Whole Bible Christianity

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Whole Bible Interpretation - Hermeneutics Explained

Introduction and Resource help for the Interpretation of the Bible.

Whole Bible Interpretation

Contrasting literal, allegorical, rabbinic, grammitico-historical, and PaRDeS approaches to interpreting the Bible. Discussion of exegesis (getting meaning out of the text) vs. eisegesis (reading meaning into the text), hermeneutics (interpretation), and differences between meaning and application.

The biggest roadblock

Getting the correct meaning from the Bible is not hard. I believe most people can plainly see the meaning. The difficulty comes in when we don't want to do what we read. We balk at God being in charge. We want to do our own thing instead. Then we want our way of doing things to be acceptable to God. This is the essence of the trouble between Cain and Able (and other pairings in the Bible). Able offered a sacrifice in the way God required. Cain did it his way. Able was accepted, Cain wasn't. People know what God requires. They just don't want to give it. In our pride we want to do things our own way, then demand acceptance by God. So we invent all sorts of interpretation problems when there really aren't interpretation problems at all. There are merely problems with pride.

Read it and do it

Really, interpretation is that simple. Read all of the Word, all the time, then do what you read. As we read more and do more, we understand more. God opens up more meaning as we grow. If you don't understand some part of the Word, read through the whole thing again. Do more of what you read. I guarantee that you will gain understanding of the meaning if only you do what you read no matter how feebly or how easily you get sidetracked. Keep reading, and keep doing. Interpretation becomes an easy task when the heart is soft and filled with His Spirit and love.

Whole Bible Christian Introduction to Interpretation

This page presents basic material on the subject of interpretation of the Bible in a (hopefully) easy to understand format. This is just a really, really basic introduction, something to get you started and oriented. Each heading contains a short explanation of the concepts so a beginner can get a 'hand up' on understanding. These sections also serve as a reference and clarification for other articles on this site. We suggest you start with the Introduction to Theology and then move through the other headings as you have time. If you find that any of the explanations are too complicated, please email us and let us know about the confusion and we will try to clear it up.

Classes and Materials

I took an excellent class from www.torahresource.com titled "Interpreting the Bible," which was about a semester long and covered this material in more depth. I don't know if they still have it, but it had a very reasonable cost and you could pretty much study at your own pace. They now have a school, and I'm sure this kind of class is still on their agenda. Or you can buy lectures on CD and a syllabus for study at your own convenience. Much of the material presented here and on the Theology page is condensed from the class syllabus which was written by Tim Hegg. My term paper for this class titled The Practical Effects of Translational Bias covered some of the existing controversies (or attempts at controversies) concerning translation and interpretation.

Good books to buy:

Factors Affecting Interpretation

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 NASB)


The study and interpretation of the Bible is complicated by the way we look at the words and by how we communicate with each other. We bring to any study a set of ideas we already have called preconceptions (we can also call them preconceived ideas or assumptions), which are picked up from our education, our parents, peer influence, and so on. They can be good or bad, true or false. False preconceptions interfere with our ability to properly understand and apply what we are hearing from the Word of God. An example of a false preconception is the idea that the Old Testament does not apply in the modern believer's life except as a series of object lessons or illustrations. The Bible itself proves this untrue. A true preconception, on the other hand, can help us with our study, such as the idea (opposite of the above) that all of the Book is currently applicable to a believer's life. We can't get rid of preconceptions, but we can be aware of them and modify them if needed when we find out that one of them is false.


Of course, sin also has a major role in corrupting the pure understanding of the Word. We have to deal with pride, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, money, greed, and a host of other thinking and relational problems as we deal with His words. It doesn't help that many of the teachings from God found in His Word deal with these exact same subjects in unflattering terms as well. As James says, the Word is like a mirror that depicts us accurately (1:21–25), and it can be very difficult to behold the image that the mirror reveals. Because of pride we tend to shrink back from viewing that image, but through the sacrifice of the Lamb and confession of our sins we are cleansed and gain access to our Father. So, to overcome the sin problem in the interpretation process, we just have to stay current on confession and repentance as we read and apply the Word to our lives.


Another complication is the language barrier. The writers of the Bible wrote and spoke, in the main, Hebrew, and also spoke other popular languages of the day such as Aramaic and Greek (when in Rome...). Many times we are able to make a direct word-for-word translation, but other times we must try to figure out equivalents. It's a problem akin to trying to explain snow to a lifetime resident of the Sahara desert. Fairly often when translating we can't just go with a dictionary definition because several words together are intended to convey a different idea than just the word meanings. For instance, the words abolish and fulfill in Matthew 5:17–19 mean to "interpret improperly" and "interpret properly." There are also idioms (combinations of words that together mean more than the individual word definitions) such as "face to face," used in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which recalls the high priest's offering on the Day of Atonement. Fortunately God finds a way to speak to us so that we understand, using word pictures that convey His meaning without any doubt. We just have to dig a little.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences between the people of the Bible and the modern reader can also cause confusion and make interpretation difficult. Not only did they communicate in a different spoken language but they had some practices in their culture that mystify us today. For instance, we don't sign a contract in the same way that God "cut a covenant" with Abraham in Genesis 15. In some ways we understand a contract, but how does this relate to cutting some animals in pieces and walking between them? (Part of the meaning is that "may this happen to me" if I break the covenant.) There are many such cultural practices that, unless studied and understood as we interpret the Word, mean little or nothing to us today.

