Hermeneutics — Proper Bible Interpretation

Published July 30th, 2016 by Dirk Waren

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Hermeneutics refers to the science of scriptural interpretation. Simply put, there’s a right way to interpret the Bible and a wrong way. This explains something the apostle Paul said to his protégé:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

Timothy was a young minister and his mentor, Paul, was simply exhorting him to correctly handle the Scriptues. Other versions of the Bible translate the Greek for “correctly handles” as:

  • “correctly explains” (NLV)
  • “accurately handling” (NASB)
  • “correctly teaching” (HCSB)
  • “rightly dividing” (KJV)

The obvious reason Paul instructed Timothy to “correctly handle” God’s Word is because it’s possible to incorrectly handle it. If you can “correctly explain” it you can also incorrectly explain it. If you can “correctly teach” it you can also incorrectly teach it. If you can “rightly divide” it you can also un-rightly divide it.

So how do you correctly handle God’s Word? By learning and mastering the four simple rules of hermeneutics. Before looking at these guidelines, there’s something every believer needs to grasp, particularly in our day and age of ten thousand sects:

“The Truth [Reality] Will Set You Free” Not the Official Doctrines of a Certain Sect

Notice what Jesus said about discovering the truth:

So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31-32

Christ said it’s “the truth” that will set us free as we continue in it and don’t give up. ‘Truth’ is translated from the Greek word alétheia (ah-LAY-thee-ah), which means “reality” or “the way it really is.” It’s the opposite of illusion or delusion.

Here’s a gem of truth that all spiritually mature believers embrace: It doesn’t matter what one group believes or another group believes on any issue; the only thing that matters is what the truth is. Why? Because, again, truth literally means “reality.” It’s the way it really is. The point is that the truth is the truth regardless of what any person or group believes. So when you’re trying to discover the truth on a certain issue it’s irrelevant what this or that sect believes. All that matters is the truth and the truth is the clear revelation of the Word of God (John 17:17) as we continue in it, interpreting in context and in light of the greater context of the entire Bible.

The Four Rules of Hermeneutics

Here are the four common-sense rules of hermeneutics; that is, Bible interpretation:

  1. Context is king: Meaning the surrounding text reveals the obvious meaning of each passage. The context also includes obvious questions like: Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? What is the topic? What is taking place at the time? And whereWhom does it involve? And what is their covenant (agreement, contract) with the LORD, if indeed they even have one?
  2. Scripture interprets Scripture: Meaning every passage must be interpreted in light of the context of the entire Bible and that the Bible itself is its best interpreter. In other words, one’s interpretation of a passage must gel with what the rest of Scripture teaches; the more overt and detailed passages obviously expand our understanding of the more sketchy and ambiguous ones. 
  3. Take the Bible literally unless it’s clear that figurative language is being used: In which case you look for the literal truth that the symbolism intends to convey.
  4. If the plain sense makes sense—and is in harmony with the rest of Scripture—don’t look for any other sense lest you end up with nonsense: This includes the “plain sense” of the whole of Scripture on any given topic. In other words, if an individual or group comes up with an interpretation that is opposed to the plain-sense meaning that all the passages in the Bible obviously point to on that subject then it must be rejected. This fourth rule is essentially the other three combined.

These “rules” are really just common-sense guidelines for discovering truth and being set free from religious error. Although the Bible is simple enough that the simplest of persons can receive from it and be blessed, it’s also deep and complex, which means that as believers grow in the Lord they naturally grow in knowledge, understanding and wisdom. As such, one believer might have a grasp on a passage or topic and another might have a fuller understanding. A good example of this can be seen in Acts 18:24-26 where Apollos, a very learned man and powerful speaker, had a limited understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. What he knew was good and accurate, as far as he understood it, but it wasn’t a full or complete understanding. Aquila and Pricilla discerned this when they heard him speak; so they took Apollos aside, and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (verse 26).

