“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” – D.A. Carson
There is a good way to read scripture and there is a bad way to read it. We can divide our strategy for interpreting the Bible into three steps: (1) exegesis, which analyzes what a passage says; (2) hermeneutics determines what a passage means; and (3) application of a passage’s significance for our lives. The danger comes when scripture is read subjectively shallow before jumping immediately to an application. For the way one applies scripture is directly dependent on the quality of interpretation, or the lack thereof.
While it is certainly true that the work of the Holy Spirit is the foundational aid in the process of understanding spiritual truth, we are also made in the image of God as rational creatures with the ability for logical discernment. It is our responsibility to put these gifts to use for the benefit of ourselves and the rest of the Church.
Therefore, in the work of biblical interpretation, there is a system of methodological principles we consciously, intentionally apply when seeking out the nature and meaning of God’s revelation in/through the written scriptures. Our understanding of biblical inspiration and the infallibility of its message is itself a result of these exegetical and hermeneutical decisions as passed on to us by tradition and presently discoverable through good interpretation.
Let us first describe what exegesis is, coming from the Greek word ἐξηγέομαι/exēgeomai meaning “explain or declare.” John 1:18 tells us that Jesus has explained the Father, or quite literally, Jesus is the exegesis of God. When you exegete a biblical passage you are seeking to describe what is found there. The implications of its meaning will be much easier to understand once the material is properly identified.
For instance, a good place to begin is a word study for any term that may be difficult, unclear, or particularly important to the structure of the passage. This is usually best if you refer to a biblical language dictionary or lexicon so that you can grasp the breadth and original definition for such words. However, because language is so flexible, a word might mean this in one context, but its function could differ in another place.
Depending on how long or complex the section of scripture you may be examining is, it is helpful to identify certain grammatical functions. Miniscule details can be incredible clues for seeing how statements operate as they fit together. This kind of exploration can reveal the form and genre of the scriptures you are studying.
The immediate context surrounding a passage is one of the best ways to determine how a passage is operating. Take a good look at what comes directly before and what follows. When individual statements are removed from their proper context, the words and phrases lose their textual orientation, much like a fish that has been removed from its water.
Larger contexts become just as important for classifying repeated terms or similar ideas. Begin by looking at the surrounding portions which may be distinguishable by paragraph, subheading, chapters, or other internal literary clues. Then consider how the passage operates within the entirety of the biblical book, as well its traditional canonical collection—the law of Moses, Wisdom literature, the epistles of Paul, the writings of John, etc.
The historical background for parts of scripture is also necessary, especially when considering the distinctions to be made between the old and new testaments. Sometimes these settings are easy to figure out because the cultural clues are immediately provided. Often a comprehensive understanding may require prior knowledge of narratives or information delivered previously, as with the prophetic oracles and the story of Israel as a nation. Other times these historically contextual clues may need deeper study or exterior sources to provide clarification, such as why the Romans were an occupying force during the first century in which Jesus and the apostles lived.
Because we as interpreters of Scripture are still bound by the fallibility of our carnal nature, we must always take care to remain aware of our own presuppositions, biases, and conceptual lenses. This is so that when we make an interpretation, we can analyze the results in an attempt to decipher our subjective understandings from objective truth. These decisive results are the hermeneutics. This word comes from ἑρμηνεύω/hermēneuō meaning “interpretation/translation” as used in passages such as John 1.38 and Heb 7.2.
If you are unwilling to lay aside your own point of view when approaching God’s Word, then you will most likely find only that which you have already brought with you. While there is no way to entirely disconnect oneself from their own philosophical framework, the best way to work around it is through appropriate hermeneutical procedures as a way to check and balance the way one exegetes Scripture.
The decisions to not interpret a novel as history nor a poem as science are hermeneutical methods we use in everyday life. And with handling of the media, the choice to not make conclusions about current events through the contextual lens of only one opinion column is an exegetical move that prevents a one-sided bias.
In the same way, we do not read the histories of Kings & Chronicles as we do the Levitical laws. You would not interpret one of Jesus’ parables as you would the Psalms. And things would get weird if we explained the symbolism of Revelation the same as the church structures described in the Pastoral Epistles.
Depending on our exegetical and hermeneutical conclusions, we must decide on the way in which we are to apply such interpretations. Are all of Jesus’ commands to be taken in a plain, literalistic way? If this be the case, then we would all be missing an eye or a hand.
Should we follow the polygamous examples of marriage from the patriarchs and ancient kings? It would probably be better to instead draw from the negative moral and ethical implications of those situations and look rather to the example set by God with Adam and Eve.
Does the narrative of Noah’s ark have any chance of speaking to our own hearts or is it just an empty, archaic tale? Perhaps the allegorical approach is beneficial here as we picture the ark as foreshadowing the cross of Christ as it shields even us from judgment.
Should the epistolary commands and theologies of the apostles be interpreted as first-century ideologies which speak only as an example of how they understood God in Christ? Or were they intended—and do we interpret them as such—to be enduring didactic “teaching” materials for us to rely upon even today?
Although we reference the Bible as one canonical whole, it is comprised of many books written by various authors at different times in diverse circumstances for a variety of purposes. As a text that is divinely inspired yet humanly written and preserved, Scripture is not exempt from a careful and studious approach. For the way we interpret Scripture is far more important than the way we do any other source.
If you are looking for some beginner’s resources in your study of God’s Word, I would recommend becoming acquainted with some of the free online tools such as blueletterbible.org and biblewebapp.com or other similar sites. You might also consider investing in a biblical/theological dictionary, a concordance/lexicon for the original languages. There are many good beginner’s guides in book form to be purchased online which can guide you through the disciplines of exegesis and hermeneutics.