There are many different ways to interpret the Bible. These different approaches are based on different assumptions about the nature of the Bible and lead to different understandings about what the Bible says and often to contradictory conclusions. If we believe that there is only one truth, how can we determine which methods of interpretation are the ones we should use?
The aim of this article is to use the Bible itself to establish a method of interpretation. It is impossible to do this without interpreting the Bible to begin with. To avoid claims of circular reasoning, this process must be iterative: We take some meaning from the words we read – does this interpretation lead us to conclusions which are consistent with the rest of scripture? If not, then we must improve our understanding.
This article attempts to use references which can be easily understood, to demonstrate a method of interpretation which is consistent with the rest of scripture.
Have you not read?
The Pharisees give us many examples of the wrong approach to interpretation. In Matthew 12 they observe Jesus’ disciples plucking corn on the sabbath and accuse them of breaking the law of Moses (Exodus 20:9-11). They had read the law and thought that they needed to enact it in a legalistic way. Jesus rebukes them for this mistake, twice using the phrase “have you not read”? Of course, the Pharisees had read these words, but they hadn’t understood them correctly and so it is necessary for Jesus to teach them afresh. This shows that understanding the Bible isn’t simply a matter of knowing what it says, it also requires us to interpret the things we read in the right way.
A similar incident occurs in Mark 7 – the Pharisees find fault with the disciples for eating with unwashed hands. Jesus’ response is to quote Isaiah: “This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;”. He appeals to them to “hear and understand” (v14) that it is the things that come out of a man that defile him (v15).
At the root of this disagreement is the question of how they understand the cleansing regulations of the law. Jesus’ point is that what really matters isn’t being clean physically – instead his focus is on being clean in a spiritual sense. The Pharisees hadn’t understood this – they were copying the law without understanding it. The words were on their lips but not in their hearts (v6/Isaiah 29:13). Jesus expected them to understand that we are defiled by what comes out of our mouths.
The phrase “have you not read” also appears in Matthew 12:3,5, 19:4, 22:31, Mark 12:10,26 and Luke 6:3. In each case Jesus claims that they have read the words but not understood them correctly. He expects his disciples to do better than the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). As Jesus’ disciples we need to be aware of this. We too can read the word but not understand it. We need to do better than the Pharisees and strive to understand the true meaning of the law. How can we do this?
In Matthew 12 Jesus expands the Pharisees’ understanding of the sabbath teaching by pointing them to three more texts – David eating holy bread, the priests in the temple working on the sabbath, and a quote from Hosea 6. He is encouraging them to understand the specific details of the teaching in the Old Testament, to see how all these different aspects of the law hang together to teach a principle about what the sabbath is truly about.
For with the heart one believes
The problem that Jesus identified with the Pharisees is that “their heart is far from me (God)”. The problem with the Pharisees was that they weren’t considering the word in their heart, Jesus talks about the heart in the parable of the sower:
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.Luke 8:15
The approach Jesus is suggesting here is that the word of God must enter into the hearts of those that hear it in order for it to take effect. Unlike the Pharisees who read the law without understanding it, Jesus wants his disciples to allow his word to enter into their hearts so that it can bring forth fruit.
This teaching comes from the law:
But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.Deuteronomy 30:14
God gave his people his word and expected them to take it into their hearts, because it is from their heart that faith comes:
…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.Romans 10:9 & 10
This describes the process by which the word acts on our heart, generating a response of faith. It is not enough to simply read the words, it must take root in our heart. Then when we have the word in our heart it can bring forth fruit, which is pleasing to God. (Matthew 12:33-37)
Under pressure from the Jews, Peter separated from the Gentiles. He had not at that point understood that the gospel was for all nations.
In Acts 10 Peter has a vision about unclean animals. The literal understanding of this vision was that he was being asked to eat unclean animals (v13). Initially Peter is unsure what the vision means (v17). However, when he meets Cornelius: (v28) he says “God has shown me I should not call any man common or unclean”. He goes beyond the physical dream and relates the vision to his relationship with men. He connects this to the teaching that the gospel must come to the Gentiles and thereby understands the spiritual significance of it.
Peter’s vision is like a parable; why is this, when he really needed to understand a key truth? God could have given him this teaching directly. Yet by giving him a vision that required interpretation it becomes necessary for him to understand the teaching in his heart. This enables the word of God to bring out a response of faith in Peter rather than just following rules God gave him.
