If you want to go deeper in your study of the Bible, you will have to learn the “rules” for Bible interpretation. There are general rules that apply to any Bible passage, and specific rules for each genre. Most of these rules are just common sense. The development and application of interpretive principles is called hermeneutics (from the Greek word meaning “to translate, to interpret”), and each principle is called a hermeneutic.
The following principles apply to any biblical text you are studying, whether Revelation, or Mark,
or First Samuel:
1. Interpret the Bible as you would any other book. Go with the simple and obvious meaning.
2. Assume the writer employed the right combination of words and forms to get his point across the
way he wanted it.
3. 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 target text.
4. The meaning of any text is limited and controlled by its external context, that is, its geographical,
cultural, and historical background (see Figure 1).
5. Assume that the author is consistent; assume that he will not contradict himself, or other biblical
writers. This is the canon of the analogy of Scripture: use a clear passage to interpret an obscure
passage, not the other way around.
6. Recognize the genre of the document, and do not interpret it as if it were a different genre. The
variety of biblical genres includes: didactic, homily, narrative, poetry, epistle, and apocalypse.
Each genre has its own set of special hermeneutics, in addition to, and not in contradiction of the
7. Interpret each text in the frame of its own philosophical presuppositions.
8. Recognize the reality of progressive revelation—not that the early authors understood less than
the later ones, but that we understand more about what the early authors intended in the light of
what was revealed later.
Specific rules for each genre
In addition to the above rules, each genre of Scripture (e.g., narrative, parable, vision, law, admonishment, etc.) has its own rules. See Robert Stein’s book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible below for discussions of the rules of each genre.
Example: Some rules for interpreting prophecy
Because of my work on the Book of Revelation (see my study guide: Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation, I have developed my own list of rules for interpreting biblical prophecy. Here they are:
1. The Literal vs. Figurative Hermeneutic
Carefully distinguish within the book of prophecy between the vision and the explanation,
applying a figurative hermeneutic in the vision sections and a literal hermeneutic in the explanation
2. The Hermeneutic of Original Intent
We must seek to limit our interpretation to those objects and events that were well within the
author’s sphere of experience.
3. The Hermeneutic of Original Audience
In studying a biblical prophecy, first try to understand what is being said from the perspective of the
4. The Time-Frame Hermeneutic
Take seriously time references in the book, rather than ignoring them or explaining them away. For any piece of ancient literature, including the Bible, today’s reader must recognize that a time shift has taken place: references to past, present, and future are displaced and may not mean the same now as they did when originally written. Their present is our past. Their future may be past to us.
5. The Old Testament Background Hermeneutic (for New Testament prophecy)
When choosing between two interpretations, the interpretation should be preferred that depends
on the Old Testament for its symbolism or meaning.
6. The Historical Background Hermeneutic
When choosing between two interpretations, the interpretation should be preferred that depends on the historical background for its symbolism or meaning.
7. The Modern Application Hermeneutic
Only when we have determined the meaning of the text for the original readers, can we identify
the significance of the biblical prophecy for modern readers.
Think for yourself
This method of using rules to guide your interpretation of the Bible makes deeper Bible study not only fulfilling, but satisfying, because you know that you can explain why you interpret a passage one particular way and not another. It protects you from making serious blunders in your interpretation, and it lends credibility to your explanation when you attempt to teach or at least dialogue with someone else. We should always be willing to explain why we interpret the Bible the way we do, and be open to sensible criticism of our interpretation principles.
As you gain more and more experience in studying and interpreting the Bible, you will be able to apply these rules readily and perhaps even develop a few rules of your own.
Want to go deeper?
Books for purchase
A great introduction to the rules of biblical interpretation is:
A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules by Robert Stein. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker, 2015.
Another great introduction to the Bible, including biblical interpretation is:
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. 4th ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014.
More advanced level:
New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors by Gordon Fee. Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster, 2002.
Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors by Douglas Stuart. Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster, 2004.