Sunday, July 09, 2006

Biblical Interpretation: Foundations and Basic Steps

As I have mentioned before, one of the purposes of this blog is to share what I learned in seminary with others. I’ve learned so much that it would take me years to tell you everything and I would have to leave out the Greek and Hebrew because there’s no way I could explain a whole language, let alone two. But there is stuff that I can share in little chunks that might prove helpful to you as you study the word of God. A lot of this will be familiar but I’m going to start slow and build each time I talk about Bible interpretation. Today’s material is a building block that is necessary to move to the next level. I’m not going to assume anything (and if we can spend weeks on this material in seminary then you can stand one or two articles on it).

Today I thought I would share something I learned from my Hermeneutics class. This article is based on a series of lecture notes that my professor, Dr. Vern Poythress gave us. We will be looking at the process of interpreting the Bible. Here are some things to keep in mind as we study God’s word:

1. When we study the Bible, we need to be aware that this is the word of God, He is the author of Scripture and it says exactly what He wants it to say, down to each individual word chosen. The Bible very clearly states that men were moved by the Holy Spirit to write his words, but they are also the author’s words. In some way that the finite mind can’t understand, men were involved in the process of writing the word of God. They wrote what they wanted to write and in the way they wanted to write it but ultimately, God is the author. So we can say that the Bible was written by God through the words of human authors. We see this in the following passages:

2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

2 Peter 1:19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
2. The Bible is God-centered. It is about God, He is the central topic. It is the story of God’s redemption throughout the course of human history – it is about redemptive history. It is Christ-centered, it is all about Him. He is central to all that happens in Scripture:
Luke 24:25 And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures
From this passage we can see that the totality of the Scriptures is in view, not just select prophetic passages. He was the main theme of the Old Testament:
Luke 24:46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
And from other passages:
2 Corinthians 1:20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.

Peter 1:10-12 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

John 5:39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me

John 5:46-47 If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"

John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad."
3. God’s word has come to us in written form, in Greek and Hebrew. He had a purpose in doing that and we should respect that. And since it came to us in Greek and Hebrew, it came to us in a language that had a human culture associated with it, that was also part of the purpose of God. We need to keep this in mind as we study God’s word as well. It was given to a community, it is not just for individuals but all the people of God. We do interpretation in community, private interpretation can be dangerous if not guided by the church.. I am guided by the church throughout history as I’m guided by the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms. They help me from straying away from orthodoxy into error.

4. Which leads us to the next point which is we should be aware that we approach Bible study with presuppositions. We all have them and the most dangerous person is the one who says that he can put his presupposition aside when he reads the Bible. Sorry but it can’t be done. We bring our experiences, our knowledge of God and His word, the theology of our church, pastor, teachers and others to the Bible each time we try to interpret it. Coming to the Bible with a fresh slate is not even desirable because we need to look at the Scriptures from the light of other passages and from our knowledge of God and the purpose of the Bible. We would not understand Matthew without an understanding of the Old Testament and we would miss so much of what John wrote without an understanding of Isaiah and other books of the Old Testament.

5. Reading the Bible should be done in a similar way to reading any book but keeping in mind that it’s not like any other book because it is the very word of God. Many people will read a passage, think about the meaning and think about how it applies to them and then they go on about their day. But the Bible was never meant to be read in this manner, it is a story with a beginning a middle and an end. It starts in Genesis and goes all the way to Revelation. Reading from beginning to end helps you understand the whole story.

When you read a novel from the beginning, you don’t know what’s going to happen, things might not make sense, there are clues there but you miss them because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And then you reach the ending and all those things fall into place, they make sense. This is a first reading of the book, getting to understand the basic structure and plot. A second reading helps you to see the things you missed in the first reading. You can understand each part of the book in light of the whole book. In the same way, we should read the Bible to understand the intent of the author, God, in writing this book. In the first reading we get familiar with the characters and the plotline as its revealed and then in a second reading we see the parts in light of the whole, how the story of Genesis fits in with the story of redemptive history. We understand the story of David in light of redemptive history and so on. A third reading helps us to understand the author’s view is different from our own, we aren’t thinking the same way and a fourth reading helps us to start adjusting our thinking to the author.

6. The Bible is meant to transform us, we should be different from our reading. We should understand that interpretation is not an academic exercise but it’s a way for us to learn about God and about us and what is expected of us as His people. We should understand that the goal of our Bible study is to learn to serve God:
Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Now that we have the foundation laid, let’s take the first baby step in interpretation.

