Your view of God will determine how you read the Bible. Hermeneutics grow out of theology.1 The Lord God of the Covenant is a God who reveals Himself. He reveals Himself in His creation, in His Son, and in His written Word. It is only by that written revelation that we can understand His revelation in creation and, most especially, in His Son.
That Biblical revelation is Spirit-produced thoughts in Spirit-produced words (1 Cor. 2:13). The thoughts God expressed through His prophets and apostles to the church and to the world originated in His rational mind; and the words they used to communicate those thoughts also originated in His mind (1 Cor. 2:10-13). The point is that God reveals Himself in the Bible in thoughts and words that are meaningful to Himself and to us, as human beings. By reading the Bible, enlightened by His Spirit, we know what God is thinking.
What are the implications of this view of God for the way we read and interpret the Bible?
First, because the Bible is a revelation from God, it is an inerrant revelation. Whatever it asserts as true on any subject is true; and whatever it asserts as happening, did in fact happen as the Bible describes it. Since God does not lie, neither does the Bible. Therefore, when we read it, we are to believe whatever it teaches, trust whatever it promises, and obey whatever it commands, because God is its author. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.4)
Second, because it is the revelation of the God who speaks as the perfect Communicator, it comes with undeniable clarity. God reveals Himself in order to be understood. His Word comes to us with self-evident divine authority, and it is clearly given. In fact, “the main contribution of the Protestant Reformers to Biblical hermeneutics is their insistence on the plain meaning of Scripture.”2
The Bible is such a clear revelation from God that believers with ordinary intelligence, by careful Bible study, attentiveness to the preached Word, prayer, and fellowship with other believers can know those Biblical truths that are necessary for salvation. Not every passage is equally clear, therefore the less clear texts must be understood in the light of the more clear. The clear language of the Bible is sometimes elaborate and highly figurative. It is not to be interpreted in a “literal” sense that does not allow for the metaphorical and typological.
To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. — To be accurate interpreters of the Bible we need to know the rules of grammar; and above all, we must be carefully involved in what is called genre analysis. — Genre analysis involves the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style.3
Third, since Biblical revelation is propositional (it came in words, sentences and grammatical syntax), and because it is historical (it was spoken into actual historical moments), the Bible must be interpreted according to the grammatical-historical principle of interpretation. For a Biblical text to speak for itself, its words and sentences must be explained according to “the dictionary meaning, the grammatical structure, the normal rules of syntax…and also in their historical setting…the meaning of the Biblical text is determined by that text as addressed to and understood by its original audience — in its own historical situation and cultural setting.”4 This is particularly useful to remember when studying the book of Revelation. In Revelation 1:3, the apostle John writes “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” He is telling his first century readers that the time for the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the book of Revelation is “near” with reference to them. Therefore, when reading the book of Revelation, we must ask : “What did this mean to those to whom this book was originally addressed in the first century?” Only then are we in a position to ask: “How does this book apply to us today?”
The grammatical-historical principle of Bible interpretation was meant to replace the allegorical principle of interpretation that was popular prior to the Protestant Reformation, and which still lingers in the way some Christians interpret the Bible. It is now called “interpretative maximalism,” and it holds that everything in the Bible is symbolic. It is characterized by arbitrariness, and often tells us more about the interpreter’s imagination than it does the Bible. It allows for no controls; and, in effect, it allows anyone to see any meaning in any text he or she wants to see. It also tends toward the tyranny of the experts, for it requires an elite group of scholars to whom is given the key to the deeper meanings of the Bible.
Fourth, the true and full sense of any text of the Bible is one (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:9). Although a text in the Bible has a variety of connections in the Bible’s system of doctrine, and although it has a variety of applications and often a complex of meaning, nevertheless each text has one sense intended by the original human author and the divine Author, which can be found in the believing study of the words and grammar of the text in its context.
A couple of examples are useful here. First, in 1 Corinthians 14:21, where Paul is explaining the purpose of tongue-speaking, he quotes Isaiah 28:11f, which itself is an allusion to Deuteronomy 28:49. Isaiah 28 foretells the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28 in Judah of his day. It will be overrun by foreign armies, whose language they will not understand, which will be God’s judgment on their unbelief and apostasy. When Paul brings Isaiah 28:11f into the picture of 1 Corinthians 14:21, he is saying (prophetically, of course) that the purposes of tongue-speaking in the first century was as a sign of divine judgment on unbelieving Judaism that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A. D. 70.
Second, Acts 5:32 says, “And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” In this sentence, “has given,” is in the present tense (present active participle). The point is not that God gives the Holy Spirit to all those who obey Him; rather, it is that those who obey God do so because God has given them the Holy Spirit, without whom they could not obey God.
Why do we say that each text has only true interpretation — that of the human and the Divine author?
First, God is truthful. He does not reveal Himself ambiguously, nor has He given us a revelation that is calculated to mislead. Second, God reveals Himself, His will, and His way of salvation to glorify Himself and to redeem sinners. With this end in view, it is inconceivable that He should give us an uncertain revelation. Third, because revelation is a communication from the mind of God to human beings, and since we are made in God’s image, all revelation must be rational to be understood. A rational God would not deny Himself by revealing Himself to His rational creatures in an irrational manner. Fourth, the character of language demands this conclusion. Communication between persons would be impossible, if a word should have more than one meaning in the same connection.
Fifth, the God who reveals Himself in the Bible is the God of the Covenant who sent His Son to be the Mediator of that Covenant so as to establish an intimate and eternal bond of friendship between Himself and His people. Therefore, Biblical revelation, i.e., both testaments, has a unifying theme and framework that pervade every book in the Bible. It is only in the light of this unifying theme and framework that any passage of the Bible can be rightly understood.
The Bible, in other words, is unified by one covenant of grace manifested in several historical covenants, each building on the previous covenant, until they are all fulfilled in the New Covenant in Christ. No dichotomy exists between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Rather, these two “testaments” are two administrations of one and the same covenant of God, although the New Testament arrangement is superior to that of the Old (2 Cor. 3).
This truth of the centrality of God’s covenant in Biblical revelation also means that Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, is the focus of all divinely-revealed truth (Lk. 24:27, 44-46). The various strands of Biblical truth must be seen as dove-tailing into or flowing out of His person and work. He is the administrator of all the covenant promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20). As O. Palmer Robertson points out:
Because Jesus, as the Son of God and Mediator of the Covenant, cannot be divided, the covenants cannot be divided. He Himself guarantees the unity of the covenants, because He Himself is the heart of each of the various covenantal administrations.5
Sixth, since the Bible is the revelation of the Lord God Almighty, the prerequisite for understanding it is a humble willingness to be taught (Jas. 1:9-22). Our desire and effort to understand the Bible must be accompanied with a willingness to be ruled by whatever is written in it — “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Pr. 1:7). As you study the Bible, pray that God would subdue your heart to teachableness, because without that attitude the Bible is a closed book.
1. Hermeneutics is the study of principles for interpreting the Bible; and theology is the study of God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.
2. Moises Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible?, 77.
3. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977) 48-49.
4. Henry Krabbendam,” Scripture Twisting,” In Michael Horton, Ed. The Agony of Deceit (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1990) 74-75.
5. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), n.p.