My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. As we seek to grow in our faith and understanding of God’s word, it is important that we learn how to properly interpret the scriptures. There are several methods of biblical interpretation that can help us mine the rich truths of God’s word. In this post, I will outline three primary ways to interpret the bible – the literal, moral, and allegorical methods.
The bible is the inspired word of God, containing everything we need for salvation and spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). However, to properly understand the bible, we need to use wise principles of interpretation. As the bible says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV)
Proper biblical interpretation helps us avoid erroneous understandings and apply God’s word accurately. The three main methods are:
- The literal method focuses on the plain, normal meaning of the text.
- The moral method looks at the ethical and spiritual principles behind the text.
- The allegorical method finds symbolic or figurative meanings behind people and events.
With this foundation, let’s explore these 3 ways to interpret the bible in more detail.
The Literal Method
The literal method of biblical interpretation takes the text at face value and focuses on the plain, normal meaning of the words. This method recognizes that the bible was written in regular human language to communicate real history, truths and instructions to humanity.
Some key principles of the literal method include:
- Taking words at their usual meaning – We interpret words in their normal literary sense without allegorizing or spiritualizing the text.
- Looking at the historical context – We try to understand the culture and situation of the original audience. This helps us grasp why something was said and how the original listeners would have understood it.
- Seeing the literary context – We examine the surrounding verses and passages to discern the intent and meaning of the writer. A text can’t be taken in isolation.
- Understanding the genre – Literary style matters. Narrative, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, and letters each have their own conventions we should be aware of.
- Noticing grammar and syntax – The word order and grammatical connections in a sentence indicate relationships and meaning. We observe these closely.
The literal method does not mean a superficial or over-simplistic treatment of the text. It digs deeper than the surface to understand the author’s true intent, but without allegorizing or imposing excessive spiritualization. When we use the literal method well, we draw out the original purpose and rich meaning of the text.
Some examples of key biblical passages that are best interpreted using the literal method:
- The Genesis creation account – Taking this passage literally means understanding that God created the universe, light, the earth and everything in it in six normal days.
- Israel’s wilderness wanderings in Exodus – This historical narrative recounts real events involving Moses, Pharaoh and the Israelites escaping Egypt and traveling to the promised land.
- Jesus’ parables – While parables are simple stories, they make literal points. For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches tangible principles of helping neighbors in need.
- Paul’s letters to the churches – These real letters addressed actual 1st century issues in various churches. The literal approach helps us grasp the original purpose and meaning.
- The end times prophecies in Revelation – While containing vivid imagery, a literal approach sees these as real predictions of future events leading up to Christ’s return.
The literal method may seem obvious, but it’s essential for sound biblical interpretation. It anchors us in the original intent of the inspired writers.
The Moral Method
In contrast to the literal method, the moral method focuses on the ethical and spiritual principles behind the text rather than just historical facts or literary meaning. This approach sees scripture as intending to transform readers into Christlike character and holy living.
Here are some principles of the moral interpretative method:
- Looking for the moral of the story – What is the ethical implication behind this account for believers? What virtue is commended or vice condemned?
- Finding models to emulate – Does this passage present a biblical character or their actions as a positive or negative example we should respectively emulate or avoid?
- Discerning evergreen principles – Are there moral directives or Kingdom ethics here that transcend culture and remain relevant today?
- Highlighting call to action – Does the text contain an exhortation or command that requires a corresponding Christian response?
- Probing for personal application – What is the spiritual significance of this passage for my own Christian walk or for the church corporately?
- Detecting aligning themes – Does this text share common themes or reinforce principles taught elsewhere in scripture?
At heart, the moral approach asks “What is God teaching us in this passage about how to live a godly, righteous life?” It probes beneath the surface of the text to draw out timeless moral wisdom.
Some biblical examples where the moral approach bears much fruit:
- The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) – While literal commands for Israel, they encapsulate moral principles like honesty, marital fidelity and respect for God that remain relevant.
- Proverbs – Full of moral maxims like, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Proverbs 13:20)
- Jesus’ teachings like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – Contains ethical teachings on loving enemies, proper prayer, and humility that demand a Christian response.
- Paul’s instructions about spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14) – The moral principle is using gifts to lovingly build up others, not boastfully promote self.
- The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) – Describes Christian virtues like love, patience and self-control that should mark every believer’s life.
With its strong ethical emphasis, the moral approach is vital for applying God’s word to daily Christian living. Scripture transforms us from the inside out as we respond to its high moral vision.
The Allegorical Method
The allegorical method of biblical interpretation treats people, places and events as symbolic representations of spiritual truths. This approach sees beyond the literal, surface meaning to search for hidden, allegorical significance.
Here are some basics of allegorical interpretation:
- Persons symbolize ideas – An individual in a story represents something else like an abstract quality, theological concept, or collective group.
- Places symbolize states of being – Locations represent an actual or spiritual condition or way of living, like righteousness or sin.
- Events symbolize processes – A happening or action in scripture allegorically traces spiritual progression, like growth in holiness.
- Objects symbolize ideals – Material things embody abstract ideals that convey theological or moral lessons.
- Numbers symbolize spiritual order – Certain numbers (like 7) have symbolic meaning conveying divine perfection or completion.
- Metaphors reveal deeper meaning – Metaphors imply a comparison between two things that allegorically conveys God’s truth at a deeper level.
- Types and anti-types – Persons, events or institutions in scripture prefigure greater fulfillments later, like how Adam typologically represents Christ.
In allegorical interpretation, the literal sense is transcended to find the spiritual meaning God intends to communicate. But allegory still requires close examination of the text using tools like typology and moral application.
Here are some biblical passages where allegory has been fruitfully applied:
- OT figures seen astypes of Christ – Adam, Moses, David, and others as Messianic prototypes. Their lives and roles foreshadow Christ’s.
- OT events as symbolic of NT realities – Israel’s exodus from Egypt symbolizing redemption. Wilderness wanderings allegorically picturing the Christian life.
- Parables – The Good Samaritan representing Jesus. Prodigal Son an allegory of sin and redemption. Fig tree illustrating Israel’s spiritual condition.
- Revelation – Rich in allegory. The seven churches depicting phases of church history. Babylon symbolizing worldly power and corruption.
- Paul’s extended metaphors – Body representing church unity. Temple symbolizing believers collectively as God’s dwelling. Bride embodying Christ’s relationship to the church.
Allegorical interpretation finds rich biblical meaning while avoiding speculative excess. It connects the text profoundly to Christ and the gospel when grounded in scriptural truth.
Our Lord Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17) As the entirely true Word of God, the bible transforms lives when we properly interpret and apply its message.
The literal, moral and allegorical methods each have strengths that enrich our understanding of scripture. The literal method anchors us to the author’s original intent. The moral method instructs us in righteousness. The allegorical method unveils Christ-centered meaning.
Used together in balance, these interpretive approaches help us gain deep insight into God’s revelation. They lead us into reverent study of the sacred writings that make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and equip us thoroughly for the life of faith. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
May God grant us wisdom and grace as we seek to rightly handle his word of truth! To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:27)