Methodology, Guidelines and Rules


The next step in laying our foundation for this course is to understand the proper use of each of these rules and also the reasons that rise from the text.


Grammatical Interpretation


The proper use of grammar in interpretation can not be underrated. Without this tool, it will be difficult to be confident in your conclusions.  This is one of the reasons that languages play such an important part in the training of the interpreter.  Having said this, however, let me give you an illustration.  A friend wrote an article, which was published in a national magazine.  He stated that, “Any interpretation that is not based on the grammar cannot be trusted.”  I wrote to him and said, “Your statement is true and false.  It is true as you stated it, but any interpretation based on the language alone cannot be trusted.”


This is why I protest the use of “Biblical theology” if it intends to communicate that the use of language alone means it is Biblical.  The grammatical guideline is only one of the legs of the process.  My godly father-in-law was a dairy farmer after the old style.  He was also a diligent Bible student.  Dad explained quite vividly what would happen if you tried to milk a cow while sitting on a stool with one or two legs. The result would be quite messy.  He explained that milking a text of the Bible requires more than one or two legs for the same reason. While the illustration is a simple one, it is also brilliant.


A large number, if not a majority, of present day theological theories have risen from such violations of the Bible’s self-revealed rules of interpretation.  This fall from the hermeneutical stool is illustrated in another term typically used by theologians.  They refer to the proper hermeneutic as the “grammatical, historical” system.  The reason this term and the “Biblical theology” term mentioned above are used appears to be simply a game of “Simon says.”  If that is what the leading, or majority of, theologians are saying, then you have to say it the same way.  Students must learn early in their studies to ask questions about such things.  Later on, you will see that you have to ask, “What do you mean by grammatical, and what do you mean by historical, and why have you limited your guidelines to two when the Bible gives another?”  I asked a friend this same question, and he said that when he uses the term “Grammatico-Historical,” he means to include the other things as well.  I asked him, “Why don’t you just say what you mean then, instead of leaving people in doubt?”


A description of our system of Biblical interpretation might better be called “Grammatical, Contextual, Historical and Literal.”  I can think of no reason why anyone should reject such an expanded designation.


Historical Interpretation


This rule, which rises from the Bible, refers to the historical setting at the time of the writing.  It includes not only the author, but the geographical, social, cultural, political, religious, and physical contexts and much more.  It takes some work to dig out that information, but it is available.  While it may be incomplete, it is still better than trying to understand a text without it.


Here is another reason we need to ask questions.  The historical setting at the time of writing is not what most people mean when they use the term “historical.”  One person may mean the current culture as reflected upon the past.  Yet another may be referring to the history of theology, or even church history, etc.  While all of these are important, they are not what we mean when, in interpreting a text, we refer to the historical rule that rises from Scripture.  Those other items are important when making application or understanding theological positions, but they are not the rule of historical interpretation.  Even consideration of how a text might have been interpreted by others in the past is not the central area.  Just think of the great number of passages that have been misinterpreted by so many in the past. That does not make their error truth.  Even if error has been held by a majority, and for a significant period of time, it is still error.


This violation of historical interpretation is clearly illustrated by the practice of the liberal mind.  I doubt you can find one liberal politician who is not also liberal in religion, because it is their system of thought that brings them to common conclusions.  In our country, Supreme Court judges of a liberal persuasion have done this very thing.  Instead of seeking the historical meaning, and the intent, of the authors of our Constitution, they have used such things as historical precedent, or case law, to rewrite the Constitution.  This same practice is what theologians follow when ignoring the intent of Scripture as to historical interpretation.  It should make us question why a theologian would use such a tool straight from the liberal agenda.


Contextual Interpretation


One of the reasons why context has been omitted from the definition is that current theologians consider context to be such a wonderful defining factor.  Context will not let one get away with limiting interpretation to grammar or redefining “historical.”  No text was ever intended to be isolated.  A theological conclusion must be candled by every Scriptural statement dealing with that particular theological issue.  Limitations on the meaning of a text are placed there by the Holy Spirit.  Where, when, how, why, and to whom the text was written are all necessary factors in our understanding the intent of the writer.  To exclude or ignore the rule of context removes one more limitation to the reader who has motive. Most theological errors are developed outside the Bible, with a subsequent effort to get the text to agree with them.  That requires removing as many restraints as possible.  It seems to matter very little that it was the Holy Spirit who placed those restraints in the text.


The purpose of this course, then, is to learn how to understand the guidelines God has revealed and to hold each other accountable to them.


Literal Interpretation


The final issue is the matter of literal interpretation.  This subject, more than any other, has been misrepresented, maligned, and redefined.  We cannot say whether this mischaracterization is deliberate, but it certainly has identified the spirit of the view that opposes literal interpretation.  The interesting point here is that, in the overall consideration, we end up with just two basic forms of interpretation.  A literal system is the Biblical system that rises from Scripture, and it produces a true Biblical theology.  The non-literal system, with an allegorical base, is the contrasting view.


What, then, does “the rule that rises from the Bible” mean?  It is the view that all texts are meant to be viewed as natural as they are.  Like all literature, what the text says is what it means.  There are indeed times when the text makes it clear that the material being presented is a symbol, type, or allegory, but when the text clearly indicates that the subject is a symbol, then that is the literal interpretation of that text.


The idea that literal interpretation means taking every passage as a literal being or situation, when the text and context indicate otherwise, is a false concept.  What the non-literalist is really looking for appears to be a license to determine, outside the Bible rules, what is allegory, and it shows in their theological conclusions.  This will be illustrated as we proceed.


Paul Tan has an interesting chapter in his book on this subject, and it is recommended reading.[i]

[i] Tan, Paul Lee. The Interpretation of Prophecy. Winona Lake: BMH Books Inc., 1976.