Sound Bible interpretation is critical if you desire to follow Jesus Christ faithfully in the 21st Century. The Bible is God’s word and it’s relevant to you and me. But, we cannot be fruitful and effective in the knowledge of Christ without properly understanding the Bible.
They’re several misconceptions about the Holy Scripture that hinders proper Bible interpretation. How you view the Bible will affect how you understand the Bible. And even how you read the Bible.
It’s a vicious cycle: bad biblical theology yield bad Bible reading principles and practices, bad Bible reading principles and practices yield bad biblical hermeneutics, and bad biblical hermeneutics yield bad knowledge of the Triune God.
How do you break out of this bad Bible interpretation vicious cycle?
The 4 Arcs of A Bad Bible Interpretation Vicious Cycle
1. Bad Biblical Theology
What is biblical theology? Biblical theology is the study of God’s word that is faithful to the history, culture, and background of the author and intended audience and the place of the text in the redemption history.
According Eugene Merrill in Everlasting Dominion, “a proper biblical theological method is (1) one that has no preconceived ideas about biblical truth, (2) one that refuses to read extraneous theological ideas into the text, and (3) one that allows the Bible to speak for itself at every stage of its development both canonically and historically.” Therefore, bad Bible interpretation occurs when you breach the method.
2. Bad Bible Reading Principles and Practices
Bad Bible reading principles often occur when you come to the Bible with preconceived ideas about truth, bring foreign ideas to the Holy Scripture, and suppress the word of God. You will read the Bible like a play dough – a worthless toy you mold to fit your immediate childish desires – if you deny the Bible its authority and infallibility.
This is what Philip Yancey called snacking the Bible. Glenn R Paauw warns us in Saving The Bible From Ourselves, “Snacking…, betrays a low view of the Scriptures. It rejects the Bible as it is received from the inspired authors and instead decides for itself what the Bible is supposed to be: I need the Bible to be a quick-and-easy access point for inspirational or doctrinal verses. But God did not choose to give us this kind of Bible.”
3. Bad Biblical Hermeneutics
What is biblical hermeneutics? Biblical hermeneutics or Bible interpretation is the study of the principles and techniques for proper understanding and exegesis of biblical texts. But without good Bible reading principles and practices it’s impossible to have sound Bible interpretation.
Of course, as noted by John Stott in Understanding the Bible, “God sometimes blesses a poor exegesis of a bad translation of a doubtful reading of an obscure verse of a minor prophet!” However, “God has made provision for us to grow in our understanding of the truth and to be protected from the worst forms of misinterpretation,” wrote John Stott. But how can you understand the Bible? “He has given us three teachers to instruct us [the Holy Spirit, disciplined Bible study, and the body of Christ], and three principles to guide us [natural, original and general sense].”
4. Bad Knowledge of the Triune God
You have heard or probably gave excuses such as these: the Bible interprets itself, the Holy Spirit is my interpreter, and I might not know the verse and chapter but I know it works. The truth is you can never have a lofty view of God’s person without proper Bible interpretation.
Bad interpretation of the Bible begets bad knowledge of God. Reading the Bible is not enough. Studying the Bible is not enough either. You need to consider what Christ said to the Pharisees (Matthew 22:29), “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
15 Lessons I learned On Bible Interpretation in 2016
In the past six months, I devoted much of my private study on how to interpret the Bible. I enrolled in Bible Interpretation, a Zondervan Academic Online course taught by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. The class was based on their book Grasping God’s Word.
This class was an eye-opener and was greatly fascinated about how to cross the cultural bridge. In the end, I set out to read all the books I could find on how to interpret the Bible. Today, I have read more than 20 books on Bible interpretation by authors from different cultural, social, and denominational backgrounds.
And here are the top 15 lessons I learned this year.
1. You can trust the Bible
You probably know that the Bible is under fire, especially in the US and Europe. I know, you have heard people accusing the Bible to be scientifically inaccurate, culturally inappropriate and socially oppressive. But the worst attack on the Bible is from Christians who are ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Timothy 3:7).
But why is that? You can never correctly interpret the Bible if you doubt its origin, message, purpose, and authority. The first step in sound Biblical hermeneutics is trusting the Bible. But you and I can trust the Bible because it’s infallible, inerrant and yields the authority of God.
In the monstrous, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures edited by DA Carson, Te-Li Lau observed, “Christians can know that the Bible is the word of God in three interdependent ways: (1) through its explicit claims to be the word of God, (2) through its supporting implicit claims, and (3) through the testimony of the Holy Spirit.”
A great book you can use as a primer to understanding the authority, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible is RC Sproul’s Can I Trust the Bible (available for free on Amazon). In this little book, RC Sproul gave one of the most foundational Bible interpretation principles, “If the Bible is unreliable in what it teaches…, the church is left to speculate and has nothing of value to speak to the world.”