Bible Framework

On top of our preconceptions, our sin, language differences and culture in the Bible, we are faced with a bunch of different types of literature, from poetry to apocalyptic and narrative to symbolic. Throw in some genealogies, mix with prophecy, slice in some artificial chapter and verse divisions, ignore the author's intentions and perspectives, and next thing you know some priest is telling you that you cannot interpret properly and he must do it for you. And there are people who buy into the priest thing, thinking that their own personal responsibility is eliminated. Fat chance. Everyone will have to give an account of himself or herself directly to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and hiding behind the skirts of someone else you allow to interpret for you isn't going to go over well with Him. That whole "he said" and "she did" argument was shot full of holes by God in the Garden.

The Word of God is the Original Interactive Media

The Bible is the original interactive media. We must be willing to do what God tells us to do, and frequently we fall far short of this willingness. If we are not willing to respond to what God is communicating, how will we be able to continue learning more?  We read and we do. As we read and do what we know and understand, more understanding is made available. Some of you may say that the possession of the Holy Spirit is necessary before a response can be made, and that may be true for some of God's teachings. But there are certain elementary actions that can be taken without the assistance of the Holy Spirit (although it's debatable whether anything, even breathing, can be done without the Holy Spirit), such as the act of reading the text itself (the ability to read being a God-given gift itself). God promises to reward the seeker, setting aside questions of who initiates the contact. Some think, and I am one of them, that we cannot be saved if God does not intervene in our lives to save us, so if you are seeking it is because of His intervention. But if we study, without getting involved by responding, the study just becomes an abstract occupation of looking without seeing or hearing without listening.

These potential difficulties do not mean that God has not been able to cut through the tangle and deliver a message that the average person can understand and practice. Most of the meaning of Scripture is straightforward and easily discernable by even the most casual of readers. Some meanings may take extra study and time, but the bulk of the meaning is there for the taking. In my opinion the Holy Spirit is always working to illuminate and judge in this fashion with all people.

Overcoming Pre-conceived Ideas

There are many ways we can overcome preconceptions and the like. For instance we can acknowledge the presence of handicaps such as those listed above and stay open to change if we are wrong. We can also learn from others who have studied for longer and in more depth than we have. Fortunately, too, God has not just left us with only a few ambiguous statements. He has provided us with a great deal of material which can be cross-referenced by comparing Scripture with Scripture, keeping the words in context. The Word is an organic whole, not just a series of one-liners that we can misuse to back up what we want to believe. A lot of the uncertainty of interpretation could be avoided if we just read the whole text and do it completely, and take what the scholars say with a large dose of salt. Each of us has a responsibility to keep reading and practicing.

There's much more to studying the Word of God than just reading a few verses and developing a teaching based on those verses. When God tells us to "Be diligent to present yourself approved" He isn't kidding around about the "be diligent" part. It's a lot of hard work to read the Word and do what it says, and to continue making changes as they are needed. We can do it, if we apply ourselves. God has provided an abundant amount of communication which will help us understand that He has been reaching out to us for a long time. Now we just have to reach out our own hands and take up the task of responding.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)

Differences Between Meaning and Application

Two questions are usually asked by the humble reader and interpreter of the Word that are related to each other but have distinctly different effects. "What does the text mean?" is the first and deals with such things as word definitions and cultural differences when trying to discern what ideas are being communicated. The second is "What does the text mean to me?" The answers to this question involve the application of the text to the reader's life. There is only one meaning to the text, which is the meaning that the author intended. There are, on the other hand, literally thousands of applications.

Applications can be personal or universal, but they are not necessarily the Word of God. For instance, there are some people who will tell you they believe it is wrong to watch an R-rated movie. These people think God has told us through His Word that the actions and thoughts represented in such a movie are not things we should "approve of" by "watching" them. But the Bible does not specifically say to avoid watching an R-rated movie. As a matter of fact it doesn't mention movies at all. I am not saying that it is okay to watch, I am just pointing out the difference between the meaning of the Word and an application. The person who cautions against a particular movie may be well meaning and may even be correct. As long as the caution is treated as an application or opinion it is fine to both offer the caution and agree with it by not watching the movie.

But many times the person with an application crosses the line and begins to teach that their particular application is really the "meaning" of the Bible text. The next thing you know someone is legislating my behavior through their opinions (or applications), which is what many religious leaders attempt to do. I believe Paul addresses this type of thing in such places as Romans 14. If God is specific, we should be specific. If He is not, then we must be guided by applications within the framework of the Word. However, we should be extremely reluctant to force other people to live by our applications while ignoring the true meaning of the Word. The Bible tells us that each person has to answer to his or her Creator individually, and there will be no defense allowed for wrong actions that transfer blame to someone else because "they told me to do it." An application from the Word is not "law" in the same way that God's Word is law.

Literal Interpretation

This method of interpretation assumes (there's one of those preconceived ideas again) that God means what He says and has conveyed it to us in a simple, easy-to-understand fashion. The author intended to communicate one meaning when he was writing, and this is the meaning we must strive to determine. It is true that there can be a wide range of applications to an individual's life, and there are meanings in the words that perhaps the author wasn't aware of at the time of writing. But those not-so-obvious meanings can be drawn from the text as a whole without resorting to tricks of interpretation such as those used in the allegorical interpretation method.

Grammitico-historical method

Sometimes the literal interpretation method is lumped together or confused with the grammatical-historical method. But there is a difference. The literal method seeks to take God, through the writer, at His Word. We use this method to get as close as possible to what the writer intended to say, and there are tools that have been developed to help find this meaning. For the literal method, the tools include grammar and history but are not limited to those tools alone. The grammatical-historical method, if used properly, is excellent for placing the biblical text in the proper historical and linguistic context, but it does not take into consideration such things as the writer's perspective.

