The best way to interpret the Bible is on its own terms. This means that we interpret it according to the intent of its authors and according to its literary style.
The authors of Scripture wrote to communicate something specific, and our goal should be to discern what they intended to communicate. That way, we guard against making Scripture mean whatever we want it to mean. Every passage of Scripture has an objective, discernible meaning. It cannot mean different contradictory things. Every passage also has at least one practical application and often many applications depending on our circumstances. This is an amazing thing about God’s Word. It communicates truth that is bigger than each and every one of us, yet it can be applied to all of our unique circumstances.
The different portions of the Bible use different literary styles, each of which has its own rules of interpretation. We interpret a historical book, such as Joshua or Acts, as we would interpret history by paying attention to the facts that are detailed and why. We interpret a poetic book, such as Psalms or Proverbs, by paying close attention to the poetic structure and literary devices such as metaphor and hyperbole that are often found in poetry. This is also important to remember when reading apocalyptic books such as Revelation because of its rich symbolism, which often conveys deep truths in pictures that are not meant to be taken as literal descriptions of events.
Another essential rule for correctly interpreting the Bible is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. When we encounter a difficult passage of the Bible, other passages of the Bible should be used to provide clarity. Being a part of a good church that believes the Bible is the Word of God and seeks to teach all of it will also help us learn how to rightly interpret the Bible. The works of the great teachers in church history and the church’s historic creeds and confessions are also great helps. When we encounter a passage that we cannot understand and don’t know where to look for answers, we should consult others and always continue reading our Bibles. The more we read it, the more our understanding of it will grow.
This article is part of the The Reformation Study Bible collection.