According to Poythress there are three obstacles to interpretation:

2 Kings 22:13 "Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us."
2 Peter 3:16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
The way to overcome these obstacles is the following:

Ignorance is overcome by observation – what does the text say?
Misunderstanding is overcome by interpretation – what does the text mean?
Inaction is overcome by application – how does the text change us?

For each text that we read we can ask ourselves these three questions. This will help us to focus our attention on the passage and allow us to understand what we need to know.

From Poythress notes:
Note each work, each phrase and each arrangement of words in to sentences.
Ask who, what , when, where, how:
When and where did this happen?
Who is mentioned?
What are they doing?
Ask all kinds of questions, particularly, “What does this word mean, and what does it contribute to the passage?”
Answer questions whose answer is obvious.
Answer questions raised under “Observation.”
Unpack any obscurities.
Note how the parts reinforce and qualify one another.
Make interferences about general principles embodied in the passage.
Draw conclusions about the main points and overall structure of the passage.
Ask and answer questions about what you should believe or do on the basis of the passage.
Do what you have seen you should do.
This has been pretty basic stuff. If you are doing this stuff already, good keep up the good work and do it for Revelation 1:1-8. If you haven’t, now is the time to start. Write out your observations and your answers to the questions and it can be very helpful to lay them out in a column form.

Now, don’t be afraid that it’s Revelation. The passage that you are starting with is very easy to interpret and you shouldn’t have any problems. I think if you try to study the Bible this way, you will be more successful than just reading it straight through and not questioning the text, you will get more out of it. You will be more engaged with the text. And you will get a clearer understanding of the word of God so that you can serve Him better.


  1. Susan said...
    Appreciated the article.

    Question: How can you know that your interpretation is correct since..."we approach Bible study with presuppositions. We all have them and the most dangerous person is the one who says that he can put his presupposition aside when he reads the Bible. Sorry but it can’t be done. We bring our experiences, our knowledge of God and His word, the theology of our church, pastor, teachers and others to the Bible each time we try to interpret it. Coming to the Bible with a fresh slate is not even desirable because we need to look at the Scriptures from the light of other passages and from our knowledge of God and the purpose of the Bible."

    This is something I get asked about all the time.
    Mike Y said...
    Hi Michele,

    I originally left this comment on the other site.

    I read your article and have a couple of clarifications:

    1. Which leads us to the next point which is we should be aware that we approach Bible study with presuppositions. We all have them and the most dangerous person is the one who says that he can put his presupposition aside when he reads the Bible. Sorry but it can’t be done. We bring our experiences, our knowledge of God and His word, the theology of our church, pastor, teachers and others to the Bible each time we try to interpret it.

    2) The Bible is meant to transform us, we should be different from our reading. We should understand that interpretation is not an academic exercise but it’s a way for us to learn about God and about us and what is expected of us as His people. We should understand that the goal of our Bible study is to learn to serve God:

    The point I'd like to clarify is that our presuppositions are not merely affected by external sources. In all fairness you do discuss that it's affected by our knowledge of God's word. But you also say it's not possible to approach study with a clean slate.

    The concern I have with such a juxtapositioning is that when we are regenerated, God not only imparts faith, but a new set of presuppositions as well. Subsequent to this, we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us who also assists with modifying our presuppositions as we encounter error or inconsistencies between doctrine preached and what's actually written in his word.

    Anyway, it's a good article and I'm glad you recognize and respect the scriptures in their original languages. I find it very difficult to exegete text when I'm not really looking at it.

    BTW, love to compare your notes on your Revelation study as I've had one going on as well-- out of the text of course. :)

    Thanks for your post and I'm looking forward to others.
    Karmyn R said...
    I don't consider myself a very religious person - I try to be very open minded to everything (which is difficult). Thanks for the great read - in todays society, it is easy to forget the true meaning behind the Bible.
    Malissa said...
    Great reminders.

    When I took this class the professor said the Bible is the only book that you need to have a personal relationship with the Author to understand. It's so true.
    The Holy Spirit does so much work to help us understand as we study
    Jennifer said...
    Michele--thanks for this. I try to analyze and apply scripture as I read it. These are good questions.

