The Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO, USA
METHOD OF INTERPRETATION
Although the title of this article may sound earth-shaking
or difficult to understand, it really is quite simple. The
Gramnmatico-Historical Method is a well-known term for one among
several important methods used by Bible students who seek to
understand what our God is truly saying to us through His Word.
Put in its simplest terms, the Grammatico-Historical Method means
that the Bible should be interpreted by the regular rules of
grammar and the facts of history.
The Bible has been given to us in human language. Language
is the main method whereby we communicate our thoughts to others.
We do this by means of words, as symbols, set into grammatical
Consequently, to understand what we hear or read, we have to
be able to interpret words, sentences, and paragraphs. Imagine
the problem we would have if we confused the subject and object
of sentences! But we do a rather good job of interpreting our
language day in and day out without too much confusion and
However, real problems can develop when we attempt to
translate and interpret from other languages which are not our
own. It gets worse when we are dealing with languages which were
in use two or three thousand years ago in a far-off place where
the cultural setting was different from today. Add to that the
fact that God is speaking to us through those languages, and we
wish to be all the more accurate as we interpret His Word. But
whenever we talk religion, we bring our belief systems,
traditional teachings, and prejudices to our study. We cannot
help that, but we can endeavor to minimize it as far as
possible and be as honest as we can in our interpretation.
Books have been written on the subject of grammatical
interpretation, and it can get so technical that only experts
feel at home with it. They have their place, and we appreciate
their assistance. But the plan of salvation is not that
difficult, and we need not stay awake nights worrying whether we
are dealing with a genitive or an ablative, both of which have
the same grammatical endings in the Greek New Testament.
However, it is necessary to know what the biblical writer
really said and what he meant by it. Most words have several
meanings, and some scriptures make use of more than one meaning
for the same word.
For example, Genesis 1 speaks of "days" as twenty-four hour
periods. But then we also read in the same chapter that God
separated "the day from the night." Here "day" is the light
portion of the twenty-four hour day. In other places, like Daniel
2, we read, "what shall be in the latter days" (verse 28) and "in
the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom,
which shall never be destroyed" (verse 44). In these verses,
"days" are periods of time, perhaps years.
Fortunately, the context, in which a word or phrase is used,
will usually clarify its meaning to us. This helps us to avoid
using a scriptural expression to prove or teach a point when the
context, in fact, shows us that it means something else.
Consider John 5:39: "Search the scriptures; for in them ye
think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of
me" (KJV). At first glance, this verse may appear to be a command
to search the Scriptures as a means of obtaining eternal life.
Grammatically, in the Greek, the word for "search" could be
either an indicative or an imperative. The context favors taking
the verse as a statement rather than a command. Hence, a more
preferable translation would be: "You search the Scriptures,
because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is
these that bear witness of Me" (NASB).
Even in the King James Version, the context clarifies the
intent of verse 39. Verses 38, 40, and 44 make it clear that the
Jews, in their searching of Scripture, had not been led to
eternal life, even though they thought they had, because they
failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. "And ye have not the
Father's word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye
believe not.... And ye will not come to me, that ye might have
life. ... For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me:
for he wrote of me."
There are texts we can honestly use which do admonish us to
read and study the Scriptures, but most likely John 5:39 is not
one of them. Close grammatical and contextual analysis show that
the verse's intent is along other lines.
Some students differentiate between the historical and
grammatical interpretation of the Scriptures as though they are
separate and distinct. To understand them, we do deal with them
separately, but when studying the Bible, we really do not
separate the two. They are so closely interwoven that they can
not be completely separated. We only do so for purposes of
discussion and explanation.
I wish to be careful here to point out that I am dealing
with one sense of historical interpretation. Please do not
confuse this with the present-day historico-critical method of
interpretation which is based on the philosophy of evolution
being applied to history. Neither do I refer to Semler's
accommodation theory which he called "historical interpretation."
The method of interpretation we are dealing with here and
which is also called "historical" has to do with taking into
account the historical settings and situations in which the books
of the Bible were written. It is an effort to draw out the
intended meaning which grammar cannot do alone. To know something
of biblical life and times will greatly enhance our understanding
of the Bible by placing what we read within its historical
For instance, the Jewish religious leaders also taught in
parables, as did Christ. There was already a large body of
rabbinic literature, including well-known parables, when Jesus
was teaching. A number of His parables follow closely to those of
the rabbis but with one dramatic difference. The rabbis told
parables to explain difficult Bible texts, i.e., texts which seem
to them to teach a point of view which was not "Godlike," which
appeared to be unjust or cruel.