2. There’s a Cultural Gap between Bible texts and me
God chose to speak to you and I using a small group of people, at a particular point in history. These people had different cultural backgrounds with us. Therefore, a proper reading of the Bible respects God’s mode of communication. And a faithful Bible interpretation doesn’t ignore this cultural gap.
The Bible is a portrayer, sculptor, and appraiser of culture, observed Marvin J. Newell in Crossing Cultures in Scripture. But what is culture? “Culture is the distinctive beliefs, values, and customs of a particular group of people that determines how they think, feel and behave.”
Although Dr. Newell had mission work in mind when he wrote the book, the basic principles of navigating foreign cultures as a missionary apply in Bible interpretation. Thus, reading the Old Testament to understand the origins of culture and its eventual corruption can be a helpful exercise to understand the breadth of the cultural bridge you need to cross during your Bible study.
3. Every verse in the Bible is part of a big story
You cannot understand the Bible without knowing the backstory and the conclusion. On the way to Emmaus, Jesus Christ interpreted the meaning of his death beginning from Moses. But Philip interpreted the meaning of Isaiah 53 using the recent death of Jesus Christ.
The goal of accurate Bible interpretation is life application. However, proper application of biblical texts written at a different place and time, and to a different culture and people, using different languages and authors require that you find yourself in the story and appreciating it’s all part of a bigger story.
“As we hear the success stories, our faith in him grows,” wrote Michael Horton in Core Christianity, “It’s not just an act of the will— a subjective leap. It is a reasonable trust backed up by his mighty acts throughout biblical history from Genesis to Revelation.” However, “All this requires investigation.” You and I should invest our time and resources on understanding our story in the story of redemption.
Importantly, as noted by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen in The Drama of Scripture, “an essential part of our theological and missional task today is to “tell this story as clearly as possible, and to allow it to subvert other ways of telling the story of the world.”
4. Understand the context before deriving the meaning
The best way to understand the Bible is by understanding the background of the intended audience and the author, and the place in the redemptive history of the book or passage. Unfortunately, you cannot understand the context of a phrase or statement by reading a verse or a chapter only. Sometimes, you need to read the whole book of the Bible to understand a verse.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone who said, “It doesn’t matter whether you only read one Bible verse a day. It’s God’s and enough to sustain your life.” But, guess what? The Bible is not a fortune cookie stuffed with disjointed Deepak Chopra rhetoric – it’s the word of God written in a specific time and culture. If you want to understand the Bible you always stay true to the context.
I had a rude awakening while reading Glenn R. Paauw’s Saving the Bible from Ourselves. The Bible commentaries I cherished, Paauw warned that they might be robbing me of experiencing my own personal Bible interpretation journey. Daily devotions may reduce the Bible into disjointed snacks but, “ When we read whole books we will be equipped for looking more broadly at other levels of meaning.”
5. Do not just study the Bible, read the Bible
My family recently moved to Zimbabwe. This meant adjusting to a different culture and adopting a different language. But for my sons it meant learning a new language. I recently noticed something with my oldest son: he was primarily concerned with knowing meanings of sentences and not words.
My son is learning how to speak ChiShona fast because he focuses on the meaning of a whole and not bits and pieces. The Shona language is not meant to be studied its rules of grammar, punctuation, and spellings but used as a vehicle of communication. The same goes with Bible interpretation you need to understand the whole book before you dwell on the grammar and sentence construction.
However, if you’re good with languages, you might consider studying Greek. A Chadwick Thornhill’s Greek for Everyone offers resources for those interested in learning the language. Reading the books of the Bible in their original language may be helpful in your interpretive journey.
However, you should heed Glenn R. Paauw’s words, “There is a place for the finer study of the smaller parts of the Bible— sections, sentences, phrases, even single words.” But we shouldn’t elevate Bible study above Bible reading. He concluded, “Read and understand them [books of the Bible] as whole things functioning in their own world, and then you can study their parts as contributing members of that whole.”
6. Bible interpretation is best done in community
You probably noticed that you understand the meaning of a passage better when you read it in a community rather than alone. This should make sense since most of the books in the Bible were written for public reading. However, the community reading of the Bible is often neglected and considered a waste of time.
But history is awash of revivals that broke out after church leaders resorted to the public reading of Scripture. Another avenue for public reading today is home groups. “A home group isn’t simply a device that Christians can use to enhance knowledge about the Bible,” wrote Jim Putman in The Power of Together. “A home group is a place where people can be relationally discipled as part of a spiritual family.”
You and I need each other. God has uniquely gifted us with diverse talents so that we can build each other to our most holy faith. Jim Putman argues that most of our problems can be solved through a friend. I believe our hermeneutical problems can be solved through friendships – friendship with the Church fathers, lives of the past saints, and deep relationships with fellow believers.
