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Chapter 5: Grammatical, Historical and Theological Principles


IN THIS CHAPTER,  you will discover:

*    The grammatical principles of interpretation.

*    The power of parables.

*    The nature of biblical prophecy.

*    The importance of historical context and progressive revelation.

*    The theological principles of interpretation.  

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:

*    Study passages within their literary contexts.

*    Interpret parables dynamically, not allegorically.

*    Understand and interpret biblical prophecy.

*    Observe God revealing Himself in biblical history.

*    Avoid the dangers in proof-texting.

Grammatical Principles of Interpretation, Part 1

Key Scripture: “You are my portion, O Lord; I have promised to obey your words” (Ps. 119:57).

Key Words: Selectivity, Pericope, Parousia.

Did you know that Jesus once said, “Hang all the law and the prophets” (KJV)? Of course, we are omitting the rest of Matthew 22:40 - “on these two commandments” - to make a point. Ignoring context in the interpretive process often leads to conclusions only a little less absurd than our example. For this reason it has often been said: “A text without a context is a pretext.”

Rule Twelve states that a word must be interpreted in relation to its sentence and context. This rule applies not only to words, but also to phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Any literary structure that expresses a complete thought should be interpreted in light of the passages that precede and follow it. This highly important rule of interpretation leads us to consider the author’s use of selectivity. Every biblical author practices selectivity in writing. He makes purposeful choices concerning what kinds of materials to include and exclude, and how to arrange those materials. Observing these choices gives us direct insight into the inspired purpose of the author.

To illustrate: Read Mark 1:1-8. Does any element of this passage appear unusual (look closely before answering)? Note that the description of John’s clothing and diet in verse 6 seem out of place with the flow of the paragraph. Language that clashes with its immediate context is called “non-routine” language. Careful observation of the non-routine language of verse 6 raises the interpretive question: Why did Mark include this description of John? If we investigate the imagery involved here (cf. 2 Kings 1:8; Zech. 13:4), we find that verse 6 functions as a literary device that allowed Mark to identify John with the prophet Elijah.

Elijah was one of the “super-prophets” of Israel. The last two sentences of the Old Testament contain the promise that Elijah will return to prepare the people for the appearing of the Lord (Mal. 4:5-6). (According to 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah did not die but was taken away to heaven in a whirlwind.) Mark 6:15, 8:28, and 9:12 reveal that the expected fulfillment of this prophecy was very much on the minds of Jesus’ contemporaries. Some thought Jesus Himself was Elijah “come to restore all things.” In Mark 9:13, however, Jesus says clearly that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of the coming Elijah (9:4-5). The inclusion of the curious but highly significant physical description of John by Mark in verse 6 foreshadows 9:13 and is a fine example of selectivity as used by a gospel writer.

The literary context of a passage can be observed either on the immediate or the general level, depending on whether focus is on a small section of text (such as a pericope) or a whole book. Ideally, both perspectives should be kept in mind at all times during the interpretive process, since the part and the whole mutually influence one another. Observe, for example, Mark 9:1-13. Note the dramatic statement of Jesus in 9:1: “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” This verse seems to suggest that the parousia (return or second coming) of Christ would occur within the lifetime of the apostles (cf. Matt. 10:23; Mark 13:30). Other passages (1 Thess. 4:15-18; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 John 2:18) imply that this expectation was present in the first-century church. Yet Jesus did not return within that generation. The disappointment this caused in the early church has been called the problem of the delayed parousia. John 21:20-23 and 2 Peter 3:3-10 represent passages in which New Testament writers attempted to resolve this question.

