8 principles of Bible interpretation

So you've probably come for the picture. We might as well get that over with first. Click below for a larger version.

8 Principles of Bible Interpretation - A BibleSnippets Infographic
8 Principles of Bible Interpretation - A BibleSnippets Infographic

Background

A little while ago I posted a few questions about Bible interpretation to a discussion group. I'd realised that most disagreements stem from how Scripture is approached, and the rules we apply to weigh different sources of evidence. In the circles I move in there aren't many resources on the subject of Bible interpretation (more properly known as "hermeneutics"), and certainly no commonly accepted standard.

The post generated quite a bit of discussion and some links to useful resources. It's taken quite a while to get my head around them all, but having shared these with a number of friends over the last few weeks I'm now reasonably happy that they're at least not terrible.

Why the sudden interest in hermeneutics?

Many of the issues faced by Christianity today stem from inconsistent rules of interpretation. For example, without due regard for genre and cultural context we can easily be misled by our suppositions, bringing our own ideas and expectations to the text. If we ignore the observable evidence of science we are in danger of generate unnecessary apologetics work for ourselves, and if we treat the Bible as a jigsaw puzzle we can come to tenuous and unsound conclusions.

Having read up on the subject, I felt that academic hermeneutics often minimise the divine at work through inspiration, a problem which applies to prophecy particularly: "It can only mean what it meant to the original hearers" is a useful rule, but is blunt if applied exclusively to the text.

Whilst such a rule helpfully disallows tenuous links, it also "throws the baby out with the bathwater" by disallowing clear prophetic patterns and allusions that are only seen in hindsight.

I've tried to solve all these problems in the following "Principles of interpretation". These aren't original: some are derived from James Foreman's rules, and some are from books I've been reading. My intention is to keep them brief, comprehensive, and accessible.

In addition I wanted to set a clear starting position; something that a new "interested friend" could identify with. This means some principles that don't assume divine authorship from the outset, but which don't prevent "belief" from being a credible conclusion.

A text version is provided below. Feel free to use these elsewhere, but I'd be grateful for a link back. The infographic itself is licensed via Creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
NoDerivatives 4.0


Principles of Bible Interpretation

The following principles are designed to help individuals explore the world-view of the early Christian movement through the writings they held sacred. This is achieved by evaluating textual and physical evidence to understand both the inspired author's intent and the receiving audience's perception, enabling the values and behaviours of the early Christian movement to be translated into a modern context.

  1. Regard the 66 books as canon - History testifies that the 66 books of the protestant canon are considered authoritative, and critical analyses of extant texts of these writings represent our best understanding of God’s word.

  2. Ascertain the genre of the text - Genre can be used to discover audience expectations, typical literary constructs, and likely focal points of a text, helping to uncover the inspired author’s purpose and message.

  3. Get to know the original audience - Identifying the person(s) to whom a given text is addressed helps reveal the cultural, economic, political, and geographic context in which God’s word was presented. It therefore provides an invaluable framework for discovering the original meaning perceived by the hearers.

  4. Value context over definitions - The meaning of any given word, figure or symbol should be ascribed from its literary context and common usage rather than broad dictionary definitions.

  5. See patterns, don't make them - Patterns and similitude in scripture arise from consistent lessons, providential circumstance and direct prophecy. However, no pattern or allusion can contradict truths which are plainly stated elsewhere in the Bible, and doctrine should never be based on such implied or subjective connections.

  6. Seek academic authorities - Sound Bible exegesis incorporates knowledge from a diverse range of fields such as linguistics, textual criticism and archaeology. Exploring professional literature provides new insights and helps non-experts to calibrate a level of credulity for different interpretations.

  7. Respect external evidence - It is reasonable to expect the material world to provide evidence for texts which are interpreted in a literal manner, though the passage of time may make such evidence difficult to locate or interpret. Absence of such evidence should not be considered to disprove the scriptural record or its interpretation. However, a consistent weight of evidence contrary to a given interpretation rightly justifies careful review of that interpretation.

  8. Acknowledge uncertainty - It is not always possible to provide a conclusive interpretation in cases of little, circumstantial, or contradictory evidence. In such cases it is important to treat the interpretation with due caution, monitoring the field of evidence for further data that may prove or disprove the idea.


Useful resources

  • How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, Amazon UK
  • How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, Amazon UK
  • Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O'Brien, Amazon UK
  • The Hermeneutical Spiral, Grant R. Osborne, Amazon UK

Nathan

Bible enthusiast, husband, Dad, and tech-head with too many projects and not enough time.