Interpreting the Bible correctly is essential for following God’s word and living a Christ-centered life. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and contains timeless truths for faith and practice. However, extracting accurate meaning from the Scriptures requires diligence and proper methods.
There are right and wrong ways to understand the Bible. We must be careful not to rely solely on our own insights or twist God’s word to fit our preconceived ideas. Biblical interpretation done well takes wisdom, discernment, and guidance from the Holy Spirit. It also requires considering the historical and literary context of each passage.
Below are 10 key takeaways on proper biblical interpretation to keep in mind:
- Pray for illumination by the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture
- Read in context – consider the surrounding verses and chapters
- Understand the original language, culture, and audience
- Recognize literary styles – poetry, prophecy, parables etc.
- Let Scripture interpret Scripture – use clear passages to understand unclear ones
- Focus on the plain/literal meaning first, then consider figurative meanings
- Watch for repetition of words/ideas for emphasis
- Know that God’s character is consistent throughout the Bible
- Remember that Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Scripture
- Study with humility, openness to correction, and dependence on God
With the right approach, we can correctly understand God’s word for our lives. Now let’s explore biblical interpretation further.
Why Interpreting the Bible Correctly Matters
How we interpret the Bible has huge implications for our theology, worldview, and daily living. If we get the meaning wrong or rely solely on subjective interpretations, we risk distorting God’s truth and falling into destructive doctrinal errors. This can have disastrous consequences spiritually.
That’s why we must handle God’s word with care and humility, recognizing that it is inspired and authoritative (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Scripture tells us to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
When we interpret the Bible well, affirming the plain meaning of the text, we can have confidence that we are believing and practicing what God intends. This leads to spiritual maturity and helps us teach sound doctrine to others. Mishandling Scripture often stems from pride or the desire to validate preconceived beliefs. But if we let go of agendas and pursue God’s truth above all, biblical interpretation done well will deepen our walk with Christ and bring blessing to our lives and churches.
General Principles for Interpreting Scripture
Certain foundational principles should guide our approach as we seek to interpret the Bible accurately. Here are some key guidelines to keep in mind:
- Pray for illumination by the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture – we need spiritual discernment and insight beyond our own wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:14).
- Assume the Bible is true and authoritative – come with a submissive attitude, willing to obey what Scripture says. Don’t judge God’s word based on shifting cultural norms.
- Read in context – look at the surrounding verses, chapters, book, testament, and the Bible as a whole. Don’t isolate verses or pull them out of context.
- Consider the original language and audience – Scripture was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Seek to understand what the text communicated to the original hearers.
- Recognize different literary styles – the Bible includes historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, parables, letters, and more. Consider how the genre affects the meaning.
- Let Scripture interpret Scripture – use clear passages to understand unclear ones. Don’t speculate or spiritualize obscure texts.
- Focus on the plain, literal meaning first – look for the obvious, natural sense before considering symbolic/figurative meanings.
- Be aware of your own biases – don’t twist Scripture to fit your predetermined agenda or validate false beliefs.
- Study with humility and openness to correction – be willing to change your mind if shown wrong. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
With these principles guiding us, we can interpret God’s word responsibly and faithfully. Next let’s consider why context is crucial.
The Importance of Reading in Context
One of the most vital keys to sound biblical interpretation is reading verses and passages in their proper context. We must understand what comes before and after a verse or section to grasp its true meaning. Looking at the surrounding context gives us a clearer picture of what the author intended to communicate.
There are different aspects of context we need to consider:
The immediate context – reading at least several verses before and after, to see how our passage fits with the neighboring verses.
The chapter context – reading the entire chapter containing our passage, to understand the overall flow of thought.
The book context – reading key portions of the entire book, to grasp the main purpose behind the book.
The testament context – understanding where a book fits into the overall story of the Old or New Testament.
The whole Bible context – seeing how our passage relates to Scripture as a whole, especially the gospel message.
When we interpret verses in isolation, separated from their surrounding context, we become vulnerable to misinterpretation. Passages can seem to say something very different from their intended meaning. That’s why context is so critical.
For example, Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” On its own this verse seems to teach salvation by works – that we earn death but Jesus gives us life. However, in context of the book of Romans and the entire New Testament, it clearly teaches that eternal life comes solely by God’s grace through faith, not human effort. But we only grasp this when considering the broader context.
So when studying any passage, take time to read whole chapters and books, not just isolated verses. And let your interpretation align with the overall message of Scripture. Context brings clarity and safeguards us from doctrinal errors.
Understanding the Original Languages and Audience
Since the Bible was written thousands of years ago, taking time to understand the original languages, cultures, and audiences of Scripture is crucial for accurate interpretation. While we can gain great insight from Bible translations, important nuances are often lost in translation from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Key interpretive details can hinge on grammar, word meanings, and idioms.
