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