The art of interpreting Scripture
The need, tools, and principles of Biblical interpretation
Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation. It is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of the rules is by skill, and not by mechanical imitation.1Admittedly, skill in the area of hermeneutics is not gained in a week or a month. It takes time and dedication. It takes hours and hours of thinking and rethinking. In order to do honest hermeneutics, it may become necessary to throw out preconceived ideas, until such ideas are confirmed by the proper study of God’s Word. And, such study is not achieved by a superficial glimpse into the riches of God’s Word. Once artificial study of God’s Word becomes a habit, one will almost never get to the point where Biblical knowledge becomes part of who we are.
The study of God’s Word is not to become clever, but to live in truth and to have changed lives.
However, since God was the One who spoke through these writers, and the Bible is His Word to us, it certainly has eternal relevance.
It is good to use mainly one good translation for one’s study, but use it in conjunction with several other well-chosen translations. Currently, my main study Bible is the NASB. I then use it in conjunction with the HCSB, ESV, and NIV.
First, textual criticism is carefully guided by scientific controls. The evidence for a text is guided by two controls. (a) External evidence is controlled by the age and quality of a given text or variant. (b) Internal evidence has to do with the authors and the copyists of variants. External evidence, combined with internal evidence, gives us a high degree of certainty concerning the original text.
Second, textual criticism is not an exact science since it deals with a multitude of human variables. This can be seen on translation committees when different translators disagree on which textual variant to use.
Third, even though the KJV is the most widely used version—closely followed by the NIV—the only Greek text available for use in 1611 was of very late manuscripts “which had accumulated the mistakes of over a thousand years of copying.”2
First, we have the source language. This is the language or languages of the Bible. They are Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament.
Second, we have the destination or receptor language. In our case it is English.
Third, there exists an historical distance between the source and destination languages (words, grammar, idioms, culture, history).
Fourth, there needs to be a theory of translation. How literal or how free will we be in our translation. There are basically three theories of translation. (a) The Literal Theory (LT) attempts to keep as close as possible to the words and word order of the original language as long as it still makes sense. The Literal theory attempts to keep the historical distance between them intact. Examples are KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV. (b) The Free Theory (FT) translates ideas from the source language to the destination language. Exact words are not that important. Also known as a paraphrase, it attempts to get rid of as much as possible of the historical distance. Free translations are also known as paraphrases. Examples are the Living Bible(LB), The Message (TM). (c) Another theory is that of Dynamic Equivalence (DE). This theory searches for equivalents of words, phrases, idioms and grammar of the source language in the destination language. It keeps the historical distance but updates the language. Examples are NIV, NLT, TEV. (d) The last theory—which is also the newest theory—is known as Optimal Equivalence (OE). OE attempts to find an optimal balance between linguistic precision and modern clarity. When a word-for-word translation is easily understandable, LT is used. In places where such a translation could obscure the meaning of the text, DE is employed. It aims for clarity in words and thoughts. The prime example of OE is the HCSB.
The best way to study the Bible is still in the original languages. That means learning Hebrew and Greek for such a study becomes essential. However, what would be the next best tool to study the Bible if we do not know the original languages of Hebrew and Greek? It has to be a literal translation. The dominating concern for literal translations is closeness to the original. One of the most literal translations of the Twentieth Century is the American Standard Version. However,
[of the ASV] is that it retains an early style of English that is hard for
some to comprehend [being published in 1901].3 (Square brackets mine.)
The word propitiation means
a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.5
As a Biblical doctrine, propitiation embodies the concept that the death of Christ fully satisfied the demands of a righteous God in respect to judgment upon the sinner.6If we look at the word propitiation with regards to the one translation that Fee suggests should be one’s primary translation—the NIV—we have to conclude that “sacrifice of atonement” is perhaps not such a good translation after all! Who today—even within the modern church—will understand that phrase in relation to Biblical theology anyhow? If we are teaching our people to do proper Bible study and base that on solid doctrinal teaching, then the word “propitiation” will have a wealth of meaning for them. Do not get me wrong, the NIV is a good translation, but I believe that the closer to the originals one can get—without having to sift through theological bias in a translation—the better.
The more a translator deviates from the original, the more his opinion dominates in interpretive matters.
