How To Understand The Bible :: A Short Guide to Biblical Interpretation

With the advent of social media, biblical illiteracy amongst evangelicals has become more apparent than ever.  Some may blame the decline in Word-based preaching from the pulpit, others pin responsibility on parents raising children in an ever-increasing secular-liberal culture.  Whereas both may play a role, at the end of the day we are ultimately the ones responsible for comprehending how to interpret God’s Word.

“Hermeneutics”, the study of how to interpret biblical literature is rarely taught in-depth from the pulpit, yet it is the backbone and foundation for understanding the Bible.  It is paramount for gaining insight into what the Biblical text said to its original audience and understanding how to draw out its timeless truths and application.

Without a hermeneutic for understanding Biblical literature, you can make the Bible say most anything. Perhaps the reason we have so many deviations from orthodoxy is because hermeneutics is no longer a part of our discipleship curriculum.  Any Christian should raise a mental “red flag” when anyone says, “Well to me this passage means…” or “God told me this means…” Such subjective lead-ins are dangerous and can be used as spiritual manipulation or propagate heresy.

Two books I read in Bible college and seminary on this subject meant a great deal to me and I would recommend them to any believer; How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth is a near 40-year old text read and used by millions.  A more recent text, Grasping God’s Word is a more in-depth study on Biblical interpretation used in many seminaries across North America.

Church history and orthodoxy have long held to two tenants that inform how the Bible is to be interpreted. They are the framework in which all other hermeneutical concepts are understood:

Scripture interprets Scripture.  Meaning, we must look at what the whole of God’s Word says on a topic to assert contemporary meaning and application.

Scripture cannot mean anything different than what it meant to its original audience.  Context is king. Although there are timeless truths and application we can draw out from Scripture, we need to remember we are reading literature that was not originally written with us personally in mind.  Because of this, we need to build three specific bridges if we are to draw accurate meaning and application out of Biblical text.  These three bridges flow from what scholars call the grammatical-historical hermeneutical method:

Bridge One: Language Bridge

One of the most obvious gulfs that separates us from understanding the Bible is that it was written in three different languages that are not widely used in North America; Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.  In addition to this, the Bible is not written in one singular literary mode but many including prose, poetry and apocalyptic, the latter no longer widely used in modern writing.  How we approach and understand each literary mode is crucial. The way you read and interpret a newspaper is much different than how you read and interpret a song lyric or poem.

I always suggest to anyone who’s seriously interested in understanding God’s Word accurately that they learn the basics of Hebrew and Greek.  However, if this is not possible, an interlinear Bible combined with a concordance for word studies can be a major asset. An interlinear Bible shows the English translated word(s) below each word in its original language.  A concordance is a literary supplement that defines and shows how words are used in other passages.  Remember: Scripture interprets scripture!

It would be beneficial to pause here for a quick word on Bible translations.  Scholars use two methods when choosing what English words to use to translate the Bible. They are commonly known as word-for-word and concept-for-concept translations.

Generally speaking, word-for-word translations (ESV, NASB) are more accurate in conserving the precise meaning of each word.  The downside is that readability can feel clunky and meaning of an overall passage or section can sometimes not be clearly apparent.

Concept-for-concept translations (NIV, NLB) are primarily concerned with readability and articulating general meaning in a coherent fluent way.  The downside with these translations is that the translation process seems to welcome a higher degree of subjectivity.

Most scholars agree that any serious study of the Bible must start with understanding the text in its original language.  After that, many will do their casual reading from a concept-for-concept translation while using a word-for-word translation for general bible study.

Bridge Two: Geographical Bridge

The second bridge we must build when seeking to understand Scripture is a geographical one.  If you have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land, chances are the Bible came ‘alive’ to you in a different way than before. Part of the reason why is because you were able to view the Biblical text within its original geographical climate.

Whereas we can imagine the geography described in the Bible, many of us have never experienced the dry desert climate of the Middle East.  The Bible is full of unique geographical regions that play a role in understanding the plausibility of some texts. For instance, the wild terrain outside of Nazareth, complete with its natural bowl-shaped amphitheater help us understand how Jesus was able to preach (and be heard) by multitudes.

Geography also informs context by helping us understand and appreciate the plight of many biblical characters.  The hot dry climate of the desert elevates the need for constant hydration.  Christ’s offer of living water takes on a deeper meaning when the need for and availability of water in a desert environment is understood.  Similarly, God’s promise to be our shade finds increasing meaning in light of the hot desert sun.

Bridge Three: Historical-Cultural Bridge

The final, and perhaps most challenging bridge we must build deals with chronology. The Bible was written by 66 authors living all at different times on different continents. The fact that each book is in harmony with one another points to the supernatural role of the Holy Spirit inspiring, directing and preserving His Holy Word.

While evangelicalism promotes a personal relationship and highlights the relevancy of God’s Word today we cannot loose sight that the Bible was originally written to another audience living at a different time in a different culture.

Biblical culture was quite different than 21st Century North American culture.  Some of its challenges included slavery, mass societal oppression, and illiteracy – things that (thankfully) many of us have no frame of reference for.  Modes of communication were largely oral with few being educated enough to write.  Transportation was dependent on weather and livestock and the law of the land was often hinged on the mood of a dictator or king.

In a world characterized by the consistent flow and immediate availability of information, where we can be on the other side of the world in a matter of hours, it can be hard to imagine ourselves living in Bible times.  I often scoff at well-meaning zealous Christians who suggest we just go back to having church as they did in the New Testament.  Such statements seem to be ignorant of the historical context of the early church – one that was marked by barbaric persecution and isolation.

As we study Biblical culture and world history, we begin the rewarding ability of being able to see Biblical text through the eyes of those who lived in those times.  Doing so is imperative if we want to accurately understand what God’s Word originally said to its original hearers.

Final Thoughts

Any serious Christian wanting to dig deep into what the Bible says becomes a bridge builder.  As we build these three bridges within the aforementioned framework, we better understand the timeless truths and application of Biblical text for us today in the here and now.

You say, “whoa, that’s a lot of work to do just to understand God’s Word!”.  Sure is, and many through the years have opted for a less dedicated study which is why, in part, many churches have deviated from orthodoxy.

But here’s the good news: God’s Word is not a puzzle to be figured out as much as it is a multifaceted treasure to be discovered.  The unique power of God’s Word to be understood by all in conjunction with His revealed nature in the natural world transcends any intellectual advantage or disability.  In fact, a simple plain reading of a passage is usually not far off from its intended meaning and application for us today.

More often than not we complicate the meaning of God’s Word.  We want to read into Scripture to suit our preferences, traditions and desires instead of allowing Scripture to read us.  In our natural depravity we resist its supernatural mandate to convict, challenge and change us.

Comprehending God’s Word is ultimately an act of humility.  It calls for us to submit to the Holy Spirit to enlighten us while working within an appropriate, systematic approach for understanding its contemporary meaning. When we take time to dig in to God’s Word we are fulfilling Christ’s greatest commandment to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

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