If a person is to obey God and go to heaven, then understanding Scripture becomes preeminent. Can one wait on divine enlightenment from God to understand His will? Can people dwell in caves, fast, self-mutilate, or impoverish themselves to be granted illumination of scripture? Should individuals wait for divine intervention, for the Holy Spirit to come upon them and provide the answers to salvation and life? There must exist a standard (a consensus of rule) where all can agree to focus their interpretations, lest there be no basis of authority.
Once a person has the purpose of interpretation (knowing God and His will), the means of obtaining that purpose (the Bible), and what to obtain in that purpose (truth), then a person needs to have a process by which to apply that purpose.
A general guide in hermeneutics will help the reader understand the boundaries and limits of interpretation. Thousands of people in thousands of books discuss the outline of rules and theories in the study of interpreting the Bible. The following list provides a simplified outline of rules for learning how to interpret the Bible properly. Hermeneutics, at its heart, is the reader trying to make sense of the Bible. The list, although not exhaustive, is a guide to help readers be weary of interpretation taboos. There is a right way and a wrong way to reason and conclude what God meant.
1. LET THE BIBLE SPEAK FOR ITSELF. The Bible is the mind of God and therefore, its own best interpreter (The #1 law of Hermeneutics). The job of the interpreter is to make applicable what the Bible says, not what the Bible doesn’t say. The interpreter doesn’t think for God, but rather interprets what God thinks.
Consider an example. One concludes that there is a huge gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 in which God created a fully, functional earth with all animals, including the dinosaurs and other creatures we know only from the fossil record. Then, the theory goes, something happened to destroy the earth completely—most likely the fall of Satan to earth (the great battle between God’s angels and the angels of Satan)—so that the planet became without form and void. At this point, God started all over again, recreating the earth in its paradise form as further described in Genesis. Biblical theorists call this The Gap Theory, also called old-earth creationism, gap creationism, and the ruin-reconstruction theory. Essentially, the theory was established to explain the phrase, “the earth was without form, and void…” (Gen. 1:2) and to reconcile old-earth, evolutionary theories with the book of Genesis. The obvious interpretative issue with this theory is that God never said it! Just reading the Bible, no one would come to this conclusion unless it was taught by an outside source! If one cannot come to this conclusion just from reading the Bible, then one has overstepped interpretative boundaries. Even if this did happen (which is unlikely), God did not write it down, which means that people don’t need to interpret it or to apply it to themselves. If humanity needed the information for righteousness sake then God would have given it to them (Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”).
Dutiful studiers of the Bible interpret “those things which are reveled” not the “secret things.” Readers cannot interpret what is not there!
2. The interpretation must be universally applicable in all contexts. If the thought process or the reasoning used to make a conclusion cannot be used universally throughout the Bible, then the reasoning is flawed.
For example, one concludes that a deacon can drink a little wine because the Bible says the deacon is not to be given to “much wine” (1 Tim. 3:8). The reasoning being that an action forbidden in the extreme then validates the same action to a lesser degree. The problem with this reasoning is that it cannot be used universally throughout the Bible. – Using the same reasoning one could conclude that doing a little wickedness is acceptable because Manasseh provoked God’s anger only through “much wickedness” (2 Kings 21:6). Can a person do a little wickedness and not provoke God to wrath? No (James 2:10; Lev. 10:1,2; Matt. 5:18,19; John 14:15). Therefore, the reasoning is flawed. An action forbidden in the extreme does not excuse the same action to a lesser degree. Bible readers must examine their interpretations in light of the whole Bible.
3. The interpretation must be applicable in all situations. If the reasoning or the process of an interpretation is not biblical after being taken to its furthest logical extreme, then the reasoning is flawed. “Logical” is being defined here as within the realm of possibility.
One concludes that if a person believes in Jesus they can never be lost because the Bible says, “He that believeth on him is not condemned…” (John 3:18). If one takes this reasoning to its furthest logic extreme, then a Muslim will go to heaven because he believes that Jesus existed. A serial murderer will go to heaven because he believes that Jesus is the Son of God. A war criminal will go to heaven because he believes that Jesus is His Savior. Taking this interpretation to its furthest logical extreme, is it biblical in every situation? No (1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:4).
Likewise, the opposite is true. If the reasoning is true, then whatever comes from the truth taken to its furthest logical extreme must also be true. If one believes that baptism is necessary for salvation, which it is (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21), then one must stand by that truth to the furthest logical extreme. Will someone be lost if they die on the road to being baptized? What if they have a heart attack and die two feet from the water? What if all the water in the world dried up and they couldn’t get to water? Whatever the situation, Christians must stand by their reasoning and interpretation if it is true.
