Interpreting the Bible

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The critical role of the Bible in Christian faith makes it important to interpret it accurately. The Bible poses at least three hermeneutical (interpretational) challenges to a modern reader. 

Three Hermaneutical Challenges

First, the Bible is only ancient text that most people ever read. The writers of the New Testament wrote roughly two thousand years ago and referenced Old Testament texts written over a period from two thousand to several hundred years prior to that point. Does our inexperience with ancient texts imply that only experts can read the Bible correctly? Historically, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that only a priest could correctly interpret scripture while Protestants insisted that the plain meaning (perspicuity or clarity) of scripture was obvious enough that common people could interpret the Bible.

Second, the ancient source of the Bible implies that these authors lived in cultural contexts vastly different from our own and they wrote in unfamiliar languages—Hebrew and Greek. Both the cultures and the languages therefore require translation that require assumptions to be made that significantly impact the translated text. For example, should the translator translate each word (New American Standard Bible) or translate the meaning of a paragraph (The Message Bible)? Should the translator assume that the text has been written for a high class audience (King James Bible) or is it written in the common language (Good News Bible)?

Third, the Bible is a compilation of books written by different authors in a wide range of genres. Genesis, for example, mostly records historical narratives while the next book, Exodus, combines narrative with law. The witness of the church attributes both books to Moses who, as a major participant in Exodus, might be considered to be writing a kind of memoir. But since the Book of Deuteronomy, another book attributed to Moses, records Moses’ death (Deut 34:5), it might be more appropriate to attribute the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses or the Books of the Law) to the Moses administration. Even though Mosaic authorship was never questioned until the nineteenth century, the meaning of Moses’ authorship requires interpretation. 

Genre Challenges

Similar problems arise in determining genre. For example, what genre are we reading when we read: 

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1 ESV)

Is this verse simple narrative, a metaphor, or a fable? Depending on your prior convictions, you may interpret this verse differently, which is an important reason to pay attention to hermeneutics.

Biblical Keys to Interpretation

Although most Christians discount the importance of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation), hermeneutic concerns defined Christian denominations historically and lie at the heart of numerous controversies today. The mere observation that seminarians require intense training in the languages of the Bible (principally Hebrew and Greek) speaks to the subtly of scripture and the need to understand those subtleties. Less frequently noted, however, are hermeneutical keys given in the Bible itself.

For example, after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (the second time), he describes who he is:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7 ESV)

God’s character is critical in interpreting the commandments wherever a question arises. Note, for example, that God is first described as merciful—not punishing as deserved—then being described as a gracious—rewarding with undeserved blessings. God is a merciful and gracious lawgiver, which is helpful to know if you are charged with implementing God’s law in your own community.

Much like Moses, Jesus gives an interpretative key right after introducing the Beatitudes, the introduction to his Sermon on Mount.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-19 ESV)

The term, the Law and the Prophets, is a euphemism for the Old Testament that implies Jesus expects his followers to reference the Old Testament when they interpret his teaching. This admonishment comes as a warning to those who prefer to pick a favorite saying of Jesus and use it to discount Old Testament teaching, as is commonly done today.

The Need for Context

In his book focused on misuses of scripture, Richard Schultz (2012, 41) views taking scripture out of context as the single, most important misuse of scripture. Context, according to Schultz (2012, 40), “refers to the flow of thought in a passage, for example, how a specific sentence is related to the sentences that precede and follow it.” He cites four types of biblical context:

  1. Literary context—the “text surrounding an individual verse or passage”.
  2. Historical-Cultural Context—“biblical authors wrote with a particular readership in mind, who share a common knowledge of key events in Israelite History, religious practices and core theological beliefs…”
  3. Salvation-Historical Context—the Bible “offers one extensive ‘story’ (today sometimes called ‘macronarrative’), which stretches from the creation to the consummation of human history, as we know it, climaxing in the creation of a new heaven and new earth.”
  4. Theological-Thematic Context—“when studying a text, it is helpful to identify its dominant themes…” (Schultz 2012, 52).

The tendency among those who misuse scripture is to ignore the context of the passage being cited and to substitute their own context, which may or may not correspond to the original context in scripture.

Vanhoozer (1998, 25-29) sees the three key contexts for interpreting scripture as the author, other scripture, and the reader. The author’s context focuses on the intent, social context, and audience of the writer. The context of other scripture shares the divine inspiration of any particular text; if something in one place is unclear, perhaps is clearer somewhere else. The reader’s context, when balanced against the other two, provides a valid expression of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in our own lives. Vanhoozer observes: “My thesis is that ethical interpretation is a spiritual exercise and that the spirit of understanding is not a spirit of power, nor of play, but the Holy Spirit.”  If interpretation becomes a power play, clearly divine inspiration is not the prime motivator and the reader’s context may simply be another attempt to insert our own context for that of the text.

How to Interpret Scripture Properly

Schultz goes on to offer seven specific suggestions for interpreting scripture properly:

1. Care about understanding.

2. Catch nuance.

3. Clarify context.

4. Check terms.

5. Consider genre.

6. Consult expert [texts].

7. Correlate application [with text]. (Schultz 2012, 139-140).

Schultz’s first point is instructive. In seminary I found studying scripture in the original languages to be an eye-opener, in part, because the texts were too familiar—I thought that I knew what the text was saying, but often missed the details and main point of a pericope (a self-contained unit of scripture like a parable). Reading in Greek or Hebrew forced me to slow down and consider each word. Scripture is laconic in having a minimum of words so each word serves a particular purpose.


Schultz, Richard L. 2012. Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. 

Interpreting the Bible

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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