“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” – [Philippians 2:12]
Ever had a youth pastor ask “What do you think about this Bible passage, class”? Did you ever sit through a Sunday School session where the teacher would ask “What’s your opinion of this passage?” the entire time? What was your answer? Did you know the answer? Better question. Did the teacher know the answer? Did he even study the passage prior to teaching it or was he just being “interactive”?
If someone asks you or me about a Scripture passage with the question “What do you think?”, our answer should be very simple. It doesn’t matter what we think. Our speculation and guessing is vain. We must ask “What does GOD say in His Word?” first, and then “How can we be certain we understand what He is saying in His Word, so that there aren’t multiple interpretations?”. A better approach would be to pull out the proper resources and began to dig down deep, after praying for the Holy Spirit to guide us. It’s okay to dig down deep right in the class too (perhaps even with a large video screen and online resources as I have done before), so that the class can see an example of how to “dig deep” in Bible study on those passages that are a bit more difficult to understand. They will appreciate your transparency in showing them not only how to study, but also how you got the answers.
This article delves into the certainty by which you can know what the Bible is saying. I will use color-coding. Each of the following necessary study helps will be appropriately color-coded with the same color as the text supporting that point.
- Know rules of interpretation
- Know rules, definitions, and etymology of language
- Understand the passage’s historical context and background
- Most importantly, allow the Spirit to teach me
Most people know that the way a people become enslaved is through apathy, ignorance, and a lack of understanding of history and principles of government. The same thing can be said of spiritual enslavement. The ignorance of the Medieval period is what made it possible for the Roman Catholic system to hold sway over people’s consciences and tell them what to think. Once the Bible was translated into the tongue of the common people, this spiritual enslavement ceased.
“Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.”
If clergy are out to control their congregation, they will avoid mentoring their flock in the above four exercises. Instead, they will tell them to just trust them with interpreting Scripture for them. I have known fundamentalist pastors who have told me to trust their interpretation and let them interpret the Word of GOD for me. I have also known a Catholic priest who told my grandparents the same thing when they were in the Catholic religious system before they left it. Isn’t this ironic?
How often have you heard a pastor who preaches an entire “sermon” from one verse of Scripture? Is it really possible to preach a whole sermon based upon one verse? Isn’t it difficult to avoid adding to Scripture when someone spends that long on one verse? And are our thoughts on that one verse really that valuable? And how long will it take them to cover the entire breadth of Scripture at that pace? Eighty years? Longer?
If you have the Holy Spirit, I trust you to interpret Scripture for yourself without my aid. All I need to do is to help you understand basic grammar and language rules, so let’s begin.
Eight basic rules of interpretation (also known as rules of hermeneutics) can be used with any document or literary work, just as judges in a court would do. Below they are listed. These were taught when I was in college and they are also listed in an article on interpretation at this website. This replaces subjectivity with objectivity.
1. The Rule of Definition – Define the terms or words of a Scriptural passage. What do the Hebrew or Greek words mean? What are their known definitions, history or etymology? What do dictionaries say about their origins linguistically, as well as historically?
2. The Rule of Usage – How are the Hebrew and Greek words in the verse used in other passages? Do not add meaning to established words and terms. What was the common usage in the culture and time period when the passage was written?
3. The Rule of Context – Avoid using words or phrases out of context. Context must define terms and how words are used. Study the context of a verse as it relates to the entire Book and also how it relates to the other sixty-five books of Scripture.
4. The Rule of Historical Background – Do not separate interpretation and historical investigation. Words have a history and this history allows us to understand the meaning of words. Since language tends to change over time, a word’s history must be known. The historical setting in which a passage was written is also important in understanding the context of the writing.
5. The Rule of Logic – Be certain that words, as interpreted, agree with the overall premise. Syllogisms may be used to ensure that the verses are carefully fragmented into logical parts, compared, and reconciled.
