Reprinted from eParousia #2, March, 2003
“Since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another,
I will rather acknowledge that I do not understand what is written.”
Justin Martyr – 2nd Century AD
We all struggle at times to understand the Scriptures. The area of prophecy is often especially difficult to understand due to its apocalyptic nature, with dragons, beasts, imagery, etc. This difficulty has resulted in scores of various views of what the Bible teaches about the future. We have premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. And within each of these camps there are a many different opinions on the details. Many of these disagreements are a result of how we interpret the Bible.
As we read the Scriptures, we all must be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11. The residents of Berea were commended for searching the Scriptures to “see whether these things were so”. Searching the Scriptures involves not only reading the text, but interpreting what is written there as well.
Hermeneutics has been defined as the science and art of biblical interpretation. There have been huge tomes written on hermeneutics, but we want to boil it down to the essence of interpreting the Bible. What method should we use? What are some principles that should guide our interpretation of the Bible?
Historically, there have been 3 basic methods of biblical interpretation espoused by scholars. These are the spiritual method, the allegorical method and the literal (or face value) method. Let’s look at each of these briefly to determine the correct method of interpretation.
Spiritual: The practice of interpretation in which the interpreter finds a broader, or figurative, or typical meaning given to the passage by the Holy Spirit. This method of interpretation looks for multiple meanings in the text, going beyond the literal meaning, to what have been called the literal, allegorical, tropological (moral) and anagogical senses of the passage. These are the deeper meanings that the Holy Spirit has “hidden” beneath the literal text, and it is the job of the interpreter to draw them out. The problem inherent with this method of interpretation is that the interpreter becomes the judge of the meaning of the text. There is no objective standard by which to measure the accuracy of our interpretation. Ten people can interpret the text in ten different ways as they are led by the Holy Spirit, and we would be unable to say that one is right and the other nine are incorrect. Who is to say what God intended us to understand?
Allegorical: The method of interpreting a text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense, hidden beneath the text. A common theme of allegorical interpretation is to assign definitions to common terms. For example, water represents the Holy Spirit, tree represents new life, rainbow represents promise, valley represents sin, and so on. For allegorical interpreters, every biblical story, no matter how seemingly mundane or boring, is meant to convey spiritual, deeper truth. The literal understanding is ignored and seen as merely a vehicle for the deeper spiritual meaning. Once again, the problem with this understanding of Scripture is that each person can define terms as they see fit and see whatever deeper truths they want to see. There is no objective “dictionary of allegories” that we consult to understand Scripture. Each person can have their own interpretation and there is no way of saying who is right and who is wrong.
Face Value (Literal): The method of interpreting a text that interprets terms in their normal, customary designation. Each word is given the basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking. This method has also been called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. In this method, the primary goal is to understand the original intent of the author when he wrote. The underlying assumption of the face value method is that God intended to communicate His word to man so that we could understand it. God did not try and hide truths in the Scriptures; His intent is not to make it as difficult as possible to understand. Rather, He wants us to read and understand His word. The apostle Paul says the same thing to the Corinthians when he writes: “For we write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end.” (2 Cor. 1:13).
Let’s go over 5 important principles of a good face value hermeneutic:
1. Seek to understand the author/Author’s intended meaning. As stated above, the overriding principle of our Bible study must be to understand what the human author (and divine Author) intended to communicate. The only way to accurately do this is to take words in their normal meaning. As the adage goes, “if the plain sense makes sense you have the right sense.”
2. All Scripture must be taken in its proper context. This means that the interpretation of Scripture should be looked at in the light of the verses and book in which the passage is found. The argument of the author must be taken into account. The historical and cultural context should be remembered as well. This is perhaps the most violated of all the principles and is, in my opinion, the number one violation of biblical interpretation which plagues the church today. A text without context is a pretext!
3. Always compare Scripture with other Scripture. In other words, Scripture is its own best commentary. All the passages touching on a particular matter need to be studied and harmonized before truth is found. If one is studying the return of Christ, then one needs to compare passages from Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, etc. Only once all relevant passages have been studied and compared, can we be sure of our interpretation. Martin Luther said, “The best interpreter of Scripture is other Scripture.”
4. Determine the literal references of figures of speech that provide comparison, substitution, and amplification. Scripture, like any serious literature, uses figures of speech. These include similes, metaphors, hyperbole, idioms, metonymies, parallelism, etc. It is our job to recognize these figures of speech and discover what the author intended in his usage. What is the literal reference the author wishes us to understand?
5. Recognize the near/far implications and applications in prophetic passages. It is common in prophetic literature for there to be both a near application and a far application to a certain prophecy. A few examples will illustrate this. A near future judgment will be predicted on a nation followed by a prediction of far future judgment on the whole world. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation were relevant to their immediate audience and included specific items of praise and condemnation by Christ. These letters also mention the Coming of Christ and are thus relevant to the final generation which will be on earth when He returns. And finally, there are several OT passages which speak of the two Comings of Christ back to back, as if they were one event. This is a phenomenon called “telescoping”. J. Barton Payne says, “Biblical prophecy may leap from one prominent peak in predictive topography to another, without notice of the valley between which may involve no inconsiderable lapse in chronology” (J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, p. 137).
If we are to understand biblical prophecy (or any other part of Scripture) we must approach the Bible with a humble heart, relying on the Holy Spirit, with the conviction that God’s Word is true and cannot contradict itself. And the bottom line of our study must be obedience and submission to God’s Word. As A.W. Tozer said, “When you find the truth of Scripture that truth always stands in judgment of you, you never stand in judgment of it.”
May God bless us and guide us as we seek to understand His word and obey His will.
This article was originally published through eParousia, Sola Scriptura’s monthly end-times e-newsletter.