The literal interpretation also takes into consideration the type of literature that is being interpreted. For instance, the wisdom literature of the Proverbs of Solomon is different than the poetry of the Song of Solomon, and both are different than the apocalyptic style of Revelation. The literal method asks, "What does the style of writing have to do with the content?" "Does the style itself affect the delivery of the truths presented?" "How does the style affect the meaning?" These are facets of meaning that are not included in other interpretation methods.

Allegorical Interpretation

The word "allegory" refers to a style of writing where the obvious symbols used by the writer to tell a story actually represent other, less obvious, ideas. Aesop's fables are allegories. Edgar Allen Poe wrote stories and poems that are allegorical (a talking raven?). There is also allegory in the Bible, such as the Song of Solomon. Allegory is a useful method of communication sometimes, but the purpose of allegory is to reveal truth, not obscure it (this is also the purpose of the Bible). If the meaning can't be understood and acted upon by the people the writer is trying to communicate with, what use is the allegory? Therefore allegory is a legitimate form of expression, and one used by biblical writers, but for the specific goal of illuminating truth and making it plain to any reader, rather than to obscure it.

Some interpreters of the Bible are not content with the plain meaning of the words on the page, but insist there is a "fuller" or "hidden" meaning to each one. The "real" meaning is considered to be, not the definition of the word itself, but an idea behind the plain meaning (called "sensus plenior" or fuller meaning by scholars). The allegorical method of interpretation proceeds from the assumption (another of those pesky preconceptions) that the entire Bible is an allegory. The real meaning is hidden and must be uncovered through the interpretation process. According to these interpreters, we can't just read the text and do what it says, we have to peel away the "husk" to get at the "kernel" of the real meaning. The Catholic Church is the biggest promoter and user of this interpretation method. Mainly because it gives them permission to interpret the text any way they want. Usually this means they reinforce their authority to say what they want.

The biggest drawback to this interpretation method is that it is so arbitrary. There is no table anywhere in the Bible that gives us the "real" meanings for each of the mundane terms employed by the writers. The problem is, who sets the fuller meaning of a given word? Who decides that a river isn't really a river but a representation of faith? When does the meaning change, and why? The allegorical interpreter cannot answer these questions satisfactorily. Even their answers are arbitrary, and so using this method causes the meaning of the text to stay in their hands instead of being freely available to the average person.

The sheer arbitrariness of this interpretation method leads us to the next biggest drawback, which is that it takes self-proclaimed "experts" to translate the text and tell you or me the "real meaning." So people who use the allegorical interpretation method must be consulted before meaning can be extracted from the text. This gives rise to a group of priestly intermediaries like the so-called "priests" of the Catholic church, who reserve the ability to correctly translate the text for themselves. Instead of being able to go directly to God ourselves, these types of people set themselves up to act as go-betweens and thus control access. As a matter of fact, it is my opinion that just such control is the main reason for this type of interpretation method.

The allegorical interpretation method simply does not fill the bill for correctly extracting meaning from the Bible. It encourages unsupported doctrines (unsupported from the Word, also called dogma, meaning flat statements made without proof), and all kinds of wild interpretations. This is to be expected from an interpretation method for which the first rule is, "there are no rules."

Rabbinic Interpretation

Jewish rabbis (is there another kind?) have developed a number of rules for interpreting the Bible, and most of them seem to be sound in principle at least (depending on how they are used). It is important to understand the Hebrew thinking that affects interpretation, because it was Hebrew minds that God used to write the Scriptures. Greek thinking is different from Hebrew thinking in a number of ways; in fact it might almost be said that they are opposites. Western culture and the interpretation it produces are saturated in Greek thinking, which makes it hard (not impossible, just more difficult) to understand the words that God has delivered to us through the Hebrew writers. More on the differences between the thinking patterns can be learned through the classes and books listed at the head of this page.

The Hebrew language is verb-oriented, which means it tends to be more concerned with actions rather than abstract thoughts. So the average rabbinical approach to interpreting is also more concerned with action (application of the Word) than with complicated systems of beliefs. Truth is not an idea, but an experience, and is best conveyed through a presentation of history rather than endless discussions of "what is truth." The Hebrew wants to show his thinking by his actions, not by a list of beliefs.

To the Hebrew, relationship is more important than theology. For instance, the thinking process for the Hebrew is in the heart, out of which one loves (Deuteronomy 6:5), fears (Deuteronomy 28:65), or sins (Jeremiah 17:9). The stomach (bowels) are where one feels anguish, and the liver is where a person experiences horror or terror. The head is thought of as the source of the life force, which is why Yeshua (Jesus) is spoken of as the Head of the Church.

A famous rabbi called Hillel came up with seven rules of interpretation, while another one called Ishmael developed thirteen rules and still another came up with thirty two. These rules of interpretation serve to help rabbis apply the Torah in individual cases where the Torah is not clear, but they also help to interpret Scripture (the same thing?) The following is a short summary of some of the beginning rabbinic interpretation laws, compiled from the Interpreting The Bible class syllabus available from Tim Hegg's web site www.torahresource.com.

  • kal v'chomer — literally "light and heavy." A comparison is drawn between two cases in the Word, one lenient and the other stringent. If something is true for a "light" case, then it is certainly true for the more important case. The words, "how much more" are usually a clue for this kind of rule. In other words, when the Pharisees tithed "mint, dill and cummin," "how much more" should they have practiced "mercy, justice, and compassion." This rule had certain limitations, such as that it could not be used to prove that something is prohibited by Torah.
  • gezerah shavah — "comparison of equivalent" or "similar law." 


