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Biblical Hermeneutics

Rick Sutcliffe
for AFBC Bible Class Fall 2003 - Spring 2004

One frequently encounters the objection: "People interpret the Bible differently. How do I know that what you say it means is correct?"

Hermeneutics refers to one's system of interpreting the meaning of the Bible. As with all other doctrine, indeed all aspects of religious belief and practice, there are essentially only two approaches. One can employ human methods, according to the current fads of scholarship, or one can derive the interpretive principles directly from the Scriptures themselves. The former approach produces many interpretations; the latter is remarkably consistent. In this article the basic assumption is that the Bible is God's word, and that it tells us clearly how it is to be interpreted.


1. The Bible is the Word of God

It is not of human origin, and therefore is not subject to judgement by human authority, tradition or theories about its origin, genres, literary or other style or contents (including its history, anthropology, and science). Rather it stands in judgement on all such. Specifically this in turn means that:

God is its source

The scriptures are his revelation; they are not just a record of or a witness to his revelation. 2Ti 3:16 Note that while there may have been other special revelations to various prophets and apostles, these have not been preserved for us. Thus, the scriptures are today the entire revelation by God; there is no other.

The contents and the authority of the scriptures derive from God, and not from human sources or from human encounters, experiences, or interactions with the text.

It was written under inspiration of the Holy Spirit

Whether we know the exact mechanism for this is unimportant, but it cannot be reduced to human intuition or the result of an altered state of consciousness, or the "higher awareness" that some religions proclaim.

Although the personality and style of each human writer was employed distinctively by the Holy Spirit in this process, the origin of the words lies with God, and not with the human scribes who recorded those words. 2Pe 1:20

The finiteness, and the fallenness of the human writers did not introduce any error in what they wrote.

When the Holy Spirit interprets his word to the church or to individual believers, he does so faithfully and accurately, and does not introduce new or inconsistent revelation in so doing.

It is supremely authoritative

Its prescriptions and proscriptions are intended by God to be followed. They are binding on all human beings. They cannot be varied or set aside by anyone but God. e.g. Marriage is neither a church institution or a governmental one, but was directly established by God shortly after creation as the permanent joining of one man and one woman.

Any government, church body, school, group of scholars, officials or leaders, and all church tradition and practice is subject to scriptural authority, or, to put it another way, has a lesser authority than the scriptures. That is, the scriptures cannot be overruled by any human authority, whether governmental, ecclesiastical, literary, theological, scholarly, or scientific. This includes claims to be speaking out of a revelation by God.

Its authority and that of Christ are one

In passages such as Matt. 5:17-18, Luke 24:44 and John 10:34-35 Jesus upheld the authority of the Old Testament. He also promised such authority for what he was saying as the new in John 14:16; 16:13 (the Holy Spirit) and Mark 13:31. Consequence: One cannot therefore deny the authority of the written word without also denying Christ.

2. The Bible is complete

It contains God's whole revelation, not a part of it or a summary of it, or a human description of it. This in turn means that:

There are no other authoritative revelations from God

Human experiences, for instance, may contextualize the message for a particular individual, but cannot be equated with revelation. Re 22:18. It is difficult to gainsay "God said to me", but if the alleged revelation is not in some manner authenticated, it ought to be ignored, and if it in any way claims to supplant or add to the scriptures, it should be regarded as false teaching from a false spirit. Jer 31:31-34, John 14: 26, Rom 8:16, 1John4:1, Gal 1:6-8

Books not authenticated to the church by the Holy Spirit as divinely inspired are not part of the revelation and cannot be given equivalent authority. This applies to proposed additions (Apocrypha) to the Old Testament that were not considered authentic by the Jews of Christ's day (a reasonable cut-off for acceptance into that canon, as it makes no point to add to what is fulfilled) and to proposed additions to the New Testament that cannot be authenticated as deriving from personal Apostolic authority (Gnostic and other "gospels").

There is no inherited Apostolic authority

Following the death of the last of Christ's chosen apostles, no person or organization could claim to be able to transmit his words from first hand experience, and therefore the canon of scripture must be regarded as closed.

The Scriptures are our (only) source for doctrine

See 1 Cor 15:3-4. The death burial and resurrection of Christ, on which the whole of the Christian faith depend took place according to prophecy found in the scriptures and are recorded to authenticate our faith in those same scriptures. There is no other way to know the truth of this essential doctrine.

Doctrines that come from elsewhere either cannot be relied on or are false. The criterion for true teaching is whether it agrees with the scriptures or not. 2Co 11:4, Ga 1:8-9, 1Th 2:3-4.

No other source of doctrine, correct moral behaviour, or church practice, however useful, can be relied on as authoritative, binding, or even correct.

