Principles of Interpretation Seminar
These are notes from a seminar given prior to the Great Commission Churches Pastor’s Conference, June 13, 2011. This seminar represents my own views and not necessarily those of Great Commission Churches. — David Bovenmyer
In 2002, I took a course offered by BILD International entitled Interpreting the Word I: Principles and Procedures http://bild.org/resources/leadership_series. The following principles and the other writings on interpretation on this web site largely come from what I learned through this course.
This BILD course included two chapters summarizing principles of interpretation written by Walter C. Kaiser, currently President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA. These two chapters are Legitimate Hermeneutic from the book Inerrancy, Norman L. Geisler (editor), Zondervan, 1980, and The Single Intent of Scripture from the book Evangelical Roots, a Tribute to Wilbur Smith, Kennith S. Kantzer (Editor), Thomas Nelson (June 1978). Most of the quotations in this seminar are from these two chapters.
Today, there is little consensus on interpretation
“Much of the current debate over the Scriptures among believing Christians is, at its core, a result of failure on the part of evangelicals to come to terms with the issue of hermeneutics…while many evangelicals may find a large amount of agreement on the doctrines of revelation, inspiration, and even canonicity, something close to a Babel of voices is heard on methods of interpreting the Scriptures.” — Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
Definition of interpretation
No definition of interpretation can be more fundamental than this: To interpret we must in every case reproduce the sense the Scriptural writer intended for his own words.
“Yet today in our ‘All knowledge is relative’ culture, a return to the author’s own meanings is considered both unnecessary and wrong. Instead, meaning has often become a personal, subjective, and changing thing. ‘What speaks to me,’ ‘what God impressed on my heart,’ ‘what I get out of the text’ are the significant concerns, not what an author intended by his use of words.” — Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
1) The Bible is to be interpreted in the same way and by the same rules as other Books.
“God has deliberately decided to accommodate mankind by disclosing Himself in our language and according to the mode to which we are accustomed in other literary productions. While the content is vastly different, the medium of language is identical.” — Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
2) The principles of interpretation are as native and universal to man as is speech itself.
Rules of interpretation are only formal clarifications of what we do all the time when speaking or listening to one another.
“If birth and providence had so favored us that we were part of the culture and language when one or another of the prophets or apostles spoke, we could dispense with all background and language study. We would understand these areas as immediately as we now understand speakers and writers in our own day.” — Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
The difference between the Bible an other books is not about the manner that we interpret it, but the matter that is within it.
3) My personal reception and application of an author’s words is a distinct and secondary act from the need first to understand the meaning of his words.
Significance follows meaning.
Meaning refers to the ideas, concepts, and truths that the author intended to communicate by his particular use of words.
Significance describes a relationship between that meaning and a person, a conception or a situation.
Before I try to discover the significance of a passage to me, I must first discover the author’s meaning that he was seeking to convey to his original audience.
Challenges to authorial meaning as the goal of interpretation:
1) The author wrote for future generations, not just for a particular time and place.
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. ” (1 Corinthians 10:11, ESV)
God intended scripture to be used beyond the generation to which it was written. However, although it was written for later generations, it was written to the generation to whom the human author was communicating. Had it been written too our generation, it would have been written in English or another modern language.
2) God is the One who speaks in the Bible and not men. Men were mere receptacles of what God wanted to say. Therefore different interpretive rules apply.
“What God spoke, He spoke in human, not heavenly language! Moreover, He spoke through the vocabularies, idioms, circumstances, and personalities of each of the chosen writers.” — Walter C. Kaiser
3) Since a person must be spiritually enlightened to understand the Bible, this calls for a different set of rules of interpretation.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. ” (1 Corinthians 2:14, ESV).
The argument is overstated. Paul does not say that the Spirit will give us additional meanings, he only says that we need his help to understand the author’s intended meaning and how to apply it.
It’s one thing to need the Spirit’s help to understand an author’s meaning. It’s another thing to assume that the Spirit will give us additional meanings beyond the author’s intentions
4) The prophets confessed that they themselves sometimes did not understand the words they wrote. Therefore the goal of finding the author’s intended meaning is not achievable.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. ” (1 Peter 1:10–11, ESV)
Nothing in the verse indicates that they were confused about what had been revealed. Rather, they were inquiring about what had not yet been revealed.
Sometimes God or an angel spoke directly to a prophet, who merely wrote down God’s words. In this case, God alone was the author. Yet, since God spoke to the prophets using their own rules of communication, we should assume that they understood what God was saying. Their inquiry was not about what God had said, but about what He hadn’t said or about how what He said fit together in time or place or person.
Whether God or the inspired human is considered the author would not seem to make any difference, unless we assume that God has a hidden meaning behind the clear meaning, which He did not.
5) Because some prophecies have a dual fulfillment, those prophecies must have a duel meaning.
The dual or multiple fulfillment of some prophecies should not be understood as a dual meaning to the prophecy, but as a multiple fulfillment of the one meaning in two or more events.
A better term than “multiple fulfillment” might be “generic prophecy.” The prophecy had one meaning, but that meaning was broad enough that the one meaning was fulfilled in multiple events.
6) New Testament writers, under inspiration of God, re-interpret Old Testament passages, showing that they had a hidden meaning.
“Some modern evangelical scholars affirm, on shaky hermeneutical grounds, that the rather free new Testament quotation of the Old Testament sets for us a precedent that allows for a ‘fuller sense’…of the Old Testament text than what the original Old Testament human authors intended or understood.” — Walter C. Kaiser Jr.
New Testament quotations of Old Testament verses often stress an application of an Old Testament passage, rather than strictly referring to the Old Testament author’s intended meaning. Therefore, New Testament quotations can not always to be used as a model of how to interpret scripture. They were sometimes applying the scripture, not interpreting it.
“We certainly recognize that a passage may have a fuller significance than what was realized by the writer…But the whole revelation of God as revelation hangs in jeopardy if we, an apostle, or an angel from heaven try to add to, delete, rearrange, or reassign the sense or meaning that a prophet himself received. In so doing, the friends of Scripture imperil the Scriptures as much as do her enemies.” — Walter C. Kaiser Jr.
More Principles of Interpetation
1) God’s revelation has been progressively revealed throughout history. Yet later revelation never contradicts previous revelation or makes it defective, inferior, unimportant, morally primitive, or inaccurate
2) Antecedent theology–-When interpreting a passage, we may appeal to previous theology that has already been revealed that the reader and author share knowledge of, but we should not appeal to later revelation that was unknown to the reader or author.
“Only the doctrine and the theology prior to the time of the writer’s composition of his revelation…may be legitimately used in the task of theological exegesis.” —Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
“The “analogy of Scripture” then was the ‘pre-understanding’ of both the writer and of those in his audience who were alert to what God had revealed prior to this new word of revelation. — Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
3) As much as possible, we must seek to understand the assumptions, cultural norms, and world view of the Biblical author and his audience and interpret his words in light of what he believed