Principles of Interpretation

Understanding what we read in Scripture is vital to our ability to put it to work in our lives. Some useful principles should guide us into using Scripture well. Here are a few very specific guidelines we should follow:

  • Seek the Spirit's guidance before interpreting any passage, knowing that truths must be spiritually discerned under His guidance.
  • Always interpret a passage in light of the context. Check what precedes and follows a passage. Check your interpretation in relation to the rest of the book. Check your interpretation in relation to the Bible as a whole.
  • Interpret a passage literally unless the context suggests otherwise.
  • Let the Bible interpret itself—look for the whole counsel of God. Don't isolate only the part that suits you, leaving out the rest. Don't say more than the Bible says.
  • Always interpret a passage in terms of the author's purpose and in light of what his readers would have understood it to mean. Interpret words in light of the meaning in the times of the author. Check the use by the author elsewhere in the book, the use in relation to the immediate context, and the use at the time of writing. Words have different meanings in different contexts.
  • Check the cultural setting. The Bible is trans-cultural.
  • Interpret a passage in terms of its historical context: (a) to whom it was written; (b) the background of the writer; (c) the occasion that prompted it; (d) the main characters; (d) the time setting.
  • Consider authoritative commands as intended for all: " 'Love one another' " (John 13:34, NKJV). Consider limited commands as intended for immediate circumstances only: " 'Make yourself an ark of gopherwood' " (Gen. 6:14, NKJV). The context and nature of the command indicate whether it is to be universally applied.
  • Consider biblical examples (narrative passages) as authoritative when they are supported by a command. Biblical examples can verify what God is leading you to do. They can enrich application. But they must not be universally applied unless they are backed up by a command.
  • Study of geography and topography mentioned in a passage may help in interpretation of the passage.
  • Watch for figures of speech that should not be interpreted literally. This includes inanimate objects used to describe living beings: "door, light" "mountains hearing." Be alert to words and phrases out of character with that which is being described. "Fox-Herod", "Dogs-circumcised". Figures of speech include metaphors, similes, (like, as), anthropomorphisms, imagery, metonymy (using one word to represent another such as "circumcision-Jews"), hyperbole, irony, personification, etc. 
  • Parables are usually intended to teach only one major truth. Do not allegorize the details to "make it fit."
  • Interpret personal experience in light of Scripture and not Scripture in light of personal experience. Events are to be interpreted on the basis of what God says to be true: not, this is true because this happened. (Because Jesus is the Son of God, He rose from the dead; not He rose from the dead, and therefore He is the Son of God.) Allow Scripture to shape your experience rather than interpreting Scripture from your experience.*

*Adapted with permission from the iFollow Discipleship Resource, ©North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.