Since hermeneutics is the branch of theology that determines how the Bible is to be understood, knowing what the Bible says about how it should be interpreted is of key importance to sound theology. For that reason, I have made the Biblical guidelines for interpreting God’s Word a matter of prayer, study, and research for well over thirty years, and the following guide to interpretation summarizes some of the things that I have learned.
First of all, we must approach God’s Word with a humble and reverent frame of mind. We not only must be willing to admit our sins, but we must be willing to submit to what the Bible says, by correcting our own thinking in order to bring it into accord with the Word of God (2Corinthians 10:5, Isaiah 8:20). We also need to understand that because the Bible was given to testify of Christ, it can only be understood correctly by those who have faith in Christ (2Corinthians 4:4). It is also important to understand that the Bible means just what it says. It was not only written in honest and straightforward language (the language of shepherds, carpenters, and fishermen), but the meaning that God intended for us to get from it, is nothing other than what we read (2Corinthians 1:13). There are no hidden meanings (2Corinthians 3:12). Finally, we also need to understand that the Bible is complete. Because all of the information necessary for our salvation is included within its pages, there is no need for anyone to supplement what is said (1John 5:13, Revelation 22:18,19).
There are two distinct levels to our understanding of God’s Word. The first has to do with what is being said, and thus with the context, grammar, and meaning of each sentence. On this level it is important to follow the train of thought, without letting your imagination run wild. Since the meaning that God intends for you to get from His word is nothing other “than what you read,” be careful not to read unscriptural ideas into the text (2Corinthians 1:13). You need to make it a habit to think about language, ponder the way words are used, including various figures of speech, and eliminate fuzzy and sloppy habits from your thinking.
The second level has to do with understanding each truth set forth in Scripture in a way that agrees with what the Bible says elsewhere (Isaiah 8:20). At this level we eliminate any conclusions or ideas that contradict what the Bible explicitly says, while correcting our understanding to bring it into agreement with the words of Scripture (Romans 3:4). We then compare what the Bible explicitly says on any one topic, allowing each statement to be explained by the others (1Corinthians 2:13). In doing this, we must be very careful not to read our own ideas into what is taught, or add our own made up explanations to what the Bible actually says (John 8:31, 2Peter 1:20). God then reveals His doctrine to us through the explicit statements of His Word, “line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10).
Since I want to focus on passages of Scripture that should guide us as we seek to learn what the Bible says, let us look first at 1Corinthians 11:31, “If we would judge ourselves we should not be judged.” Because that verse is telling us to judge our opinions as well as our actions, it tells us that we need to critically examine our ideas in order to eliminate unscriptural thinking from our theology (2Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:2). Any one who is not willing to look at his own faults, or is not really in earnest about finding and eliminating any unscriptural ideas from his thinking, will wind up reading unscriptural ideas into God’s Word. And, because souls are at stake, that is unacceptable. We need to weed out any wrong ideas from our thinking. Therefore, I am not talking about a casual criticism, but a rigorous criticism that is carried out with a determination on your part to find and eliminate your errors before anyone else finds them.
The determination to eliminate your own errors, relates to a second passage that says “Prove all things” (1Thessalonians 5:21). In other words, one way that we can eliminate errors from our thinking is by eliminating doctrines that cannot be “proved” from Scripture. However, here is where the deceitfulness of the flesh rears its ugly head (Jeremiah 17:9). If the carnal mind wants to believe something, it will try to convince you that you have proved it beyond any doubt, even when no proof exists. Therefore, you need to understand that proof differs from evidence. Once we have proof, the matter is settled. With proof there can be no middle ground. That being the case, when we look to Scripture for proof it comes down to this: Either the Bible says it, or it does not say it. If the Bible does not say it, admit it. Don't try to make the Bible say something it doesn't say, and don’t confuse the words of Scripture with ideas that pop into your mind as you read those words.
Sticking to what the Bible says, relates to the words, “If ye continue in my word then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). In other words, if we add to, or take from anything that the Bible says, we are not sticking to what we can prove from Scripture, and are not eliminating error from our theology. In order to be true disciples of Christ, all of our doctrine must be found in God's Word. Therefore, we are not to teach man made explanations as doctrine, and are not to read our own ideas into the text (2 Peter 1:20, Proverbs 30:6). Because men are prone to error, we can only eliminate error by eliminating the human element, and sticking to what the Bible explicitly says (Proverbs 23:4b, Proverbs 3:5).
Eliminating man made ideas from what is taught, relates to the words “To the Law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). In other words, any idea that contradicts what the Bible explicitly says, is to be rejected as false. Furthermore, what is taught in Isaiah 8:20, as well as other passages that say essentially the same thing, constitutes part of the doctrine of the Authority of Scripture. Dr. Francis Pieper expressed that doctrine this way.