For example, some Jews felt that the plagues of Egypt were
too harsh for even human ethics and justice to accept, let alone
for a just God to author or tolerate. So the "Mekhilta of Rabbi
lshmael" explained the justice of God by the following parable:
The [Egyptians] said: If we had been plagued without letting
them [the Israelites] go, it would have been enough. But we
were plagued and let them go. Or, if we had been plagued and
let them go without our money being taken, it would have
been enough. But we were plagued, let them go, and our money
A parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is like one who
said to his slave: Go get me a fish from the market. The
slave went and brought him a rotten fish. He said to the
slave: I decree that you eat the fish or receive a hundred
lashes or pay a hundred minas. The slave said I will eat it.
He began to eat but could not finish. He therefore said: I
will take the lashes. After receiving sixty lashes he could
stand no more. He therefore said I will pay the hundred
Even so it was done to the Egyptians. They were plagued,
they let Israel go, and their money was taken (The Mishnah
Mekhilta, Beshallach 3.)
It appears clear that the Jews understood the interpretation
of that parable. God was the master; the Egyptians were the
slave; and, the three judgments of the Egyptians (although there
were more) were the three punishments of the slave.
This is only one of a series of rabbinic parables used to
"justify" God, as it were, or to resolve "difficulties" in
But let us look at one that Christ seems to have adapted.
Leviticus 26:9a says, "For I will have respect unto you."
But the Lord is not a respecter of persons, is He? An unknown
Jewish author of a parable found in the Sifra "clears" this
matter up nicely as follows:
They parable a parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is
like a king who hired many laborers. And along with them was
one laborer who had worked for him many days. All the
laborers went to receive their pay for the day, and this one
special laborer went also. He said to this one special
laborer: I will have regard for you. The others, who have
worked for me only a little, to them I will give small pay.
But you will receive a large recompense.
Even so both the Israelites and peoples of the world sought
their pay from God. And God said to the Israelites: My
children, l will have regard for you. The peoples of the
world have accomplished very little for me, and I will give
them but a small reward. But you will receive a large
Therefore it says, "I will have regard for you"
The Hebrew parables seem to be logical, and the
interpretation comes quite naturally. The one just quoted clearly
teaches that it paid to be a Jew. Some Bible students feel this
was a well-known parable in Jesus' day. It certainly was in
existence then and was a popular one among the Jews, especially
since they had suffered under many Gentile governments. It was a
real spiritual consolation to them.
But please notice how Christ "destroys" this comfortable
teaching by His adaptation of this well-known parable. He does so
by changing the last half of it.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an
householder, which went out early in the morning to hire
labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the
labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them,'Go ye
also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I wilt give
you.' And they went their way, Again he went out about the
sixth and ninth hours, and did likewise. And about the
eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle,
and saith unto them, 'Why stand ye here all the day idle?'
They say unto him, 'Because no man bath hired us.' He saith
unto them, 'Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is
right, that shall ye receive.' So when even was come, the
lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, 'Call the
labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last
unto the first.' And when they came that were hired about
the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when
the first came, they supposed that they should have received
more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when
they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of
the house, saying, 'These last have wrought but one hour,
and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the
burden and heat of the day.' But he answered one of them,
and said, 'Friend I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree
with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I
will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not
lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye
evil, because I am good?' So the last shall be first, and
the first last: for many be called but few chosen" (Matthew
Knowing the standard metaphors of that day, the Jews would
easily have seen the employer in Christ's parable as God; the
laborers who worked all day would be the Pharisees; those who
worked shorter hours would probably be the practicing Jews; then
would come the "lukewarm" Jews; finally, the Gentiles might
barely squeeze in.
But notice the shock the listeners must have received when,
beginning with verse 9, Jesus wreaks havoc with their beloved
teaching. From the Jewish perspective, Jesus took a "nice story"
and gave it a "terrible" ending. He literally turned the Jewish
teaching upside down!
It was ridiculous; it was outrageous! It had to be
disillusioning; at least. To many it must have been infuriating,
especially to those who were in positions of leadership.
