Theology: The Scriptures (INTERPRETATION)

The previous studies have related to God’s part in Bibliology. Now we want to look at man’s part in the process of understanding all that God has revealed. We need to look at interpretation.


Why is interpretation, or might I say proper interpretation, necessary? A brief look in a Christian bookstore, or in a Christian book catalog will show the need for some proper interpretation. I recently skimmed through a wholesale Christian booklist and found all sorts of doctrine. I found everything from Fundamental to Liberal, from Noncharismatic to Charismatic, and from Armenius to Calvin. Now, all of these different thoughts CANNOT be THE proper interpretation of that which God has revealed to us. If they are, then God would be the author of confusion. Since we know that God is not the author of confusion, then we must assume that some of these teachings are false. Any false teaching must come from improper interpretation, or misunderstanding of that which is studied.


Interpretation is often called hermeneutics. Just what is hermeneutics?




Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting literature. In the theological realm it is the science of interpreting the Bible. This science contains rules and regulations by which the job of interpreting is properly completed.


Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible mentions that “The correct reproduction of the thoughts of another (either a writer or speaker), usually from a different language, has been called interpretation. When applied to the Bible, interpretation has been called hermeneutics,” (Tenney, Merrill C.; “The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible”; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975)


The term hermeneutics first appeared in a book written in the 17th century. The author’s name was J. C. Dannhaur. It came from the Greek word “hermeneuein” which means to express or explain.



The Bible was written in different languages and different cultures. It is the interpreter’s job to get as close to that historical context as possible, and try to find the thought patterns of the writer.


A missionary to Japan that I met in the Northwest was telling me of his work. He was involved with what they were calling contextualization of the Scripture. They were trying to teach the Bible in the context of the Japanese culture. Not trying to change the word, but to teach it in a way that the Japanese could understand it, and understand it properly.


He mentioned that he was having a real problem getting a passage into a format that he thought the students could understand. It was a difficult passage. He presented the idea to some of his students. They immediately understood the principles and ideas from the Bible without his explaining it. He discovered in speaking with the students that the writer of Scripture was using some Eastern thinking in his presentation, and that they understood it immediately — indeed, much easier than the missionary when he first studied the passage.


We need to get as near to the original author as possible to try to understand just what he was saying to the recipients of the book.


If you remember the term presuppositions, you will remember that we settled on one in particular. We decided that literal interpretation, or the plain, normal interpretation of a passage, was the method to use.


There are a couple of terms that we need to mention.


Hermeneutics: These are the rules and methods used to interpret the Scriptures.


Exegesis: Exegesis is using the principles of hermeneutics while seeking the meaning of the scriptures. “The science of interpretation called hermeneutics is the art of determining the true meaning of Scripture. Hermeneutics must be distinguished from exegesis, which is application of the laws or principles of interpretation.” (Reprinted by permission: Chafer, Lewis Sperry; Walvoord, Editor; “Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology” Abridged Edition; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988, Vol. 1, p 101)


Types Of Interpretation: The wisest words that I have run across in my studies of interpretation are those of Benjamin Jowett in Essays And Reviews written in 1860. “Interpret the Bible like any other book.” That simply means that we should read it, and understand it in plain terms.


Allegorical Interpretation: Normally this method takes texts that can’t be understood as plain and literal, and makes the words only symbols of what was originally stated. The original meaning of the text may be eliminated altogether.




1. To use this method leaves one with no authority. Every person trying to interpret the text will come away with his own interpretation, and there can be none that are proven correct.


2. To use this method leaves a person with fiction in the Word, for none of the words have meaning as they are read, or as they were recorded. In essence God could have set monkeys before typewriters and taken their writings and given them to man so that man could give them meaning.


Most people that are allegorists do not use a completely allegorical approach. They take things in their easy literal sense until it doesn’t fit their thinking, or becomes too burdensome, and then they shift to the allegorical.


The system has been around for a long time. Origin has been credited with coming up with the system originally. The system grew out of his Jewish philosophy and some of the philosophical thinking of Plato.


Ramm mentions, “The curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God and had it not kept the gospel truth central it would have become cultic and heretical.” He continues, “The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete.” (Ramm, Bernard; “Protestant Biblical Interpretation”; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, p 30)


Ramm tells of Clement of Alexandria, and his position. His position is of interest. (I have adapted this for our study.) Clement held that there were five possible meanings to any Scripture passage.


