7 Principles of Biblical Interpretation

By Wayne McDill

The word interpret can be used to mean “to understand,” “to translate,” or “to explain.” These three functions of the interpretive process are also appropriate for preaching. First we seek to understand what the text is saying. Then we translate that information into the intended theological message. Finally we explain that message to the congregation.

The interpreter needs to have a working knowledge of basic principles of interpretation. These hermeneutical principles are like the tricks of the trade for an interpreter. They guide us in our examination of the text so that our work is kept within the bounds of legitimate hermeneutics. The assumption behind these principles is that, properly handled, the text will disclose its meaning to the interpreter.

Interpreting the Bible—hermeneutics—is the science and art of understanding, translating, and explaining the meaning of the Scripture text. To guide this process the preacher can follow basic principles that help the interpreter discern the intended meaning of the text writer rather than imposing his own ideas on the text. Here are seven principles I would recommend.

1. Identify the kind of literature your text is for insight into its meaning.

Bible scholars call this the genre of the text. That means the general form the text takes—narrative, prophecy, poetry, history, gospel, epistle. The various kinds of literature present their message in differing styles and with different structure. Narrative texts do not operate the same way epistles do in getting their message across to the reader.

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The variety in literary forms can become a complicated study. Bible scholars go beyond the basic forms I mentioned here to subforms with subtle differences the ordinary reader might not notice. Often they disagree with one another about these subtleties. In spite of these technical distinctions, the preacher can still recognize the text’s form and how it affects the meaning.

2. Consider the context of the passage for a better understanding of its meaning.

This is often considered the first and most important principle for accurate interpretation. Bible scholars use the term context to discuss various aspects of the original writing of the text—historical, social, political, religious, literary. It is this literary concern I have in mind as the context of the passage.

The writer follows a logical line of thought in what he writes. What he said in the previous verses or chapters and what he said in the ones that follow will help make the text in question clear. Taking the text out of that context risks misinterpreting it. Often clues in the surrounding verses will open aspects of the meaning in your text you would have otherwise missed.

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7 Principles of Biblical Interpretation