Basic Bible Study Principles
Any method used for the study of the Bible must be based in sound principles of communication. While most of the following principles are universal to all forms of written communication, some are observed only in light of the Bible’s unique place as the inspired Word of God. Assuming the inspired nature of Scripture, following these principles will provide a sure hermeneutical foundation that will guide and direct one’s thinking through the inductive process.
The Literal Principle – The literal principle acknowledges that the Bible should be understood in a literal fashion, with the words of the text being taken at face value. As with other forms of written communication, the Bible was written in normal languages and was meant to be understood. This means that the reader of the Bible should not allegorize the text or look for hidden meanings in the text. The literal principle does however acknowledge the legitimate feature of figurative language found over 8000 times in the Bible. In addition, the literal principle also acknowledges the legitimate use of symbolism and typology. Whenever figures of speech are recognized in the Bible, the reader should always look for the literal intent behind the non-literal terminology.
It should also be noted that the literal principle assumes the supremacy of authorial intent in the interpretation and application of any given text of Scripture. As to interpretation, this means that the meaning of the text must be that meaning intended by the original human author by those words he used to communicate to his original recipients. As to application, this means that the text cannot mean anything today that does not find its basis in the intent conceived by the original author.
Traditionally, the allegorical approach to interpretation stands in opposition to the literal principle. Today, a more modern threat to the literal principle is the reader-response approach to interpretation.
The Cultural Principle – The cultural principle simply recognizes the fact that the Bible was written within a cultural context far removed from our own. In light of this fact, correct interpretation, accurate application and truer insights are only gained when the student immerses himself in the study of the culture of the biblical text.
The Contextual Principle – Concerning accurate interpretation, perhaps the most important principle to remember is the contextual principle. The contextual principle simply states that the text of any portion of Scripture must always be understood within the confines of its literary context, historical context and theological context.
· Literary (or syntactical) context deals with the meaning of words and phrases. Words, phrases, sentences and even paragraphs may have multiple meanings, and these meanings are almost always determined by what precedes and follows. The thoughts which proceed and follow any given portion of Scripture constitute the context of that portion. Because thoughts are typically expressed in association rather than in isolation, the context of a passage always determines the meaning of any given word. Practically speaking, this means that contextual meaning will always take precedence over lexical meaning.
· Historical context deals with the occasion, date and audience of any given portion of Scripture. Because the Bible was written by real human authors within the context of human history, most of the Bible is set within the context of historical events. In many cases, specific books of the Bible can be labeled as occasional documents, meaning that their composition was required by an event or a situation set within history. It should also be noted that the purpose by which a writer wrote was usually dictated by events set within the context of history.
· Theological context concerns the place within the timetable of revelation in which a biblical writer lived. In other words, theological context deals with the progressive nature of revelation and the amount of knowledge a biblical writer may have had when he wrote what he wrote. Remembering theological context is especially important in Old Testament studies as a precaution against “Christianizing” the Old Testament. If the authorial intent regarding the text has any influence on the meaning of the text, then theological context is just as important as literary or historical context.
The Solitary Principle – The solitary principle is a general guideline teaching that any given portion of Scripture within any given context can have only one correct interpretation, although it may have multiple applications. This principle, like others, finds its basis in the supremacy of authorial intent. It should be noted, however, that because of the dual nature of inspired authorship, there may be exceptions to this rule. Some texts are “pregnant with meaning”, and many scholars recognize the phenomenon of sensus plenior between the Testaments. Indeed, perhaps the strongest evidence against the solitary principle comes from the examples left by the apostles as they quoted the Old Testament in their New Testament gospels and epistles.
The Exegetical Principle – The exegetical principle teaches that the meaning of any biblical text must be drawn from the text rather than ascribed to the text. This principle provides the philosophical foundation for the inductive method of Bible study.
It should be noted that the reader of the Bible will always bring preunderstanding and presuppositions with them to the text. While some influence is inevitable, the student of Scripture must constantly be on guard against allowing preunderstanding to dictate his understanding of the text. Preunderstanding refers to “all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail”. Preunderstanding will not always lead us astray, but it certainly has the potential to skew our understanding of the text, and can at times lead to misinterpretation.
Presuppositions, as distinguished from preunderstanding, relate to ones view of the Bible as a whole. In other words, presuppositions such as the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Scripture provide a needed foundation to the whole process of Bible study, and thus are a positive “intrusion” upon our understanding of the text.
The Linguistic Principle – The linguistic principle teaches that the original languages of the Bible must take precedence over any given translation. While today’s English translations are both accurate and readable, much is nevertheless lost in the translation process. No two languages are alike in aspects of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and thus the most precise exegetical interpretation of any given text will be drawn from the text in its original language.
The Progressive Principle – This principle deals with the progressive nature of revelation. God did not reveal his Word to man all at once, nor has he set forth the same conditions for man throughout revelation history. Therefore, some of his later revelation may supersede his former statements. It should be noted, however, that a change in Scripture does not always mean that a contradiction is at hand.
The Harmony Principle – The harmony principle teaches that any given portion of the Bible can only have that meaning which harmonizes with the doctrine of the Bible as a whole. In a sense, the Bible is its own best commentary. The harmony principle provides the philosophical basis for interpretive correlation, which is especially useful when utilized within the same book (the benefits of interpretive correlation diminish with literary distance, but the general continuity of the inspired Word of God does help in maintaining the integrity of this practice throughout both testaments).
The Literary Principle – The literary principle is often addressed as an aspect of literary context. The literary principle deals specifically with the variety of literary genre found within the pages of Scripture. The Bible is an incredibly complex book, not only in its teachings, but also in the format by which those teachings are communicated. God elected to inspire his word as a literary masterpiece containing a great variety of genre. In order to accurately interpret and apply the Bible, the student of Scripture must learn to recognize the various forms of literature in the Bible and the genre specific hermeneutics related to each. Some of the major literary forms seen throughout the pages of Scripture are as follows:
· Narrative Literature
· Mosaic Law Code
· Poetic Literature
· Wisdom Literature
· Prophetic Literature
· Apocalyptic Literature
· Epistolary Literature
· Gospel Literature