Procedures for Understanding and Interpreting a Biblical Text

Begin by asking God for wisdom.

  1. Ask for God’s understanding of the book.
  2. Ask God to reveal any cultural or theological biases I may have.
  3. Read the book and identify portions that may be threatening to my current theology or lifestyle.  Ask God for grace to receive anything these passages may be saying in contradiction to my beliefs or life.
  4. Review “A Foundational Guide to Interpreting the Word” to be reminded of general principles.

Summarize the message of the book.

  1. This summary should answer the following questions:
    1. What is the author talking about; what is his subject?
    2. What is he saying about the subject; what judgments does he make about the subject?
  2. Read the book several times with the above questions in view.
  3. Seek to discover the circumstances surrounding the writings of the book, including whom the book was written to, who the author was, and what was happening in their world.  Look for this information in the book itself as well as through study aids, such as Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias.
  4. Make a tentative division of the book into its sections and briefly summarize each section to see how it contributes to the book’s message.
  5. Determine the literary style of the book and review the paper “Guidelines for interpreting literary forms” to see which, if any guidelines relate to determining the subject.
  6. Ask these questions to help find the subject.
    1. Does the author clearly state his subject and purpose?
    2. Is there an organizing or unifying topic to which everything else relates?
    3. Is there a topic of prominence that other topics are subordinate to?
    4. Are there terms or synonyms that are repeated throughout the book that could give clues to the subject

Outline the book

  1. Strive to make the outline follow the author’s thought and argument, not imposing a style of organization that is foreign to the text.
  2. Seek to understand the message of each paragraph or other literary form.  What is the point of each section?
  3. Again review the “guidelines for interpreting literary forms” to see which guidelines relate to properly outlining the book.

Examine each section in detail

  1. Lexical Analysis — Choose key words to study.  These would be words whose meaning is uncertain or words that are repeated in the passage or that bear the conceptual meaning of the passage.  Comparing several translations can help in selecting words whose meaning is uncertain.
  2. Look the key words up in a lexicon to determine the word’s possible range of meanings.  Choose from the meanings that were in use in the time period being studied.
  3. Choose the meaning that best fits the context.
  4. Avoid the following errors
    1. Root fallacy — the meaning of a word does not necessarily follow the meaning of its root or roots
    2. Totality transfer — a word does not carry all of its senses in any one passage
    3. Semantic anachronism — don’t supply a later meaning to a word that is used in an earlier context.
    4. Semantic obsolescence — don’t assign a term an earlier meaning that is no longer used.
    5. Prescriptive fallacy — don’t assume that a word has only one meaning in every place it is used.
    6. Verbal parallelomaina — Don’t assume that whenever a word is used in different contexts that the passages are necessarily parallel, borrowing a term, or literally dependant on each other.
    7. Selective evidence fallacy — Don’t pick the definition that fits your preconceived theology and ignore the others.
    8. Function fallacy — Don’t define a noun by what the object referred to does.  What something does is not always indicate what it is.
  5. Theological analysis—Look for words, phrases or concepts that refer back to previously revealed theology by noting:
    1. The use of terms that have acquired a special meaning in the history of salvation (seed, servant, inheritance).
    2. Direct references or indirect allusions to a previous event in revelation history.
    3. Direct or indirect citations of quotations of previous revelation
    4. References to the covenants, promises, or formulae
  6. Historical & Cultural analysis — Seek to understand any historical or cultural elements in the text, first from clues in the text itself, then from bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, or commentaries.

Seek to apply the teaching of the book to today’s believer and church

  1. When seeking to apply a passage, remember that the author’s intended meaning does not change.
  2. Determine if a command applies today.  Is the command for today, or did God intend it for another time or situation?
  3. Ask “how does the command apply to the big picture of God’s working”
  4. Realize that God has worked differently in different dispensations (administrations)
  5. Realize that God continues to speak in some way through every passage of scripture, even if only in a principle or example.
  6. Consider other portions of scripture.  Do they affirm that the command is for today?
  7. Cultural expressions and forms may vary between then and today, but the principle behind them remains the same.
  8. Moral principles never change.  Things grounded in the nature of God or man as he was created will not change and apply in a timeless way.
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