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INTERPRETATION. The correct reproduction of the thoughts of another (either a writer or speaker), usually from a different language, has been called interpretation. When applied to the Bible, interpretation has been called hermeneutics, a term first occurring in a work by J. C. Dannhaur in the 17th cent. (from the Gr. verb hermeneuein, meaning “to express,” “to explain,” “to translate,” and “to interpret”).


Biblical interpretation

Interpretation has as its goal the discovery of the thought processes and the meanings of the writer, or writers, of the books of the Bible. The ultimate design is to convey that meaning to contemporary persons. The material of the Bible, written between 2,000 and 3,500 years ago, poses a special problem for the modern interpreter because it was formulated in environments and in languages considerably different from those that prevail in the modern world.


Biblical interpretation has a dual nature: (1) the problem of the language, and (2) the theological significance of the material. The discovery of the true meaning of all words and terms in any Biblical passage is the place where interpretation begins. This is essentially an interpretation of language. It embraces such considerations as definition of words, contextual analysis, literary types and forms, historical analogy, and syntactical distinctives. In addition, Biblical material is of such a nature as to demand special consideration. The doctrine of inspiration holds the Biblical interpreter to a proper regard for the fundamental character of Scripture. It demands a recognition of the theological significance of Scripture, resting upon the revelation of God that is not found in any other lit. The extraordinary character of Scripture transcends the usual and ordinary analysis of non-Biblical materials.


The language of the Bible is human language and, as such, is subject to the same principles and laws that govern the interpretation of any book or writing other than the Bible. If the language of the Bible was other than a true human language subject to the usual regulations of human communications, there would be no basis for human beings to interpret or come by any trustworthy knowledge of its meaning. Because the books of the Bible are records in human speech, they must be handled in view of literary stucture, literary form, and literary relations as any other book or writing. In 1860, “Essays and Reviews” introduced the now famous axiom of Benjamin Jowett: “Interpret the Bible like any other book.” Jowett had in mind the meaning of words, the correct reading of the text, etc., but unfortunately his remark has come to mean for many: “just like any other book for there is nothing special about the Bible.” There are legitimate presuppositions to be brought to Scripture that cannot be brought to other books. Because the Bible has God as its ultimate author, it must be expected that its contents will bear true and faithful relation to that fact. The Scripture itself offers the best insight into how it is to be interpreted—in light of its inspired character. To one who objects that it is illegitimate to bring a presupposition to the Bible as an interpreter, it is to be remarked that in the nature of things every interpreter comes with a presupposition. The question is: Which presupposition? Is the Bible the Word of God or the word of men? The theological problem of interpretation is in a large degree the result of modern studies related to the changing attitudes of scholars toward the doctrine of inspiration and revelation.


The evangelical interpreter dares not neglect history in any of its relation to the problem of setting out the true meaning of a Biblical text. Indeed, the knowledge of history strengthens the hand of the interpreter who accepts the ultimate authorship of the God of history. Every means of the historical-critical method of interpretation should claim his attention: textual criticism, literary criticism, comparative religion criticism, historical criticism, etc. Beyond all of this, however, the Holy Spirit is to be acknowledged as the only infallible interpreter of God’s word. The mind of the Lord as given the interpreter through the ministry of the Spirit is an absolute necessity for the interpretation of Scripture. The Bible is not only a special book, but its faithful interpreter must be a special person.

History of Biblical interpretation

Antecedent to any interpretation of the Bible that could be called Christian were nearly 400 years of Jewish interpretation of the OT. Perhaps Ezra (450 b.c.) made the earliest effort at a definite, systematic interpretation of the law. He was the founding father of that class within Judaism, known subsequently as the scribes, who devoted themselves to the exposition of the meaning of the law.

Pre-Christian interpretation.

Out of Ezra’s emphasis on the observance of the law grew a formulation of the oral law, an interpretation of the law of Moses that, legalistic and fanciful as it was, created a hedge about the law, making it impossible for the scribes in NT times to interpret the OT correctly.

Jewish literalism.

The OT was dissected by the scribes into its separate words and phrases, to which meanings were given that totally disregarded the history, spirit, or context of the material being interpreted. In the cent. preceding the NT, three rabbinical leaders were preeminent. Hillel, born in Babylon and who came to Jerusalem as a youth, had the greatest influence on his own and succeeding generations. He has been credited with founding the Talmudic system, which sought to organize the confused mass of regulations that made up the oral law. Hillel drew up seven laws of interpretation, which were influential for generations.

The first of Hillel’s rules was known as the rule of “light” and “heavy” and was simply an application of the usual argument of “from the lesser to the greater” (for illustration, see Num 12:14). The second rule dealt with an inferred relation between two subjects from identical expressions of reference. For instance, it was written that both the Sabbath and the Passover sacrifice must be “at the due season,” and if this meant that the “daily” sacrifice must be offered on a Sabbath, then the Passover sacrifice may also be offered on a Sabbath. The third rule was the “extension from the special to the general,” such as necessary work on a Sabbath became authorized work on any holy day. The fourth rule was the explanation of two passages by a third. The fifth rule allowed drawing from a general situation an inference that governed special situations. The sixth rule was the explanation of a passage from the analogy of other passages (see Matt 12:5, and the analogy of David and the shewbread). Rule seven was an application of inferences from passages that were self-evident. In the hands of the scribes these simple rules became the basis for much unwarranted interpretation.

