I want to address the subject of hermeneutics—the systematic studying and interpreting of Scripture. Or the principles and methods of Bible study. Christians are very confused about this matter. Since we all have the Holy Spirit to teach us, and since there’s only one truth and only one correct interpretation about any verse and passage and doctrine, why do we come up with so many different viewpoints?
The answer is not as mysterious as it may seem, and there’s not just one answer to that question. The Holy Spirit is never wrong, and there is indeed only one truth and one correct interpretation regarding any passage and doctrine of the Bible. That being true, then the problem is obviously with us.
I want to highlight what I believe are the main reasons for misinterpreting the Bible, which will tell us why there are so many different interpretations. With these things in mind, I then want to provide some additional rules for correctly interpreting God’s Word.
Reasons for Interpreting the Bible Incorrectly
1. Positional bias.
Meaning, people interpret the Bible through the lens of their particular theological position, rather than remaining neutral and following truth where it wants to lead them. This is a danger we must all be aware of. We must have a sincere desire to know the truth, whatever that truth is. We must be willing to follow it without bias.
If we don’t study God’s Word with a neutral position, the natural tendency will be to interpret Scripture according to the particular position that we hold. Either consciously or subconsciously we will merely try to use the Bible to confirm those positions, rather than allowing God’s Word to form the correct position for us.
I believe many people come to the Word of God with a lack of humility. I believe many read and study the Bible with an arrogance, with the attitude that they have a monopoly on the truth. And with that attitude, it’s their desire to prove their opponents wrong.
In teaching God’s Word, it’s important, and inevitable, that we expose false interpretation and false theological systems. However, it must be done with humility, and with sincere and honorable motives.
We must also be teachable. We must be willing to learn from others, especially those who have been students of God’s Word for many years. We must be willing to listen to other’s viewpoint of Scripture….because they may be correct, and God may be wanting to use them to get us on the right track.
I believe a lot of Christians love the particular group or association they’re a part of, and would never want to give it up. Deep down they don’t want to know any other “truth,” just the one that characterizes their particular associations and friends. I think pastors, with all their associations, are especially vulnerable to this.
Whatever one’s theological viewpoint, there’s always friends and groups and church denominations/networks associated with that theological system of belief. Thus, I believe deep down, they know that if they’re convinced by an opposing theology, that will mean having to give up the associations and close friendships they’ve come to enjoy.
This mindset can definitely influence how we approach God’s Word. We must be aware of this danger, and not allow it to lead us astray.
4. Dishonest with the texts
This is perhaps another way of saying what I said in the first point. I believe many come to wrong interpretations because they’re not being honest about what the text says. This again is due to the doctrinal positions we hold. Instead of allowing the Bible to form our positions, we start with a position and then try to force our positions into the text.
5. A lack of years studying the Bible
As a student of God’s Word for over 40 years, I can tell you that understanding comes slowly, and through a lot of serious and diligent study. It’s a long process.
When we begin our Christian journey, the Bible seems like a huge, complicated book. But as the years go by, as we continue to read it and familiarize ourselves with it, the Bible becomes smaller and smaller and less and less complicated.
In order for the message of the Bible to come together, it requires a high level of familiarity with it. We all learn at different speeds, but I’m very cautious about Bible teachers that have been Christians and Bible students for only 10 or 15 years. That’s because I know the difference between 15 years in God’s Word and 30 years.
6. People simply don’t study hard enough
I believe there’s a very small percentage of people who study the Word as thoroughly as it needs to be studied. People aren’t willing to put in the extra effort that’s needed to follow a path that’s needed to gain a proper understanding.
I’m convinced that there’s a lot of pastors who don’t spend the time that’s required to come to correct interpretations (and doctrinal positions), especially in this seeker-sensitive, shallow teaching environment in which we live today. Thus we must be very careful about whose authority we place ourselves under.
7. Unaware of proper hermeneutics.
I think most misinterpretation is due to a lack of understanding of how to correctly approach the Word of God. There are definite and necessary rules of interpretation that we must follow if we’re going to come to correct conclusions. I’ll discuss these rules next.
I see those as the main reasons why there are so many different interpretations among Christians. It’s never the Holy Spirit, it’s always something that’s wrong with us.
Proper Hermeneutics – [Rules of Interpretation]
1 – Depend on the Holy Spirit
This is the number one rule of Bible interpretation. We cannot understand the Word of God without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Every time you sit down to read and study God’s Word, pray that He would guide you in your course of study. Pray for understanding. Pray that He would direct your way in obtaining the truth. Pray that He would enable you to see and harmonize the individual parts that make up the whole. The individual parts must make sense in order for the whole to make sense. If your conclusions of one doctrine conflicts with others, then you know you have more studying to do. Doctrines must be in harmony.