This is an acronym for four Hebrew words. Peshat (or p'shat) means "simple" and refers to the obvious meaning of a word or passage. Remez means "hint" which we might call an implication or something we can see through inductive reasoning. Darash means to "examine" or "search" and is a word for application (what the text means to me) in preaching. Sod (pronounced like sewed) meaning "hidden" or "secret" is an interpretation depending on mystical contemplation of the text including numbers (gematria) codes and other mystical references. It was developed as formula sometime in the Middle Ages and used mainly by kabbalists (people who made mystical interpretations from the text that no one else could see). It was not in use by Jesus or the apostles because it wasn't around then.

The goal of the PaRDeS system is to find the Sod meaning and value it above all others. The Sod is the real meaning for the users of the system, and the plain meaning goes by the wayside or at best is just a tool to find the Sod. The PaRDeS system has no rules, which means that each interpretation is a creation of whoever makes it up. The interpretation cannot be objectively verified or even seen by anyone else unless informed by the interpreter. This interpretation method is very close to allegorical interpretation.

Sensus Plenior ("fuller" or "deeper sense")

A pillar of allegorical interpretation systems is the view that the plain meaning of the text is not the best or even the real meaning. There must be a deeper or more spiritual meaning. People who buy into interpretation systems featuring allegorical methods see themselves as more spiritual than those who take God at His Word (the plain or literal meaning). The Catholic Church for instance is famous for keeping the Bible from the average everyday person because it is thought that the untrained cannot understand the "deeper sense." This verse is used by some to justify an insistence on the deeper sense.

“But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB)

However, it is clear from the Bible text that a natural man is one that does not accept the things of the Spirit of God (including the plain meaning of Scripture). If a person has accepted the atoning death of the Messiah Jesus, then by definition they are able (I would say willing) to accept the things of the Spirit. It is the unregenerated man that refuses the spiritual things. And I further think that those who do not accept the plain teaching of the word are actually the "natural men." In other words, the natural man will not do what God says to do, and uses the so-called deeper sense to disguise or excuse his disobedience.

Exegesis (reading out) vs. Eisegesis (reading in)

The definition of "exegesis" (ex-eh-gee-sis) is to draw meaning out of a text. The opposite of exegesis is "eisegesis" (eye-sa-gee-sis) which means to read our own meaning into the text. To let the text speak for itself is exegesis. To put words in the mouth of our Father is eisegesis. To listen to what He has to say is exegesis. To overlay His Words with our own meanings is eisegeses.

The interpreter must watch himself (or herself), to avoid "reading into" the text with their own opinions. This is very hard to do sometimes because of the problems mentioned above in the introduction. The remedy for eisegesis is to compare notes with others, and avoid trying to develop ideas and theology in a solitary fashion. If we cross-check our interpretations with others and with the rest of Scripture, it helps to focus the effort on the plain meaning of the text and not the wishful thinking of the interpreter.

Some type of education is recommended for the student of Scripture, even if it is self-education. If we consult and share with others then we can find out what mistakes other interpreters have made and hopefully avoid the same mistakes ourselves. Education also serves to clarify thinking and shortens the learning and development curve. But the biggest educational help we can gain for ourselves is to read the Word and do what it says. If we read it without doing, it is like seed bouncing off rocky soil. If we take in His Words and do them as if they are life (and they are) then we will understand much more of what God has for us. This brings us to the next section in our introduction to interpretation page.

The Whole Bible Read It and Do It Interpretation Method

More on whole Bible interpretation can be found in the book Whole Bible Christianity.

The Word of God Ministries uses something called the Whole Bible Read It and Do It interpretation method. It's pretty much what the name implies: read the Bible and do what God says. It is our opinion that the biggest interpretation hurdle is P-R-I-D-E. People don't want to do what He says, so they invent all sorts of interpretation problems and theologies to give them excuses to cop out. If we read the Bible from cover to cover, repeatedly, we will figure out that there really aren't any interpretation problems. The problem is inside us, in our hard hearts, not in the living oracles.

Will we understand everything we read on the first try? Probably not. Will we be able to understand anything if we don't want to do what He says? No. We need to keep reading, and do whatever we understand, in order to gain more understanding to read more and do more. It's really not rocket science. It doesn't take a degree or two, nor does it take a lot of word and sentence parsing in original languages. All it takes is a willing heart, a loving heart, a heart of flesh. Hard-hearted people simply will not gain any more understanding except the basic—REPENT. Stop going away from God and move toward Him. Do what He says, even if it's only a little bit.

Reading and doing is what the Bible calls being filled with the Word. Believers eat it and drink it as if it was His body and blood. "Eating and drinking" (John 6:53–58) is the same thing as reading and doing. If we don't do anything, the reading will be useless. Faith is not a mysterious energy that helps us get what we want from God. It is trust and obedience. We trust God, so we believe what He says. If we really believe Him will will naturally do what He says.

Six Assumptions about Interpretation

The following is an excerpt from the book by Bruce Bertram titled Whole Bible Christianity.

An assumption we make before we read the Bible is also called a pre-conceived notion or presupposition. They are ideas that you or I accept as truth, but they may not be the truth. Reverend Steve Schlissel says this about that.

