- Preaching the Living WORD through the Written WORD - 2 Tim 4;:2 -
“PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION”
Grace Bible Church, Gillette, Wyoming
Pastor Daryl Hilbert
I. EXPLANATION OF GENRES OF THE BIBLE AND INTERPRETATION
A. Understanding the genres of the Bible is one of the key factors to knowing how to interpret a passage of Scripture. Correctly understood, each context is interpreted in the light of its genre.
1. Each literary genre has it distinctive features. Each has its own “rules” or procedures. This, in turn, affects how we read and interpret a work of literature… Knowing how a given genre works can spare us from misinterpretations. (Leland Ryken, “How to Read the Bible as Literature” pg. 25).
2. Literature always calls for interpretation. It expresses its meaning by a certain indirection. (Leland Ryken, “How to Read the Bible as Literature” pg. 22)
B. Therefore, correct interpretation of the Scriptures must include a literary approach to the types of writing contained in the Bible.
1. The Bible demands a literary approach because its writing is literary in nature. The Bible is an experiential book that conveys the concrete reality of human life. It is filled with evidences of literary artistry and beauty, much of it in the form of literary genres. It also makes continuous use of resources of language that we can regard as literary. A literary approach pays so close attention to all of these elements of literary form, because it is through them that the Bible communicates its message.
II. GENRES OF THE BIBLE AND PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION
A. The big questions in interpreting genres and figures of speech in the Bible are “when” and “how” do we know to take passages in its literal sense or figurative sense. There are numerous principles of interpretation that help us understand the meaning of a passage. The two most important of these principles is the principle of Literal Speech and the Principle of Figurative Speech. We will specifically concentrate on these two principles, but others will be mentioned so we can get a rounded picture of interpretation of not only the Bible, but of any literature.
B. This would also be called “Hermeneutics,” which is the “science or art of interpretation.” It comes from the Greek word hermeneúō and means to interpret or translate a meaning (Jn 1:42; 9:7; He 7:2). Its root stems from the mythological character, Hermes (or Mercury), who was the speedy messenger of the gods and the tutelary deity of speech, of writing, of arts and sciences. Some of the Principles of Interpretation are included in the following:
1. The Principle of Non-Contradiction
a) The first principle that we must look at is the Principle of Non-Contradiction. This principle teaches that all communication, whether spoken or written, must be clear and logical for people to understand it. “Contradiction” comes from two Latin words “contra” (against) and “dicere” (to speak) so together, they mean to communicate conflicting thoughts. If we communicate conflicting thoughts, no one will be able to understand our speech, our story, our writing, or thoughts.
b) Aristotle, in determining logic for all sciences, defined the law of non-contradiction as, “A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and same respect.” This principle or law is at the forefront of the Bible because God not only clearly communicates to us so we can understand Him, but He is a God of truth. God cannot speak or write anything contrary to the truth (Nu 23:19). Therefore, a first principle in interpretations is that God’s word cannot contradict itself (Ti 1:2).
c) Literature does contain something called a “paradox,” an apparent contradiction that upon reflection, expresses a genuine truth (Ge 50:20; Mt 16:25; Mk 10:31; 2Co 6:8-10).
2. The Principle of Single Interpretation
a) Just like there cannot be any contradictory words in order to communicate cogently, there can only be one interpretation. It is the right of every author to have his thoughts and meanings interpreted correctly, in context, and not twisted.
b) 2Pe 1:20-21 clearly portrays the Principle of Single Interpretation.
(1) No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (epílusis [ep-il'-oo-sis] - explain what is missing or obscure). This means that God has His own, single, non-contradictory meaning and interpretation for His Word. It is the interpreter’s task to extract that meaning.
(2) Scripture was not made by acts of religious men pooling their thoughts together. Rather, chosen men of God were moved (pherō - carry or bring forth) by the Holy Spirit to write God’s exact words, even though God used their personalities and situations.
(3) No one has the right to give any other meaning(s) than God’s meaning. God’s meaning is deciphered by the normal principles of hermeneutics for all language.
3. The Principle of Double Reference (Prophecy)
a) The interpretation of prophecy does contain what is called the Principle of Double Reference.
b) This principle recognizes that God will sometimes give a prophecy that has a partial near-view reference, while having an ultimate far-view fulfillment in Christ.
