How To Interpret Scripture

by Dan R. Smedra

Below are comments regarding various aspects of biblical interpretation.  Italics denote phrases or quotations from Lewis S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology.

Interpretation of Holy Scripture involves two parts, both being necessary to ensure the most correct and accurate understanding of any subject at hand.

  • On the divine side, the operation of God the Holy Spirit supernaturally enlightens the mind of the born-again believer (illumination) to understand things otherwise beyond human cognitive grasp (Luke 24:31,32). 

  • On the human side, is the science of interpretation–usually designated hermeneutics, which term denotes the art of interpreting literature, especially the Sacred Scriptures.

The science of hermeneutics has established and recognized rules.  Some of the primary and most general applicable are listed below.  The source is Dr. Rollin Thomas Chafer:

  1. Interpret grammatically; with due regard to the meaning of words, the form of sentences, and the peculiarities of idiom in the language employed.

  2. Interpret according to the context.  The meaning of a word, again, will often be modified by the connection in which it is used.  This rule is often of great theological importance.

  3. Interpret according to the scope or design of the book itself, or of some large section in which the words and expression occur.

  4. Interpret Scripture with Scripture.  A Scripture truth is really the consistent explanation of all that Scripture teaches in reference to the question examined.

Further, consideration should be given to:

  1. The purpose of the Bible as a whole.

  2. The distinctive character and message of each book of the Bible.

  3. To whom is a given Scripture addressed?

  4. Consideration of all Scripture bearing on any given theme.

Grammatical-historical (normal, not literalistic) interpretation stands in opposition to a forced allegorical interpretation–which seldom allows the text to be taken at face value.  Seek the normal, plain sense meaning of the text first.

The Role of Presuppositions

A presupposition is a conscious or unconscious assumption about reality, and these assumptions are typically antecedent to our reasoning processes and emotional responses.  We all have presuppositions–whether correct or erroneous.  Erroneous presuppositions can and most often do interfere with an accurate interpretation of Scripture.

For example, the most popular and false presupposition is the autonomous nature of man.  People simply assume mankind is autonomous, i.e., has free will and this results in a substantial misinterpretation of Scripture.

In time, the Holy Spirit sovereignly ensures that the growing, new-creation Christian views things differently.  Our false presuppositions are progressively displaced with God’s view of reality through the transformative process of sanctification.  The Apostle Paul encourages us to “…not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

Regarding Systems of Interpretation

A system of interpretation which, in defense of an ideal unity of the Bible, contends for a single divine purpose, ignores drastic contradictions, and is sustained only by occasional or accidental similarities, must be doomed to confusion when confronted with the many problems which such a system imposes on the text of Scripture.

All Scripture “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), but all Scripture is not of primary application to a particular person or class of persons which the Bible designates as such.  All Scripture is not about the angels nor about the Gentiles.  In like manner, all Scripture is not addressed to the Jew nor to the Christian.  These are obvious truths, and the dispensationalist’s plan of interpretation is none other than an attempt to be consistent in following these [normal] distinctions in the primary application of Scripture as far as, and no farther than, the Bible carries them.

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