How to correctly interpret the Bible

The Apostle Paul wrote “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15). This tells us God is very concerned with the fact that we not only know his word, but that we also properly interpret his word. Many false doctrines have been made and taught over the centuries using faulty interpretation methods of the Bible.

So properly interpreting God’s Word is critically important to understand God’s will for our lives. But how do we know what the right method is?

Biblical Hermeneutics

Biblical Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of the interpretation of the Scriptures. There are two main schools of Biblical interpretation and they are the Spiritual method and the Literal method. This is not to say that there are only two opinions on each passage of Scripture.  Each one of these main schools of interpretation include several sub groups and positions on various Biblical texts.  But all of these different groups start with the basic principles of one of these main interpretational schools of thought.

The Allegorical method

The allegorical school of Biblical interpretation teaches that we can’t take the Bible literally.  Most of the Bible is considered allegories to teach us various principles. For instance, when we read in Genesis that God created the earth in seven days we should not take this as seven literal days in this view. When we read of various miracles in the Scriptures in the view of this school of thought those miracles may not have actually happened. Many in this school believe that the Bible contains God’s Word mixed with human opinion and deciphering the difference between the two is often difficult for this group.  Teachings on gender roles and sexuality (like condemnations of homosexuality) were temporary and probably based on culture and human opinions of the time in the view of this group.

The allegorical approach makes man the authority over God’s Word rather than making the Bible the authority over man. It essentially neuters the Bible and makes it nothing more than a bunch of nice sayings that we make mean anything we want them to.

The Literal method

The Literal method of interpreting the Scriptures takes a completely opposite approach to interpreting the Bible from that of the Spiritual method.  Those who are Biblical literalists like myself believe that every Word of the Bible – all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments from Genesis to Revelation are the very Word of God.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”

II Timothy 3:16 (KJV)

We believe in the Verbal Plenary Inspiration of Scripture which means we believe that every single Word in the Bible was “God breathed” and authorized by God to be there in the original text. We believe every part of the Bible is authoritative including but not limited to the creation account, historical accounts and genealogies.

We Biblical literalists believe in the unity of the Scriptures. God perfectly wove together his laws, his truths, the story of his people, his will and design for our lives and prophecies about the future by using 40 different men spanning a 1500-year period.  All 40 of these men speak of the same God and God used each of their unique personalities to communicate his word in different ways and at different times.

In direct contrast to the spiritual method of interpreting the Bible, the literal method of interpreting the Bible makes the Bible the authority over man and not man the authority over the Bible and this is why I believe this is the only we as Christians should interpret the Bible.

Do Biblical literalists believe there are any opinions in the Bible?

Certainly, there are opinions given at various points in the Bible.  In both Old Testament and New Testament stories we can see opinions given by various Biblical characters in various stories.  For instance, in the book of Job we see his friends giving him a lot bad opinions. Does this mean we have to follow those opinions of Job’s friends? Of course, not.  In fact, we can see by how those opinions are responded to that God would not want us to follow the opinions of Job’s friends.

Sometimes a Biblical author will stop in the middle of his giving the very Word of God to giving his human opinion as the Apostle Paul did.

Some have tried to use this passage of Scripture where Paul is very clearly giving his opinion on celibacy being better to try to undermine the rest of Paul’s writings and even the rest of the Scripture as being the opinion of man rather than the Word of God:

“6 But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

I Corinthians 7:6-9 (KJV)

The key here to note is that Paul specifically stops to tell us when he is speaking opinion and separates that from the commands that God has given through him.  If anything, this strengthens the position that what Paul wrote was the very commands of God and not the cultural opinions of men except in those rare instances where his opinion is clearly marked.

The Apostle Paul stated that his writings as well as those of the other Apostles where not the opinions of men but the very Word of God:

“For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”

I Thessalonians 2:13 (KJV)

The Apostle Peter further defends the Apostle Paul’s writings as equal in authority with the Old Testament Scriptures:

“15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”

II Peter 3:15-16 (KJV)

How do Biblical literalists handle examples in the Bible?

The Scriptures tell us this regarding examples in the Bible:

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”

Romans 15:4 (KJV)

“6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted…Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”

I Corinthians 10:6 & 11 (KJV)

“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.”

Philippians 3:17 (KJV)

As we can see, the Bible shows us examples of how not to live and how to live.

So, if an example of someone’s behavior in the Scriptures does not violate a clear command of the Bible and is not presented in a negative light then we know this behavior is acceptable before God.

One mistake some Biblical literalists make is in teaching that we MUST follow all positive examples set forth in the Scriptures. For instance, since the Apostle Paul was celibate then we all as Christians must be celibate.  The mistake they make is that positive examples allow us to do something, they don’t require us to do that thing. Direct Biblical commands on the other hand are binding on us but we must also take into account which laws were done away with and changed in the New Covenant. See my article “What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?” for more on that subject.

