[ Doctrine in Detail ]

Topic: II. The Bible

Lesson: D. Interpretation

Objective: To understand and apply the Historical-Grammatical method of interpretation.

Paul wrote to Timothy, directing him to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2nd Timothy 2:15) The word of truth is the Bible, and we are to be workmen who handle this word correctly. That means taking effort to interpret the Bible carefully, understanding what God is saying in the word rather than making the word say what we want it to.

"The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church. Such is the doctrine of Protestants on this subject" ( Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology)

While we understand that some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand, and Christians disagree on some passages of Scripture, yet those basic things needed to come to Salvation and to live the Christian life in a way pleasing to God can be understood by ordinary people reading the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the church taught that only 'Clergy' could read and interpret the Bible, that it was dangerous for plain people to try to understand it for themselves. The early translators of the Bible into English were persecuted, and some killed, for trying to put the Bible in the language of the people. However, Protestants have always believed that every person is responsible to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, and that their faith rests on the Scripture rather than simply on the teaching of the Church. For this reason, reading was highly regarded in Colonial America, primarily for the sake of reading Scripture.

1. Historical and Grammatical Meaning

a. Explanation. "The words of Scripture are to be taken in their plain historical sense. That is, they must be taken in the sense attached to them in the age and by the people to whom they were addressed." ( Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology) Let's restate this. Our question is, what would a passage of Scripture mean to the people who first read it. Of course, the readers did not always understand fully, nor did they understand exactly how a prophecy would be fulfilled. But the words and sentences should be understood by what the words meant at the time they were written. Let's look at an example.

b. Example.Jesus said, "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27) Understanding that Jesus spoke these words BEFORE his death on the cross, and before the cross became a worldwide symbol of the Christian faith, what would this verse mean? Here are four possibilities:(1) We must wear or carry a cross to be a disciple.(2) We must suffer through various trials of life that God has given us.(3) We must 'die to self' in order to follow Christ.(4) We must choose to do the things God wants rather than follow our own desires.

Lets talk about each one. (1) No one in Jesus'; time would have recognized a cross as a symbol of Christianity, and certainly would not have understood this to mean wearing a miniature replica of a cross on a necklace or as a lapel pin. This verse has nothing to say about carrying a miniature cross as a symbol. (2) It has become popular to refer to any trial as a 'cross that I must bear'. This loosely equates any suffering that we do with the cross. Again, no one in Jesus' time would have thought of a small burden or putting up with a difficult situation as bearing a cross. (3) The cross WAS the means of execution of criminals and enemies of the Roman government. It was in widespread use in Jesus' time, and we know of tens of thousands of people being executed on crosses (most often for a city rebelling against Rome). So, the idea of dying is close to the cross. We also know that Jesus' died on the cross. Since we also know that Jesus does not want us to commit suicide, and that Jesus in some way wants us to die, we realize that He means for us to 'die to self' and follow Him. (4) Choosing to do what God wants rather than what we want is HOW we die to self. This is an application of what it means to 'die to self' or to 'carry our cross'. The verse means 'die to self' and one way to do that is to choose what God wants us to do rather than what we want to do. It may mean spending some time studying the Bible rather than taking a nap, or it may mean inviting a person to join you for a meal rather than simply eating with your family. There are many applications, but the actual meaning is that to follow Christ we must die to self.

c. Allegory.Around 300 AD, an early church leader named Origen wrote, "There are three levels of meaning in the Bible: the literal sense, the moral application to the soul, and the allegorical or spiritual sense, which refers to the mysteries of the Christian Faith. If the apparent sense of a given passage contradicts the necessary convictions of morality or the nature of God,there must be a deeper lesson underneath the surface of the passage." ( Bruce Shelley,Church History in Plain Language) Origen had great influence on how the Bible was interpreted, even into modern times. While this statement sounds good, we have to take a close look. First, there is a literal sense, and by this Origen meant what we are referring to as the plain sense or the Historical Grammatical sense, what a normal reader (familiar with the language and history) would understand. Of course there is an application to the Christian life, for instance, the previous verse meant 'die to self' and we apply it by 'choosing what God wants rather than what we want'. BUT, the church of the Middle Ages took the 'allegorical' sense as the most important. If anything in Scripture contradicted what the Church or the interpreter felt was unworthy of God, the literal sense was ignored and a 'spiritual' meaning used. The interpreter would determine what stood for what.