2 – Interpret the Old Testament According to the New
After the first rule, I consider this by far to be the most important principle of hermeneutics. A proper hermeneutic is a Christocentric, with a NT priority. Proper interpretation of God’s Word begins and ends with Christ and the NT. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, the Old Covenant. The New Covenant replaces the Old. We cannot isolate the NT and still expect to understand the OT. The NT is the fulfillment of the OT, thus, the OT must ALWAYS be interpreted according to a right understanding of the NT. We must allow the NT to shine its light upon the OT.
I see this as a huge problem among Christians today. When we try to understand the OT without a correct understanding of the NT, we end up with mass confusion.
We must realize that the OT was specifically for the nation of Israel, so we must be extremely careful how we apply it. Again, we cannot do that apart from a thorough understanding of the NT. Much of what was commanded to the people of Israel, was strictly for them only, and not to be applied to our lives as Christians.
Furthermore, we cannot properly understand the Israel of the OT apart from the Israel of the NT. We’re to view Israel through the eyes of the NT. The NT writers interpret true Israel for us.
This is such a big problem today that I would recommend that new Christians avoid the OT for a few years (except for Psalms and Proverbs) until they have a solid understanding of the NT. If one begins with the OT as a new believer, it will lead to serious misunderstanding and misapplication.
One of the dangers in applying the OT to our lives is to see how God spoke and worked among certain individuals, and then expect God to deal with us in the same manner. This practice can only lead to unfulfilled expectation, frustration, and disillusionment.
The OT was for a different people for a different time, and He worked among His people in a different manner. As Christians, we must live our lives according to the teachings of the NT, because the NT was written specifically to us and for us.
What the OT does for us is that it gives us the beginning of all things. It reveals a lot about God and about angels. It tells us a lot about future events (but needs to be interpreted according to the NT). It reveals how He views sin. It reveals how He worked among His people and among other nations. And of course, it’s full of types and shadows of Christ and His Church. The whole OT has Christ in view.
While we can’t expect God to deal with us in the same manner as He did with people in the OT, we can still learn and apply principles from those things. Character studies of OT saints is most valuable, and it’s from those that we can learn and apply character traits and principles to our own lives. But we’re never to assume or expect that God is going to speak or lead us in the same manner as He did them—and to the few, I might add. Under the New Covenant in Christ, God deals with us differently, and so we must use the NT as our guide.
When it comes to end time prophecy, we must be careful that we interpret the prophecies of the OT according to our understanding of the NT. Especially important is that we have a proper understanding of Israel in light of how Israel is revealed in Christ. If we don’t see Christ as the fulfillment of Israel (Gal 3:16, 26-29), it’s not possible to correctly interpret the futuristic prophecies of the OT. An OT, Israel-centered focus, can’t possibly lead to correct interpretation. When we follow that method of interpretation, we’re missing the whole point of the NT, which is to reveal Christ and Israel in Him.
3 – Context Context Context!
After the first two rules, this rule is next in line in importance. It’s the rule that’s probably most commonly violated. In order to correctly interpret any verse or passage or doctrine of the Bible, we must consider the subject of the context. Context refers not only to the immediate context of the verses before and after, but also the context of the chapter and book under study. And of course, the larger context would be the teaching of the Bible as a whole, especially as revealed in the NT.
We can’t simply pluck a verse out of its context and make it mean something the context is clearly not teaching. I believe this is the number one reason for so many different interpretations and misapplications of God’s Word when considering individual verses or passages. We cannot isolate a verse or passage from its immediate and overall context and expect to come to a correct understanding of its meaning.
Violation of this rule is a major reason why we have so many different theologies and denominations, and even religions (for example, Mormonism & Jehovah’s Witnesses). When we take a verse out of its context, we can expect false understanding and false teaching to be the result. This is a primary reason why we have so much false teaching in the Church today.
4 – The Four Gospels
The Gospels can be very confusing books if we’re not aware of what’s going on there. This was a time of transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant, from OT to NT. This was the period of time when Jesus was fulfilling the Old Covenant and many of the prophecies of the OT (the rest are still to come). Thus we must realize that they were still under the Old Covenant at that time, still under the Law of the OT. Therefore, when trying to understand these books, we must realize that they are very Jewish in nature, and that much of what Jesus taught was with OT Israel in view, and applied only to them. But again, it was all in the context of a transition from a focus on OT Israel to a focus on Christ and His Church. Thus we must always be aware of an overlap between what He was teaching and revealing to Israel, and what is applicable to us as New Testament Christians, which is not always easy. But knowing about this transitionary period of history, helps us to rightly interpret these books.
