Stage 3: Interpretation

[This blog entry is the third of a four-part series summarizing a sound approach to Bible study.]

In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel, Through the Looking Glass, Alice climbs through a mirror into a strange world where everything is reversed—including logic and the normal conventions of language. One of the most famous tales of her experience is her conversation with Humpty Dumpty. After some peculiar pleasantries, the focus of their conversation turns to the merits of “un-birthday presents.” Humpty Dumpty lauds un-birthdays because they outnumber birthdays by a ratio of 364 to 1.

“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents . . .”

“Certainly,” said Alice.

“. . . and only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there's a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”1

As she tries to draw meaning out of Humpty Dumpty’s language, Alice becomes confused over his use of the word “glory.” She wants to understand what he means by what he says. Yet in this inverted world, Humpty Dumpty claims authority not only over his own intention, but over the entire English lexicon itself. He breaks the norms of language to make words like “glory” mean whatever he wants.

Thankfully, we do not live in the inverted, contemptuous world of Humpty Dumpty, at least not with respect to the language of Scripture. In it God speaks through his chosen writers out of benevolence, not scorn. He speaks in order to be understood, not to conceal. He has not only created human language with all its norms, but he speaks using that language according to those norms. Consequently, it is possible to understand what he means by what he says, and this is the goal of interpretation.

The act of interpretation can be defined as the process a reader undertakes to ascertain the author’s intent in a text. Success in this effort is achieved when the interpreter of Scripture sufficiently aligns his understanding with the intent of the author, and he does this by properly drawing out meaning from the language the author chose to express that intent.2

It is important to remember that a faithful interpreter does not immediately rush into the process of forming conclusions. In the first article of this series, we identified the starting point: context. Before a reader can examine a text in detail or draw out meaning, he must familiarize himself with the world around the text—the historical and literary fabric into which that text was woven. Context provides the crucial rubric or framework for proper interpretation.

Once a satisfactory understanding of the text’s context has been established, the reader must familiarize himself with the text’s details—its actual contents. This is the second stage of Bible study: observation. The practice of observation focuses on two objectives: (1) to become thoroughly conscious of the text’s details; and (2) to become thoroughly convinced of their need for explanation.

This information now becomes the fuel for the activity of the third stage of Bible study: interpretation. As Roy Zuck states, “In observing what the Bible says, you probe; in interpretation, you mull. Observation is discovery; interpreting is digesting. Observation means depicting what is there, and interpretation is deciding what it means. The one is to explore, the other is to explain.”3

What does this process look like in practice?

First, interpret the words.

During the process of observation, the reader identified the terms in the text which play a crucial role in conveying the author’s intent. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, the reason the writer chose certain words was to communicate knowledge to his readers successfully. Therefore, the interpreter must answer the questions, “Why did the writer choose these words, and what is their meaning in this context?”

Several tools will prove useful in answering these questions. First, a good Hebrew-English or Greek-English lexicon (dictionary) will provide the possible definitions for the words found in your text.4 But a lexicon will only provide a range of possible definitions. The best help will be found in exegetical commentaries. These commentaries will identify these terms and explain how they were used and what they meant in the specific context of the writer and his audience.5 It is also helpful to conduct a word-search using a concordance or Bible software to identify where these terms appear elsewhere in Scripture—particularly in the writings of the author of your text. Comparing these other occurrences can help illustrate the meaning you found in the terms in your text or identify places where these terms are used in a different sense. Comparing and contrasting is always a helpful exercise.

Ultimately, the objective of this step is to provide a precise definition to the best of one’s ability. The interpreter must do the necessary work to be able to say with objective proof, “By using this term in this context, the writer intended to communicate the idea of __________.”

But do not stop here. The interpretation of words is only part of the process. As William Barrick cautions,

Word studies are popular, easily obtained from available resources, and an easy way to procure sermon content. However, word studies are also subject to radical extrapolations and erroneous applications. It is not always possible to strike exegetical gold by extracting a word from the text for close examination. Word studies alone will not suffice. Indeed, over-occupation with word studies is a sign of laziness and ignorance involved in much of what passes for biblical exposition in our times.6

Second, interpret the grammar.

Once again, the interpreter must reach back to the observation stage to recall the unique and noteworthy grammatical features he observed in the text. These features included things like verb tense, word order, parallelism, if-then conditional clauses, the possible referents of a pronoun, the role of a conjunctions, and so on. Understanding these features is vitally important since meaning is not only communicated through an author’s choice of words, but through the way he orders his words and relates them to one another.

Again, several tools will prove useful. At a basic level, Hebrew or Greek textbooks on grammar will provide explanations and illustrations for all things related to the grammar of these languages. A quick look in the table of contents or in the index will point the interpreter to the pages that explain how certain prepositions are used, the significance of a particular verb tense, how different conditional constructions communicate different levels of probability, etc. But exegetical commentaries will again be the most useful. They will provide succinct explanations of the grammar you observed in your text. They will identify the key issues, discuss the various possibilities for interpretation, and commend the best understanding.

Again, the goal of this step is not merely to identify possibilities; it is to come to a conclusion. With sound explanations in hand, the interpreter must be able to say, “The writer intended this grammatical feature to communicate the idea of __________.”

Third, solve interpretive problems.

