bible.
Principle /" The 0cripture Interprets 0cripture Principle
We may rest assured that .od did not reveal an important doctrine in a single( ambiguous
passage. ,ll essential doctrines are fully and clearly explained 1 either in the immediate
context( or somewhere else in the Bible. This principle is best illustrated by what is
$nown as 'topical Bible study.' There are two essential 2rules2 for applying this principle"
!) The context of the two passages must be the same& and
)) The plain passage must be used to guide our interpretation of a less clear passage 1 not
the other way around3
Principle 4" The Progressive 5evelation Principle
The Word of .od is to be understood from the 6ld Testament to the 7ew Testament as a
flower unfolding its pedals to the morning sun. .od initiated revelation( but 8e did not
reveal 8is truths all at one time. It was a long and progressive process. Therefore( we
must ta$e into account the then1current state of revelation to properly understand a
particular passage. 9or example( an interpretation of a passage in .enesis which assumed
a fully delineated view of the 'new *ovenant' would not be sound. ,s the saying goes(
'The 6ld Testament is the 7ew Testament concealed( and the 7ew Testament is the 6ld
Testament revealed.'
Principle :" The ,ccommodation Principle
The Bible is to be interpreted in view of the fact that it is an accommodation of +ivine
truths to human minds" .od the infinite communicating with man the finite. The Bible
was written in three languages" 8ebrew( ,ramaic( and .ree$. The Bible was also created
in space( in time( and in history so that man could understand it. The truths of .od made
contact with the human mind at a common point( the Bible( to ma$e .od (and( indeed( all
of reality) $nowable. We must be careful( then( not to push accommodating language
about .od and 8is nature to literal extremes. .od does not have feathers and wings (e.g.(
Psalms !;"<)& nor is 8e our literal 9ather in the same sense our earthly father is.
Principle =" The 6ne Interpretation Principle
%very verse in the Bible has only one interpretation( although that verse may have many
applications. The one correct interpretation is that which mirrors the intent of the inspired
author.
Principle ;" The 8armony of 0cripture Principle
7o part of the Bible may be interpreted so as to contradict another part of the Bible. The
*hristian presupposes the inerrancy and harmony of 0cripture as a necessary result of a
perfect *reator .od revealing 8imself perfectly to >an$ind. Proper application of
hermeneutical principles will resolve apparent conflicts. The $ey here( of course( is the
word 'proper(' for exegetical fallacies can easily result from a ?ealous but ill1informed
attempt to 'save' 0cripture from an apparent contradiction.
Principle <" The .enre Principle
.enre is a literary term having to do with the category or 'genus' of literature under
consideration. Proper interpretation must ta$e the general literary category of any given
passage into consideration. ,re we dealing with poetry or prose@ ,re we dealing with
history or prophecy@ It is important that when we interpret the Word of .od( we
understand as much as possible the author2s intent. 9or example( if the author is writing
history 1 the genre of the Pentateuch of >oses 1 it would not be proper to interpret a
single reference (such as the speech of Balaam2s ass) as a poetic personification( unless a
variety of contextual mar$ers compelled us to do so.
8ere are some boo$s of the Bible and their respective genres"
Psalms 1 Poetry
Proverbs 1 Wise 0ayings
Isaiah 1 8istory and Prophecy
The .ospels 1 Biography and 8istory
The %pistles 1 Teaching and +octrine
5evelation 1 %schatology and Prophecy
Principle A" The .rammatical Principle
The Bible was originally written in three languages" 8ebrew( ,ramaic( and .ree$. While
we have several highly accurate translations of the Bible in %nglish( all translation
involves a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the translator. Thus( the study of
word meanings( grammar( and syntax of the original languages is important for a proper
understanding of 0cripture. This doesn2t mean that every student of the Bible must learn
8ebrew or .ree$. There are a number of tools available 1 lexicons( Bible dictionaries(
detailed exegetical commentaries 1 that can provide a deeper understanding of crucial
passages.
Principle !B" The 8istorical Bac$ground Principle
The Bible was composed in a specific culture at a particular point in time. While they are
universal in application( the truths in the Bible can most fully be reali?ed only when
ta$ing the surrounding culture and history into account. 9or example( when Cesus is
called 'the first fruits' (! *orinthians !:")B)( we may have some understanding of this
title from the 6ld Testament( but a study of Cewish religious practice in the first century
can provide a deeper understanding of why Paul chose this title in this passage( as
opposed to another title with the same general meaning of 'first.'
