How to interpret the Bible

(the content consists partially of notes I have taken at an STI seminar in Stellenbosch, South Africa)

I have often been asked why it is that we seem to take some portions of scripture literally and others we seem to interpret. It seems random to the onlooker. However there is system and science behind it. This is a blog post that tries to describe the basics in simple words, easy to apply yourself.

There are three types of Bible translations:

1. word for word i.e. literal translations (‘formal equivalents’) [e.g. NASB, KJV, Amplified, ESV, NRSV]

2. interpretative thought for thought translations (‘dynamic equivalents’) [e.g. NIV, HCS, TEV, (NLT)]

3. paraphrased translations (a very loose translation) [e.g. LB, Message Bible]

They are not all used for the same purposes. Bible translations that fall under 1 are best used for Bible study. Bible translations that fall under 2 are used mostly for reading. Those categorized under 3 are sometimes interesting to get a new angle on matters previously read or studied in another translation but are unsuitable for Bible studies or daily Bible reading.

When studying the Bible, all text needs to undergo the same process of interpretation. (At the end of it, some will turn out to be literal, other parts may turn out to need interpretation.)

How to interpret the Bible:

A. The meaning is determined by the context.

1. list all possible meanings

2. historic + literary context eliminates impossible + improbable meanings.

Here an example of how to do that with the word “trunk”.

1. all possible meanings: car boot, suitcase, phone call, tree, elephant nose

Let’s assume it is part of a Jane Austin novel (which play in the 1800’s in England).

2. process of eliminating the impossible:

– trunk call (the phone was not invented then)

– car boot ( they still had carriages)

3. Process of eliminating the improbable:

– elephant trunk (it might be possible as India was English colony, but it is highly unlikely)

The use of the work within the sentence helps us eliminate even more options: “and she folded her clothes carefully and placed them in a trunk.”

  • eliminates the tree trunk and the elephant trunk completely.

This leaves us with only ONE meaning of trunk in this context: “suitcase”.

B. Word study

1. meanings of words change over time (they undergo a historical development)

2. meanings in the here and now might differ from their original meaning greatly

3. etymology of words can help or mislead us.

We need to look at three aspects:

1. history of the word.

2. historical context (author and audience in the original).

3. literary context.

one example: the word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’, now it means ‘pleasant’.

If you are required to do in depth word study on a regular basis, getting a good Bible Study Software like ‘Mounces Complete Expository Dictionary of OT + NT’; e-sword software; or Olive Tree, will be a helpful starting point.

When you look at any Biblical text, it has 2 audiences:

the original audience that the author wrote to (there & then),

and the contemporary/modern audience (here & now).

We must always look at the original audience first, before we ponder over the meaning for the contemporary audience.

Any interpretation of the Bible intends to be a bridge between the “there & then” and the “here & now”.

Any good interpretation discovers the meaning and intention of the author in the text. A good interpretation tries to get information OUT OF the text. We call this ‘exegesis’.

Any bad interpretation does the opposite. It imposes the readers invention/or wanted meaning, on the text, i.e. tries to read stuff INTO the text. We call this ‘eisegesis’.

Sources of authority for interpretation are:

1. scripture itself (this is the highest authority and is the only infallible authority)

2. tradition, reason, experience (all these are important for interpretation but are fallible.

The only things that help protect you (besides the Holy Spirit guiding you) from misinterpretation are to remember that you have to

– be conscious of your traditions

– remember that reasoning has limitations

– remember that experience is always subject to interpretation and thus is prone to mistakes.

The blog posts that follow will allow you to try out two different methods of getting the most out of your daily Bible study.

May God bless you abundantly and enrich your study of His word, whilst making you vigilant not to be deceived by wrong teachers of our times.

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