Scripture Study and Explanation

Four Steps in Scripture Study and Explanation

  1. Exegesis: What does the text say?  A procedure is practiced on the text.
  2. Hermeneutics: What does the text mean?  Principles of interpretation are applied to the text.
  3. Theology: What truths are taught in the text?  The theological points of the passage are summarized.
  4. Homiletics: How do we apply the text?  The truth of the passage is presented with appropriate practical application.

It can be very tempting to skip the first three steps.  Some Scriptural explanations begin with statements such as, “What this passage means to me is…”  Skipping to the fourth step too quickly is Bible butchery.  

Plainly Understood

Daniel Webster said: “I believe that the Bible is understood and received in the plain obvious meaning of its passages, since I cannot persuade myself that a book that is intended for the instruction and conversion of the whole world should cover its meaning in any such mystery and doubt that none but critics and philosophers discover it.”

A Bible Study Method

It has been a blessing for me to teach a Biblical interpretation class here at Elnora Bible Institute.  The basic method of Bible study that I teach involves three steps: 1) Observation; 2) Interpretation; and 3) Application.

Psalm 119, a lengthy poem written in praise of God’s Word, mentions those three aspects of Bible study.

We must ask for God’s help in observing Scripture: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18, ESV)

We must ask for God’s help in interpreting Scripture: “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!” (Psalm 119:12, ESV)

We must ask for God’s help in applying Scripture: “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” (Psalm 119:5, ESV)


Two Approaches to Scripture

In my understanding, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture developed particularly in the early church. Early Christians such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen recognized (correctly) that the New Testament considered the Old Testament to be a foreshadowing of the person and work of Jesus Christ. They therefore desired to find Christ in the Old Testament. Their intentions appear to be sincere, although their methods are somewhat questionable. In their efforts to find Christ, they at times developed novel interpretations of parts of the Old Testament. At that time, allegorical interpretation was an accepted principle to apply to Greek sacred literature, and that helps us understand why at least some of the early Christians accepted such a practice in regard to their sacred literature.

The work of Origen is particularly important in understanding the allegorical approach to Scripture. In his view, the Bible contains hidden secrets. He also thought that Scripture should be interpreted according to its nature. He did not think that every passage has a literal meaning, but he did think that every passage has a spiritual meaning. His approach to Scripture was often a quest to determine its spiritual meaning. An example of that approach in action can be seen in Augustine’s understanding of the door of Noah’s ark being the wound in Christ’s side. That interpretation is not found in the original account or in the New Testament, and yet Augustine was led to that spiritual conclusion. My position on allegorical interpretation is that we should be quite cautious in employing this technique. Unless a passage is clearly given an allegorical interpretation in its original context or elsewhere in Scripture, I think we have no warrant to interpret it allegorically.

The grammatical-historical-theological hermeneutic adopts a completely different approach to interpretation than the allegorical method. As I understand it, the goal of this hermeneutic is not to uncover the spiritual meaning, but rather the goal is to recover the author’s original meaning, whether or not that meaning could be considered spiritual. The grammatical aspect of this approach acknowledges that words and phrases have meaning. For that reason, the meaning of individual words must be understood. Additionally, the grammatical construction of the words must be evaluated. The author communicates through his choice of words, and it is worth studying the individual words that he uses. Grammar can also carry meaning. For example, word order can be used to convey emphasis. Special forms of grammar, such as figures of speech and idioms, must also be understood by the reader if he is to understand the original meaning of the text.

The grammatical aspect of interpretation also extends to the literary context and the genre of the passage. It must be considered how an individual passage relates to the rest of the book in which it is found, and even to the Bible as a whole. Genre is of significance because different genres are to be interpreted differently. For example, it should be obvious that history and predictive prophecy are not to be read the same way. The historical aspect of this approach considers the original culture of the passage. Closely related to that is the historical context. The interpreter asks questions such as, “What was going on in world history or Biblical history at the time this passage was written? What elements of the culture at that time will help me more fully understand this passage?”

In the theological aspect of biblical interpretation, we are called to faithfully move from what the text meant to what it means today. We must consider how the text transcends the original setting. For example, the prophecies of the Old Testament may have found fulfillment in Christ. If we miss that fulfillment, we will not correctly understand the passage. The Bible must be understood as a theological unity. The overarching theme of the Bible is the redemptive work of Christ, and if that is not acknowledged then the story of Scripture will be misunderstood. God’s plan of redemption is initially revealed in Genesis 3, and the remainder of Scripture unfolds the development of that plan. Each passage of Scripture must be understood in light of where it stands in redemptive history.

I consider the grammatical-historical-theological hermeneutic to be a much safer approach to biblical interpretation than the allegorical method. If a passage is to be interpreted correctly, the grammar, history, and theology of the text should all be thoughtfully considered. My view is that each portion of the Bible should be given its most natural reading. The most natural reading may be literal, metaphorical, or some other option. Ultimately, the Bible can only be rightly understood by those who are directed by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will aid those who are truly seeking to understand his Word rightly.

Presuppositions and Interpretation

What is the role of presuppositions in Biblical interpretation?  It is important to begin by defining a critical term that I will be using. When I speak of our presuppositions, I am referring to our basic worldview. Our worldview is our built-in perception of the world. Our worldview determines what we consider to be right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable…the list could go on. Presuppositions impact how we understand everything we encounter, and that includes how we understand the Bible. It is imperative that we recognize that each one of us has presuppositions, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to think well about both what they are and how sound they are.