In light of this difficulty, it is significant that Mark placed the account of Jesus’ transfiguration (9:2-13) directly after 9:1. By doing so, Mark implied that the kingdom of God did, in some real way, “come with power” in Christ’s transfiguration. There is a sense in which the glory manifested on the mountaintop is both a foreshadowing and a fulfillment of the coming of Christ (see also Matt. 17:2; cf. Ex. 34:29-35; Matt. 13:43; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Note also that Mark concluded the transfiguration narrative with Jesus’ declaration that through John the Baptist “Elijah has come” (9:11-13). The introduction of the idea of a “secret” coming of Elijah reinforces the perspective of a present, yet hidden, reign of Christ in this world. In the powerful literary relationship between Jesus’ prophecy in 9:1, the transfiguration narrative in verses 2-10, and the Elijah passage in verses 11-13, Mark is exercising selectivity in a masterful way. Each of these segments interprets the other and therefore acquires a deepened significance from its literary relationship with the other.

Practicing Your Skills:

Rule Ten

1. In Matthew 6:19-34 Jesus is discussing a proper value system with His disciples.

a. How do you interpret verse 25?

b. In light of Rule Ten write out an application of this verse for your life.


Rule Eleven

1. Look up “atonement” in the NIVTSB Concordance, the NIDB, and the IBC.

a. What is its root meaning in the Old Testament?

b. How is it used in the New Testament?


Rule Twelve

1. The same word for “body” in used in the following verses. After studying the context, record the way the word is used.


a. Matthew 5:29

b. Romans 7:4

c. Ephesians 2:16

d. Hebrews 13:3 (literally, “as if you yourselves were in the body”)

Rule Thirteen

1. Consider the context of John 3:30 and answer the following:

a. Who are the “he” and “I” in this verse?

b. What was the issue that prompted this comment?

c. In the illustration of the bridal party, who was John?

Grammatical Principles of Interpretation, Part 2

Key Scripture: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ ” (John 6:68).

The Greek word parabole and the Hebrew word mashal mean much the same thing: “to set side by side; to compare.” Comparison is probably the most used of all teaching devices. When answering a child’s question, a parent will try to explain what is unknown by likening it to something the child already knows. Through comparison the familiar becomes the doorway through which the unfamiliar enters the understanding. Many types of comparison can be found in the Bible, but the parable is unique among them. It does not merely illustrate meaning; it also personally implicates and involves the listener.

Nathan rebuked David using the parable recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1-7 (read 2 Samuel 11 for its background). This Old Testament mashal illustrates the dramatic ability of the parable to involve the hearer. Parables have been described by scholars as “language events,” because the language of the parable actually creates a world that the hearer can enter. We experience the potential of language to create “worlds” for us whenever we play a game. When we move a chess piece or become a team member on a playing field, we have entered a world constructed by rules. In such a world the unexpected may occur at any time as we play out our role. Parables, too, are “risky,” because they address us indirectly through the entire body of our experience rather than through the intellect alone. We cannot keep our distance from the truths they convey. For this reason, they were the primary teaching device used by Jesus.

Interpreting Parables

Observe the context. The context in which the parable is spoken helps us to identify the central theme or thrust of the parable. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) obviously answers the question of the lawyer in verses 25-29, “Who is my neighbor?”

Find the central truth. In general, parables have one main point, which we need to identify clearly if we are to “hear” and apply the parable. Some longer parables, such as the Prodigal (or Lost) Son (Luke 15:11-32), have many levels of meaning and application, which make finding the central truth more difficult. Careful attention to the literary and historical context of the parable is sometimes necessary to ferret out its central message. The Prodigal Son, for example, is found with two similar parables in Luke 15 — the Lost Sheep (vv. 4-7) and the Lost Coin (vv. 8-10). The parallels in these parables are easy to trace: each parable has a main character; they lose something; they search for what they have lost; they find it; there is public rejoicing that what was lost is found. The shared emphasis on rejoicing over finding what was lost suggests that this is the central meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son. All three parables are, in essence, invitations to share in this “celebration of finding” (note vv. 7 and 10).

Observe the setting in Jesus’ ministry. When interpreting parables, we should ask: Who would have been “caught” by its message? In Luke 15 the central tension revolves around the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees, who continually complained that Jesus kept company with “sinners” (v. 2). They would be stung by their exclusion from the heavenly rejoicing over the discovery of what was lost (vv. 7 and 10). Most pointedly, they would find themselves addressed by the “Good Father’s” plea to the elder brother to “come in from the cold” and join in celebrating the rebirth of his brother (vv. 28-32).

