The development and application of interpretive principles is calledÂ hermeneuticsÂ (from a Greek word meaning ‘to translate, to interpret’).
Big, long books have been written on this question, and often those books disagree. Nevertheless, a few basic principles can guide you faithfully toward a clear understanding of any biblical text (general hermeneutics). Then, there are additional principles for interpreting biblical texts that fall into each of the literary categories (special hermeneutics).
General hermeneuticsÂ â€“ The following principles apply to any biblical text you are studying, whether the Gospel of Mark, First Samuel, or the Book of Revelation:
- The simple principle:Â Interpret the Bible as you would any other book. Go with the simple and obvious meaning.
- The authorial intent principle:Â Assume the writer employed the right combination of words and forms to get his point across the way he wanted it.
- The context principle:Â The meaning of any text is limited and controlled by its internal context (that is, the paragraphs and sentences leading up to and following the text you are trying to understand).
- The background principle:Â The meaning of any text is limited and controlled by its external context (that is, its geographical, cultural, and historical background).
- The original readers principle:Â The primary meaning of a text is limited to what it meant to the original readers.
- The self-explanation principle:Â As much as possible, allow a text to explain itself before looking elsewhere for an explanation.
Find indicators of the meaning within the text before looking outside of the text for indicators.
- The Scripture interpreting Scripture principle:Â Allow other biblical texts to clarify an obscure text.
- The clear-to-obscure principle:Â Use clear texts to help you understand obscure or controversial texts, rather than using a hard-to-understand text as the basis for understanding clear texts.
Special hermeneuticsÂ â€“ Certain interpretation principles apply to the various genra of Scripture, e.g., historical narrative, poetry, parable, proverb, prophetic vision, etc., but the general principles outlined above will take you far in your maturing ability to interpret the Word of God.
Want to go deeper?Â Here are recommended resources for learning how to interpret God’s Word:
Recommended for purchase:
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.Â How to Read the Bible for All Its WorthÂ (3rd ed., 2003). Includes interpretation principles as well as detailed explanations of the Bible genre by genre.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and MoisÃ©s Silva.Â An Introduction to Biblical HermeneuticsÂ (1993). This is one of the best textbooks on biblical interpretation available today.
Robert H. Stein.Â A Basic Guide to Interpreting the BibleÂ (1997). On an easier level than Kaiser and Silva, Stein’s book explains biblical interpretation principles using the analogy of rules of a game, then has a chapter on each genre as a separate game to be played. Excellent!
Bible-Interpretation.comÂ â€“ This looks good, but I don’t necessarily endorse everything taught at this site. Use your own critical judgment!
Ben Witherington.Â “Hermeneutics — Guide for Perplexed Bible StudentsÂ â€“ Witherington is a well-respected Bible scholar who has written a number of commentaries and other great books. Return to his blog often for rich insights into the Word of God.