1 - Introduction

Class Introduction

  • 2 Parts:
    • Part A: Getting the Most from a Passage
      • This class
    • Part B: Richness in Variety
      • Understanding different parts of the Bible
      • How we got the Bible, different translations etc.
      • Lots of other good stuff
  • There will be four assignments
    • they are all linked together and based on a passage of Scripture
    • You will each be given a passage of Scripture to study
    • You will write a paper on the passage, in four parts, as separate assignments
    • When I have taught this course in the past, everybody has got a real blessing from studying the passage
      • This is not just an intellectual exercise, but a Holy Spirit activity
    • There will be a short test on the last day
  • Notes on everything I teach will be on my website: loveintruth.com
    • Please everyone fill in your email address on the sheet
    • I will create an account for each of you and email the link to you in the break
  • This morning we are going to
    • ask why the need for this course?
    • talk about the basic method we are going to follow and why
    • Look at how to do a word study

Updated 2009-10-06 (build:2) by Andrew Fountain

Why do we need to study Biblical Interpretation?

Isn’t it obvious how to understand the Bible?

  • Just about ALL the differences between Christians today hinge on this topic
  • Wrong interpretation is behind
    • legalism
    • denial of the gifts of the Holy Spirit
    • unhealthy church structures
    • abusive churches
    • cults
    • weirdness
    • or just getting unbalanced and sidetracked into emphasizing odd things and losing the main plot

It is not just about being “theologically correct”

  • it is about hearing God accurately
  • it is about submission to him
  • it is about being set free by the truth he speaks into our hearts
  • it is about a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit, since he wrote the Bible

I don’t like the phrase “Word and Spirit”, although I agree totally with the idea

  • it’s just that the Spirit wrote the Word, so it is “Spirit and Spirit”
  • This is how I like to think of it;
    • In the New Testament, the Spirit works in three kinds of ways
    • He is called “the Spirit of Love[Rom 15:13, 5:5; Gal 5:22-23]
    • He is called “the Spirit of Truth[John 14:17, 15:26, 16:12-14; 1 John 4:6, 5:6]
    • He is called “the Spirit of Power[Zech 4:6; Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38; Rom 1:4, 15:19; 1Cor 2:4-5]
    • we find all three together in 2 Tim 1:7: [For God has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.]
  • There is a sequence:
    • God pours his love into our hearts by the Spirit ([we love him because he first loved us])
      • [the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. -Rom 5:5]
    • He sets us free by the truth: [The words that I speak to you are Spirit, and they are life -John 6:63]
    • When we speak the truth, he backs it up with supernatural power
      • [Acts 14:3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.]
      • in [Heb 2:4] God [confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit]
  • So if we want more of the power of the Spirit, we must have love and good teaching
  • we can’t demand the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of power but not be interested in him as the Spirit of love or truth
    • He does not like us to try to divide him up
  • So, what this means is:
    • If you want more of his Power in your life,
    • then this course is for you!
    • (although it is only part of the picture)

Updated 2009-10-06 (build:3) by Andrew Fountain

The History of Interpretation

1. Ancient Jewish Hermeneutics

Ancient Jewish hermeneutics is best described as an attempt by those who were passionately committed to the inspiration of Scripture to make God’s word relevant to the current context. In their zeal, they often took an overly literal and legalistic approach in which every detail of the Scriptures had out-of-context meaning and significance for their current situation.

“The rabbis presupposed that since God is the author of Scripture, (1) the interpreter could expect numerous meanings in a given text, and (2) every incidental detail of the text possessed significance. ...eventually extended this to maintain that ...even the shapes of letters had hidden meaning.” Henry Virkler, Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 49

Abusive Characteristics of Midrash:

  • Often gave meaning to texts, phrases, and words without regard to the context in which they were meant to apply.
  • Combined texts that contained similar words or phrases whether or not such texts were referring to the same idea.
  • Took incidental and obscure aspects of grammar and gave them interpretive significance.