Jesus was actually teaching that the "nobodies" had as much
chance in obtaining the kingdom of God as the strictest of
Pharisees. He was teaching that even the despised "dogs" - the
Gentiles and Samaritans - would he accepted by God on equal terms
with the Jews. Salvation could not possibly be that free!
(Jesus was also teaching in this parable that no matter how long
a time you were working in the Kingdom, no matter how long you
had received salvation, no matter how long you had been a true
child of God, you would receive the same eternal life as those
who had only been a child of God for a short time, before the day
arrived to receive eternal life. Quite frankly the parable
probably has nothing to do with what the author thinks it had to
do with, namely a well know parable of the Jews, unless those
Jews really did believe that being a child of God for 50 years
would get you something more than eternal life. But simply being
a child of God for as many years as you care to mention, does not
get you anything more than eternal life. It is "according to your
works" - what you do with what you have been given, that gives
you reward according to those works, and that Jesus covered in
another parable - Keith Hunt).
In this article, I have tried to illustrate how a knowledge
of grammar and history can bring to life different portions of
Scripture. Such illustrations give us a clue as to the power,
thrust, and impact God's Word can have upon us today. Not only
will we avoid mistakes, but we will better understand the Bible
if we would but interpret it in its plainest sense according to
the regular rules of grammar and the facts of history. This is
where all Bible study must begin.
Scripture quotations were taken from the King James Version,
unless otherwise noted.
SCRIPTURE INTERPRETS SCRIPTURE
One indispensable principle of biblical interpretation is
that Scripture must be allowed to interpret itself. This
principle is commonly expressed by the phrase Scripture
interprets Scripture. The phrase itself was coined during the
Reformation in order to counter the claim of the Roman Catholic
Church that it alone possessed the gift of grace and illumination
and, therefore, knew instinctively what Scripture taught and how
to interpret clearly difficult and obscure passages.
Most of us would readily agree that, when trying to
ascertain the correct meaning of a passage of Scripture, the best
and safest approach is to allow Scripture to interpret itself.
However, more often than not, in practice, we end up taking
verses out of context and fail to arrive at the intended meaning
of the passage. Why is this so? I believe the problem can be
attributed to a flaw in our understanding of how the
self-interpretation of Scripture works.
The common mistake is to view the principle as a means by
which a verse or passage in one place can be interpreted by using
a verse or passage from another place, without regard to context,
often because certain key words or phrases appear in both places.
Used in this way, the principle converts Scripture into an
arsenal of proof-texts arranged so as to form a network of
defensive evidence suitable to either prove a point or to support
one's doctrinal presuppositions.
The injustice this inflicts upon Scripture is all too
obvious. It misuses the text of Scripture by appealing to a
truncated part (a verse), instead of a longer more intelligible
unit (a paragraph, a longer section, or the whole of Scripture,
according to the biblical writer's purpose).
Beyond a doubt, much damage has been done to Scripture by
those who claim to find peculiar doctrinal truths in ambiguous
and obscure passages of Scripture. To mention a few:
the incidental reference in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is used to
support the doctrine of baptism for the dead (or
proxy-baptism); homosexuality commonly finds support in 2
Samuel 1:26; baptismal regeneration is built upon John 3;5
(by virtue of the word "water"); and, the concept that unity
and diversity are mutually exclusive is defended on the
basis of Amos 3:3.
The Scripture-interprets-Scripture principle is properly
understood as a catch phrase in which the word Scripture is used
in two senses. The first "Scripture" in the expression means the
total Scripture; the second "Scripture" means a part of
Scripture, whether in the form of a verse or passage. Thus the
phrase means that any one part of Scripture must be understood in
light of the whole teaching of Scripture. The phrase does not
mean that an isolated verse of Scripture can be used to interpret
another isolated verse of Scripture.