Staunch sectarians aren’t like this, however; they argue for or against a doctrine based purely on sectarianism. If what you teach doesn’t gel with what their sect teaches you’re automatically wrong; if what you teach is adhered to by a group they object to you’re wrong. What the Scriptures clearly and consistently teach on the topic is irrelevant to them, at least on certain subjects. Needless to say, this is a spiritually immature mindset and wholly unbiblical. You’ll notice in the above-cited 2 Timothy 2:15 that Paul instructed Timothy to do his best to “correctly handle the word of truth” and not to do his best to follow the doctrines of this or that sect. It’s an important distinction. Think about it.

Literalize Rather than Spiritualize the Scriptures (Unless You have Clear Justification)

The third rule (above) is important: Unless there are legitimate reasons to take a passage (or parts of a passage) figuratively or hyperbolically, God’s Word should be taken literally. Why is this important? Because without this rule people can take any passage and just spiritualize it into whatever they want it to mean based on their ideology. The result is inevitably a bunch of worthless gobbledygook.

Let’s take the “golden lampstands” in John’s vision in Revelation 1:12. Verse 20 reveals that they’re symbolic of the seven churches of Asia Minor, which are addressed in the next two chapters of Revelation. Similarly the “double-edged sword” that proceeds from Christ’s mouth in verse 16 obviously isn’t literal and other passages reveal that this is a figurative reference to the Word of God. You see? Taking the lampstands and the double-edged sword symbolically is justified in these cases, not to mention obvious.

Then there are obvious hyperbolic statements like when Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). We know Christ was using exaggeration for effect here — hyperbole — because elsewhere he stresses the great importance of loving others, including especially honoring one’s parents (Matthew 19:19).

Needless to say, beware of “teachers” who tend to write off plain passages of God’s Word by spiritualizing them (saying they’re symbolic or hyperbole). Why do they do this? Typically because their dubious ideology or sectarianism compels them to do so. In other words, their indoctrination by their pastor/church/sect/mentor prevents them from taking the words literally. They pre-suppose something is true and this determines how they interpret Scripture, even in cases where God’s Word flat-out contradicts their presupposition.

Those who teach God’s Word are accountable to the LORD for what they teach. They have the obligation to “rightly divide” it by putting the pieces of the scriptural puzzle together and drawing the sound conclusion on any given subject. It’s wrong to ‘write off’ plain passages as “symbolic” or “hyperbolic” just because they happen to conflict with one’s current indoctrination. Rather, we should allow the Scriptures to properly form our indoctrination with the clearer and more detailed passages trumping the more ambiguous, sketchy ones. This is common sense exegesis — which means drawing from the Scriptures — as opposed to eisegesisreading into the Scriptures.

A good biblical example of people who ‘write off’ clear passages of Scripture due to their ideology — their theological indoctrination and the presuppositions thereof — is the Sadducees. They didn’t believe in a future resurrection, angels or demons even though the Hebraic Scriptures contain clear passages supporting each (Acts 23:8).

There are modern-day “Sadducees” in the Church. They may not disregard plain passages about the resurrection, angels or demons, but they “explain away” clear verses on other topics, typically by spiritualizing the texts.

The Clearer and More Detailed Passages take Precedence Over the More Ambiguous, Sketchy Passages

This concerns the second guideline: Any given biblical topic will have an amount of passages that directly or indirectly apply. Some topics have hundreds of relevant passages whereas others have only a handful. In either case, the clearest and most detailed verses override the more ambiguous and sketchy ones. It’s just common sense. You could call these relevant passages “pieces of the puzzle.” There are only so many “pieces of the puzzle” to draw sound conclusions on any given topic and they should all fit together somewhere in the big picture. It goes without saying that any conclusion you draw should be “water tight” (or, at least, as water tight as possible). Now, wouldn’t it be absurd to take a topic and discard the clearest, most relevant passages on that subject because they don’t gel with your current ideology? Wouldn’t it be equally absurd to draw a conclusion without these clearest, most relevant texts? Yet people who are erroneously indoctrinated (usually by their church/sect/camp) do this all the time.

