Bible Interpretation 101

It is so bewildering that so many people misuse and misquote Scripture! When reading an ordinary textbook, a science book, a novel or some other book, people would somehow generally agree with what that particular book means. But when it comes to the Bible, a lot of confusion is usually generated and a lot of people claim that only they — or their denomination — have the correct interpretation of Scripture and all the others are wrong. Surely, God is not the author of confusion!

Pretext — Text without Context

bible300“A text without context is pretext” so I’ve heard and I agree. This is a good reminder that if someone quotes Scripture without considering its surrounding context, then that quoted part of Scripture must have been quoted in pretext. This means that the quoted Scripture is being misused without really understanding the surrounding background behind the passage. Oftentimes, a part of Scripture is quoted with an already-formed conclusion in mind. The Scripture is only used to support a preconceived idea and it’s not really what that part of Scripture is really saying. This is called proof texting.

The Surrounding Context

One of the most important lessons — a basic lesson for students of Bible interpretation — is the matter of considering the surrounding context of that part of Scripture which is being quoted. It is a must — if we are to accurately interpret Scripture — not to lift Scripture out of its surrounding context. Let me discuss two points here: 1) the immediate context and, 2) the larger context.

Proper Interpretation — Common Sense

According to the book, “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” by Fee & Stuart, a good interpretation is one that makes good sense—common sense — of the text quoted. It normally doesn’t need to be explained by other books of the Bible. It makes good sense right within its immediate context and larger context.

Immediate Context

Immediate context means that we have to check and consider one or two verses before the quoted text and also consider one or two verses after the quoted text to find out what is being talked about. In other words, check the verses immediately before and after the cited part of Scripture. Check its immediate background — immediate context. It should make good sense — common sense — to the text, within its immediate context. Oftentimes, the immediate context will help clarify the verse under discussion and there is no need to quote other books of Scripture to help explain the verse. The immediate context explains itself. It should fit. It should make sense.

The Larger Context

Reading the larger context will also help us greatly in our understanding of the text under discussion. This means that aside from checking the verses before and the verses after the text in question (immediate context), we also need to go backwards several chapters and forward several chapters to get the larger context. We can broaden our search for understanding by reading the whole book if need be. That’s the larger context. And then, go to other books of the Bible related to the topic under discussion if need be.

Don’t just interpret Scripture with just one verse without considering its immediate and larger contexts. This will help us become more accurate in our understanding and interpretation of Scripture. If we interpret Scripture by placing our own preconceived ideas into it, that is being dishonest and is called eisegesis. We should allow Scripture to speak for itself based on its own context (exegesis) — not our own.

Other Contexts — Background Check

Of course, we also need to check its literary context, historical context, cultural context, grammatical context and all other relevant background checks (like who the author of the book is, why did he write the book, who is the audience being addressed by the book or letter, when was it written, etc.) to arrive at a much better appreciation and interpretation of Scripture.

Read Through the Books

Do not just rely on the interpretations of your pastor, your denomination or from others. Read the Bible yourself. Just read through the books. And as you read through, here’s an important reminder: there were no chapters and verses in the manuscripts of the Bible. The numbering system in the Bible was made by a monk during the early centuries to make it easy for us to use the Bible and that’s good. But it can also confuse us if we’re not aware of this information.

The important point is, just read through the books. It will help and give you a better grasp and understanding of Scripture rather than just reading scattered and unrelated verses here and there. Just read through, get the context and enjoy it! It’s fun!

No Verses & Chapters in Original

In the King James version of 1611 for example, there is no paragraphing and it can be confusing at times to get the main thought — context. In the New International Version on the other hand, there is paragraphing. It can be helpful but sometimes, because of where the paragraphs and chapters begin and end, it may convey a different meaning to the reader.

Get Main Thoughts and Ideas

Therefore, try to figure out where it makes good sense of the text. Make it a habit to read through the books of the Bible and get the main thoughts and ideas. Use common sense where chapters and paragraphs should begin and end. Just read through the books and you’ll be surprised! And don’t be afraid to consult Bible scholars and all available helps. They can help greatly too.

Who is Jesus Christ?

And lastly — this actually should be the first step — and most importantly, I have learned that in order to properly interpret Scripture, we need to consider the truth about who Jesus Christ is. We need to learn the truth about who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. This should be our guiding principle in biblical interpretation. Jesus Christ should be our basis and our criterion. We need to consider “the whole counsel of God” if we are to interpret the Bible properly. Another way of saying it is, Jesus Christ should be our “lens” in interpreting Scripture. This truth should guide our interpretation of Scripture. This is how we should interpret the Bible.

May the Lord guide you into all truth (John 16:13).

Suggested Reading:

Do You Know How to Read the Bible?

howtoreadOne book that has really helped me to read the Bible better is the book, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth ” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. I first heard about this book sometime in 1994 where some excerpts of it were quoted during a lecture conducted by Greg Albrecht on Hermeneutics. It was my first time to hear that word. Previous to this, I never knew that there was such a word as “Hermeneutics” (the study of biblical interpretation). It was to me, a strange sounding word—somewhat for the scholarly, I thought. I really thought that I was doing alright with just accepting the interpretations given to me by my pastors. Because after all, their interpretations were based on the Bible, so I thought.

Major Doctrinal Changes

Things changed when my denomination, the Worldwide Church of God (now called Grace Communion International), changed its doctrines from the shackles of legalism to freedom in Christ which I now enjoy by God’s grace! As one of its pastors, we were encouraged to “go back to school.” So I did—at around age 43! I was challenged to find out what was the truth—back again! For 23 years, I believed and preached what I have believed to be true only to be told after more than two decades that we were wrong after all! It was so devastating—to say the least. So I was challenged to study what Biblical interpretation was all about. I thought I already knew!

Second Encounter with Book

When I entered the Asian Theological Seminary during the summer class of 1996 to take up Hermeneutics, I was pleasantly surprised that one of our suggested reading and textbook was the same book by Fee & Stuart, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” It has really helped me in how I should read and interpret the Bible. I also have another book from Fee & Stuart entitled, “How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour.” Go and find these books. It will help you greatly for sure.

Learn Biblical Interpretation

Don’t just accept what your pastor is teaching you. Check it out for yourself. And while you’re at it, teach yourself some tools on Biblical interpretation. It will go a long way to avoid misinterpreting the Bible and coming out with our own, personal ideas which may be foreign to the Bible. I highly recommend these books.

Suggested Videos and Book Review