For example, in Matthew 19:24 where Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” eye of a needle referred to a narrow entrance into Jerusalem, not the literal eye of a sewing needle. Knowing this cultural detail helps explain Jesus’ meaning.
Here are some ways the original languages can shed light on interpretation:
- Individual word meanings and grammatical constructions
- Historical/cultural context for names, places, customs, etc.
- Recognition of hyperbole, metaphor, and other rhetorical devices
- Discovering links to Old Testament passages
- Insight into theological terms like justification, sanctification, redemption etc.
While few of us can learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, excellent Bible study tools are available to tap into the original languages. And when feasible, take time to read commentary from scholars who know the languages well.
It’s also crucial to consider the original audiences of each Bible book – their cultural background and prior understanding informs our interpretation. For example, the New Testament epistles were written to new Gentile congregations, bringing helpful clarity to passages on law versus grace or Jewish customs. Understanding the first hearers/readers keeps us grounded in sound exegesis.
Different Literary Styles in Scripture
Since the Bible contains various literary styles – historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, parables, epistles, and more – recognizing these genres is key for interpretation. The style of writing affects how we approach specific passages. Here is an overview of common biblical genres and tips for interpreting them well:
Narrative – Stories about people and events, both true and fictitious. Approach narratives by looking for the author’s intended meaning, theology, and purpose in selective telling of history.
Law – Instructions and commands in Old Testament books like Leviticus. Consider the purpose behind laws, what they reveal about God, and how Christ fulfilled the law.
Wisdom – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes; focus on gleaning timeless moral principles, not proposing doctrine.
Poetry – Psalms, Song of Solomon; full of imagery and emotion. Don’t take poetic language literally.
Prophecy – Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation; understand the immediate context and fulfillment, appreciate figurative language.
Gospels – Selective biographical accounts of Jesus’ life. Compare accounts, note historical details, appreciate theological purpose.
Epistles – Letters addressing specific issues. Grasp the contextual purpose/occasion before applying theology universally.
Parables – Short illustrative fictitious stories. Look for the main lesson being taught, don’t overanalyze details.
Recognizing these literary styles prevents the mistake of interpreting everything rigidly or literalistically. Instead, we can appreciate God’s creative expression while still extracting objective meaning from the text.
Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
Rather than turning to outside opinions or speculation, the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself. When seeking to understand a confusing verse or passage, we should first look to other clearer passages to shed light. Biblical authors often quote or allude to other Scripture to reinforce their message.
For example, some twist 1 Corinthians 15:29 (“baptized on behalf of the dead”) to support the Mormon practice of proxy baptism. But the plain language of the surrounding passage makes clear Paul is referencing Christian baptism and resurrection. Other verses like Romans 6:3-4 clarify the meaning of baptism, preventing speculative interpretations.
Here are some benefits of letting Scripture interpret Scripture:
- It guards us from doctrinal error and reliance on human wisdom.
- Clear passages interpret obscure ones, providing insight.
- Repeated words and themes show what ideas God emphasizes.
- Allusions to other texts reveal fuller meaning and significance.
- The Bible interprets itself with unparalleled clarity and authority.
- It prevents taking verses out of context when we consider the bigger biblical picture.
As an exercise, choose an unclear passage and look for other verses that shed light using key phrases, repeated words, gospel references, etc. Commentaries can also trace scriptural connections. Allowing the Bible to speak for itself keeps us grounded in God-breathed rather than human wisdom.
The Priority of the Plain Literal Meaning
A crucial principle for sound interpretation is looking to the plain, natural, ordinary meaning of a text first before considering figurative or symbolic meanings. In other words, we should take the Bible at face value, as literature aims to communicate clearly. Only if the literal meaning is impossible, contradictory, or absurd should we look for a figurative sense.
The literal approach lets Scripture speak for itself without imposing personal agendas, allegorizing, or uncontrolled imagination. It also accords with the biblical assertion that God’s word is truth (John 17:17), not primarily secret code language requiring speculative decryption.
At times the Bible does use figurative language like metaphors, hyperbole, parables, poetry, apocalyptic, and predictive prophecy. In these cases, context and biblical norms of communication should guide our understanding. But the plain meaning should always be our starting point and primary guide.
Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29–30:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. (NIV)
While Jesus is using hyperbole, the plain literal meaning is clear in context – deal radically with sources of temptation to avoid sin. We let the obvious meaning inform the teaching, rather than allegorizing body parts or speculating about heaven.
The plain literal approach puts the focus where it should be – on the textual meaning God inspired rather than imaginative interpretations. Scripture becomes the authority rather than personal agendas.