5 – Clearly and Plainly Stated Verses First
We must allow the clearly and plainly stated verses/passages to interpret the more difficult verses/passages regarding the same subject. In other words, we must interpret the harder scriptures according to clearly understood scriptures. Those are the ones that we must use to form our foundation. We can’t build a doctrinal position based on a faulty foundation. If we get this backwards, we’re sure to come to wrong conclusions and wrong positions. What we end up doing is making the plainly stated scriptures mean something they’re clearly not saying.
6 – Character of God is Foundational
In order to interpret Scripture accurately, we must do so in light of the character of God. Everything we learn and teach is to be in perfect harmony with the attributes of God, and in harmony with the names through which He’s revealed Himself. The way God has revealed Himself in the NT is where we need to begin, especially through the life of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.
We must interpret what we see about God in the OT according to what we know to be true of God in the NT. If we try to understand God in light of the OT only, it will just cause confusion. Our view of God must rest primarily on how God has revealed Himself in the NT. Whatever questions remain about what we see of God in the OT, must be set aside to await an answer when we get to Heaven, because there are some things about Himself that God has chosen not to explain this side of Glory.
7 – Compare Scripture With Scripture
The importance of this is obvious. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is the only way we can gain a proper understanding of God’s Word. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. We must study all the key verses and passages dealing with the same subject, building from a foundation of clearly understood verses. If we have the correct interpretation, our position will not violate God’s character, nor will it contradict any other doctrine. Everything will be in harmony.
8 – Familiarize Yourself With the Bible
Keep reading the Bible over and over and over, especially the New Testament. Read several chapters of the NT everyday until you’ve gone through the whole NT. Continue this process over and over throughout your life. After a few years of doing this regularly, the Bible will become very familiar to you, which makes learning the Bible easier. For example, as you’re reading one verse or passage, it will remind you of another verse or passage that deals with the same subject, and quite often you’ll be able to go right to it without looking it up.
The more familiar you are with the Bible, the smaller the book will become to you. All the years of taking in God’s Word will eventually pay off in a huge way. The Bible will look smaller and less complicated, and will make more sense. Speaking from personal experience, at a certain point so much started coming together for me like never before, and I know in part it was because of all the years of saturating my mind with the Word of God.
9 – Do Word Studies
Doing word studies is so important in understanding God’s Word, especially in light of the Greek and Hebrew. Take a certain word, and then look up all the verses that have that word. Make sure you look at all the different English words used by that one Greek or Hebrew word. This practice provides a lot of light.
10 – Read Commentaries Based on the Original Languages
We can’t all learn and understand Greek and Hebrew, but we can all read commentaries by those who do. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For example, the Greek language is a much more precise language than the English language, so it’s important to view verses and passages through the eyes of the writers proficient in those languages.
11 – Read Commentaries Regularly
It’s extremely helpful to read Bible Commentaries to gain understanding of God’s Word. There’s always a danger in this, especially for new Christians, and that’s why it’s wise to read several commentaries on a particular passage. This way you’re not getting just one person’s viewpoint. Pray that the Holy Spirit gives you discernment as you read them. As you grow in your knowledge and understanding, discernment of truth will become easier.
What I’ve learned about commentaries is that quite often I will read something that will lead me down a path of study I didn’t consider before, which results in a more accurate understanding. This is one of the most valuable benefits of reading commentaries.
I would recommend the older commentaries over most new ones. When I say older, I’m talking about those written from the early 1900s and older. Don’t misunderstand, there’s still a lot of good newer commentaries, as well. But we must be selective. That comes with experience and recommendations from others.
12 – Culture Background is Helpful
To understand some passages, it requires, or is at least helpful, to know what the cultural practice of the day was regarding the people, place and time of the writing. I recommend purchasing a good reference book that deals with the people and culture of Bible times. Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias are good ones. Some commentaries will also talk about those things.
13 – Know the History
Historical background is often helpful. You can find this information in Bible commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and secular history books. For example, historian Josephus provides a detailed account of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, prophesied by Christ.
14 – Read Each Book in One Sitting
I think it’s really important to read each book of the Bible in one sitting. I don’t mean every time, of course, but to make a fairly regular practice of it, especially with the short books. Doing this gives us a bird’s eye view of the book, of what the general theme is. I realize this is a little hard to do with the large books of the Bible, but at a minimum, it should be done with the shorter books of the NT.
15 – Literal Interpretation, Except…..
The Bible should be read and understood in its literal stated form, except when dealing with obvious symbolism or figurative language. Also be alert to types and shadows of the OT. Thus we must be careful when reading the book of Revelation and the parables of Christ. I would go one step further and say that we also need to be careful about how we interpret the OT prophecies. Like the book of Revelation, we should expect the prophecies of the OT to use symbolism and figurative language, as well. We should also be aware that the NT is focused on the spiritual and heavenly, while the OT is focused on the more physical and earthly. Thus, when it comes to interpreting OT Israel, we see (or should see) that Israel is viewed from a spiritual and heavenly perspective, that it’s fulfilled in those ways via Christ and His Church. In other words, the NT writers spiritualize Israel. Thus, there’s a place for spiritualizing (allegory), because that’s what the NT writers themselves do.
