How to Properly Interpret Scripture
In this article, I'm going to address a question crucial to our dealing with any aspect of Christian doctrine: how do we correctly interpret what the Bible is actually saying to us?
What I'm about to share is how I examine the Scriptures when I am seeking what God has to say as I write. Most of it is common sense. Unfortunately, common sense seems to leave many theologians when it comes to the Scriptures and it is both amazing and appalling to see some of the screwed-up doctrinal statements of many denominations.
On top of that, there are so-called Christians who misuse the Bible to preach hate against various groups: racial minorities, interracial marriages, homosexuals, Jews, and those with whom they disagree doctrinally/politically, to name just a few.
Even worse, we also have Christianity-based cults — such as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor scientific), Seventh-Day Adventism, and a host of others — who lift certain verses and passages out of the Bible and misinterpret them to serve their own doctrinal ends and include contradictory extra-biblical texts to their lists of what they consider to be scripture.
So how can we determine where these groups have gone astray so we can avoid being deceived ourselves? How can we be certain we are clearly proclaiming the Truth to members of such groups who have bought into the lies of man's religion and the devil?
It boils down to a ten-dollar theological term called hermeneutics which means "how we interpret the Bible." Exegesis is the actual process of digging into the Bible on a particular topic or verse. What I'm about to share with you are the best set of hermeneutical guidelines I've ever found, written in plain and non-theological language.
Avoid Eisegesis at All Costs
This terms sounds like some sort of dread disease and, when dealing with Scripture, it is indeed precisely that — and there is an epidemic of it running around the Church today! Eisegesis (aka front-loading) is a Greek word that simply means, "interpreting the Bible to suit one’s own ideas, opinions, preconceptions, prejudices, or cultural norms."
Eisegesis is the polar opposite of exegesis.
We are to always approach the Word of God with a teachable attitude the Zen Buddhist folks have termed shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind,” a concept I learned while studying the martial arts. Its Western counterpart, tabula rasa or "blank slate" expresses the same concept.
Applied here, these concepts mean we never consider ourselves to be experts — regardless of our level of education, physical/emotional/spiritual maturity, public renown, or personal accomplishments — but read the Scriptures with fresh eyes every time we crack the book.
The practical outworking of this mindset means allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us as He sees fit, not according to what we already assume or think we know, constantly holding our viewpoints up to the yardstick of the Word and adjusting them as needed, imitating the Berean believers of the early church, who:
'…received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.' — Acts 17:10b
What Kind of Doctrine Are You Dealing With?
There are 3 levels of doctrine within Christianity:
These are the beliefs which define the essence of Christianity. In other words, if you refuse to believe one or more of the essential Christian doctrines, you are not saved, not born-from above, and not going to heaven, period, without exception.
Examples of essential doctrine include:
- One True God
- The Virgin Birth
- The Simultaneous 100% Divinity & Humanity of Christ
- The Depravity of Man
- The Vicarious Redemption by Jesus at the Cross
- The Efficacy of Jesus' Blood Alone to Remove All Sin
- The New Birth
- Jesus is the Only Way to Father God
- The Inerrancy of the Bible (in the original languages)
- The Bible is the sole authority on faith & practice for believers
- The Return of Jesus to the Earth at the end of time
- The Last Judgement
- and so on…
The bottom line concerning essential doctrines is this: if a group of people doesn't believe the essential doctrines, they are not your brothers/sisters in Christ and are still lost in their sins no matter how pious they may seem or how many good/religious works they may do.
Heresy & Cults
Essential doctrines which have been negated, redefined, or warped into something inconsistent with the rest of God's Word are called "heresies." Naturally, those who preach and teach heresy are called "heretics." Groups of heretics adhering to the same set of false doctrines are called "cults." As Christians, we are not allowed to fellowship with heretics as if they were our brethren in Christ and indeed we are commanded to expel them from our local churches.
Peripheral doctrines are those which are specifically defined in the Word of God, but are never used to determine whether you are going to heaven or not.
Examples of peripheral doctrine are:
- Water Baptism
- Holy Communion
- The Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues
- And so on…
So we read in the Word that we are are to be water baptized by immersion, we're to celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection by taking communion, we can and should be baptized with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, we should evangelize a lost, hurting, and dying world, and "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Are we going to hell if we don't do any of these things? Not a chance!
We will not experience the blessings granted from our conformity to these doctrines, but our eternal destiny is absolutely secure because our standing before God is based upon the blood of Jesus having washed away our sin through the finished work of the cross and nothing else, period.
