Part 2: Guidelines for interpreting the Bible

by David S. Dockery, posted Friday, March 14, 2008 (10 years ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of five articles by David S. Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on the authority of the Bible. The five articles were published as one article in the February 2008 issue of SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention (

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--We must recognize that God's truth is revealed not through our human capacities but through the Holy Spirit's illumination (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Jesus claimed: If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).

To live in accord with the truth of Scripture and obey its authority, it is necessary to handle the Word of God correctly (2 Timothy 2:15). Care must be taken to interpret the Scripture faithfully. Let us suggest some practical guidelines.

1. We must be careful not to interpret the Scripture by our experiences or cultural norms, though, of course, we cannot deny our experiential or cultural presuppositions. Instead, we need to interpret our experience and culture by the Bible. If we allow the Scripture to be interpreted by our experience, our experience will become the higher authority.

2. We must be cautious, not dogmatic, in our interpretations where the Scripture are not conclusive. Often we are guilty of saying more than the Bible says in such areas as dress, appearance, or cultural practices (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:10-13). Where the Bible speaks, we should speak; where it is silent, we must take care that our response is consistent with the general teachings in Scripture.

3. We must avoid rationalizing the Bible so as to undercut its authority. Although Scripture is time- and culture-related, we must be cautious before dismissing a scriptural teaching as culture-bound. Anytime we allow current philosophical or scientific theories to become the standard by which Scripture is interpreted, we may fall into the trap of usurping Scripture's authority.

4. At the same time, we must recognize that we are separated from the prophets and apostles by time and culture. Meanings of words and practices change from generation to generation. We should carefully seek to determine whether a passage is figurative rather than literal. Recent examples from our own culture may prove helpful. Not long ago, if something was said to be "cool," it meant that it was cold in temperature. Now something said to be "cool" is considered good or enjoyable. The same can be said for the word "hot." It is also possible that a word can take on an opposite meaning. A previous generation described an event as "bad" when it was distasteful. The present generation describes something very good as "bad." So the use of "lion" in 1 Peter 5:8 can refer to Satan and it can refer to Christ in Revelation 5:5. Paul exhorted the Philippian church to beware of the "dogs" (Philippians 3:2). He does not mean a pack of angry animals but a group of false teachers. These examples point to Bible students' need to take word usage and cultural practices into account when interpreting Scripture.

5. Scripture can possibly have a fuller (plenary) meaning beyond its literal meaning. Yet in our attempt to find the spiritual truths in a passage, we must not read a spiritual meaning into a passage. Fuller meanings must always be extensions of the primary historical meaning and consistent with the Bible's canonical or overall message. A good general principle is to attempt to interpret the Bible in light of its primary historical meaning. This meaning is found by diligently examining the context of a passage, the customs of the time and the meanings of words and phrases. Only when we understand Scripture's meaning can we rightly live under its authority.

6. We need to remember that the purpose of biblical interpretation is to bring about Christ-likeness in our lives so we will be equipped for service in Christ's church (2 Timothy 3:17). Biblical authority means putting God's Word into practice (Psalm 119:59-60). We must not limit biblical interpretation to one particular method or technique, but we must employ every legitimate means to understand the Bible's message. The benefit of interpretation is hearing and obeying the Word of God -- receiving what the Lord says and prayerfully putting it into practice. Biblical authority begins with a willing acceptance of truth. A right response to scriptural authority is characterized by truth, obedience, praise and thanksgiving. (footnote [2])

David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.


[2] Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery (Minneapolis: Bible Banner Press, 1956).

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