THE GOLDEN RULE OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (HERMENEUTICS), is a variation of the Literal Rule, which states that the words used in the text should be read in their natural or common sense.
If plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense. That is the golden rule of Bible interpretation. God says what He means and means what He says. We are to read the Bible just as we read any other piece of writing, not trying to force some allegorical, mystical, or figurative meaning into its plain statements. That does not mean that spiritual lessons cannot be derived from a passage of scripture, even from a passage dealing largely with the narrative.
Nor does it mean that a passage has no deeper lessons than those lying on the surface. The Bible is the word of God and is, therefore, inexhaustible. We must, however, apply to the Bible the same principles of common sense we would use in examining any other writing. We must look for the plain sense of what has been written. Once we have determined that, we can mine beneath the surface for hidden treasure.
In other words, we interpret literally. The ordinary or commonly acknowledge meaning of a word is the literal meaning of that word. When people write to us or speak to us, we take their words at face value, even when they are using poetic language. We do not look for all kinds of hidden meanings buried beneath the surface of what they have to say. We read papers, magazines, trade journals, novels, and textbooks literally. When we come across a figure of speech we recognize it for what it is, a poetic means of conveying a literal idea. We use idioms, symbols, and poetic expressions everyday-not to convey secret meanings but to add colour to our speech.
Thus, in the Bible, when we read the parable of the wheat and the tares, recognize the aptness of the symbols because wheat does grow prolifically in a field of wheat. When the Bible refers to people as “dogs”, we recognize the validity of the comparison. We know how gross the habit of dogs can be at times and how snappish or fawning, vicious or unclean, people can be in their lives. In the Bible, people are compared with all kinds of animals: dogs, lions, wolves, swine, foxes, and sheep. Characteristics of these animals illustrate human characteristics.
Before deciding that a passage of scripture is figurative, we must first examine the literal meaning. Only when a literal interpretation proves to be either absurd or completely out of harmony with the context or the theme should we accept a figurative interpretation.
That is also true of Bible interpretation. Like wiring, Biblical interpretation has its own rules.
The three main lines of truth run through the scriptures: salvation truth, church truth, and kingdom truth. We must distinguish one from the other, keeping them separate in our thinking, bringing them together only in their proper place and for appropriate purposes. To mix them up results in confusion.
Salvation truth runs all through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. God has always had just one way to save sinners. His answer to human sin is Calvary. No matter at what age they lived, Old Testament believers anticipated the cross. They looked forward to it by faith. Believers before the flood, believers in the age of promise, and believers living under the Law offered their sacrifices and laid hold by faith on the salvation offered at Calvary. Believers in the church age today, believers in the coming tribulation age, and believers during the millennial age look back by faith t the cross. Calvary covers us all.
Church truth is found only in the New Testament and particularly in the Pauline epistles. The church was not revealed to the people of the Old Testament but was a mystery hidden from them, first mentioned by Christ and brought to full light by the Holy Spirit in the Pauline epistle. Although church truth was not revealed in the Old Testament, it was concealed there. Today, New Testament in hand, we can go back and see it hidden away in the most unlikely places in types and shadows. Old Testament believers, however, could not see what we can see. Since they knew nothing of the church, the fact must be kept in mind when interpreting the Old Testament scriptures.
Kingdom truth, like salvation truth, runs throughout the Bible. God has always intended to set up a kingdom on each and he has not abandoned that goal. Many of the Psalms and most of the prophetic writings are rich with kingdom truth. A number of the Lord’s parables deal with kingdom truth, and to try to reach into them salvation truth or church truth leads only to confusion. Some of the parables, of course, do present salvation truth (the parable of the prodigal son, for instance) and some of the parables do hint at church truth (the parable of the pearl, for example), but we need to be careful not to get our wires crossed.
At the outset, we are confronted with two possible roads to follow. Evangelical men and women will be found on both of these roads, so we need to find out where they lead. At times both roads look much alike but their courses diverge widely. Some say a third road exists (if we can call it a road), but it is full of potholes and it leads far from biblical truth.