Be aware of the natural allegorical elements. In a true allegory, each element of the story has a double meaning. Most parables have, at most, two or three natural allegorical elements, each of which would have been immediately obvious to Jesus’ listeners. We must guard against artificially allegorizing elements in parables and turning them into “coat hooks” on which to hang meanings.

Note the Evangelist’s Special Purpose. Luke groups the three “lost and found” parables together, because collectively they underscore a point he wishes to emphasize in his gospel — the universality of Christ as Savior (see NIVTSB, p. 1114). Observe the different emphasis that Matthew gives to the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:10-14). In his gospel the audience consists of Jesus’ disciples (v. 1), and the “sheep” represent not the tax collectors and sinners of Luke 15, but believers who have wandered away from the main flock.

“Translate” to understand. Parables present us with special challenges when it comes to application: How do we present them so that they retain the same pointedness that they held for their original audience? We cannot simply bypass the body of the parable itself and dwell on its main point. If we do this, the parable no longer functions dynamically as a parable. We can no more “interpret” a parable this way than we can “interpret” a joke by telling only the punch line. To retain the shock of recognition — the “aha!” quality that makes parables so unique — we must “translate” the parable into our own modern context.

To translate the parable of the Good Samaritan into a modern setting, we need to understand historically why Samaritans were so despised. Then we must rephrase the parable using a contemporary figure that inspires the same feeling in the listener; for example, an atheist or a cultist. Only in this way can we maintain the radical nature of Jesus’ kingdom teaching. The parables challenge our willingness to love the unlovable. For this reason they remain vital and valuable to us.

Practicing Your Skills:

Rule Fourteen

1. The great “I am” passages in John exemplify this rule. Find three more examples of this rule in the New Testament and three in the Old Testament.

Old Testament                                                                   New Testament





Rule Fifteen

1. Read the following passages and indicate which parts should be taken literally and which parts should be taken figuratively.

a. Malachi 3:1-3

b. Isaiah 59:1-2

c. Revelation 5:5-7

d. Exodus 19:16-20


Rule Sixteen

1. Observe Luke 18:1-8.

a. What is the main point of this parable?


b. What are the principal parts and the realities they represent?


c. What are some possible ways of making this parable say more than Jesus meant it to say?

Grammatical Principles of Interpretation, Part 3

Key Scripture: “For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:24).

Key Words: Sensus Plenior.

The prophets were messengers, who delivered messages known as oracles (“that which is seen”). Prophetic oracles are best understood within the historical context in which they were delivered and the literary forms in which they were expressed.

Interpreting Prophecy

We should not simply expect the Holy Spirit to “reveal” the correct interpretation of a prophetic passage to us. Prophetic oracles were given as guidance for the people of God at specific historical crossroads. In interpreting the prophetic books, we should therefore begin with a general knowledge of the history of the nation of Israel. We should then research the historical context of the particular passage we are studying. What is the approximate date of the book? Who is the author? Where was it written? Who was king at the time of the writing, and what kind of king was he? To whom was the prophecy addressed? The answers to these questions can usually be found in your Bible dictionary and commentary.

The literary form of the prophetical books make them notoriously difficult to read due to the “run-on” style in which the oracles are presented. Prophetical books are actually collections of oracles attributed to an individual prophet. Individual oracles must be distinguished before they can be interpreted. Therefore, when reading the prophetical books, we need to think and “see” in terms of oracles to perceive where individual oracles begin and end. The three most common types are the covenant lawsuit oracle, the woe oracle, and the salvation oracle.

