The Principles of Biblical Interpretation

A summary extracted from the article Biblical Hermeneutics - An Introduction (Art and Science of Interpretation)
By Robert Hommel*

There are certain principles that will help us to accurately handle the Word of Truth. These principles are embedded in the scripture itself. We do not need to go beyond the boundaries of the Bible to discover these laws and maxims that are used to determine the meaning of scripture. The Bible interprets itself (scripture interprets scripture).

Principle #1: The Literal Interpretation Principle
We take the Bible at face value. We generally take everyday things in life as literal or at face value. This is a common sense approach. Even symbols and allegories in the Bible are based on the literal meaning of the scripture; thus the literal meaning is foundational to any symbolic or allegorical meaning.

The golden rule of interpretation is: "When the plain sense of the scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense". Therefore, take every word at its primary, usual, meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise.

Principle #2: The Contextual Principle
D.A. Carson has been quoted as saying, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." By "proof text," of course, Carson means the abuse of a single verse or phrase taken out of context to "prove" a particular view. The word "text" is derived from the Latin word, which means to "weave. The context is that which accompanies the text. The Word of God is a perfect unit. The scriptures cannot be broken; they all hang together, a perfect unity.

We must look and consider the verses immediately before, after, and around the passage. We must consider the book of the Bible and the section of the Bible in which the passage occurs. The Bible must be interpreted within the framework of the Bible.

Principle #3: The Scripture Interprets Scripture Principle

We may rest assured that God did not reveal an important doctrine in a single, ambiguous passage. All essential doctrines are fully and clearly explained - either in the immediate context, or somewhere else in the Bible. This principle is best illustrated by what is known as "topical Bible study." There are two essential 'rules' for applying this principle:

1) The context of the two passages must be the same; and

2) The plain passage must be used to guide our interpretation of a less clear passage - not the other way around!

Principle #4: The Progressive Revelation Principle

The Word of God is to be understood from the Old Testament to the New Testament as a flower unfolding its pedals to the morning sun. God initiated revelation, but He did not reveal His truths all at one time. It was a long and progressive process. Therefore, we must take into account the then-current state of revelation to properly understand a particular passage. For example, an interpretation of a passage in Genesis which assumed a fully delineated view of the "new Covenant" would not be sound. As the saying goes, "The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed."

Principle #5: The Accommodation Principle
The Bible is to be interpreted in view of the fact that it is an accommodation of Divine truths to human minds: God the infinite communicating with man the finite. The Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Bible was also created in space, in time, and in history so that man could understand it. The truths of God made contact with the human mind at a common point, the Bible, to make God (and, indeed, all of reality) knowable. We must be careful, then, not to push accommodating language about God and His nature to literal extremes. God does not have feathers and wings (e.g., Psalms 17:8); nor is He our literal Father in the same sense our earthly father is.

Principle #6: The One Interpretation Principle
Every verse in the Bible has only one interpretation, although that verse may have many applications. The one correct interpretation is that which mirrors the intent of the inspired author.

Principle #7: The Harmony of Scripture Principle
No part of the Bible may be interpreted so as to contradict another part of the Bible. The Christian presupposes the inerrancy and harmony of Scripture as a necessary result of a perfect Creator God revealing Himself perfectly to Mankind. Proper application of hermeneutical principles will resolve apparent conflicts. The key here, of course, is the word "proper," for exegetical fallacies can easily result from a zealous but ill-informed attempt to "save" Scripture from an apparent contradiction.

Principle #8: The Genre Principle
Genre is a literary term having to do with the category or "genus" of literature under consideration. Proper interpretation must take the general literary category of any given passage into consideration. Are we dealing with poetry or prose? Are we dealing with history or prophecy? It is important that when we interpret the Word of God, we understand as much as possible the author's intent. For example, if the author is writing history - the genre of the Pentateuch of Moses - it would not be proper to interpret a single reference (such as the speech of Balaam's ass) as a poetic personification, unless a variety of contextual markers compelled us to do so.

