After you’ve done your observation, word studies, outlining and answered the questions you generated, it’s time to start putting it all together. In this step, you want to collect, refine and organize all those details you observed into a coherent meaning.
Observation primarily focuses on the questions: “what does it say and how do I know?” Interpretation focuses on the questions: “what does it mean and how do I know?”
Interpretation is largely a “trial and error” process where you look for the central thought and trace its progression through the passage, purposefully thinking about the steps you used to arrive at each conclusion. Then you evaluate your interpretation using the 5C’s:
- Credible: My interpretation should understand the words, syntax & grammar according to their normal usage at the time the author wrote.
- Comprehensive: My interpretation should explain each and every detail, even if the contribution is insignificant or stylistic.
- Coherent: My interpretation should fit the flow of thought in the passage and in the larger context of the chapter and book.
- Consistent:My interpretation should be consistent with information which is not in this book (the author’s other letters and the rest of Scripture)
- Conforms:My interpretation should conform to the author’s purpose and the author’s plan.
You keep trying ideas until all the puzzle pieces fit. When I think I’m done, I write a paraphrased translation in my own words. If I can’t, then I know I need more study. If I can, then I have the basis to explain what I’ve learned to someone else.
In general I use the principles I learned from Bob Smith’s Basics of Bible Interpretation to help me determine what’s “error” in the “trial and error” phase of interpretative. These are:
Listen to your heavenly Teacher.
Attitude matters! Approaching Bible study with a humble heart, with prayer and thoughtfulness, expecting God to teach you makes a big difference.
Is your attitude:
- Defeated (I can’t do it) or positive (I can do it)?
- Negative (I’m probably wrong) or receptive (I can learn)
- Closed (I’ll never learn anything) or expectant (God will teach me)
- Lazy (It’s too hard) or faithful (I’ll keep practicing)
While good Bible study skills will not make you holy nor will they make you right, they will help you gain wisdom and understanding. The goal Bible study is not to accumulate knowledge and theology. The goal is to gain the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
Keep focused on the author’s intent
It’s easy to get sidetracked into details, tangents, “what ifs” and rabbit trails. When I start worrying I’ll never figure this out” or “there’s too many open questions” or “how will I ever explain this”, I circle back to the author’s intent. I put aside all the other nagging questions and focus on the “big idea.” I put myself in the writer’s sandals and ask what is his main point?
Interpret literally unless you have reason to believe the language is figurative or metaphorical.
Asking “do I have a reason to take this figuratively” can keep you out of trouble. In general we want to assume the author is using words according to their usual literal sense unless he gives us a reason to think otherwise.
Observe the context again
It’s easy to get so excited by all that a word can mean that we sometimes forget to ask what the word actually means here in this phrase, sentence, paragraph and context. When I start to get overwhelmed by possibilities, I ground myself in the context, using it to eliminate and prune ideas.
Relate to the historical/cultural setting
Often the historical and cultural setting will rule a possible interpretation in or out. Returning to the occasion of a letter (e.g. Paul wrote Colossians to a church on the verge of believing a heresy), can answer the question “But would Paul say that here to these people at this point in the letter”
Consider the genre
Make sure you’re taking into account poetry versus prose, narrative versus didactic instruction and so on. Genre is part of the author’s intent, and can often help you prune possible interpretations. (For help on specific genres: Epistles, Narratives, Psalms, Prophecy)
Stay within the author’s scope
No one passage of Scripture covers every subject. Each book covers a limited subject matter. The author may not announce his scope but it is usually discernible with observation and study. Stay within that scope.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Study corollary passages alongside the passage you’re studying. For example, knowing what Paul said about husbands and wives in Ephesians can inform your understanding about he says in Colossians on the same subject. Let the more clear passages help you untangle the more obscure passages.
Remember God uses ordinary human language to communicate
God chose to communicate to us through inspired human authors using normal human language. He intends for us to understand. Bible study may take some work, but it is not an impossible task.
More: How NOT to interpret
Part of the Series: Bible Study 101
Resources and Reading List
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.