Shammai was the second important rabbi, a rival of Hillel and a formalist in the extreme school of Jewish legalism. Total disregard for the real spirit of the law brought him and his followers into blind slavery to its letter. It has been told that his formalism led him to starve his infant grandson nearly to death in an attempt to make him fast on the Great Day of Atonement. At the Feast of Tabernacles, he insisted that the booth required at the season be built over the bed of his daughter who was in the agony of childbirth.

Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel and the last of the three great rabbis, is of special interest because he was the teacher of Paul. He seems to have been broadminded in his interpretation of the law, due to the fact that he studied and taught Gr. lit. and advocated the rights and privileges of the Gentiles.

Until later than NT times, the rabbis transmitted all their teachings orally, but in the oral tradition were several methods of interpretation that were preserved in the later written code (c. 3rd Christian cent.). The Mishna was the earliest collection of the oral interpretation committed to writing. The Mishna consisted of an oral elaboration of the law of Moses, dealing with its application, called Halachah, and a hortatory and illustrative commentary called Haggadah, which dealt with the Biblical material in the Halachah. The result of the Haggadah was the Midrashim, consisting of a commentary on selected portions of the Book of Exodus (Mekilta), a commentary on Leviticus (Siphra) and a commentary on selections from Numbers and the whole of Deuteronomy (Siphri). Halachah combined with Haggadah appeared in the Talmud as an interpretation of the Mishna. The Gemara was a general term for rabbinical comments on the Mishna.

Jewish allegorism.

Alexandria, Egypt, was the center of Jewish allegorical interpretation. Although some allegory was found in the Palestinian exegesis known as Haggadah, or Midrashic interpretation, the philosophical environment of Alexandria was causative to its full development; it was there that Jewish rabbis were equipped to make a philosophical exposition of the OT. The earliest known Jewish exponent of the allegorical approach was Aristobulus, a famous teacher in the Judaism of Alexandria. He was the first to propose that the Gr. philosophers and poets derived their ideas from a tr. of the Law of Moses into Gr., which he believed greatly antedated the LXX. The most important representative of this school was Philo, who made the supreme effort to harmonize the institutions and ideas of Judaism with Hel. culture. He taught that all Scripture contained a twofold meaning—literal and allegorical, which corresponded to the body and soul of man. As the soul was judged to be more important than the body, so the allegorical meaning of Scripture was more important than its obvious meaning. By way of example, in his commentary on Genesis 2:10-14, Philo made the four rivers of Eden stand for virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, justice. Likewise, the main source from which the four rivers branched represented goodness, which was judged to be the basic virtue. Philo occupied himself almost exclusively with the Pentateuch.

Jesus as an interpreter.

Jesus never intimated any criticism of the OT as the record of divine revelation. He shared the high regard of his contemporaries for the sacred Scriptures.

Relations to rabbis.

Jesus was not a rabbi in the tradition of the Jews, esp. regarding interpretation of the OT. His familiarity with the interpretation of the rabbis, both concerning method and content, is clearly evident in the NT. Rather than follow rabbinical methods, He protested against them. Although He never attended a rabbinical school, He knew accurately what the rabbis pronounced as the chief commandments (Matt 22:37-39). Jesus was much more practically religious and ethical in His interpretations than were the rabbinical schools as they are known through rabbinic lit. He saw a problem in the first v. of Psalm 110 that the rabbis had not detected and were unable to explain (Matt 22:41-45). On another occasion Jesus reminded His fellow townsmen that the OT revealed the great principle that God was no respecter of persons, citing the ministry of Elijah to the woman of Sidon and of Elisha to the Syrian Naaman (Luke 4:25-27). This was exasperating to the rabbis. When the complaint was lodged with Him by the Pharisees that His disciples plucked and husked grain on the Sabbath, He cited the case of David who ate the “shewbread.” He often described the Pharisees and their followers in the words, “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive” (Isa 6:9).

View of the OT.

Jesus’ teaching contained no formulated doctrine of inspiration, but He obviously held the OT to possess divine authority (Matt 5:18; Luke 16:17). At least in one direct statement He attributed David’s words to the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36). The use Jesus made of the OT further substantiates His regard for the OT. He confirmed the historical validity of those Scriptures of the Jews by holding the OT documents to be dependable historical records. He nowhere raised a doubt about the historical reality of any OT event, but assumed the truth of every OT reference that He made. Jesus’ entire and exclusive interest was in the spiritual values of the OT; He is not to be viewed as a Biblical critic, but as one who saw in the Scriptures, God’s redemptive designs for the human race.

Knowledge of the OT.

There are only thirty-six direct quotations of the OT by Jesus that are recorded in the gospels. Frequently He did, however, weave OT terminology into His own teaching. When He appealed to the OT, it was most often for the purpose of reinforcing His teaching by way of a practical illustration. Jesus’ knowledge of the OT was both extensive and detailed, having begun no doubt as a child in Nazareth. From His devout parents and some half-dozen years in a synagogue school, He gained this knowledge. For eighteen additional years, while He worked as a carpenter in Nazareth, He studied the message of Israel’s prophets and gave thought to His own relation to that message.