(1) [In reference to Psalms 2 & 45] … these Psalms have a double reference: First a provisional reference to the Davidic kings; second a definitive reference to the Messiah who must be God. (Sproul, R. C. Before the Face of God, elect. ed )
(2) The law of double reference is a helpful key to understanding certain OT passages. The law of double reference simply means that some of the prophecies of the OT had an immediate and partial fulfillment, and yet would some day have a complete fulfillment. (MacDonald, Believer's Bible Commentary, elect. ed)
c) In the following examples, the primary context must be interpreted at least to a partial fulfillment according to the laws of literary interpretation. It was only after it had been revealed to us by the writers of the N.T. that there was confirmed an ultimate fulfillment in Christ, thus establishing the Principle of Double Reference.
(1) Virgin birth (Is 7:14): Isaiah’s son - Is 8:3; Christ - Mt 1:23
(2) Forsaken by God (Ps 22:1): David; Christ - Mt 27:46
(a) It was applied immediately to David and ultimately to the Greater David, Messiah. The NT contains 15 messianic quotations of or allusions to this psalm, leading some in the early church to label it “the fifth gospel.” (MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed., Ps 22:1)
(3) Not see decay (Ps 16:10): David; Christ - Ac 2:25-28; 13:35
4. The Principle of Scripture Interprets Scripture
a) Scripture interpreting Scripture is a natural principle that springs out of the normal logic of the interpretation of literature. All writing that is good writing gives enough contextual information and clues to reach the proper meaning.
b) For Bible students this is called the Principle of Scripture Interprets Scripture. It is also called the Analogy of Scripture and sometimes the Analogy of Faith.
(1) The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9 cp. 2 Pet. 1:20,21; Acts 15:15,16)
c) Examples of Scripture Interprets Scripture could be the deity of Christ (Ge 1:1 cp. Jn 1:1) or salvation to Gentiles (Ac 15:15-19; Ga 3:14-16). This principle is also the essence of expository teaching (cp. He 1:4-14; 2:5-18; 10:4-20).
5. The Principle of Simple Interprets Complex
a) Another principle emerges from the Principle of Scripture Interprets Scripture, which is the Principle of Simple Interprets Complex.
b) This means we have to understand the complex and difficult passages of Scripture through the simple ones.
(1) The obscure texts must be interpreted in light of those which are plain and positive. (Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics), pg. 579)
c) If it is clear from the majority of Scriptures that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, then when we come across a few rare Scriptures that appear to say we must be baptized to be saved, we must interpret the rare with the plain and clear Scriptures. In the following books it is clear that salvation is faith alone in Christ alone: John - Jn 20:31; “believe” 88 ct.; Acts - 16:31; “believe” 46 ct.; Romans - Ro 1:17; “believe” 17 ct. & “faith” 40 ct.
d) This also applies to general interpretation, eternal security (Jn 3:16; 5:24; 6:37; 10:28-29; 20:31; Phi 1:6; Ro 8:1; 1Jn 5:11-13; Jude 24), distinguishing Israel from the Church (Ac 5:31; 21:19; 1Co 10:32; Gal 2:7-9; Rom 1:16), and Prophecy.
6. The Principle of Context
a) The Principle of Context could actually be called the Contextual-Historical-Grammatical method of Interpretation. It interprets a passage of Scripture by looking first at its context, historical background, and grammatical structure. It is the paramount principle in interpretation.
b) Contextual - To understand the context of a passage, one must understand more than just the passage. We must understand the surrounding sections, the book in which it is contained, the type of genre, and cross references from other parts of the Bible. We must understand who wrote the book (e.g. Ga 1:1, 13-18) and to whom (e.g. Ga 1:3), what was the occasion for writing (e.g. Ga 3:1) as well as the purpose for writing (e.g. Ga 1:6-9). When the context is understood, we will be more likely to interpret the passage with the meaning that was intended.
c) Historical - The historical background of a passage is important because it opens up what the readers of their day understood by certain, phrases, idioms, customs, beliefs, circumstances, and particular problems.
d) Grammatical - The grammatical structure of a passage is important because it will reveal the intent, emphasis, and the correct understanding of the structure of a passage. It is also necessary to understand the meaning of the words from the original language, as well as how each author specifically used them (Jn 6:37 - double negative; “justification” (dikaióō - declare righteous, Ro 4:2-5).
