Have you ever considered how we should interpret the Bible? What steps or principles should guide our approach to interpreting the word of God? We may not have developed a full-fledged approach to interpreting the Bible, but we can at least admit that interpreting the word of God is something we should approach with the utmost seriousness. Here are some principles to guide you as you approach interpreting God’s Word. These principles were taken from an article by Robert W. Yarbrough in the Reformation Study Bible.

1. Read it like you read any other book (but see also next point).

The Bible is not written in secret code. Its message is saving and sublime, but Bible passages are rightly interpreted by attention to everyday matters like word meaning, grammar, literary structure, and context. We should read it in large blocks rather than snatching fragments here and there. If we want to understand it well, we should read it daily and with our full attention. All these things are true of any book we would seek to understand closely and well.

It is quite crucial to read the Bible in context. Taking Bible words out of their context can skew their meaning. If we go to Scripture in need of comfort and fixate on Mic. 4:10, “Writhe and groan,” we may feel worse needlessly. In context, those are words of rebuke to ancient Judah and only apply to us to the extent that we are rebelling against God like Judah was. The Bible often uses metaphor, hyperbole, and other literary devices to convey its message. Again, the context helps us see when the Bible uses these devices. A sound hermeneutic is alert to the literary conventions that come into play in the Bible as in all literary expression.

2. Seek a personal relationship with the God who gave the Bible and verifies its truth.

The Bible is like other books but not completely so. As noted above, it is God’s Word. It is holy, meaning it is distinct and set apart from other literature. It not only informs but makes readers who are willingly submissive to its message “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).

One of Africa’s earliest converts to the Christian faith was baffled by a passage from Is. 53 (Acts 8:30-35). The Holy Spirit sent the early evangelist Philip to aid his reading. He began with the problem verses, then “told him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35). Then the Ethiopian understood. He was baptized and became a follower of Jesus and “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). Scripture had presented him with a problem, which called for understanding that would lead to a personal encounter with the God who gave Scripture.

Much in the Bible is clear to the well-intentioned, literate reader who employs reasonable means to understand it. This is what we mean when we speak of the perspicuity of Scripture. But its deepest aim is to bring readers to the saving knowledge of God, and His gospel is clear to any who approach the text honestly and in all humility. Within this personal relationship, established by God’s Spirit through the gospel, gratifying and increasing understanding of Scripture is ensured.

3. Let the known interpret the unknown.

The correct interpretation of almost all Bible verses is disputed by someone somewhere. The impression arises that Scripture can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. We may despair of arriving at the right meaning of any of it.

A sound hermeneutic does not allow what might be unclear or uncertain to cancel out things that the Bible clearly states. The book of Job raises the problem of human suffering—where is God when people hurt? Yet God’s seeming absence does not cancel out the biblical truth that He is always with His people, even in their woes. Mary, Jesus’ mother, could not understand her pregnancy (Luke 1:34) but trusted in God’s word to her through the angel (Luke 1:37). Some of Jesus’ followers doubted even when Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:17), but that did not change Jesus’ authority or His followers’ commission (28:18-20).

Difficult Bible passages or teachings are often illuminated by related passages that are less troublesome. In the course of time, understanding often comes that solves the difficulty.

4. Affirm the rule of faith (analogia fidei).

Since God is truthful, and Scripture is His Word, the core doctrines of that Word provide a framework for properly interpreting it. A verse that affirms Jesus’ humanity does not contradict but complements verses that affirm His divinity. The overarching rule of faith affirms both truths about the Son of God: He is fully man and fully God.

In other words, there is a unified doctrinal framework within which the Bible’s claims and teachings hold together. Each passage or part of the Bible draws meaning from that framework, just as it feeds back into that framework to make it fuller and more detailed. There is no single worldwide rule of faith agreed on by all churches. But statements such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are widely affirmed as accurate, overarching descriptions of the Bible’s teachings. Many churches have confessions and catechisms that summarize their rule of faith. Examples in Reformed churches include the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1646). Such statements do not dictate what individual passages say, but they do provide a framework within which to seek Scripture’s most likely meaning even as they summarize the teaching of God’s Word.