Interpretation of the OT.

Jesus was in the main the authoritative origin of His own teaching. He appealed to no higher authority than Himself: “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Jesus gave a completely new solution to the fundamental question of the meaning of the OT. Luke wrote, “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The originality of Jesus’ interpretation was not some new intellectual insight, but the happening of an event. With the intervention of God into the human scene through Himself, Jesus found the transition from the figure and image of the OT to the reality and actuality recorded in the NT. The fundamentally new principle introduced by the Christ-event was that the distinction was no longer to be made between a text and its true meaning, but instead a relationship was introduced between the meaning of a text and the historical facts of Jesus’ life and ministry as He appropriated that text to Himself.

Apostolic interpretation.

The methods employed by the writers of NT in interpreting the OT have created much debate. Liberal scholarship has viewed the problems related to this subject in such a way as to discredit the doctrine of inspiration. Conservative scholarship, on the other hand, has either denied or ignored the difficulties raised by the use of the OT in the NT, in a supposed defense of that doctrine. There is an undeniable difference between Jesus’ interpretation of the OT and that of the writers of the NT. As previously noticed, Jesus wonderfully transcended the methods of interpretation common in His day. He stood independent of the rabbinic approach to Scriptures in a most remarkable way. The writers of the NT, however, revealed their Jewish heritage in interpreting the OT; but it must be insisted that, though their methods of interpretation were the methods of their day, they did not miss the message of the OT. The writers of the NT always viewed the message of the OT through the prism of the Christ-event. It was a reinterpretation of the OT by the methods commonly in use—but with a different import, because of the centrality of the facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in their own experience.

Relation to the rabbis.

Generally, the interpretation of NT writers was of the kind practiced by the rabbis, though it must be added that the extremes of rabbinism were not brought into the NT. Inspiration did not separate the writers of the NT from their background, but it did guard their message. Although Paul was prob. the only contributor to the NT who had experienced formal rabbinical training, most likely all of them had been under the influence of the rabbinical method in the synagogue, with the possible exception of Luke, who may have been a Gentile. Their religious life had been dominated by the rabbis, and it is not strange that their methods of interpretation were basically rabbinical. Sometimes the extreme liberalism of the rabbis is evident (Gal 3:16; Heb 2:11ff.). The rabbinic disregard of context and historical background in interpretation also appears in the NT (Rom 9:25). It must be repeated that although Paul disregarded the fundamental intent of Hosea in the above passage, the apostle in no way abused the essential spirit of the passage; through Christ a new light had come upon the OT page. A prime example of the allegorical interpretation of the rabbis is found in Galatians 4:21-31. Again it must be remembered, however, that Paul never implied that the story of Hagar and Sarah was not literal history; he only found in it a parallel between himself and the Judaizers over the issue of Christian freedom as opposed to Jewish legalism. Paul’s allegory attributed nothing that was false to the OT record. The modern interpreter cannot expect to find modern principles of interpretation in use by the writers of the NT; neither can he justify the uncritical use of the 1st cent. rabbinical methods of interpretation in modern times.

Reverence for the OT.

The writers of the NT accepted without question the inspiration and authority of the OT. Over and over again the proof of a matter for the writer of a NT passage was the simple statement of an OT proof text. For the modern reader nothing seems to have been proved, but for the NT writer it was enough simply that he had the word of the OT on the matter (Rom 3:10-19; 9:14-18; Heb 1:5-13, etc.). It was undoubtedly the view of NT writers that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18).

The NT writers were esp. involved with the Messianic prophecies of the OT. They believed that of necessity all such prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus. As a result they seem to have regarded many incidents as having happened primarily for the fulfillment of some prophecy (John 12:37-41). Those writers were eagerly alert to see in the OT any allusion to Christ. Undoubtedly they reflected their times, and most likely many other Messianic passages in the OT were used by early Christians that never found their way into the NT. The fact that Matthew saw in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” a reference to the sojourn of the infant Christ in Egypt (Matt 2:15), is a prime example of such interpretation. Because of the Christ-event, for the NT writers there was a new light on the sacred page. For them, the essential and fundamental truth of the OT was Messianic, which they found fulfilled in Christ.

Patristic interpretation.

The patristic writers looked to the OT as inspired and authoritative in much the same fashion as did the writers of the NT. The new note in the patristic writers was their view of the NT writings as revelation, constantly increasing in influence until they had been collected into an authoritative canon, taking a position of superiority over the OT. In the beginning, the patristic writers were preoccupied with the OT (Clement of Rome made 149 quotations from the OT, none from the NT), but came at last to put the main emphasis upon the NT. (Ignatius made frequent use of the NT and only slight use of the OT.)

Testimony of 2 Peter.