The bottom line concerning peripheral doctrines is this: if a group of people do not agree with us about any of these, they are still our brothers/sisters in Christ and their sins have been washed away, though they are not experiencing the full measure of God's blessing upon them. We are not only encouraged, but commanded to maintain Christian fellowship with them.
I do have to say that if you are not baptized in the Holy Spirit (aka the charismatic experience), you're going to have an extremely hard time accurately exegeting a goodly portion of the New Testament, especially passages such as 1 Corinthians, chapters 12 and 14, for example. A non-charismatic trying to properly exegete the charismatic experience is like a born-deaf person trying to explain music.
Traditions deal with how various Christian groups implement the peripheral doctrines as well as how they conduct their worship services. Examples of this are:
- Is the offering taken up by passing receptacles (plates, velvet bags, paper paint buckets, etc.), or by members coming to the front of the auditorium/sanctuary and depositing their gifts in containers held by ushers, or is there an offering box somewhere in the church building? Are there offering envelopes or not? Are those envelopes uniquely numbered for each family or are they generic ones found at the back of each row of pews/seats?
- Is there a song service or not? If there is, is it accompanied by musical instruments or sung a cappella? Is there a choir, worship team, and/or song leader? Is the instrumental accompaniment done with an organ, piano, or an ensemble/band? Are the instruments acoustic or amplified and of what type? Is the musical style black-gospel, country-gospel, Christian contemporary, or traditional high church? Are there hymnals or are the lyrics projected on screens at the front of the auditorium? Do congregants stand, sit, clap their hands, raise their hands, dance in the aisles, shout, wave flags or handkerchiefs, shout "amen"/"glory"/etc. or any combination thereof?
- Is communion taken by going to the front and kneeling at a railing or are the elements passed among those seated in the seats/pews? Is the bread represented by specialized wafers, matzo or oyster crackers, or real loaves of bread? Is the "fruit of the vine" grape juice or wine? Is it drunk from a common chalice or little plastic glasses? Are the communion elements distributed in pre-packaged units containing both a wafer and juice? Are the elements served by pastoral staff, acolytes, deacons, ushers, or random members of the congregation? Is communion taken weekly, monthly, quarterly, or only on special occasions?
- Are water baptisms performed in a purpose-built baptismal tank somewhere in the auditorium, in a swimming pool, in a nearby body of water (lake, river, ocean), or in a watering tank for livestock? Do water baptisms take place every service or at some longer interval?
- Etc., etc.
The reason traditions rank at the bottom of the doctrinal hierarchy is quite simple: nowhere in the Word does it say how these particular tasks are to be accomplished, if it mentions them at all. And it's important to note that the only people who Jesus condemned during his earthly ministry were those who elevated their traditions to the level of — or superseded — essential and peripheral doctrines, or used their traditions to put the masses into spiritual bondage and hinder them from connecting with God.
The bottom line on traditions is that Christians of good conscience and strong faith should be able to disagree with one another concerning any of these without rancor, strife, or division. And no tradition should ever be practiced that contradicts either essential or peripheral doctrines.
Be Only As Specific As The Bible Is
If the Bible is:
Specific & Direct — Be Equally Specific & Direct
For example, God is very specific in a variety of passages concerning His attitude toward adultery and fornication. There is absolutely no set of circumstances or combination of personalities which can ever make these sins acceptable in the eyes of God, period. Same for idolatry, murder, lust, theft, covetousness, falsehood, and Christians marrying non-believers. He is also very succinct concerning Jesus being the only Way to the Father.
Wherever God is direct, specific, and uncompromising, God expects us to be equally so. Being wishy-washy about such matters amounts to compromising God's Word — never a safe thing to do! — and opens the door for Satan to bring all kinds of deception to those involved.
Only verses which are clear and specific qualify as foundations for establishment of essential and peripheral Christian doctrine.
Vague or Non-Specific — Be Equally Vague & Non-specific
The Bible doesn't contain everything there is to know about God, but it does contain everything God decided we need to know about Him so we can be successful in our relationships with Him and our fellow man. That being said, the Bible sometimes doesn't address certain topics with the level of directness we hunger for — we want everything to be stated with the same degree of specificity as "Thou shalt not steal.".
Why do we humans so hate ambiguity or vagueness when dealing with God? Two reasons, I believe:
- Because we have an inherent human-racial fear of getting on His bad side rather than trusting that He was vague for an excellent reason, whether we can ascertain His purpose(s) for doing so or not.
- Because we have this insane flesh-based compulsion to "figure God out" so we can be in control (knowledge = power), instead of our simply trusting in His love and submitting to Him as our Master.