(i) This includes doctrinal statements and summaries, church covenants, creeds, commentaries, pronouncements of church leaders, statements from church conventions or councils, and the collected wisdom of theologians. All such human wisdom is valuable if it throws light upon the scriptures and reinforces their teaching. But when it claims to supplant scriptural authority it is from a false spirit. Such claims must be ignored. Thus, for instance the so-called "Apostles' Creed" does not have the same authority as scripture, even though it is a useful summary of basic doctrine.

(ii) Tradition, which embodies the human wisdom or practice of the past may or may not be valid. On the one hand, it ought not to be ignored, because the Holy Spirit was presumably active in ages past as much as today. On the other hand, tradition is useful only as it explains and applies scripture, not as an addition or substitution for it. Thus, it is reasonable to give assent to the church tradition of meeting every Lord's Day to celebrate communion, for instance, so long as one realizes it is a religious practice, not a doctrine nor a legally binding requirement of scripture. [On the other hand, though the law of the Sabbath was fulfilled and is not renewed in the New Testament, the principle of one day of rest among seven was never cancelled.] However, it is not reasonable to create a doctrine of dulia (veneration) for departed saints, or to ask them for favours, as this rests on church authority, and has no scriptural foundation. Ditto the invention of holy days, purgatory, indulgences, or ecclesiastical offices other than deacons and elders.

(iii) Again, personal experience is also filtered through a fallen life and mind, and the interpretation of it must be handled with much care. Where it reinforces the scriptures it is valuable. Where it claims to supplant or replace the scriptures, the interpretation of experience is, simply, wrong. A claim that an experience replacing or adding to scripture is from God is therefore either mistaken or a lie. The experience may well be real, its interpretation is wrong.

(iv) The Church's own authority is also less than the scriptures. The correct interpretation of Matt 16:18 (per the actual words used) is that the rock on which Jesus would build the church was himself and/or Peter's statement of faith in him, not the fallible, and impetuous Peter. The keys to the kingdom given to him are given to every believer. There is no other entry to the kingdom, no other door than Christ, so the keys to that door for they are faith in and obedience to the gospel of Christ. Finally, the correct interpretation of John 20:23 is not that the church as an organization can forgive or refuse to forgive in its own authority, but that in the Holy Spirit, believers can proclaim that a person's sins are either forgiven in Christ, or will be judged by him. After all Luke 6:37 clearly tells us that we must not judge in the sense of condemn. Finally, the passage in Matt 18:18 I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven is in the contest of agreements among Christians to govern and settle disputes, and is addressed to all Christians, not to an authoritative organization among them.

3. The Bible is accurate in all it says

Ps 33:4 This applies to all its contents, including the passages touching on history, science, anthropology, cosmology, psychology, and every other discipline. It judges the validity of disciplinary theories and the accuracy of their conclusions, not the other way around.

In the original documents it was without error of any kind

The human writers were not given omniscience, supernatural powers, or infallibility. Rather, the characteristics of God ensured that as his Holy Spirit inspired the words in the minds and hands of the human writers, they were true and accurate in every respect. To believe otherwise is to ascribe lack of knowledge, error, or deceipt to God.

Copying mistakes in later years did not change the sense of the scriptures

It is easy to observe that no doctrine taught by the Bible stands or falls on the effects of minor textual difficulties or disagreements among copies. Nothing of what it teaches hinges on irregularities of grammar or spelling. To believe otherwise is to ascribe to God the inability to preserve his word to later generations.

The Bible cannot itself mislead us

If different people claim opposite interpretations of a passage it is not the fault of the passage.

If scripture does not agree with the results found by applying scientific and historical methods to the events and issues it describes, the fault is either with the external methods, interpretations, and conclusions or with the interpretation of the passage, not with the accuracy of the Scriptures.

No human theories about literature, history or science can be used to overturn what the Bible teaches about those things.

Unresolved alleged errors or inaccuracies do not mean there are in fact errors.

Violations of modern literary and scientific conventions are not errors

Because the Bible was written for people, not specifically to modern scholars, it does not have formal references, footnotes, scientific or technical language, nor follow other modern scholarly conventions. This does not reduce its accuracy, nor can the lack of these modern human conventions judge its contents.

Belief in inerrancy is, however not a doctrine required for salvation.

However, denial of this doctrine is a denial of scripture and therefore of God, its author. It is therefore a sin that requires repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.


1. The Bible indicates the creation was about 4000BC. While it is possible that some genealogical generations have been omitted and this could be extended slightly, study of the way the genealogies are phrased indicates this date must be fairly close. Much older dates obtained by interpreting data gathered by other methods and interpreted by fallen minds are wrong. The Bible's history of first things is correct. It is worth observing that for any age of the earth one's religious or scholarly dogma may demand, there exists a "scientific" method that will yield that age, including the Bible's ~6000 year figure.

