Recently my church ran a short study on how to interpret the Bible, a three-session series based on the first 9 General Principles of Interpretation from Walter A. Henrichsen's book, A Layman's Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
I found these short sessions very helpful, and appreciated how they were so simply and straightforwardly laid out; it didn't make you feel like you were masquerading as a theological student! To be honest, I never gave much thought on how to interpret the Bible, preferring to focus on those more straightforward passages, so yes, it was about time.
Since we all don't have the time to read as many books as we'd like to, I thought I'd summarize those 9 principles for your benefit. You're welcome.
RULE ONE: Work from the assumption that the Bible is authoritative.
Henrichsen identifies 3 forms of authority that every Christian "consciously or unconsciously" relies on:
Tradition, Reason, and the Scriptures.
According to the Reformed belief, the Scriptures should always come first, based on its authority as the Word of God, though that doesn't exclude the validity of the other two forms of authority.
This of course raises the question: how do we know the Bible is inspired by God, is the Word of God? According to Henrichsen, inspiration must follow authority, not the other way around: "Therefore in Bible Study you begin with the issues of authority. It and the question of inspiration which naturally follows are answered when you submit to the Word of God. You may study inspiration as a separate topic, but you only know the Bible to be the inspired Word of God as you place yourself under its authority." Henrichsen uses the example of a passenger about to board a plane bound for Tokyo, even though the captain cannot guarantee a safe journey: "The demand that commitment come before knowledge is not unique to the Christian faith. It is common, everyday experience for all people."
RULE TWO: Use the Bible to interpret the Bible; Scripture best explains Scripture.
When interpreting the Bible, beware of omission and addition, as the disastrous consequences in the Garden of Eden indicate. Likewise, beware of individual verses taken in isolation, as they can often be used to support both sides of an argument and can't be considered conclusive as such. Heinrichsen gives an example of how either Galatians 5:4 ("You have fallen away from grace") might give the impression--taken in isolation--that it's possible for a Christian to lose their salvation; however, as John 10:27-29 shows, this isn't the case: "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, Who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
And that's why cross-referencing is important. Primary cross-referencing should be based on thought/topic rather than on specific words, which should be secondary cross-referencing.
RULE THREE: Saving faith and the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures.
This was an interesting thought I hadn't considered, which to me underlined the fact that studying the Bible is not like studying any other book. Don't come at it with an attitude of entitlement, expecting the formula of read-understand-benefit that might work with a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare play. When we decide we want to study the Bible it requires a humble attitude, godliness/a clean conscience before God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit's enabling. How much we understand from our study is directly related to our spiritual state.
a small voice
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