Eight Rules of Interpretation
Solomon said: "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning . . . to understand a proverb, and the interpretation." Proverbs 1:5-6
Apostle Paul said: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15
This document summarizes the rules so the reader can see them together in one place. These rules are the center of all grammatical interpretation. They were developed by specialists in the "science of meaning" over the past 2500 years, from Socrates to the present day. They apply equally to legislative or theological language. Critical analysis is impossible without them. Interpretive scholarship accepts them.
Jesus and the apostles used these rules, and also many prominent fathers of the early church, and also the master theologians of the Middle Ages. to Luther. Wesley, and Calvin, although some were not consistent in their use of them.
When the Emperors Constantine and Justinian tried to settle the doctrinal disputes of their time, they learned that the "word wars" of the theologians were exceedingly difficult wars to deal with because each word warrior was determined to make the words mean what he wanted them to mean.
This is true of the twisted mass of doctrinal confusion in Christendom today. All false doctrines, or nearly all, are distortions of biblical words. "The Council of Trent avoided a clear definition of terms" (Seeberg).
"God is not the author of confusion" (I Cor. 14: 33 ) . Who then is the author of these many centuries of confusion about the divorce texts? Who are the authors of all the doctrinal confusion about other texts?
The Bible is a legal document, and throughout the Bible there is frequent use of legal terms and illustrations, and much importance is attached to these legal ideas. The word Testament is a legal term, and hundreds of times God spoke of His commandments as "laws." Why then should our interpretation be objected to as "legalistic" when the biblical writers used the contemporary legal language of the Mediterranean world?
The Apostle Peter said, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy. . . " and, that no Scripture "is of any private [personal] interpretation" (II Pet. 1:19-20) . We cannot have a sure word about the meaning of Scripture or anything unless we have a sure method to interpret the words. Always remember that Satan deceived Eve with words.
When two interpretations are claimed for a Scripture, the construction most in agreement with all the facts of the case should be adopted. When all the facts of an interpretation are in agreement they sound together in harmony, like notes in a chord.
Biblical interpretation is more than knowing a set of rules, but it cannot be done without the rules. So. learn the rules, and rightly apply them, and you can disregard what Jerome, the learned Latin father of the Middle Ages, said: "What fools these people be' Everybody thinks he can interpret the Bible."
Here are the eight rules:
1. 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 words. (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Berkhof, pp. 74?75, Baker Book House, 1960.)
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 in 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, bluest, 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, Prefatory Note.)
2. 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, Edersheim, 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.)
3. 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 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. 1959.)
[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. (Encyclopedia Britannica, Interpretation of Documents. V. 8, p. 912. 1959.)
4. 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, Edersheim. 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 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 discipline 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 o f Law, V. 2. p. 630. Simon & Schuster. 1960. )
5. 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? 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. (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Ramm, Bernard. pp. 151153, 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 the Bible must be understood on "fair principles of interpretation such as would be admitted in a court of justice" (Systematic Theology. Preface, ix).
6. 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, Dean, 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 farther 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.)
7. 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 mean 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 ?1 that, that construction is to be preferred which will render them consistent. (Interpretation of Documents, Sir Roland Burrows. p. 49. Lutterworth & Co., London. 1946. )
8. 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 (Matt. 22:31. 32). See Encyclopedia Britannia, V. 6. p. 615 (1952) and Black's Law Dictionary, p. 436, Fourth Edition. West Pub. Co.. 1951. )
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, Strong. Augustus H.. p. 142. Judson Press. 1899.)
It would have been easy to quote many more Biblical and legal authorities on interpretation and evidence, but it would have been needless repetition.