Here are some books of the Bible and their respective genres:

Psalms - Poetry
Proverbs - Wise Sayings
Isaiah - History and Prophecy
The Gospels - Biography and History
The Epistles - Teaching and Doctrine
Revelation - Eschatology and Prophecy

Principle #9: The Grammatical Principle
The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. While we have several highly accurate translations of the Bible in English, all translation involves a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the translator. Thus, the study of word meanings, grammar, and syntax of the original languages is important for a proper understanding of Scripture. This doesn't mean that every student of the Bible must learn Hebrew or Greek. There are a number of tools available - lexicons, Bible dictionaries, detailed exegetical commentaries - that can provide a deeper understanding of crucial passages.

Principle #10: The Historical Background Principle
The Bible was composed in a specific culture at a particular point in time. While they are universal in application, the truths in the Bible can most fully be realized only when taking the surrounding culture and history into account. For example, when Jesus is called "the first fruits" (1 Corinthians 15:20), we may have some understanding of this title from the Old Testament, but a study of Jewish religious practice in the first century can provide a deeper understanding of why Paul chose this title in this passage, as opposed to another title with the same general meaning of "first."

The Grammatico-Historical Method
The exegetical commentaries on this website generally follow the "Grammatico-Historical" method of interpretation. As its name implies, this method of interpretation focuses attention not only on literary forms but upon grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. It is solidly in the "literal schools" of interpretation, and is the hermeneutical methodology embraced by virtually all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars. It embraces each of the ten principles enumerated above.

Some Common Exegetical Fallacies

Unfortunately, each of the principles of interpretation we have considered may be abused in various ways. Fortunately, the remedy for the resulting misinterpretation is generally as simple as recognizing which principle has been abused and the proper reapplication of that principle to the passage in question. Here are some common exegetical fallacies resulting from the misuse of hermeneutic principles.

Taking Figurative Language Literally
When Jesus says that He is the "door," few would take Him literally. Some, however, take figurative language, such as Jesus "sitting at the right hand of the Father," to mean that the Father has a literal right hand (and thus, a physical body). The phrase "at the right hand" was a figurative expression in Semitic cultures in Biblical times, signifying a position of authority. It did not mean that the one exalted literally sat next to the one doing the exalting. The Literal Interpretation Principle does not mean that we woodenly take every word in the Bible literally, but rather that we approach it as we would any other book, taking figurative phrases, hyperbole, poetic personifications, and other figures of speech into account in our interpretation.

Some view Jehovah's declaration that He does not "know" of any other gods in Isaiah 44:8 as limited to the immediate context. Since Jehovah is here engaging in a polemic against idol-worship, some would suggest that Jehovah is really saying that He knows of no idols who are real gods - but leaves open the possibility of other subordinate gods who are not idols. While we must safeguard against taking words or phrases out of context, there is no warrant for taking an absolute statement and confining it to immediate context. Jehovah says He knows of no other gods. He says this in the context of chastising those who worship idols, but this context does not limit His statement, any more than the Great Commission is limited to the disciples who heard Jesus speak it.

Allowing the Implicit to Explain the Explicit
Jesus is called "firstborn" on several occasions in the New Testament. In Revelation 3:14, He is called the "firstborn of creation." Many non-Trinitarians see in these verses evidence that the Son of God was a created being - the first creation of Jehovah. Trinitarians point to verses like John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, which state that the Son pre-existed all things. Non-Trinitarians argue that we should interpret these verses in light of Jesus as "the firstborn." Thus, "all things" must mean "all other things." Trinitarians argue that the "firstborn" passages must be viewed in light of John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, and thus must be a figurative title. The term translated "firstborn" has a figurative as well as a literal connotation. Even if taken literally, non-Trinitarians typically do not believe that the Son of God was literally born, and thus they believe that it implies the creation of the Son in some fashion. John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16, on the other hand, explicitly state that the Son existed before all things, and indeed that all things came into existence through Him. Allowing the implicit to explain the explicit - the possible to explain the certain - is not a sound interpretive principle. Scripture indeed interprets Scripture, so long as clarity explains ambiguity, and not the other way around.

Modern Day Revelation
Some groups claim that God continues to reveal Himself in various ways to an elite cadre of spiritually mature and/or gifted individuals. Some, like Latter Day Saints, believe that this modern day revelation has produced new scriptures. When contradictions between these "revelations" and the Bible are pressed, these groups often respond that God's revelation is progressive, and thus may accommodate new or revised doctrines for the modern era. But progressive revelation may never be used to overthrow principle of the harmony of Scripture. God may have chosen to reveal Himself gradually to humanity, but He does not contradict Himself.