Comparing spiritual with spiritual
To understand the word, is it necessary to let it enter our heart. There is a danger here that we allow our own evil hearts (Gen 6:5) to influence our understanding. How can we be sure that the understanding we develop in our hearts is the right one?
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul contrasts the power of God’s wisdom to man’s wisdom (1 Cor 2:4-6). He reminds them that the wisdom of God has been hidden (1 Cor 2:7, Prov. 25:1. Matt 11:25, Deut 29:29), but has been revealed to them by his spirit (v10). His point is that the wisdom of God cannot be obtained by natural observation – eyes have not seen it (v9).
Paul is teaching them with the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12 & 13) and they need to have a spiritual mindset to understand him. He presents two choices: the natural man or the spiritual. The “natural man” cannot access God’s wisdom – it requires a spiritual way of thinking. To understand the things of God, you have to judge in a spiritual way (v14), which requires you to have the mind of Christ (v16).
In order to do this, it is necessary to “compare spiritual with spiritual” (v13). Because we don’t have the power of God within us, we cannot rely on our own “natural” way of thinking to understand the word of God. Instead we must rely on spiritual sources and compare them with each to discern what is true.
In the case of Paul and the Corinthians this meant comparing the words of Paul, in the spirit, with the words of Christ and the other apostles. In our case it means comparing the scriptures, the only source of spiritual wisdom available to us, to discern what is true.
This is easier said than done. Man’s wisdom can infiltrate our thinking in subtle ways. We have our own biases and concerns (like Peter). We have assumptions baked into thinking because of the culture we are in, and the language we use. If we use a translation of the Bible, this will contain elements of man’s thinking. History, archaeology, social context – these are other examples of man’s wisdom which can influence our thinking.
The concept of “comparing spiritual with spiritual” is very powerful in helping us to determine whether an interpretation of scripture is valid – if the interpretation relies on “non-spiritual” evidence, i.e. evidence from outside the Bible, then it is influencing our minds in a natural way, not a spiritual way. It is therefore necessary to quieten our natural man and try to develop within ourselves the mind of Christ so that we can understand the word in the way that God intended.
The importance of words
In all of the examples we have considered above there is an emphasis on the “word” – Mark 7:13, Luke 8:15, Romans 10:8, 1 Cor 2:13. In one sense this emphasis on the word serves to remind us of the source of the words – they are from God. However, it is also a useful reminder that the Bible itself is comprised of words. In order to understand it, we need to understand each word and the connections between the words. It is from these connections that we can compare spiritual with spiritual to build an understanding of the doctrines of the gospel.
Prophets and Holy Men of God
Those who change the truth of God’s Word view Scripture as the work of men, with individual books of the Bible standing completely unrelated to other Scriptures. For example, “When Matthew was writing, he didn’t intend for somebody to read some other Gospel and interpret his Gospel in light of what some other author (i.e. Gospel writers Mark, Luke or John) said. He had his own message.”Bart D. Ehrman, 2010
What we read in the Bible are the words of God, not the words of men (see Was the Bible written by God?). God’s infinitely deep thoughts1, so unlike our own2, are expressed in the words of the Bible. The teaching method employed by the Lord Jesus apostles was to compare different Scriptures to show what God thinks, and therefore what we should believe. They used different parts of the Old Testament, and new revelation given to them by the teaching of the Holy Spirit3, in order to show the truth of the gospel. Numerous references4 tell us this is the case, but we will consider one in more detail:
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.1 Corinthians 2:12 & 13
Here, we learn the words the apostle’s spoke were words taught them by the Holy Spirit. They were not speaking their own words, but God’s words. The way the Holy Spirit taught was to “compare spiritual things with spiritual”. This means they compared the Spirit-inspired words, taught in other Scriptures, in order to build up the full picture of the truth God was teaching. The truth of the gospel is contained within the individual words of Scripture and how they can be compared to each other. Because God has chosen the individual words of Scripture, they should be compared in order to interpret them.