This work dealt with the problem of Biblical interpretation and was perhaps the earliest book to face the problem of interpreting the materials that were later canonized as the NT. The author of 2 Peter was aware of those who twisted the letters of Paul (2 Pet 3:15f.), and he was confronted by certain critics who asked, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet 3:4). One passage reads, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20). Those who have defended ecclesiastical authority have used this v. to teach that the church, not the individual, is the proper agent to interpret the Bible. Others have understood the v. to mean that no prophetic passage can be interpreted in isolation from other such passages. In all probability, the correct meaning has nothing to do with interpretation, but sees the v. only as an emphasis upon the divine origin of prophecy. The author clarified his meaning in the following statement (1:21) when he emphatically indicated that the prophets were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Peter was clear in his indication that the doctrine of inspiration did not mean that Scripture was easily understood. In fact, Peter indicated that the prophets themselves were puzzled by what they wrote (1 Pet 1:10ff.) and that Paul wrote some things hard to interpret (2 Pet 3:16). Second Peter seems to represent a time when the eschatological hope was under attack and Paul was regarded as an author of Scripture. The expression “rest of the scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16) would indicate that the Pauline letters had come to be regarded as Scripture. The OT was certainly regarded as Scripture, and the gospels and epistles of Paul were also considered as Scripture.

This letter had 119 quotations from the OT and five from the Apoc. There were twenty-one references to the NT (mostly from Paul and the synoptic gospels). The point made by the Epistle of Barnabas was that the OT had meaning only when it was understood in terms of the Gospel. This author was given to an extreme typology. History was meaningless; God’s covenant had always been made with Christians. In fact, his attitude toward the OT was not far from that of the Gnostics. In everything he had to find Christ, so that typology was his basic principle of interpretation. The celebrated example of Abraham’s 318 servants serves to illustrate his methodology. By combining two separate passages, he arrived at the number of Abraham’s servants as 318, which was represented by the numerical value of the letters TIH. He said the “T” stood for the cross, and the “IH” for Jesus (the two letters beginning that name in Gr.). This was the mystery that Abraham meant to communicate by the number of his servants. Barnabas also contained the earliest Christian attempt to explain the Jewish food laws about the clean and unclean, including a reference to the hyena, which was forbidden as food because it changed its sex, and thus revealed that men must not be corrupters. He was also the earliest Christian writer to base the age of the world at a total of 6,000 years on the six days of creation combined with the Psalmist’s statement that “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years.” In spite of its fantastic interpretation, this letter was highly regarded in the Early Church and contended for a place in the canon.

Marcion the heretic.

Marcion rejected the OT and most of the NT (except an edited VS of Luke and ten expurgated Pauline epistles), and his negative views forced the Church to decide on the canon of Scripture. Marcion’s attitude toward the OT was thoroughly dualistic; he postulated two gods—the God of the OT, known for His justice and laws, and the God of the NT, known for His goodness and mercy. Marcion also insisted upon a literal interpretation of the OT to justify his rejection of it as Christian Scripture, pointing by literalism to its crudity and not allowing typology to erase that character. Jesus, he believed, destroyed the prophets and the law. As far as the NT was concerned, Marcion made it speak his language by scissoring out as “interpolations” those parts that did not suit him. To the material that remained from the NT he applied a literal interpretation. To his credit Marcion emphasized the radical newness of Christianity at a time when many forgot that unique difference; on the other hand, he seriously failed as he sought to sever the continuity of the Christian message with its historical heritage in Judaism.


No one of the patristic period did more to determine Christian thought for centuries to come than did Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (c. a.d. 177-197). He did not approach the Christian message along the line of philosophy, but gave himself exclusively to the exposition of the Bible. He was preeminently a Biblical theologian, making a most extensive use of Scripture. He was the first to quote from almost the entire NT, and extensively from the OT as well. It has been said that, as far as Biblical interpretation is concerned, he conserved the best which had gone before and anticipated at least in embryo form nearly all that was to follow in Origen and Augustine, and perhaps even in Luther and Calvin.

Irenaeus’ principles of interpretation were governed above all else by his doctrine of inspiration. He spoke of the Scriptures as “perfect,” “spoken by the Word of God and his Spirit,” and as a “gift from God.” For him the foundation of interpretation was the recognition that Christ was the heart of the Scripture. Scripture is about the Savior, and all Scripture must be considered in its redemptive nature. The only way to understand the OT is in the light of that Savior’s coming. The unity between the two Testaments is the Savior. Both Testaments have God as their single author. The harmony of Scripture and the recognition of the Scripture as its own interpreter were two related principles of interpretation that grew out of his conviction of the unity of the Bible. He believed that every part of Scripture had its proper place and that nothing was included by accident. The principle that Scripture was its own best interpreter likewise came from his belief in the unity of Scripture. He urged that obscure passages must be clarified by appeal to and comparison with passages that were understood. He did not, however, turn from the allegorical method altogether. He did apply mystical interpretations to Scripture and looked for deeper and hidden meanings in the Bible. Some have accused Irenaeus of letting tradition sit in judgment on Scripture, and beyond a doubt he did emphasize the rule of faith enshrined in the heritage of Christianity. It cannot, however, be demonstrated that he ever made tradition the last court of appeal in interpretation, setting tradition over against Scripture.


