Biblical Interpretation
This article is written by John Eubanks and is used with his permission.

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Why don't all churches have the same doctrines?
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982), there were an estimated 1,900 church denominations at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today there are an estimated 22,000 distinctive groups of Christian churches. Many church leaders have chosen to split from tradition, and to found new churches based on their personal gloss on the Word of God. This happens because it is easier to read one’s own preconceptions into a passage than it is to critically determine what the biblical author intended the passage to mean. Paul told Timothy to, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1st Timothy 4:16), and this article will attempt to teach you how.

How do erroneous preconceptions creep in?
When we read the Bible, we cannot help bringing to it what we already know of the world around us. We embrace what makes sense to us, and we reject what conflicts with our beliefs. Where detailed facts are missing, we fill the gaps with our own perception of truth. When we read a contemporary book that uses Bible references as proof text, we often assume the author has not erred in the critical analysis of the Bible text. When we do read the proof text, we wrap the passage in the contemporary author’s context. We use information provided by the new author to make sense of the passage. If we learn that text “abc” has the meaning “AZC” it becomes difficult to reassociate passage ‘abc’ with its true “ABC” meaning. This is why repetition is used with great effect by false teachers. The more ingrained a false teaching becomes, the harder it becomes to see the truth.

How should biblical interpretation be approached?
Do not attempt to use method alone! You can read the Bible all day and profit nothing, if God does not grant you a willingness to submit to biblical authority. If you have not repented of sinful ways, you will likely resist and refuse to apply God’s Word. Three forms of heart failure (immaturity, insensitivity, and rebellion), can keep the Holy Spirit from revealing the message to you. Thus, we need to ask God to open our hearts to His Word whenever we study Scripture. We should pray for forgiveness of our sins, so that sin does not distance us from the Word. Pray for His help in applying what we learn. Pray for the maturity to understand, and the ability to discern truth when our doctrines are in error. Pray for the wisdom not to be led astray by false teachings.

How do scholars interpret Scripture?
Scholars tend to work directly with the Greek and Hebrew, and most often use a six step interpretation strategy, sometimes called the Six “S’s.” This begins by looking at the more general context issues first and systematically works toward resolving progressively finer details. Once every reasonable bit of information is known about the passage, a meaning is determined and verified against similar passages. The final step is to determine how the meaning is to be applied today. Scholars investigate in the following in order:

  1. Setting: What was the historical, cultural, political, legal, and literary context at the time and place of the writing?
  2. Structure: What is the literary form: law, narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, parable, or epistle. Each has its own set of interpretation guidelines?
  3. Syntax: What does the grammatical analysis of the text reveal, dealing with verb, subject, phrase, case, tense, and mood?
  4. Semantics: What are the lexical elements of the text, which will determine the correct meaning of each word. (Be mindful that where a word has more than one meaning, only one is correct for the text)?
  5. Summary: What did the passage mean at the time it was written. The assessment of the totality of knowledge gleaned through the above analytical methods, resulting in the determination of its meaning, after comparing it for consistency with related Scripture?
  6. Significance: What is the theological message - how does it applies to us today?

How can I avoid misinterpretation?
We, too, can use a disciplined and skilled approach when interpreting. An old adage is still valid today: “A text without a context is usually only a pretext.” Like the Six “S’s,” we should start with the biblical author’s context. An easy way to do this is to use a Bible that has headings, because the headings mark points where the biblical authors start new trains of thought. So, the procedure would be to look up the proof text, scan back to the first heading, then read forward until you reach the next heading.

Generally, interpret single verses by their immediate context. Interpret paragraphs and episodes by the paragraphs or events around them. Try to determine why your text belongs precisely where it is, and nowhere else. Look for thematic statements that introduce or interpret an entire section. Look for repeated words or phrases. To evaluate the relationship between a writer and his reader, look for pointed questions and objections, sharp rebukes, and terms of endearment. When you find the crisis and resolution of a drama, you usually find the main point as well.

Once the context is understood, what about the passage?
Once you understand the passage in the flow of the biblical author’s thought, you are ready to examine the proof text more closely. However, beware of preconceptions. Observe what the biblical text actually states. Observe the text first, then explain it. As explanation proceeds, be sure it fits your observation. Resist reshaping your observations so that they support your preferred beliefs. Make a note of any details that are for any reason especially striking. When examining a difficult passage, read it in different Bible translations, because you will get a better sense of what the original Greek and Hebrew stated.