Letterism: Interpretation that ignores context, historical and cultural setting, and even grammatical structure, taking each word, letter, and number as an isolated truth.

Deut 21:18–19: “If a person has a stubborn, rebellious son who pays no attention to his father or mother, and they discipline him to no avail, his father and mother must seize him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his city.”

Misshnah Sanhedrin 8.4: “If either of them [the parents] was maimed in the hand, or lame or blind or dumb or deaf, he cannot be condemned as a stubborn and rebellious son, for it is written, ‘so the father and mother shall lay hold of him’—so they were not maimed in the hand; ‘and bring him out’—-so they were not lame; ‘and they shall say’—so they were not dumb; ‘this is our son’—so they were not blind; ‘he will not obey our voice’—so they were not deaf.”

Matt. 23:23: “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others.”

  • Matt 15:1-9 is a good example...
  • Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with no idea of how they should interpret the Old Testament, but in Luke 24 we read of how the risen Jesus met two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
    • We read [And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. v27]
    • afterwards we read [They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? v.32]
    • In other words, the key to opening the O.T. Scriptures was to show them that their main theme was himself.

2. The Church Fathers: Allegory

  • This period immediately follows the New Testament times
  • It is important to distinguish allegory from typology
Allegory (bad) Typology (good)
Finding hidden meaning in characters, places, events, numbers, and other details that would not otherwise be found Finding a foreshadowing of present and future events in historical events and people of the past.
e.g. “oil” in Elisha = Holy Spirit? e.g. Ark-->Christ
brass serpent-->Christ
  • Types cannot be used personally (“The ark is a type of me”) but is Christ-centred.
  • Must be historical event
  • The N.T. never uses allegory, only typology
  • Approximately ten percent of the New Testament is quotations, paraphrases, or allusions to the Old Testament.
  • All but nine Old Testament books are referred to in the New Testament.
  • Example from Augustine, the wedding at Cana:
    • John 2:6 “Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two or three firkins each.”
    • 2 or 3 = Trinity
    • 6 pots = the six ages of men
  • every detail has an underlying meaning
    • our goal is to find it
  • The idea came from Greek mythology
    • how to re-interpret the immorality of the behaviour of the gods to make it something more noble.
    • Plato’s idea of material things being evil led to the literal meaning being denigrated.

The chaos in interpretation that resulted meant that all kinds of weird teaching confronted the church.

  • The rise of Gnostics who claimed to have the “secret” teachings of Christ handed down to them from the Apostles
    • the Church increasingly appealed to Church tradition as the authority
    • Thus early Church tradition became the basis for all interpretation
  • So the result was that the Creed became an “umbrella” to protect the Scriptures
  • They really didn’t mind what allegory you got from the text as long as it
    • fitted in with the creeds
    • was Christ centred
  • They meant well!
  • What is the problem with this?
    • {There was no way to correct false ideas, such as “salvation by baptism”}
    • {People lost interest in trying to understand the Bible for themselves}
  • We may think we are free from this, but we are not!!

Three levels of meaning were developed

  • Literal: Actually happened.
  • Moral: Lot represents the rational human mind. Lot’s wife represents the flesh. Lot’s daughters are vainglory and pride.
  • Spiritual: Lot represents the OT Law. Lot’s wife represents the Israelites’

rebellion in the wilderness. Lot’s daughters represent Jerusalem and Samaria.