For instance, it was believed that the original sin of Adam and Eve was a sexual act. Therefore, 'they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge' was 'spiritually' interpreted as 'they engaged in an act of carnal knowledge', or in plain language, 'they had sex'. However, there in nothing in the Bible that indicates that this was the case. Rather, we take the literal sense that they ate a piece of fruit from a tree which they were told not to eat fruit from. The sin was disobedience to God, and had nothing to do with the sexual act. The interpreter, in this case, the church of the Middle Ages, did not have a healthy view as to love between a man and a wife, and decided upon this 'allegorical' interpretation. Lets look at another example.

d. Example.We read in the Song of Solomon, "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. He has taken me to the banquet hall, and his banner over me is love. Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love." (Song of Solomon 2:3-5)

As we read it, the plain sense is that a woman is in love with a man. She compares him to a shade tree, which provides protection from the sun as well as apples. He has held a feast in her honor, in which it is plain (a banner) that he loves her. Her feeling of love is so strong that she feels faint. Apparently this is 'a date', a romantic dinner with friends in which a man show honor and love for a woman (perhaps they are engaged to be married). What does this mean to us? Simply that love between a man and wife is honorable and good. Our application is that us husbands should be dedicated in love to our wives, and honor them. It is good to honor our wives and show our affection in public. Because many interpreters, especially in the Catholic Church of times past, saw love as 'a necessary evil' in order to have children, they thought that this entire book of the Bible was unworthy of God. They could not understand how God would honor the love of a man and wife. They were wrong. The plain sense of Scripture is that we should honor an love our spouse. The bottom line is that by substituting Jesus for the man, and the Church for the woman, this is changed into an allegory of how Christians should feel about Jesus, and how Jesus seeks, protects, and loves the church. We admit that in the New Testament, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In that way we can compare human love here with Christ's love of the church. Still – the plain sense here is that love between a man and a woman is being talked about, not the 'allegorical' love between Christ and the church. The meaning is that this man honored this woman at a banquet, and our application is that as husbands it is good to honor our wives in public. By using the allegorical method, the interpreter is the judge of what is right and wrong and there is no objective way of determining what any passage really means.

e. Plain Sense and Literalism.On the other hand, there is a difference between the 'plain sense' and an extreme literalism. Here is an example: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no sppech or language where their voice is not heard." (Psalm 19:1) We all understand that the heavens do not literally speak. We do not hear a physical voice. But in poetry (psalm) there is a freedom in the use of words, and we all understand this. The plain sense is that the heavens show God's glory by their very existence, and people everywhere, of all languages, understand this message. They probably understand it by what they see, the immense heavens, rather than what they hear.

2. Unity of Scripture

a. Explanation. "The Scriptures are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture." ( Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology) Although there are 66 different books, and perhaps 100 authors, we believe that God guided and directed the writers through the Holy Spirit in such a way that the Bible is really the work of one mind, God. If we read two passages that appear to contradict each other, we have to think, study, and pray so that we may understand how one Scripture interprets another, or how the passages relate to each other.

b. False JEDP Theory.It is commonly taught in colleges, universities, and 'liberal' seminaries that the books of Moses, and much of the rest of the Bible, are simply collections of legends and fragments of writings collected over the centuries. They were supposedly rewritten (by redactors or editors) many times, each group having a particular point to make or special interests. "Much modern criticism denies the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. The documentary hypothesis divides the authorship of these books into the Jehovistic, Elohistic, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly codes, with many redactors." ( Henry Clarence Thiessen,Lectures in Systematic Theology)

What does this mean? The Pentateuch refers to the five books of Moses, which we believe were written around the time of the Exodus by Moses (perhaps 1446 BC). We believe that the Jews carefully preserved these writings from that time to modern times in such a way that there is practically no difference between what Moses wrote and what we have today. However, in the late 1800s, a theory became popular, and is widely taught today, called the 'JEDP' Theory. It is false. It teaches that many fragments and legends existed from early times, when people believed in many gods, and these fragments are contained in the books of Moses where the name Elohim is used for God. Elohim can be understood as plural, or 'gods'. Other, later, legends existed from times when one true god was the main belief, and those fragments in the Bible use the name of Yahweh (or Jehovah, LORD with capital letters in most English Bibles). Then, nationalists wrote other sections, such as the book of Deuteronomy, which is a national contract. It is supposed that this came from a time when Israel was a nation, several centuries after Moses was dead. Finally, Priests wanted to make sure that the nation supported the national temple in Jerusalem and wanted to extend their power, and much of Leviticus would be their work. Several times these different fragments were put together and rewritten with different interests. Therefore, the 'liberal' scholar expects to find contradictory passages and errors everywhere. If there is an inspiration to Scripture, it is because people of exceptional religious feeling worked on the books.

This theory is totally false, and extremely dangerous. It is one reason why many of our mainline denominations have pastors who do not believe that what the Bible says is true, and why they find contradictions. They take those parts they like, and ignor the rest.

c. Example.Consider two verses from two chapters which describe creation. "In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1) "This is the account of the heav ens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God (Jehovah Elohim) made the earth and the heavens ..." (Genesis 2:4) Biblical 'liberals' using the JEDP theory see contradictory accounts, the first by polytheists (Elohim is plural) and the second by monotheists (Jehovah is a specific name of the one true God).