What sorts of details are important?
First, are all the details of the passage clear and explicit, or are some ambiguous, require us to make assumptions? We should never base our doctrines on passages where we must assume information not in evidence. If the facts are not all clear or some details are only implied, then the passage must be interpreted by other passages that are clear and explicit. No doctrine should ever be based on a single passage of Scripture. It is just too easy to draw the wrong conclusion from unclear, or implicit, or difficult passages, yet it is often those same passages that are used by false teachers. To avoid falling into this trap, look for cross reference verses in the Bible margin that point to similar verses with greater clarity. If you wish to dig deeper, the best reference for this is “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge” Edited by Jerome H. Smith (ISBN 0-8407-7694-2, for $27.99 at amazon.com). It is the best cross reference to clear and critically significant verses for every verse in the Bible.

Do biblical words and grammatical usage effect meaning?
The answer is yes! For example, Jesus often made His points with “overstatement” (Lk 14:26; Mt 5:29-30, 38-42; 10:34). He also used “hyperbole” statements (Mt 6:2-4; 7:3-5; 23:23-24; Mk 10:24-25). If we attempt to use such passages in a literal sense, the meaning makes no sense. Here are some other examples: “simile” (Mt 10:16; 12:40; 23:27; Lk 17:6; 13:34), “metaphor” (Mt 9:37-38; 23:33; Mk 8:15; 9:49-50; Lk 13:31-32), “proverb” (Mt 6:21, 34; 26:52; Mk 3:24; 6:4; Lk 9:62), “riddle” (Mt 11:12; Mk 2:19; 14:58; Lk 22:36), “ paradox” (Mt 5:5; Mk 12:41-44; Lk 12:3), “fortiori” (Mt 6:28-30; 7:9-11; 10:25;), “irony” (Mt 16:2-3; Lk 12:16-20), and “ question” (Mk 8:27-32). Also, the definition of many English words can only approximate the Greek and Hebrew words of the Bible. Translators attempt to match words with the closest meanings, but the English words may have more popular meanings that can lead us astray. For those who wish to dig deep, a Bible dictionary is a necessity. My preference is “Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of
Old and New Testament Words
”.

Can passages have more than one meaning?
A Scriptural passage can only have the meaning that the biblical author intended to convey to the readers at the time it was written. That is why it is important to read enough of the Bible to understand the history and culture that existed in biblical times. A passage of Scripture cannot have a meaning that requires an understanding of today’s history and customs. A few passages also have an allegorical meaning. An allegory is a secondary meaning underlying its primary and obvious meaning; a story that presents its true meaning through figures; or a prolonged metaphor. However, the meaning of the allegory must never contradict the plain text meaning. An allegorical meaning must always be in harmony with the obvious literal meaning. Keep in mind that the Bible is a progressive revelation. The New Testament mediates the Old Testament, and for that reason, we do not sacrifice animals nor stone to death evil doers. Doctrines that rely only on Old Testament proof texts are likely to be in error if relevant New Testament proof texts are ignored.

Can passages mean more than what is stated?
If this were true, then we could use logic like: Cain killed his younger brother Able, therefore, older brothers kill their younger brothers. While this may be true in a few instances, it is certainly not valid as a rule. However, going from the general to a specific case is more reasonable. God commanded us not to murder, therefore, it is wrong to abort innocent life. It is always best to take a conservative approach when applying the meaning of a passage to various situations. Do not attempt to stretch the meaning of a passage so it can be applied to unrelated situations.

What have we learned?
Many churches are founded on doctrinal errors and false teachings. If your church doctrines are not in tune with tested doctrines then be careful to test both the new and traditional before deciding which doctrines are in error. Remember, the correct doctrine must agree with the proof text used to support both the new and traditional doctrines. Finally, all the interpretation methods boil down to submission to God, being observant, thinking things through, and using common sense. Being observant takes discipline, but it is an easy skill to learn. When you find passages that conflict with your belief, do not ignore them. Learn to submit to God’s word when you find conflicts. Change your beliefs to match the beliefs of the biblical authors, because it is God who is instructing you on what to believe. Submit to God’s Word, and not to what men want you to believe.