Studying the Bible for Yourself: Interpretation

Interpretation – determining the meaning of a passage – comes after much observation and asking questions. The more observations, the more accurate the interpretation. An important rule to keep in mind during the process of interpretation is that the text cannot mean what it never meant. We need to determine what it originally meant to the original audience in order to determine what it means for us today. Once we have learned what the text originally meant, we look for the timeless truth, that principle which remains regardless of time or place and is for all people throughout all ages.
In interpreting a passage, remember that context rules. We are not to take a passage to make it say what we want it to say. We must keep in mind the full context of Scripture. We compare Scripture with Scripture. It won’t contradict itself. If a passage seems to contradict another passage of Scripture, then we are not grasping the meaning of one of them.
We need to interpret Scripture plainly, but at the same time realizing what type of speech it is or the genre of what we are studying. Some principles from the Credo House Bible Boot Camp (see link below):
“Use the literal sense unless there is some good reason not to.
Use the figurative sense when the passage tells you to do so.
Use the figurative sense if the expression is an obvious figure of speech.
Use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation goes contrary to the context of the passage, the context of the book, or the purpose of the author.
Use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation involves a contradiction of other Scripture.
Use the figurative sense if a literal meaning is impossible, absurd, or
immoral.”

As we look at our observations, we determine what the text meant to the original audience. Once that meaning is determined, we can extract the theological principle that is timeless and for all people of all time. That’s the goal of interpretation – finding the timeless truth – for after that we can determine how to apply the passage. But first we determine what the text meant to the original audience in order to determine what it means for us today. As a way to determine the interpretation, writing out what the author intended to say in the passage helps to clarify the meaning for us. We compare Scripture with Scripture using cross-references to see if our interpretation matches up with the rest of Scripture. Once we have reached our conclusions on the passage, then we can look at other resources to see if our interpretation matches what others have concluded. Only after we have reached the meaning for ourselves do we then look at commentaries to compare meaning and see whether we have reached similar conclusions as others in the church throughout the ages.
Some of the factors that affect interpretation that we need to be mindful of:
Presuppositions/Pre-conceived notions – we all come to the text with our own worldview and framework for how we view the world. We need to be mindful of these, though often these are unconscious notions.
Agenda – what we want the text to say
Familiarity – a familiar passage is easy to jump immediately to a conclusion on the meaning instead of taking the time to ask questions and observe the text as though we’ve never seen it before
Our Culture – language, customs, politics, geography, family, values, ethnicity, gender, stories, religion, arts, economics, images: these will vary by person as well
We need to be cognizant of these factors and try to minimize the subjectivity that comes with them as we examine the text.

Once we have interpreted the passage and determined its meaning, then we move on to Application, which we’ll look at in our next post.

*Source material for this blog series came from a variety of sources.
Living by the Book by Howard and William Hendricks
Women of the Word by Jen Wilkins
Lord, Teach Me to Study the Bible in 28 Days by Kay Arthur
Credo House Bible Boot Camp video series (link is broken, no longer posted)
Secret Church: How to Study the Bible series
How to Read the Bible by A.J. Conyers (out of print, but seemingly available used)

Previous Posts in this series:
Studying the Bible for Yourself: Introduction
Studying the Bible for Yourself: Genre and Context
Studying the Bible for Yourself: Observation

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