2. The Bible says that creation took six days, and it defines those days carefully in literal terms. There is no reasonable way to interpret the passage to mean longer periods of time, nor to introduce lengthy gaps between the days. The Bible's cosmology is correct.

3. The Bible tells us in Genesis 1:31 that the initial creation was very good. Consequently,we must conclude at this point there had been no death (nor diseases such as cancer). Rom 5:12 explains that death entered the world because of sin. Apparently the animals sacrificed to make coats of skin for Adam and Eve after their sin were the first ones to die (apparently, and in the light of later requirements they died as substitutionary sacrifices, though this is not made explicit). Adam and Eve began to die that very day, though they did not actually do so until many years later. Claims that death existed before the first humans are therefore heretical. [One could perhaps argue that plant material, not having the breath of life in it, is exempt, and could have decayed. This is probably moot, however, as Adam and Eve appear not to have spent enough time in the garden for this to be observable.] The Bible's palaeontology and geology are correct.

4. The Bible tells us that God created the first man separately from the animals, and that he created the first woman from him. Claims that they descended in any manner from animals of any kind are therefore wrong. The Bible's account of origins is correct.

5. Genesis 6ff tells us that at a certain point God judged the world by a flood that killed every living breathing land creature not on the ark that he had Noah build. We can reasonably conclude that this flood is the probable source of the most of the many fossils today found buried in sedimentary rocks. (In any case, they cannot possibly predate Adam's fall, as there was no death then.) We also conclude that this flood was global, not local. Genesis 7:19. We furthermore conclude that there is nothing left of the antediluvian world. For instance, mention of rivers such as the Tigris should not be taken to mean that it is the same river today, just that the name was re-used. And semblance of the original river is deeply buried. Even the shapes of the continents may not be the same as the ante diluvian ones. After all, for a time there were no visible continents, the ones that rose after the flood could be completely different. The Bible's record of judgement in the flood is correct.

6. The Bible's history of the flood also accounts for all animals and birds (except water dwellers) currently living. They are descendents (speciated in some cases) of those aboard the ark. It is worth noting that such speciation, which can proceed by natural selection, involved the loss of prior genetic variability, and is the opposite of evolution, which claims that new genetic information can be created from nothing. Whatever the details and mechanisms, the Bible's history and science are correct.

7. Genesis 11 tells us how God later judged mankind by confusing the languages. This is the origin of languages, nationalities, and tribes. The Bible's anthropology is correct.

8. Later accounts of the life of Abraham, the origin of Israel, the stay in Egypt, the exodus, the history of national Israel, and so on are accurate and reliable history. All the Bible's history of nations is accurate.

9. So are accounts of "unusual" or "miraculous" events, such as the miracles in Egypt and the desert, the destruction of invading armies, the long days of Joshua (Josh 10), and Hezekiah (Is 38:8), the life and ministry of various prophets, including Jonah and his large sea creature, and the eventful lives of Ezekial, Daniel, Elijah, and Elisha. These are historical accounts of real people and real events. These are not stories, there is no aspect of legend or myth about them whatsoever. The Bible provides factual historical records. Introduction of the supernatural or of miracles does not reduce the accuracy or reliability of Biblical narratives.

10. Finally, the accounts of Jesus Christ, his birth, life, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven--all according to prophecy--are correct and reliable. So are the statements about the reasons for all these things. What the Bible says about Christ is true in every particular.

Conclusion: Everything we believe about God, humankind, sin, and salvation depends on the Bible's accounts of these things being correct in all respects. This includes the history, cosmology, science, anthropology, geology, and so on. Again, while not all science and not all history are found in the Bible, whatever is placed there is correct.

4. The Bible uses figures of speech and approximations

This means that its accuracy does not stand or fall on such issues as:

- lack of adherence to modern views on scientific or technical precision,

Matt 5:45 and other passages speak of the sun rising. That the earth actually revolves on its axis does not make this statement false. It is just the casual way people refer to this phenomenon. Moreover, modern "values" should not in general be read back into the text or used to judge it.

- casual observational descriptions of the physical world,

Rev 7:1 and 20:8 use the figure "four corners of the earth" which is a standard figure of speech, surely not intending to imply the earth is flat or square. Likewise Job 28:24 mention the "ends of the earth", and Ps 19:4 "the ends of the world" common expressions for a distant place or for widespread places, obviously not intended to indicate the Earth has literal "ends". Besides, Consider Isa 40:22 which refers to the circle of the earth. It is, by the way, a secular myth hinging on a single unreliable but often quoted source (with embellishment) that Christians ever believed the earth was flat. There is no evidence that any great numbers in the Middle Ages believed any such thing.

