Rules of Bible Interpretation

Nine Rules of Interpretation

This is a summary backed by quotes from recognized Bible scholars. For a fuller discussion of the purposes and principles of interpretation, go here.

  1. Rule of Definition

  2. Rule of Usage

  3. Rule of Context

  4. Rule of Historical Background

  5. Rule of Logic

  6. Rule of Precedent

  7. Rule of Unity

  8. Rule of Inference

  9. Rule of Consistency

Rule of Definition

“Any study of Scripture … must begin with a study of words.” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Ramm, Bernard, p.129. W.A. Wilde Co., Boston, 1956.)

“Define your terms, and then keep to the terms defined.” (The Structural Principles of the Bible, Marsh, F.E., p.1, Kregel Publications.)

In the last analysis, our theology finds its solid foundation only in the grammatical sense of Scripture. The interpreter should … conscientiously abide by the plain meaning of the word.” (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Berkhof, pp.74-75, Baker Book House, 1980.)

The Bible writers could not coin new words since they would not be understood, and were therefore forced to use those already in use. The content of meaning of these words is not to be determined by each individual expositor … to do so would be a method of interpretation [that is] a most vicious thing.” (Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, Wuest, Kenneth, pp. 30-37, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1945.)

[The author] confines the definitions strictly to their literal or idiomatic force; which, after all, will be found to form the best, and indeed the only safe and solid basis for theological deductions of any kind.“ (Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, Prefatory Note.)

Rule of Usage

“The whole Bible may be regarded as written for ‘the Jew first,’ and its words and idioms ought to be rendered according to Hebrew usage.” (Synonyms of the Old Testament, Girdlestone, R.B., p.14.)

Christ then accepted the usage He found existing. He did not alter it.” (Pulpit Commentary, “Matthew,”V.1, xxv, old edition.)

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, spoke to and moved among Jews in Palestine.… He spoke first and directly to the Jews, and His words must have been intelligible to them. … It was absolutely necessary to view that Life and Teaching in all its surroundings of place, society, popular life…. This would form, not only the frame in which to set the picture of the Christ, but the very background of the picture itself.” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edershelm, Alfred, V.1, xii, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1953.)

In interpreting very many phrases and histories of the New Testament, it is not so much worth what we think of them from notions of our own … as in what sense these things were understood by the hearers and lookers on, according to the usual custom and vulgar dialect of the nation.” (Bishop Lightfoot, quoted in The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, xii, Moulton & Mulligan, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1959.)

Rule of Context

“Many a passage of Scripture will not be understood at all without the help afforded by the context, for many a sentence derives all its point and force from the connection in which it stands.” (Biblical Hermeneutics, Terry, M.S., p.117, 1896. )

“[Bible words] must be understood according to the requirements of the context.” (Thayer’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p.97.)

“Every word you read must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it.” (How To Make Sense, Flesch, Rudolph, p.51, Harper & Brothers, 1954.)

“[Bible words] when used out of context … can prove almost anything. [Some interpreters] twist them … from a natural to a non-natural sense.” (Irenaeus, second-century church father, quoted in Inspiration and Interpretation, p.50, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1957.)

“The meaning must be gathered from the context.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Interpretation of Documents,” V.8, p.912, 1959.)

Rule of Historical Background

“Even the general reader must be aware that some knowledge of Jewish life and society at the time is requisite for the understanding of the Gospel history.” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edershelm, Alfred, V. 1, xiii, Eerdmans Pub Co., 1953.)

:”The moment the student has in his mind what was in the mind of the author or authors of the Biblical books when these were written, he has interpreted the thought of the Scripture.… If he adds anything of his own, it is not exegesis.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, V. 3., p.1489, 1952.)

“Theological interpretation and historical investigation can never be separated from each other. ,,, The strictest historical … scrutiny is an indispensable disciple to all Biblical theology.” (A Theological Word Book of the Bible, 30 scholars, Preface, Macmillan Co., 1958.)

“I have said enough to show the part which the study of history necessarily plays in the intelligent study of the law as it is today.… Our only interest in the past is for the light it throws upon the present.” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1902-1932, quoted in The World of Law, V. 2, p.630, Simon & Schuster, 1960.)

To understand what was in the mind of Jesus, as well of Paul, and the other authors of New Testament books, we need to understand the method of reasoning that they followed. These were codified well before Jesus was born by Hillel. See Hillel’s Rules of Scriptural Reasoning.

Rule of Logic

“Interpretation is merely logical reasoning.” (Encyclopedia Americana, V. 15, p.261, 1953.)

