Interpreting the Bible - June 2020

By David K. Bernard     Whether we realize it or not, all of us make certain assumptions when we interpret the Bible. Instead of unknowingly following certain traditions and presuppositions, we should examine our approach and follow principles and methods that are compatible with our view of Scripture.

 

The Grammatical-Historical Method

As Apostolic Pentecostals, we believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God and our supreme authority for salvation, life, and ministry. “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:15–17, NKJV).

Consequently, we must allow the Bible to teach and correct us, instead of adapting its message to fit our preconceptions and desires. We should approach a passage by asking: What does the text say? What did the writer intend to convey? What did God intend by inspiring these words? We should not start by asking: How does it support my view? What do I want it to say? We should seek to bring meaning out of the text (exegesis) instead of putting our preferred meaning into the text.

We can call this method of interpretation grammatical-historical. It is grammatical because it derives the meaning from the grammatical context—the definition of words and their grammatical forms and relationships. It is historical because it derives the meaning from the historical context, seeking to understand the words and expressions when they were written. It focuses on the natural or usual implication of an expression, the ordinary and apparent meaning of words in their literary, social, and theological context.

The Bible’s origin and message are unique, but fundamentally its use of language is not. Since it is divinely inspired, some of its statements have fuller implications or fulfillments than the original human authors realized, and its principles have applications in our culture and time that were unknown to the original readers. Nevertheless, these implications, fulfillments, and applications must be rooted in the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.

This approach results in a relatively literal interpretation of Scripture, but it does not deny the existence of figurative language. Sometimes the biblical writers used figures of speech, symbols, and special literary forms such as parables. When we determine by grammatical-historical analysis that they intended a statement to be figurative, then we must interpret it as such. Moreover, God sometimes established types: things that had real existence in the Old Testament but foreshadow truth in the New Testament. We can discern the divine intention by a careful study of both testaments.

The alternative to grammatical-historical interpretation is the allegorical method, which seeks to find a hidden, “spiritual” meaning beneath the apparent one. The interpreter comes to the text with his or her own beliefs and finds hidden parallels to them in the text. The problem with this method is that the interpreter imposes his or her own theology upon the text, and the Bible ceases to be the authoritative source of instruction, guidance, and correction.

As an example of the allegorical method, the fifth-century Catholic writer Jerome interpreted the good ground in the parable of the sower in terms of marriage. The plants that produced a hundredfold are virgins, the sixtyfold are widowed, and the thirtyfold are married. Obviously, this interpretation does not arise from the text itself but from an unbiblical presupposition that celibacy is more sacred than marriage.

 

Illumination by the Holy Spirit

By the grammatical-historical method, anyone can potentially understand the words of Scripture, including an unsaved person. But this method does not guarantee that such a person will integrate the concepts properly and make the appropriate application to his or her life. Carnal people cannot grasp the significance of God’s Word unless they turn to God, accept His Word by faith, and seek spiritual understanding. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14).

We need God’s Spirit to enlighten our minds and lead us into truth, which God has promised to do. “The Holy Ghost . . . shall teach you all things” (John 14:26). “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). And what better interpreter could we have than the divine Author who inspired the Book! The Spirit’s work does not supersede biblical preaching and teaching but helps us grasp God’s Word personally. Illumination by the Spirit does not replace Bible study but is essential to it. For the Word to profit us, we must mix it with faith (Hebrews 4:2). We should study the Word of God prayerfully, asking God to help us understand it and apply its message to our lives.

 

Excerpted and adapted from David K. Bernard, Understanding God’s Word (2005)