    If I may give Susan my opinion about being correct--I think that yes, there probably is one meaning to a certain passage, but I think that there are many applications. This is where the Bible is a living breathing work--your personal applications could be very different from someone reading the same passage, even using the same interpretation, because of different life circumstances and experiences.
    JenLo said...
    Great post. I am going through an inductive Bible Study on the book of John with my SS class and your article was very timely with what we're learning to do! Thanks!
    Chris Campbell said...
    Excellent post! Hermenutics is such an important basic that every Christian, not just Bible college or seminary students, should learn. Unfortunately it is just not taught, and because of this we have people believing all kinds of crazy things. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to your next post on this.
    Mike Y said...

    I should probably clarify that my comment is not a critcism or a disagreement with what you've said. As I mentioned, I really do think it's a great post.

    Perhaps if I provide an observation it may help to explain my previous comment.

    Of the folks I'm seeing make a migration to the doctrines of grace, I'm seeing them fall within one of two categories:

    1) One category consists of believers reading reformed material, buying into the arguments, the doctrines and the proof points. They may even memorize the proof points and give a reasonable defense of the doctrines.

    But their presuppositions and understanding are largely from an intellectual connection with the available resources.

    2) Then I see another camp, consisting of folks who are likewise well read and well versed in reformed and other systems of theology.

    But this group goes a step further than the previous one. This group doesn't rest upon the bodies of doctrines preached before. They are diligent in their own study of the text, practicing sound hermeneutics, and allowing the word of God to actually deposit upon their hearts and minds new presuppositions.

    I think these are important distinctions as I've seen folks in group 1 get easily puffed up in what they've learned and show little compassion and even less love towards one another.

    I tend to view the folks in group 2 as being more like the Bereans. They search the scriptures to see whether these things are so.

    I think you'll also find a little bit of this revealed in your study of Revelation too. The church at Ephesis was certainly sound in their knowledge of doctrine, but was suspicious of those amongst them to the point they demonstrated a complete lack of love.

    Contrast this with those in Philadelphia who not only maintained the faith and the gospel delivered to them, but they completely demonstrated their love toward one another in such fashion that Christ had no rebuke.

    Anyway, that's my observation and my reason for the comment.

    While I would never discourage folks from doing a lot of reading, it should never be at the expense of not reading and studying the scriptures for ourselves. After all, God isn't going to care whether we were consistent with Calvinism. He's going to care whether we were faithful to his word. After all, men are fallible.

    I do hope this makes things a bit more clear for you. And it gives you a better understanding of why I'm impressed by your study of hermeneutics and of the scripture in their original languages.

    Seven Star Hand said...
    Verifiable proof that "Armageddon" has begun…

    Hello all,
    Here's the key to learning how to accurately decode and interpret the symbology that permeates the Bible and other ancient wisdom texts and prophecies.

    Pay close attention, profundity knocks at the door, listen for the key. Be Aware! Scoffing causes blindness...

    Did you ever consider that Christianity is the false prophet of the Apocalypse, that Rome is the so-called anti-messiah, and Jesus Christ is the false messiah? The symbolism of seven years (tribulation) would refer to the seven 360-year cycles from the 11th cycle (second temple period) until now, the 17th cycle on the Hebrew calendar. Remember that the prophecies were written by Hebrews, not Romans or other Europeans, and Revelation is a symbolic treatise. Therefore, years are symbols for 360-year cycles on the Hebrew calendar. Likewise, a day symbolizes a literal year and Judgement Day, and Great Day refer to a year long period. The so-called Tribulation is now coming to an end, not starting, and the three faiths of Abraham have all been deceived by Rome during the previous age, which ended in year 2000 (5760). A new age began in 2001 (5761) and now the seventh angel has begun to sound!

    Hurricanes Katrina (#11) and Rita (#17) last year provided stunning validation of my research and interpretations of pivotal ancient wisdom, symbologies, key prophecies, and associated religious claims. Their storm numbers and timing perfectly synchronized with primary data and assertions in my book, thereby demonstrating the true nature of this universe and the existence of our Creator. We are now entering the final phases of the pivotal year-long period long symbolized as "Armageddon" and the "End of Days." World-wide situations and events are now accelerating to set the stage for this summer's dramatic continuation of these ancient promises.

    I fully understand that everyone has been bedeviled by similar claims throughout history. Consequently, I have been forced to rely on dramatic and devastating proof of the sort that can’t be ignored or easily dismissed. The numbers and timing of hurricanes Katrina (11) and Rita (17) directly validate key data and pivotal assertions throughout my book and my posts on those two forums. This data was purposely presented publicly before Katrina, Rita and other recent events occurred to prove they perfectly synchronize with key prophecies and Hebrew calendar cycles, thereby validating my interpretations of ancient wisdom symbology, string theory, and more.