A literal translation provides a reliable tool for studying the text, because it is close to the original text. The more remote a translation is from the original, the less it reflects the precise meaning of the original and the more it reflects the interpretations of the translator(s). The remoteness entails a hindrance if one’s purpose is to discover the meaning of the Bible.7For those who love the Amplified Bible, the following is important:
One should probably also include here the Amplified Bible, which has had a run of popularity far beyond its worth. It is far better to use several translations, note where they differ, and then check out those differences in another source, than to be led to believe that a word can mean one of several things in any given sentence, with the reader left to choose whatever best strikes his or her fancy.8
It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible competently without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: “Dear friends, I have read no man’s book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself.” This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded by amens from the audience. But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the Church? We think not. First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism… Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit.9Whatever tools you do not have, you will have to simply do without, or at least try to get it. These tools are:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18 ESV)
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:14 ESV)Second, the interpreter must have a passion to know God’s word. One cannot love God without wanting to know more about God and His word to us. This comes only from the Scriptures. The Bible is our only rule for faith and practice.
Third, the interpreter must have a deep reverence for God.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! (Ps 111:10 ESV; Pr 9:10)If we do not fear the Lord, we will not bother with wanting to know His will and ways for our lives. We will not change!
Fourth, the interpreter must depend on the Holy Spirit to guide and direct. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures. He knows best. However, the Holy Spirit will never be as crystal clear as the original inspiration of the Scriptures. Many have claimed that the Holy Spirit has given them interpretations and words; yet, they differed greatly from others who have claimed the same. There is confusion between inspiration and illumination. The inspiration of the Scriptures is infallible. Illumination of the Scriptures is not. No man today can claim infallible illumination of the Scriptures.
The illumination of the Spirit is not the conveyance of truth for that is the function of inspiration. The Holy Spirit influences our attitudes and spiritual perception.10
4. Principles of interpretation11
This authority is shown in several ways: First, a Biblical character acts in a certain way and the passage in question shows whether this action was approved or disapproved. Second, the same as in the first point, but no indication is given as to whether this action was approved or disapproved. In this case the rest of the Bible must be used to indicate whether such an action is approved or disapproved of. Third, God or someone who represents Him—priest, prophet, apostle—reveals the mind and will of God.
When studying the Bible, do not add or subtract from it. We need to do proper exegesis—letting the Bible speak for itself—rather than eisegesis—enforcing our thoughts and ideas onto the Bible. Eisegesis would be like putting words in God’s mouth.
4.1.4 Examples from the Bible are authoritative only when backed by a command
A good example would be when Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek. In this case, nowhere in the text did God command Abraham to give a tenth to anyone. In fact, we are never told anywhere in Scripture that Abraham ever did this again, nor that he made it a “principle” in his life from that point on. Yet, many want to use this event to show that tithing is a timeless principle!
When it comes to examples, we must first differentiate between that which the Bible simply records and that which it approves of. Simply because something is recorded in the Bible does not mean that we have to follow suit. Second, we may apply those incidents the Bible directly condemns or approves. Third, commands directly to individuals are not God’s will for us, but for them alone. Fourth, determine what the principle is in the lives of the characters in the Bible.
“Every promise in the book is mine” is one of the overstatements of the century. Few Bible promises partake of such universality. In applying the promises of the Bible to our specific situations we need to exercise great care. If we apply promises to ourselves that are not for us, we may suffer severe disappointment. Also, promises must not be used to tempt God. A reserve and a patience should temper all our usages of promises.12We need to take care in our use of promises in the Bible as follows: First, ascertain whether the promise is a personal promise to a person in the Bible. Promises like these may not apply to us today. Second, is this promise conditional? One thing must be fulfilled before another will become true. Third, is this promise universal in extent. Does it apply to everybody? Fourth, is this promise valid for today? Promises not meant for today can obviously not be claimed.
Am I questioning this passage being
literal because I do not want to obey it?…
we must remember that in all these passages it is very clear that Scripture nowhere shows God as directly doing anything evil, but rather as bringing about evil deeds through the willing actions of moral creatures. Moreover, Scripture never blames God for evil or shows God as taking pleasure in evil, and Scripture never excuses human beings for the wrong they do. However we understand God's relationship to evil, we must never come to the point where we think that we are not responsible for the evil that we do, or that God takes pleasure in evil or is to be blamed for it. Such a conclusion is clearly contrary to Scripture.14Have you ever thought of Joseph’s life? His brothers were jealous of him (Gen 37:11), hated him (Gen 37:4-5, 8) and even wanted to kill him (Gen 37:20). They then did wrong when they cast him into a pit (Gen 37:24) and sold him into slavery (Gen 37:28). However, when Joseph spoke to them after years in slavery and then becoming second in command of Egypt, he said
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (Gen 50:20 NASB)Joseph clearly puts the blame at their feet, “you meant evil against me,” yet he acknowledges God’s dominant providential control over his life.