Many times we use the word presuppositions without knowing what presuppositions are. Tricky but important things, they determine what facts and how facts are entertained by us. Presuppositions function like preferences or tastes. To illustrate, just as we never go near some foods, regardless of how well they may be prepared, so presuppositional biases can steer us away from certain approaches. We can actually find ourselves filtering out truths as we read the Bible. We don’t see certain truths because they don’t conform to our presuppositions. As another illustration, presuppositions function like teeth and like a mouth, since all potential nourishment must first pass through our presuppositions to be made fit for personal consumption. They function like a digestion system in which a nearly miraculous function occurs out of sight— detecting, sorting, and cataloguing the ingredients while we go about our business. Presuppositions also function like a “tusshy”—they are behind and under everything we do, and we do our life-long best to keep them hidden and protected. Generally, we never talk about them in polite company (though occasionally we must).[1]

Everyone has pre-conceived ideas or assumptions. They’re impossible to avoid when reading and applying Scripture. Some presuppositions are so ingrained we are surprised when they are revealed to us. But even the “stealth” assumptions we have affect how we behave and how we interpret information coming from any source.

Assumptions or presuppositions are not necessarily bad. We just have to recognize that we have them. Then we have to work hard at cross checking them with (in this case, biblical) evidence, and adjust them if they don’t match up to Bible facts. All we know is not all there is. What we think we know needs continuous overhaul from the Bible because we have a tendency to drift away from God. As often as possible we need a fresh look at His Word so we can cross-check our assumptions and keep from getting stale. As we read the Bible we will come across ideas or teachings that don’t seem to fit our present assumptions, and we’ll need to decide if a change is in order. Changes like this led to the writing of this book.

Be on guard for other people’s assumptions as well as your own. Many theologies are stuffed with ideas which were developed hundreds of years ago apart from the Scriptures and are frequently assumed to be true now. For instance, dispensationalism imagines that there are different ages where God dealt differently with different people. So according to them the Law is “old” and we have two Bodies with two different sets of rules to go by. Covenant theology is another example that assumes God merged physical Israel into the church. For them the Law is not objective and real but merely spiritual.

Whether you know it or not this type of assumption stuffing is in every teaching you get from the church. Pastors and rabbis have been (willingly) drilled, hammered and cemented into one or more theological systems, and they serve up the teachings like the system tells them to. In order to graduate from school or become a member in good standing of any related church group (or stay that way), they have to teach the system they’ve bought into. They learn to teach just as they are taught, and they don’t deviate from the recipe one bit.

There are dozens of good rules for interpreting the Bible, and many books written. If you want a good book on interpretation try Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning by Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva. I’ve picked a few general rules here that will help keep a focus on what is important. The six whole Bible beliefs about the Bible we are going to talk about next may look like they have no foundation, but only because we could write books on each concept and we don’t have the space to give them more than an introduction here. They are 1) that God’s Word is the highest authority; 2) that the Bible reveals God, it doesn’t conceal Him; 3) it is clear and plain; 4) it means what God intends; 5) the Word explains the Word, and 6) the Word requires a response.

It is the Highest Authority

During the Reformation, in addition to “faith alone,” another of the mostly forgotten truths that were brought up is in Latin called sola scriptura. This means “Scripture alone,” and reinforces the point that Scripture, by itself, is the first and final authority in a believer’s life (Matthew 4:4). Scripture overrides and transcends a priest’s word, or a pastor’s commentary, a rabbinic ruling and even a pope’s bull.[2] One reason this truth (among others) had to be recovered, and now repeated, was that many teachings of men (then and now) obscure the plain meaning of God’s Word for everyday people. Another reason is that church (or Jewish) traditions drift into overriding the Bible after a while.

There are good writings from many good teachers that help us understand more about the Bible. Talmud (the oral law) for instance, has a great deal of good commentary. The apocrypha[3] has some interesting insights. But they are not the Word, and do not carry the same authority. No extra-biblical writing measures up to the Bible. Even the good ones just repeat what is already in the Word. As Solomon says, there is no new thing under the sun.

Many times the extra writings just lead away from the Bible. Papal bulls, the efforts of so-called “prophets” (Edgar Cayce, Ellen White, Charles Russell etc.) and almost all other extra-biblical writings just obscure the plain meaning of His ancient message. People keep trying to trump God’s Word with other writings. The Nicolaitans use their education to scare us and stifle dissent. They fool some of the people some of the time, but they can’t fool all of us. Whole Bible Christians understand that there are many sources for learning, but only one with Authority.

It Reveals

God’s Word is intended by Him to reveal His character, will, plan and purpose to us. It was not written to conceal Him or what He intends for man.

29“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NASB95)

13For behold, He who forms mountains and creates the wind And declares to man what are His thoughts, He who makes dawn into darkness And treads on the high places of the earth, The Lord God of hosts is His name. (Amos 4:13 NASB95)

It would be somewhat nonsensical for Him to cause His words to be recorded, and no one could figure them out. God lets us in on what He is doing and will do, and what He expects from man. We have no excuse to be ignorant of what God requires. The Bible is preserved for us so that we can read it and learn about God. He made sure the words were written down so other generations would have information they could use to find Him.

16“Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, From the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.” 17Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, Who leads you in the way you should go. 18“If only you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your well-being would have been like a river, And your righteousness like the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:16–18 NASB95)

7Surely the Lord God does nothing Unless He reveals His secret counsel To His servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7 NASB95)

One of the big reasons that the Reformation was so effective is that the Bible was translated into common languages. Everyone could compare the existing church with the one in the book of Acts. They didn’t match up too well, and reform was demanded. God meant the Bible to be understood, and to reveal His works and character and power to all generations, at least to those of the generations searching for Him.

