Interpretive Methods

According to 2 Peter 1:19-21, the Holy Spirit is the Divine Author of Scripture.  It is He Who inspired the human writers to record His words, using their vocabularies, purposes, and writing styles.  The primary goal, then, is to discover what the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired the writers to write as they did.

A clear secondary goal is that the Truth be put into practice.  Application of Truth means Obedience to that Truth as given, for the ultimate purposes and desires of God, setting His above our own.  Application must always come after proper study and interpretation, not before.

Truth is, by its very definition, exclusive.  Truth does not change with culture or personal desires, it remains firm and secure.  Application, on the other hand, can be varied and change.

While Scripture is a literary work, it is also a supernatural work.  The Truth can be discovered only as the Lord reveals it, as Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 16:17.  However, this does not mean that there are not principles to follow in study and interpretation. 

Interpretation, then, is the work by which the student of Scripture reads and researches what the Divine Author inspired.  God is communicating through His Written Word.  Proper interpretation is imperative if we are to discover the Truth that he intends.  


I.  The Historical/Grammatical Method of Interpretation

     A.  Scripture is read according to the literal, or normal meaning of the given words, grammatical structure, and context (context is the historical situation).

     B.  If another meaning is intended, the writer will make it clear that the literal/normal meaning is not the one intended.  There is no need to create a “spiritualized” meaning apart from the author’s clear intent.

     C.  Context determines the use and meaning of a word, sentence, paragraph, section, chapter, and book.

 The Historical/Grammatical method does not require that anyone be more spiritually attuned than another.  It is the method most useful for reading and study, and will yield the most in understanding by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.


II.  Some General Considerations

       A.  Study of Scripture involves three main aspects:  Observation, Interpretation, Application.  This order must be maintained.

       B.  The goal is: discover the Truth intended and put it into regular practice.  When improper methods are used the Truth becomes vague and confusing, resulting in divisiveness and wrong living.

       C.  Application can NEVER come before Observation and Interpretation.

       D.  The Authors Intent, not the Readers Response, is what determines Truth.


III.   Improper/Inefficient Methods of Interpretation

In the following, a list of methods will be defined and examples given of proper and improper use. 


      A. Devotional Method of Interpretation

This is a very popular method.  The goal is find some spiritual truth so it can be applied to daily life, resulting in spiritual growth – a worthy goal.  The danger of this method is that the authors intent is often ignored in favor of “does it work for me in my current situation?”  Words and phrases are regularly lifted out of their context and a “practical meaning” applied.  It is often described as “looking for a personal word from the Lord”.  This is an example of placing Application before Study, which makes the application the standard of truth rather than truth the standard of application.

     1.  Proper use:  In the 7 letters to the 7 churches of Revelation 2,3, Jesus is presented as having certain attributes that He wanted emphasized to that particular church.

          a. Why these particular attributes and not others?

          b. What does He want this particular church to know and do?

          c.  What does this mean to me?

    2.  Improper use:  In John 2, Jesus performs His first miracle by turning water into wine at a marriage feast in Cana.  An improper interpretation would be:

        a.  My life is tasteless and plain, no one wants what I have to offer…..

        b.  Jesus can turn my (your) life into something sweet and useful, something that will be applauded by others……

While this seems like a possible application, it is not what the author, John, intended.  To make such an application is to miss the Truth intended and to misinterpret God’s Word.


      B.  Spiritualizing Method of Interpretation

Similar to the Devotional Method, often the two are combined.  This method reads the literal text, but then looks for secret, hidden meanings not readily clear.  It is not a “personal word” as in the Devotional method, but rather is a spiritual truth or word that anyone can apply.  It is highly subjective, and has no way to confirm it as truth in Scripture.