6. The Rule of Precedent – Use the known and commonly accepted meanings of words, not obscure meanings for which there is no precedent.
7. The Rule of Unity – The parts of Scripture being interpreted must be construed with reference to the significance of the whole. An interpretation must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
8. The Rule of Inference – An inference is a fact reasonably implied from another fact. As one fact emerges as a constant, further facts can be realized based upon these constants. It is a logical consequence. It derives a conclusion from a given fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition from another proposition. Satisfactory evidence which would ordinarily satisfy an unprejudiced mind beyond a reasonable doubt.
In addition to these simple rules, several processes can also be used in understanding literature (such as those taught by Henry A Virkler at this link in Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation,1981).
- Lexical-syntactical analysis: This step looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.
- Historical/cultural analysis: The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.
- Contextual analysis: A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.
- Theological analysis: It is often said that a single verse usually doesn’t make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poor interpretation.
- Special literary analysis: There are several special literary aspects to consider, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry may have figurative and allegorical language. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.
If your pastor fails to orally and visually teach these principles and rules of how to study the Word, then I would question whether he is qualified to be a pastor. According to Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy, a pastor must be able to teach, and one important aspect of teaching is that of showing disciples how to “feed themselves” from the Word.
You will also need a good lexicon which gives definitions of words. The Blue Letter Bible found online at this link is a great resource, since it links each word directly to the Lexicon definitions and study helps for each word. You should not accept the Lexicon’s definition as infallible, but they are a great first point of reference. You should also become aware of various tools for studying the etymology of words, since such words were chosen at different times in history. For example, here is a link to various Bible dictionaries. You can also view Scripture verses in various translations such a 1395 version of The Wycliffe Bible or a 1525 version of the Tyndale New Testament in the article at this link. The Blue Letter Bible has a plethora of other study tools as well.
You can also learn about the verb tenses and grammatical structure of the Greek New Testament by reading the article at this link. A succinct chart of Greek Grammar is found at this link. If you’re looking for Biblical language tools, you can find quite a bit at Teknia at this link and also at this link. You can also see a succinct view of Hebrew Grammar at this link. More information on Biblical Hebrew grammar can be found here and here and here and here. This link to a video library on Greek grammar may be helpful or this link to three videos on Greek grammar. Here’s a blog that may also help. This link to a video on Hebrew Grammar may also be helpful. It contains the first of numerous videos on Biblical Hebrew. You can find the rest by simply typing “Basics of Biblical Hebrew Video Lectures, Chapter” into the search engine for YouTube.
To understand the background of various Biblical books, you should study the historical background of each book, as well as the history of religion. Some helpful resources in this endeavor include books which are found for free online such as John Clarke Ridpath’s “History of the World” in nine volumes found at this link, Internet Sacred Text Archives, which include history and religious writings from all over the world, at this link, Alexander Hislop’s “The Two Babylons”, replete with an enormous amount of information taken from one of the most extensive and ancient bibliographies of any historical book of the past century, and located at this link, or the historical volumes of Edersheim or Josephus at this link. A history by Sir Walter Raleigh can be found at this link and a host of other tools can be found at this link.
Finally, the Holy Spirit is the essential key to thoroughly and properly understand the Bible, allowing children to comprehend more of His Truth than even many intellectual doctors of theology around the world. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the key to our salvation and also the key to our understanding of Scripture.
“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” – [Luke 11:13]
“In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.” – [Luke 10:21]
“Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” – [1 Corinthians 2:13-14]
“But the anointing which ye have received of him abides in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” – [1 John 2:27]
“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” – [John 16:13]
Bible memorization and meditation upon the Word of GOD are also great Biblical practices, so here’s a link to a site which is helpful in these practices. You can also use these audio copies of the Bible for your family devotions and other purposes. They can also be downloaded as MP3 files to your computer or cell phone or smart phone for free by going to this link for the New Testament and to this link for the Old Testament.