By Rev. Charles Cooper
The components of a wholistic biblical method of interpretation include literature, grammar, history, context, and theology. These five components are critical in discovering the Author/author’s intended meaning. Each component has very specific defining traits. Defining traits are the characteristics of something that are most necessary to its existence. For example an apple has defining traits: a stem, a core with seeds, outer skin, flesh and juices. These elements are necessary for an apple to be an apple. One must have the whole apple before he or she can eat it or make apple sauce or juice.
Begin any study with a literary analysis. The Bible contains seven distinct genres or types of literature: narrative, prophecy, wisdom, psalm, gospel, epistle and apocalyptic. Each type of literature has specific defining traits. Any attempt to interpret a verse or paragraph from one of these genres must be sifted through its defining traits. Narrative literature allows one to convey history in the form of facts, stories, accounts, and biographies from a theological perspective. Narrative literature usually gives a straight forward account of what happen without any commentary. The interpreter is not told to do or think anything. Prophetic literature utilizes “thus says the Lord” to make His people aware of His will concerning a particular issue. Their response will result in God’s present and future actions. Poetic literature allows the author to express his emotional state without reservation. Gospel literature conveys the earthly life of Jesus Christ, documents His teachings, and outlines the basic chronology of His life. Epistolary literature presents ideas, concepts, doctrines, etc. often in the form of an argument. Wisdom literature teaches basic truth concerning how one lives wisely. Apocalyptic literature communicates a message of hope to God’s people in a time of tribulation. It employs various figures of speech, narrative, poetry, and prophetic utterances. Apocalyptic literature has nine specific defining traits. An interpreter attempting to discover the meaning of a verse without a full understanding of these traits will make errors in interpretation. Few Bible students pay close attention to literary analysis; this often leads to errors in interpretation and application. That is a very broad statement, but it is altogether true.
After refreshing your memory concerning the nature of the specific genre under consideration, a grammatical analysis is the next step. It is logical to examine grammar next since it is inherently more consistent than the remaining elements of the interpretive process. Sentence structure does not change. Subjects, verbs, objects, and modifiers are the tools of communication. But be warned! Knowing how a word functions in a given sentence seldom is the determinant in discovering a particular passage’s meaning. Often the grammar will only serve to help the interpreter formulate the right questions which, when answered, provide insight into the meaning of the text.
Grammatical analysis includes the area of individual words. Words tend to evolve over time. Word studies help the interpreter to trace the development of a word from its beginnings to the time period of the particular writing under consideration. Few words start and maintain the same exact meaning from beginning to end. Usually a word will pass through several stages before a fixed nuance is settled upon. Different authors will use words differently. An interpreter makes a great mistake in assuming a word always means the same thing regardless of who used it and when. This type of error most often leads to faulty interpretations. An example of this type of error occurs with the word “saved.” To mistakenly conclude that it only refers to spiritual salvation from hell and eternal separation from God will lead to faulty interpretations in many passages in both the Old and New Testament. The term can also refer to physical deliverance from sickness or a dangerous situation.
Grammatical analysis also covers grammatical structure. Grammatical structure deals with the relationship between or arrangement of terms within a given passage of Scripture. At this point, an interpreter will need to be very familiar with basic grammar. Relationships like purpose, result, time, concession, means, manner, condition, comparison, and contrast are indicated by adverbs and adjectives. Phrases and clauses will also indicate these relationships. After grammar school, English speakers normally do not think much about grammar. Though grammar is used everyday, grammatical analysis is not. Adverb clauses are the work-horses of the English language, but few can describe, define, or state their importance. However, grammatical analysis is crucial to the hermeneutical process. No part of a grammatical diagram should be taken for granted; the importance of each word, phrase, or clause may be relative, but understanding the Author/author’s intended meaning is impossible without each piece of the puzzle. Grammar will not provide the answer to the problem, but it will certainly limit the possibilities. When Paul writes “the love of God constrains us,” several options are available to the interpreter. The New Testament uses two different words for “love.” Is it emotional love or intellectual love? That little word “of” could mean “God’s love for me” or “my love for God.” Which does Paul mean here? A word study would answer the first question and further study would answer the second.
The third component of a wholistic biblical method of interpretation is historical analysis. Concern yourself with the time period and the impact of the events of the day in which the text was written. Take note of beliefs, social norms, and material traits of the biblical world that may have influenced the writers of the biblical text. Ask yourself: (1) Where is the author and his audience? (2) What political, economic and social situations are confronting them? (3) What cultural reference(s) need to be defined? (4) What is the purpose of the writer for the whole book? The Bible was not written in a vacuum. The writers and the audience of the biblical text were confronted daily with situations and circumstances which influenced their thoughts and conduct.
The fourth component is contextual analysis. All things being equal, context will usually limit the range of interpretive possibilities and will most effectively qualify the right answer. Each word must be considered within the sentence. Each sentence must be considered within the paragraph. Each paragraph must be considered within the chapter. Each chapter must be considered within the book. Each book must be considered within the whole Bible. The Olivet Discourse, as recorded by Luke, indicates that both the disciples and all the people heard Jesus’ sermon on end-times. Matthew indicates only the disciples heard the sermon. Mark indicates specifically that Peter, James, John, and Andrew heard it. It is from the context that these truths are gleaned.
The last component of a wholistic biblical method of interpretation is theological analysis. By no means am I suggesting that this step is last in importance. Rather, theological consideration is left last because the whole of Scripture is the focus. Theological analysis concerns itself with God and the continual revelation of His will for the world. In attempting to understand a passage of Scripture, the interpreter must be aware of past revelation and how the passage under consideration advances it. Thus the two primary questions theological analysis is concerned with are (1) What does the passage say about God; and (2) What does the text say about God’s will for His creation?
Theological analysis must take into consideration that God’s revelation of Himself is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no greater revelation than Jesus Christ. How God unraveled human history progressively to bring His Son into the world is the thread that runs throughout Scripture. Equally important is the fact that human history is moving to a definitive conclusion. Every passage of Scripture deals either directly or indirectly with these issues. The interpreter’s job is to figure out how each passage contributes to our understanding of these two important truths.
We have purposely simplified our explanation of the hermeneutical process in order to help Bible students understand how they themselves can study Scripture. However, this shorter statement on the hermeneutical process should be understood as an overview of the topic rather than a complete and exhaustive discussion of these matters. The beginning Bible student would do well to give serious attention to the whole matter of Bible interpretation before drawing conclusions about difficult passages of Scripture. Sola Scriptura hopes to be a help to those serious about Bible study.