Studying God’s Word: Interpreting What the Text Means

Mike Srisam-angChurch Blog

Studying the Bible - Interpretation
Studying God’s word requires proper heart preparation and careful observation of what the text says (please refer to the previous posts). Now it is time to move from gathering information (observation) to understanding meaning (interpretation). Text-driven interpretation is the process where you are seeking to answer the question, “what does the text mean by what it says?”

When dealing with how we interpret Scripture, our desire is not to discover new meanings, but the author’s intent. Whenever we approach a biblical text, our aim must not primarily be “what is in it for me?” or “what could it mean?” or “what does it mean to me?” but rather “what did the author mean?”

The author’s meaning of a biblical text is the goal of interpretation. Meaning is what the author intended by the words and grammar he used in the time that he wrote it. Since the meaning of a text is what the author intended the text to say and not what the interpreter wishes the text would say, nor what the text could mean apart from the author, there is only one meaning found in each passage – that of the author’s. In other words, the meaning of a biblical passage does not change from interpreter to interpreter, from culture to culture, or from generation to generation. The author has the authority over his words. Thus, it remains constant and is objective. There is only one correct interpretation and it is the interpreter’s responsibility to diligently seek and discover that interpretation (2 Tim 2:15).

The interpreter must put aside what they desire the text to say, focus on what the writer intended in his text, and submit to that intent with full obedience. Doctrinal convictions, theological systems, and personal preferences must be submitted to the authors of Scripture and their intents as expressed by their texts. To reverse this order is to make the reader authoritative.

The practice of interpretation involves seeking the author’s intent by interpreting the text literally. The literal interpretation of the text is the interpretation of the words and grammar as they were generally and normally understood at the time the text was written. This requires that the interpreter avoid allegorizing the words or ideas of a text, or twisting them in such a way as to ignore their plain, literal, or normal meaning. At the same time, literal interpretation does not ignore the use of figures of speech. Rather, it is literal interpretation – correctly applied – which identifies figures of speech and leads to their proper understanding.

As was stated in the last post, observation deals with what a passage says. Whereas interpretation deals with why the passage says what it says. It explains the meaning of a passage. Your job is to understand and determine the author’s main point using your observations and asking the right questions.

Take your observations of the text and ask questions of them. “What did he mean?” “What is the precise meaning of this term in this context?” “What is the relationship between the words in the sentence?” This will help define the terms. “Why did he say that?” “Why is the passage there?” This will help uncover the author’s purpose.

It is also important to be mindful of the main idea of the immediate context that precedes and the immediate context that follows. This provides you with the general boundaries in determining the meaning of the text at hand. As you would expect, the main idea of a given text will flow naturally out of the previous context, and flow naturally into that which follows as well.

Once we have arrived at the author’s intended meaning for the text, we must evaluate it in light of divine revelation that has chronologically preceded the text being interpreted, but not revelation that chronologically followed. This protects the theological context of the biblical author (he possessed only revelation that had been given to that point in time) and prevents later texts from overruling or being read into earlier texts. “Does my tentative conclusion agree with what is known about other texts of Scripture?” Scripture cannot and does not contradict itself. We must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and for the word of God to speak for itself.

Therefore, the best way to interpret Scripture is to consider the principles of grammar and the facts of history to determine the biblical author’s intent and meaning. The name ascribed to this method of interpretation is the grammatical-historical method. The principles of grammar focus on the meaning of words and how they relate to one another in a sentence. It refers to understanding the sentence in a direct, ordinary, and literal manner. The facts of history consider the context of the time and circumstances in which the author wrote and focuses on the background of the text.

Once we have examined the text and come to a conclusion of what the author means by what he says, the next step is to apply what the text means. That will be discussed in next week’s post.

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