It is Clear

At the time of the Reformation, the average person did not read the Scriptures (sound like today?). But back then it was because they were in languages no one used and translations into common languages were forbidden so the church could hold onto its power. The synod of Toulouse in 1229 for instance specifically forbade people to have the Bible in their own language. It wasn’t until 1962–64 at Vatican II that Catholics were encouraged to read their Bibles (after people were already doing it). Reading and interpreting for many even today is the special province of the clergy, and they insist that priests (pastors, rabbis) are the only people qualified to determine meaning and application. They allege the Bible is too difficult for the average person to understand. Of course, they used to think the earth was flat, too.

But God made sure the Word was well within the ability of anyone to understand it. Some of the people during the Reformation called this “perspicuity.”[4] They were saying we don’t have to be scholars to grasp most of the Word. We need to be reminded of this today because there are those who want to complicate the Word and keep it out of our hands.

It seems clear to me that the main issue that causes Scripture to be unclear is a refusal to do what is read (Jeremiah 7:28; Hosea 6:6). We have a nature, inherited from Adam, which tends to walk away from God. Many times, it wants to sprint. We hide from Him because in ourselves we don’t measure up to His perfection, holiness and power. Like Adam and Eve in the bushes.

Obedience to the smallest word helps to clear up the meaning of more of the Word – more abiding means more understanding (Deuteronomy 4:6). Sometimes we don’t understand, and sometimes we just don’t know, but the bottom line is abiding.

Obedience requires humility. Humility allows the light of the Spirit unhindered access to the darkest corners of our hearts. Disobedience comes from pride, and pride causes confusion. Pride hardens the heart and actively resists the Spirit.[5]

Scripture itself tells us that many of the things that are written are for our understanding. Luke 1:4 says “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” Paul says something similar.

14I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14–15 NASB95)

The truth of the Word is plainly evident to everyone. But prepared hearts (looking for truth) who “study to show (themselves) approved” will get more out of it as reading and doing progress. A hard hearted person understands, it’s just that they profess ignorance or confusion because they don’t want to follow under any circumstances (Acts 7:51–53; Ephesians 4:17–19).

The Spirit is able to teach the redeemed, obedient soul, not because he or she has had a lot of schooling, but because the word of God is so structured as to speak to the heart. The biggest barrier to understanding the Word is not language, the age of the copies, grammar, or the culture. It is the refusal to accept the plain meaning and change our thinking and living patterns to conform to it.

2“For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord. “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word. (Isaiah 66:2 NASB95)

It Means What He intends

The clarity of Scripture includes the idea of a literal interpretation. What you read is what you get. When a writer sets down words to convey his thoughts to others, he tries to pick those which most accurately represent what he is thinking. When we read what he writes, we are supposed to use the words he chose to understand what he is trying to say. As I write this book, I have a purpose in mind, a thought to give, and I want you to get what I’m thinking. Even if you don’t necessarily agree. So there is only one literal meaning to what I write (except for puns).

You don’t pick up this book, or any other, including the Bible, and try to make it say what you want. You don’t try to find a spiritual meaning because you think that I really didn’t mean just what I said. You don’t take apart my grammar, syntax, or look up the history of how the words that I chose were used centuries ago. Instead, you try to find my literal intent. The Bible authors are understood the same. Each one has a purpose for their word choices, sentence structure, order of narrative, or whatever. There is only one meaning. It has to be this way or words mean nothing at all.

Jesus and the apostles used the literal meaning of the Old Testament text, quoted it a lot, and reinforced instruction that had already been given by God (such as love). They relied on and supported the literal intent of the Old Testament authors, explaining some of the forgotten parts. None of them spiritualized the texts. They all avoided allegorizing (another word for spiritualizing) except for a couple of well-defined instances.

Interpretation can be something of a cross between science and art. Even when we try to understand what a close friend is saying in a conversation, we don’t always get it right the first time. There are gestures, expressions, and tones that we don’t always pick up on. There can also be inside jokes or figures of speech and the like. Happily, God’s message is plainly and simply repeated. For good measure, it is repeated in many time frames, in many different cultures, through many different people. We can compare all of these together and get an exact understanding with confidence.

God very purposefully communicates His meaning so that there is no misunderstanding. Many people foolishly speak in a bad way about literal interpretation. They like to come up with their own fantasy spiritual meanings. Then they can steal authority from the Word and rule over others. They don’t like a literal meaning because it restricts them from the flights of fancy they use to lead people away from the Word.

There is only one meaning to the Bible, but many applications I can draw from the author’s meaning. Meaning includes dictionary definitions of words, sentence structure, subjects, predicates and grammar. Application can be thought of as “how the text applies to your life” or even “what does it mean to me.”

When Matthew writes in his gospel chapter two verses 13 through 15 about Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with Jesus, this is exactly what happened. It is not a metaphor. It does not mean anything mystical, nor point to some lost part of the ministry of Jesus. There is no “deeply spiritual” meaning other than what the author intended. Matthew tells us the reason he includes those facts in his gospel in verse 15 is it fulfilled a prophecy from Hosea 11:1.

We might draw some nifty comparisons based on these facts, but the words mean what Matthew meant them to, no more and no less. An application for me is reassurance that even when things look bad, God is in control. But my application is not the same as what the author’s words mean. The meaning, or author’s intent, might be very different from any application I might find.

Paul gives us an example of the difference between meaning and application in 1 Corinthians 9:9. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 where we are told not to muzzle the ox that treads the grain. He applies it to receiving financial help for his teaching efforts. The meaning of the text is clear: don’t put a muzzle on the ox – let him eat. The application is also clear — if God cares for an ox, He also would want us to care for workers in His Body. Paul supports his teaching with practical references to vineyard workers, soldiers, shepherds, crop harvesters and priests who share in the sacrifices. His application is valid, but the meaning of the text doesn’t change.

