Interpreting a Bible Passage
About this Lesson
Lesson 5 teaches us how to interpret a biblical author’s intended meaning. To understand literature written in ancient languages, cultures and historical contexts we must apply skills of interpretation.
When you complete this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
- Explain what we must understand about ourselves as Bible interpreters.
- Explain some things we must understand about the Bible to interpret it accurately.
- Explain how Bible interpretation works.
The psalmist prayed, “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart” (Psalm 119:34 NIV). In Lesson 5 we will explore how we turn our observations into interpretations that help us understand how we can obey God’s Word.
Interpretation’s Three Understandings
Much of the Bible is clear to us if we have adequately observed its content. But there are some passages that force us to wrestle with their meaning. When we interpret Scripture we must simultaneously understand three things:
- The nature of the interpreter
- The nature of the Bible
- The process of interpretation
We Must Understand the Interpreter
We all come to the Bible with convictions we must be aware of because they influence how we interpret it. As interpreters we must examine our
- Faith – We check our belief in the God who revealed Scripture. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV).
- Illumination – We ask if we trust God’s Holy Spirit to teach us what the passage means. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:25–26 NIV).
- Qualifications – We ask if we are developing our skills in Bible study basics. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV).
- Humility – We ask if we will accept the meaning that grows out of the text if it contradicts a treasured belief or prohibits a desired behavior.
- Awareness – We recognize and deal with our pre-understandings.
- Pre-understandings are assumptions, conclusions, and attitudes we impose on the text before we have studied it. Four elements contribute to our pre-understanding:
- Information we have about a text before we study it
- Attitudes we bring to a topic we find in the text
- A theological conviction we “know is true” and expect a text to support
- A reading or study method that shapes our ability to objectively understand a text
We Must Understand the Bible
The Bible is God’s eternal Word written by human authors in a particular historical and cultural setting. Its original message was intended to address its original readers in their own specific settings. Today’s readers have to interpret God’s message both as its writer intended his original reader to interpret it and in our own current settings.
Jonah’s loathing of Nineveh’s people (Jonah 4) or Paul’s demand that the Roman officials escort him out of Philippi (Acts 16) can only be interpreted in light of the history and culture in which
they occurred. But we must also properly interpret what those historical messages mean for us in our own time and culture. So as we interpret a Bible passage we have to keep both settings in mind and that can become confusing when we try to do them both at the same time. To avoid that confusion, we separate our interpretation process into two steps.
The first goal of biblical interpretation is to understand God’s message to His original readers. To do that we have to cross some barriers that exist between modern readers and the ancient times in which these biblical texts were written.
- Cultural obstacles—The writers of the biblical texts and their readers lived in a culture that is vastly different from those most of us live in today. When we attempt to interpret a text we have to first put ourselves into the writer’s culture, not force his writing into ours.
- Literary obstacles—When we move from one biblical genre to another we have to adjust how we read each literary style. We can’t read the poetic psalms like we read an epistle.
- Communication obstacles—We communicate so that we can convey messages to each other. Communication succeeds to the extent that the meaning the reader receives corresponds to the meaning the writer intended. In written communication we talk about three potential aspects of meaning: 1) the author’s intended meaning; 2) the words and grammatical constructions the writer used to convey that intended meaning; and 3) the meaning the reader interprets—or what the reader actually understands. Our goal when we interpret the Bible’s message is to accurately understand what the Author intended His readers to understand. There are three places where communication can be confused: 1) the writer is not certain what he wants to communicate and so the message is confused in the writer’s mind; 2) the writer was certain about his message but wrote in a confusing manner; or 3) the reader didn’t understand the writer’s message and misinterpreted it.
When we interpret the Bible our belief in divine inspiration rules out option (1). Our omniscient God knew what He wanted to communicate. And (2) is ruled out because God inspired His writers to state it clearly. Because we are human readers, option (3) is always at work and we have to use our best Bible study skills so we accurately and clearly understand the truth God communicates in Scripture.
We Must Understand How Interpretation Works
Because these interpretive obstacles are real, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, suggest we break the interpretation process into two related but separate tasks.
- The first task is called exegesis. We begin by identifying what the original writer wanted to communicate to his original reader.
