Interpreting the Bible is not something that is reserved for scholars. It is the privilege and delight of all believers in Christ to discover in the pages of Scripture the many truths, promises, and commands of our Savior.
Studying the Bible is a life-long endeavor. The more we grow in Christian maturity, the more we will grow in our understanding of Scripture. But there are also dangers that could derail our interpretation of Scripture and lead us to incorrectly apply God’s Word to our lives today. These dangers are:
First, the interpreter could take Scripture to mean something that was not intended by the original human author or by the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing.
Second, the interpreter could find truths and laws in Scripture, but not truly find Christ.
Third, the interpreter could see Christ in Scripture, but not follow Christ in life.
Fourth, the interpreter could shrink from the correct interpretation of Scripture for fear of suffering and ridicule.
Fifth, the interpreter, deceived by his love for the world, could add to Scripture what he thinks should be there, or could take away from Scripture what he thinks should not be there.
The following principles of interpreting the Bible address these dangers.
1. Determine the Original Meaning
The foundation of Bible interpretation is laid by first of all seeking to understand what the original author intended his words to mean to his audience. The words of the Bible were not spoken into thin air. They were spoken at a specific time in history in response to certain events and for the benefit of an original audience. For example, when Jesus said, “Woe unto you also, ye lawyers,” He wasn’t talking about modern-day attorneys. He was referring to a specific group of men who lived in His day. The historical setting will have to be studied in order to understand His words.
Studying the historical setting involves asking questions such as: Who said this? Why? Who was the audience? What was the message the speaker or writer was trying to communicate to them? Once we understand the historical setting of a command or promise, then we can seek to determine how that command or promise applies to us today.
We should also study the meaning of the individual words. What did the words mean in the time and place they were spoken? Were they used figuratively or literally? What do the words mean within the flow of thought in the chapter or book in which they are used? How should the words be understood in the broader context of the entire Bible? What parallel passages help to make the meaning clearer?
Studying the historical and grammatical context helps us to avoid the danger of taking verses out of context and applying them to situations today in ways that God never intended. It is the objective basis that forbids making the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean.
Though the Bible is the record of how God has revealed Himself in history, that revelation has application for today. We do not study the Bible merely to be challenged by the past, but to experience God’s grace in the present.
2. Seek a Vital Relationship with the Living Christ
Without a relationship with Jesus Christ, Bible study is little more than the dissection of a cadaver handed over for autopsy. The Bible is not a museum artifact, but a message that is alive and powerful. Christ was a historical figure. He is also a living Savior who calls us to love Him. Jesus Christ should be the central focus of Bible interpretation.
During the era of Protestant Scholasticism in the 1600s, many pastors focused on defending their theology against those who disagreed with them. Preaching became a cold and rigid defense of creeds. Christianity became little more than intellectual acceptance of the creeds.
The early Brethren, who organized in 1708, rejected this type of Christianity. They saw in the pages of Scripture that faith in Christ meant loving and obeying Him from the heart. Christianity is not merely head knowledge; it is a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. Such a relationship radically transforms the believer’s life.
In the New Testament, God is revealed to us through a Person, not through mere creeds and theological statements. Christ is the perfect revelation of God to us. Jesus said that whoever has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9-10). Christ revealed God’s perfect will for how we should live. Christ’s teaching fulfilled and superseded all that had come before in the Old Testament. He could say with divine authority, “Ye have heard that it was said . . . But I say unto you . . .” (Matthew 5:17-48). And God’s great love for us was demonstrated by Christ’s death on the cross. In a way the Bible is not an end in itself, but a lens through which we see Christ in all His perfection.
To have a relationship with Christ means to be transformed by Christ living in us. The believer’s testimony is, “Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). Christian living is not to be lifeless adherence to law, but joyful obedience to Christ flowing out of a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us (Romans 8:1-9). Too often God’s people forget the significance of Jesus and make the New Testament not a new covenant, but a new law.
One danger of Bible interpretation is that we reduce the Bible to a lifeless system of theological statements and moral precepts. We must keep the living Christ and His love for us at the center of our interpretation of Scripture. We must also remember that new life in Christ submits to the words of Christ. Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John 14:23).
3. Follow Christ in Discipleship
Christ calls us to be His disciples. A disciple is someone who learns from a teacher. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me” (Matthew 11:29). The goal of biblical interpretation should be to learn day by day to better imitate and obey Christ.