When the Israelites wanted to leave Egypt, it is clear that God hardened Pharoah’s heart! (Ex 4:21). God did this several times (Ex 7:3; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). Scripture also tells us that Pharoah hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15, 32; 9:34). Many use this to speculate that God simply hardened the heart of Pharoah in response to his own initial hardness and rebellion. However, it must be noted that we are told that God hardened the heart of Pharoah before we are told that Pharoah hardened his own heart. According to our doctrine of concurrence, even when God and man cause the same event, both factors can be true at once. It is not inconsistent to say that God caused Pharoah to harden his own heart, and so God hardened his heart. God had a purpose to all this.
But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. (Ex 9:16 NIV)Paul quotes this verse in Rom 9:17 and follows it with a general truth.
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Rom 9:18 ESV)God not only hardened the heart of Pharoah, but also that of his people to the extent that they would follow after the Israelites into the Red Sea (Ex 14:17; Ps 105:25).
Other narratives where God hardened the hearts of people can be found in the Canaanites.
For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. (Josh 11:20 NASB; see also Judg 3:12)Samson’s decision to marry a Philistine was not his own (Ex 14:4), but came from the Lord.
Why would Eli’s sons not listen to him?
His sons, however, did not listen to their father's rebuke, for it was the LORD's will to put them to death. (1 Sam 2:25 NIV)Saul—after his pride got the most of him—was tormented by an evil spirit … from the Lord!
Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. (1 Sam 16:14 ESV; see also Judg 9:23)When David sinned, the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to him to deliver a message that will stop most of us cold in our tracks.
 Thus says the LORD, "Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.  "Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.' (2 Sam 12:11-12 NASB; this was fulfilled in 16:22)David was punished further. Even though he repented of his sin in verse 13, the Lord’s punishment would stand as follows:
 However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.  So Nathan went to his house. Then the LORD struck the child that Uriah's widow bore to David, so that he was very sick.  David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground.  The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them.  Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died. (2 Sam 12:14-18 NASB)When David called a census of the people God was angered against David’s sin (2 Sam 24:1). David recognized the fact the he sinned so he repented (2 Sam 24:10). However, the Lord gave him one of three choices that would befall him or his people: (1) Seven years of famine, (2) three months of fleeing before his enemies, or (3) three days of pestilence over his people. David chose the latter (2 Sam 24:11-16).
Why did God do this in the first place? God was angry with Israel, and so incited David to sin, in order to bring that punishment on Israel. However, what was the means by which God did this inciting?.
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. (1 Chron 21:1 NIV)
In this one incident the Bible gives us a remarkable insight into the three influences that contributed in different ways to one action: God, in order to bring about his purposes, worked through Satan to incite David to sin, but Scripture regards David as being responsible for that sin.15After Solomon’s sin of turning away from the Lord by taking foreign wives, God raised up evil kings against him (1 Ki 11:14, 23).
Look at Job’s circumstances. The Lord gave Satan permission to bring great harm to Job’s belongings and to his family. This harm came via the evil Sabeans, the Chaldeans and even a windstorm (Job 1:12, 15, 17, 19). Even though this happened, Job saw beyond the second causes, and sees all of it as from God’s hand.
And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21 ESV)In all this Job did not sin, and he did not blame God for his circumstances (Job Job 1:22).
During the time that Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, God put a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets of Ahab, the king of Israel (1 Ki 22:23). God also used the Assyrians as the rod of His anger to punish Israel (Is 10:5), and brought the Babylonians against Israel (Jer 25:9). Then when God finished using the Babylonians and Chaldeans in His anger against Israel, He punished those same Babylonians and Chaldeans for their wickedness (Jer 25:12).