Many passages refer to the "foundations of the earth". Does this mean it rests on a cement footing? On turtles? No, this is a figure of speech. Job 26:7 tells us clearly that the earth is suspended in a vacuum.

- the use of round numbers,

If the Bible says there were 485 of something, that's it. If it says there were 500, standard usage indicates this is a round number.

For instance, see Jud 1:4. The ordinary use of 10 000 in such a context means the number is rounded to the nearest thousand, whereas Nu 33:39 uses the number 123, which in ordinary usage for most things means between 122.5 and 123.5, but in the age of a person means between 123 and 124, rather than not 123 years to the day. However, Nu 35:6 use of forty two towns, obviously requires us to interpret as an exact number, not 41 or 43.

- the use of hyperbole, other figures of speech, or symbolic numbers

1Co 10:4 That Christ is referred to as a rock does not mean he is made of stone. This is a spiritual reference, intended to evoke security, stability, a place of refuge. Lu 13:34 Likewise that he compares himself to a hen does not mean he has feathers and wings. Such figures of speech add to the Bible's rich collection of word pictures to increase our understanding, but no figure of speech should be pushed too far.

When we find things grouped in threes, sevens, or multiples thereof, we need to ask if this is a symbol of God, or of completeness, rather than a literal number. Likewise when we see sixes of multiples thereof, we should ask if it is a symbol of humankind or of incompleteness. Thus in the book of revelation seven is used symbolically of God and of completeness, as in the seven cities, the seven spirits, and so on. Likewise six represents humankind and incompleteness. Thus, the symbolism of 666 is man's best (three times over) but still falling short of God. That is, it's a symbol of human effort, human government, human religions, of the human or worldly system not being good enough, being in opposition to God, because it falls short, or misses the mark. That is, it also symbolizes sin or lawlessness. What is the particular man, or Antichrist who is associated with this number called in 2Th 2:3?

Note that the Greek phrase "ten thousand times ten thousand" Da 7:10 and Re 5:11 or a "myriad of myriads" was used to refer to an indefinitely large number, not to mean exactly one hundred million. It does not mean "infinitely large", just a quantity too many to effectively count.

It is also worth observing however, that numerological interpretations of the Bible are not authoritative and should be treated with care, especially when they purport to derive prophetic and other messages not in the plain text by pseudo-statistical means. Any sufficiently large body of random text can be "analysed" with such methods and forced to deliver an arbitrarily constructed "message". Such techniques have no mathematical validity whatsoever.

- the use of rough citations both of itself and of other literature,

When the New Testament cites the Old, the citation is usually of the Septuagint translation, and this sometimes varies slightly from other translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic. This does not change the teaching derived from the quotation, nor is it an error. Neither is it an error that the writer does not say exactly which book, chapter and verse is being cited. Moreover, if the citation is of Elijah, we must remember that the whole of the prophets were sometimes casually referred to as "Elijah", so if the quote comes from a book other than the one of that name, it isn't an error, just a reflection of common usage.

- the use of approximations in translation

A common example used to attack the scriptures is found in Le 11:6 and De 14:7. Both passages (in English) say the rabbit chews its cud. However, it does not. Is this an error? No, because the Hebrew simply means "chews again". A rabbit does not do as a cow, regurgitate from one stomach, chew, and reswallow. Rather, it eats its own manure, its own droppings, redigesting them to gain nutrition missed the first time through. This is "chewing again" per the limited vocabulary of the Hebrew, though the English translation fails to capture the distinction. The approximation is introduced in translation, it is not a failing of the original.

- reading and drawing conclusions out of context,

Consider 2Chron 4: 1-5 If you read only verse two, it appears to say that the circumference of the bath is three times the diameter, giving a value for pi that is wrong. Quite apart from the issue of whether this was intended to be a round number approximation, if one reads the whole description, one sees that the thickness of the rim was a handsbreadth, and it was shaped like a lily. This means the rim extended past the outer wall. The shape of the curve is uncertain, but taking both sides into consideration, you have to subtract between one and two handsbreadths from the ten cubit diameter of the top to get the diameter of the wall where the rope was stretched to find the circumference. Say one and a half, for a rough calculation. The author's cubit is 49cm and handsbreadth is 20cm, so the difference is 30/49 = .612 cubits. The ratio of 30 cubits to 10-.612=9.388 cubits is 3.19, not far from the correct value of pi at 3.14. However the author's hand is rather wide. A smaller one might give a more accurate value.