Harmonization by Denial

The Bible declares that Jesus was a man (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:5; etc.). It also calls Him God (John 1:1; 20:28; etc.). God says in Hosea 11:9 that He is not man. Non-Trinitarians that hold to the principle of the harmony of Scripture, believe these verses present an apparent contradiction, and they resolve this contradiction by denying the fully Deity of Christ. They either favor grammatical arguments that remove the attribution of "God" to Jesus, or they argue that He must be a lesser divinity and not true God. It is certainly exegetically valid to deny what Scripture does not explicitly or implicitly affirm. However, to deny what Scripture affirms both explicitly and implicitly is not a sound hermeneutical methodology. If we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), we should allow Scripture to shape our theology (or, in this case, our Christology) in such a way that Scripture is harmonized by complete affirmation of its teaching. Thus, when Scripture tells us the Christ is both Man and God, we should allow these truths to shape our view of Christ's nature, rather than deny one or the other.

Problems Relating to Literary Genre

To properly take genre into consideration, we must first understand the genre in its historical context. In most cases, this is not difficult. However, some genres - such as "proverbs" - offers some considerable challenge. A proverb is not a promise - those who approach the book of Proverbs in this fashion are likely to be disappointed when the expected promise is not fulfilled. Further, as D.A. Carson notes, Proverbs 23:3-4 seem to offer contradictory advice: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly ... Answer a fool according to his folly." (Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 137-138). Careful exegesis is necessary to resolve this and other apparent contradictions, and such exegesis depends in no small part on the proper understanding of genre.

Misunderstanding Proper Application of Grammar
A wide range of fallacies can result from a misunderstanding or misuse of grammatical. tools. For example, a simplistic approach to "word studies" can produce a number of problematic interpretations. A common misuse of lexicons or Bible dictionaries is to assume that the "literal" or "original" meaning of a word pertains in a given context. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, defend the rendering of the Greek word kolasis in Matthew 25:46 found in their New World Translation (NWT) with what may be termed an "etymological fallacy." The NWT translates kolasis as "cutting off." While kolasis originally had this meaning in classical Greek times, by the 1st Century, kolasis had taken on the meaning "punishment," which is why the majority of English translations render kolasis this way. Witnesses confuse the original meaning of kolasis with the common meaning in the contemporary setting. Some Witnesses may cite older lexicons in favor of the NWT translation, but no modern lexicon provides "cutting off" as a valid translation of any 1st Century text, and a careful examination of the older lexicons reveals that they were dependent on classical Greek texts, not texts contemporary with the New Testament.

While word studies are important to proper interpretation, we must be careful to use them as a part of an overall methodology that takes all aspects of the text - including then-current word usage - into account.

Historical Fabrication
The reconstruction of Biblical history presents a whole host of opportunities for interpretive fallacies. The interpretations of the New Testament offered by scholars such as those in the Jesus Seminar depend largely on theoretical reconstructions of various "communities" in the early years of the Christian Church. While the reconstructions may originate from deductions based on certain passages of Scripture, they soon become intertwined with the interpretation of other passages to such a degree that it is difficult to separate the theoretical reconstruction from the interpretation. This fallacious approach to Scripture is true whether the reconstruction in question is the result of liberal Historical Criticism run amok, or the superficial attempts by Non-Trinitarians to portray "Biblical Monotheism" as anything but monothesim. The problem is that we have almost no access to the history of 1st Century beliefs outside the New Testament. Some speculation based on extra-canonical texts is certainly possible, but it is a fallacy to think that speculative reconstruction has any force in informing our interpretation of Scripture.

For further study:

Knowing Scripture, Dr. R. C. Sproul. This short book is the best introduction to Biblical Interpretation available.

How To Read The Bible For All It's Worth, Gordon Fee

Introduction To Biblical Interpretation, William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard

Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson. Good introduction to interpretation and exegesis.

Biblical Hermeneutics, A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament, Milton S. Terry

An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search For Meaning, Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Silva, Moises

* Copyright © 2001-2005 by Robert Hommel, For An Answer Ministries (, All rights reserved.
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