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private (literally “on its own”) interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1: 20 & 21
This passage in 2 Peter 1:20-21 tells us much about the inspiration of the prophets of God and how it worked. In this article, we will see that a correct interpretation of Scripture is based on a sound understanding of inspiration: we cannot understand Scripture wholly and accurately without having a true understanding of how God caused that Scripture to be written. The small word “for” at the start of v21 is highlights this crucial dependence. No scripture can be privately interpreted, because prophecy did not come by the will of man, but by the moving of the Holy Spirit. These verses could be represented diagrammatically as follows:
This shows that the two statements in v21 are in polar opposition to each other. Prophets either spoke as a result of their own “will”, with their own particular reasons for writing Scripture, affected by their own bias and writing in the language of their day, reflecting the culture of their day. Or they “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”. These verses, and many others, are very clear that the latter is true!
What does “spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” mean?
A helpful example of the use of this word in another Scripture shows us what it was like to be “moved by the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 27:15, when Paul’s ship was in a storm, they found themselves unable to sail into the wind, so they “let her drive”. This is the same word as “moved” in 2 Peter 1:21. They couldn’t control the direction or the speed of the ship, such was the force of the wind. This is what it was like to be inspired, “moved by the Holy Spirit”.
An example of a prophet being moved to speak by the Holy Spirit is seen in Jeremiah. When he decided he would no longer prophesy, he said “His word was in my heart like a burning fire…and I was weary of forebearing and could not” (Jeremiah 20:9). God’s words5 would be spoken or written, no matter the “will of man”. Balaam also tried to speak in opposition to the word God put in his mouth but found his attempted cursings turned to blessings three times. He ended up saying “I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do good or bad of mine own mind; but what the LORD saith, that will I speak” (Numbers 24:13), the basis for the phrase “prophecy came not by the will of man” in 2 Peter 1:20.
The method of inspiration of the Scriptures is meant to affect our interpretation of the Scriptures. Because God has inspired it in this way so it is His words being spoken, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation”.
This means we cannot have our ‘own interpretation’ of Scripture. This is because Scripture wasn’t written because of the will of men, who were affected by their own bias. The men who wrote scripture were driven along by the Holy Spirit, so God’s Word is the exact words that God gave to them. This shows that the postmodern view, that all truth is subjective, relative to each person, is not the way to interpret Scripture. Scripture, as God’s Word, gives absolute truth: “thy Word is truth” (John 17v17). Because these “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”, we cannot say that we have a particular interpretation of a passage of Scripture which is true for us, while others have a different interpretation of the same passage which is true for them. The interpretation of Scriptures about any matter cannot be limited to a certain time or place because that would make those Scriptures of “private interpretation”: an interpretation that is based on the relative culture of the day, rather than the eternal Truth of God.
How should we interpret Scripture?
The Greek word translated “interpretation” is built from the word for “loosed”, meaning to untie a knot6. Peter is moved to draw on the example of Daniel, a prophet who interpreted prophetic visions. This gives us a model of how to interpret Scripture, which is all the work of the Spirit gift of prophecy7. This is outlined in the diagram below.
Daniel the prophet was renowned in Babylon as man “in whom was the spirit of the holy gods” (Daniel 5:11 compare to 2 Peter 1:21: a man who “spoke as he was moved by the Holy Spirit”) who could interpret dreams and dissolve doubts (Box C). When a terrified Belshazzar (Box D) saw the vision from God of the writing on the wall, he turned to God’s prophet for the interpretation, just as his father had done. Daniel had told Nebuchadnezzar that God was the one who could interpret the king’s prophetic dream of the multi-metalled statue (Box A). The light of wisdom was “loosed” by God and was only to be found in his presence. The only way to interpret these visions from God was to seek God’s own interpretation from God’s inspired prophet.
The same is true of us when looking to interpret God’s prophetic Word:
In order to correctly interpret Scripture, we need to:
- receive it as the Word of God, given to inspired men and thus entirely infallible;
- “compare spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:13), using words, patterns, shadows, tone, thematic links, quotes and types from elsewhere in the Bible to help us understand what we are reading.
The thinking of Bart D. Ehrman, as outlined above, is shown to be a method of interpretation which does not follow the Scriptural example, as he does not believe that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”. As 2 Peter 1:19 says, the “word of prophecy”, which was confirmed in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the beloved son of God, is one “whereunto we do well that we take heed”. That should be done by following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who “compared spiritual things with spiritual”, comparing Scripture with Scripture to understand the Truth8.