Your goal in reading the Bible will have a direct bearing on your interpretation of the Bible. I assert that we should seek to be guided by what the Bible says about itself. As a Christian, I approach Biblical interpretation with presuppositions about truth, about language, and about the unity of the Bible.

My presupposition concerning truth is that there is absolute truth that exists outside of and beyond us. I affirm that God is the source of all truth. It is important to remember that each of us does have an ultimate standard of truth. For some of you it is God, for some of you it is science, for some of you it is yourselves. My starting point is God. Biblical interpretation can only be done well when it is recognized that it is through Scripture that God has chosen to reveal to us his truth.

If you are going to be able to understand the Bible correctly, you must at least recognize what it says about itself. The evangelical Christian understanding of the self-authentication of the Bible affirms that the Bible carries within itself a claim to its own truthfulness. The Bible does not need additional authentication because it carries sufficient epistemological validation for its own claims. There can be no other ground to accept the truthfulness of the Bible than God’s testimony about the nature of the Bible. That is a significant point in this discussion because if a person rejects what the Bible says about itself, there is no reason for them to accept what the Bible says about anything else. And if there is no reason to accept what the Bible says about anything, why are you interpreting it?

As concerns my presuppositions about language, I believe that language has meaning. In today’s world it must be asserted that language truly does mean something. With that in mind, the words of the Bible must drive us to our conclusions in the process of interpretation. I also approach Scripture with the presupposition that its language is inspired. The Biblical doctrine of inspiration is grounded in 2 Timothy 3:16. According to that passage, Scripture is “God-breathed.” When Scripture is said to be inspired, the claim is that the entirety of the Scriptures are the very words of God. What Scripture says, God says.

Following from the idea of inspiration is the authority of the Bible. God is the ultimate authority behind the Bible. The Bible did not lose any authority in the process of being written; the written Bible possesses equal authority to anything God would say right now. It is also my conviction that the Bible is infallible (not able to be wrong) and inerrant (without error). God used language to communicate to mankind and the language of the Bible is to be regarded as true.

The presupposition of the unity of the Bible guides my interpretation because it helps me to stay focused on the overarching story of the whole Bible. The Bible has a coherent unity – the major storyline must be grasped if the individual details are to be understood. I affirm the Christ-centered historical redemptive unity of the Bible. That means that the point of the Bible is to tell the story of God’s saving work as ultimately accomplished through Jesus Christ. Every detail of the Bible is somehow connected to that theme. The Biblical writers themselves understood the Bible from within that framework.

Presuppositions are an integral part of all approaches to Scripture. The presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism have both proven to be hostile to the Bible. Presuppositions matter because ideas have consequences, and the presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism have had significant consequences. In modernism, human reason was elevated to the position of being the supreme standard of truth. As a result, less of the Bible was considered to be truth, with miracles in particular being quickly discarded.

In postmodernism, the presupposition of pluralism was advanced. According to pluralism, there is not a single truth, but rather many truths. Pluralism is not an absolute denial of truth, but it is a denial of absolute truth. In pluralism there is a suspicion of any claim to absolute truth. The result of that presupposition was that the interpretation of the Bible became relative. Each person’s understanding of the Bible became equally valid.

I challenge us to consider our presuppositions. To those of you who say that there is no truth, I ask you how you know that is true. If language does not have meaning, I ask you why you bother to use words. The historic Christian approach to the Bible has affirmed that there is truth, that it can be known through the language of the Bible, and that the Bible can only be properly understood from the perspective of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

How to Understand the Bible

In this quote from John Wycliffe (1328-1384), he emphasizes the importance of considering the historical and literary context of Scripture.  He recognized the importance of using the whole Bible to interpret the Bible.  I have preserved the original vocabulary of this statement.

It shall greatly help ye to understande Scripture,
If thou mark
Not only what is spoken or wrytten,
But of whom,
And to whom,
With what words,
At what time,
To what intent,
With what circumstances,
Considering what goeth before
And what followeth. 

A Bible Study Process

Summarized from Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks

Three Steps in Bible Study

  1. Observation: What do I see? Read the text carefully and repeatedly.  Look for terms, structure, literary form, and atmosphere.
  2. Interpretation: What does it mean? Bombard the text with questions and be prepared to work to find answers.  As you discover answers, work to integrate your answers into a meaningful whole.  Take the passage apart to inspect the little details and then put it back together.
  3. Application: How does it work? Consider how the text applies to your life before you apply it to the lives of other people.  Preach the passage to yourself first.

Sample Questions to Ask

  1. Who? Who are the people in the text?  What is said about them?  What do they say?
  2. What? What is happening?  What is the author trying to communicate?  What is wrong?  What is right?  What is emphasized, repeated, related, alike, unlike, or true to life?
  3. Where? Where is this story happening?  Are they traveling to or from somewhere?  Where was the author?  Where was the audience?
  4. When? When did these things happen?  How does this account fit into the timeline of Biblical history?  When did the author write this?
  5. Why? Why was this passage written?  Why does this person do that or say that?  Why did the author use this word?  Why does this passage follow or precede what it does?  There is no end to “Why” questions.
  6. Wherefore? So what?  What difference should the truth of this passage make in my life?