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God's Word is the Source of Life because it points to and reveals God to us. We don't worship the Bible. We worship the God of the Bible. Since the Bible is how God has decided to reveal Himself to us, we must know how to read His Word so we can see Him properly.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. ~2 Timothy 3:16-17
The question becomes, "How do we know how to interpret the Bible correctly? There seem to be so different interpretations of the same verses?" That's what the rest of this article is about.
Let's determine how NOT to interpret the Bible.
The following are some unintentionally BAD ways to read this Bible. These will cause you to find a skewed interpretation and can lead to heresy.
1. What does this verse mean to me? The Bible is extremely practical. However, we must not approach it primarily through our own personal lens. We don't get to pick what it means. We aim to discover its meaning and then ask how to apply it.
2. How does this verse tell me about Jesus? This is a great goal, but we should never go to the Bible with a loaded desire. Let the text speak for itself.
3. The act of just reading one verse. You will see this in many devotionals. You'll read one verse and then three paragraphs from someone telling you about it. This is fine if you know the context of the verse already. If not, be careful. The best way to learn God's Word is by reading all of God's Word within context.
So, what DO we do?
Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods of interpreting the text of the Bible. Biblical hermeneutics aims to provide filters or principles for us to pass all Scripture. The goal is to be able consistently and fairly interpret God's Word. There is another goal for why a pastor would show you these principles. I want you to have confidence when you read the Bible. When you properly apply God's Word, you can know that you are reading it correctly and know God for yourself.
People have written entire books on each of these principles. We will state them briefly, but I encourage you to check the resources at the bottom for further study.
Principle 1: Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.
When reading the Bible, the primary way to interpret God's Word is from other places within God's Word. Before seeking commentaries, study Bibles or other people's opinions, and look for other places in the Bible that speak on what you are reading. One great way to do this is to place that verse in Google and add "cross reference." You will find many other places in God's Word to reference.
Questions to ask: Where else is this in the Bible? Does that help me understand this better?
Principle 2: Scripture must be interpreted within CONTEXT.
Context is King. Most of the questions you have about a particular text can be explained by context.
There are different levels of context:
- Level one: Immediate context. This is by reading a few verses before and a few verses after. This will help most of the time.
- Level two: Book context. This is reading the verse within the context of the entire book of the Bible. This takes a little longer but is highly worth the effort. Like a good detective, ask the following questions: (1) Who wrote this book? (2) Who was it written to? (3) What is the theme of this book?
- Level three: Overall Scope. Where does this book fall within the overall narrative of the Bible?
Questions to ask: What does this verse mean if I read it within the entire chapter? What does it mean if I read it within the idea of the entire book?
Principle 3: No Text will contradict another text.
If we truly believe God's Word is inspired (and we do), we must do the hard work of digging deeper when we find seeming contradictions. If you find a contradiction, don't move on. Dig deep. Study widely. Have confidence. Christianity has been around for a long time. This means you are not the first to discover what you have found. This can increase your faith as you discover God's Word in a deeper way. The answers are out there. Keep digging.
Questions to ask: Why does this apply to contradict? What do other resources say? Am I reading this with the first two principles in mind?
Principle 4: We must derive normative theological doctrine from DIDACTIC passages that explicitly deal with a particular doctrine.
What do I mean by this? We must be careful to understand that what the Bible DESCRIBES does not always PRESCRIBE. The Old Testament book of Judges is a great example of this. Chapter after chapter, we see the nation of Israel dishonoring God. It is one of the darkest times in the nation's history, and God is not pleased. The Bible is not saying we should go and do the same. It is not "prescribing" that we follow their lead. It is merely "describing" what happened. Since this is true, we must apply this principle elsewhere too.
Here is another example. The Bible says in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit fell upon those in the upper room, and they began to speak in tongues. Some denominations have said since this happened in Acts 2, that is how it should always happen. Many other places speak of people walking in the Spirit but do not say the initial way you can tell if the Spirit is living within you is because you spoke with tongues. If we say it must look like Acts 2, we do not apply God's Word consistently. It can happen this way, but it does not have to happen this way. We build doctrine off of the places where the Bible speaks directly. The narrative portions confirm or show God's principles in action.
Questions to ask: Is this a narrative portion or a didactic portion? Is this where the Bible describes an event or teaches a principle?
Principle 5: Avoid the temptation to impose systematic theology and definitions on Biblical terms. The Bible speaks for itself.
The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us. This one is hard to do because we want to place what we have already been taught in the text before we even read it. The problem is we don't know if those ideas are correct. Also, we must rid ourselves of the idea that the Biblical writers were aware of what was happening in our time. They were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write about principles that applied to their time. This does mean God's Word does not apply to us. It does mean we have to interpret God's Word in the light of understanding the context so we can apply it to our lives properly. An example would be some who try to act as though Paul was already a Calvinist and how the Calvinist doctrine was in his head when he wrote the Book of Romans. This simply is not true. We must turn it the other way around. Let God's Word prove if those theologies are correct or not. We need systematic theologies, but they must come from the text itself. Once we know God's Word within the original context, we can understand how to apply it to our lives.
Questions to ask: Am I bringing anything "pre-loaded" into my Bible reading that's skewing this text? Am I trying to make the Bible say something rather than letting it speak for itself?
So, the next time you come across a text and have no idea what's going on, don't panic. Walk through these principles and see what you find. They can seem daunting initially, but they will become second nature over time.