The History of the Bible, Part 3—Interpretation

Interpretation: Unlocking the Bible’s Full Meaning

By the step of transmission, God’s breath, from its intangible reality, was received and recorded as written text, readable and knowable by mankind. The next step, Bible translation, involved the process of freeing the written manuscripts from the confines of their ancient tongues and rendering them into modern languages.

The capstone of receiving and translating the Bible is understanding the intended meaning of its contents. The Bible may be translated into our language but for us to understand what we’re reading, we need the proper interpretation.

God’s Word is food to us (Matt. 4:4), yet for it to nourish us we need the Word to be opened to us, bringing us into proper understanding. Therefore, the Psalmist delighted not only in the Lord’s word (Psa. 119:16) but also in the “opening of [the] words,” which “gives light, / Imparting understanding to the simple” (verse 130). Proper spiritual interpretation opens the Word so that we can perceive its proper meaning.

Biblical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the study of the methods or principles of interpretation. It has historically involved precise attention to the grammar and logic of the Bible, as well as to the Bible’s psychological and historical contexts. The goal of hermeneutics is to develop an interpretational key, a governing principle that stands apart from any individual passage, to present the central message of the Bible.

It is necessary to interpret the Bible guided by a hermeneutic key, particularly in rendering challenging passages, resolving apparent discrepancies, and assembling the central message of the Bible developed through various passages. Throughout history, interpreters of the Bible have developed different hermeneutic keys, touching on various aspects of God’s interactions with and activities related to man.

The highest and best hermeneutic should ultimately reveal not only what God does but also who God is according to His intrinsic being.

Tools of Bible Interpretation

A major deficiency of written text is its inability to convey the tone or sense of dialogue as fully and clearly as an animate speaker could. For this reason, in the Old Testament time when the Scriptures were read aloud to God’s people, the reading was accompanied by “interpreting and giving the sense, so that they understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).

Written translation by itself is in one sense an elementary form of interpretation; however, with translation alone, it’s as if we were left with only a transcript of a discussion, without a clear sense of the speaker’s tone, inflection, pacing, volume, even gestures and movements. Such paraverbal and nonverbal elements are regarded by studies of communications as accounting for 90 percent of what is understood and perceived.1 Thus, we can begin to understand the difficulty; we need not only an accurate translation, but also a proper interpretation to fully grasp the sense of a passage of Scripture.

The hermeneutic study of Scripture involves establishing a solid and “complex set of rules for finding and expressing the true sense of the inspired writers.”2 Such study can be neither light nor cursory, and while formalizing and standardizing a basis for interpretation cannot eliminate discrepancies among different interpretations, it can expose a host of illogical, irrelevant, or otherwise improper interpretations.

Having an external framework for evaluating passages in a work as complex and as rich as the Bible, which contains the writings of over 40 authors in an array of literary genres, allows us to see a central thought or theme in the Scriptures as a context for assembling the intended meaning of the Word.

The aim of hermeneutic study is to capture the sincere and full sense of each passage of the Bible. Word studies, lexicons, and commentaries are tools used to study several facets of the Scriptures:

  1. the language of the text—requiring a knowledge of the original languages of the sacred texts and their grammar and logic;
  2. the context of the text—the relation of a particular passage to its surrounding verses and the overall context of its book;
  3. the psychology of the writer and the historical context; and
  4. the items of truth discussed by the particular passage, for example, justification, sanctification, salvation, etc., according to their full definition and development throughout the Scriptures.

Then, based on the textual elements above, hermeneutics will tend to expound a passage along particular lines of meaning: (1) literal, (2) moral, (3) allegorical, or (4) anagogical (prophetic).

Parallelism, interpreting the Scriptures by means of the Scriptures based on the belief in the unity of Scripture, is another prevailing hermeneutic principle.

All of these approaches to interpretation suggest a viewpoint that underlies the text of the Scriptures, stands apart from individual passages, and unifies the message of the Bible. The body of these principles supplies the hermeneutic key by which one interprets and understands the Bible.

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The Historical Progression of Interpretation

Through 2,000 years of church history, we can see a spectrum of interpretations that guided the understanding and teaching of prominent Bible teachers. Several interpretational keys have advanced our understanding of the Scriptures:

  • Law and Gospel: Martin Luther, long heralded as the “father of the Reformation,” applied the distinction between the law and the gospel as the governing principle in his understanding and teaching of the entire Bible. In fact, Luther summarized the entire Old Testament as being the law, representing God’s demands upon man and exposing man’s inability to fulfill these demands, and the New Testament as the gospel, being a book full of the glad tidings of God’s promises through Christ, particularly to justify man by faith. Luther stated that “[t]here is no book in the Bible in which both are not found. God has always placed side by side both law and promise.“3 Luther encouraged others to read the Bible based on this principle: “Therefore, hold to this distinction, and no matter what books you have before you, be they of the Old or of the New Testament, read them with a discrimination [of law and gospel].”4
  • Covenants: Reformed theology, grounded in the teachings of John Calvin, interprets the Bible based on two covenants—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. While there are passages that seem to support Calvin’s covenant theology, this particular interpretation needs a proper balancing and an understanding of the richness of the divine truth.
  • Sanctification: John Wesley’s interpretation of the Bible introduced the teaching of the eradication of sin through both instantaneous and gradual sanctification. Thus, man is both justified by faith and sanctified by faith.
  • Dispensations: John Nelson Darby, a leader of the Plymouth Brethren, greatly advanced the understanding of dispensations whereby God deals with man in different ways in different ages according to His purpose in that particular age. The Brethren understood the cutting straight of the word referred to in 2 Timothy 2:15 to be the dividing of the Bible into its various dispensations: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom.

All of these interpretational keys have Scriptural basis, and for the most part they advanced our understanding of the Bible. But the simultaneous existence of multiple valid interpretational guides—not to mention many conflicting ones as well—suggests that logical soundness and a basis in Scripture alone can’t render a hermeneutic key as fully satisfactory. An interpretation of Scripture, while generally applied to the entire text, may be 100 percent correct, but in scope it may pertain to only part of the revelation in the Bible.

For example, some interpretations of the Bible may account for God as the Righteous Judge, as the Creator, or as our Heavenly Father, but do not offer an explanation for God’s being triune.5

This leads us to search for an ultimate interpretational key to the Scripture, one that not only agrees with other sound interpretational keys and is entirely supported by the text of the Scripture, but that also encompasses the full revelation of the Bible.

The Master Key

What then is the “master key,” the ultimate interpretational key to the Scripture that unlocks its full meaning to us?

As stated previously, the highest and best hermeneutic should reveal not only what God does, but also who God is according to His intrinsic being. The Bible reveals that God in His intrinsic being is the Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

From Genesis to Revelation, the master key to unlocking the Bible’s meaning is the divine economy of the Triune God.

Simply stated, God’s economy is God’s plan and way to impart Himself into mankind in order to gain His expression.

The words “God’s economy” are from 1 Timothy 1:4. The word “economy,” translated from the original Greek word oikonomia, means an arrangement or administration, primarily within a household. God has His economy, His arrangement, and this economy encompasses everything God does and everything He is.

God’s speaking has passed through the incredible journey of transmission and translation. Not only so, but by the step of interpretation, especially with the discovery of the master key of God’s economy, mankind can understand the Bible’s intended meaning.

The economy of God is the master key that opens our understanding and allows us to see the central revelation of the entire Bible. We can see that throughout the Bible the Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—dispenses Himself into man. By this dispensing, God attains His purpose of having His expression through man for eternity.