Do Biblical literalists believe in any types of symbolism in the Bible?

Of course, we can see Biblical symbolisms throughout the Bible.  But these symbolisms are clearly seen from the context in which they are written and they primarily find themselves in Biblical prophecy while some are shown in various Biblical accounts. For instance, the blood of the lamb which had to be put on the doors of the Israelite houses to be spared from God’s death Angel over Egypt was a symbolism of what Christ would do centuries later as the lamb slain before the foundations of the world.

But again – unless the Biblical context is prophetic symbolism or the author is clearly showing something as symbol we need to take what the Scriptures say literally.

Divisions within the school of Biblical Literalists

But even amongst those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures there is still a great variety views as to how they interpret the Scriptures. Two popular schools of literal interpretation are Covenant theology and Dispensational theology. These two schools of literal Biblical interpretation primarily deal with how prophecies are interpreted but they do affect how the rest of the Scriptures are viewed as well.

It would take a very long article to explain all the differences between these two schools but I will just say that I fall somewhere in the middle of them agreeing with some points from Covenant theologians and some points from Dispensational theologians.  If I had to say which side I lean more towards while not completely agreeing with them in all things it would be the Covenant theologians.

The biggest reason I lean more toward Covenant theology than Dispensational theology is because I feel that the Dispensational theologians deemphasize and cancel out the Old Testament for the most part.  They certainly place a high value on prophecy from the Old Testament and understanding where we came from in God’s progressive revelation.  But for the most part they ignore the commands of the Old Testament – especially those given in the law of Moses.

But one of my reasons for my disagreements with Covenant theologians has to do with another two schools of thought and that has to do with Calvinism and Arminianism.  In my view, Calvinism over emphasizes the sovereignty of God to the exclusion of the free will of man where Arminianism over emphasizes the free will of man to the exclusion of the sovereignty of God. So, like with Dispensational and Covenant theology – I stand somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism believing that the sovereignty of God does not cancel out the free will of man and the free will of man does not cancel out the sovereignty of God.

Why I decided to place a strong emphasis on the doctrine of Biblical gender roles

Many great men of God have spent their lives searching the Scriptures about prophecy, the sovereignty of God and the free will of man and how we should view these things from a Biblical perspective.  When I was a young man in my twenties, I spent many years reading the works of great theologians on both sides of these debates and spent many hours debating the various positions.

But one day, a few years ago, it hit me that as the body of Christ we were not talking about a very important Biblical topic.  There are plenty of good men of God discussing important subjects such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, holy living, church structure, prophecy, the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. But I found there were few brave men online or in churches who would speak on the doctrine of Biblical gender roles. There is literally a gaping hole in the theological teachings of our churches on this extremely important subject. That is when I felt the call of God to start this blog to join with those other few brave souls in trying to teach these forgotten doctrines to a culture steeped in feminism and egalitarianism.

As I write this article in December of 2016 BiblicalGenderRoles.com has had over 3.5 million views since I first started it more than two and a half years ago.  I have been privileged to speak by email to people from around the world who been blessed by this ministry.  People from churches in Europe, Africa and Asia along with Christians from all over America have contacted me thanking me for standing on these issues in a time when it is very unpopular to do so.

Doctrinal Priorities

When it comes to studying God’s Word and correctly interpreting it we must also remember that while all Bible doctrines are important for us to understand – some are far more important than others.

Some people misunderstand me in thinking that I believe the only important doctrine of scripture is the doctrine of Biblical gender roles. This could not be further from the truth. While I believe that our practical daily holiness and walk with God very much depends on our acceptance and adherence to Biblical gender roles I do not believe that our eternal destiny hinges on our full understanding and acceptance of Biblical gender roles.

However, our eternal destiny very much hinges on our view of God and his Son Jesus Christ. If a person rejects that there is one God and one mediator between God and man which is Jesus Christ he will perish in hell.

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”

I Timothy 2:5 (KJV)

“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

John 3:18 (KJV)

“10 Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. 11 This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. 12 Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

Acts 4:10-12 (KJV)

What this means is that those who believe in the spiritual method and literal method of Biblical interpretation can be saved. It means those who are Calvinists and those who are Arminians can be saved. It means Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants and non-denominational Christians can all be saved. Even those who reject the doctrine of Biblical gender roles can be saved.  We can all be saved if we trust in the one true God of the Bible and his Son Jesus Christ believing that his death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins.

But having made my point that the most important doctrines of Scripture revolve around the nature of God and the Gospel the next logical question would be what doctrines come next in importance? I believe that doctrines that teach us about holy living are the next crucial doctrines that Christians must embrace followed closely by the doctrines of Biblical gender roles.  In fact, we cannot live a truly holy life without fully embracing God’s design and commands regarding gender roles.