To comprehend biblical prophecy, we need to understand what has been called the perspective of the “already/not yet.” As you read salvation oracles such as Ezekiel 37, Daniel 7:13-28, Joel 2-3, or Zephaniah 1:4-18, you may notice that prophecies concerning present events in Israel’s history (such as a return from exile or a military victory) are sometimes mixed with or seen as partial realizations of the final and future eschatological reign of God. To the prophetic eye, the decisive inbreaking of God into history always seemed just around the corner. In each vision the absolute sovereignty of God was so powerfully sensed as to be a given fact. The prophet saw a reflection or foretaste of God’s final, ultimate redemption of history in every immediate example of His redemptive work. This “seeing beyond” history through history makes biblical prophecy unique. It is a present but partial seeing-as-God-sees of what was, and is, and is to come.

Sensus Plenior

New Testament authors sometimes emphasized the already/not yet dimension of Old Testament texts in retrospect. Old Testament references that were not recognized as messianic prophecies by the Jews were seen to refer to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 10:4 Paul refers to instances in which the Israelites miraculously received water from rocks in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-13) and says that “they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Matthew detected a secondary prophetic dimension in Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” To the gospel writer, Joseph and Mary’s flight from Egypt with the baby Jesus was predicted in Hosea’s inspired writing (2:15) (cf. Ps. 69:9 and John 2:14-22).

This dimension discovered by the New Testament writers is called the sensus plenior (“second” or “fuller meaning”). We may think of the sensus plenior as a prophetic extension of Scripture that can only be known after the fact — and only by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Every text does not have a sensus plenior, nor are we at liberty to seek out the sensus plenior of any given text. It is beyond the scope of the hermeneutical processes we are studying and is a function of the inspiration, rather than the illumination, of the Holy Spirit.

Practicing Your Skills:

Rule Seventeen

1. Put yourself in the place of one who lived before the coming of Christ. How would you interpret Isaiah 9:6-7 in light of Rule Seventeen?

Historical Principles of Interpretation

Key Scripture: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

Key Words: Typology, Allegorize.

In investigating the historical context of a passage, we must ask why the author chose to write his book or letter, and what particular problem or need he was addressing. This latter question, as we have noted, is especially important in interpreting the epistles. To answer these questions, it is necessary to consult experts in the areas of history and biblical studies. 

To underscore the importance of the historical context, let’s look at two seemingly contradictory biblical passages. In Romans 13:1-7 Paul characterizes the Roman governing authorities as God’s servants and commands Christians to obey them as a matter of conscience. In Revelation 13:1-10, however, John counsels his readers to resist the authority of Rome, even under threat of imprisonment or death. Do these texts issue different marching orders to Christians contemplating the validity of civil disobedience today? A historical approach to the texts helps us answer this question.

When Paul counseled submission to authority in a.d. 56-57, the emperor Nero was under the influence of the philosopher Seneca and was ruling with a relatively light hand. Christians were generally free to worship God as they pleased. Paul’s goal was to counter rumors circulated by the enemies of the church that Christians were lawless and rebellious citizens.

From a.d. 62 onward, however, Nero brutally persecuted the church. Believers either had to offer incense to Caesar as Lord or die. Should Christians, whose very watchword was “Jesus is Lord,” submit to this imperial demand for worship? John — who wrote during Nero’s reign or during that of his equally cruel successor, Domitian — thought not. In Revelation 12:17 John encouraged his fellow Christians to “obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Martyrdom was preferable to state-sanctioned idolatry (13:7, 10; cf. Acts 4:18-20). Thus, we see that the books of Romans and Revelation are not contradictory in their teachings concerning submission to civil authority. They are both God’s provisional word for His church, given as the need arose.

Progressive Revelation

God chose to reveal more of His nature, will, and counsel to humanity as Scripture unfolded from the Old Testament to the New (see John 16:12-13). A few areas in which this progression is evident include marriage (polygamy versus monogamy); the question of the afterlife (Eccl. 9:5 versus 2 Cor. 5:6-8); what the coming Messiah would be like (Mark 8:27-32); and the place of law in the scheme of salvation (Gal. 3).

