The "science" of interpreting the Bible correctly is known as hermeneutics. Correct Bible interpretation should answer the question, “How do I understand what this particular passage means?” Due to the fact that there are rules governing proper hermeneutics, it is called a science, and because knowing the rules is not enough, hermeneutics is also an art.
How to interpret the Bible should not be treated as a minor issue. In fact, proper interpretation of the Bible is one of the battlegrounds for our souls. Satan would rather us not study the Bible at all, but he also uses tools of deception to cause people to draw wrong interpretations of the scriptures which in turn result in people following after a counterfeit gospel, a counterfeit Jesus, and a counterfeit Holy Ghost (2 Cor. 11:4). A false system of interpretation can bring a person into bondage to false teaching, whereas proper understanding of God’s Word sets one free. Through the study of scripture, we learn who Jesus is and how to become more like Him. Knowing God’s Word and obeying it are the foundations of living a godly life, and a godly life produces the further desire to study God’s Word. When the Bible is studied and interpreted properly, it takes you from study to applying it in your life, back to study, and on to further application in a mounting spiral toward God. Satan attempts to take away our desire to study the Bible because he knows that in doing so, he removes the basis for our spiritual growth.
Here are some basic principles at the heart of sound Biblical interpretation, and I hope you find them useful in your private or group study of God’s inspired, written Word:
1. Prayer – Because the Bible is a divinely inspired Book, and because of our limitations as fallen human beings, prayer is an absolute essential in studying the Bible. The apostles Paul tells us at 1Cor. 2:14-3:3 that the unsaved and the spiritually immature Christian are limited in their ability to know spiritual things, therefore we must bridge the gap that separates us from understanding spiritual things by having the Holy Ghost teach us (Jn. 14:26; 16:13), thus we ought to pray that the Holy Ghost will open our spiritual understanding so that we can rightly divide the Word of truth. Without this illumination from the Holy Ghost we cannot learn. This need for spiritual insight was the concept the apostle Paul was referring to when he told Timothy to “to reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2Tim. 2:7 NIV).
2. Common sense – Not only is the Bible a divinely inspired Book, but it is also a human Book, penned by human authors who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and as such, it must be interpreted the same way any other human book is interpreted – using common sense. For example, the grammatical-historical method of studying the Bible instructs us to look at the passage carefully to see what it says literally, and to understand a biblical statement in light of its historical background. This means we understand a historical statement as a straightforward statement and do not change its literal, grammatical sense. We take God’s word at its Word and don’t try to spiritualize it to mean something way out there. The Bible is to be interpreted literally except where the language is clearly symbolic, then we are to look for the literal truth conveyed by the symbolic language used. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of “cosmic interpretations” of scripture that go beyond absurdity at the hands of Christians who do not understand how to interpret the scriptures.
3. Ask The Right Questions - We can interpret the Bible correctly when we learn to ask the right questions of the text. The problem with correct interpretation is that many people do not know what the right questions are, or they are too lazy to learn. Here are some questions to ask when interpreting a verse of scripture:
1. Who wrote/spoke the passage and to whom was it addressed? 2. What does the passage say? 3. Are there any words or phrases in the passage that need to be examined? 4. What is the immediate context? 5. What is the broader context in the chapter and book? 6. What are the related verses to the passage’s subject and how do they affect the understanding of this passage? 7. What is the historical and cultural background? 8. What do I conclude about the passage? 9. Do my conclusions agree or disagree with related areas of scripture and others who have studied the passage? 10. What have I learned and what must I apply to my life?
4. Context - Context is the primary rule of Biblical interpretation, and I cannot emphasize this enough. If we were to allow a verse to speak for itself within the context of the paragraph, chapter, or Book, the majority of errors in interpretation could and would be avoided, but the problem is our bias or subjectivity. We often approach a passage thinking we already understand it, and in the process we read our own meaning into the passage. This is known as eisegesis. We need to let a passage be defined by what it and the surrounding verses say, and in doing so, we have taken a large step toward proper Biblical interpretation.
5. Two-step Process - Interpreting the Bible correctly is essentially a two-step process. We must first discover what the passage meant in the day of the author, then we must discover its message for us in today’s culture. Why is this important? Firstly, the Bible was not actually written directly to us, and it makes good sense to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience if we are to properly understand its message, and secondly, these two steps force us to understand the meaning of the passage before we apply it to our lives, and thirdly, these two steps separate us from the text, thereby helping to prevent eisogesis, since it separates what the text says from how it effects us today.
Here are eight basic rules to help you interpret the Bible correctly. Jot them down in your Bible study notebook or in the flyleaf of your Bible so you can have them handy. Memorize them if possible:
1. Rule of Definition. Define the term or words being considered and then adhere to the defined meanings.
2. Rule of Usage. Don’t add meaning to established words and terms. What was the common usage in the cultural and time period when the passage was written? Cults and false teachers often redefine words and terms to make them appear to support their erroneous views.
3. Rule of Context. Avoid using words out of context. Context must define terms and how words are used. Cults and false teachers take scripture out of context and force them to appear to support their false teaching. By isolating a scripture from its context, one can make the Bible appear to say anything, but such is dishonest handling of God’s Word.
4. Rule of Historical background. Don’t separate interpretation and historical investigation. The historic setting of the verse/context helps in understanding why the verse says what it does.
5. Rule of Logic. Be certain that words as interpreted agree with the overall premise. In other words - common sense.
6. Rule of Precedent. Use the known and commonly accepted meanings of words, not obscure meanings for which there is no precedent.
7. Rule of Unity. All scriptures on a given topic must be considered together in order to properly arrive at what the Bible is actually saying about a given topic.
8. Rule of Inference. Base conclusions on what is already known and proven or can be reasonably implied from all known facts from the historic background, and the context, as well as the meaning if words or terms used in scrtipture.
Using these rules will keep you free from cultism and false teachings. Most false teaching is the result of violating one or more of these universal rules of interpretation.”
Sources: Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986 ed, pp. 161-166
Rightly Dividing The Word of Truth, by C. I. Scofield, 2007 electronic edition, WordSearch 7