In our day, we often hear that no one’s point of view is to be privileged over another, that no one has a monopoly on truth, and that everything ultimately is a matter of opinion. This view is even applied to Scripture, to the point where the meaning of the Bible appears to be up for grabs and infinitely malleable. The Reformed tradition has consistently rejected this view, for the simple reason that Scripture is the Word of God, and God cares about how His Word is read. Ultimately, Scripture must be read as God directs.
Interpreting and understanding biblical texts is the province of exegesis. Exegesis is closely related to hermeneutics, which involves the principles according to which Scripture is approached and interpreted. It is, therefore, the application of hermeneutics to a particular passage. Here are some principles for interpreting the Bible according to the Reformed tradition.
We are to interpret the Bible humbly.
The Bible is no ordinary book. It is a unique book, the very Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and so when we read it, we are trying to discern what the living God has to say to us. All other authorities—even those that purport to tell us how to interpret Scripture—are subordinate to Scripture. Thus, while we seek to discern the meaning intended by the human authors, ultimately we seek to discern the meaning intended by the divine Author.
This means placing ourselves under the Bible rather than over it. When we come to a passage whose apparent meaning we find distasteful, for instance, we don’t try to explain it away or ignore it. For example, in John 6, Jesus speaks of the priority of God’s electing grace in bringing to faith those who trust in Him. Many find the teaching too hard and turn away (John 6:66), and many today similarly try to explain away Scripture’s teaching on election. Yet we must strive to understand and submit to the teaching of Scripture as it is and not as we’d like it to be.
We are to interpret the Bible faithfully.
Interpreting the Bible faithfully means reading a given passage as it’s meant to be read. Reading in this way pays attention to things such as genre and figures of speech and takes account of the historical and literary context of a given passage, making note of how the words used were understood at the time the text was written. This method is often called historical-grammatical exegesis, and it is intended to uncover what the author intended to convey by focusing on the words he used and their meaning in context.
Reading the Bible faithfully begins by asking some key questions about the text, including: Who is the author? What was the context of his writing? What was his purpose in writing? What is the genre of the text? The answers to these questions can often be found in the text itself, but sometimes outside resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries can be helpful.
Words usually have more than one meaning or connotation, and context helps us determine which particular meaning of a word is intended from all its possible meanings—its semantic range (see, for example, the various ways that “world” is used in the New Testament: Matt. 4:8; 13:22; 25:34; Mark 4:19; Luke 2:1; John 1:29; 3:16; Acts 17:6; Rom. 3:6; Gal. 6:14; Eph. 2:2). Key words such as therefore, rather, but,* instead*, and so indicate the author’s flow of thought, and the grammar of a passage can indicate emphasis (e.g., Luke 12:5).
Determining the genre of a passage can also help us discern what the author intends. The Bible contains sections of poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, instruction, and so on, each with its own conventions that inform the way a text should be understood. For instance, if a passage is poetry, it likely contains figures and images that point to a meaning that is beyond the concrete. The same goes for apocalyptic. If it is narrative, it may simply mean to relate a series of events, but those events may foreshadow later happenings or take on greater significance over the course of redemptive history.
Exploring these aspects of the text can tell us what it meant when it was written. From there, we can try to understand what the text means to us now. This process involves determining the meaning of the text in light of Christ’s advent. Now that Christ has come, how should we understand this command or read this narrative? Should we, as members of the New Testament church, see a promise to believe, a command to obey, a warning to heed, a truth to understand, or a salve to apply?
We are to interpret the Bible responsibly.
Because God is the ultimate Author of Scripture, He provides the definitive interpretation. This means that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (1.9). We must often look elsewhere in the Bible to cast light on troublesome passages. The definitive interpretation of Scripture is found within Scripture, not in appeals to other authorities such as tradition, church leaders, or opinion.
The Westminster Confession also states that “in a due use of the ordinary means” the message of Scripture can be uncovered (1.7). Scripture is to be read in an ordinary way, like any other book, using the ordinary rules of grammar and so on, and it is not to be merely a launching point for speculation, allegorical interpretation, and flights of fancy. It is also to be read seriously—with “due use of ordinary means.” One cannot treat the Bible frivolously and then pronounce it incomprehensible.
Ultimately, we want to know what the Bible has to say to us about who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. Any given passage is filled with meaning that can be applied to our lives, yet it is important that we see how these applications flow from our union with Christ through faith. We are not unconditionally promised a prosperous life. For instance, in Jeremiah 29:11, God originally held out the hope of blessing to the Israelites exiled in Babylon. But Christ, as the perfectly obedient Son and true Israel, inherited all of God’s promises and merited all of God’s rewards, and by virtue of our union with Him, we receive untold blessings (Eph. 1:3–11). This is good news, and it is unfolded on every page of Scripture.
This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.