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Basic Rules of Interpretation

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Basic Rules of Interpretation

Often, people are reluctant to explore prophecies (or any portions of scripture for that matter) because they perceive the Bible as incomprehensible. The Bible's apparent complexity and confusion concerning its inerrancy generally create this perception. Part of this problem stems from the fact that the Bible is a unique book that serves as a textbook for spiritual elementary students but still reveals secrets to professors with many years of post-graduate study. Another part comes from its diverse subject matter, which includes basic law with its blessings and curses, world history, and the mysteries of God. These issues have led many to question the Bible's accuracy and claim its esoteric nature is beyond the common Christian's comprehension. However, the Bible's own testimony directly disputes these assertions:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (2 Timothy 3:16)

Without equivocation, the Bible claims all scripture comes directly from God and corrects, builds, and edifies people, regardless of their spiritual maturity or their mastery of its secrets. 2 Peter 1:20-21 continues these themes:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Again, the Bible claims its scripture originates from God but now expands the explanation to include God's delivery method: the Holy Spirit's moving of specially selected righteous men. While men penned scripture's words, the words they wrote were God's not theirs. This passage also extends beyond scripture's origination to its interpretation or, more specifically, restricts it from private or personal interpretations. Fundamentally, this controversial verse simply limits scripture's meaning to that intended by its author, God, and He is the final authority on all questions of interpretation. Further, it is each individual's responsibility to set aside all personal bias and diligently seek these truths:

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

God bestows special praise on those delving into scripture's complexities seeking its singular truths. For example, the Bereans received special praise for their faithful testing of the apostle's teachings:

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)

Rather than be intimidated by scripture's complexities, faithful Christians embrace them trusting God to illuminate their truths.

Over time, scholars have created various rules to aid in the discovery of God's truths through strict methods of scriptural interpretation. Known as hermeneutics, these rules define methodical, disciplined approaches for understanding any facet of scripture, including prophecy. They form a common sense approach for searching the Bible for its treasures without deviating from its balanced doctrine. While small variations exist between different hermeneutic lists, a general list of rules includes:

  • Grammatical interpretation: words, phrases, and sentence construction can all alter meanings. Each needs careful inspection and exploration to avoid erroneous conclusions.
  • Local contextual interpretation: verses immediately before and after a passage directly influences its meaning and a passage's interpretation cannot occur in isolation from its local context.

  • General contextual interpretation: single scriptural passages do not stand-alone and must be consistent with all other scripture. Two corollaries to this rule are:
    • Unambiguous passages should take interpretational precedence over more ambiguous ones.
    • Doctrinal ‘extremes' must be balanced against each other. Based on Deuteronomy 5:32 (which admonishes people not to depart from the law to go to the right or to the left), this corollary instructs people to search with equal fervor doctrine prohibiting the left and rights paths so the righteous discovers the proper doctrinal path lying somewhere in between.
  • Historical connotation: historical context influences passages and their interpretation. Careful scriptural interpretation needs to consider these effects. (This rule is probably more important to prophetic studies than any other discipline.)
  • Author context: exploration of the author's background and other works can provide insights into difficult texts. This time-honored technique for general literature is extended for the Bible to account for both its human writer and its heavenly originator, God. Of greatest importance are scripture's originator and its spiritual conduit, the Holy Spirit, who reveal the text's secrets.
  • Progressive revelation: The Holy Spirit progressively reveals doctrinal revelations in more detail with the passage of time. As a corollary, detailed revelations build on earlier less developed revelations. Later revelations need interpreting in light of earlier revelations.
  • Symbolic interpretation: wherever the Bible explains symbolic meanings, these symbolic interpretations take interpretational precedence and consideration for alternative interpretations occurs only when the Biblically suggested ones fail to fit the current context.