5. Let Scripture interpret itself (analogia Scriptura).

Many biblical writers and Jesus Himself “prove” a teaching by appealing to the Bible. Jesus explained the doctrine of the resurrection from Moses (Ex. 3:6; Luke 20:37). He affirmed His identity as Lord by referring to Ps. 110:1 (Luke 20:41-44). In Romans, Paul verifies and explains his gospel message with dozens of OT passages.

Today, many Bibles have cross-references that point out similarities and convergences between various biblical passages. Cross-references illustrate the principle Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres (sacred Scripture interprets itself). When struggling with the meaning of one passage, seek help in related passages.

6. Put into practice what Scripture says as understanding unfolds.

The book of James and many statements of Jesus stress not only knowing Scripture but doing it (John 13:17; James 1:22-25). The Bible poses very big questions and makes ultimate demands. If we insist on total understanding as the condition of commitment to the Lord, we may remain paralyzed indefinitely. Jesus also said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Even limited understanding may grow rapidly when diligently put into practice. When it is not, both learning and the desire to learn can easily wither.

7. Be conscious of “the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).

Satan tempted Jesus with a twisted hermeneutic (Matt. 4:6). Because He had a better interpretation of His situation and of God’s Word, Jesus was able to avoid the evil path Satan offered. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). He had warned them earlier “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), advice that many ignored.

Peter warned that “the ignorant and unstable twist” Paul’s writings “to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). No one likes to be told they are wrong, yet a primary message of Scripture overall is “Repent!” The Bible presents the major impediment to understanding God’s Word as moral, not intellectual. Our tendency is to suppress the truth by our unrighteousness (cf. Rom. 1:18). Therefore, robust consciousness of sin is called for (1 Tim. 1:15; James 3:2). Otherwise, hermeneutics can become an agenda for proving self-righteousness from Bible passages.

8. Let Scripture interpret culture rather than the other way around.

Human experience and social conviction can result in distortion of the Bible’s teaching. Some interpreters in the pre-Civil War Southern United States justified slavery from the Bible. Today, many interpreters, even in church leadership, deny that Christ is the only way to salvation, that the Bible is completely true, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that sexual activity condemned by the Bible is wrong. In such cases, human cultural consciousness works to control the Bible’s message. Pushing back against such a tendency by following the hermeneutical rules listed here can lead to interpretation that is more faithful to God and His Word rather than to the whims of cultural change.

9. Pay attention to genre.

The Bible contains various types of written expression: law, prophecy, song, proverb, history, epistle, Gospel, parable, prayer, and more. Some books combine more than one genre. A sound hermeneutic recognizes the universal and binding nature of some biblical statements (such as “You shall not steal”; Deut. 5:19) and the proverbial quality of other statements (such as “The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short”; Prov. 10:27). Proverbs are statements of general validity, not predictions of what will always happen in every imaginable case.

The symbols of the book of Revelation call for a different hermeneutic than the clear descriptions of ship travel in Acts 27–28. The Gospels present Christ in His historical ministry; the NT Epistles assume their readers have received the good news and believed in Jesus. They do not, therefore, tend to repeat or retell the narratives the Gospels relate. This does not mean that the Epistles discount the importance of Jesus’ earthly work and teaching, but that they belong to a different genre with a different aim.

10. Bear in mind the Bible’s overarching story and its glorious outcome.

While the Bible contains innumerable complexities, in a sense it points to something basic and crystal clear: the story of God’s creation and redemption of the world. God sits on His throne, His people will exult in eternal fellowship with Him and with one another (Rev. 22), and His enemies will come to grief. A sound hermeneutic works to understand this sacred story better for the sake of human welfare, faithful retelling throughout the world (mission), and God’s eternal glory.

In conclusion, hermeneutics, properly understood and practiced, is key to understanding Scripture so that its truth is revealed to its best and highest effect. To labor at hermeneutics is to acknowledge dependence on Scripture for our salvation. For it is God’s Word written—properly interpreted—that by God’s Spirit brings us into fellowship with God through His Word made flesh (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-3).

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