Being Aware of Your Own Biases
As fallen humans, we all approach the Bible with various biases and preconceived notions that can impact our interpretation. These may include cultural perspectives, theological assumptions, personal desires, ecclesial tradition, popular opinions, and more.
If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to impose these biases on Scripture rather than allowing God’s word to correct our thinking. We end up twisting the text to justify false beliefs we already hold, rather than seeking the Spirit’s illumination. But sound interpretation requires acknowledging and submitting these biases to the Bible’s authority.
Here are some examples of how biases can skew biblical interpretation if not kept in check by God’s word:
- Inserting modern views of women/minorities rather than understanding the cultural context
- Ignoring passages that contradict one’s theological system or denominational stance
- Trying to prove a pet doctrine everywhere in Scripture rather than letting the text speak
- Assuming biblical narratives are prescriptive rather than descriptive of events
- Forcing personally-desired meanings onto vague passages and symbols
- Reading hot-button issues like economics, politics, or social ethics into texts
The only remedy is humility – laying down our agendas, being teachable, and readily submitting incorrect thinking to Scripture. We must pray for eyes to see God’s truth rather than imposing our own.
As you study, consider your biases and actively seek correction from the Spirit through God’s word. The biblical authors frequently challenged prevailing assumptions of their eras. Let the text critique and change your mindset, not the other way around.
Studying with Humility and Openness to Correction
Given our human limitations, no one interprets Scripture perfectly. We all have blind spots, gaps in knowledge, and room for growth in understanding God’s word. Therefore, humility and openness to correction are essential for good Bible interpretation.
Rather than rigidly clinging to one perspective, we should hold our views loosely, willing to change when shown wrong from Scripture. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Demonstrating Christlike love through open discussion brings greater clarity to complex issues.
Here are some important ways to maintain humility and accountability in Biblical interpretation:
- Prayerfully consider other viewpoints – Don’t dismiss them prematurely without first understanding their reasoning from Scripture.
- Study under spiritually mature teachers – submit your interpretations to those with knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual discernment.
- Welcome discussion and feedback – be willing to have your views respectfully challenged in order to sharpen them.
- Commit to biblical truth over denominations/traditions – be ready to disagree with human institutions when they contradict God’s Word.
- Don’t divide over secondary doctrines – unity in the gospel is paramount.
- Avoid an unteachable spirit – don’t persist in error once it’s been biblically refuted.
- Remember you could be mistaken – don’t get intellectually arrogant about interpretations.
As iron sharpens iron, we refine good interpretations and discard false ones through humble dialogue with other Bible students. We must keep growing in our understanding of God’s word until Jesus returns.
Applying Sound Biblical Interpretation
The essential goal of good biblical interpretation is not just gaining information but applying God’s word to our lives and churches. We want Scripture to transform our thinking, convictions, and actions to align with God’s truth. When mishandled, the Bible can be distorted to mean almost anything. But when handled well, it functions as an authoritative compass guiding us to godliness.
Here are some important applications of sound biblical interpretation:
- Develop correct theology – right beliefs about God, salvation, humanity, end times, etc.
- Resolve apparent discrepancies – seeming contradictions evaporate with good interpretation.
- Receive correction and reproof – Scripture exposes our sin and flawed thinking.
- Find abundant life in Christ – God’s word nourishes our souls when understood as intended.
- Gain discernment – accurately divide truth from false teaching.
- Reform church practice – align worship, leadership, ordinances, etc. with Scripture.
- Fuel righteous living – application flows from interpretation. Obedience follows understanding.
The Reformers’ motto of “Scripture Alone” means not only affirming biblical authority, but also interpreting God’s word responsibly. As we handle Scripture accurately, it transforms us in truth and righteousness. We must continuously grow in our interpretive skills so the Bible shapes our lives fully.
Interpreting the Bible accurately takes dedication, wisdom, and guidance from the Holy Spirit who inspired it. But it’s essential work for following Christ faithfully. When we handle God’s word properly, extracting the true meaning he intended, it nourishes our souls and lights our path (Psalm 119:105). But mishandling Scripture leads to confusion and mistaken beliefs about God.
By applying principles like understanding context, respecting genre, studying original languages, letting Scripture interpret itself, considering literal meaning first, checking biases, and reading with humility, we can grow in sound biblical interpretation. No one arrives fully, but through prayer and open discussion, our interpretations mature. The Holy Spirit uses God’s word understood correctly to make us wise, equip us for ministry, and transform us into Christ’s image.
So persist in learning how to interpret well. Rightly dividing God’s word helps anchor you in truth amid competing views and brings clarity for teaching others. Keep an ear tuned to the Spirit’s voice as you study. God will guide you into precise, textured understanding of the Scriptures for maturing in your faith and becoming rooted in grace and sound doctrine.