Too often, a person will discover a nifty application, then turn around and teach that his or her application is the meaning of the text. Mostly that is not the case, and we have to guard against turning applications into meaning.

Frequently there is more meaning in a group of words than simply the sum of the word definitions. For instance, we might say a guy has “egg on his face.” But we do not mean that he has an actual bird egg on his face. We mean he has been embarrassed in some way. Just because we use a literal interpretation does not mean we have to be inflexible when it comes to the meaning. Yet if words are to have any meaning when sharing ideas, they must have some consistency and uniformity. Otherwise, we would still be babbling as we did at the Tower of Babel. Come to think of it, we still are doing a lot more babbling than we should.

The interpretation method called allegorical or “spiritualizing” is used by many teachers to squeeze extra meaning from every letter of the Bible.[6] Even if the meaning is clear enough with plain reading. Spiritualizing treats the Bible like Aesop’s Fables with a “hidden” and “more important” truth buried under what is plainly read. There is much in the Bible that is spiritually discerned. But that does not mean there is a deep spiritual meaning behind every word. Or that the supposed spiritual meaning is the only one that counts. Spiritualizing opposes the literal method of interpreting.

Spiritualizers have said that the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve wasn’t a real fruit, or that the tree of knowledge wasn’t a real tree. They were symbolic of something else. I’ve heard that the four rivers running out of Eden weren’t real rivers but stood for four virtues.

This is one of the places that people who want to destroy the absolute truth of the Word start. The effect of this type of interpretation is to destroy the integrity of God’s Word and so destroy our trust in it. Spiritualizing destroys the plain meaning of God’s Word and removes objectivity. There are no language rules. Meanings or applications exist only in the mind of the person doing the spiritualizing. They can't be verified with objective methods by the average person reading the plain text. Spiritualizing promotes pride, because one who is “more spiritual” can allegedly see the assumed meaning. The alleged inferior “less spiritual” person cannot.

The person who spiritualizes then becomes the only authority on Meaning. The “less spiritual” person cannot read the text for himself, but must go back to the spiritualizer to get the “true” meaning. These “holier than thou” people just shift authority from the Scriptures to themselves, nullify various unpopular sections, and become kings of their own little kingdom. Allegory is present in the Word, and there are spiritual meanings too, but these are dependent on the literal meanings of words and the author’s intent.[7]

It is Self Explaining

Okay, so we’ve figured out that the Word reveals God, is clear and easy to understand by the average person, and is to be taken literally. In addition to these we use God’s Word to interpret God’s Word. When we have questions on a text, there’s a good chance there’s a bunch of other texts that will help clear it up. We just have to make sure we compare apples to apples.

Comparing apples to apples works by comparing sections that have similar language or similar subjects that are closely related. What is important is to keep going through the whole of the Word to make all the comparisons we can find. Terms might look the same, but that doesn’t mean they are the same.

The challenge is to see the Bible as a whole and all of the parts fitting together in a complete picture. There are very clear teachings and some that are not so clear. But we can use the clear teachings to help clarify teachings that might not be as clear. For instance, God says He doesn’t change and that His Word won’t change. So if a section of the Bible appears to change His Word then our understanding must be out of whack. God is very consistent and His Word is very consistent too.

Providentially, God has not left us with only a few questionable fragments of His Word. He has given us such a wealth of revelation in easily to understand format that there is no doubt what He intends for His people. A great American statesman, Daniel Webster, said it well.

I believe that the Bible is to be understood and received in the plain and obvious meaning of its passages; for I cannot persuade myself that a book intended for the instruction and conversion of the whole world should cover its true meaning in any such mystery and doubt that none but critics and philosophers can discover it.[8]
It Requires a Response

God commands a response from men based on what He has revealed. It’s not a request. He’s not begging. Just because He delays judgment does not mean we get to delay a response. We are to turn from our own ways and follow His ways (choose life) or die, and He doesn’t want us to die. He isn’t kidding around in causing His Words to be written down and preserved through the centuries.

The key actions in repentance are reading and doing. If we only read part, then we only understand partly, and if we don’t obey, why keep reading? The body and blood of the Christ will not help us if we don’t open our hearts and respond. If we don’t do what we read, our faith is suspect, and faith is a critical ingredient to understanding the Word. It all works together to get us where we want to go. History, grammar, culture and other tools are all important in finding the meaning, but these will only help in a small way until we respond.

21Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:21–25 NASB95)

“In humility receive the Word implanted.” This means to abide by the “law of liberty” in every action. This law is none other than the Law of Moses, the only perfect law. It’s really very easy to understand and implement. There’s so much freedom in the Law that it can be called the law of liberty. This is not “freedom in Christ” to ignore the Word of Christ, as many teachers have tried to get us to swallow.

In contrast to the simple clarity of the Word, men have come up with untold numbers of ways to reinterpret and confuse it. In fact, it’s because of doubting and questioning the Word of God that so much time has to be spent on answers. Complications are added by men when they doubt what God said. This book is a little complicated because of the complicated teachings of men we are dismantling. It is not because the Word is all that complicated. When men don’t want to act on what He says, objections are made up. This is where we get all those “philosophies of men” that Paul talks about (Colossians 2:8). This leads us to the next issue, which is trust.

Can the Bible be Trusted?