- the topical selection and arrangement of material,

The four Gospels all narrate the life of Christ, but do not tell us about exactly the same incidents, nor do they arrange the material in the same order, and certainly not in chronological order. These are not contradictions, just editorial decisions. Matthew presents Jesus as Messiah, King of the Jews. Mark presents him in his aspect as servant. Luke presents him as a man, John concentrates on his deity. No one should expect that they would tell the story exactly the same way, use the same incidents, or report the common incidents identically. They've selected the material to make specific points.

- variant selections of material in parallel accounts of the same incidents.

Different accounts of the same incident tell it from different points of view, recording what one witness saw, said, or did, but not necessarily what others experienced. There is more than one account to verify the truth of the whole, not to create doubt about the veracity of any. As you would expect in eye witness accounts, some writers provide much more detail than others. John, for instance, describes some incidents in such a way as to tell us he was at their heart. A good example is John 13: 18-27, and indeed the following chapters. Only one who was present could provide such detail. Does this subtract from the less detailed accounts by the other three? Not at all.

- whether the structure of a passage is poetic, or historical,

While a passage structured as poetry may deliver its message in flowery language, with word pictures, figures of speech, and in a non-literal way at times, this does not take away any of its status as the word of God. The passage is recorded and preserved for us with a purpose, and it behooves us to study the passage to find that purpose. The truth in a poetic passage may be more deeply hidden than in other cases, but it is nonetheless there. See Rev 22:7

However, it is worth noting that the first portion of Genesis, though highly structured in a literary manner, is not presented as poetic allegory, but as historical narrative. Likewise the Book of the Revelation is presented as a forecast of things to come, even though it employs allegory, symbolism, and figurative language to describe that future.

5. The Bible interprets itself

A method of Biblical interpretation must itself be derived from and grounded in the Scriptures themselves, not in ideas and theories from elsewhere. 2Pe 1:20

The New Testament fulfils and explains the old

It does not simply replace or obsolete it. Christ did not come to dismiss the law and the prophets but to embody the fulfilment of all they wrote about him. Mt 5:18, Lu 24:44, Joh 19:36, Ac 3:18, Ac 13:27

Interpretation should be by exegesis, not eisegesis

Literary theories, scientific theories, and theological frameworks should be regarded as potentially useful helps, provided their ideas originate in the Bible and not with the theoreticians. We cannot read the meanings we want into the scriptures.

Some Examples:

- dispensationalism is a useful framework for dividing the word, but it can be carried too far, insisting that certain passages only apply to certain people at certain times, which robs the scripture of meaning and universal applicability

- Calvinism, with its emphasis on the sovereignty of God also makes useful contributions, but when it is (mis)used to suggest that God does not require human agency to call people to repentance, it throws out the clear command of scripture to preach the Gospel. 1Co 9:16. Yes, God is the one who quickens to repentance via His Holy Spirit, and yes, salvation is entirely His work but as Romans 10: 12-15 clearly teaches, God chooses to use his people as his agents in so doing. Moreover, see John 15:4-5,8,16. We cannot simply say that God will save whom he will save and ignore the lost. He does not permit that. Nor can we ignore wicked behaviour in one who is a believer, saying, as the Gnostics did that the person is either saved or lost and there's nothing we can do about it (or that flesh and spirit have no intersection and therefore no relationship, so deeds do not affect salvation).

- Armenianism, with its emphasis on the choices men and women must make, indeed on free will. Yes, the Gospel calls men and women to choose Christ; once they have, it explains that he alone chose them and that His Holy Spirit quickened their intellects to reciprocate and choose him, something they could not have done on their own, because they were lost sinners. Then he demands that they choose to do good works for him. At this point there is a real choice, for God wants servants who do his will freely, our of gratitude for their salvation, but perhaps more because they know, love, and so want to serve the Lord of Heaven, as he made them to do.

What do we conclude? That there is no free will before being born again, for the ability to choose to do good for the right reason is one of the things God gives to his people when he calls them, something they lacked before. Yes, God is sovereign, and yes, humans make choices, for all of which they will give account. For there is, by the Gospel, one choice a sinner can make by God''s grace and empowering, and that is to repent. The believer does have a choice about the degree of following Christ.

Note, however, that a philosophy or belief framework that denies essential truths about Jesus Christ (that he is both fully God and fully man, the only way to the Father, that salvation is by grace and his finished work, and that our works must follow salvation, but cannot cause it) is neither useful nor worth giving credence to. Thus Mormonism, Watchtower teachings, and numerous other similar cultic religions are NOT Christian, precisely because they do not honour the Scriptures' ability to interpret themselves, but instead impose their own framework on the word, torturing the meanings of the passages until they say whatever the false teachers want them to say. At that point, the word usually gets replaced by some false book or pseudo-translation.