1. The historical account that the text mentions, was a real historical event and as such conveys information.



2. There may be a doctrinal idea in the text that may be moral, religious or theological in scope.


3. The prophetic side may well be present as well.


4. There can be a philosophical side to the text that might see some meaning in the people or happenings of the text.


5. There can be a mystical sense to a passage that is a deeper spiritual meaning that is drawn from the people and events.


I gather from this that Clement wanted the best of all interpretation. He wanted the literal historical, as well as that deeper mystical meaning of the allegorical interpretation.


Literal Interpretation: This system is at the other end of the spectrum. It has been charged that this system does not allow for figures of speech, but this is not the case. We will see it in detail later.


Semiallegorical Or Semiliteral Interpretation: This method would be a mixture of the previous two systems. Which you hold to, depends on which system you use the most.


Ryrie quotes Mounce, from his commentary on Revelation. He “exhibits a semiliteral exegesis. He states that Armageddon should be taken seriously but not literally. It ‘portrays the eschatological defeat of Antichrist . . . but does not require that we accept in a literal fashion the specific imagery with which the event is described’ (p. 349). Concerning the Millennium he favors the idea that ‘John taught a literal millennium, but its essential meaning may be realized in something other than a temporal fulfilment’ (p. 359). ‘The millennium is not, for John, the Messianic Age foretold by the O.T.’ “(p.359)” (Reprinted by permission: Ryrie, Charles C.; “BASIC THEOLOGY”; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986, p 111) To me, of the two items, the millennium would be harder to take literally than Armageddon.


Oswald T. Allis (in Prophecy And The Church) suggests that the term “spiritual interpretation” is better than allegorical, and argues for a combination of the two.


Allis, in setting forth rules as to how you tell which method to use states:



1. “Whether you should interpret a passage figuratively or literally depends solely on which gives the true meaning.” So how do we determine the true meaning if we don’t know which will produce the true meaning?


2. “The only way prophecy can be understood literally is when its literal meaning is clear and obvious.” Were the first coming prophecies clear and obvious? Some were — some weren’t.


3. “The interpretation of any prophecy hinges on the fulfilment of it.” (Reprinted by permission: Ryrie, Charles C.; “Basic Theology”; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986, p 112 quoting Allis, Oswald T.; “Prophecy And The Church”; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1945, pp 16-19) The prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming were fulfilled literally so you interpret them literally. However, Allis states that the second coming passages need to be interpreted allegorically. Hummmm.


You interpret literally unless it is prophecy, or unless it bothers your theology. Some Method Of Interpretation. I Have To Wonder How These Men Would React To Their Children Interpreting What They Tell Them To Do, Allegorically If They Desired To — When It Didn’t Fit What They Wanted To Do.


In the end Ryrie gives Allis credit for trying to systematize his method of interpretation, however mentions what we have seen before and that being, if you interpret allegorical you are more than likely going to be an Amillennialist and if you follow the literal method of interpretation you will become a premillennialist.


Theological Interpretation: That which interprets scripture in such a manner so as to produce an interpretation to fit your theology. Daniel Fuller in a dissertation presents such a system of interpretation. “In order to preserve the unity of the Bible, he says that we must use the principle of ‘theological interpretation’ which means interpretation that does not result in two purposes of God in the Scriptures (one for Israel and one for the church). The consistent use of literal interpretation leads to a distinction between Israel and the church, while theological interpretation does not.” (Reprinted by permission: Ryrie, Charles C.; “Basic Theology”; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986, p 113)


No matter if the literal says one thing and I believe another. I just interpret the way that will bring out my belief. A very convenient system of interpretation.


Literal Interpretation: I would like to illustrate the need for literal interpretation. If I were going to cut down a tree and was afraid that the ant hill about six feet from the tree would be destroyed, I would try to communicate with the ants to tell them of the danger. Now, this is similar to God wanting to tell us of the danger of Hell. I begin to try to understand the ant language, and as I do, I begin to plan just how I am going to tell them of the danger of the tree. When I have finished learning the ant language I tell them that there is a large cloud coming over the horizon. This is how I tell them I am going to cut down a tree that may smash them all. You see the cloud coming over the horizon actually pictures the falling tree that is about to come.


At any rate the ants think through the message and decide that they have clouds coming over every day and it is no big deal so they continue on their way. I, in turn, get disgusted with them for not listening and cut down the tree.


Oversimplification? To a point, however the good Lord has decided that HE wants to communicate with us to tell us of Himself. Why, in the world, would He couch his information in language that has no meaning.


The Word already tells us that we can’t understand the Word without the Holy Spirit’s illumination. He doesn’t really have to couch His message in words that we can’t understand.