I’m sure you’ve heard teachings that cast doubt on the authenticity of the Word. For instance, some claim that “translational bias” has corrupted the translations.[9] What they mean is that no one can translate well enough to get God’s message across because our own brains get in the way. We have too many assumptions. Others claim that we have to use the original languages. Some go so far as to reject the New Testament because there isn’t a Hebrew original.

It is true that when it comes to translating the Bible, even the most well trained scholar’s bias can color his or her translating. Even scholars have assumptions. We all have a bias of some sort even when casually reading the Word. It’s been a problem since the beginning.

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ ” (Genesis 3:1–3 NASB95)

The serpent was obviously against what God originally instructed the first man and woman to do. “Has God said” is a common refrain among those who seek to destroy the authority of the Father throughout history. Eve had a bias too, as shown by her “don’t touch” twist on what God said (He only said “don’t eat”). Created beings play fast and loose with God’s Words, and we need to watch ourselves. Bernard Ramm puts it this way.

“…we all need a new sense of respect for the Holy Scripture. Believing it to be the veritable word of God, we must exercise all the human pains possible to keep from overlaying it with a gossamer pattern of our own spinning. In each of those cases where human error enters, divine truth is obscured. Let us then steer a straight course through the Holy Bible, neither turning to the left side of heresy nor to the right side of unbridled imagination.”[10]

But in my opinion the weightiest truth against the claim of bias, or any other teaching casting doubt on the Bible, is that the foundation for 61 of the books is the first five. The Torah was the first canon by which any additional writing, or any prophet or preacher, is measured.

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isaiah 8:20 NASB95)

This foundation is itself built on the bedrock of God’s direct Word, spoken to Moses and inscribed on stone. All the prophet’s messages point to it. The Wisdom Books contemplate some aspect or aspects of understanding from it. Jesus reiterates it in the gospels and the apostles carried a refreshed version of it to the world.

John the Baptist and Jesus called the nation of Israel to repent and return to it. All of the Apostolic Writings (NT) extol the virtues and blessings of following it, and expect the child of God to live by it. The Revelation describes those who hold to the testimony of both the Messiah and His commands (Revelation 12:11; etc.). If we use the same foundation for our own reading and doing, then the unity and inerrancy of the whole is evident.

The copying and translation of the Word of God has been filtered through human understanding since Moses wrote the Pentateuch. In fact, it could be said that the translational bias goes all the way back to the first conversation and comes all the way down to the current reader. But it is a stone heart that will look for any excuse to avoid obedience to God. Even rock tablets written by the finger of God will not help such a one.

Understanding Hebrew and Greek first hand is very valuable. If we know them ourselves then we don’t have to depend on translations to tell us the meaning. But it is not as though a person who has mastered these languages is the exclusive judge of meaning. The languages themselves aren’t any more meaningful than any other language.

Granted, translators are people and can fail to see as clearly as they should, even in a group. Then again, people have been killed because they dared to translate the Bible into common languages. That puts a kink in the job description if you know what I mean. If you had to bet with your life you would want to make sure it was for something important.

The Torah also remains as the rule and guide for interpretation. All we need to do is remove bias such as the discontinuity introduced by extra-biblical theologies of dispensationalism or covenant theology. Then whatever shadow of spiritual damage that might be present in a translation is dissolved in the pure light of the Source.

The Law is an ancient message, when we see it as it really is. It has been around as long as God, and there are many instances of Laws being lived before Sinai. At first it was handed down directly from father to son; and along with nature and conscience informed us of God’s will. It still functions to keep us safely in God’s love.

The Promise of Genesis 3:15 is that we would one day go back to having “God with us” again. The Law was added to the promise because of transgression, and also to prepare a kingdom of kings and priests for spreading His “good news” throughout the world. The Law is always relevant in His kingdom if we allow it to use us as He intended. It is one Word, one faith, ageless and fresh, always sharp and full of life. The believing heart relies on it as the sole authority for living. It reveals God clearly and says exactly what He means with no guesswork required. No other writings come close for power and peace. If freed from the weight of stone-hearted disobedience, it is the easiest of books to trust, understand and live by.


Bruce Bertram


[1] Covenant Hearing article by Reverend Steve Schlissel; Messiah’s Covenant Community Church; messiahnyc.org; page 4; presented at the 2002 Auburn Pastor’s conference.

[2] A papal bull is a message from the pope trying to clarify a teaching of the church or the Bible.

[3] The apocrypha (means ‘hidden’) is a group of books commonly found in Catholic Bibles. They are not accepted into the Protestant canon because they tend to contradict the Bible as well as themselves.

[4] Some think the doctrine of perspicuity or clarity of Scripture applies only to those things related to salvation. I think it applies to all of the Word.

[5] I know I’m repeating myself, but this concept needs a lot of repetition.

[6] An example of this is the PaRDeS (p’shat, remez, drash, sod) system of rabbinical interpretation that is popular.

[7] Paul makes an allegory for teaching purposes in Galatians 4:24, but it is clearly noted. He also explains his allegory thoroughly and does not leave it to the reader to guess his meaning. Jesus sort of uses an allegory in John 3 when He speaks of being ‘born again.’ Again, He clearly explains Himself. Parables are a form of allegory; most are explained or the tools for determining meaning are present in the Word.

[8] Daniel Webster, January 18, 1782 – October 24, 1852, http://quotationpark.com/authors/WEBSTER, Daniel.htm

[9] Translational bias means that translators can’t help but put their own ideas into the text. See also Acts 12:4 in the KJV where ‘Easter,’ obviously not invented at the time, translates the Greek word for ‘Passover’ (pascha, G3957).

[10] Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Bernard Ramm, Third Revised Edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House 1979), p. 290.