Biblical 'conservatives' who understand the Unity of Scripture see the second account is a supplement to the first, in harmony but giving fuller details. Moses first wrote of the entire creation, seven days, and the declaration that 'it is good'. He then goes back to the sixth day to give more specifics about Adam and Eve, and tells us what happened as a result of God's creation. This second account, beginning in Gen 2:4, can be said to continue throughout the entire Bible, describing the history of mankind and redemption. I see no contradictions in the two accounts because I understand the Unity of Scripture. Those who believe in the JEDP theory see contradictions because they are looking for contradictions.

d. Scripture Interprets Scripture.There is another aspect to the Unity of Scripture. In Systematic Theology we study topics, such as Creation, and take the different verses dealing with creation together. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1) "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1:1-3)Of course, there are many more passages speaking of creation. Our point here is that all the verses that deal with a topic must be taken together in order to understand the full meaning. We know that God said, 'Let there be light!', and there was light. John tells us that the 'Word', which is later explained to be Jesus, was involved in the creation. I do not know specifically how Jesus made light, but we know from these verses that Jesus was somehow involved and that God worked through him in creating all things, including the earth and light.

3. Quidance of the Holy Spirit

a. Explanation. Our final point is that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1st Corinthians 2:14) While we do believe that any person who earnestly seeks God will find Him, and that ordinary people can understand enough of Scripture to know how to come to Salvation and how to please God, there is a work of the Holy Spirit involved. For unbelievers, the Holy Spirit convicts of sin. For believers, the Holy Spirit helps us to understand Scripture and apply it to our lives.

b. Prayer. Many verses apply, but this simple statement from Psalm 119:18 is a good verse to pray as we begin to read Scripture. "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law."(Psalm 119:18) The Jews referred to God's word as the Law, and they also more specifically referred to the writings of Moses as the Law.


Written Assignment:

Does your church interpret Scripture properly?

How do you know this?

Reading Assignment:

Ryrie: Chapter 16 and "Rules of Interpretation" by Charles Hodge (following)

'Rules of Interpretation' by Charles Hodge (from his Systematic Theology)

If every man has the right, and is bound to read the Scriptures, and to judge for himself what they teach, he must have certain rules to guide him in the exercise of this privilege and duty.' These rules are not arbitrary. They are not imposed by human authority. They have no binding force which does not flow from their own intrinsic truth and propriety. They are few and simple.

1. The words of Scripture are to be taken in their plain historical sense. That is, they must be taken in the sense attached to them in the age and by the people to whom they were addressed. This only assumes that the sacred writers were honest, and meant to be understood.

2. If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture. If a passage admits of different interpretations, that only can be the true one which agrees with what the Bible teaches elsewhere on the same subject. If the Scriptures teach that the Son is the same in substance and equal in power and glory with the Father, then when the Son says, 'The Father is greater than I,' the superiority must be understood in a manner consistent with this equality. It must refer either to subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, or it must be official. A king's son may say, 'My father is greater than I,' although personally his father's equal. This rule of interpretation is sometimes called the analogy of Scripture, and sometimes the analogy of Faith. There is no material difference in the meaning of the two expressions.

3. The Scriptures are to be interpreted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which guidance is to be humbly and earnestly sought. The ground of this rule is twofold: First, the Spirit is promised as a guide and teacher. He was to come to lead the people of God into the knowledge of the truth. And secondly, the Scriptures teach that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."(1st Corinthians 2:14) The unrenewed mind is naturally blind to spiritual truth. His heart is in opposition to the things of God. Congeniality of mind is necessary to the proper apprehension of divine things. As only those who have a moral nature can discern moral truth, so those only who are spiritually minded can truly receive the things of the Spirit.

The fact that all the true people of God in every age and in every part of the Church, in the exercise of their private judgment, in accordance with the simple rules above stated, agree as to the meaning of Scripture in all things necessary either in faith or practice, is a decisive proof of the clarity of the Bible, and of the safety of allowing the people the enjoyment of the divine right of private judgment.


Key Verses:

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2nd Timothy 2:15)

"The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1st Corinthians 2:14)

"Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law."(Psalm 119:18)

Additional References:

"The words of Scripture are to be taken in their plain historical sense. That is, they must be taken in the sense attached to them in the age and by the people to whom they were addressed." ( Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology)

"The Scriptures are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture." ( Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology)


All Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV), (C)Copyright 1984 by the International Bible Society, used by permission.
Doctrine in Detail (C)Copyright 2002 by Ronald Miller, All Rights Reserved

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