      1.  Proper use:  In Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul is imprisoned, surrounded by military guards.  As he considers the armor worn by the soldiers.  Even though the pieces of armor are literal, he assigns a spiritualized meaning to them.  The context clearly indicates that this is what the Apostle Paul meant.

          a.  There are allusions to spiritual warfare, and spiritual armor is required

          b.  Every true Believer needs to wear the armor

          c.  All of the pieces are necessary

          d.  How should one make this true in daily living?  Where and when is the spiritual war?

     2.  Improper use:  In Joshua 6, Jericho is defeated by a supernatural intervention of God, apart from any human effort.  The wrong interpretation would be:

        a. “Praising God loudly while waiting for Him to miraculously defeat the enemies is His plan for spiritual war.”  

        b.  There is no need for any human effort at all, except to praise and wait.  Remember, “they that wait on the Lord….. (Isaiah 40:31)”  

This ignores the context of the battle, that many other battles before and after were much different, the fact that this was a one-time event, and misuses Scripture verses.


     C.  Allegorizing Method of Interpretation

This method was actually popular in the early century after the church began.  Basically, it takes a passage, transforms it to a story, and then associates every point of the story with a hidden, deeper meaning.  It requires a great deal of personal imagination.

In Allegory, the normal reading and meaning of the text is totally ignored in favor of associative meanings.  An example in Christian literature is The Pilgrims Progress, in which each and every aspect means something other than what is on the surface.

This is a very dangerous method and has very little use in real study.

     1.  Proper use:  In Galatians 4:24, the Apostle Paul refers to the the enmity between Law, Hagar, and Promise, Sarah.  He says that the enmity between these two women is an allegory.  Therefore, we see that it is clearly used in such a manner, and there is no need to seek for a hidden meaning.

    2.  Improper use:  In Joshua 5:13-15, the man with a sword might be the Church, the sword is the message of the church, and so on.  This is not the truth intended.  The Old Testament is used the most often in Allegorizing.


      D.  Scholasticism and Pietism

These are actually two opposite extreme methods, one in reaction to the other.  

Scholasticism: this is the pure academic study, looking for nothing more than facts and details.  It might be also described as the purely scientific method of discovery.  No practical application is sought, only factual information.

Pietism: this method is not concerned at all with any facts or information, it only looks for application and completely ignores and study of the text.

    1.  Proper use of Scholasticism:  Defining the words and phrases describing the humiliation of the Lord Jesus from Philippians 2:5-11.  Learning this about the Lord Jesus is a great encouragement and calls for personal application.

    2.  Proper use of Pietism:  In the 7 letters to the 7 churches in Revelation 2,3, the Lord Jesus knows about the people in the churches.  The application might be, how does He know me and what should I do about what He knows?

    3.  Improper use of Scholasticism:  In John 5:39 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and other leaders because they know the Scriptures but don’t practice them.  In other words, they were experts in the facts but did not live them.

    4.  Improper use of Pietism:  In John 4:24 Jesus says that worship is in spirit and in truth.  Pietism would make “worship” to be any activity they pleased, and assume that truth was found within worship.  Again, this ignores the text and the context.


IV.   Conclusions

         A.  Interpretive methods have their place but must be exercised with care.  The normal meaning is always the best to begin with unless the context itself requires otherwise.  The Historical/Grammatical method is always the preferred method.

         B.  Each of the methods described has a proper and improper use.  

         C.  Context will always be the determining factor in interpretation.   

         D.  There are some other methods that have no place whatsoever in interpretation of Scripture:

              1.  ELS, or “equadistant letter sequencing”.  This is using a computer to search for patterns of letters and find secret messages within a message.

              2. Numerology:  this is an extreme exaggeration of using numbers to mean something on a permanent basis,  For instance, one writer says that the number 5 is always about grace, and even cites that verses with a 5 follow this pattern.  There do appear to be some numbers used frequently in Scripture, but to assign them a spiritual meaning for everything else is false.

The Divine Author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, can and will guide those who study into His Truth.  Be diligent in study, don’t accept things too quickly, and you will discover the wonderful truths that God has given to His people.

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