The .rammatico18istorical >ethod
The exegetical commentaries on this website generally follow the '.rammatico1
8istorical' method of interpretation. ,s its name implies( this method of interpretation
focuses attention not only on literary forms but upon grammatical constructions and
historical contexts out of which the 0criptures were written. It is solidly in the 'literal
schools' of interpretation( and is the hermeneutical methodology embraced by virtually
all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars. It embraces each of the ten principles
enumerated above.
0ome *ommon %xegetical 9allacies
Dnfortunately( each of the principles of interpretation we have considered may be abused
in various ways. 9ortunately( the remedy for the resulting misinterpretation is generally
as simple as recogni?ing which principle has been abused and the proper reapplication of
that principle to the passage in -uestion. 8ere are some common exegetical fallacies
resulting from the misuse of hermeneutic principles.
Ta$ing 9igurative #anguage #iterally
When Cesus says that 8e is the 'door(' few would ta$e 8im literally. 0ome( however(
ta$e figurative language( such as Cesus 'sitting at the right hand of the 9ather(' to mean
that the 9ather has a literal right hand (and thus( a physical body). The phrase 'at the right
hand' was a figurative expression in 0emitic cultures in Biblical times( signifying a
position of authority. It did not mean that the one exalted literally sat next to the one
doing the exalting. The #iteral Interpretation Principle does not mean that we woodenly
ta$e every word in the Bible literally( but rather that we approach it as we would any
other boo$( ta$ing figurative phrases( hyperbole( poetic personifications( and other
figures of speech into account in our interpretation.
6ver1*ontextuali?ing
0ome view Cehovah2s declaration that 8e does not '$now' of any other gods in Isaiah
44"< as limited to the immediate context. 0ince Cehovah is here engaging in a polemic
against idol1worship( some would suggest that Cehovah is really saying that 8e $nows of
no idols who are real gods 1 but leaves open the possibility of other subordinate gods who
are not idols. While we must safeguard against ta$ing words or phrases out of context(
there is no warrant for ta$ing an absolute statement and confining it to immediate
context. Cehovah says 8e $nows of no other gods. 8e says this in the context of
chastising those who worship idols( but this context does not limit 8is statement( any
more than the .reat *ommission is limited to the disciples who heard Cesus spea$ it.
,llowing the Implicit to %xplain the %xplicit
Cesus is called 'firstborn' on several occasions in the 7ew Testament. In 5evelation /"!4(
8e is called the 'firstborn of creation.' >any non1Trinitarians see in these verses
evidence that the 0on of .od was a created being 1 the first creation of Cehovah.
Trinitarians point to verses li$e Cohn !"/ and *olossians !"!=( which state that the 0on
pre1existed all things. 7on1Trinitarians argue that we should interpret these verses in light
of Cesus as 'the firstborn.' Thus( 'all things' must mean 'all other things.' Trinitarians
argue that the 'firstborn' passages must be viewed in light of Cohn !"/ and *olossians
!"!=( and thus must be a figurative title. The term translated 'firstborn' has a figurative as
well as a literal connotation. %ven if ta$en literally( non1Trinitarians typically do not
believe that the 0on of .od was literally born( and thus they believe that it implies the
creation of the 0on in some fashion. Cohn !"/ and *olossians !"!=( on the other hand(
explicitly state that the 0on existed before all things( and indeed that all things came into
existence through 8im. ,llowing the implicit to explain the explicit 1 the possible to
explain the certain 1 is not a sound interpretive principle. 0cripture indeed interprets
0cripture( so long as clarity explains ambiguity( and not the other way around.
>odern +ay 5evelation
0ome groups claim that .od continues to reveal 8imself in various ways to an elite cadre
of spiritually mature andEor gifted individuals. 0ome( li$e #atter +ay 0aints( believe that
this modern day revelation has produced new scriptures. When contradictions between
these 'revelations' and the Bible are pressed( these groups often respond that .od2s
revelation is progressive( and thus may accommodate new or revised doctrines for the
modern era. But progressive revelation may never be used to overthrow principle of the
harmony of 0cripture. .od may have chosen to reveal 8imself gradually to humanity( but
8e does not contradict 8imself.