In many of the passages mentioned above, God brings evil and destruction on people in judgment upon their sins: They have been disobedient or have strayed into idolatry, and then the LORD uses evil human beings or demonic forces or "natural" disasters to bring judgment on them. (This is not always said to be the case--Joseph and Job come to mind--but it is often so.) Perhaps this idea of judgment on sin can help us to understand, at least in part, how God can righteously bring about evil events. All human beings are sinful, for Scripture tells us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). None of us deserves God's favor or his mercy, but only eternal condemnation. Therefore, when God brings evil on human beings, whether to discipline his children, or to lead unbelievers to repentance, or to bring a judgment of condemnation and destruction upon hardened sinners, none of us can charge God with doing wrong. Ultimately all will work in God's good purposes to bring glory to him and good to his people. Yet we must realize that in punishing evil in those who are not redeemed (such as Pharoah, the Canaanites, and the Babylonians), God is also glorified through the demonstration of his justice, holiness, and power (see Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:14-24).16It is sometimes not comfortable for us to hear about some of the things that God does, simply because we have always been taught otherwise. Yet, when the Bible tells us that God makes peace and creates evil, we need to teach the whole counsel of God, not just half if it.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. (Is 45:7 KJV)
Other translations render the Hebrew word rã’, "evil," as "disaster" (NIV) or "woe' (RSV) or "calamity" (NASB), and indeed the word can be used to apply to natural disasters such as these words imply. But there is no compelling reason to restrict it to natural disasters, for the word is an extremely common word used of evil generally: It is used of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9), of the evil among mankind that brought the judgment of the flood (Gen. 6:5), and of the evil of the men of Sodom (Gen. 13:13). It is used to say, "Depart from evil and do good" (Ps. 34:14), and to speak of the wrong of those who call evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20), and of the sin of those whose "feet run to evil" (Isa. 59:7; see also 47:10, 11; 56:2; 57:1; 59:15; 65:12; 66:4). Dozens of other times throughout the Old Testament it refers to moral evil or sin. The contrast with “peace” (shãlôm) in the same phrase in Isa. 45:7 might argue that only "calamity” is in view, but not necessarily so, for moral evil and wickedness is certainly also the opposite of the wholeness of God's "shalom" or peace. (In Amos 3:6, rã’ ãh is a different but related word and has a similar range of meanings.) But Isa. 45:7 does not say that God does evil.17The greatest evil deed ever certainly was that of the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet, it too was ordained by God. He did not just ordain the fact of its future eventuality, but also the individual actions related to it.
 For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. (Ac 4:27 NASB)God predestined all the actions of the participants in the crucifixion of Jesus in order to fulfill His purpose. However, the apostles never lay moral blame before God, for the evil acts of willing human beings.
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Ac 2:23 ESV)God, through His eternal wisdom, brought about His plan through the willing choices of men.
In the end-times people will become more and more evil. Based on this God will send
 them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie  and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Thes 2:11-12 NIV)
and, A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. (1 Pet 2:8 NASB)How do you treat these passages? Do you allegorize them because they do not fit into your doctrinal framework?
αγαπη (agapē) and φιλεω (fileō), and also λογος (logos) and ρημα (rhēma) will present an interesting study of synonyms.
A study of the word “world” will show that it could have several meanings depending on the context. It could mean the physical world we call “earth.” It could also refer to this world system of thought and its evil ways. It could even mean a smaller part of earth such as the Roman Empire. Finally, it could even mean the Gentiles as opposed to the Jews.
Inanimate objects cannot have life and action of its own. Therefore, in situations such as these, they should be interpreted figuratively.
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. (Phil 3:2 ESV)Is Paul really talking about dogs? No!
Attempt at all times to interpret passages literally. However, if it will not make sense that way, then perhaps it should be interpreted figuratively.
Another important point to remember is that a word cannot have more than one meaning in its context (the Amplified Bible suggests that this is a possibility). The meaning cannot be literal and figurative at the same time.
This also means that our theology should go no further than the Biblical evidence.
Because [the New Testament] is the final, full and clear revelation of God, it would be foolhardy to make the New revolve around the Old.18
How we understand the divine Person bears directly on how we think of the plan of redemption. Our doctrine of sin in many ways determines how we formulate our notion of salvation.19 Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, A Textbook of Hermeneutics, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Thirteenth Printing, December 1982, p1.
 Fee, Gordon D. & Stuart, Douglas, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982, p34.
 Thomas, Robert L., How to Choose a Bible Version, Christian Focus Publications, Great Britain, 2000, p97.
 Fee, p36.
 Grudem, Wayne, SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1994, p575.
 Walvoord, John, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, Thirteenth Printing, 1982, p171.
 Thomas, p98.
 Fee, p41.
 Ramm, pp17-18.
 Ramm, p14.
 The principles of interpretation as set out in this article largely come from Henrichsen, Walter A., A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fourth Printing, 1981.
 Ramm, p193.
 Henrichsen, Walter A., A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fourth Printing, 1981, pp50-51.
 Grudem, p323.
 Grudem, p324.
 Grudem, p326.
 Grudem, footnote #7, p326.
 Ramm, p167.
 Ramm, p173.
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