There are some very basic but highly important scripture study tools we need to adopt and employ in order to achieve safe and sound interpretation of scripture in order to arrive at a sound understanding of truth or doctrine.
These are factors within us that impact and affect our approach, interpretation, understanding and application of scripture – God’s truth – in our lives. The guidelines below are neither exhaustive nor failsafe. They are simply intended to help keep us on the path of safely arriving at sound doctrine and Godly truth in our everyday engagement with God through His word.
Some of these study principles and guides I have arrived at from my own experience while many are universally accepted and been applied by generations of saints in the past and present too. Where possible I have included scriptural instances of where these principles have been applied within Scripture itself. You would do well to look them up and consolidate your grasp on the principle at hand.
There are many other principles and numerous methods on how to study of God’s word. However, I have limited my selection to those, which in my experience, I consider to be absolutely essential and practically applicable in the everyday engagement of a disciple of Christ with God through His word. The objective is more to provide a series of attitudes and approaches that would eventually be one with us in our approach to scripture in general rather than a complete toolkit for in depth study. This would deliver a relatively healthy framework helping avoid erroneous interpretation of Scripture and an impersonal approach but rather lead to the safe arrival at sound doctrine and truth that is very relevant to us today.
That settled, two of these guidelines represent attitudes or approaches we would be wise to adopt for our own benefits while the other five more or less represent assists in arriving at correct understanding of doctrine (teaching) and avoiding erroneous or heretic conclusions and interpretations.
So, when approaching the scriptures in general, and in particular a given verse or passage, here is how best to do it.
- Ditch your preconceived ideas and come with an open mind.
Put your personal and, in most cases, misinformed opinions and prejudices well out of the way. This is of course easier said than done and very often these may not necessarily present themselves as either misinformed opinions or negative prejudices but just preconceptions we have amassed over the years from, not exactly scriptural sources. These opinions that we either actively hold or harbor subconsciously, find their sources from near and far. They may be subtle in their presentation and frequently encountered as assumptions that have sat within us comfortably for a number of years and usually have their sources in family, friends, school and sometimes even churches that are more traditionally than scripturally inclined. They are obstacles more than aides in discovering and understanding God’s truth. More often than not our entire worldview has been shaped and formed by secular thinking and understanding that is pervasive throughout the educational system and media we are surrounded by in its various forms not to mention the very world we live in and the effect people around us have. This makes it all the more critical and imperative that we recognise these as an hindrances to understanding scripture and undesirable glasses that tend to colour our understanding of scripture thus holding us back from arriving at the truth as intended by God. Hence the need for to be actively aware of and take preventative action. Paul addresses this issue in 2 Corinthians 10 where he likens these views and thoughts we hold that prevent us from grasping the truth of God to strongholds which hold back penetration of God’s truth deep within us, within our psyches because that is where these strongholds are usually embedded.
If your understanding of truth is not entirely and solely based on the bible, then it is already flawed and in need of repair. An open mind and a willingness to learn goes a long way in effecting that repair which we are all in desperate need of.
Romans 12:2 instructs us to be renewed in our minds, in our thinking, in our understanding if we are to discover the truth for ourselves, that which is right and acceptable by God. This process of renewal takes place by first taking a stand and refusing to be conformed to the pattern, the thinking, the view of the world as we know it. Furthermore, it is this truth discovered and applied from our engagement with God through His word that brings about the freedom from sin and its grip upon us in various forms. (John 8:31-32)
- Seek divine help and assistance
In acknowledgment of your limitations and inability to understand and correctly interpret scripture on your own; and in recognition of your need for assistance in the form of an instructor to lead you to the truth, be proactive in routinely inviting and genuinely making room for the Holy Spirit to lead you by fostering a sensitivity to His guidance and leading every time you approach the scriptures. Jesus promised in John 16:13 that He would lead us into all truth. Conversely we will not be lead into the truth without His aid and direction. Furthermore, referring to the Holy Spirit again, the apostle John categorically states that the Anointing (Holy Spirit) whom we have received from the Lord is the teacher designate who teaches us about all things. (1 John 2:27)
- Context: immediate
Always factor in the immediate context of the passage of scripture you are considering. Every passage and book has a historic, a cultural and a period context to it that must be considered in order to arrive at the desired and correct interpretation. So scour the immediate context (preceding and following verses, chapter/s and book) to get a more complete picture and in depth understanding of the meaning of a particular passage or verse to ensure you interpret it correctly and as originally intended.Attempt to understand the content in light of the context of the period.
What is the setting in which the verse/passage was spoken? (when, where, who and what would the cultural environment have been?)
What significance does the context have on what was said?
If the author or text did not convey a particular meaning to the recipients then (i.e. when it was written), then it almost certainly does not have that meaning today either.
- Context: universal
Filter the particular passage or text through what the rest of scripture says on the topic/subject – “The Bible is its own best interpreter.”
Are there any other scripture references that we can cross check it with? Always compare and contrast what the rest of scripture says about the particular subject and avoid arriving at a final conclusion on it based on a single text only. Furthermore, utilize the wider context of the entire Bible to improve, correct and enrich your understanding of a particular truth you come across by relating it with what the rest of scripture says about the same subject. This was the tool that the Lord Jesus used to correct the error of the Sadducees who say there is no resurrection in Mark 12:18-27 and to give understanding of His life and ministry on earth to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27.
- Literary style
When interpreting scriptures it is also vital to consider the style of writing employed by the author to assist in its understanding and application. Several types of literary styles are used by biblical authors – historical narrative, parables, poetry, letters, prophetic declarations etc. A brief research and astute consideration of each style has a huge impact in understanding and interpreting it correctly.
- Law of first mention
The law of first mention is an established principle in the interpretation of Scripture that requires one to go to that section of the Scriptures where a particular topic, subject or doctrine is mentioned for the first time and study the first occurrence of the same in order to get the fundamental inherent meaning.
Where is the topic or subject first mentioned in the scripture and what does that tell us about it? This will shed considerable light into understanding God’s view of the said topic or subject.For instance, when queried by the Pharisees of His days regarding the legitimacy of divorce based on Moses’ apparent sanctioning of the same, the Lord Jesus directed the enquirers to God’s original blueprint for marriage by taking them to the beginning where marriage was first mentioned and instituted by God thereby correcting their severely warped understanding of the concept of marriage. Matthew 19:3 – 8
This, is probably the most mission-critical element in the study of Scripture. It amounts to naught if after meticulously applying all the previous guidelines one harbors a resistant heart unwilling to surrender to the truth revealed to it via the agent of the Holy Spirit. Surrendering our wills and submitting ourselves to the truth we arrive at, be it about ourselves, God or others, is vital and the objective of the entire exercise of studying scripture. The sooner we embrace scriptural truths – especially those the Spirit of God Himself leads us personally to – the more accelerated and smoother our Christian growth path is.
Always be ready to uphold God’s truth over and above your experience and your understanding hitherto,submitting all to the revealed word of God.
In conclusion, make a habit of double checking yourself and the truths that you arrive at in your own studies against the teaching and interpretation of those who have gone before you, proven and established teachers of the word. More so when considering weightier doctrinal matters. In this way you ensure that the interpretation you have arrived at is in keeping with sound doctrine.