“The use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture is everywhere to be assumed. The Bible comes to us in the forms of human language, and appeals to our reason … it invites investigation and it is to be interpreted as we interpret any other volume by a rigid application of the same laws of language, and the same grammatical analysis.” (Biblical Hermeneutics, Terry, M.S., p.25, 1895.)

“What is the control we use to weed out false theological speculation? Certain 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.” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Ramm, Bernard, pp.151-153, W. A. Wilde Co., 1956.)

“It is one of the most firmly established principles of law in England and in America that ‘a law means exactly what it says, and is to be interpreted and enforced exactly as it reads.’ This is just as good a principle for interpreting the Bible as for interpreting law.” (The Importance and Value of Proper Bible Study, Torrey, R. A., pp.67-70, Moody Press, 1921.)

Charles G. Finney, lawyer and theologian, is widely considered the greatest theologian and most successful revivalist since apostolic times. He was often in sharp conflict with the theologians of his day because they violated these rules of interpretation. Finney said he interpreted a Bible passage as he “would have understood the same or like passage in a law book.” (Autobiography, pp.42-43.)

Finney stressed the need for definition and logic in theology and said that the Bible must be understood on “fair principles of interpretation such as would be admitted in a court of justice.” (Systematic Theology, Preface, ix.)

Rule of Precedent

“We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent.” (The Greek New Testament for English Readers, Alford, Henry, p.1098, Moody Press.)

“The professional ability of lawyers in arguing a question of law, and the judges in deciding it, is thus chiefly occupied with a critical study of previous cases, in order to determine whether the previous cases really support some alleged doctrine.” (Introduction to the Study of Law, p. 40, Woodruff, E. H., 1898.)

“The first thing he [the judge] does is to compare the case before him with precedents… Back of precedents are the basic judicial conceptions which are postulates of judicial reasoning, and further back are the habits of life, the institutions of society, in which those conceptions had their origin… Precedents have so covered the ground that they fix the point of departure from which the labor of the judge begins. Almost invariably, his first step is to examine and compare them. It is a process of search, comparison, and little more.” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, 1932-1938, The Nature of the Judicial Process, quoted in The World of Law, V. 2., p.671, Simon & Schuster, 1960.)

Rule of Unity

“[It is] fundamental to a true interpretation of the Scripture, viz., that the parts of a document, law, or instrument, are to be construed with reference to the significance of the whole.” (Dean Abbot, Commentary on Matthew, Interpretation, p.31.)

“Where a transaction is carried out by means of several documents so that together they form part of a single whole, these documents are read together as one…. [They are to be so read] that, that construction is to be preferred which will render them consistent.” (Interpretation of Documents, Sir Roland Burrows, p. 49, Butterworth & Co., London, 1946.)

Rule of Inference

In the law of evidence, an inference is a fact reasonably implied from another fact. It is a logical consequence. It is a process of reasoning. It derives a conclusion from a given fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition from another proposition. It is a conclusion drawn from evidence. An inferential fact or proposition, although not expressly stated, is sufficient to bind. This principle of interpretation is upheld by law courts. (Jesus proved the resurrection of the dead to the unbelieving Sadducees by this rule (Mat.22:31,32). See Encyclopaedia Britannica, V. 6, p.615 (1952) and Black’s Law Dictionary, p. 436, Fourth Edition, West Pub. Co., 1951.)

Rule of Consistency

“An interpretation must not only be consistent with one text; it must not be inconsistent with other texts.” (Quoted by Chairman Samuel Ervin at the U.S. Senate Watergate Investigation, Washington, D.C., 1973.)

Biblical prophecy is one and the same subject in the Bible, although it is divided into two parts – the Old and New Testaments. But both parts have one consistent sense throughout. There is unity of definition and meaning in prophetic terms and symbols.

We must read the total meaning in the light of the total revelation in both Testaments. The meaning of a particular part or expression with agree with the total sense. Each part is harmoniously related to other parts, and a true interpretation will not set one text at variance with other texts. The collective sense will be a consistent sense. “The whole Bible is a context.”

“A page of history is worth a volume of logic,” said Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Jesus and the apostles quoted the Old Testament prophecies in their historical sense, and it is evident throughout the New Testament that their hearers understood those prophecies in the same historical sense. An interpretation that changes this meaning is a distortion.

“A proposition of fact is proved when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence. By competent evidence is meant such evidence as the nature of the thing to be proved admits. By satisfactory evidence is meant that amount of proof which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind beyond reasonable doubt.

“Scripture facts are therefore proved when they are established by that kind and degree of evidence which would, in the affairs of ordinary life, satisfy the mind and conscience of a common man. When we have this kind and degree of evidence, it is unreasonable to require more.” (Systematic Theology, Augustus H. Strong, p. 142, Judson Press, 1899.)

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