Note also, per earlier remarks, that our experiences must be explained by the scriptures, not the scriptures by our experiences. People who make a public spectacle of healing, who "speak in tongues" in public without interpretation, or who promulgate doctrines about demon possession ought to take heed. In many cases their theories about what is happening are based on experience, but have no foundation whatsoever in the Scriptures. This does not necessarily invalidate the experience, but such experience NEVER judges or replaces scriptural authority. The experience may be real, but the interpretation of it could well be false.

6. The Bible is an historical book

It records people and events in history. Therefore, to correctly interpret it we must understand the historical background and context in which its books were written.

It was written progressively, that is, through many periods of history

The Bible's revelation about God is progressive, providing more information about his nature, character, and plans as it goes along. This does

not mean that earlier revelations were wrong or that God changed through time. Indeed, we note, if we read carefully, that the fundamental bases for his relationship with humankind has always been and always will be faith and obedience, and that Adam (Gen 2:15-17), Cain & Abel (Gen 4:4-5), Noah (Gen 6:8), Lot (Gen 19:19), Moses (Ex 32:11, 33:12-13, 34:9, Lev 26:9), and David (Ps30:5, 69:13, 84:9) all were taught or understood this, at least to some extent.

Later parts illuminate, explain, or unfold the meaning of earlier parts

They do not however contradict them, even when setting aside an old practice for a new one. That Christians celebrate the Lord's Day does not negate the idea of the Sabbath, only its practice as a legal observance. That Christians do not keep the Levitical law is because there is a new order of priesthood (Heb 7:11-12) that supersedes the old, one with a perfect sacrifice (Heb 10:11-14) once for all rather than a shadow or type of the real thing. But this does not negate the principles taught in the Old Testament about the need to propitiate sin with death--either the sinner dies or a substitute. (Heb 9:22)

It was written to specific groups of people, but is timeless

Scripture has a context and a meaning that were immediate to the people who were the original; recipients, but also teaches lessons for all the saints of all times.

No passage can be set aside as irrelevant to our times on the grounds, say, that it is "dispensational" that is, written solely about a time either past or yet to come, for instance.

Prophecies may have more than one fulfilment--one to the people to whom it was immediately written, another to a later time, and perhaps others still to times yet to come even in our day. Consider Dan 9:27, which the Jews believed was fulfilled once in the time of Antioches Epiphanes who touched off the Maccabean revolt by putting pagan symbols in the temple, and again during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 67 when the Zealots massacred the priests on the temple grounds. But was not the treatment of Christ there an abomination, and does not Christ's prophecy in Matt 24:15 appear to refer to an event that is yet to come?

7. The Bible is written in specific languages

(Koine or Hellenistic Greek, Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic). Therefore, to correctly interpret it we must understand something about the languages (i.e.. word meanings and grammar) in which it is written.

Linguistic context matters

Words change their meanings over the years, sometimes by losing a meaning, other times by gaining one. The cultural, historical, and linguistic context of the original writing is important in deciding what a word originally meant. Christ's parables often contain references to farming practices, for instance. A city dweller in our modern times may not "get" the point. "I am the door" isn't a bad translation, but the actual meaning is "I am the entrance to the sheepfold."

In some cases, the exact meaning of a Hebrew word might not be known, and it might have to be inferred from the context. Remember also that OT Hebrew had a much small er vocabulary size than either Greek or English and that a given word had to be used for many ideas or shades of meaning. Are you sure you've always got the right shade?

Sometimes the same word is translated into English in two different ways. This may or may not be a good ideal. For instance the Hebrew word go'el is sometimes translated "avenger of blood" and sometimes "kinsman redeemer". However these were both roles of the nearest kinsman, and obviously refer to the same person. Note that Christ filled both roles fully.

Translations lose meaning

Word order, emphasis, grammar, shades of meaning, and the cultural and historical context for words are all different from one language to another. Even trying to read the Greek and Hebrew today will inevitably result in the loss of some meaning the original hearers would have understood. A translation into English loses more meaning, and is not as authoritative or as reliable as the original.

For instance, The word "corn" appears 102 times in 94 verses in the KJV Bible. Yet corn was unknown in the Middle East in Bible times. But, the word "corn" was used in English long before "maize" was discovered in the New World in the sense of "grain" or "seed". Better now to translate the actual meaning rather than use a word with a meaning that could mislead.