How would you like to have to interpret the syllabus for a class in college allegorically? Every one of you would decide what it meant to you, and the teacher would grade on the literal interpretation.


Confusion Plus is the result of allegorical interpretation. Literal interpretation is the only method that leads to a unified, systematic and logical conclusion.



God not only wanted to communicate with man but He created the mode of communication. He gave language to us and nowhere in the Word do we have any instructions about how to use it. It must be assumed that we are to use it the most logical way that we can and that is the plain and simple literal way.


Ryrie comments on this, “The Purpose Of Language. The purpose of language itself seems to require literal interpretation. That is, God gave  man language for the purpose of being able to communicate with him. God created man in His image which included the power of speech in order that God might reveal His truth to man and that man might in turn offer worship and prayer to God.” (Reprinted by permission: Ryrie, Charles C.; “Basic Theology”; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986, p 113)


Had God wanted us to communicate on a deeper level, He would have told us about it, and He would have told us how to do it.


A woman evangelist in California, a few years back, had a revelation from God and He told her that the Bible wasn’t written for the normal person to understand. He had written it so that man would think that they understood it, however she was his choice to teach man how to understand it. She had revelation concerning the vocabulary of the deeper meaning of Scripture and she spent hours on the radio explaining what the words of Scripture really meant. Mud isn’t really mud, it is really soap, so when you get mud on your pants it’s really soap and you can brush it off. There is little difference in her thinking and that of the theologian that does not attempt, at all times, to interpret literally.


What is the first place where Literal Interpreters leave their own method of interpretation? The book of Revelation. When people enter this book they tend to lose all contact with the real world of interpretation. Very few men I know of today have even attempted to interpret this book literally. In your ministry try it — you’ll like it.


Since prophecies of the first coming were fulfilled literally it is reasonable to assume that the prophecies of the second coming will also be fulfilled literally. There is no reason for the interpreter to interpret the book of Revelation in any way other than the normal literal approach. Yes, there are portions of the Revelation that are pictures and symbolic, but they are introduced as such within the text.


Ryrie lists four principles of Normal Hermeneutics. I have adapted these for our study. Items to consider in interpretation:


1. Grammar: The words carry the message to the listener. We must attempt to understand the words as they were used at the time that they were recorded. Not to do this will result in much error and confusion.


2. Context: The words and sentences that you have been studying will of necessity have to be compared to what was mentioned earlier, and later in the text, to fully understand the intent of the Lord.


3. Context Of The Entire Scripture: When you understand what the person hearing or reading the words understood, then you need to compare that to the context of Scripture to properly understand all that is meant. We must interpret every part within the context of the whole.


4. Progressive Revelation Must Be Considered: God revealed Himself progressively over time, and we need to understand that what was revealed to one person in the Scripture, may find change later in Scripture. Example: The sacrificial system was the requirement under the law, is not required in the Church age, and will be reestablished in some form in the Kingdom. The idea of progressive revelation does not imply that later revelation contradicts, nor negates current revelation.


In this section we might mention that the recipient of the book may be of importance. The books to the Jews must be viewed somewhat differently than the epistles of Paul to the churches. Many things had happened and changed between these times. Much will apply differently in our age.


I’ve added two items of importance.


5. The message of the book: How you approach a book will be partially determined by what the book is about.


6. Objectivity: We must go into the Word to see what it has to say to us, and not to see what we can say to others through it. We all have preconceived ideas, but they should be left out of interpretation.



I wish that I could give proper credit for the following quotation, but I do not know where it originated. I found it in some of my notes. It is of significance, so will be included. I trust that the originator will forgive its uncredited use. “If the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense or you’ll end up with nonsense.” I trust you will reread that and consider it as you seek to interpret the Word.




1. Remember the words of Jowett? “Interpret the Bible like any other book.” Can you imagine the allegorist reading the Caine Mutiny, or the Magnificent Obsession, and interpreting them like he interprets Scripture?


2. The seriousness of proper interpretation cannot be overemphasized in my opinion. If you are going to dare to teach or preach you must be sure that what you have prepared is really what the Lord had to say in the first place. Be very careful of how you use the Word. Be very careful how you prepare.


Don’t be satisfied with a bit of surface study. Go deeper to be sure the passage really says what you are going to say it says.


3. It seems to me that any system of interpretation other than plain, literal interpretation is a step away from the idea that the Word of God is for all believers of all ages, education levels, and abilities.


If you move into some of the other areas of interpretation, it seems that you remove the Word from the hands of all, and place it in the hands of the elite that know how to apply their special principles.[1]



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