In a sense, Origen was the first “systematic” theologian of Christianity, employing the entire Bible as the basis for his teaching; and he may also deserve to be designated the first Christian scholar to give serious attention to textual criticism. His interest in exegesis grew out of his concern with the text. It has been said that he did more exegetical work than any other scholar until the Reformation. Origen’s problem was his proclivity for philosophy. His philosophical interest led him again and again to express in extreme allegorism what he regarded as orthodox Christian teaching. Origen was not dedicated to the rule of faith as it had come down from his predecessors, but he tended to rely on his individual scholarship and intelligence. Origen was the student and successor to Clement in the catechetical school in Alexandria, and from Clement he acquired his theory of the threefold meaning of Scripture. It was compared with the three aspects of human personality as Origen understood it: body, soul and spirit. The literal meaning of Scripture corresponded to the body, the moral to the soul, and the spiritual to the spirit. In practicality, this reduced to only a twofold distinction, as the shade of difference between the moral and spiritual was almost impossible to maintain. As far as value was concerned, as the spirit of a man had value beyond the body, so the spiritual meaning of Scripture had value beyond the literal. Thus the purpose of Scripture was in terms of the revelation of intellectual truths rather than in terms of a divine intervention in history. Origen was against the literal interpretation because he identified this with the limited understanding of uneducated and simple people who could not distinguish between parables, allegories, and metaphors in Scripture, and further insisting that every syllable was literally true. Origen sought to set out the spiritual meaning of Scriptu re by the allegorical method of interpretation. His influence on subsequent interpretation was considerable, both negatively and positively. He was attacked by the exegetical school at Antioch and by both Jerome and Augustine. His own pupils, however, continued his work; and in the Gr. church, Origen’s views were published by Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. Indirectly, he influenced the medieval allegorists who followed centuries later.


For a millennium, Augustine dominated the theology of western Christianity. Whereas Origen had been specifically interested in the means and methods of interpretation, Augustine, his successor in influence, was primarly a theologian, and a Biblical theologian comparable to Irenaeus. Augustine accepted the inspiration of Scripture without reservation and became famous for his dictum that the Bible was a “narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present.” Augustine’s foremost contribution to interpretation was his emphasis upon faith as a necessity for understanding. He taught that understanding of the Scripture was the reward of faith and in direct proportion to the interpreter’s faith. He did not eliminate human reason from interpretation, but reason was esp. necessary for unbelievers if they were to understand and believe. For believers, it was another matter; understanding and insight into the Scripture came as the result of faith.

Augustine’s teaching included a sort of twofold authority for interpretation: first of all Scripture must be believed, and secondly, the tradition of the church measured and assured the accuracy of such belief. To him, the tradition of the Church was the final authority, and the principal function of Scripture was to provide a foundation for the creed of the Church.

Medieval interpretation.

During the medieval period (the period from Augustine to the Reformation) the study of the Bible was restricted almost entirely to the monasteries and consisted mostly of the recitation of texts and the copying of Biblical MSS. Medieval interpretation cannot be understood apart from a recognition of the prevalence of illiteracy both among the clergy and the congregations, there being practically no public education. During this time the right of declaring the meaning of Scripture became fixed in Rome. The Biblical interpretation that did develop had only one objective—to promulgate and support the dogmas of the Roman Church.

Bondage to the patristic writers.

Tradition was the key to Biblical interpretation in the medieval period. All interpretation had to conform to tradition, and tradition was the heritage of the patristic period. It was esp. the teaching of the Lat. tradition, in light of the Roman Church, that made this period one of religious despotism. The effort of the interpreter was in the direction of harmonizing the patristic writers, and that for the purpose of forming a foundation under Rom. dogma. The commentaries of this period were primarily the collection of patristic comments, very much in the fashion of rabbinical practice of NT times. The literal meaning of the Bible faded into insignificance during this period.


Toward the beginning of the second Christian millennium, c. a.d. 1000, an intellectual awakening that prophesied the later Renaissance occurred in religion. This movement was contained within the rigid boundaries of traditional dogmatism and produced a deductive religious philosophy with some dependence upon the principles of Gr. philosophy—a movement that came to be known as Scholasticism. It was in reality merely a reshaping of tradition and interpretation remained to reside in the conformity to the patristic teachings. Scholasticism depended almost exclusively upon the allegorical method of interpretation, but it further perverted the truth of Scripture by use of the dialectical methods of Gr. philosophy. There was no recognition of the importance of the original languages of Biblical texts, and the entire thought of the interpreter was to support the dogma of Rome. Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury), Thomas Aquinas, and Guilbert of Nogent were the chief leaders in this movement.


Medieval mysticism was a reaction against the traditionalism of the times. It grew out of the instinctive hunger of men for conscious fellowship with God, which could not be found in the rigid forms of established religion. Mysticism produced the extreme view that all the individual needed of God could be appropriated directly from communion with God apart from historical revelation. As for interpretation, emphasis was placed upon the devotional study of the Scriptures as might be expected, with allegory freely employed as its method. Hugo of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux were distinguished leaders in this direction.


This movement was primarily a rebellion against the traditionalism of the past, a movement which sought the enthronement of the Scriptures in the thought and life of Christianity. It was the beginning of a revolution that has continued to modern times. The work of three men delineates the issues of interpretation in this period: Luther, Melancthon, Calvin.


Although Luther broke with the traditionalism of Rome, he nonetheless remained under the influence of the patristic period to a large degree, being esp. indebted to Augustine. In his interpretation he was motivated by theological considerations, reflecting again and again his struggle with Rome that became determinative in his interpretation (i.e. the papal antichrist). Luther did not fully discover the significance of the historical setting of the text for interpretation, but he did make a step in that direction. This tendency is reflected in his reading of Christian teachings into the OT. The literal sense of Scripture was important to Luther, and he placed an emphasis upon contextual significance. To a large degree he escaped the ever-present threat to the interpreter—the allegory.