We can read our Bible every day, but if we do not read it with a desire to follow more closely after Christ, we are not equipped to interpret what we are reading. Bible interpretation is not merely a matter of the intellect, but also a matter of the heart and will. One twenty-first century pastor lamented the condition of Christians in America, saying, “Most of us are casual observers of Jesus, not committed followers.”1
A willingness to follow Christ in obedience is essential to the proper interpretation of Scripture. If we do not understand the teachings of Jesus, the source of the confusion may not be any ambiguity in the text, but an unwillingness to obey in our heart. Jesus said that the one who possesses a willingness to do what God asks of him is the one who will know the truth (John 7:17).
There is value in knowing where Keilah was located, and what cumin was, and how to parse Greek verbs. But all the knowledge in the world of biblical history, culture, and grammar will be of no value if we are not willing to submit to the authority of the truth we discover in God’s Word.
The early Anabaptists set a good example when they insisted that “the readiness to obey Christ’s words is prerequisite to understanding them. Thus all the sophistication of interpretive methodology will be of no avail if the reader and interpreter of Scripture is not ready to obey Christ’s words in his life.”2
4. Be Willing to Bear the Cross and Suffer with Christ
The challenge of correctly interpreting Scripture may become a costly reality when following the words of Christ brings suffering or opposition. Does Christ expect us to follow the teachings of Scripture even when it costs us something?
The New Testament is clear that being a disciple of Christ will sometimes bring suffering. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus suffered death by crucifixion on a cross, one of the cruelest forms of execution. When Jesus called His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him, He was calling them to suffer with Him. The limit of our love and obedience to Christ is defined by the cross. The testimony concerning the brethren in Revelation 12:11 was, “They loved not their lives unto the death.”
Cross-bearing may not seem like a principle of biblical interpretation until it is considered that it can be tempting to look for an easier interpretation when obedience brings suffering. This does not mean that if we suffer we always have the correct interpretation. For example, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29 should not be interpreted to mean that literally plucking out our right eye will solve our sin problem. A careful reading of this passage will reveal Jesus’ true intent.
After a New Testament teaching is properly interpreted, the disciple should not cleverly argue his way around it. If following Christ affects our bank account or our reputation, we should willingly bear our cross. There is the ever-present danger that our interpretation of Scripture should be governed more by a desire for easy living than by a desire to accurately interpret the New Testament.
In Luke 10:29, the rich young ruler’s interpretation of the word neighbor was conditioned by his desire to not have to love certain people. In response, Jesus told a parable which illustrated that God’s command to love our neighbor includes even those neighbors we would rather not love. How easily we can justify not loving someone we should!
Followers of Christ do not have the luxury of choosing on the basis of personal preference which commands, teachings, or principles of the New Testament apply to them. After the application of a teaching is understood, it is the disciple’s privilege to obey. One early Anabaptist leader wrote that we should receive the cross of Christ “willingly, with joy and patience, and not choose our own chips and scraps of wood in imagined spirituality, and lay them on ourselves without divine understanding.”3 When the cross of Christ becomes heavy, we should not cast it aside and find an easier substitute. The Christian is not free to dispense with the teachings of Christ merely because they are inconvenient.
The principle of cross-bearing answers the question, Whom should I obey when another authority asks me to do that which is contrary to Scripture? The Sanhedrin’s whip did not prevent the apostles from giving a clear answer. They said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). For the Christian, Christ’s Word becomes the absolute authority for his life that cannot be overruled by politician, clergyman, or popular opinion.
5. Guard against Adding To or Taking Away from the New Testament
The New Testament derives its authority from the conviction that it is the infallible revelation of the unchanging and eternal Christ. Scripture affirms that the teachings of Christ are definitive and complete, and that any drifting away from what He has spoken is a grave danger (Hebrews 1:2, 2:1-3). The New Testament is not to be added to, diminished, or altered.
Perhaps we do not deliberately add to or take away from God’s Word, but there are more subtle ways that we could make such changes. The church could add to Scripture by elevating man-made traditions to the same level as Scripture. Or the church could take away from Scripture by discarding beliefs or practices that Christ gave to the church.