In some cases, the meaning of a word or a grammatical feature will not be clear-cut. Our distance from the original writer and his context can create a level of interpretive dissonance where even experienced commentators will disagree with each other. These situations present a number of temptations. For some interpreters, the impulse will be to throw up their hands in defeat. For others it will be to take the easy way out—to conclude that all the interpretive options are correct. Still others will be tempted to decide the issue according to intuition, or according to what earns the accolades of the desired crowd.

But these are not options for the faithful student of God’s word. He will remember that “God does not make mistakes in His Word; we make mistakes in trying to understand it.”7 He will be ready to invest the extra time and effort necessary to arrive at a sound conclusion—even if it can only be tentative for the time being. The following approach is recommended in a situation where multiple options are present:

a. Research the options. Read a good number of commentaries to determine which options exist. Take time to understand each one carefully.

b. Compile the arguments. As you read the available commentaries, make a list of the arguments that are given in favor of and against each of the options.

c. Weigh the evidence. Problems are not solved by counting the number of arguments you found for or against a particular option. They are solved by pondering the legitimacy and weight of each argument. As you do, pay close attention to the arguments that make best sense in the context of your text.

d. State the conclusion. Having considered all the arguments, state and explain your verdict. Resist “analysis paralysis”—the inability to make decisions because of fear, anxiety, and overthinking. A good formula to employ is, “Based on what I know now, the best option is ___________________ and it is for these reasons: ____________________.”

Fourth, pull it all together.

A tendency among many interpreters is to leave the process in pieces. Terms are given careful definitions; grammatical features are explained; specific interpretive difficulties are solved. But little effort is made to show how all of these findings relate to each other and advance the author’s overall intent to communicate knowledge.

Consequently, the interpreter must take the time to reassemble the pieces and display it as a cohesive whole. A good interpretation of a text will prove itself by its internal consistency. Mortimer J. Adler’s counsel regarding the interpretation of literature in general is also helpful here:

“State in your own words!” That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can, of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.8

Finally, validate the results.

Once the interpreter has reached a conclusion about the intent of the author, he must be sure to validate his conclusion before he incorporates it into his convictions and behavior—and certainly before he teaches it to others. This post-exegetical check is accomplished when the following questions are answered solidly in the negative:

a. Does my exegetical conclusion contradict what Scripture as a whole teaches on the subject? Since the Scriptures are non-contradictory in nature, the meaning of one text cannot genuinely contradict that which has been revealed in Scripture elsewhere. Therefore, contradictory interpretations cannot exist.9

b. Does my exegetical conclusion represent a novel interpretation never seen before in church history? One of the greatest dangers among interpreters is the desire to be the first to advance a novel interpretation. But as Fee and Stuart argue, “Unique interpretations are usually wrong.”10 If no one else has seen what you see, go back to the drawing board.

c. Does my exegetical conclusion ignore accountability to my local church? It is a travesty that a good number of biblical scholars have little or no regular involvement in a sound local church. They interpret Scripture in an ivory tower, not in the context of godly elders. The quality of their efforts is evident. As F. F. Bruce writes, “The revelation of God cannot be properly known apart from the cultivation of brotherly love within the Christian community.”11

When the interpreter has sufficiently validated his interpretation, when he demonstrates that his interpretation is consistent with the whole counsel of God, is affirmed by others in church history, and is answerable to the priesthood of all believers, he is ready to move forward to the next stage: application.

Thankfully, when we open the Bible we are not in the world of Humpty Dumpty. God not only has the ability to communicate effectively with his people, he is also motivated to do so by supreme benevolence. This makes drawing meaning out of the Bible not only possible, but supremely rewarding.

To learn more, continue on to Stage 4: Living out the Text

Editor's Note: For more on everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our free guide: Handling Scripture

[1] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (New York: Bloomsbury, 2001), 113.

[2] We often use the term “exegesis” to refer to the process of interpretation. The term comes from the Greek noun ἐξήγησις (eksēgēsis), which is derived from the verb ἐξηγέομαι (eksēgeomai)—a compound of the preposition ἐκ (ek, “out of”) and the verb ἡγέομαι (hēgeomai, “to lead, guide”). “Exegesis,” therefore, is the process of “leading meaning out of” a text. It implies that a writer has placed meaning in his written words, and the reader draws it out.

The antithesis of exegesis is “eisegesis.” This term is built of the same verb, ἡγέομαι (hēgeomai, “to lead, guide”), but adds to it the opposite preposition: εἰς (eis), meaning “into.” “Eisegesis” is the process of “leading meaning into a text.” It implies that the reader already possesses a meaning, which he then inserts into the text he is studying.

[3] Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Spring, CO: David C. Cook, 1991), 12.

[4] Remember, you are not analyzing the meaning of the English terms but of the terms found in the original language of the writer. If the reader is not proficient in Hebrew or Greek, he can use the numbering system in Strong’s Concordance or a basic Bible software program to identify the terms and their definitions according to the original language.

[5] A forthcoming blog article will provide suggestions on how to choose good commentaries.

[6] William Barrick, “Exegetical Fallacies: Common Mistakes Every Student of the Bible Must Avoid,” Master’s Seminary Journal 19 no. 1 (Spring 2008), 19.

[7] Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 21.

[8] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 124.

[9] See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Hermeneutics and the Theological Task,” Trinity Journal 12 no. 1 (Spring 1991): 3–14.

[10] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 22.

[11] F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 91.