This disciple of Luther reflected the theological interests of his mentor, his interpretation being entirely governed by such interests. He failed, as did Luther, to distinguish the doctrinal distinctions of the OT from the NT and freely used OT material as support for Christian doctrine. He was, however, able to arrive at the view that the NT was revelation in a complete and final sense, which transcended the OT. Because of his training in humanism, he elevated reason alongside revelation in his theological study.


John Calvin influenced Protestantism more than any other Reformer. He broke completely with the allegorical method of the past and employed an extreme literalism. He escaped almost completely the methods of the patristic writers in interpretation. He was more accomplished in his interpretation of the NT than he was in the OT. The importance of history to him is obvious in all his writings. Although limited by the lack of historical resources, Calvin ever placed the emphasis upon the historical connection of the text. He was accomplished for his day in literary criticism, recognizing the distinction to be made between the synoptic gospels and John’s gospel. However, his dogmatism and scorn for other interpertations than his own limited Calvin greatly. He contended for the existence of a complete system of theology in apostolic Christianity and gave no place for the doctrine of progressive revelation, even from the OT to the NT.

Modern interpretation.

Until modern times, Protestantism practiced a type of traditionalism of its own, based on the principle of the verbal inspiration of Scripture, and going back to the confessions of faith worked out by the Reformers. There developed however, an ever increasing emphasis on the historical-critical approach to the Bible.

Historical criticism.

Historical criticism arose in an atmosphere that challenged the inspiration of the Bible, insisting that the only truly scientific approach to the Bible was the same approach applied to any other ancient document. It was a thoroughly human and rationalistic approach. The modern critical approach began in England with Deism and in Germany with the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) in the 18th cent. Reimarus, professor of oriental languages at Hamburg, insisted that the gospels preserved only a faint trace of the real Jesus, a man whom His disciples had transformed into the Savior of the world. J. P. Gabler introduced the thought that Christianity like any other religion was to be understood in terms of its history, what men believed in ancient times, without regard to revelation. J. J. Wettstein followed with an emphasis on the parallels between Jewish and pagan literary sources with the NT. G. W. F. Hegel brought to the forefront the thought of the Christian religion as evolving from its spiritual antecedents, and interpreted history as the manifestation of an absolute spirit in the affairs of men. F. C. Baur fathered the Tübingen school in Germany and taught that Christianity evolved from the historical struggle between Pauline and Jewish influences in the Early Church, with 2nd cent. Christianity forming the harmonization of those two contradictory influences. In all of this, the theology of the Scriptures was totally subjected to the history of religions. Albert Schweitzer, who in many ways climaxed the movement, believed that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher of the 1st cent. and judged the historical Jesus to be irrelevant to modern man.

Barth rose to challenge historical criticism in its purely scientific approach to the Scriptures. In a sense, the preface to his commentary on Romans marked the beginning of modern interpretation. In this preface, Barth embraced the contribution of historical criticism but rejected the use that had been made of the historical-critical method to give the final explanation of Scripture. The purpose of historical criticism in his judgment was simply to establish the facts that were to be interpreted. He resorted to the Reformation principle that Scripture must interpret Scripture. The interpreter of Scripture must learn the spiritual language of Scripture if he is to discover its internal meaning. Above all, he insisted upon due recognition of the inexhaustible reality of divine revelation. In Barth’s understanding, historical criticism had the first word for the interpreter, but revelation had the last.

Rudolph Bultmann.

Although he praised Barth’s work, in many respects Bultmann’s significance arose out of the opposition that he raised to him. It was Bultmann who combined the history of religion approach with existential philosophy. He rejected as a historian, the world view of the Bible that proclaimed a God who acted directly in history. There was no goal in history, and all ideas that proclaimed such a divine intervention in the affairs of men Bultmann called mythology. He occupied the same position of the rationalists as far as history was concerned; his difference was in his reinterpretation of that which he called mythology. God’s acts were not to be found in history but in human existence. The meaning of the Gospel was no longer in a historical Jesus of centuries gone, but in the human being of the present time. The supernatural was discarded, and by the use of existential philosophy he sought to find all meaning of Scripture in Christian experience without reference to history.

Oscar Cullmann.

Cullmann may be considered as representative of the “holy history” approach to interpretation that Kummell, Goppelt, and others encouraged as a recognition of the limitations of the historical-critical method. Cullmann believed that both revelation and redemption were in connection with historical events, of which Jesus Christ was supremely important. The acts of God were, however, always accompanied by interpretation, never standing alone. The interpretation of the redemptive acts of God was never to be separated from the acts themselves, but the interpretation became a part of history itself. The NT was the supreme interpretation of God in history, therefore the NT could be interpreted correctly only when it was interpreted theologically.

Principles of Biblical interpretation

Exegesis is the term applied to the practice of interpretation.

Etymology of words.

