Rules for Interpretation

The contemporary rules for interpretation started with a Latin treatise by Karl A. G. Keil on historical interpretation in 1788.

In the year 1810, a German textbook on New Testament Hermeneutics adopted Kiel’s terms as being descriptive of their

own approach to the exegetical task: the”grammatico-historical” method of exegesis.

The goal of this approach is to determine the sense required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history.

The term grammatico-, however, is somewhat misleading since we usually mean by “grammatical” the arrangement

of words and construction of sentences.

But Keil had in mind the Greek word gramma, and his use of the term grammatico-, approximates what we would understand by the term literal (to use a synonym derived from Latin).

Therefore, the grammatical sense, in Keil’s understanding, is the simple, direct, plain, ordinary, and literal sense of the phrase, clauses, and sentences.

The historical sense is that sense which is demanded by a careful consideration of the time and circumstances in which the author wrote.

The most fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have only one signification in one and the connection.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., in “Toward An Exegetical Theology”

Since the time of the reformation almost everybody worth their salt uses the “Grammatico-Historical” system to interpret the Bible.

Grammatico-Historical approach to interpreting the Bible is a common sense approach to interpreting Scriptures:

  • Interpret the Bible as you would any other book. Go with the simple and obvious meaning. Ingenuity in the exegete is a sin.

Eschew the prevalent “ear ticking” custom which produces “new” interpretations; interpretations which would be new to very authors themselves.

Take whatever the author says as literally as he wanted it to be taken; neither more, nor less.

“Literal’ interpretation means the understanding which any person of normal intelligence would get, without any special spiritual gifts and without any ‘code’ or ‘key.’

  • Assume the writer employed the right combinations of words and forms to get his point across the way he wanted it.

You have to take words and used them in the same way the language normally does.

Use the grammatical principles and dictionary definitions to determine what the writer meant when he wrote something.

Further, assume that the author had his own unique way with the language, both in the nuances of word meanings, and in the way he put words together.

Interpret idioms as idioms…you can’t manage them simply by comprehending their gramma, for they march to the tune of a different band. Nor can you memorize them all; the most visible ones, perhaps, but they cause the least of the trouble. It’s the maybe-yes-and maybe-no ones, which almost behave themselves, that are the true boo-be-traps. You’ve simply got to get the feel of them. There is no other way.

  • The meaning of any text is limited and controlled by its context.

Your interpretation of the text must fit into the flow of thought to, into, through, out of, and away from it. So obvious is this rule that we need not go into it.

This is why it is so important to read and reread whole books and large sections of the Bible.

Disregard the flow of thought and you blow the whole thing. The “Mispah” benediction is nothing to be repeated between fellowshipping Christians.

Go read its context (Genesis 31:49). This context extends to the whole book, its structure and purpose. So, this law sort of merges into the next rule.

  • The meaning of any text is limited and controlled by its external context. You are, really not explaining a text, as much as you are explaining an historic event (geographical context, cultural context and historical context).

  • We may take for granted; presume that the author is consistent. Just as you would give any writer the benefit of the doubt as you try to interpret him in a way which does not make him contradict himself.

You may not be successful every time but at least you try. This sets the burden of proof on that interpretation which makes the author contradict himself.

Two conditions must be met before the absolute tyranny of the context can be alleviated.

First, you must know the writer well: that his convictions are, how he looks out on life.

Second, there has to be a close “horse race” between the various interpretations.

Then, sometimes you will pass over that interpretation which the context could judge to come in first, perhaps even the one which “places,” opting for the one which merely “shows” for that one really represents the writer’s view.

  • By the Canon of the analogy of Scripture, one may interpret a verse, the meaning of which is obscure, by another verse that is more transparent.

By obscure, I mean grammatically or lexically or historically obscure, not incompatible to you!

You also want to take a look at all that a writer has had to say about a subject. With this kind of background, you can more precisely assess any particular statement the author has made about the subject.

When Scripture quotes Scripture, to exegete one appearance of a statement and ignore the other is obvious folly.

Parallel word formations might be important when comparing Scripture with Scripture, but the real thing you're after are passages which are parallel in ideas.

All language is surprisingly resistant and bands under determine destructive pressure. So when a person tries to make a text mean some particular thing, he usually succeeds.

Too often, the most avid Bible student is the most totally committed to a particular doctrinal system.

Too often, the Bible is nothing more than a repository of doctrinal propositions supporting the already systematized theology of the student.

To him, exegesis is that ingenious device which produces the many interpretive options of any given text, so that he may choose the one among them which is most compatible to his already established doctrine.

The good exegete has got to learn how to tip toe through the tulips.

Here, the detached and uninvolved exegete often parts company with the exegete whose religious faith has brought him to the conclusion that this phenomenal library called the Bible finds its unity in a common Author, God, Himself.

To the latter, the analogy of Scripture embraces the whole of its literature, and he anticipates an emerging, coherent view of the world, its Creator and the Creator’s ingenious plan to reconcile it to Himself.

And that coherent view, he must keep on telling himself, he does not already possess.

Rather, it is in the process of being formulated in his mind as his understanding of what God's Word means grows.

  • Everybody knows you have to treat a poem as a poem, and a fable as a fable.

Every literary form has to be taken for what it is. The Bible winds up, in the providence of God, a library with many of the common “genre,” and one ought to of its own:


Legal, as in Leviticus

Wisdom, as in Proverbs


Prophetic, as in Isaiah

New Testament sermons, as in the Sermon on the Mount


History, as in Joshua and Acts

Prediction, as in the Olivet discourse

Gospel, as in Mark (unique to the New Testament)

Fiction, as in the parable

Poetry, as in the Psalms

Epistle, and then Colossians

Apocalypse, as in Revelation

Each one has its own set of hermeneutical rules. The larger works on hermeneutics go into detail about these.

  • Interpret a text in the frame of its own philosophical presuppositions. For example, you can't interpret “Hamlet” unless, temporarily at least, you believe in ghosts. Sympathy with a text--- as opposed to feelings of hostility----is a prerequisite to a true interpretation of any text, be it by Paul or by Marx. Who would understand what Marx has written must look out at the world through Marx’s eyes.

Whether or not I believe in the deity of Jesus, the writers of the four Gospels did! If I am to interpret it correctly, then that is the view I must adopt, at least for the time being.

There is a grossly over worked and abused idea which, if true, affects how we interpret the Scripture. We call it, “Progressive Revelation.”

It must not be exploited as a convenient “dispose-all” for the Old Testament principles of behavior which we might regard today as unethical; say, capital punishment, slavery, or polygamy.

But we have nothing to indicate that revelation is getting better and better; that 3 John is superior to Isaiah.

I hope I do not shock you when I say that Jesus is no better than Jehovah.

In its rational form, progressive revelation is predicted upon the indubitable fact that the Bible represents rejection to be an historical event.

It further represents itself as a library, primarily, of reductive history. And, when a book of the Bible got written down that part of the Bible became a part of the mix of redemptive history.

As history progressed, the divine library grew, and the emerging picture of redemption, with its accoutrements (e.g. ethics and eschatology), was filled out.

When you apply the term, “progressive revelation” to the Bible, you should mean about the same as when you would apply the same to a three-act play, when we find out how everything gets unraveled in the last scene of the last act.

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