Interpreting the Bible, Part 2: Basic Principles of Exegesis
What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?
Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.
These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief monthly posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.
Understanding Scripture requires the Holy Spirit’s illumination of our minds and our competence in using methods of exegesis. What is exegesis? The Latin word exegesis means “to explain.” Basically, biblical exegesis is the art of explaining the context of a passage in the Bible so that we may interpret it properly.
Many Bible readers use basic methods of exegesis as a matter of common sense; biblical scholars sometimes use more sophisticated exegetical methods to discover the subtle meanings of a scriptural text.
Explaining the Word of God Within Contexts
As we mentioned in part one of this article, the most accurate interpretations of the Bible rely on Scripture interpreting Scripture. To arrive at accurate interpretations, a Bible reader should examine verses that immediately precede and follow the verses being examined, as well as verses elsewhere in the Bible that bear on the subject at hand. Since Scripture’s theological truths harmonize, we may suspect the soundness of our interpretations if they contradict what the Bible clearly says from Genesis to Revelation.
When doing exegesis, we may employ various types of methods for understanding the contexts of a biblical passage. In this post we’ll look briefly at two major contexts—the historical/cultural and the literary/grammatical.
Today we think about history and culture in ways that would be foreign to someone writing two thousand years ago, so it’s reasonable that we should guard against interpreting the writings of the Bible within the historical and cultural contexts of contemporary society. When interpreting a biblical passage, it is important to empathetically understand, as best we are capable, the passage from the contexts of the people who lived at the time of the events described and of the people who lived at the time of the passage’s writing, if there is a difference.
We may consider several historical and cultural factors when interpreting a biblical text, such as:
the cultural practices of God’s people,
the historical events of neighboring peoples,
and even the politics and economics of the region.
Some of these “contexts” cannot be fully known; nevertheless, the more contextual data we have about a biblical passage, the more we can empathetically understand the people and accurately picture the events behind what the Bible says, better helping us to see the spiritual nuances hidden within a historic record, story, or poetic verse.
Our primary goal in placing a passage in its historic/cultural contexts is to understand the ways people thought and behaved in ancient times, so that we can understand a text’s original meaning. Knowing when a “horse” is just a “horse” (and not, say, a metaphor for some dark apocalyptic event) takes not only the Holy Spirit’s illumination of our minds, but also an intellect that is not galloping toward its own predetermined interpretation.
Because the Bible is written in human language, with a range of voices, intentions, and structures, it is important we recognize the various literary genres within the Bible, from historic record to dramatic poetry. Our knowing that a biblical passage is a poem—written with figures of speech, rather than as a straightforward historic account—is important information for us to accurately interpret the passage.
Equally important is identifying the grammatical structures of a text. Once we determine the genre of a passage, we may begin to examine its grammar by defining the words of specific sentences. Such definitions will help us gain a basic understanding of the passage’s meaning. But remember, the ancient biblical words should be defined within the parameters of their original meanings, as understood by their original speakers and writers, rather than in accord with contemporary meanings. To ensure we do not stray from those parameters, we can use Bible dictionaries (See recommendations in the sidebar).
Remember, too, that exegesis is a process. So after we define individual words within a biblical text, our next step is to examine the syntax of the sentence, looking at grammatical relationships among the individual words. We look for repetitions and parallels of words and phrases to notice the writer’s emphases, while asking such questions as:
What is the subject of this sentence?
What are the modifiers of these particular nouns?
How do these words relate to synonyms in the previous passage?
With each successive step in the exegetical process, we move closer to our goal—an empathetic understanding of the text, enabling us to interpret the passage accurately. And as our understanding grows, as the beauty and truth of Scripture is revealed, our humility deepens before the authoritative Word of God.
Understanding the Word of God with Humility
Understanding the Word of God requires of us bold humility. When we serve Christ through competent exegesis and interpretation, we can boldly yet humbly help people encounter the Word of God. And when people hear the truths within the Bible accurately explained, they have a greater opportunity to believe the gospel and come to know Jesus Christ.
In part three of “Interpreting the Bible,” we’ll look at how we can move from an empathetic, contextualized understanding of a biblical text to its contemporary application in our lives.
Jonathan Rice is a Senior Editor/Writer with InterVarsity.