Progressive revelation is also concerned with typological figures. The clearest examples of biblical typology are found in the book of Hebrews where the Old Testament types of the temple, the priest, and animal sacrifice are seen as foreshadowing the redemptive act performed in and by Christ. Other examples of New Testament typology include the comparison of Christ with the brass serpent of Moses (John 3:14-15), the comparison of the salvation of Noah “through water” to the salvation received through baptism (I Peter 3:20-21), and the identification of John the Baptist as “Elijah, who was to come” (Matt. 11:14). These examples show that the New Testament writers saw the gospel message and experience as an unveiling of the inner significance of the Old Testament.

At this point we must sound a warning. While we should be sensitive to typological references when they occur in the Bible, we must always be on guard against allegorizing the text. An allegory is a teaching story or narrative that contains symbolic characters or events. There are authentic allegories in the Bible, such as John 10:1-18, in which Jesus presents Himself figuratively as a door and as a shepherd. Also, in Galatians 4:21-31 Paul creates (and, like Jesus, goes on to interpret) an allegory comparing the Galatians who were under the law with Ishmael, and those who were free in Christ with Isaac.

The danger comes when the reader allegorizes a text that is not an allegory. When the reader regards every prophecy mentioning Israel as applying to the United States, or discusses the “secret meaning” of the catch of 153 fishes in John 21:11, conditions are ripe for eisegesis — reading our own meaning into the text. Any biblical text can be read to mean anything, under the guise of exposing the text’s so-called inner spiritual meaning. Every Christian-based heresy — from first-century Gnosticism to present-day cults — has made liberal use of allegorical exegesis. Jehovah’s Witnesses identify themselves with the “faithful servant” of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 24. Mormonism identifies the Book of Mormon with the voice of Isaiah 29:4. We should be ready to counter such faulty interpretations when we meet them, both within and without the church. The cardinal rule for avoiding such mistakes is to ask what the text was intended to convey to the original hearers. What was not written as an allegory should not be read as an allegory.

Practicing Your Skills:

Rule Eighteen

1. Using your resource books, determine the historical setting for the following:

a. Isaiah 39:1-8

b. Who are the Philistines? Where did they come from and what happened to them?

c. Jeremiah 52:31-34

d. Philippians 1:12-14


Rule Nineteen

1. Read Romans 1-4 and determine:

a. How many quotations come from the Old Testament?

b. How many illustrations are drawn from the Old Testament?

c. What central message does Paul communicate in these four chapters?

d. Why does he so frequently refer to the Old Testament in communicating his message?


Rule Twenty

1. According to John 3:14-15, what did the brass serpent symbolize?

2. According to Romans 5:14, what does Adam typify?

Theological Principles of Interpretation

Key Scripture: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

Key Word: Antinomy.

We next discuss how to interpret Scripture in light of its theological context. The word “theology,” which simply means “thinking about God,” applies to more than our own individual theological perspective. Each text has many theological dimensions that must be considered to interpret it correctly. Theological questions to ask include:

• What was the theological understanding of the original readers of the text? (This question, in part, concerns historical context.)
• What new or significant theological point is the author making?
• What theological presuppositions are we bringing to the text?
• How do the theological points expressed in a particular text relate to other statements in the Bible on that particular subject?
• How do the theological points expressed in a particular text relate to the stream of progressive revelation in Scripture?


A common interpretive error, which ignores the considerations listed above, is over reliance on proof-texts. A proof-text is a passage of Scripture that is presented to support a particular interpretive viewpoint. The danger occurs when individual scriptures are read out of context. Proof-texts, if isolated from their contexts, can become arbitrary and even misleading. The delicate both/and balance discovered when we carefully read Scripture with Scripture is lost.

The danger of this approach may be illustrated by comparing Galatians 2:16 with James 2:24. Taken by itself, the first text seems to prove that faith alone (which can be misunderstood to mean mere intellectual assent) is necessary for salvation. The second text alone could be taken to prove that works are the basis for salvation. This is a false either/or dichotomy. Correctly taken together, these texts show that saving faith manifests itself in works, an emphasis consistent with what the Bible teaches elsewhere about the true nature of faith (cf. 1 John 4:7-8).
Careful exegesis usually reveals the incorrect use of proof-texts. First Corinthians 13:10 has been used to prove that spiritual gifts have ceased with the coming of the church age or with the completion of the biblical canon. A glance at verse 12, however, shows that the “perfection” of verse 10 cannot refer to the church or the Bible. Paul can only be speaking of the second coming of Christ.