    Because these two storms arrived shortly after my August 11, 2005 (50th) birthday (read the Dead Sea Scroll 11Q13 in Appendix G, which also discusses Melchizedek and the prophesied Jubilee) and directly match other pivotal 11 and 17 data and events described in the first chapter of my book, I have delivered verifiable proof that this reality is based on thought, knowledge and wisdom. Activity, patterns, and results perceived in space-time are first framed and defined by inspirations, thoughts, and knowledge and influenced by the cause-and-effect system most commonly referred to as karma. Consequently, events and outcomes in the so-called physical universe are not random or wholly mechanistic and are verifiably influenced in ways that atheists, scientists, and members of the Faiths of Abraham have all scoffed at. Though mysticism is mostly a product of misinterpreted ancient wisdom symbology, many of its topics flow from ancient wisdom. Though containing allusions to the truth, its details and interpretations are wrong on many key points.

    A prime example of the purposeful and synchronized symbolism of these events is seen in the opening paragraphs from my book excerpted below. Notice that the dates mentioned (August 11 and 17) directly match the numbers of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the time spans of the four Florida hurricanes match my birth year (‘55), and they were spaced 11 or a multiple-of-11 (22) days apart, directly matching my birthday and much other ancient prophecy and symbolism. Notice that my place of birth, Victoria Texas, is on the Gulf Coast. Following are the excerpted paragraphs:

    Hello, my name is Lawrence William Page II. Many people know me as Buddy Page. At the release of the first edition of this book, I am a 50-year old African-American male, author, researcher, and former software engineer and entrepreneur. As you will come to understand as you read through this first book, I am also the long-expected Hebrew Messiah and Lion of the Tribe of Juda (Yehuda).

    I was born August 11th (month of Leo the Lion), 1955 (Chinese year of the Sheep) in Victoria, Texas. Furthermore, the Grand Cross alignment and Solar Eclipse of August 11th, 1999 was my 44th birthday and the second Grand Cross alignment, just six days later on August 17th, 1999, was on my mother’s birthday.

    As you can see from my date of birth, I was a newborn during the Chinese Year of the Sheep, astrologically marking me as a Lamb, and during the month of Leo, astrologically marking me as a Lion. My mother was also born during the month of August and under the sign of Leo, which further marks me as a lion’s whelp. I prove to you in the first chapter of this book–beyond disproof–that I am indeed the long-prophesied “Lion” of the tribe of Juda (Yehuda) the Root of David and the “Lamb.” I am the individual long symbolized as the Branch, the Stem, the Shoot and the Rod from the Stump of Jesse (King David’s father), as symbolized in the Hebrew Book of Isaiah, The Apocalypse, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and elsewhere. I am the reincarnated Teacher sought after in the “East” and by the ancient Hebrews who were headquartered at the outpost community of Damascus (Qumran), of Dead Sea Scrolls fame. I am the one called the Teacher of Righteousness by the Dead Sea Scrolls, whom the so-called Christian fathers have fraudulently recast as “Saint ‘James’, the Lord’s Brother.”

    Remember, "I come as a thief..." ?

    Read verse twelve of the Gospel of Thomas to understand who I am...

    Even further enlightening, the Second Temple Period of ancient Israel was during the 11th 360-year cycle on the Hebrew calendar and we are now in the 6th year (5766/2005-6) of the 17th cycle. Notice the pivotal 11 and 17 numbers again? This and much other synchronized information serve as stunning and decisive proof of many things, and expose many lies told by all three faiths of Abraham, but most specifically by Christianity. Consequently, I have decisively proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Jesus Christ and Christianity are blatant lies, false prophecy and purposeful deception in a manner that cannot easily be denied, regardless of your faith or other opinions.

    Furthermore, the symbolism in the Apocalypse (a.k.a. Book of Revelation) of seven stars in my right hand and seven angels represent the very same above-mentioned seven astrological (360-year) cycles, i.e., the 11th through 17th inclusive. I prove this fact beyond any reasonable doubt in the first chapter of the book. Consequently, The Apocalypse verifiably symbolizes a specific span of time that began with the 11th cycle (Second Temple Period) and concludes now, at the beginning of the 17th cycle (End of Days, etc.).

