This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Importance of Doctrine

The following post is an article found in the Spiritual Research Network website, a ministry of Pastor Chris Lawson. Spiritual Research Network (SRN) seeks to Proclaim the Gospel and Encourage Biblical Discernment.

Eight Rules of Interpretation

(The Basics)

Suggested Resources

See also: 20 Ways Cults Misread The Bible – Click here.


SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT INTERPRETATION?

 

As a general rule, Scripture is always its best interpreter – “Scripture interpreting Scripture”.

The Bible itself is very clear that one must use precision when interpreting the Word of God.

A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:  To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.  (Solomon,   Proverbs 1:5-6.)

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.   (Paul,   2 Timothy .2:15)

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:  Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
(Peter,   2 Peter 1:19-20)


HAVE YOU HEARD OF THE ’20/20 VISION’ RULE FOR UNDERSTANDING SCRIPTURE?

If you are stuck on a Bible verse or confused about a text you are reading, read 20 verses before and 20 verses after whatever is confusing you.  If you are still confused, read the chapter before and the chapter after whatever is confusing you.

Along with this recommendation, we list  “…the Eight Rules of Interpretation used by legal experts for more than 2500 years.”  These are general rules to follow.

 


EIGHT BASIC RULES OF INTERPRETATION (GENERAL RULES)

1. Rule of Definition.
Define the term or words being considered and then adhere to the defined meanings.

2. Rule of Usage.
Don’t add meaning to established words and terms. What was the common usage in the cultural and time period when the passage was written?

3. Rule of Context.
Avoid using words out of context. Context must define terms and how words are used.

4. Rule of Historical background.
Don’t separate interpretation and historical investigation.

5. Rule of Logic.
Be certain that words as interpreted agree with the overall premise.

6. Rule of Precedent.
Use the known and commonly accepted meanings of words, not obscure meanings for which their is no precedent.

7. Rule of Unity.
Even though many documents may be used there must be a general unity among them.

8. Rule of Inference.
Base conclusions on what is already known and proven or can be reasonably implied from all known facts.

 

EXPLANATIONS OF THE EIGHT BASIC RULES OF INTERPRETATION

1. Rule of Definition

Define the term or words being considered and then adhere to the defined meanings.) What does the word mean? Any study of Scripture must begin with a study of words. Define your terms and then keep to the terms defined. The interpreter should conscientiously abide by the plain meaning of the words. This quite often may require using a Hebrew/English or Greek/English lexicon in order to make sure that the sense of the English translation is understood. A couple of good examples of this are the Greek words “allos” and “heteros”. Both are usually translated as “another” in English – yet “allos” literally means “another of the same type” and “heteros” means “another of a different type.”

2. Rule of Usage

It must be remembered that the Old Testament was written originally by, to and for Jews. The words and idioms must have been intelligible to them – just as the words of Christ when talking to them must have been. The majority of the New Testament likewise was written in a milieu of Greco-Roman (and to a lesser extent Jewish) culture and it is important to not impose our modern usage into our interpretation. It is not worth much to interpret a great many phrases and histories if one’s interpretations are shaded by pre-conceived notions and cultural biases, thereby rendering an inaccurate and ineffectual lesson.

3. Rule of Context

The meaning must be gathered from the context. Every word you read must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it. Many passages will not be understood at all, or understood incorrectly, without the help afforded by the context. A good example of this is the Mormon practice of using 1 Cor. 8:5b: “…for there be gods many and lords many…” as a “proof text” of their doctrine of polytheism. However, a simple reading of the whole verse in the context of the whole chapter (e.g. where Paul calls these gods “so-called”), plainly demonstrates that Paul is not teaching polytheism.

4. Rule of Historical background

The interpreter must have some awareness of the life and society of the times in which the Scripture was written. The spiritual principle will be timeless but often can’t be properly appreciated without some knowledge of the background. If the interpreter can have in his mind what the writer had in his mind when he wrote – without adding any excess baggage from the interpreter’s own culture or society – then the true thought of the Scripture can be captured resulting in an accurate interpretation. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Our only interest in the past is for the light it throws upon the present.”

5. Rule of Logic

Interpretation is merely logical reasoning. When interpreting Scripture, the use of reason is everywhere to be assumed. Does the interpretation make sense? The Bible was given to us in the form of human language and therefore appeals to human reason – it invites investigation. It is to be interpreted as we would any other volume: applying the laws of language and grammatical analysis. As Bernard Ramm said:

“What is the control we use to weed out false theological speculation? Certainly the control is logic and evidence… interpreters who have not had the sharpening experience of logic…may have improper notions of implication and evidence. Too frequently such a person uses a basis of appeal that is a notorious violation of the laws of logic and evidence.” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1956)

6. Rule of Precedent

We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent. Just as a judge’s chief occupation is the study of previous cases, so must the interpreter use precedents in order to determine whether they really support an alleged doctrine. Consider the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12 who were called “noble” because they searched the Scriptures to determine if what Paul taught them was true.

7. Rule of Unity

The parts of Scripture being interpreted must be construed with reference to the significance of the whole. An interpretation must be consistent with the rest of Scripture. An excellent example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. No single passage teaches it, but it is consistent with the teaching of the whole of Scripture (e.g. the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are referred to individually as God; yet the Scriptures elsewhere teach there is only one God).

8. Rule of Inference

An inference is a fact reasonably implied from another fact. It is a logical consequence. It derives a conclusion from a given fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition from another proposition. Such inferential facts or propositions are sufficiently binding when their truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence. Competent evidence means such evidence as the nature of the thing to be proved admits. Satisfactory evidence means that amount of proof which would ordinarily satisfy an unprejudiced mind beyond a reasonable doubt. Jesus used this rule when he proved the resurrection of the dead to the unbelieving Sadducees in Matt. 22:23-33.

Learning these eight rules and properly applying them will help keep any interpreter from making errors and will hopefully alleviate many of the disagreements unfortunately present in Christianity today. However, these eight principles are no substitute for the Holy Spirit which will, if you let Him, guide you in the truth [John 14:26]. If you receive Christ into your heart, God will give you the Holy Spirit freely as a gift [Acts 2:38]. I urge you, if you have not already done so, to examine the claims and the work of Jesus Christ and to receive Him as your Savior.

This paper will close with some words from King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, excepting our Lord Jesus Christ:

A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: to understand a proverb, and the interpretation. (Prov. 1:5-6)

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