Why is it insane? Because we continue to do so despite failing in every attempt we make. As they say in recovery circles, "Insanity = doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results."
The solution? Simply accept by faith that God was vague for whatever reason and steadfastly resist the temptation to remove that vagueness using your own intellect, cultural norms, personal prejudices, or denominational traditions.
If the Spirit of God brings greater specificity to your understanding of it, treat that as for you alone personally. If you do share it, qualify it with the opening phrase, "What the Lord showed me about this" and end it with the phrase, "But what He showed me was for/about me. How you respond to and apply this passage to your own life is between you and God."
Silent — Keep Your Opinions to Yourself!
If you absolutely have to express them, at least qualify them as such, “This is my opinion and why I believe it, but you are under no obligation to agree with me.”
- Never, ever quote your opinions as doctrine or any kind.
- Never, ever judge another believer as "less than" or a minister as unqualified because he or she has the temerity to disagree with your opinion.
Your opinions are not the voice of the Holy Spirit! We can tell when we are walking down that road when we begin thinking God hates the same things and people we do. Selah!
Never Base Doctrine on Parables
Jesus told parables and stories to illustrate certain principles concerning the kingdom of God and our relationship to the Godhead. But they are never to be used as the basis for Christian doctrine. Why is this?
First, many of Jesus' parables were told to confound those who were listening, so they lack the specificity required for us to establish a doctrinal stance on whatever the topic was. Second, Jesus was operating as a prophet under the Law of Moses — the New Covenant in His blood was not established until His death, burial, and resurrection were accomplished.
Positional vs. Practical
Whenever we see New Testament verses describing something God has performed for/to us by His grace at the moment of salvation, such verses describe our position as believers. In other words, they portray our standing before God and what He accomplished for us when we first trusted Jesus and submitted to His lordship over our lives.
Examples include 2 Corinthians 5:17,21, Colossians 1:12-13, almost all of the first 2 chapters of Ephesians, etc. These are what is termed "unconditional promises," meaning these are sovereign and unilateral acts of grace performed by God personally. This also implies the essential truth that we cannot add or detract from them by our performance, good or bad.
When we encounter a verse or passage where God tells us to do something and then promises He will reward us with some kind of blessing in response to our obedience, such verses are conditional promises and therefore concern the practical issues of our living the Christian life here on this earth. Such promises are dependent upon our faith in them as well as our obedience to their conditions.
To the degree that we trust and obey, we will experience the blessing(s) God has promised. Why? Because fulfilling the conditions causes us to emulate one or more character attribute(s) of God. After we have engaged in such behaviors or attitudes for an extended period of time, they becomes habit, thereafter character traits. Thus, God increases our Christ-likeness in those specific areas.
Never get the two types of promises confused!
Taking unconditional promises and treating them as conditional ones puts us into a performance-based mindset which removes grace from the equation of our dealings with God. The end result of that is we get caught up in performing dead religious works — trying to earn His favor and avoid His wrath — rather than living a blessed life of service founded on the unconditional love and grace of God.
Who Does What?
Things We Are Accountable For Doing As Believers
If God commands us to do something, it is our responsibility to obey Him, period.
For example, when He tells us to:
- Humble ourselves — our job is to humble ourselves, not pray for Him to make us humble. If you refuse to humble yourself and ask Him to do it for you, you won't like the results because developing humility through humiliation is never pretty.(1 Peter 5:6)
- Resist the devil — it is our mandate to resist Satan, not pray that God will get the devil off our case. (James 4:7)
- Trust Him — we are to deliberately choose to place our full faith and reliance on God, not ask Him for the gift of faith. We received that gift back when we were born from above, so the issue is whether or not we are going to obey God and use it (Proverbs 3:5-6)
If God tells us certain conditions exist for us to receive one of His promises, it’s our responsibility to: 1) believe that promise and; 2) fulfill that condition — by His grace, rather than in our own strength.
We are responsible for deliberately choosing to believe God's Word as the Truth, whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, despite:
- The circumstances we see in our lives or bodies
- What others have said or may say, including doctors. lawyers, and other professionals
- What we think, perceive, or feel emotionally
- What our family members and associates think or believe
- What the common wisdom or public opinion indicates
- What your religious traditions or societal/cultural norms may dictate
- What extra-biblical writers, theologians, reformers, or Bible commentators have said or written about the matter in times past
- What filters we may have from emotional/mental/physical/sexual trauma/abuse we have suffered at the hands of family members and others
- Any other factor or influence that may contradict God's Word, period, end of story!