16 – Be Systematic
It’s one thing to say, “I believe this” or “I believe that,” or point to one or two verses and say “that’s why I believe this,” but it’s another thing to say “I believe this because”……and then go through a systematic process of united key truths.
It’s important to know what we believe, but it’s also important to know why we believe it. Again, it’s not enough to simply point to a few verses and say, “that’s why I believe what I do.”
We must learn to learn systematically. What I mean by that is, we must learn to learn in a manner that takes us from one truth to another, building one truth upon another, in a certain order that depends on the previous.
To learn to do that takes a long time, but it can be learned by applying all the principles given here in this guide to Bible interpretation.
Once you’re able to demonstrate what you believe in a detailed and systematic way, then you will never fear when others oppose what you believe. Personally, I don’t fear what the opposition teaches, because I know that truth will always stand up. And if I’m challenged, and I discover that they’re correct, then I’ve learned something from them.
Learning and teaching systematically means that everything within that system is in perfect harmony. If we see areas of disharmony, that means we have more studying to do. Truth will never contradict itself, because God will never contradict Himself.
While we should always be teachable (no matter how far along we are), there should come a time when we’re able to piece everything together, and we have a settled peace about it. However, we must be aware that we may still have blind spots, areas that are not quite right yet. That’s why I say, we must always learn in humility and be willing to learn from others. While we should be able to explain why we believe the way we do, we must always be open to further learning.
In regard to systematic learning and teaching, we’re all gifted differently. Those who have the gift of teaching will be able to take this to a higher level than others, but I think most everyone should be able to establish a certain system of belief if they’re willing to put in the time and effort that’s required.
For those who don’t have the gift of teaching, it’s important to find someone that does and someone you can learn from. That’s why it’s so important for pastors to be diligent students of God’s Word and teaching the Word verse by verse, book by book.
A word of caution is in order here. Just because a pastor has the gift of teaching, doesn’t mean that everything he teaches is the truth. One can have the gift, but not be practicing correct rules of interpretation.
Part of learning the Bible is learning how to go about it. It’s just like playing golf. If we practice the wrong fundamentals, we will never learn the correct way of swinging the golf club. Same with learning God’s Word. If we’re applying the wrong rules for interpreting the Bible, then we’ll never be able to learn or teach with any real degree of accuracy.
Studying and learning the Bible is a lifelong process. I think it’s probably difficult for the best of us to apply all these rules of interpretation all the time, but we must make the effort. By practicing these rules early on, you’ll learn better and quicker. Understanding will come together in a shorter period of time. You’ll be much further along than those who have never been taught anything about hermeneutics, which is very sad to me. I think the lack of teaching on this subject is leading to a lot of personal misapplication, and to a lot of false teaching in the Church. Sound hermeneutics need to be taught to Christians early on in their walk with Christ. Tragically, I believe there are also many pastors who are still in that same boat, to some degree. Either they’ve never been properly taught, or they’ve forgotten or they choose not to practice it. Whatever the case may be, evidence suggests that many pastors aren’t employing proper hermeneutics, which results in a congregation who aren’t being properly taught. This is another reason why we have to learn this for ourselves, so that we’ll be able to discern between sound teaching and teaching that is not.
Note: As I’m writing this (9-26-2017), there is what’s called “The Revelation 12 Sign” being taught. It’s a bizarre teaching on Revelation 12, the OT Feast of Trumpets, and an alignment of stars, that figures the rapture to occur on September 23rd—which, of course, has already passed. This teaching gained a fairly large following. Tragically, even with the 23rd now passed, and as these teachers are scrambling to recalculate their figures to see where they went wrong, and to come up with different dates for the rapture, a lot of people are still following these teachers. Even though their teaching has already proven to be false, these people continue to follow them. This is called blind allegiance.
Neither the teachers nor their followers demonstrate any real understanding of proper hermeneutics. While I feel sad for those who are being led astray, I also feel sad for these teachers, because I think they really believe what they’re teaching. It’s the blind leading the blind.
This is an example of why it’s so important to approach the Word of God with time-tested, sound rules of interpretation. This is why I’m so passionate about teaching the Bible. I want the people of Christ to be properly taught. There’s so many untaught Christians today that leave them vulnerable to a lot of incorrect or false teaching. They don’t know how to test what’s being taught with the actual truth of God’s Word. Thus many believers tend to believe anything that comes down the pike. That grieves my heart.
Nutty groups and date-setters like The Revelation 12 Sign group, always hold to Dispensational Premillennialism—at least I’ve never seen it otherwise. You can draw your own conclusions of what that may indicate.
Learn the right way, teach the right way.