To interpret Scripture lexically, the interpreter must know the etymology of words. This refers to the historical development of words in their meaning. It is also important to understand the usage of words by the particular writer being interpreted. A good lexicon is the best source of this information. The meaning of words should be considered in light of the different periods in the development of the Biblical languages. Comparison should be made between different authors of the same period where such is possible.


To interpret syntactically, the grammatical principles of the language in which the text was written must be understood. A grammar of that language is the source of such information. It must always be remembered that the function of grammar is not to determine the laws of language but to explain them. Language developed first, as a means of expressing thought; grammars were written later to explain the laws and principles of language as it functioned in expressing ideas. In the interpreter’s native language, these meanings of grammatical constructions are more or less sensed at once subconsciously; but when work is being done in a foreign language, it is difficult to isolate and understand the ways of expressing thought peculiar to that language, or the idioms of the language. It is necessary for the interpreter to get the meaning from the text, to have the viewpoint of the writer, and follow closely the idioms that the writer used.


To interpret contextually it is necessary to have regard for the entire composition being interpreted. The nature of the composition is of paramount importance to the interpreter, whether it is a unified discourse or some other type of writing. The subject under discussion immediately surrounding the passage colors the interpretation also. Often a shade of meaning is given to words by the nature of the discussion of which they are a part. The division of the Biblical text into chs. and vv. has created a considerable problem for interpretation from time to time because the impression is given that the context is insignificant, that each v. stands alone. Also, the divisions fail to correspond to the correct divisions of thought. A good example is Colossians 2:21, which has been used not infrequently as a text for a sermon on temperance, when actually in its context it is a condemnation of asceticism.


It is important for the interpreter to discover the circumstances that surrounded and called forth the document that he interprets. The source of such information is in the introductory notes to a Biblical book in some good commentary, or a special volume of introduction to the OT or the NT. The manners, customs, and psychology of the people associated with the book being interpreted are of tremendous importance to a correct understanding of the text. The study of the people would include their methods of recording history, figures of speech, types of lit., and their concept of time or chronology. Both general and particular historical works can supply this need for the interpreter.

Analogy of Scripture.

One of the most important safeguards for the interpreter is to do his work with a regard for the analogy of Scripture. He must use Scripture as a guide to understanding Scripture. Any bizarre interpretation of a passage that conflicts with the whole trend of Scripture must be judged to be wrong. Scripture confirms itself. A thorough and accurate knowledge of the Biblical viewpoint is a necessity. It is hoped that the interpreter seeks to divest himself of his prejudices and seeks to read the text through the eyes of its author.


From the above principles, the correct procedure of interpretation emerges. “What does the author say,” is the question of first importance. The second is, “What does he mean by what he says?” Any passage should be read first with these two questions in mind before any work of a technical nature is done on it. No doubt, after the effort has been made to answer these questions from a reading of the text (in the original language if possible), the interpreter should next consult his lexicon for the meaning of any unfamiliar words. After the lexicon has been used, then one or more good grammars should be called into service to provide understanding of the syntactical constructions. Next, commentaries should be consulted to note the thoughts of others about the passage and to gain insight into historical material. An effort should be made constantly to determine the bearing of the passage on Christian theology and Christian ethics. It is always important to regard the date of publication of helps such as commentaries and lexicons so that the latest discoveries and information may be at the disposal of the interpreter. The interpreter should constantly work to broaden his knowledge of the history of Christianity to bring the greatest insight possible to the text he seeks to interpret.


S. Burnham, The Elements of Hermeneutics (1916); H. E. Dana, Searching the Scriptures (1946); R. M. Grant, The Bible in the Church (1948); B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1950); A. Stibbs, Understanding God’s Word (1950); E. C. Blackman, Biblical Interpretation (1957); J. D. Wood, The Interpretation of the Bible (1958); S. A. Cartledge, The Bible: God’s Word to Man (1961); A. B. Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (1963); R. Marle, Introduction to Hermeneutics (1967); A. S. Wood, The Principles of Biblical Interpretation (1967).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. General Principles:

Is a generic term and may refer to any work of literature. Referred specifically to the sacred Scriptures, the science of interpretation is generally known as hermeneutics, while the practical application of the principles of this science is exegesis. In nearly all cases, interpretation has in mind the thoughts of another, and then, further, these thoughts expressed in another language than that of the interpreter. In this sense it is used in Biblical research. A person has interpreted the thoughts of another when he has in his own mind a correct reproduction or photograph of the thought as it was conceived in the mind of the original writer or speaker. It is accordingly a purely reproductive process, involving no originality of thought on the part of the interpreter. If the latter adds anything of his own it is eisegesis and not exegesis. The moment the Bible student has in his own mind what was in the mind of the author or authors of the Biblical books when these were written, he has interpreted the thought of the Scriptures.

