Below are a set of basic rules for rightly understanding the Bible. These were taken from multiple hermeneutics texts and articles. A reading list for further study is provided at the end of this post.
Scriptures Rules of Interpretation
1. Christ and the apostles explained Scripture by Scripture.
A. Jesus’ ministry demonstrated His belief that the Bible is the supreme authority. He quoted Scripture to the devil in the wilderness to respond to temptations (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10), He defended Himself with the Scripture “you are gods” (John 10:34-36), and He expounded Moses and the prophets to the disciples to show that He was supposed to rise from the dead (Luke 24:27,45-47). Peter’s Pentecost sermon relied on the authority of Joel 2:28 (Acts 2:16-18).When preachers use this principle, they make their text the center of their sermon and support doctrines and assertions by other Scripture passages.
B.“The literal language of Scripture is to be preferred unless otherwise demanded by the context, parallel passages, or analogy”. As Chemnitz shows, this principle is especially important when considering the Gospel and the Sacraments. Yet much of the Bible is written in figurative language which require special rules to properly interpret the God-intended meaning. Jesus’ teaching was filled with figures of speech, both His parables and the “I am...” passages in John. Yet Jesus did not take figuratively the passage “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” as the Sadducees wanted to do (Luke 20:37-38). Preachers need to identify figurative expressions in the Psalms, prophecies, and apocalyptic books so that the people will not be swayed by the arguments of the cults who misuse figures of speech.
C. Scripture interprets Scripture. Passages in both Testaments which speak about the same subject must be considered as being in full agreement with one another. Less clear passages must always be understood by the more clear passages.
D. Luther declared, “If you will interpret well and securely, take Christ with you, for he is the man whom everything concerns”. Luther shows that Christ portrayed Himself as the center of Scripture, as he discussed John 3:14 (Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness):
Christ thereby gives us real ability to explain Moses and all the Prophets. He tells us clearly that Moses with all his stories and figures points to Him, refers to Him, and means Him, in the sense that He is the Center from which the entire circle has been drawn and towards which it looked and that whoever directs himself to this Center belongs in the circle. For Christ is the central spot of the circle, and when viewed aright, all stories in Holy Scripture refer to Christ.
E. Law and Gospel, “It is necessary to divide these things [the law and the gospel] aright, as Paul says (2 Tim.2:15). We must see what Scripture ascribes to the Law and what it promises. For it praises works in such a way as not to remove the free promise” (Apology III:67, Triglot 173).
2. No human being has the right to read his own views in the Bible. “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) Private Interpretation has been responsible for many erroneous doctrines held by cultists and by members of various Christian sects.
3. When the Holy Spirit has interpreted a text for the Biblical reader, that interpretation must be accepted.
4. Only the Scriptures are the norm of interpretation, not the church fathers, tradition, the inner light, or the pious self-consciousness. Isaiah 8:19-20 makes this very clear. “And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.” In other words, “back to God’s Word”. God says, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” (Deut 4:2) In Revelation 22:18-19 the same sentiment is expressed. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
Jesus Christ has not directed the church to the Church Fathers, a magisterium of clergy, to synods, personal mystical experiences and famous-name theologians for true guidance, but to the Old Testament, to His teachings and the word of the apostles. The Biblical interpreter must establish the correctness of his exposition only from the Bible itself. Luther pointed out that when the Church Fathers interpreted the text correctly, they simply set forth the meaning as it was found in the Bible itself.
5. Human reason may not be admitted as the norm or lord to determine Biblical interpretation. Biblical teachings are often a stumbling block to people just as they were in Paul’s day, who lamented the fact that the doctrine of Christ and Him crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23). Jesus prayed that His father would hide the truth from the wise and prudent and reveal them to babes (Matt 11:15). There is a proper as well as improper use of reason relative to interpretation of the Bible’s meaning. The interpreter uses reason to grasp the meaning of the Biblical text. Reason’s function is to comprehend what the Word of God is communicating and what it reveals about the realm of nature. But reason does not have the right to reject or reinterpret the doctrines of the Word which it might find distasteful or intellectually unpalatable. Reason cannot fathom or explain the deep things made known in Scripture, except the Holy Spirit does reveal and make them know. This limitation also applies to the enlightened reason of those who’ve been regenerated.
For Further Reading:
Principles of Biblical Interpretation by Surburg, Raymond
The Use of Hermeneutics in Sermon Preparation by Theodore Gullixson
Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm
Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old by Robert L. Thomas (Editor)