If we are “right” on our prophetic views or if we are “right” in our views concerning the sovereignty of God or if we are “right” regarding our church structure and ordinance practices but we neglect the doctrines of holy living and gender roles, then being “right” on those other doctrines means nothing.

Principles for correctly interpreting the Bible

I have shown here that the only way we as Christians should interpret the Bible is using the literal method if we want to bring ourselves under the authority of God’s Word instead of placing ourselves in authority over God’s Word.  If we can just spiritualize all of the Bible and write off anything we don’t like as cultural or the opinions of man, then the Bible loses all its power.

But even when we interpret the Bible literally as Christians we must understand apply the following important principles when we study God’s Word.

Principle #1 – The Bible contains no errors and no contradictions

Translations of the Bible may contain errors, but the Bible was perfect in it is original form. And even though there may be various errors in various translations of the original languages of the Bible we can rest assured that God has preserved his Word across multiple translations by the repetition of various accounts and doctrines in the Bible.

The Bible never contradicts itself.  Not one of the 40 men God chose to pen his Word contradicted with another of the men he chose to pen his Word.

Principle #2 – Scripture interprets Scripture

If we see one part of the Scripture that seems to be unclear or contradictory with another part of the Scripture, we must remember principle #1 that the Bible never contradicts itself. Therefore, we must examine more of the Scripture to find the harmony between various passages.  Also, sometimes the New Testament may apply and interpret an Old Testament passage differently than what we might understand it in the context it was written.  In these cases, we must accept the perfect interpretation of the Old Testament by Christ and his Apostles.

Principle #3 – The commands of the Bible can only be rescinded by God himself

We know from several New Testament passages that God did change and rescind some of the laws he gave to Israel through Moses. But only God can rescind or change his commands – we cannot. That means we cannot dismiss the remaining commands of Scripture as “cultural” or based on the opinions of that era and no longer relevant to our time.  Every command of God that has not been rescinded in the New Covenant stands today regardless of our modern cultural values.

Principle #4 – Scriptural examples allow us to do things – they do not require us to do things

There are some false doctrines taught in various Christian denominations that require certain behaviors or actions, or restrict certain behaviors or actions based on Scriptural example alone.  Scriptural examples, if they are presented in a positive light, allow us to do certain things but they do not require us to do those things.

Examples of Patriarchs and Apostles doing certain things that are not condemned can reassure us that certain activities are good or acceptable before God.  But something being acceptable and us being required to do it are two very different things. As I alluded to earlier – the Apostle Paul presented many of the benefits of serving God that celibacy offers but his example of celibacy does not require that we as Christians must be celibate.  It only shows us that God honors celibacy under the right conditions.

Principle #5 – Seek out the original languages and many translations

I highly encourage you to use sites like Biblehub.com and BibleStudyTools.com to search out the original wording and meaning of words of various verses. Remember that the Bible is inerrant in its original wording and not necessarily in the particular translation you are reading.

But also, compare many translations while understanding some translations are more literal than others.   Some of the most literal translations of the Scripture include the KJV, the New KJV and the NASB.  These follows most closely the sentence structure of the original languages.  The NIV can be useful at times but it uses more of a dynamic equivalency and it often far less literal.  But there are many places where the NIV does a beautiful job of modernizing the old English words and in a few select places it actually translates some passages better than some of the older translations.

Principle #6 – Pray and ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance

Even when applying all the first five principles we must remember that the Bible is a spiritual book and it can only be discerned by the spirit of God in us as we let go of our own cultural thoughts about right and wrong.  This is why we need to pray and seek the spirit’s guidance as we search the Scriptures to find the truth of God.

This six principle though can be highly abused and that is why we must have the other four principles to help keep us in check.  The Bible warns us to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).  There are some false teachers in various Christian denominations who have completely violated one or all of the first principles that I have just showed you saying “the spirit guided me and told me to”. If someone does that I suggest you run away from them as fast as you can.

Principle #7 – Seek out a multitude of counselors

The Bible tells us that “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14). There will be times when you apply all the previous principles and seek the Lord’s guidance and you are still unsure about something in the Scriptures.  In these times, it may be wise to see counsel from those who have studied the Word longer than you.  We each have different gifts and not all of us have the gifts of knowledge, discernment or teaching.  It is good to seek out others who have these gifts we don’t have them.

But as with principle #6 some caution must be exercised here in seeking counsel. There is the danger that we will seek out people who just tell us what we want to hear. But on the other side we may seek out counsel to tell us our what we are seeing in the Bible is wrong because we do not want to believe it. We may also get into a “majority rules” situation where because the majority of our counselors think something they must be right.  Sometimes the majority are wrong.

May God be with you as you search for his truths and his will for your life through the treasure that is his Word.

Check out these related articles below to help you further understand how to correctly interpret God’s Word.

What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?

What are the Moral Laws of God in the Old Testament?

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