The Principles of Interpretation

Text: “For no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation”(2 Pet 1:21) “No prophecy of Scripture is had from its own particular interpretation. (JND)

When we read 2 Peter 1:21, we see two very important words: inspiration, which refers to the fact that the Scriptures are God-breathed, and interpretation, which refers to the principles that we use when understanding the meaning of a passage. What are these principles that help us to understand the Word of God? Before we begin to look at the principles, we need to review the Golden Rule of Interpretation: “If the plain sense mahes common sense, seek no other sense.”

This statement will lead us to follow the road of a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The other road is that of an allegorical system of interpretation which, for example, will lead to a spiritualizing of the promises to Israel, making us apply them to the Church that will then be identified as spiritual Israel.

Allegorical interpreters see no future for Israel and no millennial reign of Christ. A literal interpretation of the Scriptures, by contrast, assumes that the Bible means what it says and says what it means. Therefore, with the literal interpreter, there is seen a clear distinction between the Church and Israel, a time of great tribulation following the rapture of the church, a future restoration of Israel, and a literal millennium.

The Interpretation of the Context

This is a most important rule of interpretation. We must always ask, “What is the intent of the passage?” We must always beware of a teacher who ignores the context of a verse of Scripture, for a text without a context is a pretext.

There are three concentric circles of context. The first of these is the circle of the immediate context. A good example of this is Matthew 3:11-12. Charismatic teachers say the fire refers to the Holy Spirit. A reading of the context will show that it refers to a judgment of unquenchable fire. It is interesting to ask why the fire is left out in Acts 1:5. Compare this to Luke 4:20, where the Lord closed the Book before reading of the Day of Vengeance of our God.

The second circle is the circle of the context of the Book. We must use the telescope and get the whole picture before we get too involved with the microscope in examining the details. We must ask, “What is the Book about?” “What are its structure and great themes?” For example, we sometimes hear that Ephesians 2:22 refers to the local church and not the Church which is His Body. But if we rightly understand the structure of this epistle, we will see that word “we” refers to “we Jews,” while the word “you” refers to “you Gentiles.” The theme of the epistle is, “For He is our peace, Who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition” (ch 2:14).

The third circle is the circle of the context of the Bible. Is this interpretation consistent with the entire Book? Is it consistent with its great doctrinal themes? In the Bible there are no contradictions.

The Interpretation of Words

Someone once said “Since God has chosen to speak to man by words, I plan to make words my life study.” This sentence underlies the fact that we cannot understand the Bible unless we understand the words of the Bible. We will need a good English dictionary, but we will also need some tools to understand the words that a secular dictionary cannot help us with. We will also want to understand the meaning of the words behind the words.

For example, in John 21:15-19 there are two different words for “love,” two for “feed,” and two for “know.” A proper understanding of the passage will require that we see the distinctions that the Holy Spirit has made.

What is the script (Matt 10:9)?

What is “dissimulation” (Gal 2:13)?

What are “old cast clouts” (Jer. 38:11)?

In 1 John 1:24, the words “abide,” “remain,” and “continue” all translate the one Greek word “meno,” so we should not try to distinguish among the three English words. In Heb 5:7, the word “from” is “ek”, which means “out from within,” so the Lord Jesus was not praying that He would not die, but rather it is a prayer for resurrection (Psa 16:10).

The Historical Interpretation

There are times when it will help us to understand the Bible if we know something of the customs and practices of the period at the time of writing. For example, the Colossian epistle and 1 John were written to combat the error of the Gnostic teachers. It will then help us if we know something of what Gnosticism was about.

There are many other examples where an understanding of the historical period, the culture and the climate will help us.

The Obscurity Rule

This rule simply stated is, “Obscure passages must always give way to clear passages.” It could also be called the principle of no contradiction. For example, Mormonism has built a doctrine on 1 Cor 15:29, teaching that someone living today can be baptized for one who has died, giving the latter another opportunity to be saved. Nothing even approaching this is found anywhere else in the Bible! What does the verse mean? We know what it does not mean. The same grammatical construction, evidently, is found in 2 Cor. 7:14, 8:23, 2 Thess. 2:1, Rom. 9:27, and Phil. 1:7. The expression can be translated, “with reference to.” What does the context imply? Is it not similar to the doctrine of Romans 6? There is a profession of having died with Christ and having been raised with Him! Since He has been raised, we will be raised, for we are linked to Him.

The Grammatical Interpretation

Someone once said, “He is not a theologian who is not a grammarian.” We need to grasp the grammatical structure of the Bible. There is a rule of grammar called Granville Sharps rule that will lead us to translate Titus 2:13 as, “Looking for the blessed hope, even the appearing of the glory of the great God, even our Savior, Jesus Christ.” The first part teaches that the blessed hope is the appearing of the glory, and the second part is an undeniable claim of the Deity of Christ.

In John 4:13-14, the Lord Jesus used two different tenses of the word “drink.” The first implying, “whosoever keeps on continually drinking of this water shall thirst again,” and the second implying, “whosoever takes a drink of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst!” What a significant difference is there as He contrasts a motion picture with a snapshot! Is this verse in itself not enough to make us want to be grammarians?

To be continued