Consider I Thess. 5:22 KJV - "Abstain from all appearance of evil" NKJV "Abstain from every form of evil" These two rendering are not that different, despite some critics' efforts to persuade otherwise. The English could be put "Stay away from everything (or every place) in which the form of evil appears" or "Stay away from every place in which evil seems to be", or "Avoid every place that looks evil", or "Do not engage in any activity that appears wicked". Note that the passage does not explicitly say whether the appearance of evil is to the person considering the action or to others who might see it done. In view of other passages about offending a brother or becoming a stumbling block, one should therefore take it both ways. In other words, the strength of the command is that if some thing or place has the appearance, the taint, the shape if you will of sin or evil either to yourself or to others, don't go there, don't do it, don't even think about it--even if you aren't sure there's anything actually prohibited in the action. The exact words a translator uses to convey the thought may vary in strength, but the message seems clear enough. Another lesson we can get from this: perhaps some passages are deliberately ambiguous--one can get valid teaching from both possible meanings.

English Word Meanings Change

Examples of words in the KJV that have changed their meaning or vanished from English:

  • accursed -devoted, Josh. 6:17, 18 (3 times);

  • amazement -terror, 1 Pet. 3:6

  • apothecary -perfumer, Ex. 30:25,35; 37:29; Eccl. 10:1

  • approve -prove, 2 Cor. 6:4; 7:11

  • bewrayeth -revealeth, Prov. 29:24

  • bound -landmark, Hos. 5:10

  • branch -song, Is. 25:5

  • compasseth -searchest out, Ps. 139:3

  • conversation -way of life, 2 Cor. 1:12; Gal. 1:13; and many others

  • daysman -umpire. Job 9:33

  • deliciously -wantonly, Rev. 18:7,9

  • destroy -hold guilty, Ps. 5:10

  • ditch -reservoir, Is. 22:11

  • ensue -pursue, 1 Pet. 3:11

  • flagons -cakes of raisins, Song 2:5

  • flowers -impurity, Lev. 15:24, 33

  • furniture -saddle, Gen. 31:34

  • leasing -lies. Ps. 5:6 -falsehood. Ps. 4:2

  • lunatic -epileptic, Mt. 4:24; 17:15

  • naughtiness -wickedness, Jas. 1:21

  • outlandish -foreign. Neh. 13:26

  • removing -wandering, Is. 49:21

  • smell -take no delight in, Amos 5:21

  • traveleth, one that -a robber, Prov. 24:34

  • wounds -dainty morsels, Prov. 26:22

(extracted from a list at

Lesson: we need to be careful about hanging our doctrinal hat on the apparent English meaning of a passage without checking the original.

Translators' own opinions matter

There are many places where a translation is unclear or ambiguous or where there are textual variants. The KJV, as all other translations, sometimes translates the Masoretic text, sometimes the Septuagint, and sometimes a scribe's marginal rendering. Other translators have adopted different conventions in translations. None of these differences affect any doctrines taught by scripture, even when the issue is whether a particular passage teaches a given doctrine. Thus, the KJV might interpolate the word "God" in a passage. If the NIV leaves it out, this isn't an attempt to remove God from the passage, but an attempt to render the meaning more accurately.

8. The Bible has a purpose Therefore to correctly interpret a passage we must enquire about the reason it was written

Example 1: It becomes clear after reading the four gospels that each compiler had a different aim. Thus they select and reorder material to suit their aim, and not always chronologically. This does not make any of the accounts wrong, it merely affects the point of view.

- Matthew writes to emphasize Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, the king who was prophesied from of old. So he speaks much of the kingdom. His audience were primarily the Jews of Palestine.

- Mark especially depicts Jesus as the servant or slave, emphasizing the humiliation he suffered to become a man and to go to the cross. His audience appear to be primarily the many slaves of the Roman Empire.

- Luke emphasizes Jesus as a man, frequently using "Son of Man" a title often associated with the Messiah in the Old Testament. It is important for us to understand that he was fully human and therefore could represent us all at the cross, taking the punishment for sin of the entire human race. Luke's audience appears to be Greeks.

- John emphasizes the Deity of Jesus, recounting miracles that demonstrate his creative power, mastery over death, and credentials to judge and forgive sin. It is important for us to understand that Jesus is God, second person of the Trinity. John's audience is more universal, but the book appears aimed primarily at Jews amidst a Greek culture, rather than those of Palestine specifically. He also states a specific purpose: John 20:30-31 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Moreover, a propos of this topic (the variations among gospels) he tells us specifically: Joh 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Example 2: Likewise, the last book of the Bible states its purpose in the opening line Re 1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Upon seeing this we must remember to ask at every stage what is being revealed about Christ in a passage. Is it His glory, his lordship over and demands of the Churches, His eventual triumph over His enemies, the fulfilment of prophecy that the Son of David will physically rule over Israel (the millennial kingdom), the fulfilment of his role as judge of all? The specific details of the book are highly symbolic, and we may be prone to misinterpret them because we do not share the same understanding of symbolism as the Greeks and Jews of John's day, but if we keep the big picture in mind, we see Christ revealed at every line.