An example of the Lord Jesus’ interpreting Scripture like this is seen in Matthew 22:34-40. Here he compares two passages to show that “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10). He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5, about the wholehearted love of God, and from Leviticus 19:8, about loving your neighbour as yourself. He compares two passages that use the word “love” and shows that the whole Old Testament was written to encourage people to show that love to God and to each other. As Romans 13:8-10 shows, any other command under the law was briefly summed up in the command to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. Jesus is teaching that if you love God with all your heart, soul and mind, you will already love your neighbour as “yourself”. This is because the things that make up “yourself” (i.e. heart, soul and mind) are given completely to God.
Jesus’ words earlier in Matthew 22 also show us how Jesus viewed the words of Scripture. When proving the doctrine of the resurrection, he said:
But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.Matthew 22:31-32
Firstly, he views the words of Scripture as God speaking to generations thousands of years after they were initially spoken to the primary audience. If you are reading Scripture, God is speaking to you! Secondly, in quoting the words of God to Moses at the burning bush, he emphasises the tense of the verb to show the doctrine of the resurrection. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died hundreds of years before God spoke these words to Moses, but God still says “I am the God of Abraham…” He does not say ‘I was the God of Abraham…’ but speaks in the present tense. This is because he is the God of the living, not the dead. “For all live unto him” (Luke 20:38). To God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive because they are guaranteed to be raised from the dead and live forever in the Land of Israel, as he promised them. God, who gives life to the dead, “calls those things which be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17, another example of where even the choice of the tense of the verb is crucial to proving the point being made in the passage of Scripture9): the Jewish fathers have died but God calls them alive. Jesus proves this point using the tense of the verb. In Jesus’ interpretation, the small details of Scripture10 prove crucial doctrines as they are part of the word spoken by God and recorded by holy men of God, moved by the Holy Spirit. It is not limited to the single example that Jesus uses. His broader purpose is to show the level at which we should be reading the Scriptures to form our understanding of the truth. We should apply this rigour to all aspects of comparing spiritual with spiritual to search out the absolute truth.
1 Romans 11:33
2 Isaiah 55:8,9
3 John 14:26; 16:13,14
4 Luke 24:27, 44-46; Acts 17:2,3; 18:28; 26:22,23; 28:23
5 The emphasis is very often on the all the individual words, not just the Word as a general message, as 1 Corinthians 2:13 showed. For example, see Exodus 4:15 “thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth, and I will be with thy mouth and with his mouth”; Jeremiah 1:9 “I have put my words in thy mouth”; 1 Corinthians 2:13 “we speak… the words… which the Holy Spirit teacheth”. When Jeremiah is commanded to make a written copy of all that he had prophesied against Israel and Judah, God tells him to “write all the words that I have spoken unto thee”.
6 The basis of the Greek word or “root” is translated as “loose” in Mark 1:7, about untying sandals; Luke 13:15, untying an ox or ass to allow it to drink; and Luke 19:30-33, untying the ass Jesus rode into Jerusalem. It is also translated “dissolve” in 2 Peter 3:11,12, describing the destruction of the Jewish order of things in AD 70.
7 Prophets wrote Scripture: Luke 24:44; John 1:45; Romans 16:26. The “prophecy of the scripture” in 2 Peter 1:21 is not merely referring to Old Testament prophecies that foretell the future, but all the Old Testament Scriptures.
8 The only other occurrence of the Greek words for “private interpretation” are in Mark 4:34, where “when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples”. The only “private interpretation” we should desire is the one given by the Lord Jesus, not our own. He interpreted Scripture, which “cannot be broken” (John 10:35), by expounding individual words in their original context (e.g. John 10:34-36 cf Psalm 82; Matthew 22:31,32 cf Exodus 3) and relating them to his own life (Luke 24:27). If we are to be his disciples, we will believe his method of interpretation and follow it.
9 “…the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,)” (Romans 4:16,17). God spoke this to Abraham before he had specifically promised Isaac to Abraham (Genesis 17:4,5). Abraham had not even had his promised son, let alone become the “father of many nations”, but God says he had already made Abraham “a father of many nations”, because God is always faithful to his promises. This is the strength of the faith of Abraham.
10 Other examples of small details being crucial to doctrine are shown in the writings of the apostles:
The number of the noun: “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” (Gal 3:16) God used the singular word “seed” his promises to Abraham because he was speaking of Christ.
The order of the words: “For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, … first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;” (Heb 7:1,2) This is because righteousness must proceed peace, as will be the case in the Kingdom of God (Isa 32:17; Rom 5:1)