The interpretation of any specimen of literature will depend on the character of the work under consideration. A piece of poetry and a chapter of history will not be interpreted according to the same principles or rules. Particular rules that are legitimate in the explanation of a work of fiction would be entirely out of place in dealing with a record of facts. Accordingly, the rules of the correct interpretation of the Scriptures will depend upon the character of these writings themselves, and the principles which an interpreter will employ in his interpretation of the Scriptures will be in harmony with his ideas of what the Scriptures are as to origin, character, history, etc. In the nature of the case the dogmatical stand of the interpreter will materially influence his hermeneutics and exegesis. In the legitimate sense of the term, every interpreter of the Bible is "prejudiced," i.e. is guided by certain principles which he holds antecedently to his work of interpretation. If the modern advanced critic is right in maintaining that the Biblical books do not differ in kind or character from the religious books of other ancient peoples, such as the Indians or the Persians, then the same principles that he applies in the case of the Rig Veda or the Zend Avesta he will employ also in his exposition of the Scriptures. If, on the other hand, the Bible is for him a unique collection of writings, Divinely inspired and a revelation from the source of all truth, the Bible student will hesitate long before accepting contradictions, errors, mistakes, etc., in the Scriptures.

2. Special Principles:

The Scriptures are a Divine and human product combined. That the holy men of God wrote as they were moved by the Spirit is the claim of the Scriptures themselves. Just where the line of demarcation is to be drawn between the human and the Divine factors in the production of the sacred Scriptures materially affects the principles of interpreting these writings (see Inspiration). That the human factor was sufficiently potent to shape the form of thought in the Scriptures is evident on all hands. Paul does not write as Peter does, nor John as James; the individuality of the writer of the different books appears not only in the style, choice of words, etc., but in the whole form of thought also. There are such things as a Pauline, a Johannine and a Petrine type of Christian thought, although there is only one body of Christian truth underlying all types. Insofar as the Bible is exactly like other books, it must be interpreted as we do other works of literature. The Scriptures are written in Hebrew and in Greek, and the principles of forms and of syntax that would apply to the explanation of other works written in these languages and under these circumstances must be applied to the Old Testament and New Testament also. Again, the Bible is written for men, and its thoughts are those of mankind and not of angels or creatures of a different or higher spiritual or intellectual character; and accordingly there is no specifically Biblical logic, or rhetoric, or grammar. The laws of thought and of the interpretation of thought in these matters pertain to the Bible as they do to other writings.

But in regard to the material contents of the Scriptures, matters are different and the principles of interpretation must be different. God is the author of the Scriptures which He has given through human agencies. Hence, the contents of the Scriptures, to a great extent, must be far above the ordinary concepts of the human mind. When John declares that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem it, the interpreter does not do justice to the writer if he finds in the word "God" only the general philosophical #conception of the Deity and not that God who is our Father through Christ; for it was the latter thought that was in the mind of the writer when he penned these words. Thus, too, it is a false interpretation to find in "Our Father" anything but this specifically Biblical conception of God, nor is it possible for anybody but a believing Christian to utter this prayer (Mt 6:9) in the sense which Christ, who taught it to His disciples, intended.

Again, the example of Christ and His disciples in their treatment of the Old Testament teaches the principle that the ipse dixit of a Scriptural passage is to be interpreted as decisive as to its meaning. In the about 400 citations from the Old Testament found in the New Testament, there is not one in which the mere "It is written" is not regarded as settling its meaning. Whatever may be a Bible student’s theory of inspiration, the teachings and the examples of interpretation found in the Scriptures are in perfect. harmony in this matter.

These latter facts, too, show that in the interpretation of the Scriptures principles must be applied that are not applicable in the explanation of other books. As God is the author of the Scriptures He may have had, and, as a matter of fact, in certain cases did have in mind more than the human agents through whom He spoke did themselves understand. The fact that, in the New Testament, persons like Aaron and David, institutions like the law, the sacrificial system, the priesthood and the like, are interpreted as typical of persons and things under the New Covenant shows that the true significance, e.g. of the Levitical system, can be found only when studied in the light of the New Testament fulfillment.

Again, the principle of parallelism, not for illustrative but for argumentative purposes, is a rule that can, in the nature of the case, be applied to the interpretation of the Scriptures alone and not elsewhere. As the Scriptures represent one body of truth, though in a kaleidoscopic variety of forms, a statement on a particular subject in one place can be accepted as in harmony with a statement on the same subject elsewhere. In short, in all of those characteristics in which the Scriptures are unlike other literary productions, the principles of interpretation of the Scriptures must also be unlike those employed in other cases.

3. Historical Data:

Owing chiefly to the dogmatical basis of hermeneutics as a science, there has been a great divergence of views in the history of the church as to the proper methods of interpretation. It is one of the characteristic and instructive features of the New Testament writers that they absolutely refrain from the allegorical method of interpretation current in those times, particularly in the writings of Philo. Not even Ga 4:22, correctly understood, is an exception, since this, if an allegorical interpretation at all, is an argumentum ad hominem. The sober and grammatical method of interpretation in the New Testament writers stands out, too, in bold and creditable contrast to that of the early Christian exegetes, even of Origen. Only the Syrian fathers seemed to be an exception to the fantasies of the allegorical methods. The Middle Ages produced nothing new in this sphere; but the Reformation, with its formal principle that the Bible and the Bible alone is the rule of faith and life, made the correct grammatical interpretation of the Scriptures practically a matter of necessity. In modern times, not at all prolific in scientific discussions of hermeneutical principles and practices, the exegetical methods of different interpreters are chiefly controlled by their views as to the origin and character of the Scriptural books, particularly in regard to their inspiration.


Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, New York, 1884. Here the literature is fully given, as also in Weidner’s Theological Encyclopedia, I, 266 ff.