When properly applied, the principle serves as a safeguard
from turning incidental Bible verses into pillars of truth, a
mistake made by many sects and cults. Whenever people or churches
ride a one-issue doctrinal hobbyhorse or build an entire
doctrinal position around one verse of Scripture, the reader
should beware! It is a sign of an unbalanced approach to
Scripture which comes from misapplying the Scripture interprets
To avoid such an error, the conscientious interpreter will
take into account not only the immediate context of a particular
passage as it relates to language, history, and culture, but also
the entire context of biblical revelation and its bearing on that
passage. In this way, he can understand the whole of Scripture
only in light of its parts and the parts of Scripture only in the
light of the whole, and thus avoid the danger of interpreting any
part of Scripture in such a way as to distort the teaching of the
This does not mean, however, that every passage will yield
its precious gems of truth after being subjected to rigorous
study and thorough research. But it does mean that the
interpreter (or the church) must be careful not to build
doctrines upon incidental references in Scripture or upon
passages that are ambiguous and obscure, but to build them upon
those passages that are clear. In other words, our understanding
of occasional doctrinal remarks in ambiguous passages must derive
from passages where those doctrines are treated clearly,
thoroughly, and extensively. In this way, we save ourselves from
embarrassment, not just by giving lip service to the
Scripture-interprets-Scripture principle, but by putting it into
practice whenever we read any passage in the Bible.
TAKING THE BIBLE LITERALLY
The interpretation of any writing depends upon what type of
writing it is. A history text must be interpreted by different
principles than a piece of fiction or poetry. Rules that are
legitimate in the explanation of fiction are not legitimate when
applied to factual writings. The rules to be applied to the Bible
and its interpretation will depend upon the types of literature
contained within the Scriptures themselves.
When asked, many people claim to interpret the Bible
literally. But do they really? Is every verse in the Bible to be
understood in an exact literal sense? If so, what of the many
parables and figures of speech in the Bible?
In order to avoid a rigid literalism on the one hand and
flights of fancy on the other, we must have a proper
understanding of the term "literal interpretation." Literal
interpretation simply means that the words of Scripture are to be
understood according to their normal, ordinary, and customary
usage. It has been rightly stated that "the true meaning of
Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning." The adjective
"natural," in many ways, describes the process better than the
adjective "literal," for the natural meaning of a text is
sometimes figurative rather than literal. The Bible may use
literal or figurative language, but rightly interpreted it is
true in all it says.
Even though the literal method takes into account the use of
figurative language, it must not be confused with the allegorical
method. In the allegorical method a sense higher than the natural
meaning is sought. An allegorical interpretation assumes that the
text has a hidden meaning with a deep mystical sense not
derivable from the words themselves. Symbolic meanings must be
given to words so that the "true" message can be understood. The
difficulty with allegorical interpretation is that it is
subjective and uncontrolled, since the interpreter sees a
mysterious meaning the original writer may not have intended.
Allegorical interpretation is easily abused and leads the
interpreter into making the text say whatever he wants it to say.
The literal method, that is, interpreting the natural
meaning of a passage according to the normal rules of grammar,
speech, syntax, and context, is the most appropriate method of
The Bible is a unique book, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but
the words of Scripture have not been transformed into magical
phrases. God gave His message so that it could be understood. In
the Bible, nouns remain nouns, verbs remain verbs, historical
accounts do not suddenly become allegory, and those events
presented as fact do not suddenly become fiction. 1
However, literal interpretation requires careful attention
to the text to see what the text is saying, to see what the
literary genre or forms may be, to learn something of the
historical background of the passage, and to consider always the
context of the passage and the biblical message as a whole.
A key to the proper use of the literal method is genre
analysis. Genre refers to the kind or category of writing a
particular passage may use. The Bible contains many categories of
writing. There are historical narratives, poems, parables,
prophecies, epistles (letters), and laws. One should be aware of
the genre of the passage he is studying. Law and prophecy are
different and should be applied and understood in a different
manner. Parables, for instance, are not recorded as specific
historical events and should not be understood that way.
Recognizing various genres in no way implies that such
historical accounts as Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob, or any other historical event or person is
anything less than true.
Another important language device is various figures of
speech. Even today we use exaggeration for effect ("the mosquito
was as big as an elephant"). We also use metaphors (a figure of
speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another),
analogies, and numerous other figures of speech.
Failure to recognize figures of speech in the Bible leads to
some absurd interpretations. For example, in John 10:9, Jesus
said, "I am the door." He did not mean that he was a wooden
object with handles, hinges, and a lock. He intended that the
figure of the door would represent the truth that as a person
enters a house through a door, so men would come to God through
We read figurative literature all the time, and we recognize
and interpret it accordingly. As A. Berkeley Mickelsen puts it, "
'Literal' and 'figurative' interpretations are not even vaguely
synonymous with 'proper' and 'improper.' To call something
literal which is figurative is just as erroneous as to make
something figurative which is literal.." 2
The Bible has both types of language. Some passages are
quite clear which type of language is being used. Other passages
are less clear. We need to be very careful with those passages
that are not so clear.