A good way technique that can help you interpret the Bible in a community is the manuscript method. I first heard about the method at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship retreat in Southern California. To better understand the Bible reading method, I bought a book Lindsay Olesberg’s The Bible Study Handbook. In manuscript method, you to read the Bible and observe the content, context, connections, and from within.
7. The aim of Bible interpretation is not uniqueness
When you read the Bible frequently, there’s nothing more exciting than new revelation. You know that moment when you reading the Bible and a passage jumps into your face loaded with new meaning. Such moments are rewarding and reinvigorating but you shouldn’t make them the primary goal of Bible interpretation.
I fell prey to this twisted perception before. After giving my life to Christ, I came across unique meaning every time I read the Bible. I became familiar with most passages of the Bible. And the zeal to study wane when the rate of encountering unique meaning with each reading diminished. Because I had nothing else to look forward to.
Like most young people, I had it all wrong. I wish I had read How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. “The aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before.” Instead, “simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text,” the author’s intended meaning.”
8. The Bible is a library and not a single book
You all know that the Bible is a collection of books and not a single book. But how many read it as a collection of books, written at different times in history by different authors with different economic, cultural and historical background, and using different styles writing? You cannot read Mark Twain’s essay on how to write like a Charles Dickens novel or MA Hamutyinei poem.
Different genres require different Bible interpretation techniques. This is where choosing a good Bible translation matters. Some Bibles treat all Bible passages as prose by using paragraphs and not poetic verses. And this may ruin how you read the Bible for better understanding.
I am now using NIV’s The Books of the Bible as my first step in reading the Bible. It doesn’t have verses and chapters. And respects the genre of each book or passage of the Bible. My translation of choice remains the ESV because it has simple English while remaining faithful to the oldest known Bible manuscripts.
9. Your Christian life is the best Bible interpretation
Here’s the thing. “Reading the Bible as a guide for life is not primarily about methodology but rather an approach to living all of life from the standpoint of a biblical view of the world,” wrote George H. Guthrie in Read the Bible for Life. Proper biblical hermeneutics is at best a deconstruction process. It pulls down our worldviews while helping us build a Christ-centered worldview.
I totally agree with Beth Felker Jones’ Practicing Christian Doctrine. “The discipline of theology is not first about gaining information or building a system of knowledge. It is about discipleship: we learn to speak and think well about God so that we can be more faithful followers of Jesus.” Bible interpretation is not about gathering facts to arm yourself for a debate. It’s about acquiring the right knowledge of Christ. And becoming faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
But we are confident because the same Spirit that inspired the word dwells in us. For that reason, “Confidence in Scripture and confidence in the Holy Spirit should go hand in hand, and this double confidence opens for us, as the people of God, the promise and possibility of wisdom and of intimacy with God.”
Keith L. Jason also agreed with Beth Felker Jones in Theology as Discipleship, “Theological learning is pursued rightly when it occurs within the context of a life of discipleship because the practices of discipleship enable and enrich our pursuit of theological knowledge.” Bible interpretation is an example of proper theological learning. And undertaking it in the context of life helps us grow in the knowledge of Christ.
10. Reading the Bible for others
You have heard people say you should not read the Bible for others but yourself. This might be helpful at first but it perpetuates individualism. So, in addition to connecting the Bible with your life, you also need to learn how to connect it with other people’s lives.
Michael R. Emlet advises in CrossTalk, “Your “hunches” with Scripture and with people may be right on target, but how much more helpful your ministry will be when you understand them even more deeply from the Christ-centered perspective this book advocates.”
Reading the Bible for others isn’t merely sending verses to them when they’re suffering. It’s appropriation of a Bible passage that is faithful to the context, content, and original intent of the author yet befitting the person’s current circumstances.
11. Meditate on the word of God
When Christ came into my life, I was told I should have a quiet time every day. This involved reading a passage of the Bible, praying over it and listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. But there was one problem, no one told me where to begin or why it’s important.
“Scripture meditation is another way to become more attentive to the still, small voice of God and to become more willing to respond when we hear it,” wrote Jan Johnson in Meeting God in Scripture. I later learned that quiet time was actually a traditional spiritual discipline practiced by believers for many centuries – lectio divina.
Jan Johnson offers six steps you can use during Scripture meditation: Read ( lectio), Reflect (meditatio), Respond (oratio) and Rest (contemplatio), Relax and Refocus (silencio), and Trying It On (incarnatio). Meeting God in Scripture offers 40 helpful Bible passages you can use in your quiet time alone or with friends.
Eugene Peterson offers a more thorough discussion on Scripture meditation as a Bible interpretation exercise in Eat This Book. He contends that lectio divina is “reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.” This is because “reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.”