- The second task is called hermeneutics. After we interpret the writer’s message to his original reader we ask how that message relates to us in our time. We will study hermeneutics and its role in our next lesson. But first we will look at how we do exegesis.
A foundational principle that ties the two interpretation steps of exegesis and hermeneutics together is
A Bible text can never mean what it never meant.
Separating interpretation into these two steps does not allow for two separate meanings. When we apply hermeneutics to our text we are not asking, “What does it mean today that is different from what it meant when God revealed it?” Hermeneutics only asks if and how that original message is relevant to our current circumstances. When we apply the application step in Lesson 6 we will discover there can be more than one application of a text, but never more than one meaning of a text.
What Do We DO When We DO Interpretation?
After we have observed the details of the text using the steps of macro- and micro-observation described in Lessons 3 and 4 of our course, we summarize those observations into a statement that represents what the text we have observed means.
Because the goal of interpretation is to identify the author’s
intended meaning, the first step in interpretation is simply to ask what the author expected his readers to understand when they read what he had written on the page. We summarize our observations and turn them into a statement that most accurately represents what the author wanted his readers to believe, feel, and do.
But it’s important at this point to remember the two steps of interpretation and to keep them in their proper sequence. We may be tempted to immediately ask what the writer is saying to us, the current readers, and thereby miss the important first step of asking what the writer was saying to his original reader. That’s why we use the two-step process and do exegesis (what was the message to the original reader?) first, and only then do hermeneutics (what is the text’s timeless message to all readers?).
So the first step in interpretation is to state the passage’s meaning in its exegetical form.
What that means is that at the exegetical level we write our interpretation in the language of its original setting. For instance, the exegetical statement of Paul’s request of Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:9–13 is
Paul asked Timothy to visit him in Rome and to bring Mark, his cloak and his parchments.
We can create problems if we first attempt to interpret that paragraph as a message to our generation. Our first step must be to state what the original writer wanted his original reader(s) to understand.
If we are studying Isaiah 1:2–3 we would write our exegetical interpretation as,
God told Israel that animals show more appreciation for their owner than Israel did for the God who adopted them as His children.
We may think of a number of ways to apply that passage to contemporary Christianity but we first have to understand what Isaiah actually said when he proclaimed this message to Israel in the 8th century B.C. Develop a habit of reading a passage first in
its exegetical form, then in its hermeneutical form.
In Lesson 6, where we learn how we apply the hermeneutical step to our interpretation, we will deal with the passage’s relevance and message to life in our time. But the first step is to state a clear and accurate interpretation of what the original writer communicated to the original reader(s). And we do that best when we state it first in this exegetical language that includes the writer’s and original reader’s names. That helps us clearly identify what this writer originally communicated to his original audience. If we try to do hermeneutics by interpreting a passage as if it was written directly to us in our time we increase the danger that we will misinterpret what the writer intended his first reader to understand.
In our Bible study process we have to come back to our exegetical statement and investigate how we should apply it to our own situation. That second step is called hermeneutics and it is important that we not attempt to do both exegesis and hermeneutics as a single activity.
Second, we test our exegetical interpretation statement by placing it into its various contexts to see if it makes sense in each context. Our interpretation must fit into its
- Immediate context: Does our interpretation make good sense and contribute to the flow of the verses and paragraphs around it?
- Literary context: Does our interpretation make sense in light of the message of the book it’s written in?
- Historical context: Does our interpretation fit the writer’s and reader’s historical situation?
- Cultural context: Does our interpretation fit the culture to which it was addressed?
- Scriptural context: Does our interpretation agree with what the rest of Scripture teaches? The greatest guide to to interpreting Scripture is Scripture itself.
Third, we consult with others. If they are available, we check our interpretation with a commentary— or a few commentaries. If our interpretation doesn’t agree with any others, we should take
a closer look at our interpretation. When possible, we should study our Bible with others who take the Bible seriously. By studying with others we decrease the danger of reading our own pre-understandings into a biblical text.
Pray with the psalmist that God will give us understanding, so that we may keep His law and obey it with all our hearts. Through diligent prayer and diligent effort, we can understand and obey God’s Word.