One example of adding to the meaning of Scripture is found early in the history of the church. When the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, the church soon found it now possessed new power and prestige in the world. It found that now the secular rulers were willing to wield their swords in defense of the church. A theologian in the fifth century tried to defend this use of the sword. He said that now that Christianity was the dominate religion it had experienced a “more enlarged accomplishment” so that now “men should be compelled to come in to the feast of everlasting salvation.”4 Physically forcing people to become Christians flatly violates the teachings of Christ. The New Testament recognizes no “more enlarged accomplishment” beyond the pattern once for all given to the church.
Some today claim that God is still speaking, giving us a new and different revelation of His will for today. But again, we contend that the New Testament is the complete and final revelation of God concerning faith and morals. One of the final commands Jesus gave to His disciples before His ascension was to go and teach all nations to keep everything that He had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). The church may accept no change to the New Testament.
There is also the danger that Christians become guilty of taking away from the New Testament by claiming that a teaching was merely a cultural custom of the first-century AD, and therefore does not need to be obeyed. When the teachings of Christ run counter to contemporary culture, it can be tempting to dismiss them as irrelevant for today. The church should be careful to maintain the teachings and practices that Christ and the apostles gave to the church.
Romans 12:2 warns against the danger of the world distorting our interpretation of Scripture. The New Living Translation paraphrases the verse this way: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (emphasis added). J. B. Phillips renders the verse this way, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould . . .”
God’s people in all ages have faced the danger of syncretism. Syncretism is the blending of the truth of God’s Word with godless beliefs and practices from the world. One example of this is found in 2 Kings 17:24-33. This passage describes how the people of Samaria feared the Lord while at the same time serving their own gods.
Another example of syncretism is found in 1 Kings 12:26-33. After Jeroboam had rebelled against Rehoboam king of Judah, Jeroboam feared that his people would be lured back into submission to Rehoboam if they continued to worship at Jerusalem. So Jeroboam set up golden calves in two of his cities and instructed his people to worship these idols. Jeroboam blended some features of true worship from the law of Moses with pagan idolatry. God judged Jeroboam for this sin.
If the conduct, values, and lifestyle of Christians are not different from those of the world, Christians are not reading their Bible correctly. Christ clearly taught that He came to establish a kingdom that was distinct in character from the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36). Christians are described as “strangers and pilgrims” in a foreign land whose true citizenship is in Heaven (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). The children of God are to “walk as children of light” and to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:8-11).
In 1982 the Anglican evangelical John Stott warned that television has the potential to be “morally disordering.” His warning is still relevant today in our world of smart devices:
“Under the impression that ‘everyone does it’, and that nobody nowadays believes much in God or in absolutes of truth and goodness, our defences are lowered and our values imperceptibly altered. We begin to assume that physical violence (when we are provoked), sexual promiscuity (when we are aroused) and extravagant consumer expenditure (when we are tempted) are the accepted norms of Western society . . . We have been conned.”5
Movies are more than entertainment. They push ideals and behavioral norms on viewers.
Song lyrics stick in our mind and become part of our thinking.
Talk-show hosts influence their listeners to adopt their perspective on issues.
The news media promote their ideology in their coverage of events.
Advertisements try to make you think that if you buy what they offer you will finally be the person you always wanted to be.
Someone who identifies with a political party might be induced to support planks of that party’s platform that are contrary to Christ.
These can be morally disordering influences. A mind saturated with the thinking of the world may not even notice that the Bible teaches something different.
How do we keep the thinking of the world from distorting our interpretation of the Bible? We need to constantly be going back to the teachings of Christ and His apostles and testing our beliefs and practices to see if they align with the pattern found in the New Testament. When the early Brethren saw that Christianity around them did not align with the New Testament, they set out “to seek again the footsteps of the first Christians.” Confronted by new ideas, the Bereans “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” We do well to imitate them.
1. Mike Glenn, “Preaching to Unbelievers,” November 11, 2022, in “Jesus Creed: a blog by Scot McKnight,” Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2022/november/preaching-to-unbelievers.html
2. Walter Klaasen, “Anabaptist Hermeneutics: Presuppositions, Principles and Practice,” in Willard Swartley, ed. Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 6.
3. Balthasar Hubmaier, A Christian Instruction, in Cornelius J. Dyck, “Hermeneutics and Discipleship,” in Swartley, Essays, 41.
4. Augustine, Letters of St. Augustin 173.10, (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff [1886-1889, repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995], 1/1:547).
5. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 73.