A closer look at Isaiah 8:20 also reveals that Isaiah made a distinction between the law, and the testimony of Christ (John 5:39). The Apostle Paul refers to those two messages as the “law” and the “promises,” and we cannot understand the Bible correctly until we understand what those two doctrines are, and how they relate to each other (Galatians 3:21,22). In short, The Law is God's message to the unrepentant, while the testimony is God's message to those who repent (1Timothy 1:9). The Law exposes our sin and warns us of God's wrath, while the testimony [i.e. Gospel] assures us of God's mercy and forgiveness in Christ (1John 5:13).
Because the law cannot justify us, it was never intended to make us righteous, but instead to expose our sin while pointing us to Christ for forgiveness and salvation (Romans 3:19-20). In fact, true repentance begins with the law, as God uses the law to show us our sin and need of His mercy in Christ, and is completed as God uses the Gospel to bring us to faith in Christ (Acts 2:37-38, Romans 1:16 and 10:17). That being the case, we only speak according to God’s Word when Christ is exalted as the source of all true righteousness. As it is written, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to all who believe” for “By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Romans 10:4, Hebrews 10:14).
Having looked at some of the passages that God has given to guide us in interpreting His Word, we now need to look at how those passages are applied.
Perhaps you have encountered someone who claimed that since Paul sometimes baptized households, he must have baptized infants. Whether you believe in infant baptism or not, in dealing with that claim you need to be honest enough to admit that the passages in question say nothing of infants. [See 1Corinthians 1:16, Acts 16:15,31-33.] The issue is not whether infant baptism is right or not, but what the Bible actually says, and these passages say nothing of infants. Therefore, those who make this claim are assuming that those households included infants, and we are not to base doctrine on assumptions. All who do so, have departed from God’s Word, and, for that reason, are not true disciples of Christ (John 8:31).
[Note: The fact that Jews baptize households that convert to Judaism (infants included), suggests that some first century congregations may have followed that example. However, our doctrine is to consist of what the Bible actually says, not what we think might have happened.]
You may also have encountered someone who claims that Christ did not really die for the sins of all men, but only for the “elect.” In support of that view they will cite such passages as “the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, see also John 15:13-14, Ephesians 5:25-27). However, whether you accept that doctrine or not, you ought to be honest enough to admit that none of the passages they use actually say that Christ did not die for the sins of all mankind. The people who hold that view have simply jumped to that conclusion, and teach their own conclusion as doctrine. In contrast, the proper hermeneutical approach would be to ask. Are those passages telling us that Christ died only for the saved? The Bible would then answer that question by telling us that “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2). In other words, we are to let the Bible determine which conclusions are valid, and are to reject any conclusions that contradict what the Bible explicitly says (Romans 3:4). Those who explain away 1John 2:2 (and similar passages), rather than rejecting the conclusions that contradict those passages, are rebelling against God (Psalm 107:11, Isaiah 8:20, 1John 4:6).
I have often heard the words, “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings,” quoted to support the idea that Christians are obligated to tithe (Malachi 3:8). However, whether you believe in tithing or not, you need to be honest enough to admit that this passage is speaking of support for the Levitical priesthood, and the “offerings” spoken of were animal sacrifices, not donations of money. The issue here is not how much we should give, but what this passage is actually saying. The tithe was only required of those under the law, it was only to be given to Levites, and the people to whom Malachi addressed his comments were only robbing God because they were robbing His priests by not paying them what they owed. Those who place a different meaning on these words are reading their own private interpretation into the text, and when they lead people to believe that God’s favor depends upon keeping this law they are perverting the gospel (2Peter 1:20, Galatians 1:6-9).
Finally, I am sure that you have encountered someone who interprets the words, “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” to support the idea that Christ will physically reign over an earthly kingdom at some time in the future (Revelation 20:4). However, no matter what your opinion is on this topic, you ought to be honest enough to admit that this verse does not specify where Christ will reign. The people who believe that He will reign on this world have simply jumped to that conclusion, while teaching that conclusion as doctrine. In contrast, the proper hermeneutical approach would be to ask. Will Christ reign on this world? The Bible would then answer that question by telling us that Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Those who explain away John 18:36, rather than admit that their conclusion is wrong, are rebelling against God, while telling the world that they have a spirit of error (Psalm 107:11, Isaiah 8:20, 1John 4:6). [Note: The “first resurrection” spoken of in Revelation 20:5-6, is explained by Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 2:12 and 3:1.]
You can be certain of what the Bible says, if you will just start with those truths that are explicitly stated in Scripture, and let them be the standard to which all teaching must conform (Isaiah 8:20). Moreover, if everyone would do just that, there would be far less division in the church. Human nature being what it is, it would be unrealistic to say that there would be no division, especially since many controversies revolve around questions the Bible leaves unanswered. However, most disagreements could be settled, and many soul-destroying errors could be set to rest.