Thus, for instance, that there are seven churches written to has significance for completeness, and we might well say these represent all churches, though to mark off eras of church history and identify each with a specific church (as for instance definitively stating we live in the age of Laodicea) is probably reading too much into the passage. What matters here is that churches of many types with various typical problems are addressed and corrective measures are given by Him who is Lord of the Churches. Our response ought to be to ask whether we have similar problems (or other ones not mentioned specifically here) and need to correct them. If there is a principle underlying that whole section it is to remember who is the Lord of the Church.

Example 3: Various of Paul's letters were written to specific churches to correct one or more errors in doctrine or practice. Even if the specific problem is not applicable to our situation, it is always useful to study correct doctrine.

Thus for instance, some make much of the fact that the Church at Corinth practised a form of speaking in tongues, and that Paul did not tell them to stop, even said 1Co 14:18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But let us remember that this book was written to a church that had lost its way in doctrinal error, was condoning wicked practices, and was questioning Paul's spirituality, ethics, and authority over them. Most of what is said in this book is to correct serious abuses, indeed every topic Paul brings up is by way of corrective measures needed to control abuses. The same is true of this one. Look at 1Co 14:5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. 6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Twice, in listing gifts, he puts tongues last.

1Cor 12: 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

1Co 12:28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

Why does he do this? Well as reading both books to this Church soon reveals, this Church had a problem with authority--specifically they were following false apostles. Paul wanted to uphold the authority of the Apostles, himself among them, over that of false teachers and their questionable doctrines and practices, apparently including their emphasis on tongues, which he is not denying are valid, though he does deprecate their importance by placing them last and giving regulations limiting their public use.. Elsewhere, he adds: 1Co 13:8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. Do we see? They emphasized the showy and spectacular. Paul wanted to bring them back to what mattered--did they have the love of God in them, manifested in their love for one another. In the light of that question, tongues were a side issue.

He gives the final word on the subject in

1 Cor 14: 26 What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two--or at the most three-- should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

Thus, when we consider the context, we are driven to the conclusion that far from approving their practice of tongues, Paul was treating it as one of their abuses, and trying to regulate it. The bottom line was that it was intended as a sign for the unbelieving, and must be interpreted in order to give the sign. If signs are for unbelievers are appropriate, there may well be tongues used in the Church--otherwise, they are not meant for the public meetings. Thus for instance, public praying or singing in tongues (common practices today) have no sanction whatever in scripture, and in view of Paul's regulations and teaching, should not be part of public worship. However, there are no rules given to limit such things in private prayer.

And just to make the same point in a different way, healing miracles were also authenticating signs. How does the New Testament say that requests for God to heal should be handled ordinarily (that is apart from the Apostolic authority)?

Jas 5:14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. [And he goes on to mention the example of Elijah.] That is, in the ordinary course of things, healings are prayed for and may be granted in the privacy of the sick person's home, not in a public meeting. We can well conclude that signs and wonders are generally not part of the Church's public worship, not necessarily because they have ceased altogether, but because their practice is not intended to be a part of public worship; it had other purposes.

Example 4: One of the common false doctrines of the early centuries was that of the Gnostics It's useful to know who these people were and what they believed when reading the books like those of Paul, and John, that attack these false teachers. Otherwise, much of what they say lacks apparent context and meaning, or if taken out of context, can be given a different meaning altogether.

Take for example Jas 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. Quoted alone without context, it appears to contradict what Paul says Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--9 not by works, so that no-one can boast. However, in the same book we find the very scornful: Jas 2:18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. and when we read with the Gnostics in mind, and realize that the false teaching James was refuting was that because the flesh and the spirit were separate and non intersecting one could have faith in the spirit without it affecting the life of the flesh, we understand that he is perfectly consistent with Paul. He is teaching that deeds necessarily follow and are required to validate faith, so a claim to faith with no deeds is patently false, and in that sense one is justified by what he does and not by a claim to have faith all by itself. Context, context, context.

No doubt the reader can readily produce other examples. The scriptures must be read as a whole, and interpreted and applied the same way. What is the purpose of a verse in the context of the surrounding passage, the book in which it is written, the other teachings of Scripture on the same or similar subjects, and the whole corpus of Bible teaching?


These are a few principle of hermeneutics, or Biblical interpretation. Like the teaching of scripture itself on holy living, they are not exhaustive, only examples. But they are probably sufficient to correctly interpret and apply most passages.


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