7. The Principle of Literal Interpretation
a) The Principle of Literal Interpretation takes God’s Word in everyday normal speech. Milton Terry and others used the Latin term, “Usus Loquendi,” that is “usage in speaking” or “current usage of words as employed by a particular writer or prevalent in a particular age” (Terry).
(1) When we go to the Bible, this is so basic, we assume that God is talking to us in normal speech. Okay? Normal language. Normal, common, everyday communication. If fact, the theologians use to call it "Usus Loquendi" in the Latin, meaning, "The words of Scripture are to be interpreted the same way words are understood in ordinary daily use." (MacArthur, “Proper Biblical Interpretation,” Charismatic Chaos Series, Part 4)
(2) The literal Principle means understanding Scripture in its natural, normal sense. That is, what are the customary meanings of the words being used? Since God wants to communicate His Word to us, He will do so in the most obvious and simple fashion possible, in words clearly understood. The first thing to look for is the literal meaning, not some deeper, hidden, secret, or spiritualized interpretation. (ibid)
b) Literal Interpretation is not to be confused with “Hyper-Literalism” or “Letterism”, that is, to take absolutely everything as literal (e.g. Song of Sol 4:1-4) . How do you know when you have figurative language? You take a passage literal and if it becomes foreign, silly, or absurd, then it is figurative. However, all attempts to take a passage must first be exhausted.
c) The Principle of Literal Interpretation is so important that Dr. David L. Cooper called it the “Golden Rule of Interpretation.”
(1) Dr. Cooper defined it as, when the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths indicate clearly otherwise. (Cooper, “Rules of Interpretation”)
(2) Or as Dr. Thomas O. Figart said at Lancaster Bible College, when the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, lest it be nonsense.
d) Bernard Ramm, in his book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, pg. 54ff , makes strong and logical arguments for the method of Literal Interpretation.
(1) That the literal meaning of sentences is the normal approach in all languages.
(2) That all secondary meanings of documents, parables, types, allegories, and symbols, depend for their very existence on the previous literal meaning of the terms.
(3) That the greater part of the Bible makes adequate sense when interpreted literally.
(4) That the literalistic approach does not blindly rule out figures of speech, symbols, allegories, and types; but if the nature of the sentence so demands, it readily yields to the second sense.
(5) That this method is the only sane and safe check on the imaginations of man.
(6) That this method is the only one consonant with the nature of inspiration.
e) The method of Literal Interpretation has been the historical method of interpretation and therefore, should be the most sound principle used in interpretation of biblical genres, prophecy, and all Scripture.
8. The Principle of Figurative Interpretation
a) Figurative Speech is an emphatic way in which to communicate, excite the senses, and connect with the soul of man. It is not a secondary literary device but one that is used frequently and overflowing with meaning.
b) However, even when interpreting figurative speech, there is a literal meaning at the root of its genre, symbols, metaphors, and lessons. Prophecy may be highly symbolic and saturated with imagery, but it predominantly describes literal events.
c) Allegory is in the Bible (Ga 4:21-31), also contained in symbols, parables, etc.) and naturally is to be understood as a literary device. However, this is to be completely distinguished from Allegorical Interpretation that “allegorizes” or “spiritualizes” away most or all literal meanings.
(1) The actual words, then, are not understood in their normal sense but in a symbolic sense, which results in a different meaning of the text, a meaning that, in the strictest sense, the text never intended to convey. (Ryrie, Dispensationalism)
d) Lim LaHaye records 125 prophecies concerning the First Coming of Christ. These were all fulfilled literally. In fact, all the prophecies up till now have been fulfilled literally. Why would anyone want to change the method of interpreting prophecies for those yet to be fulfilled (Princ. #5)?
e) The danger of allegorical method of interpretation is that it often arrives at an interpretation contrary to the intended meaning (Princ. #1), encourages multiple meanings by interpreters (Princ. #2), discourages the literal meaning (Princ. #7), and at times removes major eschatological truths (Princ. #4, cp. 1Th 4:13-18; Ti 2:13).
(1) Allegory, however, is too often uncertain, unreliable, and by no means safe for supporting faith. Too frequently it depends upon human guesswork and opinion; and if one leans on it, one will lean on a staff made of Egyptian reed (Ezek 29:6]. (Luther wrote) When I was a monk, I was an expert in allegories. I allegorized everything. But after lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans I came to have knowledge of Christ. For therein I saw that Christ is no allegory and I learned to know what Christ is." (Luther’s Works, 42.172)