The more main road begins with the principles of allegorical interpretation and takes the grace of God as its controlling principle. God, it is claimed, do all things to manifest his grace.
Covenant Of Works And Grace
The theology that emerges from this system of interpretation is known as covenant theology. The biblical scheme is said to embrace two great covenants made by God with man, one covenant of works and the other a covenant of grace.
This system runs at last into one of the major issues that confront the Bible expositor, the relationship of the church to Israel. The covenant theologian identifies the church as spiritual Israel. To do that, however, does away with any future for the nation of Israel and also makes no allowance for the millennial reign of Christ on the earth.
The other main road begins with the principles of literal interpretation, with the premise that any passage of scripture must be interpreted, grammatically, and culturally. The controlling principle of this system is not the grace of God but the glory of God. God, it is claimed, do all things to manifest his glory-a far wider and more satisfying unifying principle, it seems to me than the grace of God.
The theology that emerges from this system is dispensational. The Bible is seen to embrace the number of “dispensations”, all periods, during which God made plain man’s sinfulness and demonstrated man’s failure, no matter how God has approached him.
This system of interpretation likewise runs into the issue of the relationship between Israel and the church. The literal use of interpretation postulates a sharp distinction between the two. The church is not spiritual Israel; rather, Israel and the church are two separate entities in God’s dealings with mankind the church and Israel are dealt with in entirely different ways and have wholly different futures. The future of the church climaxes in “the rapture” the future of Israel climaxes in the great tribulation, the battle of Armageddon, and the millennial reign of Christ on earth.
Among evangelicals, both the allegorical and literal systems of interpretation affirm the doctrine of salvation for sinners through the Lord Jesus Christ. Both affirm the eternal stage: glory for the believer and the eternal woe of the lost. This point of agreement, however, should not blind us to radical differences between the two systems. This handbook follows the literal method of Bible interpretation. What is about an alleged third “road”? This is not a biblical road at all. It usually begins with some man-made dogma, philosophy, or experience and uses proof text from the Bible of bolstering a position already adopted.
The so-called “Charismatic, for instance, start with an experience: a supposed baptism of the Spirit, and an outburst of speaking in tongues or an alleged miracle. “The Experience” may be a personal one and someone else’s. it seems to be biblical since the bible certainly does refer to healing, miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. All kinds of texts can parade to support the view that these things are part of the normal Christian experience and are still valid. A favourite text with some, for instance, is “forbid not to speak with tongues” 1 Corinthians 14:39). A not-so-favourite text is “whether there be tongues, they shall cease” (1 Corinthians 13:8), especially since this statement in the original text indicates that tongues would “cease in and of themselves.” They would come to an automatic end because they were only a temporary phenomenon.
Roman Catholics start with dogma: the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the “real presence” of the Lord Jesus in the consecrated wafer. Such dogmas are not supported by a thorough-going exegesis of scripture but by proof-texts, by appeals to tradition, by the writings of the church fathers, and by the Apocrypha. One needs only to procure a copy of the Baltimore Catechism and study catholic dogma from its pages to see that no solid Biblical support exists for those dogmas. Dogmas are based on texts taken out of context. The vast Roman Catholic edifice is built on this foundation of sand.
Before people can drive a car they are first required to learn the rules of the road and satisfy the authorities that they have done so. This is for their safety and for the safety of all those who use the highways. Nobody can be a law unto himself on public roads. We cannot arbitrarily drive on the wrong side of the road, operate our vehicles at high speed in school zones, or ignore traffic signals.
Likewise, before people interpret the bible they need to master the rules of biblical interpretation. Failure to do that makes a bible teacher a danger to all he encounters. The first part of this book gives the salient rules. These rules are not arbitrary. Most of them are simply common sense the same kind of rules we apply to the interpretation of all writings.
The bible is unique, of course, in that the unregenerate cannot unravel its truths all (1corinthians 2:14). Moreover, even the most devout (John 14:16-17; 16:12-15). At the same time, the Holt Spirit used the laws of language when writing the Bible and He uses the laws of language are so that we can rightly divide the word of truth (2 timothy 2:15)
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