As we might expect, proof-texting is common among theological fringe groups and cults. Some occult groups point to Psalms 46:10a, “Be still and know that I am God,” as evidence of man’s innate divinity. Verses 10b-11 make it clear that the “I” of 10a is not a human being but “the God of Jacob.”

Most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith (and of philosophy and science) are antinomies. An antinomy is a paradox — a truth so marvelous and profound that its boundaries cannot be encompassed by human logic. Modern cosmology indicates, for example, that the universe is both finite and infinite. And physics has proven that certain subatomic particles may be considered either matter or energy.

On a theological level, the Bible tells us that Jesus is both fully God and fully man; that God is both one and triune; that He is both transcendent and immanent; that He is sovereign, yet we have free will; and that Jesus was resurrected in a body that was both spiritual and physical. Either half of these antinomies when separated from the other becomes, at best, a half-truth and, at worst, an untruth — even a heresy.

The presence of these and other antinomies in the Bible suggests that Scripture is indeed the product of revelation. Its truths are spiritual in nature rather than human inventions. We must be careful in our study not to distill half-truths from the ocean of truth that is Scripture. We dare not cup water in our hands and call it the sea. In the instant we do so, it becomes hopelessly shallow. The living integrity of Scripture must be maintained as we study. In this way the infinite depths of truth contained in the Bible will remain always before us to plumb and explore.

Practicing Your Skills:

Rule Twenty-One

1. Choose one of the following passages: 1 Corinthians 7:14, 15:29,
or 1 Peter 3:18-22.

a. Write out the meaning of the passage in your own words.

b. What does it mean?

c. What parts did you find difficult to interpret?

d. Is there any correlation between your difficulty in interpreting this passage and your understanding of what it says? Explain.


Rule Twenty-Two

1. Give an example of how Jesus used this principle to correct the religious leaders of His day.


Rule Twenty-Three

1. List some passages that teach that Jesus is:

a. God

b. Man

2. What are some errors you could fall into by emphasizing Jesus’ humanity over His divinity, or vice versa?


Rule Twenty-Four

1. Take a teaching you believe is implied in the Bible,

a. State it as a syllogism.

(1) First Premise

(2) Second Premise

(3) Conclusion

b. Support it with Scripture.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Review Questions

1. The purposeful choice and arrangement of material by a biblical author is called ___________________.



2. Interpret words according to their meaning in the _________ time.



3. The return or second coming of Christ is called the ___________________.



4. Interpret words and sentences in harmony with their ___________________.



5. When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement may be considered ___________________.



6. The “second” or “fuller meaning” found in some Old Testament passages by New Testament authors is called the _________________ .

Sensus Plenior


7. John’s comparison of Christ with the brass serpent of Moses is an example of __________________ interpretation.



8. A __________________ fulfillment may occur in installments, each fulfillment being a pledge of that which is to follow.



9. Since Scripture originated in a ____________________ context, it can be understood only in light of biblical history.



10. Since God’s revelation is ________________, both Old and New Testaments are essential parts of this revelation and form a unit.



11. An ______________________ is a teaching story containing symbolic figures.



12. You must understand the Bible __________________ before you can understand it theologically.



13. A _______________ cannot be considered biblical unless it sums up and includes all that the Scriptures say.



14. Biblical doctrines that appear to be contradictory but resolve themselves into a higher unity are called _____________________.



15. Scripture should normally be interpreted ____________.



16. True or False. Interpret biblical facts or events as symbols only if designated by Scripture.



17. Parables generally have ______________ main point(s).



18. The final step of interpreting a parable is _________________ it into a modern context.



19. To ______________ Scripture is to read secret meanings into a text.



20. _______________-texts can be misleading if read alone or out of context.



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