NT Greek Scholar, Dan Wallace stated, “As a Protestant I cherish the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right.” Well said. But how do we do that? Here is a simple acrostic that can help you remember some key principles when seeking to decipher the proper interpretation: I.N.T.E.R.P.R.E.T.A.T.I.O.N.
Inspect other translations to discover textual difficulties
By comparing different translations you’ll notice textual variants amongst the translations that will reveal problems to sort out. Take for example 1 John 5:7-8 where debate exists regarding the Comma Johanneum which refers to the addition discovered in the KJV/NKJV. Critical scholars tend to view this passage as an addition to those texts to reinforce trinitarian theology. I won’t solve the debate here but only use this as an example of the types of resolutions you’ll be left to sort out when comparing translations.
Never impose current definitions and cultural customs on ancient definitions and customs
That’s because words may vary from context to context. You don’t want to consult Webster’s English Dictionary to learn what the Hebrew word for covenant means, but instead you’ll want to consult a Bible dictionary.
Tease out the main viewpoints for the passage you’re studying
You can do this by exploring various commentaries from authors holding to different interpretative positions. If you’re studying Judges 11:29-40, you’ll soon discover that there is a debate on whether Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter or whether her virginity was sacrificed. By weighing the options, you can make a better-informed decision even if in the end, you remain unsure.
Evaluate and be able to critique heretical intepretations
Perhaps the best example of this is found in John 1:1. Jehovah’s Witnesses notoriously have butchered this verse in their New World Translation by translating the logos, i.e., the word, which refers to Jesus, as “a god.” Ironically enough, they argue that since the Greek lacks an article before the word logos that it can’t refer to God. And yet, in the same chapter they ditch their own rule of thumb when the article is missing in other cases, e.g., as in the case of John the Baptist, there’s no article, but they don’t translate the verse as saying, “There was a man sent from a god” (1:6). The problem is Jehovah Witnesses have forced their theology on the text instead of deriving their theology from it.
Recognize the time frame in which your passage was written
It’s important to remember this, especially when it comes to the application stage. If you fail to understand what commandments hold today versus those that no longer do you may find yourself applying parts of Scripture that are no longer necessary, like avoiding bacon when under the New Covenant you’re free to feast on that BLT (see Acts 10:15).
Purchase a good Bible software program to assist you in your studies.
Personally, I use Logos. What’s so great about having a Bible software program is the speed by which you can track down information. Gone are the days when I was preparing for ministry where the serious Bible student had his desk covered with all his various tools for study. Now at the tips of my fingers I can have a report produced within seconds of endless research.
Review various tools such as a Bible dictionary, commentaries, and word study aids
A good Bible software program will have all these resources, but if you opt out of that route you will at least want the tools listed above. Each is designed to help you faithfully interpret Scripture.
Evaluate the meaning behind metaphors, parables, apocalyptic imagery, and other figures of speech
This is where you’ll really sharpen as a student of Scripture. As you learn to distinguish various figures of speech and not just interpret them in an overly wooden sense, you’ll acquire a finesse regarding the use of biblical language.
Tap into the Spirit of God for wisdom to interpret accurately
Fortunately, when it comes to studying the Bible, we aren’t left to ourselves. No, as believers, the Holy Spirit is there to assist us in grasping spiritual truth (Jn. 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:10-14).
Aim to align your thoughts and feelings with God’s Word
It’s not surprising given the context we live in that there are some things in the Bible that are hard to relate to. When that happens, it’s important not to grant a favored status to our current way of doing things. But rather it’s our duty to understand the Word in the world it was crafted. If our thoughts and feelings struggle to absorb the truth of God’s Word, it can help to do more background work so we can better understand the original intent. What we don’t want to do is impose an alternative meaning to the text all because our thoughts and feelings couldn’t stomach the original point.
Trust that you’re dealing with God’s word
Here we’re reminded that as believers we are committed to biblical authority (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pt. 1:20-21). That means when we study the Bible, we recognize the difference between a ministerial and a magisterial approach to Scripture. The former approaches the Bible as a servant who sits under the authority of Scripture whereas the later approaches the Bible as one who stands in authority over it. The former is what we’re after when it comes to interpretation as believers.
