As you read/ study the Scriptures today, I pray that you will “rightly divide the word.”
Here are 5 principles of sound biblical interpretation to help you at your task:
1. The Literal Principle: This does not refer to a slavish, rigid literalism. Literal interpretation means we understand Scripture in its normal sense, including figures of speech like parables, hyperbole, simile, metaphor, and symbolism.
Scripture is to be read naturally; the words of Scriptures are to be interpreted the same way words are understood in ordinary daily use (ε.g. Jesus told Peter to “put away your sword”. We can safely conclude that he wasn’t telling Peter to put away his “bible” :D). God has communicated his Word to us through human language, and there is every reason to assume he has done it in the most obvious and simple fashion possible. His words are to be understood just as we would interpret the language of normal discourse. The first thing the careful interpreter looks for is the literal meaning, not some mystical, deeper, hidden, secret, or spiritualized interpretation.
2. The Historical Principle: One of the crucial steps in understanding what a text means is to have some grasp of the cultural, geographical, and political setting in which the passage was written. If it is an epistle to one of the churches, what were the characteristics of the city in which those believers lived? What were the political and cultural conditions at the time? Who was ruling where? What social pressures were involved and to what degree? What were the tensions, problems, and crises of the community? What was the culture of the day really like? What were the customs of the people?
3. The Grammatical Principle: Often the syntactical construction of a passage is the key to its meaning.
Grammar may not be our favorite subject, but we need to grasp the basics when interpreting the language the language of Scripture. We have to follow the sequence of the words and phrases to know precisely what the word of God says. An accurate understanding of the passage may depend on it.
Learn to do inductive Bible study by breaking down the English verses into phrases, showing nouns, verbs, modifiers, and other parts of speech to see their meaning more clearly.
4. The Synthesis Principle: Scripture interprets Scripture. Obscure passages in Scripture must be understood in the light of clearer ones. If the Bible is God’s Word, it must be consistent with itself. No part of the Bible can contradict any other part. The synthesis principle puts Scripture together with Scripture to arrive at a clear, consistent meaning. If we hold to an interpretation of one passage that does not square with something in another passage, one of the passages is being interpreted incorrectly- or possibly both.
5. The Practical Principle: The final question we should ask is “So what”? What does all this have to do with me?
2Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
Teaching is the basic divine truth, the principle that any passage teaches. It encompasses the principles we live by.
Reproof is how Scripture unmasks our sin, reveals hidden guilt, and drives the skeletons out of our closets into broad daylight.
Correction involves turning away from the sin we were reproved for.
Training in Righteousness is the laying out of the new, righteous path in response to true doctrine.
One Thing More is Needful:
As valuable as the 5 principles of interpretation are, the are useless without the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
In 1Corinthians 2:12-14 Paul said,
“12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”
Paul was describing the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination. Anyone can hear the facts, study other people’s teachings, and gain something of an intellectual understanding about the meaning of Scripture. But apart from the Holy Spirit, the Bible will utterly fail to penetrate the and transform the human heart. With the Spirit of God comes illumination- true understanding of what has been written.
However, the Holy Spirit’s illuminating ministry cannot replace conscientious study. They work together. Appealing to Scripture apart from complete dependence on the Holy Spirit is presumption; and to expect the Holy Spirit to teach us apart from Scripture is “sub-Christian fanaticism”
Olamide B. Falase