Let me give an example: I was dialoguing back-and-forth with a Bible teacher on a topic where there were only five relevant passages. The clearest one was in the New Testament and the immediate context of the verse supported a literal reading of the text, as did the other four related passages. This conflicted with the man’s established ideology, however, and so he wrote the verse off as “hyperbole” (exaggeration for effect). I pointed out that the immediate context of the verse in question supported a literal reading because the words read as a straightforward statement; and the verses before and after the text were also literal statements. In other words, there was no reason — no justification — to take the verse in any kind of figurative sense, including wild exaggeration. Plus, like I said, the other four passages on the topic supported a literal reading of this verse and they all fit together, pointing to a sound conclusion.

None of this mattered to the man because he didn’t allow Scripture — God’s Word — to form his indoctrination, obviously with the plainest passages on the topic trumping the fuzzier ones. Rather, he allowed his current indoctrination to compel him to disregard the clearest and most detailed verse on the topic. Keep in mind that God has only supplied us with five passages on this particular subject in which to draw a conclusion. Now I realize we only “see through a glass darkly” in our current condition on this Earth, but — nevertheless — we can certainly draw a general conclusion from these small number of relevant passages that God has granted us on the topic, particularly when one of them is clear as day. These were the only “pieces of the puzzle” we had on the subject and the man threw out the most significant piece because of his erroneous theology.

Needless to say, the man was applying unsound hermeneutics in this situation and seriously needed to tighten up his interpretational methods. He needs to apply something Paul instructed ministers of the Word: “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).

“Rightly-Dividing” the Scriptures does NOT mean Discarding Relevant Passages

This goes along with the above. Let me offer a quick example…

One minister wrote in an article:

“Rightly dividing” God’s Word means to emphasize certain scriptures over others, which means that it must be possible to wrongly divide the word by emphasizing the wrong scriptures over others.

While I understand where this man’s coming from, what he says here needs clarified, otherwise people will start cutting out relevant passages that they don’t like simply because the verses disagree with their current ideology (which is often driven by sectarianism, of course). To rightly-divide the scriptures — that is, properly interpret them — it’s necessary to follow the guideline “Scripture interprets Scripture” (amongst the other common sense “rules” above). As such, to draw a sound conclusion on any given subject, all the relevant passages on a subject must be considered and “fit in the puzzle,” so to speak.

Here’s an example: This same minister taught that all of our future sins are already forgiven even before we commit then. He then cited 1 John 1:7 & 2:12 as proof texts, but omitted one of the most relevant passages on the topic, which just so happened to be sandwiched in between these two verses from 1 John. I’m talking about 1 John 1:8-9, which clearly shows that future sins must be confessed in order to appropriate forgiveness in one’s life. Yes, Christ died for all our sins, but forgiveness for future sins cannot be personally appropriated until after one commits them. First John 1:8-9 is one of the most pertinent New Testament passages on this issue and therefore it cannot be negated. It “fits in the puzzle” somewhere. How anyone could cite two verses from the first two chapters of 1 John — which is the context of those two verses — and totally disregard 1:8-9 is stupefying.

Needless to say, beware of preachers who omit the clearest, most relevant passages on a topic. It’s a red flag that they’re teaching false doctrine.

Those Who Teach Will Be “Judged More Strictly”

Let me close with something important James said:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

James 3:1

Those who teach God’s Word are going to be “judged more strictly.” Why? Because the Word of Truth is God’s potent Word and therefore those who teach it will either bless people through accurately explaining it or mislead them through inaccurately handling it. Either way, those who teach are accountable to the Lord. Where will they be judged more strictly? At the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10-11, Romans 14:10, 12 & 1 Corinthians 3:10-17 & 4:5).

It was for this reason that Paul said he knew what it meant to fear the Lord—because everything he taught was going to be evaluated at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10-11). Those who justify teaching false doctrine—that is, inaccurate teaching—on the grounds that “it’s the official doctrine of my church/sect” or “this was how my pastor taught it” won’t be excused. Needless to say, before teaching something from the Scriptures make sure it’s balanced and biblical. If you discover at some point that something you’ve been teaching is error then humble thyself by honestly ’fessing up and start teaching the truth, regardless of the consequences.

For details on hermeneutics and related issues see Cutivating the “Berean Spirit”.


Related Topics:

Sectarianism — What is It? What’s Wrong with It?


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