Interpret difficult verses in light of clearer verses
Another way of stating this point is to interpret Scripture with Scripture. At least as much as you can without forcing various unconnected parts to fit together. Sometimes it’s helpful to interpret verses that are less clear with verses that are clearer. Take Acts 2:38. Many have interpreted this verse to mean baptism is necessary for salvation. But given clearer passages like 1 Corinthians 1:17 how might we avoid that conclusion?
Oppose building major doctrines on isolated unclear verses
A classic example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:29 which states, “…If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” This is one of those verses which boasts many interpretations, and it is so isolated without other proof texts to back it up we’re left basically in ignorance this side of heaven. And yet, the Mormon Church has built an entire salvific industry on baptizing people for the dead by featuring massive Mormon ancestry databases. To build such an elaborate doctrine on one isolated verse with no clear interpretation should be avoided at all costs.
Nail down the author’s intended meaning by summarizing it into an interpretive sentence
Having worked through both the observation and interpretation acrostics you should now be ready to identify a working interpretation of your chosen text. In many ways both acrostics are simply observatory tools aimed at arriving at a faithful interpretation. Once you’re ready you can capture your interpretation by boiling it down to a digestible sentence. Space prohibits me from writing out examples, but you’re essentially answering the question, “What is this passage talking about?” Your answer is hopefully a sound interpretation of the text.
Now that you’ve arrived at an interpretation, you’re ready to answer the application question, “How does it work?” To assist you with an answer, in my next blog I will walk you through our third and final acrostic—application.
- Inspect other translations to discover textual difficulties
- Never impose current definitions and cultural customs on ancient definitions and customs
- Tease out the main viewpoints for the passage you’re studying
- Evaluate and be able to critique heretical interpretations
- Recognize the time frame in which your passage was written
- Purchase a good Bible software program to assist you in your studies
- Review various tools such as a Bible dictionary, commentaries, maps, and word study aids
- Evaluate the meaning behind metaphors, parables, apocalyptic imagery, and other figures of speech
- Tap into the Spirit of God for wisdom to interpret accurately
- Aim to align your thoughts and feelings with God’s Word
- Trust that you’re dealing with God’s Word
- Interpret difficult verses in light of clearer verses
- Oppose building major doctrines on isolated unclear verses
- Nail down the author’s intended meaning by summarizing it into an interpretive sentence.
Recommeded Resources Related to this Topic
How to Interpret YourBible by Dr. Frank Turek DVD Complete Series, INSTRUCTOR Study Guide, and STUDENT Study Guide
Why We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth by Frank Turek (mp4 Download)
The Top Ten Reasons We Know the NT Writers Told the Truth mp3 by Frank Turek
Counter Culture Christian: Is the Bible True? by Frank Turek (Mp3), (Mp4), and (DVD)
Oh, Why Didn’t I Say That? Is the Bible Historically Reliable? by Frank Turek DVD, Mp4, Mp3 Download.
Living By the Book by Howard Hendricks (Book, Full DVD set, and Condensed DVD set)
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart (Book)
The New Joy of Discovery in Bible Study by Oletta Wald (Book)
Bobby serves as lead pastor of Image Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is well known for his YouTube ministry called, One Minute Apologist, which now goes by the name Christianity Still Makes Sense. He also serves as the Co-Host of Pastors’ Perspective, a nationally syndicated call-in radio show on KWVE in Southern California. Bobby earned his Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, his Doctor of Ministry in Apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from the University of Birmingham (England) where he was supervised under David Cheetham and Yujin Nagasawa. Bobby’s also written several books including: The Fifth Gospel, Doubting Toward Faith, Does God Exist, and Fifty-One other Questions About God and the Bible and the forthcoming Christianity Still Makes Sense to be published by Tyndale in April 2024. He’s married to his lovely wife Heather and together they have two grown kids: Haley and Dawson.