3. The Medieval fourfold method of interpretation

The use of the Medieval fourfold method was firmly established from the fourth until the sixteenth century. Each text was examined for 4 meanings: literal, moral (tropologic), mystical (allegorical), and future-prophetic (anagogic). Here is sermon from Origen, who although he was earlier (third century) showed a disinterest in the literal meaning:

We make our selection from the homily on Abraham’s marriage with Keturah (Hom. vi. in Genes). Origen does not expressly disavow his belief in the fact of such a marriage having actually taken place between the parties in question, though his language seems to point in that direction; but he intimates that this, in common with the other marriages of the patriarchs, contained a sacramental mystery. And what might this be? Nothing less than the sublime truth, “that there is no end to wisdom, and that old age sets no bounds to improvement in knowledge. The death of Sarah (he says) is to be understood as the perfecting of virtue... Abraham, therefore, when an old man, and his body in a manner dead, took Keturah to wife... Then Keturah, whom he married in his old age, is by interpretation incense, or sweet odor. For he said, even as Paul said, ‘We are a sweet savor of Christ.’ Sin is a foul and putrid thing; but if any of you in whom this no longer dwells, have the fragrance of righteousness, the sweetness of mercy, and by prayer continually offer up incense to God, ye also have taken Keturah to wife.” And forthwith he proceeds to show, how many such wives may be taken: hospitality is one, the care of the poor another, patience a third, - each Christian excellence, in short, a wife; and hence it was, that the patriarchs are reported to have had so many wives, and that Solomon is said to have possessed them even by hundreds, he having received plentitude of wisdom like the sand on the seashore, and consequently grace to exercise the largest number of virtues (p. 4).
  • “During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, dense ignorance prevailed concerning the content of Scripture: there were some doctors of divinity who had never read the Bible through its entirety.” Henry Virkler, p.65
  • Ordinary people were prevented from reading the Bible for themselves
    • Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) “It is evident from experience, that the Holy Scriptures, when circulated in the vulgar tongue, have, through the temerity of men, produced more harm than benefit... eminently dangerous to souls... undermining the very foundations of religion.”


  • Medieval scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas, became preoccupied with abstract questions, like
    • “is a angel in a place, can he be in several places at once”
    • “does an angel moving from A to B pass through the points in between”
    • “can several angels be in the same place at once”
    • there is a story that they even held a debate on “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”

4. The Reformation

  • People realized that the actual message of the Bible had be lost in centuries of fanciful interpretation
  • The cry was “back to the sources”
  • Scholars learned Hebrew and Greek and began to read the Bible in the original
    • Story of Byzantine monks, fleeing from the Turks, carrying ancient manuscripts and the knowledge of Greek
    • They discovered God’s grace and love and the free gift of salvation and were saved
    • They focussed on the most clear and straightforward meaning when read in context
    • The emphasis was to allow the Bible to speak for itself rather than impose a meaning from outside
  • Luther did something unheard of: he read Romans for himself and discovered that salvation was by faith and not by works.
    • He called the allegorical interpretation, “dirt,” “scum,” and “obsolete loose rags.”
  • “It is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” -John Calvin
  • Their principles were very good, but they didn’t always get it right because they still had a lot of theological baggage (e.g. church and state being connected)
  • In general we still follow Reformation principles today, except we
    • are more sensitive to the culture of the N.T.
    • know more about their language and literature
    • have the benefit of several centuries of Christian writers, and their Spirit-given gifts
    • have less wrong theological baggage (we hope!) because of the “hermeneutical spiral”
    • as a result of these things, there is real progress in how well Christians can understand the Bible

5. Modern Critical Scholarship (Also known as Modernism, Liberalism or Higher Criticism) this is a very rough sketch

  • During the 1800’s there was an growing idea among scholars that we should study the Bible just like any other book.
  • The key question this came down to was whether it is inspired by God or not and what this means.
  • The result was devastating, with everything supernatural in the Bible being questioned and the Scriptures essentially being relegated to quaint myths of a bygone age
  • There was a huge split at the end of the 1800’s between “liberals” and “conservatives” (fundamentalists)
  • By the middle of the 1900’s Evangelical scholarship was beginning to recover and once again there were good scholars who truly believed in an inspired Bible

Some material taken from The Theology Notebook 2005, bible.org

Updated 2009-10-12 (build:16) by Andrew Fountain

Principles of Interpretation

1. Objectivity

The truths of the Scriptures are not innate in man. They are distinct from him. Their source is God. The Bible contains truths about the world and about ourselves that we need to know, but we cannot know them by looking within ourselves. Because the Bible is an objective body of literature, we need an objective approach when interpreting it.