One must consider the ripple effect to an interpretation. If one will not stand with the furthest logical extreme, then the primary thought cannot be held without being hypocritical.
4. The interpretation must be reliable for every reader. If the method or the reasoning does not produce the same conclusion from all the relevant facts each time it is used, then the reasoning is flawed. Much like in science. If the results of a hypothesis cannot be duplicated to the same result each time, then it cannot be considered law. Same with interpreting the Bible. If one’s thinking cannot be used by everyone to the same conclusion, then the reasoning is flawed. No reasoning that gets hundreds of various results from the same facts can be considered reliable.
Consider a popular fallacy. One concludes that the thief on the cross was not baptized because the Bible doesn’t say that he was (Luke 23:39-43). The reasoning behind the conclusion is that the silence of scripture confirms the proposition. The problem is that if a person takes that same reasoning, a different conclusion can be met from the same information from the same passage of the Bible. – Using the same reasoning, one could conclude that the thief on the cross was baptized because the Bible never said that he wasn’t. Same reasoning, same information, but different results; the silence of scripture confirms the proposition. If the reasoning confirms two propositions that contradict each other, then the reasoning is faulty and illogical. Interpreting the silence of scripture is not interpreting the Bible! – One should not be interpreting something from nothing!
5. The interpretation must be logical. If the thought process does not follow the evidence and factors, then it cannot make sense, and therefore not persuasive. Logic is defined here as one only taking the conclusion where the facts/premises/evidence will allow. An argument is logical if the conclusion follows the evidence. Deductive logic/reasoning is the process of reasoning from one or more statements (premises) to reach a logically certain conclusion. Deductive reasoning goes in the same direction as that of the conditionals, and links premises with conclusions. If all premises are true, the terms are clear, and the rules of deductive logic are followed, then the conclusion reached is necessarily true.
One concludes that he is saved because he was predestined by God to be saved using Ephesians 1:5. Reasoning? Any passage that talks about the “us” (church) applies to me (However, one has to be a part of the church for the passage to apply). Why do you think you are a part of the church? “Because I was predestined to be in the church.” How do you know you were predestined to be in the church? “Because I am in the church.” How do you know you are in the church? “Because I was predestined to be in the church.” The problem with this belief is that the conclusion is determinate upon itself. This is called circular reasoning which is illogical; it is the opposite of deductive reasoning. The premises are just as much in need of proof or evidence as the conclusion, and as a consequence, the argument fails to persuade.
Other ways to express this are that there is no reason to accept the premises unless one already believes the conclusion, or that the premises provide no independent ground or evidence for the conclusion. – In this application, the conclusion and the premise require each other to be true rather than the premise leading one to the conclusion; this likewise violates rule #1 because one is not interpreting the mind of God. One has no way of proving if God sees him in the church, he only sees himself in the church. Illogical reasoning doesn’t provide an interpretation of facts, it is dependent upon what is already believed. It is not hermeneutics anymore if people just believe what they want because they want to believe it.
God does not inspire the interpretation of Bible readers; rightly dividing the Word and understanding the message of God requires study and sincerity (2 Tim. 2:15; Eph. 4:3). Man is fallible, and his judgment is imperfect and prone to weaknesses (Prov. 12:14). Self-ambition, blind faith, and laziness cannot be removed by the rules of interpretations; the information must fall on good ground, a heart willing to accept and study objectively. Sound exegesis can have but little effect on an ungrateful and unyielding heart (Matt. 13:15). A correct hermeneutic may do something toward rendering the false teachers impotent in their deceptions. If seekers of the truth could bring all the readers of the Bible to a common interpretation of the Bible, the power to create divisions would dissolve! As Bernard Ramm says:
What is the control we use to weed out false theological speculation? Certainly, the control is logic and evidence… interpreters who have not had the sharpening experience of logic…may have improper notions of implication and evidence. Too frequently such a person uses a basis of appeal that is a notorious violation of the laws of logic and evidence.Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Boston: W. A. Wilder, 1956
REMEMBER THE PROCESS: What is believed is introduced. = (1) What is the reasoning? (2) Does the reasoning violate any hermeneutical laws or logic? (3) Does what is believed follow the universal laws of truth? (4) Can this truth be found in the Bible? (5) How is this applied to what God wants and what God wants from us? (What are we supposed to do with this truth and to what end?).