Ronald C. Sauer concludes, "Therefore, everything in the
Bible should be interpreted literally unless a figure of speech
is present that points toward a metaphorical explanation....
Those advocating a literal hermeneutic do not maintain that the
whole Bible should be interpreted in a strictly literalistic
manner. Scripture should be explained in the same way that normal
everyday conversation is understood. We can still hold to the
inerrancy of Scripture while recognizing these illustrative
methods of communication." 3
The principle of seeking the natural or normal sense of a
passage has also been called the principle of simplicity. A
second important principle is the principle of history, or
seeking the original sense of the passage.
In seeking the original sense of a passage, we try to rid
ourselves of our twentieth century ideas in an effort to
determine what the author said by his words in his own historical
context. This is important in order to avoid reading back into
Scripture the notions of a later age.
The attempt to hear the biblical writer as his original
listeners would have heard him is commonly known as the
grammatico-historical method of interpretation. (See the article,
"The Grammatico-Historical Method of Interpretation.") The
of this method is to find out what the text says, rather than
what the reader would like it to say.
In order to do this, we need to seek historical background.
For example, if we know something about those to whom Paul and
James were writing, we can better understand why Paul stressed
faith which resulted in works and James stressed works which were
the result of faith.
We also need to pay attention to style and genre, and we
need to consider the language. For instance, there are four Greek
words used in the New Testament which are translated in English
as "love." Obviously the Greek gives more specific meaning to
those words. Often a Greek word can have more than one meaning in
English. This does not mean that the interpreter can choose any
one of the meanings he wants. The context or surrounding words
and rules of Greek grammar limit which meaning will apply. One
should be aware of this and realize that those who translated the
Greek into various English translations chose the words they did
for good reason.
A third principle in taking the Bible literally is to look
for the general sense of Scripture. This has also been called the
principle of harmony. It means we should look for agreement
within Scripture rather than contradiction. It also means we
should interpret a passage in its context and each scripture in
the light of the full Scripture. We should not pick a sentence
out from its setting and then give it the meaning we want.
Parts of Scripture taken out of context can be understood in
some very strange ways. For example, Job 3:1 says, "Job opened
his mouth and cursed the day of his birth" (RSV). The verse does
not mean that Job was able to speak profanity as a baby.
Taking portions of several verses and putting them together
can result in even more absurd statements. Taking verses from an
English translation and then expanding the meaning of the
particular English words as far as possible can also result in
incorrect understandings. Proof-texting, taking verses from all
over the Bible, can easily be misused and result in false
conclusions. All verses must be considered in their immediate
contexts and according to the meaning of all the rest of
Scripture. That is what interpreting "scripture by Scripture"
Context is important because it farces the modern
interpreter to examine the entire line of thought of the biblical
writer. The interpreter is to present the ideas of Scripture, not
force the text to back up his propaganda. Considering the
teachings of the whole of Scripture tends to prevent an
interpreter from accepting an unusual meaning for a passage if it
contradicts plain, clear, scriptural teaching.
God is a living God who has spoken. God's message is
recorded in the Bible. God wishes to be understood. He did not
contradict Himself. He did not make mistakes in what He said. His
message is correct and consistent. The Bible should be
interpreted as being literally true, because it is literally
The most perfect interpretation, however, is useless unless
we put what we learn into practice. Application of God's Word in
our individual lives and our communication of God's Word to
others should be the natural result of proper interpretation.
Ultimately; we must always look to God to guide our
interpretations and to lead in our lives. Psalm 119:18 should be
our prayer: "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous
things out of thy law."
1 R.C. Sproul, "Knowing Scripture" (Downers Grove: InterVarsity
2 A.Berkeley Mickelsen, "Interpreting the Bible" (Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), p.307.
3 Ronald C.Sauer,"Should the Whole Bible be Interpreted
Literally?" - The Foundation Commentator, (February-March, 1985)
reprinted from Fundamentalist Journal, 1984.
TO BE CONTINUED