2. Subjectivity

Truth does have a subjective element in that it speaks to us and involves us. We respond to what the Scriptures are saying and ask ourselves what significance the truths have for own lives.

Subjectivism “takes place when we distort the objective meaning of terms to suit our own interests” (Sproul p.39). We choose what we want to believe. We interpret passages to suit ourselves rather than applying objective methods. We defend ourselves by saying, “Well, that’s the way I understand it,” and we are not prepared to think seriously about anything that somebody else has to say. We do not want to be corrected because we believe that we already have the truth.

3. Eisogesis and Exegesis

(i) eis = into

Eisogesis involves reading into the text something that isn’t there at all. For example, somebody might use Acts 16:33 to support the baptism of babies because it says that “all his [the jailer’s] family were baptized.” We don’t know the ages of those who were in his family. To say definitely that this family had a baby is to put something into the text that is not stated explicitly. Besides, other parts of Scripture make it clear that only those who are old enough to profess belief in Jesus Christ are baptized.

(ii) ex = from or out of

Exegesis means to get out of the text the meaning that is there. When we exegete a passage, we do our utmost to determine what the passage is saying, not adding anything to it and not taking anything from it.

4. The Inductive and Deductive Approach

If you use the deductive approach when studying the Bible, you begin with generalizations and then move to particular verses for support. For example, you might use as your topic for study, “Riches are always a hindrance to spiritual prosperity.” You would not have difficulty finding verses that spoke about the danger of trusting in riches, but you would most likely neglect any passages that indicated that riches could be a blessing if used properly. Lydia was a wealthy woman who used her home for hospitality and no doubt later for church meetings (although church meetings are not mentioned explicitly so we cannot be dogmatic about this) (Acts 16:14,15, 40). If your initial generalization is flawed, then all your following study will be weakened. The deductive approach can be useful, but it may encourage subjectivism and bias. Use it with care.

Those using the inductive approach begin with the text itself. First they examine the particulars such as key words, the grammatical structure, and the context. Then they may use study aids to fill in the background and to verify the way words were used at that time. From this intensive personal study of the text they draw conclusions. This approach when practiced properly is impartial and objective.

All of us are somewhat subjective in our interpretation of Scripture because we bring our background with us. As Mickelsen says in his book Interpreting the Bible,

“. . . we must try to be so molded by God that the distortion brought about by our subjectivity will be at a minimum. In this molding, the believer is not passive but very active. If intellectual development is part of our salvation, then the believer works out his intellectual growth ‘with fear and trembling’. . . Failing to be open to self-correction is like a man’s having 20/200 vision and steadfastly refusing to wear glasses” (66ff.).
  • It is frightening how easily we can be affected by peer pressure and our upbringing
    • Christians in Hitler’s Germany
    • The Dutch Reformed church in South Africa during apartheit

Question: One Meaning?

Reading an allegorical interpretation of Origen shows how far it is possible to go if we do not apply firm principles. Are there hidden meanings in Scripture? If there are, who decides what they are? The interpreter ends up exercising authority over Scripture. If there is a hidden meaning, God and the inspired human author are the only ones who know and can tell us the hidden meaning. N.T. authors will sometimes tell us (under inspiration) of such a meaning.

Multiple Applications!

Every passage of Scipture can have a unique interpretation for each individual. The work of the Holy Spirit is to communicate this to us. For example, the verse from Joshua 1, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” may mean something very special to me in the situation that I am facing right now, and the Spirit may impress on my heart this word of comfort.

Updated 2009-10-07 (build:7) by Andrew Fountain

Daily Bible Reading

The first assignment we will do is rather different to the others, and is about daily Bible reading.
See the article on Daily Bible Reading for the content of this section.