As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that it contains truth and wisdom for living a godly life. However, in order to properly understand and apply the Bible, we need to approach it carefully and thoughtfully. Hermeneutics provides principles for biblical interpretation that can guide us as we seek to understand the meaning and message of Scripture.
In this post, I want to share 10 key principles of biblical hermeneutics that can help you as you study God’s Word. Applying these principles will lead to a fuller, more accurate understanding of the biblical text. My goal is to provide practical guidance that illuminates the meaning of Scripture for your life today.
- The Bible is a divine book with a human dimension, so study the context carefully.
- Scripture interprets Scripture, so use cross-references and parallel passages.
- Seek the author’s intended meaning, not your own ideas.
- Pay attention to the genre and literary forms used.
- Consider the historical and cultural background.
- Look for the plain, literal sense first.
- Scripture has a unified message even with many human authors.
- Passages have one meaning but many applications.
- Watch for figurative language and symbolic visions.
- Seek the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to understand.
1. Recognize the Divine and Human Aspects of Scripture
The Bible is no ordinary book – it is uniquely inspired by God. Scripture declares, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (2 Timothy 3:16). At the same time, the Bible was written over 1500 years through some 40 different human authors. Since God chose to reveal Himself through human writings, we need to carefully consider the human dimension even as we recognize the divine inspiration.
As you study a passage, learn all you can about the human author, the original audience, and the context. Pay attention to the history, culture, and language usage of the time. These human aspects are the framework God used to communicate timeless truths. Handle Scripture with care and thoughtfulness to properly understand the message.
2. Use Scripture to Interpret Scripture
The Bible is its own best interpreter. Obscure passages are made clear by plain passages on the same topic. We should use cross-references and parallel Bible passages to understand difficult verses. Comparing Scripture with Scripture allows the Bible to speak for itself.
For example, Jesus spoke of being “born again” in John 3:3, a phrase that needs explanation. However, 1 Peter 1:23 clarifies that this happens through God’s Word and the Spirit. Scripture interprets Scripture, so look to other biblical passages to illuminate important concepts. Let the Bible explain itself.
3. Discover the Author’s Intended Meaning
When studying a passage, our goal is to understand what the original author intended to communicate to his audience. We want to grasp the author’s purpose and the meaning intended by the text itself. The Bible is God’s revelation, not whatever readers wish to make it.
To avoid subjective interpretations, we must set aside our own ideas about a passage. Our thoughts are not inspired and authoritative like Scripture. Through careful study in context, we can discover the concepts the biblical authors wanted to convey. Seek the text’s intended meaning, not yours.
4. Consider Literary Styles and Genres
The Bible contains various literary forms – poetry, narrative, prophecy, epistles, parables, and more. These genres have unique characteristics that shape their meaning. For example, we should not take poetic passages literally in the same way as epistles. We need to understand how each genre communicates.
The Psalms speak in vivid, poetic images that convey deep emotion. In contrast, the Gospels recount historical narrative as eyewitness testimony. Each genre has a different approach. As we study, pay attention to literary forms and interpret passages according to their style.
5. Understand the Historical and Cultural Background
Since the Bible was written long ago in ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman settings, we need some awareness of historical and cultural contexts. Scripture uses examples, imagery, and metaphors from those ancient cultures that are unfamiliar to modern readers. Some knowledge of biblical backgrounds is essential for accurate interpretation.
For instance, Jesus told a parable about a Samaritan helping a robbery victim (Luke 10:25-37). To appreciate this parable, we must understand the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in that culture. The historical setting sheds light on the meaning of the text for its original audience.
6. Look for the Plain, Literal Sense First
Scripture is literally true and reliable, even where it describes miraculous events. As we try to understand a passage, we should first look for the plain, literal sense – the ordinary meaning of the words and phrases. Unless there are clear indications otherwise, assume the text is speaking literally.
At times the Bible does use figurative language, but we only recognize those figures of speech if we start with the literal meaning. Imagine if you took symbolic visions in Revelation literally! We must distinguish literal passages from figurative ones through careful contextual study.
7. Understand the Bible’s Unity of Message
The Bible was written over many centuries by different authors, yet it has a unified message and purpose. There is one Author behind all the human authors – the Holy Spirit. He inspired the Bible so its teachings form one coherent revelation (2 Peter 1:21). Therefore, we should interpret passages in light of Scripture as a whole.
There are no real contradictions in the Bible. Seeming discrepancies vanish once we understand passages in their contexts. Any interpretation that contradicts the rest of Scripture is flawed. Look at how your understanding of a passage fits with the unified message of the entire Bible.
8. Passages Have One Meaning, Multiple Applications
A passage has only one meaning – what the author intended to communicate to his audience in their historical context. But the significance of that meaning can be applied in various ways today. A Scripture passage should not be given a personalized meaning apart from its actual meaning.
For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is about loving your neighbor. It means we should show mercy to all in need. This principle applies in many ways, but the parable has only that one original meaning. Distinguish the single meaning of a text from potential contemporary applications.
9. Recognize Figurative Language and Symbolic Visions
Unlike modern readers, the ancient biblical audiences were very comfortable with figurative language, extended metaphors, and symbolic visions. We need to be aware when Scripture uses literary devices and be cautious not to overinterpret them. Take figures of speech naturally rather than pressing all the details.
For example, Psalm 18:2 states God is the psalmist’s rock, fortress, deliverer, shield, horn, and more. These poetic lines utilize word pictures that convey God’s protective attributes. But we need not assign independent significance to each metaphor. Be aware of symbolic language.
10. Rely on the Spirit’s Guidance for Understanding
Ultimately, the illumination of Scripture comes from the Holy Spirit, not just academic study (1 Corinthians 2:14). We should pray for spiritual wisdom to grasp the meaning of God’s Word. Wise interpretation requires both intellectual effort as well as dependence on the Spirit’s guidance.
Human reasoning alone will never comprehend the full significance of God’s truths. But the Spirit enables those with hearts seeking God to understand Scripture’s message. Trust the Spirit to give you insight as you study God’s Word diligently. His illumination will lead to accurate interpretation.
Friend, I hope these principles provide practical guidance as you seek to understand, interpret, and apply the Bible. Studying Scripture prayerfully, humbly, and intelligently will enrich your walk with Christ. His Word is a light to your path when you employ careful hermeneutics to properly handle the truth it contains. May your study yield spiritual fruit in your life!