8armoni?ation by +enial
The Bible declares that Cesus was a man (Cohn !"!4& ! Timothy )":& etc.). It also calls
8im .od (Cohn !"!& )B")<& etc.). .od says in 8osea !!"A that 8e is not man. 7on1
Trinitarians that hold to the principle of the harmony of 0cripture( believe these verses
present an apparent contradiction( and they resolve this contradiction by denying the fully
+eity of *hrist. They either favor grammatical arguments that remove the attribution of
'.od' to Cesus( or they argue that 8e must be a lesser divinity and not true .od. It is
certainly exegetically valid to deny what 0cripture does not explicitly or implicitly
affirm. 8owever( to deny what 0cripture affirms both explicitly and implicitly is not a
sound hermeneutical methodology. If we truly believe in the sufficiency of 0cripture ()
Timothy /"!=)( we should allow 0cripture to shape our theology (or( in this case( our
*hristology) in such a way that 0cripture is harmoni?ed by complete affirmation of its
teaching. Thus( when 0cripture tells us the *hrist is both >an and .od( we should allow
these truths to shape our view of *hrist2s nature( rather than deny one or the other.
Problems 5elating to #iterary .enre
To properly ta$e genre into consideration( we must first understand the genre in its
historical context. In most cases( this is not difficult. 8owever( some genres 1 such as
'proverbs' 1 offers some considerable challenge. , proverb is not a promise 1 those who
approach the boo$ of Proverbs in this fashion are li$ely to be disappointed when the
expected promise is not fulfilled. 9urther( as +.,. *arson notes( Proverbs )/"/14 seem to
offer contradictory advice" '+o not answer a fool according to his folly ... ,nswer a fool
according to his folly.' (%xegetical 9allacies( pp. !/;1!/<). *areful exegesis is necessary
to resolve this and other apparent contradictions( and such exegesis depends in no small
part on the proper understanding of genre.
>isunderstanding Proper ,pplication of .rammar
, wide range of fallacies can result from a misunderstanding or misuse of grammatical.
tools. 9or example( a simplistic approach to 'word studies' can produce a number of
problematic interpretations. , common misuse of lexicons or Bible dictionaries is to
assume that the 'literal' or 'original' meaning of a word pertains in a given context.
Cehovah2s Witnesses( for example( defend the rendering of the .ree$ word $olasis in
>atthew ):"4= found in their 7ew World Translation (7WT) with what may be termed
an 'etymological fallacy.' The 7WT translates $olasis as 'cutting off.' While $olasis
originally had this meaning in classical .ree$ times( by the !st *entury( $olasis had ta$en
on the meaning 'punishment(' which is why the maFority of %nglish translations render
$olasis this way. Witnesses confuse the original meaning of $olasis with the common
meaning in the contemporary setting. 0ome Witnesses may cite older lexicons in favor of
the 7WT translation( but no modern lexicon provides 'cutting off' as a valid translation
of any !st *entury text( and a careful examination of the older lexicons reveals that they
were dependent on classical .ree$ texts( not texts contemporary with the 7ew
Testament.
While word studies are important to proper interpretation( we must be careful to use them
as a part of an overall methodology that ta$es all aspects of the text 1 including then1
current word usage 1 into account.
8istorical 9abrication
The reconstruction of Biblical history presents a whole host of opportunities for
interpretive fallacies. The interpretations of the 7ew Testament offered by scholars such
as those in the Cesus 0eminar depend largely on theoretical reconstructions of various
'communities' in the early years of the *hristian *hurch. While the reconstructions may
originate from deductions based on certain passages of 0cripture( they soon become
intertwined with the interpretation of other passages to such a degree that it is difficult to
separate the theoretical reconstruction from the interpretation. This fallacious approach to
0cripture is true whether the reconstruction in -uestion is the result of liberal 8istorical
*riticism run amo$( or the superficial attempts by 7on1Trinitarians to portray 'Biblical
>onotheism' as anything but monothesim. The problem is that we have almost no access
to the history of !st *entury beliefs outside the 7ew Testament. 0ome speculation based
on extra1canonical texts is certainly possible( but it is a fallacy to thin$ that speculative
reconstruction has any force in informing our interpretation of 0cripture.
For further study:
Knowing Scripture, Dr. R. C. Sproul. This short book is the best introduction to Biblical
Interpretation available.
How To Read The Bible For All It's Worth, Gordon Fee
Introduction To Biblical Interpretation, William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L.
Hubbard
Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson. Good introduction to interpretation and exegesis.
Biblical Hermeneutics, A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament,
Milton S. Terry
An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search For Meaning, Kaiser, Walter C.,
Jr. Silva, Moises
G Copyright 2001-2005 by Robert Hommel, For An Answer Ministries
(www.forananswer.org), All rights reserved.
Their website 9or,n,nswer.org has many great articles.
www.theologue.org