Things God is in Charge Of
God has a number of things He has chosen to be in charge of and He steadfastly resists all efforts on our part to interfere with those. They include:
- Methods — How God answers our prayer is His business, not ours. We obey His commands, both from His Word and from the leading of the Holy Spirit, and resist all temptation to "help God out" with our own schemes, methods, and influences.
- Timing — When God answers our prayers is also his bailiwick. We wait upon Him as He develops our faith and brings His influence to bear on our behalf in the hearts and minds of those He chooses to use to bless us. As with methods, we resist all temptation to try to make it happen faster through our works of the flesh.
- Honoring His Word — We can count on His Word to be true in all details, in all times, in all places, under all circumstances, and regardless of whoever/whatever else is involved because God is immutable (never changes) (Malachi 3:6a). We can always count on God honoring His Word above His own name (Psalm 138:2). We can always trust that God watches over His Word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12). We can be assured that "all the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Let the Bible Interpret Itself
One of the mistakes many believers — even theologians — commit is looking to the past, depending upon the opinions of long-dead theologians and commentators to determine what a Bible passage means. While there is historical value in such writings, I must emphasize that these men were fallible and opinionated, just as we all are. Their frames-of-reference were influenced by their personal histories, emotional baggage, education, personal testimonies, and the cultures/times in which they lived, just as we all are. Therefore, their opinions and interpretations of Scripture cannot help but be influenced by those factors.
In other words, “old” does not automatically equate to “correct.”
A classic example of this are the writings of Augustine, which have been the basis for many of the doctrinal errors found in both Calvinism and Roman Catholicism.
Dependency upon other writings and commentaries also plays into our inherent fleshly hunger to seek human validation for our beliefs, rather than depending upon the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth, then resting upon the convictions He produces in us. Because of this, we have a natural tendency to read a commentary and say, “Well, that settles that!” rather than inquiring further, seeking God for whatever it is He may be wanting to impart to us.
The bottom line is we should allow the Bible to speak for itself — wherever that may lead us — rather than depending upon commentators to tell us what we should believe.
Always Consider The Context
Never, EVER interpret a Bible verse or passage outside of its context!
Many people have stated — as if it's irrefutable hard cold fact — that "you can use the Bible to prove anything." When taking context into account, they are dead wrong! However, once you start taking verses out of their proper context, they're actually quite correct.
A classic example is the following 3 verses strung together with a total disregard for their context:
Judas went out and hanged himself.
Go thou and do likewise.
What thou doest, do quickly!
We have a good laugh at the total ridiculousness of this, but history is rife with examples of the misguided and nefarious committing hermeneutical violence to the Scriptures in precisely this manner. Such exegetical butchery is the source of the erstwhile justification for various forms of racial supremacy, slavery, genocides and so-called "ethnic cleansing," the oppression and subjegation of women, the persecution of Jews by members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as a host of other evils perpetrated by the agents of Satan on this earth.
One pet peeve of mine is the completely-out-of-context treatment many ministers and Christians give to the Book of Job. This single book stands head-and-shoulders above all the other books in the Bible as being the biggest goldmine of totally messed-up doctrines, sermons, books, songs, and other theological claptrap ever perpetrated on the Body of Christ.
Guidelines for Establishing Correct Scriptural Context
- Who is talking (Jesus, God, a godly human being, a rebellious sinner)?
- Who is being addressed (Jesus, God, godly human beings, rebellious sinners, the Church)?
- Who was the author (a prophet, a historian, an apostle, something else)?
- What was the author's role in what took place or what is being discussed in the book/letter?
- What were stated goals of the author, if any?
- What is the topical content of:
- The verses immediately surrounding the verse in question?
- The chapter where the verse/passage is found?
- The book containing that chapter?
- What testament is the book found in? If it's the Old Testament or Gospels, try to determine what may have changed after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of His Church.
- What was the era in which the book was written and how was God relating to His people as well as the sinners of that era? In other words, was it during:
- The Age of Innocence in Eden before Adam and Eve sinned?
- The pre-Abrahamic-covenant patriarchal age between the Fall of Man and the appearance of Abraham?
- The period of the Abrahamic covenant prior to the Jews' enslavement in Egypt?
- The era beginning with the Exodus and ending with the resurrection of Jesus, during which the Law of Moses was in force?
- Jesus's earthly life and ministry?
- The Church Age after the resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the church?
- Is your interpretation consistent with the Bible as a whole?
Well, that about sums it up. I pray that this has helped you.
For more articles by Dr. Willis, explore his Miscellaneous Ramblings website.