12.Bible Interpretation is Lifelong Learning
You can never fully master how to interpret the Bible by simply obtaining an advanced degree in hermeneutics. Bible interpretation is discipleship and as such a lifelong project. “But good interpretation requires not just sweat but skill, and not just skill but character,”wrote David I. Starling in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.
The New Testament authors and the Scripture can teach us how to interpret the Bible. For example, the Book of Acts has numerous examples where proper biblical hermeneutics were demonstrated. Philip showed the meaning of Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch in light of the Cross. Therefore, we can learn from the Bible how to read and understand the Bible.
Understanding the Bible is hardwork; it requires devotion to the authority of God’s word, it demands a faithful commitment to mastering the skills, it experts you to become part of the interpretative journey. For that reason David Starling added, “Interpretation of the Scriptures is like a craft or a trade that must be learned if we are to draw the right connections, make the right intuitive leaps, and bring to bear on the task the right dispositions, affections , and virtues.”
13. Be careful of neglecting the Holy Spirit and the Bible
Mastering the art and science of properly understanding the word of God while neglecting the Holy Spirit is prone to yield gross error. The error of modernism is that it assumes you only need your own logic and reason to accurately understand the Bible, wrote Heath White in Postmodernism 101. You need the active guidance of the Holy Spirit complemented by a ‘lively Christian faith’, if you want to understand the true ‘meaning of the Bible’.
In contrast, postmodernism in biblical hermeneutics is dangerous because it makes a wrong assumption about truth and consequently ask the wrong questions. Instead of asking whether an interpretation is accurate, Heath White observed that postmodernist ask, “Is this interpretation liberating?” or “Does this interpretation advance the cause of justice?”
You need to understand that “once we acknowledge how the condition of our minds and souls influences our reading of the Bible, we can become more self-conscious about the limits of our own interpretive abilities and about who we rely on to assist us in understanding the scriptures.” As a result, our need for the Holy Spirit and Christian faith becomes obvious.
14. Objectivity is not mandatory for accurate Bible interpretation
You probably believe that if you want to understand the Bible you have to be objective. But objectivity is hard. When you read the Bible, you’re probably biased towards your hermeneutical circle. Your culture may also influence how you read the Bible. But is this a bad thing?
“The process of interpretation needs to be freed from such doctrinal commitments and personal experiences,” observed Vern S. Poythress in Science and Hermeneutics.Therefore, a more scientific approach to biblical hermeneutics was developed seminaries and divinity schools – historical critical method. Unfortunately, “In freeing biblical study from commitments to denominational doctrine, it made study subject to the philosophical commitments of rationalistic, antisupernaturalistic historiography and metaphysics and to the ethical commitments of contemporary humanism.”
As a result, in The Lion and The Lamb, Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles advised, “Rather than elevating oneself as a supposedly neutral critic of Scripture— and claiming to be totally objective— the student of the Bible ought to take his or her place “beneath Scripture” as one who is addressed by Scripture and who seeks to be changed by “the living and effective” Word of God (Heb 4: 12).”
15. Understand the nature of the Bible
A poor understanding of the nature and scope of the Bible may cause you to have a distorted view of the Bible. You have probably heard people saying there Bible is corrupt. And if true, the purpose of Bible interpretation will be to remove the chaff from the truth. As a result, you will wrongly believe you yield more authority than the Bible.
Studying the canon of both the OT and the NT may help you avoid such problems. How? In The Lion and The Lamb, Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles wrote “But a study of the canon does more than merely determine the books of the OT and NT or furnish material for scholarly debate.” They added, “It provides a basic orientation to how the Bible came into existence and therefore connects us more firmly to the foundations of our faith.”
Importantly, “Whether the writing of Scripture involved the use of sources, the reception of a prophetic message directly from God, or some other mechanism, the final product was inspired by the Holy Spirit.” This is what matters. Because when you know the scope of the Bible, you can have confidence in the Bible. That in it, Christ is revealed.
Summary and Special Mentions
If you’re really serious about becoming better in Bible interpretation they’re several resources available. Bible Training has an online class available for free. You can also read Vern S. Poythress’ Reading the word of God in the presence of God. This book starts by offering the basic fundamentals of Bible interpretation and gets deep into how to handle matters of time, authorship and time.
Another great book, on Bible interpretation you should read is Kevin J. Van Hoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel. In this book, Van Hoozer helps us to understand how by grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, and for the glory of God help us to trust the Bible as the inspired word of God.
TLDR, the aim of Bible interpretation is unveiling the intended meaning of the human and divine author while transforming your life through a fruitful and effective knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, take heart Michael Kyomya’s advice in A Guide to Interpreting Scripture, “Seek the whole counsel of Scripture so that you do not make applications or draw principles that violate the harmony of Scripture.”