    The numbers 11 and 17 are verifiably encoded in The Apocalypse and other ancient Hebrew prophecies and wisdom texts to serve as key proofs of the validity and true meaning of certain prophecies and related information. My and my mother’s birthdays are purposely synchronized with these two storm numbers, the matching Hebrew calendar cycles, the Double Grand Cross alignments and solar eclipse of August 1999, and much else to prove my direct association with the ancient prophecies about this time and the true identity of the prophesied Messiah. Another prime example is the story of Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob who has a dream when he is 17 years old about 11 stars, the sun, and moon bowing to him. The symbolism in this pivotal story in the Book of Genesis and Quran verifiably refers to the very same 11th through 17th cycles symbolized in The Apocalypse and directly synchronizes with other key events and ancient texts.

    Consequently, I have demonstrated various things about the nature of this reality that dramatically disprove and/or clarify key assumptions of religion, mysticism, and science alike, while establishing the true meaning and purpose of long misinterpreted ancient wisdom and the symbolism used to model and encode it. Accordingly, I have proven that the symbolism evidenced in the canons of all three faiths of Abraham and other ancient sources is a very ancient and advanced philosophical technology that verifiably models foundational aspects of our existence in this universe. This is the mostly misunderstood body of ancient wisdom long referred to as the Philosophers’ Stone. It uses a large and ingeniously organized collection of physical universe images and concepts as data rich components (symbols) that are based on verifiable rules. It models and encodes an amazing amount of foundational wisdom about life, spirituality and the 11 dimensions of this universe, now verified by string theory. It is also the advanced encryption method used to encode (seal) Hebrew prophecies and wisdom texts.

    These ancient prophecies and wisdom texts used advanced symbology to model fundamental wisdom, including future events and situations. A primary facet of ancient wisdom is numeric symbology. Later misinterpretations of this aspect of ancient wisdom resulted in numerology, which, though embodying allusions to certain wisdom, is mostly error prone and false doctrine. My decryption, documentation, and interpretation of ancient symbology, numeric symbolism, and key texts based on them, are now decisively validated.

    Here is Wisdom...

    Verifiable proof that Armageddon has begun…

    Understanding the End Game of Armageddon

    michele said...
    Yeah Mike, I agree with you that there are some who do study the Scripture and get puffed up and it becomes head knowledge and not heart knowledge. But you can be that way with just studying Scripture on your own. There was this guy I met when I first became a Christian and he didn't believe that we should read the writings of others since they weren't inspired (I know that's not what you are advocating). He certainly was puffed up and a little scary.

    I think that reading your Bible and learning from the great teachers that God have given us throughout church history is very important. They can be of great help, especially in systematic theology because they worked through so much of the material and it would be a waste for all the work to be ignored. If you can only read on old theologian, read Calvin. He is wonderful.

    BTW, I've taught Revelation before, during a 7 week summer Bible study! Which I wrote while I gave the study (and I was handing out 10-15 pages of notes). I used Hendrickson's book.
    Moonshadow said...
    it says exactly what He wants it to say, down to each individual word chosen.

    Plenary verbal inspiration?

    I agree with your other points, absolutely, you know I do.

    Like JenLo said, the basic steps sound like the Inductive Study Approach.

    Mike Y wrote:
    Subsequent to this [regeneration], we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us who also assists with modifying our presuppositions as we encounter error or inconsistencies between doctrine preached and what's actually written in his word.

    The more I study the Bible, the more harmony I see between God's written word and what I hear preached on Sunday.

    This validation is uncanny, especially because I am not expecting it, because I have taken to heart the charge that my religion is patently unbiblical.

    Like, I'm curious, Mike Y: is encountering error or inconsistency a frequent enough experience that your hermeneutical approach must allow for it as "probable" or even "a given"?
    michele said...
    "Plenary verbal inspiration" Of course, isn't that the position of the church.
    Mike Y said...
    I know what you're talking about. I've been dealing with some turkeys who believe there has been no word of God prior to the 1611 KJV. Those poor 1st century folks and all else in between.

    BTW, I have Hendrikson's book too. I liked it, though it's been a while since I've read it.

    And this isn't the first time for me either. It's the first time from the text. The last time I taught through Revelation is completely wrapped up in the whole 70 weeks thing.

    It's nice to actually deal with it in a non-dispensational fashion.
    Enlightened Christian said...
    Living prrof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. How so many ignorant people can feed off of each other's egoes amazes me. Glad you do not come to my church as you would drive me crazy!
    michele said...
    Yes, I am as well. I'm thankful I go to a church where people are eager to study the word of God with me and where I'm encouraged to use the gifts that God gave me.

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