The science of interpreting the Bible (or any piece of literature) is called hermeneutics. The word comes from a Greek word, hermeneuo , which means to interpret or to explain. Interpreting the Bible is not a simple process of reading what has been written. The art of biblical interpretation developed slowly. See Bible, History of Interpretation . While there have always been some people who interpreted the Bible in ways similar to what we do today, the science of biblical interpretation began to develop in the days of the Renaissance and Reformation and was given new importance by the work of Luther and Calvin.
Questions to Ask The meaning of a piece of writing is seldom clearly self-evident to anyone who happens to read it. Especially is this true if the writing is a very old document, written for someone who lived in a very different cultural-historical setting. If we want to interpret a piece of literature, we must ask at least five questions: 1) Who was the writer and to whom was he writing? 2) What was the cultural-historical setting of the writer? 3) What was the meaning of the words in the writer's day? 4) What was the intended meaning of the author and why was he saying it? 5) What should this mean to me in my situation today? These basic questions lead into other questions that must be explored in a serious attempt to understand the message of the Bible. The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying. Then he must bring that ancient message into today's world where the reader lives.
There are some basic principles that should be observed by the interpreter of the Scriptures. 1) The Bible is a divinely inspired book (2 Timothy 3:16
) and should be reverently approached. Perhaps the reader should hear what was said to Moses as he stood before the burning bush: “Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5
). We must be careful to reverence the divine character of Scripture. 2) The Bible has a genuinely human element, also, since God used ordinary people to write the Scriptures. Recognition should be given to the human elements utilized by the Holy Spirit in giving us God's Word. To miss the human element is as much a mistake as to miss the divine element. 3) The primary aim of the interpreter is to discover the original meaning of the author who wrote the passage under consideration. 4) Preference should be given to the interpretation which is clearest and simplest, the most obvious. 5) Only one meaning should be given to any passage of Scripture, unless a later passage of Scripture assigns it a second meaning. Only an inspired writer of Scripture can be allowed to give a passage more than one meaning. 6) Careful attention must be given to the literary form of a passage in determining its meaning. 7) Careful attention must be given to the historical situation of a portion of Scripture.
Historical Task Interpretation begins with a historical task. The interpreter needs to know as much as possible about the writer and his cultural-historical setting. If we know nothing concerning who wrote a passage, when it was written, or under what conditions it was written, we are almost left to guess what its meaning might be. Knowing what an author has experienced and what the thought forms of his day were aids us in understanding his writing. It is important to know the approximate date when a passage was written. For instance, words about God's Spirit written before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost might be given one meaning while they would be given a different meaning after Pentecost. The reader also needs to know who the intended recipients of a passage were. Words addressed to unbelievers would be interpreted very differently from words addressed to believers. The meaning of a passage might depend upon knowing whether the original audience was Jewish or Gentile. The interpreter also needs to know what occasioned the writing, or why the writer wrote his message and what his purpose was.
Literary Task A literary task follows the historical task of the interpreter. The literary task begins with the task of translation of the Scripture from the ancient Hebrew and Greek into the language best understood by the interpreter. Translation is itself a stage of interpretation. For translation is more than simply substituting English words for the Greek and Hebrew words. If you cannot do a good job of translating Greek and Hebrew into English (or whatever your language is), then you must rely upon good translations of the Bible. You really should utilize several good translations to help you understand what the ancient writer was trying to say to you.
Lexical study is the next phase of your literary study of the Bible. You must consult a lexicon or dictionary to find the meaning key words had when the original writer used them. His words may have a different meaning today, and you must know what they meant when originally used.
The next stage of the literary task of the interpreter is the grammatical or syntactical phase. Here, you must examine the form of the writer's grammar: what is signified by the grammatical constructions, the verb forms used, what is given emphasis in a sentence, the relationships of the words to each other, etc. The tense, voice, mode, case, etc. of the words used is very important in understanding what the writer was trying to say to you, the reader. These matters are acutely important in the work of translation, but they also must not be overlooked in the process of interpretation. You should consult good critical commentaries that analyze these grammatical matters for you, even if you do your own translation.
Rhetorical analysis is another important phase of the literary task of interpretation. Here, the interpreter seeks to determine what kind of rhetoric, or language, the ancient writer was using. It is extremely important to recognize the various literary forms that are used by the different writers of the Bible. Major portions of the Bible are written in ordinary prose, plain descriptive narrative. Other portions are pure poetry. Sometimes vivid figures of speech are incorporated in narrative portions. Such figures of speech must be interpreted in their symbolic sense rather than as literal, descriptive language. Portions of the Bible are written in apocalyptic language, a well-known literary style often used in the ancient world, but hardly known to us today. Apocalyptic literature employs vivid symbols and fanciful images to convey some message or mystery or prophecy in a veiled, highly imaginative way. The Book of Revelation and certain portions of Daniel and Ezekiel are examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible.
Consideration must be given to the context of a passage of Scripture. No portion of Scripture ought to be interpreted without regard to its content. The context is the setting in which the particular passage is located. Generally, the paragraph in which a statement appears is the minimum context. However, the context of a passage may be the whole chapter in which a verse occurs; it could even be the entirety of a book, in the case of the shorter books of the Bible. Meaning that is given to a verse, without regard to its context, is very likely to be the wrong meaning. The Bible is made to say many things the original writers did not intend by interpreting particular statements without regard to their contexts.
The literary task of the interpreter must include comparing the meaning given to a passage to what is taught elsewhere in the Scriptures. This does not mean that we should arbitrarily force one viewpoint upon all of the Scriptures. But it does mean that we should be careful not to interpret Scriptures in such a way that we introduce contradictions into our interpretation of the Bible. There is an overall unity to the Bible; it teaches one theme, one message. But within that unity, there is also diversity. There is diversity due to the vast amount of time spanned in the writing of the Bible. There is diversity due to the many different authors employed by the Holy Spirit. There is diversity due to the progressive nature of revelation. God gradually revealed more and more of Himself and of His will for humans as the message of the Bible proceeded from Genesis to Revelation. While there is progression, there is not contradiction in the Scriptures. The careful interpreter will always want to compare an interpretation of a passage with what the Bible teaches elsewhere to see if the interpretation “fits” with what the Bible says in other places.
Spiritual Task There is a personal, spiritual task of the interpreter. One who would be a good interpreter must be devoted to diligent, careful study of the Scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15
), prayerfully seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit continually while interpreting the Scriptures (John 16:12-15
; 2 Peter 1:19-21
). Only illumination or divine guidance can lead to correct interpretation. On the one hand, the Bible is a piece of literature that is to be interpreted just like any other piece of literature. On the other hand, the Bible is unique in that it is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit; one who reads the Bible should therefore seek the guidance of God in understanding what is written there.
One additional task remains for the interpreter. Seek to apply the teaching of the Bible to your present situation. It is important to know what the Bible said to its original readers, the people to whom it was originally addressed. But it is equally important to apply the ancient message to us today in our life situation which may be very different from that of the ancient world of Moses or Jesus or Paul. If the Bible is a living revelation of God to us, as we say it is, then we must do more than decipher its ancient history. We must apply the principles discerned in that ancient history to our life situation today.
J. Terry Young